Tag Archives: video games

#INeedDiverseGames – and #WeNeedDiverseBooks – because anything less is shitty writing

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There’s been some great stuff said in the #INeedDiverseGames hashtag in the last couple of days, though if you check it out – and you should – be aware that of course people with other agendas have found it and are being ugly in it. Not all of it is overtly ugly, though, in the same way that not all of the people supporting the GamerGate crowd are actually monstrous assholes. One of the things I saw linked – and I’m sorry, but I can’t now seem to find it, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it – was a rather long post that picked apart the demographics of people who play games, delivered an analysis, and ended with the claim that there’s no solid evidence that lack of representation in media has detrimental psychological effects (untrue) and questioned whether diversity really is necessary in games. “It would be nice, sure”, said the author (I’m paraphrasing somewhat). “But is it something we really need?”

Okay.

I mean, maybe you don’t think we do need it. Maybe you don’t think it’s actually necessary. Maybe you think it would be cool and you’re not against it as such, but you think people are making kind of too much of a Thing out of it and they’re just looking for something about which to be loud and angry. As the demands for more diverse and inclusive SF&F have intensified we’ve seen the exact same kind of claims, usually along with protestations that things aren’t actually that bad anyway. It’s not necessary.

Okay.

Got a question for you, then: Do you care about good stories?

Just that. That simple. Presumably you do – if you read books, if you play games, if you watch TV and movies, presumably you’d prefer to be reading and playing and watching stuff that’s actually good, right? You’re not going to embrace stuff that’s shitty and boring. If someone came up to you and said “wow, you sure do prefer tame, safe, bland, status quo-embracing shit, don’t you?” you’d probably push back against that pretty hard, right? And yeah, a lot of us like stuff that’s loud and silly and focused entirely on being entertaining with no pretensions toward anything more and that’s great, but I don’t think any of us would cop to loving it because it’s shit and wanting nothing except more shit for the rest of whatever.

Right?

And if you write books and short stories, if you make movies and TV and games, I’m guessing you feel even more strongly about this. You’d ideally like to be making good stuff. You probably don’t want to make shitty, boring, unimaginative things. You probably wouldn’t like to see your chosen field choked with shitty, boring, unimaginative things. We all want to be proud of what we do, and we want to be proud of the community in which we’re doing it. If we’re creators, we want to be creating good things, and we want to be surrounded by people who are making good things, because they push us further, make us want to do more, make us reach for greater creations. Even if you’re writing pulpy, silly stuff, even if you’re making those same big, loud, entertaining, unpretentious spectacles, I’m sure you want to make the best damn big, loud, entertaining, unpretentious spectacle you can. If you’re a creator, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you actually give at least a little bit of a fuck about what you’re making.

Right?

So here, if you refuse to accept anything else, is the reason why we need diverse games and books and stories: Anything less is shitty writing.

If your writing is full of white men, it’s shitty writing. If your writing erases any sexual or gender identity other than straight cisgender people, it’s shitty writing. If your writing reduces women to (usually injured, kidnapped, or killed) motivations for your male characters, it’s shitty writing. If your writing presents histories in which people of color play no role at all and you defend it with “but historical accuracy!”, you’re wrong and also it’s shitty writing.

It’s status quo, it’s tired, it’s boring, it’s bland, it’s unimaginative, it’s been done to death, it’s shitty shitty shitty. And if you give even a little bit of a fuck about your craft, you have no excuse whatsoever for being satisfied with it, let alone defending it.

Know what else? It’s also not true. Because here’s the thing: writing stories is about telling lies that are fundamentally true, and any writing that doesn’t do that on a foundational level is shitty writing. Telling a story is about creating characters who feel real, who are recognizable to us even if they aren’t like us. Truly great writing will open a way for us to feel connected to people who are very different from us, who themselves represent an expansion of how we see the world. And the world is diverse. Fabulously so. The world is rich and wild and beautiful with diversity – it’s a treasure house of diversity, of so many different people with so many different experiences, knowledges, struggles, histories. These are deep waters, friends, and they are teeming with glorious diversity. Each element of difference is a chance to tell a new story, to weave a thread into a larger, grander tapestry. And the stories that do this don’t have to be anything but entertaining. They don’t have to be the next Academy Award-winning film, the next show to get showered with Emmys. They don’t have to be books and short stories that win Nebulas and Hugos and Campbells. They can be loud and big and silly and fun, and aim for nothing more.

That doesn’t mean they can’t also be true. It’s not a burden to make them true. It’s not difficult. It’s easy. Just be willing to write stuff that isn’t shitty.

This is why the whole “but it’s bad to be diverse just for the sake of being diverse!” argument is utter bullshit. How about being diverse for the sake of writing well? How about being diverse for the sake of being real? How about doing it for the sake of writing true? How about doing it because it is not that goddamn hard?

If you really think that – if you really think it’s silly, that doing it is sacrificing some kind of artistic principle, if you really think people are making a Thing out of it, if you really think it’s unnecessary – fine. But in that case I have no choice but to conclude that you’re a lazy, shitty writer or a consumer of lazy, shitty writing, and that’s what you’re satisfied to do and to be.

And dude. Dude. Dude.

No.

Thoughts on ludonarrative difficulties and The Walking Dead: Season Two

Note: This is all my interpretation of a game and a story that allows for a multiplicity of interpretations; that’s one of its strengths. So when I say “the game is doing X” or “the game meant Y” that’s not meant to be a conclusive statement of fact. These are things I think, results of my experience as a player and as someone who constructs narratives professionally. Take them for what they are.

HUGE SPOILERS, NATURALLY

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On The Walking Dead S2, Sarah, and why it all matters

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I just sent this to feedback@telltalegames.com, regarding episode 4 of The Walking Dead: Season Two. Massive spoilers for that episode within.

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As promised, my top ten favorite bits of game soundtracks

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So my afternoon got completely derailed.

I was sitting down to write a thing and I put on the music from Metal Gear Solid 4 as background, but it reminded me how great it is. Which I started talking about, which led to me thinking about all these other great pieces of musical scores from games, so what the hell, here’s a list of my favorites.

I should note that this is not comprehensive. This is not a list of the best, this is just a list of the ones I often come back to or that were formative in some way. Most of these games are also very recent. Some of that is that I’m a relative newcomer to gaming – as a kid I missed out on a lot of the stuff my friends were playing on account of having no TV and little in the way of actual friends who would let me come over to see their game systems. I didn’t touch a console until I was in college. I’m a newbie.

The other part of it is that I tend to forget stuff I played a while ago unless it was really important for some reason, so this is also a snapshot of what’s at the forefront of my mind.

That said, these are in a sort of order. Here we go.

10. Myst III: Exile – Theme from Edanna | Jack Wall

There’s actually not much that’s remarkable about this track in and of itself – it’s sort of your standard new-agey deal. But I remember when I got to the age of Edanna – a lush, beautiful jungle world, by far my favorite age in the game – and this track started playing. There was something so perfect about the timing of it, and it pulled me into the environment with a frankly weird level of intensity. I’ve never stopped associating it with that feeling of goofy, childlike wonder as I wandered around swinging on vines and looking at glowing butterflies.

9. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – The Streets of Whiterun | Jeremy and Julian Soule

It actually took me hearing this piece in isolation from the game to appreciate it. There is, again, nothing stand-out amazing about it, but there’s just such a sense of place, and what I think is a real affection for the world of the game itself. Skyrim presents an gorgeously lush world in which to play, even if the game’s story elements are incredibly derivative and silly, and this perfectly captures the gentle way in which the game pulled me in and folded itself around me when I first played it.

8. Dear Esther – Always (Hebridean Mix) | Jessica Curry

Dear Esther stunned me from the moment I started playing it. This track, which begins when you find yourself in the caves beneath the surface of the island, almost made me cry it’s so perfect for the atmosphere of that section of the game. It’s quiet, meditative, and mournful – like the game itself. But it swells in intensity at several points, again like the game. It basically gave me lots of feelings about a game I was having lots of feelings about anyway.

7. Myst – Finale | Robyn Miller

Myst is probably the first game that blew the top of my head off – for a variety of reasons – and its music was a huge part of that. It doesn’t sound like much today, but in terms of capturing and augmenting the atmosphere of a game’s world, it showed me what might be possible. The music that played during the credits of the “best” ending especially grabbed me. It holds a very special place in my heart to this day.

6. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the PatriotsOld Snake | Harry Gregson-Williams

This was probably the first piece of a game’s score that blew me away in the way that Myst did. Again, I probably came late to this, but while I’ve always been a soundtrack buff, I was used to hearing this kind of quality in film scores. Not games. So here was a piece of music I’d be impressed hearing in a film, and it was playing over a game’s cutscene. It remains one of my favorites, as well as yet another thing that showed me what might be possible for the truly ambitious.

(Okay, we’re now into the territory where things are just barely edging each other out.)

5. L.A. Noire – Main Theme | Andrew Hale

I’ll admit to having a soft spot for more recent film noire on the order of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, and of course L.A. Noire was basically all those tropes in a blender. For that reason alone, I loved it, but this theme hit me right in the brain the first time I heard it, and was a giant indicator that I was in good hands, that these people knew their tropes well and they knew what to do with them. Which turned out to be exactly correct. It’s a fabulous theme.

4. Portal – Still Alive | Jonathan Coulton

I’ve been confining myself to instrumental scores, but come on. I can’t not include this one.

3. The Last of Us – Main Theme | Gustavo Santaolalla

This is what happens when you get an Academy Award-winning composer to do the score for your game: It’s fucking amazing. Another one that gets tears out of me.

And these next two were almost impossible to choose between. They’re basically ties. Almost ties.

2. Uncharted (trilogy) – Nate’s Theme | Greg Edmonson

This is already one of the most recognizable game themes of all time. I came very late to the Uncharted franchise, but when I fell I fell hard, and this theme now slams me in the gut with so many emotions. Also it’s just incredible. Just fucking listen to it. Listen to it and try to resist the urge to go have adventures. Bet you can’t. I’m actually typing this from the summit of K2.

AND

1. Half Life – Hazardous Environments | Kelly Bailey

Gets the #1 slot not because it’s the best piece of music here but because I have a literally Pavlovian reaction to that opening bass. Like. Oh my GOD here comes something fantastic. Of all of these it probably gets me the most immediately psyched.

(WHERE THE HELL IS HALF LIFE 3)

So that’s it. That’s my list, as of now. Back to all the stuff I should have been doing in the last hour.

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

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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.