Category Archives: Gaming

Meaningful choice and The Walking Dead: an addendum

thewalkingdead-part2-poster

After I wrote yesterday about some of the ludonarrative problems inherent in a game like The Walking Dead, I kept thinking about why the finale of Season Two didn’t work nearly as well for me as the first game. The conclusion at which I arrived wasn’t simply that Season Two’s penultimate choice couldn’t carry the narrative weight it was supposed to, but that the first game actually gives you no choice at all.

Spoilers follow.

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Some thoughts on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and participatory storytelling

pigline_3

Capitalism!

Because there’s nothing like kicking off the morning of three weeks of teaching an intensive intro-to-sociology course like writing about one of the most delightfully disturbing games I’ve ever played.

I should note that as usual, I’m behind on this. A Machine for Pigs actually came out this past fall, but – as I think I’ve said before – for a variety of reasons both temporal and financial I tend to refrain from purchasing games until they get severely discounted in Steam sales. So I finally have it, and I played it, and it’s probably among my top ten games that I’ve ever played.

I loved the first Amnesia, though it was an abusive kind of love, because I have rarely played a game that made me want to stop playing it as much as Amnesia:The Dark Descent. I don’t scare all that easily, though I used to; much of what I write these days is arguably horror – or at least could be categorized as dark-fantastic – and I watch horror flicks to relax. That said, the first Amnesia was full of more NOPE moments than I thought possible in a game (until Outlast came along and left my every nerve raw and frayed at the ends) and I thought then that in terms of sheer dreadful atmosphere, it was pretty much unsurpassed by anything else I had experienced.

Then, as I said, Outlast came along, and I was stuck with a new standard of NOPE. Outlast is not a long game, but it took me a long time to finish it on account of how many nights I simply refused to play it at all because I literally could not deal.

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I JUST

So. A Machine for Pigs.

I’m a huge, huge fan of The Chinese Room’s previous game Dear Esther (The Dark Descent studio Frictional Games essentially handed the sequel off to them). Dear Esther contains what I think is some of the best prose I’ve encountered in any game, and in fact inspired a story of mine, so I was fantastically excited when I heard they were the ones developing A Machine for Pigs, and on the writing side, I wasn’t in the least disappointed. How the writing is integrated into the game is massively important, and a massive part of why it worked so well for me; The Chinese Room went the – fairly conventional – route of leaving notes and memos around for you to find as you explore the world, that incrementally reveal who exactly you are and what exactly you’ve done. But more unconventionally – and very much like Dear Esther – the notes are frequently puzzles in themselves, and hint at horrors rather than making them explicit (except for a few wonderfully macabre instances toward the end). They’re not in order, temporally, and it’s only once you’re a good bit of the way through the game that they actually start to present a coherent picture. Dear Esther did the same thing, though in the service of a very different mood, and the result was an experience full of gentle, meditative, revelatory punches to the gut.

Dear Esther: I can't even with this game. Weather continues cloudy, wish you weren't all ghostly. XOXO

Dear Esther: I can’t even with this game. Weather continues cloudy, wish you weren’t all ghostly. xoxo

A Machine for Pigs is the same, except instead of gentle and meditative it’s all creeping dread and slowly intensifying horror. Also disgust, because while The Dark Descent made it a point to scare the everloving shit outta you, A Machine for Pigs is more about visceral vileness and dehumanization. The theme is really in the name – think about our cultural connotations of “pig”, regardless of how accurate it really is, about their social context, how we use the word and the idea, and what images are called up when we think about them as animals that exist to be slaughtered and consumed. I’m not a vegetarian by any stretch, and I love animals, and I’m very aware of the cognitive dissonance and even the hypocrisy involved in that.

The language that writer Dan Pinchbeck employs in the service of this theme is careful, and to me resonant of both things like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – an obvious reference point – and the work people like Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt have done on the nature of dehumanization and the mechanized, industrialized erasure of the value of life. The game is in part a vaguely Marxist indictment of capitalism run amok, though one doesn’t have to be aware of that aspect in order to feel the horror Pinchbeck wants you to feel.

well let's not get carried away or anything

well let’s not get carried away or anything

Again, like Dear Esther – and like many other games that employ the same basic mechanic – these things are fragmentary, and the story you piece together is drawn from what isn’t there as much as what is. This weekend at Readercon I had a wonderful hallway conversation with fellow writer and buddy Kenneth Schneyer (he has a short fiction collection out and you should get it) about his story “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” and about fiction in that same basic format: found documents, descriptions of the contents of containers, emails, images, journal entries, etc. Things that reveal a story in fragments and increments, and hit you in the gut more on the basis of what’s implied than what’s straightforwardly shown. I happen to love those kinds of stories, though I have yet to do one myself in a way that I think works even a little, and I’m finding more and more that one of the media that’s doing that kind of storytelling especially well is video games. I’ve written before about how one of the major strengths of storytelling in video games is the fact that you’re not just an audience but a participant, and I think written fiction of that fragmentary kind approaches the same kind of active participation on the part of the reader and is effective for many of the same reasons. You have to work out the puzzle. You have to make sense of what you’re seeing.

And of course, it’s old wisdom that some of the greatest horror is what you never actually see but know is lurking there in the dark, red in tooth and claw.

this all looks very normal

this all looks very normal

So yeah. Basically I loved A Machine for Pigs. It’s not as scary as its predecessor, but it’s way more horrifying, and it’s a kind of horror that resonates more with me. As a work of fiction, I think it’s fantastically compelling, and the prose is a delight. I’d recommend it whole-heartedly to people who don’t normally play games, and in fact I might recommend it especially to those people. Just make sure you have a strong stomach. Or at least don’t mind when it gets turned.

so happy new year is pretty much what I'm saying here

so happy new year is pretty much what I’m saying here

No more princesses, no more castles

Note: Here follow major spoilers.

I’m not sure when, in the course of playing The Last of Us: Left Behind, I actually started laughing aloud in delight. It couldn’t have been all that early on. When I think about it, I think it might actually have been the minigames – and I can’t even bear to call them minigames because they weren’t that at all. They were games, yes, but they were games that I was playing with my friend, and they were games that I was helping Ellie play with her friend, and the two blended together and the “minigames” became a desperately joyful grab for the last vestiges of childhood. Throwing bricks at car windows. Messing around in a photo booth. Playing in an arcade. Trying on Halloween masks. These didn’t feel like tacked-on activities designed to bloat the content. They felt real, vital. I was laughing as I played them, and for a few minutes, laughing, I managed to forget about the end I knew was coming.

~

One of the worst ideas to come along in gaming is that we somehow need to make games for “girls”. As if anyone who isn’t a (usually white) straight, cisgendered man needs something carefully and prettily packaged and handed over with such delicacy, so that neither it nor the recipient breaks. Here, here is your game. The rest of us will go on with ours.

What a poisonous fucking concept. Honestly.

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Some fragmentary thoughts on The Last of Us

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I’ve made sporadic, clumsy attempts to write about video games on this blog before, and here’s another. I do think I might do this more, though, because I write about games a good deal in a vaguely academic sense for Cyborgology, and when I do, I tend to come at them from a narrative-focused perspective, though I’ve also written about things like mechanics and game design (and DRM) because you can’t really separate those things from narrative in a game – yeah, that pretty much tips my hand on where I come down in the now-tired ludology/narratology debate.

I also tend to be behind in terms of writing about games that you have to pay more than about $10 for. This is because so much of my time is taken up by writing and teaching and other related stuff, and also because, for financial reasons, I tend to really, really try to wait for Steam sales, which usually puts me a few months behind at least.

All that said, I got The Last of Us for Christmas and I have some Thoughts. Here they are.

– I’m both impressed and a little startled that something this much of a trope salad ends up not feeling like a game that’s desperately and clumsily trying to please an audience that’s already been pounded to death by post-apocalyptic militaristic zombie dystopias. I don’t know if it’s because of how emotionally engaging the story manages to be or whether I’m just still a sucker for things like The Road, but I never found the obviously tropey stuff distracting or clangy. It somehow all meshes together and feels of a piece. That’s saying something about the quality of the writing involved.

– I cannot even believe the voice acting. This should be the standard that all other narrative-driven games try to meet, because you know? Voices mean a lot. They might mean just about everything. Facial animation helps, but man.

– Boy, a lot of the first half of it reminded me of Enslaved. I fucking loved that game.

– I do largely agree with Christopher Franklin that the game is working within a limited design format that ends up creating a slightly jarring disconnect between cutscenes and combat. The Last of Us is clearly trying to connect the two in a way that feels meaningful, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing. In what is – in my opinion – an otherwise nearly perfect game, that’s the one really noticeable false note.

– I loved the ending. I see why some people seem to not have done. But for me, the emptiness and the bleakness fit the rest of the game’s mood. I also found the ambiguity about the future more satisfying than I think others did. No, there are no immediate consequences for the choice that gets made. But I think the game is strongly implying that there will be, and they won’t be pretty. I like that the writers had the guts to leave the part to my imagination.

– Along those lines, I think the last game I played that was this emotionally brutal – aside from The Walking Dead, which also shares a lot of similarities here – was Spec Ops: The Line, though of course The Last of Us is nowhere near as overtly abusive. There were things that happened that literally had me staring at the screen in shock. There were things that made me say, out loud, “Oh my God.” There were things that I found deeply upsetting. Part of this is that I often lose myself in a story to the point where I don’t clue into the parts that other people find predictable, but regardless. Like The Line, this is not a “fun” game. It’s not trying to be.

– Further long those lines, probably what I found bravest and most effective is something else that the game shares in common with The Line, which is a deep skepticism about the idea of heroes in games wherein the protagonist commits acts of horrendous, cruel violence. Walt Williams, the lead writer for The Line, said in an interview something that I love and has stayed with me: “Your main character can never be more righteous than the core mechanic demands.” In other words, don’t do or be Nathan Drake. If you’re killing hundreds and even thousands of people, you are or must become a mutilated monster of a human being in some very fundamental ways, and the game’s story – if there is one – needs to address that in some way. Uncharted does not. The Last of Us does. Joel is not a hero. Joel is an emotionally ruined, selfish, wreck of a human being and he makes horrible choices. When the game ends and you sit there feeling sad and empty, I think that’s pretty much how you should feel.

Even further along those lines, I think The Last of Us does something else that makes the characterization of Joel even more poignant and effective: it makes it very, very clear that most of the people Joel/you kill aren’t special or evil or even significantly different than Joel himself. Almost everyone in the game is simply doing whatever they perceive is necessary for their own survival. No one is a good person; the world doesn’t allow them to be. As Joel says at one point, “it was either him or me.”

This is something else that The Line attempted to do: to humanize the people you kill, to make it clear that they’re just people, as lost and confused as the protagonist, desperately fighting to stay alive. That said, the one way in which this fails – and also failed in The Line, though I think you could also argue that it’s part of Martin Walker’s crazed attempt to justify to himself what he’s done – is that no one is really ever afraid of you, at least not in the gameplay segments. They remark on how startling and worrying it is that you’ve killed so many of their friends, but no one cowers in corners and pleads for you to spare their lives, unless they then attack you seconds later. No one runs in terror or tries to shield their friends from your bullets. They just come at you, over and over and over in a human wave, and you kill them. In that, the game both humanizes and dehumanizes them, and not in the conscious way in which The Line worked. It’s another slightly false note, though on my first playthrough I didn’t notice that it detracted from the experience at all. And in fact, I suspect that that has more to do with how accustomed I am to playing a game like that than the quality of the game itself.

I’m not sure how to fix this, and I’m skeptical that actually having NPC enemies do those things would be fully effective. I think the problem is, yet again, core mechanics, the fact that in a game like this, killing – even lent emotional weight by the narrative – is fundamentally problem-solving, something that has to be done in order to allow you to move through to the next cutscene. Again, I think The Line was aware of this and managed to make some narrative use of it, but it didn’t seem to me as though The Last of Us was, and I’m not sure how it could have been that kind of self-aware without being an entirely different kind of game.

A game that does do this – that does almost everything that The Last of Us is trying to do and does it much better – is The Walking Dead, but that game makes use of different mechanics; I think that’s a huge part of why it’s able to do these things more effectively. So again we’re simply running up against the inherent limitations of a particular kind of game.

Again, for what it is, I regard The Last of Us as a game that comes about as close to perfect as a game like itself could. It’s definitely on my list of the top ten games I’ve ever played. But again, I’m with Christopher Franklin in seeing it as also a perfect example of what this kind of game really just can’t do, at least not as it currently stands. I think it also stands as a call for something better, for something new in terms of how we blend mechanics with storytelling. So I’m optimistic about what The Last of Us means and is doing.

And I’m playing it all again, so that definitely has to mean something.

Falling Through the Screen, Part IV: Rockstar and the Empty Sandbox

[Part I: Introductory blithering]
[Part II: Personal history and adventure games]
[Part III: Single player FPSs and why Valve is so awesome]

This is, again, late; I’m thinking that my originally intended schedule of one of these a week may have been overly ambitious, especially with the semester starting soon. Regardless, here’s this week’s installment: having covered the kind of game that I think is best placed to tell stories well, I want to talk about a kind of game that I think is both extremely well and extremely awkwardly placed for storytelling. And I want to focus on a particular company that has a particularly ambitious way of going after this.

I still remember the summer of Vice City. Or maybe it was spring. Or possibly it was winter. I can’t honestly remember that part. What I do remember: I was in college, I was new to Grand Theft Auto, and Vice City devoured my brain.

I had paid Grand Theft Auto III some moderate attention when it came out; like most people at the time I found it impressively ambitious (and in fact ‘ambitious’ is the first and primary descriptor I would use for all other Rockstar games since, whatever other descriptors I might choose), but for one reason or another it didn’t quite grab me. But then I got Vice City and everything changed. Continue reading

Falling Through the Screen, Part III: “You mute lunatic.”

Note: This post is a week late because I suck. As a consolation prize, there are many more words in it.

[Part I: Introductory blithering]
[Part II: Personal history and adventure games]

It might seem like a hard leap from adventure gaming to first-person shooters, but for me it actually felt like a fairly natural progression. I was still new enough to games at that point that I had the advantage of being open to everything, and mostly unhampered by preconceived notions about what I liked and didn’t like – I knew I wasn’t fond of the 2D sidescrollers that my friends had grown up with, but I ate up just about everything else.

I never really stopped playing point-and-click adventure games – I’ve played several of Myst’s sequels and I’ve tracked down old copies of Zork: Grand Inquisitor and Starship Titanic – but as the production of adventure games started to slow down, my focus shifted toward FPSs, which were plentiful. I now think that two things in particular made the shift easy:

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Falling Through the Screen, Part II: You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

[Part I: Introductory blithering]

Believe it or not, I came relatively late to video games. For the first two thirds of my childhood, my family had no television, and even after we got one — in my teens — we never got a game console. When I came to gaming I came through PCs, and again — I came late.

A lot of the kids I knew growing up had Super Nintendos and Sega Genesises(eseses), and of course when I went over to their houses I would watch them play some of their games. I have especially vivid memories of hanging out in a friend’s basement and watching, with mild bemusement, as she blew vigorously into the end of her game cartridge in order to get it to play. But though I enjoyed watching others play, I never played any of the games myself. Some of it was not knowing how and being a little embarrassed about that — again, I was basically That Weird Kid With No TV — but even given that, I really had no desire to learn how. The side-scrolling platformers that my friends played just didn’t interest me on anything but a very surface level. I didn’t look at them and feel any desire for immersion. They were interesting toys, but I didn’t really want one of my own.

I’ve thought back to that and tried to figure out why this was. I desperately wanted many other things that kids that age are supposed to be willing to trade non-essential organs for. Some of it, I think, was just that I was That Weird Kid. But more specifically, I now think it was that none of those games had any clear story for me to invest myself in.

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