A series of posts concerning

the playing of games

Assassin's Creed's Identity Crisis

Iteration is important. One of the most elegant things about the difference between, say, Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 is the way in which the combat system builds on what has come before. On the one hand, ME2 feels like ME. On the other, it’s streamlined. Simpler. More elegant. And what speaks most highly for it, I think, is that I feel like playing ME2 made me better understand what combat in ME was supposed to be.

So I recognize that games that come in series are supposed to iterate. But having just finished Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, I’m starting to remember the dangers of iteration.

On Endings

I think I have, if obliquely, expressed my feelings regarding the reductiveness of the ending of ME3, and at this point I feel like things are still unfinished in that realm. While I don’t yet feel ready to write much about the ending of ME3, I do want to write about an ending.

The Mass Effect series is full of fantastic writing, and particularly of moments wherein Shepard is (and therefore we are) forced to face decisions that are realistic in their complexity, if not their content. Even the game’s paragon/renegade dichotomy speaks to this—for one thing, there’s nothing preventing a character from expressing both tendencies; for another, the tendencies align more with the “lawful/chaotic” spectrum than the more traditional “good/evil” one. In particular, the tactical decision at the end of ME1 always stands out to me: sacrifice the council to minimize fleet losses, or let the fleet be culled to an unspecified amount at the expense of galactic leadership. There is no “good” answer (let alone a “right” one); instead, you have assess the risk to the fleet, assess the comparative value of this particular group of (kind of douchey) leaders, and decide which devastating loss is less devastating. It’s that kind of tactical and moral sacrifice that is absent from the boxed ending of ME3.

There is an ending to ME3, I think, that is beautiful and poignant and expertly written and that captures the moral and tactical quagmire that is the ME universe: the sequence after the mission on Thessia.

Contrary to appearances…

Kill Screen is hosting some more of my oddjob handiwork. I thought it a fitting tribute to the end of the Mass Effect series. (For a minor easter egg, check out the id I gave the script element. I’m hilarious.)

Heavy Rain, art, and craft

Recently, I was fascinated by Brainy Gamer Michael Abbot’s response to Heavy Rain designer David Cage’s talk at this year’s GDC. Unlike Abbott, I did like Heavy Rain, although at times I found its interface maddening, and I felt like there were a lot of untapped possibilities in the story. The game was rich, though, in what I value about gaming, which I have talked about at length elsewhere in other games: empathy, shared subjectivity, difficult non-binary choices, moral and ethical ambiguity, and origami.

Why videogames

I have made several attempts at writing this post; this is the first I have deemed an adequate answer—or a beginning to an answer—for the question. As a dog returneth to his vomit, so I return to this question.*

Sometimes—when I get rejected by a mainstream journal with a note like, “Loved the essay, too much video game stuff,” for instance—I see myself through the eyes of my non-gamer readers. I see a competent writer who, for reasons incomprehensible, devotes himself to writing about a hobby that is immature at best and an active waste of time and talent at worst. They likely see it as uninteresting or irrelevant to the interests of readers who are not gamers, and I can empathize. I imagine some readers of this blog, too, sometimes ask the damnable question I ask my students all the time: why is this worth writing about?

Anhedonia

Anhedonia is one of my favorite words. It’s a symptom of depression, generally speaking, but it’s such an elegant word for such a specific concept that I can’t help but love it. Anhedonia: the death of pleasure. It describes the feeling of no longer enjoying something you once enjoyed. This is how I feel about Crackdown 2.

Ah, love, sweet manufactured binary repetition that you are.

I have been playing Fable III, lately, and I really can’t get over how extremely short the game seems to fall of its goals, at least as expressed by this interview with Bit-Tech (discovered, and post in part prompted, via The Brainy Gamer). Abbot of the Brainy Gamer says it this way: “In Fable III, Peter Molyneux wants us to feel loved.” The game is supposed to be about connection, about relationships, about choices that affect our ability to live in the world of Albion, and most of all about people. But whether because of technical floppery or design misunderstanding, the very attempts the game makes to be personable for me make it emotionless.

Games, class, and "literary merit"

This post over at GameSetWatch lays out some of the basic arguments we can expect to hear from the EMA side of the table (i.e., in context, the good guys). One of the “vagueness problems” Smith mentions is that the law in question “limits restrictions to games that ‘as a whole … lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.’”

This is an epic assertion. Count ‘em, folks: there are four good reasons for a videogame. As I’ve blogged before, there’s not even uniform agreement as to whether games are capable of being artistic or literary, though my own views on the matter are more certain. To me, the problem extends well beyond “vagueness.” Questions about “art” and gaming run into the same problems that all questions about “art” do—problems of canon, which are problems of audience, which are problems of race and class.

I like your bounce.

There exists some question as to whether or not I can be a feminist, so prior to writing this post I had the following conversation via GChat with my wife (who definitely is one):

me: Do you think I’m a feminist?
(No wrong answer here, and feel free to not answer. Just have it on the brain.)

Megan: Yes.
Not a hard question.

Which I guess means it’s okay for me to comment on this post about the new game Hey Baby. The game’s premise is simple: wander around the city being harassed by male hecklers, jeerers, catcallers, and wolf-whistlers, and then kill them all. My first reaction—for which you may be justified in stabbing me in the eyeballs—has more or less held since watching the trailer: they should really be marketing this to men.

The gates of Hades have never held me . . .

I have to say that I find this summary of a brief in Schwarzenegger v. EMA almost soulcrushingly depressing.  It’s not so much that the case is before the Supreme Court—which, I suppose, it was bound to be sooner or later.  It’s not so much that an array of people with a mean age of 64.4 is making a decision about the impact on minors of a medium that did not meaningfully exist when any of them were minors.1 It’s not that the name on the lawsuit is, unselfconsciously and with no apparent sense of irony, this guy.2, 3 These things irk me, to be sure, but what really bothers me is the degree of medium blindness at play in this conversation.  In short, the mechanisms by which we evaluate the content of one medium don’t necessarily translate to another, and it’s hazardous to assume that they do.

My head nod goes HOOOEAGH.

Trick to make me write #2,147: strand me at a carwash for an hour with an iPhone and no earbuds.I’ve been continuing to play FFXIII, and I find my disdain lessening as time goes by. It will probably never eclipse FFVI (which, as previously noted, will always be to me FFIII—I realize this is incorrect, but it is a mistake tied closely to my identity), but that’s not really 13’s fault.  None of the FF games I’ve played since 6 have felt adequate.1 Part of it is the beautiful graphics that Squeenix has always aspired to—in 6, the SNES’s highly-touted and rarely used Mode 7 makes not one but two appearances2. The switch from top-down to isometric made the games harder to navigate, and moving from place to place became a more visible process. I’d never run into walls before, or misinterpreted a texture for a door, but starting in 7, this happened all the time. (Since 8, my dad has referred to the FF series as “those walking games.”)

Is polygeek¹ a word? I declare it a word.²

Last night, after Megan went to sleep, I sat down on the couch. Final Fantasy XIII in the PS3, for better or for worse.³ Wireless keyboard and mouse in front of me, on the coffee table. Harmony beside me. Sixaxis in hand. This (I swear to you) is the problem I had: I wanted to play FFXIII while using a Linux live CD to resize the ext3 partition on a hard drive in the Hackintosh hooked up to my TV (to make room for an HFS+ partition, of course), but I was frustrated because I couldn’t set up picture-in-picture on my Harmony, and I was too lazy to get up and walk across the room to get my TV remote.

This pretty much sums up my whole self.

In Praise of Doodle God

Back when I played WoW, I used to ease my commute by listening to [WoW Radio][1] (which seems to have imploded since then), and in particular [Octale and Hordak Versus the World][2]. I don’t really know why, as in large part my response was screaming wildly at my steering wheel in violent dissent. (Passersby, I assume, thought I was singing in my car and heavy into death metal.) When I was a regular listener, the show seemed to be a paean to difficulty for the sake of difficulty, and Octale exploded more or less every week about the idea that games might be “fun.” I’m no stranger to the idea that [games can be no fun][3], but it always seemed to me like Octale and Hordak’s purpose was a sort of social stratification. There is a formula for establishing a person’s value, and its scale is DPS.

Art and attempt

There’s a scene in The Magicians where one character pounds the hell out of another, seemingly unprovoked.  A friend says of the fight that the pummeler’s agression had been building for a while.  ”He was either going to hit you or start a blog,” the friend says.  ”Honestly, I’m kind of glad he hit you.”  Starting a blog feels a little like farting in an elevator.  I’m doing something most people do at some point, intentionally or otherwise, but something that is nevertheless slightly embarrassing and very public.  But as you’ll see, I’ve had a growing discomfort with how people are talking and writing about video games, which is what I spend a lot of my time doing, mostly while my wife puts her fingers in her ears and goes “LA LA LA.”  Two of the things at the core of my identity are gaming and essay writing, so this blog will in part be a space for me to rub those two things together in a way that is hopefully fruitful, and hopefully not too lascivious.