Category Archives: Video Games

Wherein I make good on my earlier threats regarding fanfic

So, I did it. I’d like to say I’m ashamed or some such, but I actually rather enjoyed doing this. In a little while, I might post slightly more typo-free versions on this page. In the meantime, here’s a link to my page over at fanfiction.net. Go ahead, nerds. Click that link. I dare you.

Yes, I am aware that I am a huge nerdork. Nothing to see here. Move along.

On being wrong

About a week ago, Kirk Hamilton writing for Kotaku posted a link to a video essay called “Keep your politics out of my video games.” I don’t usually pay attention to this sort of thing, but Kirk Hamilton is one of the smarter regulars writing for Kotaku (though Leigh Alexander is also a favorite of mine). I wasn’t as interested in the video portion, good as it was, as I was in what he had to say, and in a few short days I’d watched a good deal of what he’s posted over the last few months (he does about one or two video essays a month, it seems, and collaborates on live commentary on some of the sites he links to).

I just wanted to say this. There are a number of people writing about games and their cultural importance. These people are smart, and talented, and worthy of your time. I’ve already mentioned Alexander and Hamilton. Below you’ll find a link to Kate Cox’s page. I think you’ll agree that no one is writing more intelligently about the Mass Effect series. Add to this short list Chris Franklin, an independent game designer, who has a lot of surprising opinions about games and what’s good and what’s not. I don’t always agree with him, and from time to time he gets details wrong, though on large-scale issues he is rarely less than spot-on. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t always agree with him. It’s hard to be this interesting, this often. I’m guessing he already gets lots of web traffic, but for those few of you who have never heard about him, go listen to what he has to say.

More than this Errant Signal has presented me with a chance to revisit (and I hope correct) one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said on this blog. In my series on Indoctrination Theory, I made the grave error of adding a footnote where I write the following:

[G]ameplay is about as important to the actual narrative of the game as the quality of the paper is to the narrative of a book. [see “Indoctrination and its discontents: Part II”]

I remember this phrase stuck with me, mostly because I think even then I had a notion that I was dead wrong. When you consume enough of Franklin’s work, say about four or five of his essays (they’re pretty long, so make sure you go to the bathroom before you hit play) you’ll eventually come to the same conclusion. My statement is dumb and it’s incorrect.

Let me explain why. A careful viewer of cinema knows that the thing that brings a motion picture to life is not the actor’s movement within the frame, but the movement of the camera from shot to shot, and that montage functions as a kind of visual language that can create a number of effects, the most familiar of which are probably suspense and vertigo. Even if you don’t believe this statement at face value, think of the way a film or TV show directs your gaze toward what it wants you to look at, the way footage shot and performances given out of sequence are fitted together to make a whole. The way these things are stitched together means something.

Consider for a moment the sequence in the first episode of Breaking Bad where Walter White collapses. A moment later we see him in the ambulance, exchanging a look with the paramedic. You can see in the paramedic’s eyes that something is about to change for poor Walt. The very next shot shows him being fed into an MRI machine, only the camera shows him entering upside-down, from the top of the frame. This image continues into the next shot, where we see Walt’s reflected image in the shiny surface of the doctor’s desk, and doubled again, as the camera pans up to show Walt sitting there, listening to the doctor speak. The meaning couldn’t be more clear: the reversal of direction in the MRI shot suggests death without saying it; the double image of Walt in the next shot appears to suggest that Walt is in fact hovering between these two states: he’s alive for now, but ultimately he’s a dead man. As the show progresses we’ll come to understand that there are a number of other ways of interpreting the image (i.e. the doubling suggests, for instance, the two personalities contained in that one body: mild mannered Walt, and his criminal alter-ego, Heisenberg).

In a game the player’s gaze is only semi-directed. A designer can suggest where we might look through disposition of objectives, or enemies or loot, but during gameplay where a player looks is largely up to their own desire. Thus our gaze is only part of what creates meaning in the game. How else then can a game create meaning? How does a designer make us feel something, other than the tension of surviving to the next checkpoint?

Well, through gameplay, says Franklin. If a film can suggest meaning through montage, then a game must do it through play, meaning the way that a player (and their on screen avatar) interacts with the constructed environment. For instance, one game that gets this relationship wrong is The Last of Us, a good game where the narration only takes place during cutscenes, which is to say that instead of allowing gameplay (the ludic mode) take on some narrative duties—through many different means—the designers instead turn to the cinematic mode instead. Franklin sees this as a mistake, though not one that makes the game unworthy of our interest. Another example might be the way the marines that accompany you in the Halo series can be killed. One of the more memorable experiences for me in playing those games was the way a crowd of voices would slowly (or sometimes quickly) fade away into silence. I often remember getting chills, realizing I was alone.

For better examples of what I’m talking about, I’d suggest you simply stop reading and just navigate over to his site. You’ll find a link to it above in this article, and below in the blogroll.

I think you will be happy you clicked the link.

A few words on why I can’t be bothered to care about the new Star Trek movie

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Look. I liked the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek just as much as the next sweaty dork at the cineplex. It was great to get a glimpse of Kirk and Bones and Spock kicking ass as young dudes, and learn how they all came to be on the same starship. For as imaginatively interesting as the film was, I still somehow don’t think the story made a whole lot of sense: this is a separate timeline?…and Vulcan has been destroyed by a guy who is pissed off because his wife died?…and wait, does this mean that all the old Star Trek canon is no longer valid…or that we’re in a separate timeline (Edit: I’m so confused I had to ask twice)? I give up.

In any event this new movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness is coming out and it’s got the guy from that BBC show that’s kind of turned into the Game of Thrones for PBS junkies. That’s all great and stuff, but here’s my problem. Retconning.

In the past ten years we’ve seen about a dozen series get “rebooted” in a similar way. James Bond, Iron Man, Batman, Spider Man (twice!), Star Trek, the Alien franchise, and a bunch of lesser franchises that I don’t especially care about have all gone back to their “source material” to find a fresh start. Bungie also successfully reexamined the longstanding series of Halo video games with Halo: Reach. In some instances this has been great. Casino Royale was possibly the best Bond movie I’ve seen, though the two that followed were somewhat mediocre (Edit: actually, Skyfall was awful). Spiderman was relatively successful with both of its reboots (though in some ways they were essentially the same goddamned movie). All three Batman movies were pretty amazing. Iron Man was less successful in its second installment, and I don’t think I need to go into what a disaster I thought Prometheus was.

The issue I have with returning to source material in this way is that, in the case of Star Trek and Prometheus, you get a lot of unnecessary and often unfortunate retconning that jampacks the story with all kinds of narrative complexity it doesn’t need. The other problem is that, in a series where there is a considerable amount of existing canonical material (in particular with Prometheus and Star Trek), you run into the problem of sapping drama from the story: we know what comes after, so in some sense what is about to happen in whatever we’re watching is essentially inconsequential, so it had better damned well be interesting on some other level.

The first Star Trek movie failed to do this. There was a villain, but really his story didn’t add anything to the movie as a whole. Spock’s arc was confusing as all get out, and Kirk was established as the guy who bangs alien women and punches alien dudes.

Of all these returns, Halo: Reach was, to my mind, the most successful, largely because it experimented (in somewhat embryonic form) with tragedy as a subject for the story of a video game. They even telegraphed this in their marketing campaign, stating “From the beginning, you know the end,” which is the essence of the tragic mode. A franchise like Star Trek can’t play into that, because it is the nature of a franchise to endure, and to continue generating more and more entertainment, more Happy Meal toys, more revenue. If that’s the case, why not just keep moving forward, instead? If the story is in a rut, break free in other ways. Don’t look to the past. Seriously, Hollywood, just stop already. I’ve had enough.

So, yeah, this new Star Trek movie, whatever it’s called. I know that Spock and Kirk survive into the future, because (thanks to all the canonical material) it’s a foregone conclusion. So there had better be something else to draw me in, and, alas, the “newness” you’re injecting by re-imagining the command deck of the Enterprise won’t cut it. We’ve already seen that. You’re going to have to do better.

[Bioware and the Mass Effect development team: If you're listening, this applies triply to you. I'm serious. Do not go back to the First Contact War. I will still buy your stupid game, but I will hate it.]

Cool stuff that I actually like

If you’re anything like me, and I know you are, then you like stuff about spaceships. Spaceships shooting at stuff, and flying around, and sometimes blowing up. A few days ago, I was messing around on concept ships and I came across some artwork by James Francis. You can see it here. Most of the art you’ll find there is for video games, but Francis’ work is part of a webcomic he’s been working on, in his spare time, for the last several years.

The comic, Outsider, was originally meant to be seven chapters long, though it appears it might end up being shorter. The good news is that, especially if you’re new to the series, there’s a ton of material to read and look at, and regarding the question as to whether you will see any spaceships blowing up, the answer is a resounding yes.

Oh, there’s also a story, which I won’t spoil for you here, but there’s plenty of other stuff going on: galactic intrigue and the like. In fact, the worldbuilding is so comprehensive, he’s gone and invented an entire language with its own grammar and the like, to fit part of the backstory. Yeah. It’s pretty amazing.

Check it out by clicking on the banner below:

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You’ll probably zip right through the roughly one hundred pages he’s already created, and find yourself wanting more. Updates come somewhat slowly, and he’s accepting donations. In any event, it’s nice to see someone using their skills in a way that’s so thoroughly satisfying. Good work, Mr. Francis. Here’s hoping you don’t stop after just two chapters!

Also, game developers, if you’re paying attention at all, his story would probably make a pretty good gameJust a suggestion, now that Mass Effect is over.

 

Mass Effect returns to Omega

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(Image: Mass Effect Wiki)

Obligatory spoiler warning.

Back at the end of August when it came time to describe the most recent downloadable episode for Mass Effect 3, Steven Totilo wrote that he found it both, “short [and] well-made,” while at the same time pointing out that this newest adventure (playable at any point in the story, before Shepard launches her attack on Cerberus headquarters), “may exhaust your interest in Commander Shepard even as it suggests a variety of fun possible futures for games in the Mass Effect universe.”[1] I stepped into Leviathan wondering how this could possibly be true, and yet having played through the episode, I can certainly see what Totilo means. Mass Effect, or better said, Commander Shepard’s story within that universe, had ended for me several months earlier, when I played through the revised ending that has apparently delayed all other DLC by several months. It was hard to feel as though the story, which held several interesting revelations about the ME universe, still wasn’t something extra. Not unwanted, but certainly not necessary for my understanding or enjoyment of the game. (I feel differently about the From Ashes[2] storyline, but that’s a different discussion.) Having played through Omega, I imagine that many players will feel the same way about this new story DLC as Totilo did about Leviathan.

Continue reading

Skyrim: Domestication of the Dragonborn

A few days ago, when I was in the middle of doing a bit of B&E to steal the finer possessions of the law-abiding citizens of Solitude, I paused to tell Lydia, my partner in crime to wait in the basement kitchen. She sucks at sneaking around. What’s odd is that before I could even ask her, she said, “Hey, you’re wearing an Amulet of Mara. I’m surprised someone as hot as you isn’t already taken.” Or something like that.

Lydia and I had been taking on the countryside, from Riften to Solitude for the better part of six weeks, all the way from the middle of Last Seed, all the way through the beginning of Frostfall. Now she wants to get married? What did I say? I said yes.

Down to Riften we went. On our wedding day, Lydia said, “I feel as though all of Skyrim is watching us.” Well maybe not. Hardly anyone showed up for the ceremony. It didn’t matter. We went back home, to our drafty little Breezehome, and started our life together. Only what’s this? Lydia doesn’t want to go out adventuring any more? She wants to open a shop? For a hundred gold every day, I’ll make do, and find another follower. Meanwhile, you keep farmin’ that gold, babe.

As for followers, I only had one choice. A long while back, we’d encountered a woman named Eola, whom I’d ultimately helped fulfill her weird cannibalistic ritual, by clearing out a dungeon and then bringing her some gullible dude. I’d even munched on the flesh of said dude. Which is all pretty messed up, but you know, freedom of religion and all that. I went and found her. She was still hiding out where I’d left her, and I told her to grab her gear because we were heading out on an adventure.

Lots of adventures, it turned out. In Skyrim everyone’s got problems, and so talking to people involves doing stuff like delivering messages from one town to the next, killing bandits who are shaking down travelers, and listening to every bartender’s demo tape. Just to test things out we went out into the countryside for a while, and roughed up a few wolves, tried to take down a giant (and failed), and had to run for our lives. Later we set out on a few more difficult errands, like locating the Nettlebane, and getting a few drops of healing sap from the Eldergleam tree.

Which is where we first started encountering problems. Eola liked to fight by summoning otherworldly creatures. I accidentally hit one during a fight, and she started attacking me. After a minute I figured out how to calm her down, but that was startling. A few days later, we were doing a hard climb up the side of a mountain in a snowstorm. We’d been looking for a way up to the Eldersblood Peak for two days, and had (I thought) finally found it. In another minute we were on an open slope, and the next thing I knew, the dragon we’d been looking for found us first. It was a tough fight, but we’d whittled it down to the point where it had only a little health left. I took a step back and fired off a double ice spike.

I thought we’d won, because as I let the ice fly, I got one of those cool animations, which—in particular at night—are often hard to decipher. Which is to say, I was a bit surprised after the animation ran, that the dragon kept coming. I hadn’t killed it. I’d killed Eola.

So I finished off the dragon myself, there being not much left to do. I searched for a while for Eola’s body, but she was entirely gone. I climbed the rest of the mountain myself. Dawn was breaking as I climbed up through the worst of the storm, and emerged into a gray dawn fog, through which I could, when looking off to the east, I could almost make out my hometown of Whiterun.

After a bit of solitary adventuring I picked up another follower, Mjoll the Lioness, another sword flailing badass, though altogether too talkative. It made me miss Eola, and her one freaky white eye, and her quiet demeanor.

So a few days ago, all of a sudden, I was exploring Windhelm for the first time, when a little kid comes up to me, offering to sell a few items. People don’t usually come up to the Dragonborn in Skyrim, because, well, the Dragonborn does only two things: chew gum, and cut people’s heads off. And gum doesn’t exist in Skyrim. But this kid needs to sell her trinkets so she can buy food. After letting out her little orphan cough, she tells me that her parents are dead, and all of a sudden, I get the option to adopt her. Only I can’t do it, because my house doesn’t have a second bedroom for a kid to live in.

Next thing I know, I’m running back home to set up a room. I don’t even bother to listen to Lydia, who’s trying to hand me my share of the gold she’s earned. Next morning I’m back in Windhelm, looking for the kid. It’s early in the morning, and there aren’t many people out. After a little searching, I find the kid, curled up against the city wall, sleeping out in the open. When I come near, she sits up and says, “I’m so cold.”

Next thing you know, I’m in Whiterun, hanging out at home, and playing tag with my adoptive kid, and frantically wondering where I might find a doll, or a wooden sword to give them to play with. All of a sudden that’s become more important than finding Alduin’s wall.

Skyrim. In some ways it’s just like real life.

 

Mass Effect Trilogy

Well, well! I don’t know if I’ll actually buy this (probably not), but damn this looks kind of cool. Get all three games, in one package.

As happy as I am to see this, and as happy as I am to learn that ME 3 is probably going to get another single-player episode, probably before Thanksgiving, I think I feel pretty good about where things ended up for Commander Shepard. I tried all the endings offered at the end of the extended cut, I played through a second time on Insanity. I mean, I’ll probably play the new DLC, which is rumored to take us to Omega, but I doubt I’ll be up at five in the morning, downloading it so I can play for a minute or two before going to work, the way I did with “Lair of the Shadow Broker.” I’m not done with Mass Effect. I’m not done with the universe, but the trilogy that Bioware made has, finally, told the story I needed it to. That’s all I ever asked from it.

Reenactment

Plimouth Plantation is one of those reenactor colonies where people dress the part and talk in an old timey fashion. The day I went, the weather was perfect, kind of gray, kind of spooky. Their version of the English colony sits on top of a hill, amid a bunch of woods, and when I got there, the more it felt like I was entering a familiar place.

I couldn’t help but feel reminded of a visit to Whiterun in Skyrim. And also Riverwood, I suppose. I half expected one of the reenactors to come up to me and say, “I used to be a camp counselor like you, until I took an arrow in the knee.”

Sometimes I wonder if there’s a kind of similar draw, between a game like Skyrim and a place like Plimouth Plantation, to see life going on as always, as though nothing ever changes whether you’re there or not.

Run fast, run fancy


A few years ago, I spent a good amount of time messing around with Brad Borne’s Fancy Pants games, Worlds I and II. They’re great little games, little self-contained gems that have a very distinctive, whimsical kind of art style, as well as great music, and game physics that veer between Newtonian and quantum. Both games took the standard side-scrolling plaformer and twisted them, giving them a huge map, a good bit of humor, an amusing story, and a game world, so thoroughly imagined, that I often fell to my death while looking at the scenery.

The maps were designed to be explored. What’s more, is this exploration paid off. Often in the levels, you would find a hidden doorway, which, when opened led you into another, new, and strange world. These excursions in turn unlocked access to the various websites of artists and Flash animators who have had an influence on Borne’s work, and many of these were the sort of beautiful, amazing things, hidden in plain view on the internet, and which I would never have found on my own.

Several years have passed between now and then, and in the meantime, Borne worked with DICE on a two-dimensional version of Mirror’s Edge, which was also a real hoot to play, if somewhat more grounded in the real world. A few days ago, I was very happy to learn that there’s now a Fancy Pants Adventures available for iOS, and at the whopping price of less than a dollar, it seemed worth exploring.

I’m rather pleased I decided to check this game out. The first thing you’ll notice is that Borne’s style has evolved. He now includes interiors. You’ll run up to a doorway, and all of a sudden the front of the building will fade away, as you run in side, revealing more layers, more animations, and more stuff to explore. The game, too, has added new baddies, so in addition to spiders and the evil, handgun wielding mice, you’ll find different kinds of frogs, bats, pirates, and maybe even more (I’ve only made it to the fourth level). These are all clever additions. Alongside the new baddies, this adventure introduces water and swimming. It’s here that you’ll find new animations that show the designer really has thought of almost everything (for instance, swim backwards and Fancy Pants Man will start doing the backstroke; if you’re moving quickly along the surface, and then stop, your character will skate along the surface, as though he’s water skiing).

In addition to new gameplay, there’s a new game mode called Fancy Pants Arcade, which I haven’t tried out yet. There are other side challenges that involve collecting certain objects, time trials, and a few other “quests” hidden behind doors. All of these are imbued with the game’s characteristic humor. (Look for the mad squirrel in the third level.)

The gameplay hasn’t changed that much. You’ll still find the same kinds of jumps, platforms, curved surfaces, and springs that launch you to different areas of the map. None of these games would have worked, if the gameplay hadn’t been so effective. I’ve played other platformers in the past, but what’s always been arresting about Fancy Pants, is the way the physics, a good part of which is based on preservation of angular momentum, often gave me that same falling sensation you get during the first moments of a roller-coaster ride. In particular, the way the game uses space–you can’t see the entire map all at once–leaves you feeling exposed, the way you would, standing on the ledge of a building, or walking a tightrope.

I’m still figuring out the controls, and I’d have to say, the iOs control scheme will probably never work as well as a keyboard for something like this. It’s a small quibble, for something that is as beautifully designed as this. This one is safe for kids, but it’s good for the kid in all of us. Bravo.