Monthly Archives: October 2008

Blogging time: framing the conversation

For a while now, some commentators have been following a thread of time. Leigh Alexander wrote of a Compulsion Loop, while Michael Abbott’s most recent post urges us to Chew Our Food. These are reflections on an industry used to (or perhaps becoming ever more accustomed to) a fast cycle of pre-release hype/release/postmortem/ad finitum. This occurs across all segments of the gaming populace, from your average gamer to blogs to the press. I’ll leave it to others to argue the problems of this kind of cycle; suffice to say, I agree with them.

I’m a newcomer to the blog world, but I’m working my way through gaming academia and have been doing some mainstream writing for a while now. As a newcomer, or outsider, however you want to put it, it seems to me that blogs represent a great chance – perhaps the greatest chance – for changing such a cycle.

There was a lot of rubbish thrown around about blogs in the early years of the internet, and there still is. They are not the most revolutionary media practice since the invention of paper, and while in isolated bursts they have caused major change, most will still turn to a good old fashioned printed newspaper for news and opinion first.

The power of blogging therefore rests largely in agenda setting, and this is where the gaming blogs come in. Blogs have a trickle-down effect on mainstream media, and therefore on what is discussed. Many popular ‘thoughtful’ gaming blogs, like The Brainy Gamer and Man Bytes Blog sometimes get linked at larger blogging sites like Kotaku. This, in turn, influences not only a wide variety of gaming-types who depend on Kotaku and Joystiq for news, but it impacts on the kinds of discussions that the mainstream press have – not necessarily in the pages of magazines, but at the water cooler, over lunch, and on forums. Eventually, people end up sharing opinions that probably began as analysis in a blog they’ve never even heard of.

Take BioShock for example. There now seems to be a feeling that while it was a great game, it’s probably now best consigned to the not-quite-perfect box of 2007. This opinion was not one shared by the mainstream press at release: it’s currently on a metacritic score of 96, with over 30 perfect scores. Yet somewhere along the line, many of us decided that, no, BioShock actually has its fair share of imperfections. When did this happen?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if he wasn’t the first, Clint Hocking’s Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock was one of the first widely-linked criticisms of the game. I know it influenced my opinion of the game, and at that stage I was only writing ‘hard’ news. A year later and I still agree with him. Admittedly, Hocking is also a major content producer as well as a blogger, so his voice certainly had extra clout. Nonetheless, it’s worth casting your mind back: was it around this period that the first substantial problems of the game became widely analysed and discussed? It’s a chicken-and-egg question as to whether it happened because of blog-style analysis, or whether blogs were merely a reflection of a growing feeling many were experiencing. But it’s almost irrelevant as to who came first: the fact is that blogs remain the loudest voices in such scenarios. What mainstream media outlet or enthusiast press editor is going to sign off on a feature article critiquing a videogame that was reviewed only one or two months earlier? If not necessarily first to the subject, blogs were the first location that many found criticisms of BioShock through.

I’m not saying that blogs are at the top of this gaming media pile. Certainly, bloggers are enormously influenced by mainstream media and PR types; cultural influence is always a sphere with different power relations, rather than any top-down or bottom-up flowchart. But there are two important points in favour of blogs that really allow agenda setting:

1. You only have yourself to answer to. Sure, the laws of defamation probably play a part as well, but I could write a blog post on any topic and not have to put it past even a copy editor first. I can critique a game on the day of release or two decades after the fact.

2. Blogs unite a hugely disjointed audience. Here in Australia, Marcus Westbury (quick plug: I interviewed him back in August) has been running his second series of Not Quite Art on ABC TV. You can’t legally watch it if you’re outside of Australia, but I heard there might be other ways of getting hold of the show, which is well worth it for those with an interest in ‘new media’. Anyway, in the first episode of the second series, Marcus tracks down a variety of online artists like Yahtzee and Jodi Rose. His basic point is also applicable to gaming blogs: the internet has allowed widely and thinly spread audiences to turn into massive ones. Only a small percentage of people around the globe would be interested in intelligent thoughts on videogames, for example. If The Brainy Gamer, or any number of the blogs along my sidebar were publishing in a local paper they might only get a small but very enthusiastic response. On the internet, however, those smaller numbers of people from each town turn into a massively global readership. And, through the trickle-down effect, it becomes even larger.

With this and the thoughts from Leigh Alexander and Michael Abbott at the start of this post in mind, I want to propose something. Let’s kick the blogosphere into reverse gear. If you have a blog, try and write an entry about a game that came out a year or so ago. Write about a game not old enough to be retro, but not new enough to be cutting edge. Write about Mass Effect‘s traditional Sci-Fi references. Write about Metroid Prime: Corruption‘s sense of social disconnection/connection. Write about Call of Duty 4‘s sentiment towards modern combat.

And please, if you, like me, have joined the conversation a little late, don’t hesitate to start from the beginning or the middle, and not just the end.

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The way we play, or: How I was forced into marriage

 

One theme that has always interested me regarding videogames is the different ways that individuals play. Some play shooters amazingly confidently and aggressively, tearing through levels with little regard to personal safety. Others are obsessive compulsive players, who simply must check every single nook and cranny before moving on in case they miss something.

I am probably what you’d call a ‘morality’ player. I simply cannot commit bad acts or lead a life of evil in a videogame, unless I have no choice (ala Overlord). In Knights of the Old Republic I became a paragon extremely quickly, and in BioShock I never even considered harvesting a single Little Sister. I have tried playing the evil paths in games (I even tried being a Sith in KOTOR for about five minutes before I couldn’t go any further), but I just can’t keep it up. I can’t do the horrible things games like these ask you to do, despite the unreality of the whole thing.

I was at a press event recently and got in a conversation with a few journos and some PR guys about my problem. One journo was absolutely puzzled by my style of play, and for the rest of the afternoon treated me like I had some sort of disease. Others agreed with me, though there weren’t any with my level of fanaticism for the good path. Others still agreed in theory, but in practice, found it much easier to play evilly than not. KOTOR, for example, is much easier to complete as Sith than Jedi.

This leads me (there is a point, trust me) to my latest problem. I’ve been playing through Fable II over the last few days (and loving every moment of it – this is, on a level, how games should be made). My overnice tendencies have been rearing their head again, as expected, and I’ve been trying as hard as possible to stick to the good path, help all I can and love my canine companion.

Social experiences are an interesting aspect of the videogame. I have been experimenting with the expression system, even to the point where a few ladies, the game told me, would be amenable to proposals of marriage: not yet, I said, not until I can afford a house and an allowance for her. Then I’d pick out a nice barmaid somewhere, start a family when I could afford it, and maybe even get a business of my own. This would be hours and hours of gameplay away, well after I’d done my fair share of adventuring, and was moving on to the bulk of the game. Or so I thought.

Yesterday I encountered a ghost who asked me to seek revenge on a woman who had rejected him by wooing her and dumping her at the last minute. I wasn’t actually going to follow through with this, as I had bigger fish to fry, but when I found her hanging around the town square one evening, I couldn’t help but enter into discussion.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. To cut a long story short, I was eventually hit with the decision to marry her, or break her heart. I couldn’t do it. I simply could not do it. She sounded so hopeful, so earnest when she said that she never thought she could feel love again. Did I really want to consign her to a love-free and heartbroken life?

I am now engaged to a character I don’t much care for, earning a miserable crust as a blacksmith with only enough savings to purchase a modest house and with an entire universe to still to save. How will I earn enough to keep her? What if she wants to have kids? I could have picked any character in the game, I could have experienced the thrill of the chase, I could have gone on dates, bought her flowers, anything. But now I’m wondering if there is any way to get out of it. I don’t know how to break off the engagement, and I don’t think I would if I could. Murdering her is certainly out of the question, though it is – amazingly – possible.

I can’t help but think that a stronger player would have just broken the poor girl’s heart and continued playing the game to their plan. That would be the obvious thing to do. They wouldn’t let the sympathetic whimpers of a NPC distract them.

Does anyone else face this problem, or is it just me?

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Great game spaces: Spider-Man 2’s NYC

This is the first post in a series that I plan to continue for some time, where I take a particular game space and discuss why I think it really, really works. I’m toying with running some also-rans as well, those spaces that really, really had great potential or aspects, but somehow didn’t quite work.

Today, I’m running with Manhattan as seen in Spider-Man 2. To this day, I’m still not entirely sure why it works so well. It isn’t a perfect depiction of the city by any means. It’s even a good leap-and-bound behind True Crime: New York City (of the same generation), a game so accurate that The New Yorker had two professional Manhattan tour guides assess the game. There are landmarks missing, and comparing the in-game map with an actual map of Manhattan shows that the game probably has about a third of the city’s streets.

Yet I felt compelled to actually pull out a map and compare the game with the real thing at the time. So compelling was Spider-Man 2‘s depiction of New York that to this day, despite having only been to the Big Apple once, when I was eight, I feel like I know my way around the city. I can find my way from the financial district to Harlem, no problems. Provided I’m traveling by web, that is.

There was a great review of the game that described Manhattan as becoming Spider-Man’s jungle gym. It’s really an apt analogy for one – perhaps the only – reason that it remains one of my favourite games of all time, and certainly one of my favourite game spaces (and I don’t even like Spider-Man!). Manhattan, iconic, mythic Manhattan, becomes a place that’s as easy to traverse as pointing in a direction and swinging. The city becomes navigable under the yoke of the player’s web. Intimate tours of the Statue of Liberty, of the Chrysler Building, or the Empire State, of the Flatiron, are possible in ways that you would never, ever be able to have in reality. I can climb underneath Queensboro Bridge to Roosevelt Island if I want to, or I can ascend to the tip of the Empire State Building and jump off, stopping my plummeting form with a flick of a button at the last minute, inches from the pavement. Factor in skyscraper markers that predate Crackdown‘s orbs in terms of sheer addictive-factor, and you have an amazingly compelling space to explore, to the point where the game’s main story and activities can be largely ignored and still make for a great experience.

Yet the New York of Spider-Man 2 is very much a New York that could only ever be found in the videogame. The city is something that is to be both controlled a revered – the player’s tasks in the game largely revolve around rescuing citizens from petty crime, deathly falls, and even lost balloons. The city, as Spider-Man’s jungle gym, is an ambivalent force, as it is the skyscrapers that give Spider-Man his speed of travel, yet it is also the skyscrapers that block his path when pursuing a criminal or racing against the clock to save a citizen. It’s a New York where one can assault a typical New York criminal, yet not buy a bagel from a typical New York bagel stand.

There is only one way I can find out if my many hours of Spider-Man 2 can translate to actual knowledge: I’m going to be there mid-next year. If you hear of a mad Australian climbing underneath the Queensboro Bridge, you’ll know what to blame.

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Archiving, or the case for videogame history

 

I was lucky enough to attend a lecture today given by the videogame researcher, Melanie Swalwell. Melanie spoke on a variety of issues, but focused on the ideas of archiving videogames and the need to do so. It was absolutely fascinating, and gave rise to a few thoughts.

First, anyone who has given videogame archiving some thought is probably aware of the practical issues. Consoles are made obsolescent every five years or so, and new operating systems make running older PC games difficult as the years go on. This leaves archivers with the choice of trying to preserve deteriorating hardware, or entering into the legally murky world of emulating. Other, more tricky problems often come up – how would you go about archiving Spore, with all its DRM issues? How do you archive Wii Fit? These are questions well worth discussion, but the point that really interested me was a more basic one: why?

After all, why would anyone want to preserve videogames? It seems obvious to us, but to a non-gamer, it might seem like a bit of a mystery as to why all these researchers are spending huge amounts of time and money trying to preserve these early novelties. This question is, of course, linked to the larger and more standard, “Why study games at all?” However, Henry Lowood has an excellent starting point:

 

The broader social and cultural impact of computing will revolutionize 

(if it has not already) all cultural and scholarly production. It follows 

that historians (not just of software and computing) will need to 

consider the implications of this change, and they will not be able to do 

it without access to our software technology and what we did with it …

So, in order to figure out why we currently use technology in the ways we do, we need to be able to look back at the beginning. This will only get more important as time goes on.

Mainstream games seem to get more love and attention when it comes to archiving. Presently, official services like the Virtual Console do a good job of giving access to older games, but what happens when the Wii becomes outdated? Do Virtual Console purchases migrate to Nintendo’s next console, or are we again left with a problem of obsolescence? Additionally, is playing the game on the Wii anywhere close to the original experience? Certainly, it isn’t; but then again, watching The Great Dictator on my 32″ LCD TV probably isn’t what Chaplin had in mind either. Apart from any technical concerns, it’s just as difficult to appreciate what Space Invaders was like at the time as it is to fully appreciate Georges Méliès’ early films. Melanie spoke of a strategy guide for Space Invaders that was published in a New Zealand paper in the 80s that talked about sweaty palms and excitement. Speaking from the perspective of someone born in the late 80s, I find it almost impossible to imagine a moment where just seeing someone controlling a moving image by way of a joystick would make my palms sweaty.

By far the most thought-provoking aspect of the lecture was the discussion of New Zealand’s videogame industry history. This, as Melanie said, is the problem of what to archive. It turns out that New Zealand had, at one point, an amazing videogame production industry, where four or five companies apparently turned out a whole heap of games which were basically only played locally. There are few records of what these games were even called, let alone where to find them. Apparently, they crop up at car boot sales on occasion, or are recalled by aging men whose companies have long gone bankrupt.

This situation can’t be entirely uniform, but it does raise the very interesting question about videogame history. What if the myth that we all cling to, that videogames started in America, were rescued by Japan after the crash, and have since been revolving between these twin suns ever since? It seems like the most obvious thing in the world to really start thinking about how different the experiences of the early years of videogaming must have been across the globe. In New Zealand, for example, it was apparently difficult to import the arcade videogames that were very popular elsewhere, so locals turned to make their own. In Australia, even, there was the pioneering Melbourne House, which as the wonderful tsumea has outlined, pretty much birthed the Australian videogame industry. There’s also this terrific history of Australian game development over at ACMI.

When I wrote on Australian games a few months ago, I spoke to Tom Crago (GDAA President) and David Hewitt (Tantalus Creative Director), and the overwhelming impression I got was that they felt that Australian games were very competent and underackngowledged, but didn’t necessarily have an Australian twang to them. Regardless, however, it’s interesting to think that the history of Australian gaming is not the history of gaming in Japan or the United States. We can’t subsume all the world within this basic view of history.

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The inaugural post

 

 

So, the inaugural post. This blog has been a long time coming, whether I knew it or not. So now that I’ve spent hours fiddling around with settings, creating a beautiful header, and organising links to some of my favourite places on the internet, I actually don’t have too much to say. I’m not going to plan too much how I approach this, but I do know that I primarily want to use it as a place for my thoughts that I can’t put elsewhere – my own voice of sorts.

Most importantly, I just handed in a thesis on videogames, and I’m eagerly awaiting the result. It was titled From above, from below: navigating the videogame, and I hope to make it available online to all who misguidedly wish to view it at a later date. As it is, I feel slightly indebted to Ben Abraham, who also recently finished a videogaming thesis and posted his abstract to whet our appetites for the full thing. It’s only fair, then, that I retaliate: below is the abstract of my thesis, for better, or for worse. I’m not sure when I get the result, but I do know that I have to make up my mind in the next two weeks as to whether I want to do Masters by Research or a PhD next year, which of course, requires a proposal to be worked on…

The study of videogames is still evolving. While many theorists have accurately described aspects of the medium, this thesis seeks to move the study of videogames away from previously formal approaches and towards a holistic method of engagement with the experience of playing videogames. Therefore, I propose that videogames are best conceptualised as navigable, spatial texts. This approach, based on Michel de Certeau’s concept of strategies and tactics, illuminates both the textual structure of videogames and the immediate experience of playing them. I also regard videogame space as paramount. My close analysis of Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) demonstrates that a designer can choose to communicate rules and fiction, and attempt to influence the behaviour of players through strategies of space. Therefore, I aim to plot the relationship between designer and player through the power structures of the videogame, as conceived through this new lens.

Hopefully that hasn’t scared you off, and that one day I’ll post something here worth commenting on. If that miracle does come to pass, then please feel free to leave your thoughts. In other words: I like commenters. Do you like commenting?

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