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Anna Anthropy on Games

April 30th, 2009 | Posted by Joe Tortuga in Link-out - (3 Comments)

This will be the second time I’ve linked to something involving Anna Anthropy (a.k.a Aunti Pixelante), but I think she’s got a particularly different take on games and play than what we usually hear. I feel this (too short) interview highlights some of that:

The videogame medium is being held hostage by a small group of people, or it would be if big games publishers really were the gatekeepers to the medium they want to be perceived as. The increasing accessibility of game authorship means that games are becoming culture-created and communicated in the same ways as all other culture-instead of “game culture.”

When asked about her sexuality and how it affects her game (she’s known for games like Mighty Jill Off, for instance) she says this:

A videogame is a space constructed out of communication, and communication is the realm in which flirtation and seduction happen, where desire and love are both expressed and explored. It’s a space for role-playing and for exploring fantasy. Of course it has an erotic nature.

And there’s the complicity of the player, that the audience is a participant in the telling of the story.

Jim Rossignol, Editor of RPS and writer-extraordinare, wrote a fitting farewell tribute to the late JG Ballard on Offworld today.  In it, Rossignol eloquently examines Ballard’s effect not only on his own creativity, but on that of contemporary culture and the consumerist society Ballard saw growing around him.

The future would be boring, said Ballard. Our modern age sits at the point at which the march of rationalism and reason has peaked, divorcing us from our early extremism and our innate primitivism, and giving us a bland culture of calm consumer choices and deadened emotions.

Rossignol looks to the ideas Ballard cultivated in his best works, like Super-Cannes, Crash, and The Atrocity Exhibition.  Surreal expositions about the dangers of boredom in the human psyche and lengths to which we might go to entertain ourselves.

But now, we have video games to relieve that pressure.  Video games represent a

safe excursion to the gladitorial arena … our excursions, or psychological medications, are not literal violence, but the fantasies of exploration and victory that are delivered in gaming

I couldn’t agree more with Rossignol or Ballard.  Video games are a safe release for the pressures and stresses of life.  They do so in a way that the passive comforts of books and movies can’t.

Aside from touting gaming as part of a healthy mental diet, Rossignol also examines, or rather, dusts off and pumps-up another of Ballard’s bits of wisdom:  Culture should not come from a vacuum. Culture, especially those who make it, should feed on anything that moves.

Read the full, wonderfully written piece here.

This week on the CDC Podcast we discuss Bioshock and narrative dissonance. Join us as we attempt to wrap our heads around the subject and come up with the definitive answer to the question “How do we define narrative dissonance?” You don’t need to go to GameFAQS or Youtube to discover the ending of this conundrum; we don’t end up coming up with a consensus on the subject! My apologies to Roger Travis who become disconnected midway through the podcast and could not return due to prior obligations.

Direct Download (32MB, 42min)

CAST:
D. Murray, Denis Farr, Travis Megill, Alex Myers, Eric Swain, Roger Travis.

Show notes:
Iroquois Pliskin on Bioshock,
Clint Hocking on Bioshock
Michael Abbott on Theater and Videogames
Corvus Elrod on Fabula

Recently, Amazon.com purchased one of the larger game portals, Reflexive Arcade.  As part of the integration, Amazon chose to lower the prices on all the casual arcade games to $9.99.  This angered publishers , causing PopCap and others to pull their games from the portal.

Jeff Tunnel (founder of Garage Games, and currently at Push Button Labs) says this about Amazon’s price change :

Now the flood gates have been opened, and I am telling you to look out below. Today Reflexive, recently acquired by Amazon, opened their new download store, with lowered front tier pricing of $9.99 and second tier pricing of $6.99 for Indie casual games. All of the other casual portals like Big Fish Games and Yahoo games have pricing of of $6.95 by joining their “clubs”. It is my belief that even these prices will not hold up over time.

As an example of the future, look at the game section of the iPhone App Store. In this market, the right price for a game is $0, and I believe that is where all game prices are heading. For a while, there will be successes at $3.99 to $1, but eventually, I think you will see capitulation to the $0 price point.

Jeff Vogel, of Spiderweb Software, a maker of classic turn-based RPGs, takes this up in series of a couple of posts.  They charge $28 for the majority of their downloadable games. In his two articles he goes into depth about why he charges what he does, and how he figures his pricing decision.

First he says :

I have a friendly little message for my fellow Indie game designers.

You really need to start charging more for your games.

Every year, life is getting more and more expensive. Insurance. Rent. Food. And, at the same time, your games are getting cheaper and cheaper, sometimes as cheap as a dollar, as you engage in a full speed race to the bottom.

In a follow-up post he offers this as part of his pricing prescription:

Distributors – Don’t set arbitrary price ceilings (like at Amazon or XBox Live Community Games). If you are setting the price yourselves, use the developers price as a guide. Then let the magic of the marketplace do its work, punishing the foolish and rewarding the smart.

In any money-making business, pricing is one of the hardest things, especially since it cannot be decided by value alone. A controversy erupted over Braid‘s price, because users have developed certain expectations for the cost of XBox Live Arcade games, regardless of whether they are worth their price or might cost more in a different venue. Outraged publishers see a $10 price cap as far too low on the PC, while a five dollar price seems too much on the iPhone.

Even AAA games have fixed price points.  What does that do for them? Anna Anthropy  notes at her blog :

the eighty-hour game is a dead end. publishers attempt to justify the prices of their titles with lots of content, and content requires lots of people, and staff size inflates while individual creative control and accountability, conversely, diminishes. and none of this addresses the problem that an eighty-hour game is just an hour’s worth of ideas – if even that (remember, content and ideas are different things) – stretched across a much longer period. an eighty-hour game has seventy-nine hours’ worth of filler. long games waste our time.

What do you think the answer is?

steed-in-your-steed-bayeux

This Week in Videogame Blogging, 65 die in a tragic Tetris accident in NYC, and Hard-casual also get the scoop on the Fallout: New Vegas protagonist!

In slightly less tongue-in-cheek happenings, Jim Rossignol, one quarter of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, noted that “Locked Door” was close to the biggest article ever published on RPS. It’s certainly well worth a read, and a great example of the fact that good games crit doesn’t have to be the straight-forward essayist type. RPS continued its standard of excellence this week with some fantastic coverage of upcoming game Mafia 2, and a nice little op-ed on Left 4 Dead’s new survival mode.

Dan Kline  wrote about a theory he has that “having a programmer in charge of your company [makes] such a big difference” to game development. I’m a little sceptical about the breadth of his argument, but colour me interested. He does say, however, that “having a programmer in charge means there’s no black box.  Video games are software first, game second.” Which is a sentiment I can definitely get behind.

This week, L.B. Jeffries suffered GDC denial and went to GDX (game developers exchange) and wrote about his experience. It’s a pretty insider-focused conference, but L.B. still managed to get quite a lot out of it. And he met Ian Bogost. In his own words – “suspicions confirmed. He’s a total badass.”.

Matthew Wasteland wrote about an anecdote from crunch time in ‘Front Lines, pt. II: A Thousand-Dollar Effort’. It has to be read to be believed.

Iroquois Pliskin of Versus Clu Clu Land turns a review of Gears of War 2 into something like a defence of the Roman Coliseum aesthetic in the game. “The Takeaway”, he says, “Are you not entertained?” The argument against trying to critique a game for something it’s not trying to be, is one that I don’t feel has really been played out yet. I am reminded of Mike Schiller, former editor of the moving pixels blog, and his defence of the story in GoW2. Also from Pliskin is his not to be missed post “Against My Better Judgement, I Discuss Citizen Kane and Maybe Art” which is absolutely chock-full of great ideas on games-as-art and the use of cinematic comparisons. Also, some badass dude called Ian Bogost turns up in the comments.

Tom Chick reluctantly finished his great series on the new game Demigod this week, with his ‘Final Word‘. The discussion surrounding whether reviewers should evaluate the quality at launch versus what it will be once issues are resolved is discussed and handled in a most excellent way, I felt.

Michael Abbott at the Brainy Gamer this week commented on the change to the ending of Fallout 3 that Bethesda’s Pete Hines outlined would happen with the last piece of DLC for the game. Abbott was sad that the lesson learned from player feedback on Fallout 3 seemed to be that endings were bad intrinsically, however I felt that the take-away was more that Fallout 3‘s ending was bad. Go read it for yourself.

Finally, we come to what I feel is this weeks absolute must read – and it comes to us via Critical Distance contributor’ Christopher Hyde’s tumblr blog. He links to a piece of writing from a film criticism website that, when it comes down to it, is lamenting the lack of any serious games criticism.

In the post “The Alligators Have Good Graphics: Beginning Game Criticism, Pt 1“, author Logan Crowell, who comes from a film criticism background, valiantly outlines the issues surrounding game criticism and says about games criticism that,

Ultimately, though, we need to begin. We need to stop asking why there isn’t game criticism and start writing some. Maybe it will fail to distinguish itself. Maybe few games are ready for serious critics. We still need to try. If we don’t, then someone, sometime down the road, is once again going to ask why there isn’t any real game criticism.

It seems to me that Crowell just hasn’t found it all yet, and if he had he’d be singing a much merrier tune. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the post seems to justify the existence of a site like Critical Distance. Where is the entry point to games criticism? So far it’s only regularly happened by the discovery on of any of the many networked blogs and communities, often via The Brainy Gamer and others.

Either way, Logan, some of us have been ‘beginning’ for quite a while. You’re welcome to join the conversation. Beware, though, it’s deeper than it looks. Actually, a lot deeper. So deep I have run out of words.

And that’s as close as we’ll get to an aggregator website!

Till next week.

Chris at The Artful Gamer writes about the recently released browser-based game ‘Legends of Zork’. He examines it from the perspective of someone who played the original as well as stepping into the shoes of a newcomer to the ‘Zork’ universe and ascertains that Legends of Zork “is the expression of the generational gap we find ourselves in today.” That is, the gap between the rudimentary, often obtusely complicated (not to mention visually sparse) 1980s gaming and post-2000s excesses.

When I stare at the map of the Great Underground Empire as the creators of LoZ imagine it, my eyes take in the gorgeously drawn map – not the places themselves – but the world as seen from a bird's eye view. I do not walk through the world. My fingers do not dance over the keyboard and do the walking for me. I point with my cursor, and the cursor – the computer and its algorithms – transports me to another place. I magically re-appear in front of the white house. But this is not the abandoned white house of my youth. It is not the house that I stole a rusted swiss-army knife from. It is a white house that corresponds to a popular modern children's art style. It evokes nothing for me.

It’s interesting to me as someone who has never played the original – when classic and beloved games get a re-imagining for the modern era, do they intrinsically lose something of their original charm? Does what made the original captivating in its time remain today, or do rosy-glasses tint our memories of these games? It is an experience that I have had a number of times since starting to play with the Vintage Game Club as, particularly with the game ‘Abe’s Oddysey,’ I found my fond memories of playing the game as a teen didn’t match with the reality today. Chris opines the inevitable changes, saying:

I do not mourn the loss of text-adventure games… What I mourn is the loss of a way of life. Gamer culture has changed so much that a new Zork adventure game no longer would make sense to us.

Darius Kazemi, of Tiny Subversions, recently posted his transcription of a GDX talk given by Ian Schreiber on “Duchamp, Pollock, Rohrer: Games as the Next Avant-Garde”.  In it Schreiber posits that a greater understanding of the twists and turns underlying Art History would benefit those game developers wishing to push the medium further.  He says that the contemporary dichotomy between those lauding media-centric views and those championing the experiential in games was settled over 50 years ago by the art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg.  Greenberg pursued a purely media-focused theory of modernist art while Rosenberg talked more about the experiences of the viewer.  Schreiber maintains that contemporary game criticism is primarily “Greenberg-esque, judging games on formal elements, if it’s fun for the reviewer it’ll be fun for the player.” and calls for a more Rosenbergian style of criticism,

[The] problem is games are interactive, everyone has a different experience, that experience carries highly personal meaning. In short, games are a postmodern artform. At the same time we review them as if they’re modern art. Ask yourself, if you write reviews, what would postmodern game crit look like? If we accept games as varied experience, how do we review and critique that?

While Schreiber, as channeled by Kazemi, simplifies the Greenberg-Rosenberg dichotomy a bit much, it’s an interesting and enlightening read for anyone looking for a more experiential focus to games criticism.

Welcome to Episode 1 of the Critical Distance Confab. The CDC podcast is a weekly discussion with a cast drawn from an irregular pool of videogame bloggers and contributors to the Critical Distance website. We discuss issues of design, culture, art, and the industry viewed through the lens of videogame criticism.

In this, the first of a tentatively scheduled weekly podcast, we have an extended discussion about the daunting topic that is Games Criticism.

Our cast for this episode includes:

Ben Abraham, Randy Ma (aka demonicmurry), Travis Megill, Alex Myers, David Sahlin, and Eric Swain.

I apologize for the audio quality as this is our first attempt at a podcast – rest assured that the quality of the recording will improve in subsequent episodes. With that in mind we hope you enjoy the first episode and stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.

You can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes here, or via regular RSS here.  You can also download the episode directly. (55:42, 52MB)

Show notes:

Since Braid was recently released on PC, now is a wonderful time to organize the discussion that took place last fall following the game’s initial release on XBLA. Organizing the dispersed conversation and criticism that surrounded Braid will allow those experiencing it for the first time to catch up and add their own thoughts, as well as encourage others to take a second look at the game with the added benefit that, ahem, a bit of critical distance affords.

Braid
was initially received with far more aplomb than most other XBLA games. Jonathan Blow, the game’s creator, was already known for his bold claims about the unrealized potential of video games through his lectures on experimental design and the integration of story and mechanics. So Braid was expected, by some, to fulfill those claims and herald a new age in video game storytelling.

Braid’s gorgeous artwork was created by David Hellman and both it and the music (selected specifically by Jon Blow) create a unique presentation for the gameplay. Though the presentation was undoubtedly helpful in gaining the game recognition, it was not to be the focus of the discussion surrounding it.

(more…)

Rob Hale’s discussion of a Damnation making-of video raises a very interesting point. The top down diagram that most levels emerge from does not lend itself particularly well to creating rich vertical spaces. It’s possible to create verticality after the fact, but rarely is it significantly navigable. I’ve personally wrestled with this when designing tabletop RPG maps, which are not only designed top-down but played the same way with a erasable grid mat and miniatures. Adding height variance to a space almost always makes it more interesting for the players, but it’s often difficult to make the vertical space navigable, especially if it’s done post-hoc.

Tightening the loop between concept art and level design, instead of the de rigeur practice of only using concept art to inform the environment artists, could help address this issue. Like Rob, I hope Damnation is able to pull this off. He also advocates designers improving their technical skills, a sentiment I heartily agree with.