Monthly Archives: March 2014

Opinion – The future is not now

The future is awesome. Today? Not so much.

Mass Effect 3 received a great deal of praise for its handling of a homosexual relationship and rightfully so. Bioware inserted a gay character named Steve Cortez, made him a romance option, and treated the whole event like it was, perfectly normal. The gay gamer community finally received a relationship not pinned on stereotype or insult, but rather on the shared humanity of everyone. It’s an approach that is thoroughly worthy of emulation, but it ought not be the only approach that video games take to address controversial issues. The future is bright for equal rights for the gay community, but if games only seek to portray the ideal endgame, they will miss out on key steps along the way and the important struggles the world still faces.

The beauty of ME 3’s approach is that it achieves an ideal type. Cortez is a regular crew member who is also gay. In doing so, Bioware models a universe where sexual orientation is not the divisive issue that it represents now. The homosexual population is not a distinct entity, rather it is just a holder of one of many traits in the broader species. This is where we all should be, and ME 3’s approach is immediately refreshing for taking us there. It’s refusal to rely on stereotypes or petty bigotry makes Cortez feel like a full character rather than the jokey/silly characters that developers often use, if they address homosexuality at all.   Unfortunately, it also loses the very real and current struggle to incorporate all genders into mainstream culture.

Though causes like gay marriage have made great strides in the past few years, it’s important to recognize the distance they still have to go. Many states in the US still don’t recognize the validity of gay marriage and sizable contingents of the country hold retrograde beliefs about the treatment of their fellow citizens. Sadly, the US is actually ahead of the curve when other countries criminalize homosexual behavior and even put gays to death. The struggle continues, and, by only showing the end game, gaming would miss out on the very real feelings of the present. This is an area where gaming can do the most good by showing what it means to deal with these issues and the very real pain it causes. Games like Gone Home or Dys4ria display the potential that video games have to create empathy in their players and should be seen as the model.

This is not so say that Mass Effect 3 had it wrong. On the contrary, for a game that was primarily space opera, striking the tone that it did was bold and welcome. Other games not investigating the problems of today would do well to follow in ME 3’s footsteps. However, we should not paper over the continuing struggle with the idealized type. Instead, future games that approach the issue with sensitivity and nuance should do the same with their homosexual characters.

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Opinion – Not ashamed to be a gamer

Staring hard at the navel

I apparently missed it, but a series of articles came out earlier in the year about denying the “gamer” identity.  The articles were, predictably, inspired by gaming’s periodic bout with the various isms that plague the industry.  In this case, it was Joel McHale’s comments at the VGX awards that drove the gaming critical community into a tizzy.  This seems to happen fairly frequently and surrounds a certain kind of gamer with a permanent sense of outrage over the discrimination problems of the industry.  While the writers of these articles are certainly right to decry the sexist, racist, transphobic, etc actions of the industry, they would do well to step back from their self-righteous anger and look at the broader picture.  The gamer community certainly has issues, but the myopic focus on the atrocity de jure obscures the other aspects of this group.

The broader criticism (shown here, here, and here) is that the periodic scandals that erupt in the community are indicative of a larger pattern of abuse that characterizes the community as a whole.  The current gamer class (defined as white and male) are preserving their in group by engaging in regular slander towards a number of out groups (everyone else).  Certainly the comments section of just about any game article mentioning even remotely sensitive topics would seem to bear this out.  The response to Carolyn Petit’s criticism of sexism in GTA V is a perfect example of how a certain portion of the gaming community vocally holds retrograde views and is willing to abuse others.  If the articles stuck to attacking these individuals, I would support them.  Unfortunately, they take the additional step of labeling the entire community as discriminatory, which is where the argument falls down.

The gaming community is a broad group including all levels of society and opinion.  Even at the level of involved gamers who invest a great deal into games, there is considerable diversity.  Look at just about any conference where these events occur and note how many times discriminatory speeches aren’t made, women aren’t insulted, and homophobia isn’t on display.  Beyond strictly gaming events, consider the millions of gamers who don’t spend their days engaging the critical community at all.  They have non industry jobs, raise kids, and play games as a hobby.  Their level of interest may vary, but they deserve the title “gamer” and are not neatly captured by either the inward looking sub group that is people who go to developer’s conferences or 13 years olds with internet access.

The problem with being invested in solving a problem is that you tend to overemphasize the events that most correlate with whatever issue you’re dealing with.  In this case, the critical community fuels any number of articles on the latest swipe at Anita Sarkeesian and ignores the vast region of gaming community space that neither engages in this behavior, nor engages with the critical community.  It mischaracterizes the scope of the problem because too much of its view is limited to the online bile machine.  That is not to say that these issues don’t deserve discussion; they absolutely do.  Furthermore, the discussion should be displayed prominently and be considered as every bit important as, or even more than, game design.  All parts of the gaming community need to stand up against anyone who would make others feel unwelcome, but we should not fall into the trap of painting everyone with such a broad brush.

There are other, better criticisms of the gamer identity.  With the vast expansion of video games into the mainstream consciousness, the above authors are right to wonder whether so inclusive a term has meaning.  Perhaps we’ll subdivide the gamer identity into categories where certain groups can be characterized by their discriminatory attacks and therefore disagreed with on that basis.  Until then, we should avoid demonizing the whole of the community for the actions of an unfortunate few.

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Review – Anodyne – PC

Wait….what???

Not every game requires a grand narrative with a detailed world and fleshed out characters.  In fact, many games get by with the barebones and do just fine.  Anodyne manages to have such a terrible story that it actively intrudes on the rest of the game.  The game is at its best when it avoids any greater meaning than have broom, will travel.  That’s a shame because the core gameplay is solid and worthy of a better world.

Mechanically speaking, Anodyne is a polished Zelda clone.  You play as a boy, Young, stranded in a strange wilderness who must attack, puzzle, and collect his way through a series of fantastical worlds at the behest of the mysterious Sage.  The puzzles take advantage of Young’s broom (effectively a sword) and mobility to force the player to figure out creative solutions.  Sometimes these puzzles span multiple rooms and take advantage of timing, jumps, and switches.  No one puzzle is too difficult, though Anodyne’s attempts at platforming often fail.  The controls are mushy and, when combined with the top down perspective and fast pace, can become unresponsive.  A few of the largely unskippable challenges become total frustrations when you must coordinate a series of quick jumps knowing that repeated failure means losing progress.  Still, the mechanics are quite strong and will be instantly familiar to fans of the genre.

Though the gameplay is generally solid and the puzzles are challenging and clever, the story and world are an absolute mess.  There doesn’t appear to be thematic cohesion between levels or even within the same level.  One world combines desert and blood aesthetics in a way that is very jarring.  It also looks like Anodyne wants to say something but can’t stick to an idea long enough to convey anything meaningful.  This is further undermined by completely nonsensical writing that is more a jumble of words than actual communication that people might engage in.  On a number of occasions, I found myself reading the dialogue and having no idea what it actually meant.  Did I mention that Anodyne forces you to sit through unskippable cutscenes after every death so that you can repeatedly relive the tragedy that is its writing?  If developers Sean Hogan and Jonathan Kittaka weren’t going to make something worth reading, they shouldn’t force players to sit through it repeatedly.

Artistically, Anodyne falls into the trap of confusing strange and different with meaningful.  Anodyne is unique in many ways, but it’s also completely incoherent.  Unfortunately, it joins other critically acclaimed gems like Limbo and Super Brothers: Sword and Sworcery in crafting an experience that is visually and conceptually more exciting than it is profound.  The indie gaming scene in generally seems to have a hard time coming up with something worthwhile to say and then actually saying it.  Games like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable do a far better job getting their point across despite not having a visually unique world to draw upon.  If the artists and philosophers could get together, they could produce a game whose aesthetic qualities matched its meaning.  Sadly, it seems that we must live with either or.

Anodyne is a great game for those looking for more old school Zelda.  It’s got all the action, puzzles, and exploration that those gamers could want.  For me, the mess that is the story and world are too overwhelming.  I can’t get lost in a world that doesn’t know its own way.  Play Anodyne only if gameplay is paramount and story doesn’t matter.

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Opinion – I am not defending video games as a hobby

I am explaining why they need no defense

I periodically see articles about falling away from video games (most recent examples: here and here) and they largely harp on the same themes.  Player was once fully engaged with the medium, but life happened and now games are less important.  Usually, the articles are tinged with nostalgia and a little regret, but ultimately conclude with the idea that video games were a cherished past time of a misspent youth that should now be focused on serious business like kids and jobs.  There is often a subtext of how games represent immaturity.  What I don’t see are similar articles about movies, books, or television.  No one waxes nostalgically about the time they could watch House of Cards and then go to a theater to watch a play.  This is suggests that their remains a stigma that video games are a youthful pastime.  This is wrong.  Video games can, and do, fulfill the same role as other mediums with the same level of respectability.

For a fair number of gamers and former gamers, the medium begins and ends with the likes of Call of Duty, Madden, and Mario.  These are either games they played as a youth and abandoned or continue to play sparingly in between life.  Their image of gaming is one of poor stories, minimal messaging, and a lack of anything identifiable as “art”.  I could respond by reviewing the many artistic advancements video games have made in the past decade, but then I’d be missing the point.  The issue isn’t that games lack artistic vision, but rather that people don’t recognize that they engage with games the same way they engage with TV or movies.  Call of Duty fulfills the same role as the hit TV de jure.  Consider Breaking Bad.  The final season caused waves through office water coolers as people joined together to discuss plot points and predict the future.  As a listener of the conversations, I can say that while many of the participants were very passionate and interested, very few of them were approaching the show for its deeper meaning.  There was little discussion of subtext or imagery, and a great deal of discussion of “I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY DID THAT.”  For a show with a great deal of cultural respectability, I’m hard pressed to recall a single discussion focused on the show as art.

The show is clearly enjoyable without narrative parsing.  People were watching because it was entertaining.  For all the artistic merits of the show, the vast majority of its viewers were engaging with it on the same level that they might engage Halo on.  They liked it, so they kept watching.  In that gaming’s flagship titles aren’t earthshattering only goes to show that video games have the equivalent of a Transformers or James Bond.  Playing Call of Duty is no more embarrassing than listening to the latest pop princess belt out a tune.  The only difference is that many still associate video games with their youth.  Take that away and they look very similar to the rest of the cultural landscape.  I see no reason why a game of Mass Effect need be embarrassing whereas Orange is the New Black is mindblowing.

The immaturity argument is also a failure to understand why people play video games in the first place.  For some, their play is inextricably linked to needs they had as children be it alone time, a safe place, or just a way to stave off boredom.  When that need no longer exists, many assume they have simply grown out of video games rather than grown out of whatever need was driving the playing of video games.  The issue isn’t that playing video games are inherently immature, it’s that they are associated with youthful need in the person’s mind and that need is no longer present.  There are a number of perfectly acceptable reasons for an adult to play video games even if previous gamers no long have theirs.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what others think about this hobby.  Gamers can continue to game without the permission of their workplace or social circle.  It’s just that I’ve run across so many people who have willfully denied themselves the benefits of video games for no greater reason than a gut feeling that they are not worth their time.  That’s a shame, because they’re missing out. 

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Review – Redshirt – PC

Avert your eyes!  Its interface design!

It happens to all of us.  You’re sitting around with friends, conversing about everything, when someone says “Hey!  I’ve got a great game idea!”  Before you know it, you’re talking about all the great gameplay elements of Zeppelin Tycoon and how it would make millions.  Of course, for the vast majority of us, we’ll never actually make the game.  That intermediate step is often too difficult/time-consuming/uninteresting, but it is also the most important part of game development.  Count social networking simulator Redshirt as yet another victim of that step.  Despite the compelling concept, Redshirt’s execution is too poor to make it worth playing.

The premise is unique.  You play as a janitor on a space station who seeks to make his way up the social, financial, and professional ladder before an unnamed catastrophe strikes the station.  Using a Facebook like application (cleverly titled….wait for it….SPACEBOOK), you boost skills, apply for jobs, and make friends.  The potential for the inclusion of interesting levels of customization and new mechanics is high, but Redshirt barely taps that well.  Everything is executed in the simplest way possible.  What to boost a skill?  Pick an event that boosts that skill.  Want to make a friend?  Ask them to be your friend.  Redshirt places everything behind a “do this thing” button with little concern for long term strategy or drawing the player in.

Even with solid mechanics, Redshirt would have trouble getting the player invested.  The people of Redshirt are little more than palette swaps of ten pictures with the exact same personality.  Individuals blur together to the point where it can be hard to differentiate a boss in need of schmoozing with the random guy who keeps hitting you up for drinks.  I once nicknamed my girlfriend “Mullet” because it was the only distinction between her and her doppelganger.  I had no qualms about letting Mullet die horribly to get off the space station.  She will not be missed, and she will certainly be forgotten.

The game does little to provide any motivation to achieve the overall goal.  Occasional messages pop up hinting an impending doom, but they are quickly lost in a sea of useless communication.  Even these hints at world building are rare and the countdown of days becomes a promise of ending the game rather than any feeling of urgency.  Victory is straight forward enough that you’ll never be confused on how to win, but you wouldn’t really care if you were.  Redshirt is just as soulless as the taped on grin of your avatar.

Straightjacked to the terrible gameplay is a poorly designed interface.  Redshirt spreads needed information across multiple screens all hidden behind a number of pointless menus.  The interface does not compare related stats, but rather links between menus. Deciding the best course of action often requires renavigating the same screens repeatedly and remembering all of that you have learned with each iteration.  This completely disrupts the flow of the game by creating a memory minigame that is both tedious and pointless.  In a game that relies so heavily on its interface, poor design dramatically decreases the experience.

Redshirt needed time.  The limited features, poorly realized world, and mind numbing interface are all problems that are immediately obvious on the first play through. It’s a shame that developer Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris was unable to fully realize the potential of the idea.  Given the time since release, it looks like she never will.  Stay away from Redshirt.

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