Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Nuts and Bolts of Play

Image from PopMatters
This week on PopMatters, I talk about cross-generational Cards Against Humanity.

Explaining the rules and getting people used to the game's mechanical flow turned out to be a much bigger hurdle than its raunchy content. It reminded me of trying to introduce someone to video games: just getting people used to moving around, reading menus, and pressing the corret keys can be a challenge. It's hard to foster a deeper appreciation of games as an artistic medium when simply interesting with one requires hours of practice.

Here I stray into speculative territory, but I think there's something's to it. If X-Men has taught me anything, it's that people fear what they don't understand. Video game content may be shocking, but I think it's the lack of control that makes people uneasy. The moral panics over games like Mortal Kombat and Doom, were largely fostered by people who never played them. It's not that playing video games desensitizes you to violence, it's that playing them affords a feeling of control. Once people have agency, they can explore the systems, see how they relate to the artistic content, and attain a sense of ownership that turns something that was overwhelming into something that is enjoyable.

There was a brief window during the last console cycle where it seemed like the steep hill towards this agency could be flattened out. Unfortunately, motion control efforts flailed, both literally an figuratively. The accessibility of Wii Sports never got much traction in more traditional or thematically driven games. A glut of poorly-made shovel wear drowned out the few potential contenders. Now it seems like Sony and Microsoft have ceded this ground: the Move is dead in the water and the Kinect's most hyped feature is that it can be used as a TV remote. My parents bought a Wii; there's really no video game related reason for them to buy another console.

It would be assume that the reason for this is because the new consoles are so focused on shooters, sci-fi, or nerdy high fantasy. However, remember we're talking about the exact same folks that introduced me to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. The barrier isn't thematic or artistic; it's mechanical.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

EXP Podcast #230: The DRM Moonwalk

Don Mattrick presenting the Xbox One via Microsoft
We live in mad times folks. Mad times! Just one week after podcasting about Microsoft's draconian DRM policies and the company does a complete one-eighty, succumbing to popular demand and economic pressure. Why the crowds largely celebrated the shocking occasion, some lamented it as well. Had Microsoft caved too quickly? Are we losing something valuable as a result? And most importantly, what do B-list celebrities think of the whole affair? Join Scott and I this week these questions and more on the EXP podcast!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Runtime: 30 mins 56 secs
- "The Xbox One Just Got Way Worse, And It's Our Fault," by Kyle Wagner via Gizmodo
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gender and Savagery in The Last of Us

Marlene from The Last of Us
Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us.

Jason Killingsworth over at Edge recently wrote an interesting article, Sexism sells? The Last of Us Begs to differ, that praises Naughty Dog's efforts to undermine traditionally sexist gender roles in video games. As Jason rightly points out, all the female leads are, for the most part, complex characters with agency of their own. Ellie in particular stands out as an audacious and forthright young woman unique among what few video game characters she can call her compatriots. My one issue with the portrayal of women in the game is simple. Where are all the female hunters?

The Last of Us includes female civilians, female corpses, female leaders in the case of Tess, Marlene, and Maria, and even female infected, both runners and clickers. Yet for some reason, Pittsburgh's roving bands of marauders so hell bent on killing Joel and Ellie are entirely male. I killed over 500 hundred of the cannibalistic bandits, and I don't recall shooting a single-female.

Now we could argue the game makes some narrative contrivances to justify the absence of women in the group. We do hear some hunters near the end of the game mention "women and children," so we know the group does, in fact, have female members. David, one of the group's villainous leaders, also seems fond of Ellie as a sexual addition to the group. Perhaps we can surmise that the hunters highly prize women, keeping them isolated from the rest of the group to act as a sort of harem.

Still, if this were the case, we should expect to see at least some women in the group. With so many deaths among the males, I would imagine the hunters would be willing to take anyone brave enough along with them on raids. Also, at one point in the game, we watch two hunters shoot an unarmed woman in cold blood for supplies. If the group were so focused on keeping some sort of procreation stock of women, why did they not bother with this one?

The oversight, likely an attempt to avoid portraying the murder of women based upon assumptions about political correctness, is slightly jarring against such a strong backdrop. Even more than some of the game's more "gamey" elements, the lack of female hunters violates the narrative tone by undermining the pervasive human savagery depicted in The Last of Us. Joel eludes to evil deeds in his past and consistently talks about the need to survive above all else. The apocalyptic world makes savages of us all.

Even the female leads dip into madness like everyone else. Marlene, perhaps justifiable, attempts to kill Ellie to find a cure, and Tess doesn't hesitate to hunt down those who have double-crossed her. And of course Ellie herself cuts into men repeatedly, most dramatically when she takes a machete to David's head again and again. At the extreme edge of survival, societal gender norms are transgressed and renegotiated. The world has changed for everyone... except for those damn hunters.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Finding Meaning in The Road and The Last of Us

The Last of Us poster by Alexander Iaccarino via Collider
My latest PopMatters article is now live: Finding Meaning in The Road and The Last of Us.

A couple notes on The Last of Us before going on a bit of a tangent.

First, I don't discuss the interactivity in The Last of Us at all in this post, but I want to make clear that several design elements support the game's themes. The severe resource limitation, couple with a crafting system, convey a sense of desperation and desolation remarkably well, even while in the heat of battle. There's a moment in the game where Ellie comments on a poster of a thin model, stating how weird it is that some would starve themselves for beauty in a world of plenty. The two components nicely relate to apocalyptic storytelling practice of stripping the world down to component pieces to criticize our way of life, or at least make us thankful for it.

Second, I really like this game. The scripted narrative moments are often couple strategically with similarly toned mechanical segments, so high-tense set pieces are book-ended with intense or cathartic story beats. It's really smart storytelling that Naughty Dog has crafted for some time.

Now for a quick tangent.

I'm a huge Cormac McCarthy fan, so I was thrilled to see the numerous connections between The Road and The Last of Us. That being said, I think The Road is one of his weaker novels. McCarthy asks readers a lot of questions, but with such an overbearing gloom that pervades the novel, it's hard to get at any clear messages or answers.

Of course a deep sense of depression in his work is common, but The Road stands out to me as a weaker exploration of modern America. By far his best work, and one of my favorite novels of all time, is Blood Meridian, a terrifying look into the foundations of American mythology, modern politics, storytelling, religion, capitalism, and so much more. It is a quintessentially "American" novel, and a Western novel at that, and it commits to plumbing the source of the "American rot" found in all of his novels.

I say this only because while I really enjoy The Last of Us, I'm quickly growing tired quiet explorations of themes. I want a Blood Meridian video game already.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

EXP Podcast #229: E3 2013 Debrief

What is going on in this crazy world!? This week on the EXP podcast, Scott and I discuss the games and revelations coming out of E3, but since the time of recording, importance announcements have already broke! Microsoft took a lesson from countless politicians and flipped their stance on DRM. The complete reversal comes as a shock, albeit a positive one, to many gamers eager to see the company salvage what little goodwill they still had. I, for one, appreciate the bizarre times we live in.

While we don't touch on the latest news in this show, we do unpack some of the sights from E3 and finally put the event to rest. Give it a listen and let us know what you think about the games on parade and the consoles on your mind!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Runtime: 28 min 11 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Trying to Get Gunpoint

This week, Jorge and I talk through my hesitation around Gunpoint. The video is a little choppy, so feel free to treat it like an extra podcast.

Much of the conversation hinged around how seemingly basic things that can distract from a game's strong points. In this case, it's the visual perspective. Simply put, it's the perspective: I find the game zoomed out to the point where trying to figure out what the objects are and what they will do is a chore. Maybe it's just me being slow, or maybe Gunpoint has steep learning curve, but I want to like this game. Like Jorge says, it's well written, the soundtrack is excellent, and it's extremely satisfying to see a well-laid plan come to fruition.

I'm interested in hearing whether anyone else has gotten over the hump with this game or any other game. What changed about your approach or the game itself?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Postcards from 'Proteus'

This week at PopMatters, I send some postcards from Proteus.

When Proteus first came out, it re-ignited the "What is a game debate?" that tends to crop up every spring when the holiday rush dies down. Alright, that's a bit snarky, but only because I'm not sure such a debate is even that useful, or even a true debate at all. Mathew Burns says it better than me, but having a dialogue between experimental interactive experiences and big-publisher, "triple-a" Video Games isn't tenable or necessarily valuable.

Proteus' importance doesn't reside in a definition, but rather in the kind of thought it inspires in the people that play it. At the very least, the fact that people are forced to question their assumptions of what they consider a game shows gives it merit. On a more practical level, there are real mysteries that can be uncovered in Proteus that require attention and dedication. The thing is more than just a nature video on loop. Check out Jorge's and my stream for some concrete examples.

Finally, I threw in some screenshots to help convey the narrative of one of my playthroughs. I'm interested to see if they are similar to other people's experiences. Regardless of what Proteus in an ontological sense, it's clearly a great discussion-starter.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

EXP Podcast #228: Game and Watch

Image from Gamasutra
This week, we take a mid-week breather from all the E3 madness to talk about a subject that's actually one of the bigger features of both Microsoft and Sony's new consoles: screencasting. What once started out as "Let's Plays" on obscure corners of the internet have now become regular events for a growing multitude of players. Inspired by Kris Ligman's article on the origin, evolution, and struggles of the Let's Play scene, we discuss everything from intellectual property to editing techniques. We're still pretty new to this entire scene, so we're interested to read your thoughts in the comments!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Runtime: 28 min 11 sec
- "Opinion: Let's Play crackdown is an attack on game culture," by Kris Ligman via Gamasutra
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Year of the PC

I am smack dab in the middle of E3. Like every year, the cacophony blends into a general chorus of "look at me!" While actual games make up the majority of the show, the feud between Microsoft and Sony (and after this week's Sony conference, it's certainly a feud), is clearly the hot topic on everyone's minds. For the most part, the consensus is on the side of Sony. Yet looking at the consoles on display, it seems pretty clear this is the year of the PC.

During both Microsoft and Sony's press conferences, particularly the latter, all the game highlights and montages seem to express the inaccurate message that they are completely console exclusives. For the most part, the biggest or most exciting games, from Triple A to Indie, are platform agnostic. Those games that are exclusive are either new and untested franchises or dated far enough in the future to award those patients for a console price drop.

Of course the DRM features of the the Xbox One boggle the mind and completely sway me away from any early purchase of the hardware. Still, I'm also not entirely convinced that Sony will earn my dollars either. The indie games I was so please to see on stage are easily acquired on the PC, so while its positioning itself as indie friendly against Microsoft, it has no sole claim to that title. Likewise, Sony's decision to charge for multiplayer gaming deters me from embracing the console as a base for social gaming.  

The price may not be exorbitant, but when I have a system that is, one hundred percent, free and open, I see no reason to migrate to another that barely competes with its hardware. My computer is endless upgradeable, but this "last gen" console cycle will forever remain a stagnant.

It was strange during Sony's press event when the crowd went absolutely wild when the company announced it would allow players to share games freely. The celebration was more intense than any other announcement at the conferences. What sort of bizarro world do we live in where allowing us to lend things we ostensibly own is a gifted feature to celebrate?

I have my weapon against this madness already. It's customizable, playable on my TV, supports controllers, and offers free multiplayer and frequent sales. Next-gen consoles? Maybe one day, but so far, I'm not sold.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Ethical Decision Making in Quandary

Screenshot from Quandary
My latest PopMatters article is now live: Ethical Decision Making in Quandary.

I want to put this out there right from the beginning. If you're reading this right now, you probably won't enjoy Quandary all that much. The game is not particularly thrilling, the systems not terribly complex, and the story not incredibly well crafted. The game was made by a group of educators and psychologists to educate, and, like an unfortunate amount of "edu-games", it's just not that exciting.

That being said, it's interesting and makes some procedural arguments that I adore. Quandary manages to be deeply political without being overly didactic or preferential towards one paradigm over another. The core arguments the game makes promotion critical, thoughtful, community informed judgments free of deceit or personal gain. It advocates a type of conversation about tough decisions that, at least for the targeted age group of 8-14 year old kids, is all too rare.

I also think anyone interested in ethical decision making in traditional games give the game a look. It may not solve the problem if meaningful decisions in games, but I think it offers an interesting, albeit not always applicable, method of systematizing decision making in games. In particular, the input, sway, and opinion of NPCs in the game are fundamental to the decision making process. While BioWare games and the like create repercussions around decisions that affect secondary characters, rarely are choices inherently influenced or confined by the input of others.

I'm always looking for interesting ways to explore choice, particular meaningful ethical dilemmas in games, so when something simple and unique like Quandary pops up, I am compelling to recommend it to others. The game is free to play here. Also, if you have kids, I'm especially interested to here your thoughts about the game whether you play it alone or as a family. There are definitely features worth exploring further.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

EXP Podcast #227: Stories from the Humble Bundle

A tranquil scene from Proteus
The Humble Indie Bundle 8 is in full swing, so this week we discuss some of the games we've been able to play so far. The bundle's wide range of games means we discuss everything from the competitive, skill-driven systems of Awesomenauts and Hotline Miami to the experiential, story driven environments of Proteus and Dear Esther. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, the Humble Indie Bundle is a great buy for both economic and philosophical reasons: you pay what you want (or what you can) and you support independent, DRM-free games that also happen to be some of the more thought-provoking games on the market. Alright, enough schilling. As always, feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts.

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Runtime: 31 min 34 sec
- The Humble Indie Bundle 8
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Pondering Proteus

Jorge and I go for a walk in Proteus and make at least five Game of Thrones references. On a more serious note, we discuss the nature of storytelling and the increasingly diverse nature of video games as a creative medium. There's also some squirrel chasing.