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This week I will consider about the genre differences between action-RPGs and RPGs using Dark Souls and Bloodborne has a fantastic example.
I believe it is hard to deny that Dark Souls and Bloodborne, while holding some similarities, are incredibly different games. Despite sharing a similar development team and the same director as Dark Souls, I feel that Bloodborne's differences are not just cosmetic but run deep. The changes run so deep that I wish to propose that not only is Bloodborne an action-RPG rather than a straight RPG, but also as they share a similar team and style to Dark Souls that it could be used to fully illustrate some of the core-characteristic differences between action-RPGs and RPGs. I believe such an example is important as, on a day-to-day level, people do struggle with defining genres of games let alone sub-genres such as, well, action-RPG (i.e. RPG with action elements) and RPG (i.e. a straight pure RPG game). So I wish to talk through four differences that I feel illustrate mechanical differences between these two genres.
The first aspect is the ability score layout. There has been a decrease from 8 ability scores you can level up in, down to 6. On the surface, this isn't much at all. However, there have been more of a simplification of what each ability score determines. Remember in Dark Souls how if you wanted to get a magic build or a faith build, at the very least you'd have to level up intelligence/faith as well as attunement? In Bloodborne, you have Arcane. Strength for strength weapons. Skill for dexterous weapons. Even the new “Bloodtinge” can be boiled down to “gun-use”. These changes also include removing equipment load, folding spell use into item-use and a singular magic system (rather than Arcane and Faith from before).
They have also simplified the weapon choice. The starting weapon choice boils down to "Threaded Cane so you can blugeon or whip peasants and monsters down to size, or be not a dashing gentleman/lady".
This simplification allows greater accessibility for those who, in the past, may have felt over-whelmed by the ability-score system of before. Now people are able to decide what style of combat they prefer and use a mostly self-explanatory skill system to adjust how their character functions. This streamlining also means a greater emphasis on player ability/equipment used rather than statistics, something that favours more action-orientated games which prefer to just jump into the fray than the thoughtful RPG method where you build to your play-style.
While it is possible this leads to less customisability (it does mean less subtly-different statistical builds), it also allows the player to shift tactics on the fly more easily to suit the challenges they face, which I feel adaptability (rather than thoughtful tactical approach) is another staple of action-orientated games. Although adaptability and tactical approach could be seen as the same thing, the former emphasises making plans up as you go along while the latter is about preparation. As the bane of action games is waiting, a game trying to be an action-RPG will tend to be preparation-lite so the only waiting are simple lulls before the tension of combat.
A second part is the game rewards you for taking an incredibly aggressive approach towards combat. The biggest obstacle for the defensive player tends to be motivation to rush through combat rather than take their time. This especially occurs upon getting hit, as the immediate thought-process for a cautious player is to retreat and re-analyse their tactic so they don't get hit in the future. Bloodborne side-steps this by rewarding attacking after getting hit, by letting some (if not all) their health come back depending on the amount of damage inflicted for a short time after being hit. This rewards a more aggressive attacking tactic, something that is more in line to the typical gameplay in an action-RPG.
The third difference is a continuing on from the reinforcement of the second change. This is a game that also strongly discourages defensive play by limiting your options. One of the most classic and easiest forms of defence is the shield. You lift the shield up and a percentage of the damage is absorbed by the shield, with the downside being you can't attack and, sometimes, you can have the shield knocked away which leaves you stunned and vulnerable.
Dark Souls also presents a third option: Raise your shield and be killed in one hit as Havel crushes your skull anyway.
However, in contrast to Dark Souls, there isn't any shields. While you are able to dodge, you can not block. This forces the player to stay constantly aware of their surroundings for enemies that could hit them due to a lack of a shield (e.g. sharpshooters) and even makes the process of being defensive active (i.e. choosing where to dodge and when) rather than passive (i.e. just holding down the shield button to prevent being hit with something). This serves to discourage defensive play by making it a process you have to take part in and limiting options of defence. It also makes the process of preventing an attack an active one that requires player to use their own skill, akin to action games, rather than passively relying on the statistics of a shield, which is more favoured in RPGs.
The final adjustment is the death system. It is somewhat of a tradition of Souls games up to Bloodborne to discourage death. Not only you lose the souls you've collected (which can be picked up again as long you don't die again), you will also get an additional penalty. Demon's Souls halved your health, Dark Souls put you into an undead state where some things were locked off to you and Dark Souls 2 would decrease your maximum health for each additional death up to half your health. This punishment served to restrain people from over-coming the challenge through risky behaviour and trial-and-error, but rather try to solve the problem (i.e. the monster you need to kill) in a thoughtful manner akin to an RPG setting.
Bloodborne, however, removes all penalties except the loss of souls (which may be picked up) which allows people to try multiple times to overcome an obstacle through brute force and luck if they feel they can't avoid it through guile or fix the issue entirely. It allows the possibility for the player to be underpowered statistically and instead focus on skill and chance to get past the hindrance, which downplays the importance of ability scores and increases the chances of simply focusing on gameplay ability.
And then there are some games that try to make ability scores and skill points important, but are so easy despite being on the hardest difficulty that it goes from "eh, normal mode I guess?" to "now just kicking new born children in the face".
However, despite all my talking about action-RPGs in comparison to RPGs as though they are a basic black-and-white categorisation, I think it is important to note in conclusion the gross simplification in even suggesting they are distinct. At best, it is a gradient from thoughtful RPGs like Baldur's Gate to the more twitch-gameplay of action-RPGs like Fable or Torchlight. Despite this, I have also heard some good arguments of how our current genre system is wrong and should rather reflect other things such as the reasons why we enjoy games. I think a discussion about category systems is something that will have to come back to one day, definitely. However, I think for now I'm going to just have to get back to Bloodborne and see if its the first Souls game I'll complete.
Note: Sorry if this is less than my average quality. I was pretty much pressed for time and kicked this out in a night. I think this does beg for a huge analysis of genres as a whole, something my conclusion notes.
Today I wish to discuss a psychological mechanism which determines our risk taking.
Ever stared down absolute danger and the impossible and thought “I can do that!”? Despite every ounce of logic within you screaming “NO! DON'T!”, you do it. An important move, a mad dash or a strange and unreliable tactic has occurred. There is no illusion how unlikely it will work out for you. For a moment, your character is walking across a tightrope across two buildings with no safety net. Against all the odds though, you did it. Things didn't just work out for you, a prize awaited you at the other side worth twice your weight in gold. However, you still made that chance effort when you could have stopped and succeeded to a degree.
Welcome to the psychological phenomena that is the risk-reward mechanism.
The risk-reward mechanism guides our actions in videogames to an incredibly large level, as we rely on it when we make a choice that isn't just “oranges vs apples” but rather choosing between a safe route and a more difficult-but-more-rewarding route. So today I wish to first outline what this mechanism is in a pure psychological setting, and then discuss four ways this thought process appears in videogames. With finally a conclusion to wrap things up into a neat bow.
So what is the risk-reward mechanism that I'm mumbling about? It is a group of thought processes that occur to weigh up the perceived possible rewards and consequences if you should or should not do an activity that may hold a possible outcome. Although I will admit the group of thoughts may hold alternative names as well as each single thought process having their own name (e.g. the ever popular Diffusion Of Responsibility theory would fall under this, as you're lowering the risk towards yourself of the consequences of inaction), so I am simplifying it.
Like everything dry, could take hours of research in an university library and many more hours to write it up, I am simplifying it for my own sanity as well as yours.
This psychological event occurs every time we must make a conscious decision to do something, often in a fast manner in our subconscious as we consider things such as social risk/reward (e.g. “if I do X, how will others think of me?”), material risk/reward (e.g. “if I do X, how much money could I get from this? How much money could I lose?”) and well-being risk/reward (e.g. “what are the chances I could get harmed from this? Could this improve my health?”). It really can be as simple as choosing what chocolate bar to get from the corner shop, to being as important as if to leap off the train platform to help a fallen epileptic. Stories of people saving someone's life (not as a job) can include a feeling of a disconnect from reality, as the conscious self takes a step back to allow the subconscious to take control. There are relatively few thoughts that are left to a purely conscious consideration of “what should I do?”, as often by the time the conscious state can decide the opportunity is gone (e.g. that epileptic from before? Whoops!).
So I believe this raises an important part: How can videogames utilise this risk-reward, and how do they do so already? Based on the description above, I believe it is hard to deny there are particular cases where you may have experienced it. Now, I would like to discuss four general scenarios where the psychological technique is used for various effects.
Perhaps the most obvious application for the psychological mechanism in videogames is gambling. I guess this is the part where the line between videogames and non-videogames blurs just a little bit, but I'll get back to games besides ones you'd find in a casino in a moment.
One of the main themes when it comes to an individual playing games like Blackjack and Poker is the perception of risk and reward. Knowing when to bet and when not to is centred entirely around the weighing up the rewards and the risks (i.e. the chance you will win the bet), as you try to avoid the bet not paying out, which could be considered one of the most important skills of gambling. Mark Giffith's work with gambling, especially in his paper “The Cognitive Psychology Of Gambling” exposes that the more time an individual spends gambling the more likely they will see games of pure or very large amounts of luck (such as slots) as having a much higher basis in skill. This, therefore, can lead to greater perceptions that the risk is based on the operator's skill, and therefore decreases the level of perceived risk while keeping the perceived rewards the same.
Mark Griffiths also did some work surrounding videogame addiction and talked about how people who played games were more vulnerable to electronic casinos than typical people. Naturally, right or wrong, it makes a good few people who play videogames very uncomfortable.
How does this relate to games, beyond the obvious gambling mini-games (e.g. Red Dead Redemption's poker, GTA V's slots or even Resident Evil: Outbreak's coin-toss mechanic of Jim Chapman)? Think about the dodge or critical chance mechanic in any game, although I'll be using Payday 2 as an example. You may decide to wear something weaker (e.g. a suit or very light armour) or use weak weapons (e.g. akimbo Bernetti 9) to maximise the odds of a dodge moment or a critical hit, but in the end it does boil down to pure luck if the character ducks out the way of a vicious blow or their attack deals extra damage. Succeeding to do either creating a smirk, as though you yourself had managed to do it.
While there is an aspect of skill involved (Payday 2's skill tree design for instance), any activity in the game holds a very uncertain risk with promised rewards (e.g. succeeding in the task) awaiting those gutsy enough to take the challenge. In the end, by allowing this luck-based risk-reward mechanism you can create a rush in the player by a string of good luck moments while keeping it balanced by making it possible that it goes oh so horribly wrong.
A second use of risk/reward is as a method to increase replayability or to incentivise taking up a greater challenge (thus making the game last longer by the player's failed attempts) by offering a reward to the risk of a harder difficulty. Some games, rather than setting the campaign mode up on one difficulty, will allow you to decide on a level-only difficulty. This can lead to rewards for playing a level on a harder difficulty such as more money (to buy equipment), more XP (to unlock skill points) and unlocks of cosmetic or non-cosmetic equipment. By rewarding people for taking the harder difficulty (especially on a level more meaningful than an achievement), it allows players to examine the risk and rewards of playing the game on a harder mode and potentially increases the time spent struggling through a level or replaying older ones on a harder mode for a particular in-game reward. Making not only the player enjoy an internal reward/motivation (e.g. pride of beating something hard) but also an external one.
They say write about what you know, and I know Payday 2 perhaps a little too well.
While this mechanism can also be used for campaign-difficulty options (e.g. cheat codes for replaying the game), it is less likely to be successful as an incentive unless the in-game reward is in another mode besides the campaign as it'll mean the player would have to replay what they've already struggled with to enjoy the reward.
A third interesting way risk/reward can appear is it can lead to interesting forms of competition and avoid the problem of dominant strategy. Due to the competitive spirit distilled in leader-boards and PVP, players can be encouraged to get that extra edge by taking a risk. This can appear in games such as League Of Legends, as players pick the perfect foil to someone else's hero that they're not familiar with, or Halo's Firefight mode as they try to help an ally out of a tough part. As players try unconventional tactics, it can mean they'll actively seek out new ways to counter popular tactics thus helping to avoid a singular dominant strategy emerging. This form of experimentation also means the player will be more invested in the game, as they study it thoroughly for details others may have overlooked, and be inclined to play more of it to test out theories they have.
The final part about risk/reward I think is interesting is what happens when against all of the odds, it works out. I believe most people who spend at least five hours a week have had that moment they can recall where they just took that insane risk that shouldn't have worked out, but did. We share it to all of our friends about that one time, despite usually being useless, you got a 20 kill streak some how. How everyone was down but you held that line until reinforcements come. Maybe even that moment where you were at that exit, turned around and saw a lone team-mate who had fallen to the floor, so you raced behind cover and picked them up.
That last story? That's mine.
These tales of absolute luck stick in the mind and are shared like campfire stories in the night. We let out sounds of awe as we mutter words of disbelief how things went. “You seriously threw a flash-bang in De_Dust 2, and killed five people?” . That confident nod where you know that despite how outlandish the claim is, you know its true. It really helps breed excitement, awe and legendary tales among our community. It is the videogame equivalent of the Old Man Henderson, something where a level of prestige is given to the person who did something insane out of pure luck and we repeat the stories with grins plastered on our face. From this, our community ever so slightly evolves a tiny bit to accommodate the incredible legends and our culture increases in complexity a tiny bit.
I think looking back at the aspects of the risk-and-reward mechanism that could be used in videogames it is, like most psychological theories that can be applied to games, something that can be used for positive and negative purposes. While it has the ability to build our community stronger as ever as we talk about the insane risks that paid off or how we fell in love with the game at a deeper level through our struggles, it also has the potential to be exploited and cripple us like if gambling mechanics were used even more so than they currently are. However, I think our current usage of gambling mechanics with actual money (e.g. buying keys to boxes that could contain a number of things) has actually been lightly used and mostly ethically, especially as even if you “lose” (i.e. not get the grand prize) you walk away with something still. Unlike the Skinner Box, the “risk-and-reward mechanism” isn't a dirty word that conjures mental images of cons or exploitation, but rather tales of bravery as you have done what others could not and everyone thought you couldn't do. It isn't the shadowy backroom planning where they work out ways to trick people into paying money, but rather that mental image of going over the top and surviving.
There has been a long lengthy discussion about if videogames are or are not an art-form. Not only in the dorms of universities or on gaming forums, but even all the way to government. The US government passed a revision that allows funds dedicated to the arts to also be used to fund videogame development. However, as I wish to discuss, this conclusion is wrong. Not only just wrong on a subjective level like one looks upon an abstract painting or a Rorschach ink-blob, but wrong on a purely scientifically objective level and I will prove it to you today in a clear and precise manner. So, without further ado, let us discuss the evidence.
Let us begin with a simple observation. What do the following artists have in common: Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. Now, how do they differ from the creators of these games that are considered art: Flower, Okami and Shadow Of The Colossus? You'll find that all those in the latter category are created by a team of people rather than a singular person. This may not be remotely important at a first glance, perhaps even a pedantic point. However, when a piece of material is made by a singular person the final result is a direct process from the creator's stream of thoughts to the final output.
They also all have beards.
When something is instead made by a team, alternatively what happens is the creator has to explain their vision to others. They then have to interpret said vision to a compartmentalised team which has to take apart that original vision to create their part of the creator's train of thought. This leads to a very watered down form of the original idea that lacks the purity and strength of something created by a singular person. Which considering art is all about making strong statements, this weak message that video games can achieve at best does not fit the situation at all.
There is also the prestigiousness that the artistic manner has that, really, video games just can't match at all. While the artistic world is embracing interpretations of deep and meaningful thoughts that artists are trying to leave with people, let us consider what video games are trying to do. The majority of them are still trying to make people have fun, in the same way that a swing-set would try to leave just an impression of fun and nothing more.
“But what of those games that are about not having fun” you scream, clutching onto Spec Ops: The Line like a teddy bear. Even those are tied down, forever damned in a culture where “fun” is king and deeper philosophical insights are a silly after-thought as publishers and most developers ponder ways to cut thinking down as to maximise fun. Consider how Spec Ops: The Line has a multiplayer. Consider about all those comments about the triviality of war in media and plant that next to a multiplayer where you compete by killing others. Consider how it would be if the Saint George And The Dragon was given a smiling face as a businessman whispered in Paolo Uccello's ear “got to be more fun pal-o, just not enough fun in your painting, put a little less blood, more brighter colours and make the dragon more happy”. Video games just can't look beyond the fun, and until then they can't match the prestigiousness that comes with art.
"That's great Pal-o. Here, got you some Starbucks. Don't worry about paying me back, its coming from your paycheck."
On top of all I've stated so far, you have to understand that artists don't beg for validation like video games do, they just make things. The phrase “thou doth protest too much” springs to mind when I see artists not ever argue if their contribution is a form of art but simply make more and more things. Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, ever the vain, videogames try and try to scream about “LOOK AT IT! MY PRODUCT IS TOTALLY ART!”. Which I have to ask: If your product is an art-form then why do you have to state it? Art doesn't need recognition it is art, not does it require some spokesman to scream from the high-heavens of its art form. Art is just is. If you have to point out something is just totally art, I mean just look at it, perhaps it isn't art all along?
There is just one little possible snag in my argument that I see people raising, although it is a flawed argument against my objective claim.
I see some people arguing that videogames are in their early form of art. Kellee Santiago did a TED talk about videogames being an art form. She claims that video games are an art form in the same way that prehistoric paintings on a wall are art. That while the narratives are simplistic and done in a chicken scratch manner, it still counts as early art. Which from that progressed to the likes of Raphael. While this is true to art, and may be true to videogames (although I doubt it), this still doesn't address the situation right now in 2015. Which, I would add, just like prehistoric scratchings are not really art and doesn't share any deep philosophical insights (although do have value on a historical level), video games do not count as an art form.
So I hope that my article clearly demonstrates in an objective manner that videogames are not an art form and...-
...What's that? I didn't prove anything objectively? That all I did was subjectively look at an issue, pick-and-choose evidence and create a strawman argument of videogames? That all I did was just declare it as objective rather than actually do so? That it is possible that objectivity does not exist but rather we all subjectively look upon the world with our own perceptions that are affected by schemas and past-experiences; and the closest to objectivity is a shared subjectivity with the majority if not everyone?
Happy April Fools day! See you guys next week!
This week, I will discuss the possibility that videogame journalism is or could ever be gonzo journalism, similarly to Dr Hunter S Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
So recently I had a scrape-in with gonzo journalism, if you can call it that. This wasn't anything planned really, as the best forms of gonzo I find tend not to be. After my Q&A session with ArenaNet, I knew I would have to dedicate an entire article to it as it would cheapen the opportunity I had gotten if I had just slapped it with the rest of the “games I had tried” articles. So once I got back to my house, I got the recording and threw it to someone who also writes for the website I work at. A few days later, after much frustration of the poor quality of the recording (including one part where the speaker was especially quiet amongst a noisy background), he throws it back to me along with the transcription.
Three days later, there is nothing. I'm still staring at the transcript, trying to bring myself to dismantle it into key points so I could assemble something resembling an article from it. I had played Payday 2 enough to find it stale, Bravely Default was testing my patience and the idea of picking a dry game like Analogue: A Hate Story to finally play through at this moment was a poor idea akin to rubbing my face on my desk while begging “why?”.
Really, as much as I like the idea of Analogue: A Hate Story, a game where you just read a rather lengthy tale involving Korean history while manipulating a computer database is not the game to play when your patience with everything is completely fried.
So, during the darkest hours of the morning, two or three pints of beer in, I figured “okay, maybe if I write the introduction, that'll get me into the swing of things”. So I slam on the keyboard for an hour or three, I don't know how long it took. I figured “okay, maybe if I write it as a narrative, getting my experiences of doing my first ever Q&A and slowly meld it into the information-filled aspect of what the interview actually contained, maybe it'd be good enough”. However, nearly half a page later, I knew I'd have to consult if I should stripe it down for parts so I could salvage a much shorter intro still or if a page long intro wouldn't get me stabbed in the throat by the editor The writer who did the transcript had idea number 3: Complete the piece, hand it in.
At the time I thought it was insane, I mean, it lacked absolutely any information at all. It was just me talking about how I am incredibly anxious. However, I completed it. The co-writer loved it, despite me still feeling like it was a glorified blog post, and later the editor loved it too. Using such phrases like “I totally felt emotions and stuff with it” (actual wording) felt like poor plasters on that itch that perhaps it was simply awful, although in the end it got published anyway.
If your editor uses the phrase "I totally felt emotions and stuff with it", either they are being sarcastic or a robot. If the latter, you should seek help. If the former, you've come across a real human editor.
So, four paragraphs later, I haven't even touched any form of factual information. Which, as I've been pondering upon what to write about for this analysis, struck me as something somewhat common in the audience-favoured reporting styles of videogame journalism. This type of lack of pure factuality is something acknowledged when it comes to things such as reviews (which has been satirised by Jim Sterling, using Final Fantasy 13 to show what a purely objective review would look like), but as we also favour an injection of character in even our videogame news stories it may mean that videogame journalism may be one of the, if not the, only forms of journalism to favour a (perhaps watered down) gonzo style.
So first I will discuss what is gonzo journalism, and then argue for and against the possibility that either we currently do embrace it or that we may in the future use it. Finally, I will try to conclude on if we are gonzo, if we could ever be gonzo and, if we're not already, discuss the reasons why.
Well, I should perhaps start with an all important question: “What is gonzo journalism?”. Which this is a bit of a trickier question than it suggests. Due to the chaotic fashion of perhaps the father (probably the wrong word, “diabolical alchemist” may be better?) of gonzo journalism, Dr Hunter S Thompson, the real specifics of what makes it so has a few firm details and a lot of vague possibilities. So let us lay out onto the table the two core fundamental details that Dr Thompson would always stress: Subjectivity and the narrator as the main protagonist in the tale.
The concept of subjectivity as a journalistic style reaches beyond a simple preference, into a full on philosophical statement on the nature of reporting on events. The idea there is no objective way to report on a story was something that Dr Thompson held true, going as far as to say that attempted objectivity and giving a balanced view had corrupted politics (in an interview, he went as far as to state “you can't be objective about Nixon”).
If you want the UK equivilant to Nixon, here's a picture of Margaret Thatcher.
While this philosophy does lead to a greater freedom to the journalist of what, in their subjective opinion, is important about the event (or, in the case of Dr Thompson who once was tasked to cover a racing event and ended up writing Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, if the event its self was event important to talk about at all), the lack of a guiding hand can lead to a final article that is less informative and more just entertainment. This can be fine, but if a person had hoped an article that set out to report on an event and twenty pages in they realise the event was never going to be covered, this can lead to a betrayal in expectation.
Perhaps independently, there has also been a sociological movement that has concerned its self with the possibility of if there is an objective reality to study, or just various different streams of unique personal interpretations of reality. Depending on if you feel there is an objective reality or not would help determine if it is possible to report on a firm objective and balanced truth, or if the best we can accomplish is either a balancing of many collective interpretations or to full on embrace the researcher's own unique perception on reality. The latter, taken to its extreme, could end up as a sociological form of gonzo journalism.
The second aspect, the narrator as the main protagonist, is perhaps an extension of the previous key aspect of gonzo journalism but, I feel, is also an independent part. Not only is this is a committal to subjectivity, as you are emphasising it is your personal interpretation of events, but the interactivity allows a greater manipulation of the subject at hand. It makes it more possible, if the journalist feels, to delve deeper into the main story or even take a diversion they feel is important to make. It not only grants even more freedom to discuss what they feel, even philosophical parts (e.g. as I was on the train on the way to London, I noticed a small town called Three Bridges, thinking to myself the simplistic town-naming system of what might have been ancient England, compared to the semi-complex naming system of America where the origin isn't easily apparent, what this could infer about the people at the time), but also makes it possible to discuss events as it occurred to you in your view rather than as an objective distant photograph.
"Ancient England". Also known as 1841.
However, beyond these two characteristics, there are further ones. Alayna Smith in When The Going Gets Weird briefly talks about additional possible parts others have theorised such as the participation of a male bonding figure, constantly struggling to meet deadlines and “incisive, but often not sustained or highly developed, social satire or parody” (p4). There have also been suggestions that for a piece to be gonzo it must require the reporter to commit to the gonzo lifestyle of heavy use of swearing, alcohol and some dabbling in drugs (although Dr Thompson even professed that while it worked for him, drugs isn't for everyone). However, while the above factors definitely worked for Dr Hunter S Thompson, I feel that in the videogame journalism industry they are either unimportant or even possible hindrances. While it is possible that you could replace the cutting social satire or parody with statements on videogame culture and the industry, the other aspects would be hard to imitate beyond reasons than for the sake of imitation. Due to this, for the sake of ease, I'll be using the two basic characteristics as outlined above.
Now with our rough definition of modern gonzo journalism (subjectivity and the narrator as the main protagonist) in our hands, hopefully we can now assess how this compares to videogame journalism. So lets look at why it is or could become gonzo journalism.
The first aspect that could hint at videogame journalism being gonzo already is the distinct possibility that one of the core parts of it, reviews, already mostly fit the two parts that make up gonzo. While there is always the attempt to be analytical and fair with an assessment, most reviewers acknowledge that to be objective in reviews is an impossibility. In fact, Jim Sterling at one time made a satire of the notion there ever can be an objective review with a purely objective analysis of Final Fantasy 13.
"You can't be objective about Nixon, Thatcher and Final Fantasy 13".
While there is an avoidance to cast the the reporter as the main character in their own article, there are often references to personal experiences and examples of play when making a particular point. While not offering specifics, Darren Nakamura talks partially of his personal choices in his Game Of Thrones: The Lost Lords review (http://www.destructoid.com/review-game-of-thrones-a-telltale-game-series-the-lost-lords-286943.phtml). So while the reviews fit the first criteria as a glove, it would likely require a very particular writing style to fit with the second. However, it is a very real possibility that shows up in very minor ways, especially revolving around games that brag that your choices affect the plot.
There are also some news coverage that does tend towards injecting the author into the coverage. While this doesn't necessarily confirm the “subjective coverage” angle of the first requirement, although it does suggest it, the injection of the self allows accessibility to the reporter's views. One such example is Jonathan Holmes's coverage of if Playboy is a legitimate news outlet. The avoidance of a neutral tone seems to be to inject charisma into what could be dry coverage, thus making it more interesting for the reader, as well as to infer a subjectivity to the matter to allow the possibility of disagreement with mutual respect of opposing opinions. This combines together to present a more light-hearted and less-serious article that perhaps something more dry and factual would have seemed.
However, there are two aspects that could make gonzo journalism with videogames an impossible goal.
The first is the typically refined and friendly tone of videogame journalism. While there are exceptions to this rule (like Jim Sterling's Inquisition, although that could be considered more a commentary than journalism, and, possibly, John Walker's interview of Peter Molyneux (although my personal view of Walker's style in the interview is a very negative one)), there is a tendency for articles to be written in either a neutral tone or a positive outlook.
If your interviewer for a job asks you if you're pathalogical liar, perhaps it isn't the job for you.
This is in contrast to the typical gonzo style that is very raw, critical and satirical. While it doesn't fall under the characteristics I mention, the very refined aspect can run counter to the typical opportunities of rawness that pure subjectivity and being the main character in your own article offers. Especially as a neutralised version of yourself in the story could be seen as not a real representation of you in the article's tale. So while it could still be technically gonzo to be as friendly as, say, Jonathan Holmes tends to be in articles it could be argued to avoid the spirit of gonzo that Dr Hunter S Thompson laid down.
There is also the problem that videogame journalism does have a tendency to stay very close to the topic. Going back to the Jonathan Holmes coverage of if Playboy is a legitimate news source. It appears to stay very much on topic, something that runs in the face of traditional gonzo coverage where the author is given a chance to go off-topic if needed. However, this could start to define a modern form of gonzo coverage due to the tendency for roughly 500 to 1000 words to a news piece, rather than the book-sized coverage of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. As there isn't enough words for typical divergence, an article would either have to be dedicated (either fully or mostly) to being centred on the author in a subjective way, or on the intended subject of the piece.
Outside of gonzo journalism, usually divergence in journalism ends badly.
To conclude, I think the possibility videogames use gonzo journalism currently is obviously no. Even cutting down the requirements down to just two factors, it is rare for something to remotely come close to embracing both parts. If we could one day approach the modern form of gonzo journalism I've outlined, with a bit of determination it is a very real possibility. However, even excluding the other characteristics others suggest are required to embrace the soul of gonzo, the type of experiences or philosophical insight required to produce one article is something that would have to be somewhat rare to keep the charm that comes with something like Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Done too much, it could lead to just being a commentary track on the background of the subject matter or, worse, be dragged into boredom as the author delves into the monotonous dull parts of their life.
Trying to keep the release schedule somewhat rare (maybe once a month or less) would be unfeasible without the writer managing to make it last as long as a book and then releasing it in chapters, which at that point it could be argued it could be better to just publish it as a book if you have something resembling a following.
Despite this, it is okay. Gonzo journalism isn't something you have to turn on all the way constantly, but rather something you can flick on-and-off as you desire. Nor is it something you have to keep pure and whole, but rather instead something you can dissect what you desire and shuffle on writing. While the philosophy can run counter to some other mainstream journalistic philosophies, such as analytic journalism where they wrestle with a complex singular reality to try to create a public understanding of it, it doesn't mean you can't pick-and-choose what works for you without delving into double-think territory. It is really up to you, when and if you do write, to pick a style that fits your own philosophy, or even make one up. Just write until you can report in a way that reflects your understanding of what is truth and the best way to present it. That, I believe, is the only way we can write in a way that helps us comprehend and communicate the reality as we know it.
Sorry about missing last week. Doing the interview analysis ended up being a lot harder than I first figured and I wasn't able to write anything up. Once my gonzo article and interview article has been posted on GHT, I'll be sure to link it below.
Edit: So the gonzo-ish article I did is now up if you want to give it a read. Here's the link to the article.
Tonight, I wish to recommend to you a videogame that embraces a B-movie feel without being too on-the-nose about it.
Remember those nights staying up a bit longer than you perhaps should, how you would flick through the channels for something to watch? You'd just pick any odd film or TV show that caught your eye, especially the shlockiest, cheesiest and cheapest looking B-movie they were showing. After all, after the midnight hour who doesn't love something as ridiculous as Night Of The Lepus? Ever since then, videogames have tried to embrace the silliness and campiness of B-movies to mixed effect.
ESPECIALLY you House/Typing Of The Dead: Overkill.
For me though, I had always wondered why videogames could not scratch that B-movie itch for me. Then, I stumbled upon a game that made me realise why. As I grew up in the 90s, that overly-gritty cheese was the type of flavour I was used to. Warhammer 40k always made me smile at how silly it all really was, and it took one game to make me realise that the same ridiculousness that goes into Warhammer 40k could make the leap to videogames. That game is The Haunted: Hells Reach.
The Haunted: Hell's Reach is a third-person shooter by KTX Software, where you must survive wave after wave of hideous demons as they wish to destroy your body and take your soul to the depths of hell. Once you kill your way through the waves recommended, you must over-come the main boss Abaddon or, as the game tells you, “be trapped in Hell forever”.
Where this game does incredibly well is its cheesy characterisation. You get to play as one of four characters: Jacob the priest, Hector the South American mercenary, Bruce who is a blood-thirsty warrior and Caleb the veteran of war. Each one of these, every so often, will utter a cheesy line based on who they are. I'll admit to being particularly fond of Caleb, as he mutters with a guttural tone phrases as though he's just chewing on the scenery with the lines them selves being just as cheesy and hammy as a sandwich factory. Just to hear a gravelly voice utter “you can kill the warrior, but you can't kill the war.” and “Here's the missing nail in your coffin.” as you blow the head off some monster just makes me grin at its overly-serious ridiculous way.
It really almost gets as cheesy as Warhammer 40k sometimes.
Another rather impressive inclusion in the game is the use of breakable stones to avoid players defending one spot and rewarding risks. There is an important thing for designers to consider when making their game, and that is something called Dominant Strategy. The simplistic explanation is that it occurs when strategies aren't formed from personal preference and imagination, but rather when there is a very cold and obvious correct strategy that will win out over other strategies. While this isn't too much of a problem in PVE games although is best avoided (as it does discourage the fluidity of planning-as-you-go), this does become incredibly problematic in PVP games.
How The Haunted: Hell's Reach avoids this dominant strategy is by luring the player out of tactically powerful positions by either rewarding them if they do or punishing them if they don't. Every so often, breakable stones will spawn. These are either Chronostones which if left unbroken unleashes a level-specific environmental effect (e.g. very thick fog, acid rain or meteor showers), Healthstones that heal you to max health if you break them or Soulstones to bring back dead allies upon breaking. If you leave the stones alone for too long, a minion will pick up the stone and run with it; with the creature eventually exploding and taking the power of the stone with it (or triggering the environmental effect if its the Chronostone). This leads to a very nice mechanism in the player where they have to weigh up the risks and rewards of leaving a strong place to go break a stone for extra health, to resurrect a friend or stop a disastrous event from occurring.
The third interesting part is they use an upgradeable weapon system with increasingly insane weapons. In The Haunted Hell's Reach, you get four weapons: Melee, pistol, shotgun and machine gun. As you get an amount of kills, a gauge fills up which upon completion allows you to upgrade the weapon you are holding to the next tier. Due to it being level specific, it allows you to go from basic stock weapons to duel-wielding pump shotguns long before the game ends and experiment with other upgraded weapon combinations. Maybe focus on using duel-revolvers and a big bloody mace? This adds not only an arcade-like feel that encourages pick-up-and-play (as the upgrades don't go beyond the match) but it also allows mental comparison to B-movies as you equip increasingly over-the-top weapons.
However, of course, there are some down sides with this game.
Damn, why can't games be, y'know, perfect? Would save me time at least...
The first you'll quickly notice is the multiplayer isn't as good as the single player. Even with the various multiplayer modes, the game doesn't really encourage team-work beyond resurrecting dead allies. This can make the game feel a little solitary. Plus, as there is a limited amount of enemies and kills lead to upgraded weapons, it can lead to some players having a lot of upgraded gear and others having none. It usually works out more fun to at least have friends to organise and set out tactics with or, better yet, play on your own.
Another problem with the game is the final boss is incredibly hard. Even if you know the tactics to take down Abaddon, the amount of health he has and the amount of damage he delivers means it is a very hard time to hurt him. Add to this the limited drops of Healthstones and ammo, and it'll be lucky to defeat the final demon. I'll admit I've never managed to win a game, usually due to Abaddon. This can mean you will lose usually, leading to a pretty unsatisfying end.
Abaddon being hard? Its like he is a demon or something.
If you are looking for a quick and easy cheesy survival game to just play every so often on PC, I highly recommend picking up The Haunted: Hell's Reach during a discount. The amount of scenery chewing by the voice actors, the cheesy script writing and the silly levels of gore will be sure to remind you of a B-Movie. Failing that, the semi-simplistic survival gameplay as you upgrade your weapons as you go along will definitely be some fun. Which I feel the fun will be worth the £5.50 (assuming 50% off) price tag. I hope this under-rated and mildly obscure game gets the love that it definitely deserves after all the years of being released on Steam. Just don't take it as anything more intellectual than a B-movie made into a game, after all I feel there is still value in being a game that is as dumb, silly and incredibly cheesy as The Haunted: Hell's Reach is.
So today I hope to analyse if episodic games could last or if the “episodic game bubble” will burst, and if they could last then what purpose they could hold.
Episodic games have had a surprisingly long history. While it has existed since the late 70s/early 80s, and even includes non-adventure games like Half Life 2, the format we see today (where you buy a season pack, and episodes are released every so often) only really burst onto the scene with Telltale Games's Sam & Max Save The World (also known as Sam & Max Season One) in 2006. Since then, for eight years, Telltale Games have continued episodic games from the comical Sam & Max and Tales From The Borderlands to the dramatic Game Of Thrones and Walking Dead series. Along side this, there have been a few developers who have joined this model such as Double Fine Productions (Broken Age), DONTNOD Entertainment (Life Is Strange) and Red Thread Games (Dreamfall Chapters). I believe there will be more developers in the coming years who take up this episodic method of development for their game, which may even be in genres beyond the choose-your-own-adventure style Telltale Games have embraced.
So, that leaves an important point: How useful is this episodic method in development? After all, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to using this method of production. So today I wish to consider these pros and cons and then reach a rough conclusion on if this episodic game bubble will burst. In this conclusion, I will also try to briefly talk about what particular game styles the episodic game method would be especially problematic or useful for. As some genres slide nicely into what I feel the episodic game format can provide, while others don't mesh at all. With that done, I guess its time to jump into what is good about episodic games.
"I name all my bubbles after trendy bandwagon things! Then when they eventurally pop, the trends pop too! Its like the cheapest form of voodooism, and if I know places with economic success it is the most destruction!"
The first positive use of episodic games is it allows the games to be released as piece-meal, allowing shorter-development time until the first releasable product. Some games are announced a year or two prior to the release of the product. However, by allowing the product to be shipped episodically, the consumer instead is given five small games in shorter time frames rather than one large game after a long wait. As it is more spaced out, the consumer may feel less irritated by a singular long wait due to multiple shorter ones.
However, this factor also helps the developer out. If their price model allows for episodes to be individually bought, this allows their development budget to be focused on shorter development times as some people may opt for this method of purchasing episodes rather than a season pass. Even if they decide to go with season pass only, journalists will be covering the series per episode. This allows a series of exposures in the form of reviews per episode, leaving people to be more aware of the game's existence. These two aspects lead to more sales of the game which lead to a higher budget of further episodes or even further games.
Although the amount of times a review will say "this review will feature spoilers of earlier episodes" often means those who haven't bought the season pass yet can only have a quick glance at the score and then move on.
The second positive aspect of episodic games is its ability to shift the game's direction depending on the response. After the first episode of an episodic series is released, it is bound to create a lot of data on what people liked and what people didn't. While things such as graphical direction are mostly set in stone, things such as writing direction of the future episodes can be less so and then manipulated based on things such as what characters people like, what they thought of a particular event in episode one and even which parts people acknowledge more than others. This can then be used to create future episodes that are better received and to finish off the series in a way that is more pleasurable for the player.
The third advantage is it allows for a natural release from the tension of a severely dramatic event. There is a consideration in story-telling pacing about creating tension and releasing it over and over. While the tension is there to keep you highly invested and interested what is going on, the release occurs so you don't end up with mental fatigue. Using the graph below, which uses Star Wars as an example, the tension increases more and more to indicate advancement in the stakes as a positive end result becomes more and more important due to things such as the resources invested by the main characters to win over the antagonist.
There are actually a lot of similar graphs based on major films, especially one which follows the "Hero's Journey" story pattern. Link to the source of the graph.
However, videogames have always had a bit of a harder time creating necessary down-time without boring the player. While in earlier days loading screens helped, advancement in technology have allowed an increasing minimising of its use. There have also been uses of exploration/casual-talk scenes where the player learns more about something at their own easy pace. However, this episodic means of distribution creates its own opportunity for a release from tension: The episode ending and the player having to wait a few weeks for the next episode. This is something that may be a hassle for the player, but allows the writer to slide in lengthy tension-filled scenes without risking psychological fatigue by the end.
Despite this, a problem does emerge. This does rely on the player buying into the game before or just after the release of episode one. After all, if a player can go straight from episode one to two, they will do. Which if the developer has intended the break between episodes as a tension release, this can lead to the player avoiding the much needed gap to mentally unwind. Although the credits could serve as enough of a rest if the lengthy tension-filled scene before the end of the episode isn't too tense or long. This does present a situation of if a developer wishes to risk doing a large shocking and/or bombastic ending to an episode, or to hold off until the final episode to avoid draining the player of patience and concentration if they're marathoning the game series.
However, there are various problems that plague episodic games.
The first problem is a negative side of the last advantage I talked about. By requiring the player to wait until the next episode is made, this does potentially create the problem of breaking the flow. While this isn't too much of a problem in more narrative-focused games that rely on low-intensity gameplay, this problem becomes a lot more apparent in more action-orientated episodic games such as Afterfall Reconquest (note: I have not played it) as you are forced to take a break in the action. It is possible this disadvantage can be avoided if the episode is long enough that the flow-breaking is more of a tension-release than just a source of frustration. This disadvantage can also be avoided by playing the game in one go once all the episodes have been released, but this runs into the problem that the developer may have designed the tension-graph on the assumption that people play each episode one at a time. So the flow must then mimic a TV show style rather than the typical videogame style.
Although fortunately Telltale Game's The Walking Dead mimiced the graphic novel series rather than the TV show. After The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, it is no wonder Overkill's The Walking Dead is going to be also based on the graphic novel series.
A second disadvantage is it does require the game to be story-focused or have some form of campaign mode. This problem mainly is one of semantics and what it means to be an episode. According to Dictionary.com, the definition of episode tends to revolve around a series, including the explanation: “one of a number of loosely connected, but usually thematically related, scenes or stories constituting a literary work.” Without having a narrative to follow along, the extra content is more considered along the lines of map-packs or expansions. Although to be fair, the question of “what is an episode” is something that could be an interesting topic in its self.
However, for now, lets just run with the definition offerred by Dictionary.com and say it does require a narrative connection between scenes or stories. Which means without the story-focus like in a campaign mode, it would be hard to pull off an episodic system as even if you label it as such there is a risk people will see a story-lite episodic system as just map-packs.
The final consideration is a problem for reviewers. By making it an episodic system, it makes the reviews a lot more piece-meal. At least speaking on personal experience of having to review Life Is Strange, Tales From The Borderlands and Telltale Games's Game Of Thrones, the most problematic part of reviewing episodic games is the limited amount of aspects to talk about without repeating yourself. As the gameplay and graphics pretty much stay the same, it falls upon the quality of the writing usually to discuss.
Due to having to avoid dipping into spoilers (if possible even avoiding spoilers of the earlier episodes), it leaves a very vague wishy-washy approach to analysing the game with regards to the quality of that current episode. It is still possible to talk generally in terms of puzzles, the rough plot set out at the start of the episode and the quality of writing; but speaking broadly without revealing too much about the earlier episodes means the review can come off as incredibly unfocused.
"Everything same. Writing still strong. 8/10."
Despite all these flaws though, it is very unlikely we'll see the episodic bubble burst as such. After all, there isn't anything really too specific to videogames that prohibits a similar structure to TV shows or long lasting book series like Stephen King's The Dark Tower. What is more likely is as developers look upon Telltale Games's success we'll continue to see more and more episodic games. While games like Life Is Strange will succeed, it is likely there will be a large amount that will fail for one reason or the next. These failures will be learned from as a cautionary tale regarding what works in the production method and what doesn't. However, this will likely damage the public's trust in the medium and it will be up to companies like DONTNOD and Telltale Games regarding if they with to stay committed to the episodic method despite the public's cynical view on it, or to depart to different genres. Although I will admit the assumption above is simply guess work based on previous waxing and waning of trends.
With regards to which genres would work especially well or especially badly, the episodic medium is pretty much designed for the delivery of the story. So any genre that risks pushing story-telling to the background, even just for a limited time, risks being problematic for the episodic genre as there is a limited amount of time to deliver a story that's substantial enough for the player to feel satisfied. There is also an expectation for being able to make choices that affect future episodes, although I am not sure if there is any reason why an episodic game can simply not have choices that affect the story.
Besides that limitation, there is no reason for a heavily-story based game outside the typical genres. Maybe get an episodic racing game where you must convince people you're legitimate despite being a cop by making sure you do the right things at the right time while not getting too corrupted by the world around you, with maybe a side game where you do race on the streets. Perhaps you have to make sure you don't hurt anyone while raising, or it'll affect HQ's view on you. Another possibility is a real-time/turn-based strategy game where you must lead a rebel army to over-throwing a kingdom, meanwhile deciding how much food you have, how many people you will willingly send on suicide missions and if you'll betray/ally various factions. Both these games I feel would have interesting choices that could fit in an episodic manner, although I am sure there are even more radical and imaginative genre-twisting episodic ideas out there. So, I think, the future of episodic games is going to be interesting as the severe experimentation begins. Just grab your favourite popcorn, and watch the evolution occur.
The crazy episodic ideas are already rolling in? Sweet! Bring them on!