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Bayeuxlands! It also has a very unique art style.Welcome back to This Week in Videogame Blogging, another instalment of the most interesting bits of reading I've found across the blogosphere this week. Actually, last week got lost in the shuffle while being obscenely busy. So here it is, the first ever Last Few Week In Videogame Blogging (doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?).

In the preceding week, Michael Clarkson talked about a Wii game that no one else seems to have even heard about, let alone given the same level of thoughtful critique. In 'Touch the void' Clarkson discusses Cursed Mountain, saying,

In its best moments…Cursed Mountain truly inhabits the persona of a man whose entire existence relies on his understanding of space and distance, whose whole world is the howling wind and the biting cold and the lonely rock of a mountain that must be ascended, even if it means brushing up against the realm of the dead.

If there were a “blog of the year” award, I'd be putting forward Robin Burkinshaw's 'Alice and Kev' for it. The story of two homeless Sims in The Sims 3 finished up this week and, while the story on the blog is done, you can download that character of Alice and continue it on for yourself. A fitting way to end and one that embraces the potential multiplicity of stories in videogames.

The Experience point's blog posted a sequel to an earlier post about game endings with 'Dead Ends Part 2'.

Chris Dahlen's Edge Column turned to the topic of Modern Warfare 2's Capital Wasteland-esque setting as revealed in one of the more recent videos of the game. Quoth Dahlen; “this summer, small clutches of angry Americans fantasized about shooting up the city for real” and they should have just played Fallout 3 or waited for MW2. Talk like this always reminds me of this song by The Herd. Dahlen also wrote about the Sonic The Hedgehog comic book in a more recent, delightfully-tangential-to-gaming, column.

Do you fancy an interview with some of Independent Gaming's best composers? This Game, Set, Watch interview is for you then.

Lewis Denby talked about 'How possibly to do good games journalism maybe' and I read his part four article. Which was good. In it, Denby seems to suggest that games journalists' opt out of “reviews” for more in-depth features and while it's not a new suggestion, he certainly makes a better case for it here than I've seen elsewhere.

Michael Clarkson talks about the experience of writing the recent Critical Compilation for GTAIV, and goes into some detail about the process. You might not think it, but applying organisation and classification to even something as seemingly straightforward as videogame articles is fraught with danger. It's all too easy to have one's efforts seen as a colonising incursion or read as an attempt to form 'the last word' on a subject. Clearly, we're still learning and missteps will be made, but I for one value Clarkson's efforts in this area regardless, as well as our reader's patience and assistance.

In what is my pick for this weeks (or rather, last weeks) must read, David Carlton thinks about why games categorise genre according to technical issues such as 'first person' or 'third person', whereas most other media use a content approach: i.e. Sci-Fi is often about exploring the themes of technology, humanity, and fear of the unknown. He uses Justin Keverne's comments in the Brainy Gamer Summer Confab volume 3 as a springboard. The money quote comes when he looks at The Beatles Rock Band as a non-fiction videogame:

The picture that I'm getting from this is a game that, on a non-mechanics genre level, is profoundly different from the vast majority of video games. At its core, the Beatles game is a non-fiction game in the sense that most video games are fiction games

I find his suggestion terribly exciting, and the prototype of a whole new way of thinking about games entirely. Like I said, must read.

A good friend of mine is in the middle of a final year university project, and she's writing about the online game / sim / casual game Neopets. Her thesis is that many people of her generation (that is, roughly 18-25 year olds) got their first experience with online worlds and online gaming via Neopets, and I think she might be right. She talks about the Neopets 'Battledome' in an early post, and more recently about “The Gambling Controversy” that erupted in the Australian media in the early 00's about a certain feature of Neopets. Mary’s a fantastically good writer too, so even if you never played or heard about Neopets, it's worth a look.

Inspired by this rather insipid article from IGN Australia, Tracey Lien offers some much better tips on how to encourage girls to be more interested in videogames. Her biggest and best Pro Tip: “Stop being so patronising”.

Ian Bogost talked about Kickstarter's relationship with Art as a commodity. It's a bit tangential, but it's entertaining and insightful and I've wondered since its inception if it will be able to sustain its donation/support model for the long haul. Incidentally, if you're interested, Borut Pfeifer talks about some of the stats for projects that succeed on Kickstarter. Since we're on a bit of bender for the website, let's also mention that Deirdra Kiai has started a project for her new indie game 'Life Flashes By' this week.

Jason Nelson released a new weird art game that looks and plays exactly like all his other weird games the other week. It's a bit of a pity really, as once is genius, twice is prodigious, but three near-identical works is stretching the bounds. Or that's how I kind of feel about the new game anyway.

Jesper Juul talks about 'objectionable content' in games saying,

…video games are still being hampered by the strange idea that they, somehow, should be the only clean and non-objectionable art form in existence. This shows up in Apple's rejections. It shows up in the fact that the platform holders continue to decide what is published. It shows up in the fact that Australia does not have a mature rating for video games.

And yes, I do think it is holding video games back, as an art form.

Which is something I've tried to raise before in a previous weeks' TWIVGB but was misunderstood about at the time. I'm just glad that someone has gotten the point out there eventually.

An article by Steven Totilo on Kotaku investigates the Xbox massage toys that are predictable cash-cows of the XBLA Indie Games. It's like a case study in backlash.

Matthew Kaplan wrote this week about what he sees as Namco’s  ‘Irresponsible Marketing‘ of the latest Tekken game. He says,

What IS rather dangerous about the ad…is that it places just as much emphasis on those real-life fighters who, with brutal honesty, declare that their draw to fighting has to do with being a “bully” and the pleasures of destroying another human being as they do those who have seemingly honorable intentions…

Which, having not seen the advertisement in question makes me go, ‘Hmm’.

I have this theory that in a production environment where a team is big enough not to know everyone's name, the end product will probably only ever be as good as the lowest common denominator. I mention this because a feature on the Lesbian Gamers site picks up on the juvenile depiction of Commander Dare in Halo 3: ODST. Some of the examples they highlight are enough to make me cringe. In summary,

Commander Dare might as well be Doris Day from pretty much any Doris Day movie. Slap Helfer in a gingham apron, lipstick and have her waiting on her man Buck with dinner and a smile at 6pm. That’s about all the power Dare has in game, so why dress her up in armor and pretend this is anything other than what it is, a ploy and a bad one at that.

Someone linked to this short story on the UK's The Register website, and I found it highly entertaining. The connection to gaming? Well, it's in there somewhere.

This week Lyndon Warren expresses that he thinks “Atton Might Be Gay“. He is talking about KOTORII, of course, and how a fan-made reconstruction of some of the content omitted from the retail version of the game adds some very real evidence that he may be right.

Lastly, Hardcasual skewers the “Nice guy who murders people” trope in their piece on Uncharted 2. Seriously: why do games still do this?

P.S. – A reminder that for all TWIVGB posts comments are turned off by default to encourage discussion on the original entries, and we can always be reached via the contact page.

At the time of its release, Grand Theft Auto IV was hailed as the most important moment in the development of games as art, and their mainstream acceptance as such. It had the usual controversies, from reactionary conservatives as well as genuinely-offended feminists. The perfect scores poured in, then the imperfect scores, and the game’s adherents and detractors went to war in the comment sections of every review site on the internet. At times it seemed more was written about the popular frenzy surrounding GTA IV than about what was actually on the disk. With time, and the realization that GTA IV has neither revolutionized the public perception of games nor caused the world to end in an orgy of violent teenage crime, the game itself has started to come into focus. Grand Theft Auto IV straddles the line between the emergent play of pure sandboxes and the directed play of linear experiences, and so in many ways represents the best and the worst of video games, the boundlessness of their potential, and the tawdry limits of their imagination.

A tale of one city

GTA IV‘s setting, Liberty City, is about the only part of the game that received near-unanimous praise. Leigh Alexander wrote that the triumph of the series is world-building, especially since the world being built is so similar to our own. In her view, the constant complaints about what you can do in GTA games are really just complaints about the possibilities of our own world. Lorenzo Wang points out that the weather effects, lighting, and sense of place are key aspects in making the world resemble a humming metropolis. The incredible level of detail built into the game’s systems make the simple act of exploring this space a magical experience, according to Daniel Purvis. Tom Armitage argued that this detail and scope overwhelm the player at first, just as they do Niko, and make it so that the player shares his process of acclimatization.

Yet the city offers more than just a sense of raw majesty and immensity of scope. Chris Remo found that what really sold him on Liberty City as an immersive world were the mundane parts of Niko’s life. Watching TV, hanging out with friends, and slowing down for tolls engaged him with the city more effectively than the continuity of its landscape. Lewis Denby similarly found that GTA IV‘s greatest beauty lay in its ability to capture small, idiosyncratic moments that allowed him to get lost in the world. IGN blogger Napoleon1066 felt that this attention to mundane behaviors made Niko and the other characters more relatable.

Another part of Liberty City’s power was in its reactions to the player’s behavior. In this regard, the Euphoria engine governing character movement proved to be particularly effective in making the world believable, as Tom Francis explained. Euphoria and the AI governing pedestrian responses were also particularly effective in making Chris Baker question his violent actions. Jim Sterling pointed out that when the player fights Liberty City, the city fights back in believable ways. This pattern of reaction led Bobby Schweizer to describe public spaces in GTA IV as threatening, from a gameplay perspective, because of the possibility of taking bullets from so many directions and the likelihood of drawing police ire.

The praise was only near-unanimous, however. In a three-part piece for The Observer, Laura Cumming waxed rhapsodic about the city, but Bidisha dismissed it as being neither arcane nor realistic enough to be compelling. Mitch Krpata complained that occasional AI breakdowns, particularly with respect to the street cops, shattered immersion. And PixelVixen argued that the Liberty City was merely a great toy.

The curious case of Niko Bellic

Magical or mundane, the player experiences Liberty City through the persona of Niko Bellic, once a soldier in the Balkan wars, who has been irrevocably scarred by his time in that conflict. Bitter and cynical because of his experiences, Niko becomes part of the criminal underworld not because of a burning desire for wealth or power, but because murder is the only profession for which his life has prepared him. As Heather Chaplin writes for NPR, Niko moves through the city at a deliberate pace, as if physically weighed down by his past, and he feels little joy in what he is doing. Blogger Vitz711 concurs, taking the view that Niko’s journey into the criminal underworld stems from a loss of hope and loyalty. Niko is not proud of his actions, writes Jim Sterling, and through his interactions and the behavior of the game world the player gets to share that feeling. Despite his moral ambiguity, Niko seems to have a code, and Tony Rice, like many players, found himself making decisions based on what he thought Niko would do.

And yet, Niko does show a kind of joy – a drunken appreciation of power. He shouts out boasts in the game’s firefights, and it seems that once the gun enters his hand, he doesn’t mind killing so much after all. In the cutscenes, he constantly bemoans the violence, but that doesn’t stop him from murdering his way across Liberty City once the game part starts, as Trent Polack and Shamus Young point out. While Krystian Majewski felt that Niko’s tragic background made practically any behavior plausible, others were not so convinced. Spencer Greenwood felt betrayed and alienated by the awkward way the dealt with Niko’s attitudes towards crime. In part three of  a cross-blog dialogue, Stephen Totilo stated that he couldn’t interpret the character as anything other than sociopathic scum. N’Gai Croal, however, pointed out that the game shows us an endless procession of self-deluded characters like Manny Escuela and Brucie Kibbutz. Could Niko’s nice-guy routine fall into that pattern as well?

Of course, this sort of contradiction can be tolerable if you can convince yourself that you have no other choice. Sinan Kubba points out that Niko is a man resigned to his unhappy fate, totally aware of the futility of his situation. Could that self-perception relieve him of any principles he claims to have? Daniel Weissenberger takes this a step further, arguing that Niko’s emotional passivity is one of his key traits: he allows himself to be defined entirely by the things others have done to him. Niko may hate being a violent person, while at the same time believing he can be nobody else. In a conversation with a girlfriend, Niko can say that his war experiences “ruined” him. Is that a fact, or just his excuse?

Perhaps such ambiguity was unavoidable in a game of this kind. As Wes Erdelack points out, in this sort of game poses a dilemma: “The game’s protagonist must reflect the player’s choices, on one hand, and be someone in particular, on the other.” Tom Armitage points out that the player’s decisions about how often Niko hangs out with his friends gives the player unintentional control over his understanding of the character. The incoherence of Niko’s character might even reflect a design response to Erdelack’s dilemma. As one participant in a round table discussion at Valuable Games put it, Niko might be a kind of “ideological salad bar” of many motivations so that players can pick their favorite one and run with it. This gives the player a simpler kind of control over the perception of the character.

Drawing a line in the sand

The presence of a strong central character like Niko spotlighted GTA IV ‘s departure from previous entries in the series. As Stephen Totilo pointed out in part 2 of a cross-blog dialogue, the sandbox gameplay that had been the calling card of the series was supplanted in this game by a focus on character and narrative, which he felt was detrimental. N’Gai Croal welcomed the new direction, but felt that at the core there was a fundamental disconnect between the  developer-directed narrative of the cutscenes and the player-driven story of the gameplay. In the case of Grand Theft Auto, where the character’s behavior and the sandbox gameplay are, by their nature, transgressive, the imposition of a restrictive linear narrative can feel particularly limiting.

The problems caused by the combination of the dynamic sandbox world and the linear scripted narrative were recognized in two main forms. The first of these was the inability of the sandbox play to affect the story. Duncan Fyfe describes the issue succinctly: “it’s like a movie stapled to a video game.” Whatever choices the player makes don’t have any connection to Niko or even the story; they’re broken down into a pre-written framework. Ben Fritz points out that GTA IV allows the player to do so many things that are at odds with Niko’s character that one starts to wonder why nobody says anything. The free-form gameplay stretches credulity in other ways, as well. Participants in the Valuable Games roundtable wondered why Niko’s use of prostitutes or visits to the strip club had no effect on his romantic relationships. The narrative, even in its incidentals, found it impossible to accommodate the player’s freedom to shoot anyone. Tom Armitage, in a pair of posts, related his frustration that GTA IV negated his decision to kill the control-freak Jeff, and his mixed feelings when the game eventually offed Jeff for him.

The other significant problem, albeit one not unique to this entry in the series, was the excessive authorial control exerted in the game’s missions. As Shamus Young points out, the missions in GTA IV were over-scripted, brittle affairs where the player must figure out exactly what the developers wanted him to do or repeat them ad nauseam. Chuck Jordan argued that you’d have to play each mission at least twice: once to find out what to do, then again to actually succeed. GTA IV employs restrictive mission objectives that diminish the sandbox feel, according to blogger Zulu. Moreover, the game cheats by making certain characters or vehicles invincible until a particular set piece is completed, a fact that outright infuriated Arthur B. Several writers liken the experience to acting a part in an action movie where you don’t know the script.

This feeling likely stems from the admitted influence of film on the Rockstar games. As Dan Houser stated in a wide-ranging interview with Ben Fritz, Rockstar sees their competition as being the movies, not other games. Not everyone sees this effort as a positive. In a diatribe, Boss Nonnu argues that the obsession with melding games with film is embarrassing and juvenile. In the first part of the cross-blog dialogue, Stephen Totilo explains that the game fails on this point anyway, and never gets us to the point of playing a movie, in part because it defeats its own aims.

Wes Erdelack argues that part of the problem is that vast open worlds with epic stories, like those of GTA IV and Fallout 3, simply cannot deliver taut pacing throughout unless the mechanics of gameplay develop a player narrative that matches the developer’s. Justin Marks uses the example of GTA IV, among others, to argue that developers ought to make the gameplay into the narrative, rather than imposing the narrative as packaging through the use of cutscenes. Chuck Jordan points out that the game doesn’t do a good enough job early on aligning the player’s view of the narrative and the developer’s view of it, and makes the case that the real potential of interactive storytelling lies in collaboration between the player and developer. The closest GTA IV comes in this regard is its approach of doling out new gameplay possibilities as a reward for narrative advancement, as Shamus Young notes in comparing it to Saints Row 2.

The tension between the narrative and the gameplay caused some to view contradiction as the game’s defining feature.  Carlo Barbara described the game as a near-impossible balancing act between often-opposing influences. And even while arguing that GTA IV was the game of the year, Wes Erdelack nonetheless acknowledged, “GTA IV is less than the sum of its parts. It contradicts itself; it contains multitudes.

Full of sound and fury, signifying bullets

Opinions remain divided on whether the story being told warranted the sacrifice of the series’ historical gameplay traits. Trent Polack praised the game’s slow start, because it makes the first real shootout feel like the game-changer that it is. In his view, however, the effort to ratchet up the tension late in the game led to what he called “an uninteresting and nonsensical mafioso finale.” Duncan Fyfe argued that the game fell to pieces as it became more involved in the crime, that the real tragedy of GTA IV was that Rockstar abandoned an interesting story about immigrants for a ludicrous one about criminals. Bidisha, writing for The Observer, dismissed the whole as “bad guy-on-guy thug porn,” and Tom Chick identified the writing as one of the game’s great weaknesses because it eventually sank into stock gangster plots and lowbrow satire. Chuck Jordan felt even that fell flat: “I would appreciate seeing something that genuinely offended me,” he wrote, “as it is, I’m just kind of bored and annoyed.”

The mechanics of the plot also came in for some critique. Justin Keverne, among many others, pointed out that one key motivation of the story – Niko’s need for money – falls apart late in the game, when you’re likely to have hundreds of thousands of dollars. I personally contended that Rockstar were too willing to disregard common sense and character motivation in service of whatever would justify the cutscenes and set pieces they wanted to make.

Many who didn’t care for the direction of the plot nonetheless loved the game’s characters. Blogger dvader654 thought that the supporting cast, particularly early in the game, were colorful, unique, and engaging. He was disappointed that the game later largely discarded them in favor of colorless stock mafiosi. Pixelvixen, herself a fictional construct, felt Dwayne Forge was one of the best supporting characters of 2008. Daniel Purvis felt that the characters of The Lost & the Damned were even more realistic and intriguing. Wes Erdelack argued that the power of the supporting cast  derives from Rockstar’s skill at writing convincing human interactions. But the positive opinion of the cast was not universal. Tom Chick quit The Lost & the Damned because its characters were mainly brutal, simplistic thugs. Tom Cross gave up on the main game because he found its characters to universally fit horrible racist or sexist stereotypes.

Those who did make it to the end found a surprisingly subdued conclusion. No matter what choices Niko makes during the course of the game, he loses someone important to him, and gains nothing from his act of revenge. As blogger yamster points out, the friendship system allows you to create Niko Bellic’s character to some extent, but the story then forces you to destroy whom you have created. In a world full of power fantasies that end in glorious triumph, maybe GTA IV‘s most redeeming feature is that it doesn’t grant its chief thug a happy ending.

It’s a wanted level, not a karma level

Given the popular perception and gameplay reality of the series, perhaps it’s a bit odd to examine the role of morality in GTA IV. After all, this game belongs to a group of crime sims that take the murder of policemen too casually, as Matthew Kaplan points out. Leigh Alexander reported that some New Yorkers, angry over the Sean Bell murder, were interested in the game for precisely that reason. Here you have a game in which, infamously, you can hire a prostitute, then kill her to get your money back. GTA IV doesn’t punish you for that behavior, or move you one notch up or down on a good/evil scale. As Josh Birk says, “You can bring your ethics to the table if you want, but they’re just your ethics and the game doesn’t really give a damn.”

One consistent defense of Grand Theft Auto games is that they merely make abhorrent behavior a possibility, not a necessity. As Chris Baker points out, the public’s perception of GTA IV hinges on the outrageous things you can do, not the relatively tame things you must do, and the game doesn’t celebrate even the required violence. Yes, you can kill that prostitute, but you gain nothing by doing so that you couldn’t get just as easily by buying a $5 hot dog. Does that turn the situation into a test of your own morality? As a participant in the Valuable Games roundtable notes, really making a moral choice isn’t possible unless an immoral option is available. Some players felt that Niko’s attitude towards his situation and the way the world reacts to him don’t particularly encourage crime, either. Jim Sterling felt that Niko’s character and the depiction of certain interactions made killing, or even hiring, the prostitute seem unpleasant, cold, and sleazy. A subset of players reacted by challenging themselves to act as morally as they could within the confines of the game’s systems: strategies are still evolving to play through the game while committing as few crimes as possible.

The feeling that Niko would act in a certain way often guided player response to moments in the game when Niko can choose between two assassination targets, or to let his enemies go free. As Nick Dinicola mentions in his critique of karma systems, even though the player is free to choose to kill, say, Playboy X or Dwayne, the guiding principles of the main character point towards only one choice, even though there’s no explicit karma system. Several developers who played the game made their choice for just this reason, as did N’Gai Croal. Some, however, did not, and Wes Erdelack argued that the substantially better in-game reward for killing Playboy X poisons this dilemma. In general, however, the game doesn’t explicitly prefer any of Niko’s options, and this absence of obvious moral rectitude in most decisions struck blogger Droll as one of the games strengths.

Players did not generally react as well to the forced choice between Francis and Derrick McReary, in part because the game did not seriously engage the consequences of this decision. Niko’s relationships with the McReary clan continue, and there is little discussion of the missing brother. But this neutering of consequence did not always strip Niko’s choices of meaning. Blogger Jesusofwales praised the game’s willingness to let the player choose Darko’s fate without punishment or reward. Tom Chick concurred, stating that the decision to kill or spare Darko said more about the player than the game, and the somber drive afterward “forced you to think instead of watch or listen.”

Nayan Ramachandran, however, felt that dressing up certain choices as explicit moral decisions only served to trivialize the countless murders Niko committed in missions or just driving around. In this respect, Justin Keverne envisioned GTA IV as a test case for the categorical imperative: when murder and theft are trivial and allowed, life and property become meaningless.

Taking the low road on the American Dream

Is there a larger message in GTA IV to match the elaborately-designed city, a point of view on American life that justifies its violence and tawdry sexuality? When Corvus Elrod asked questions along these lines, That Fuzzy Bastard responded (comment #17) that the game should be taken not as a stab at gritty realism, but rather as an attempt at a Brechtian sendup of the ideas America incarnates. When Junot Diaz forcefully argued in a piece for the Wall Street Journal that GTA IV exemplifies America’s cultural evasions rather than its unpleasant realities , Wes Erdelack similarly replied that the game should be interpreted as low satire, a “funhouse mirror” look at the American Dream.

Spencer Greenwood takes this a step further, arguing that the game critiques the American Dream directly, not in its original form, but in the hedonistic view articulated by Packie McReary. In Greenwood’s interpretation, GTA IV accuses the American Dream of having devolved to nothing more than enjoying life as much as you can and leaving a bloated corpse when you go. Peter Conrad, writing for The Observer, similarly argues that “GTA IV is about the revved-up tempo and suicidal trajectory of our mechanised lives.” You can make any number of choices for Niko, but the best victory you can hope for is a hollow one. G. Christopher Williams comes to a similar conclusion. In his view, GTA IV is a consideration of the pursuit of happiness. Niko Bellic comes to America, lured by his cousin’s tales of riches and hot women, hoping to finally wipe out his horrific past, but the world posited by Rockstar makes that dream an empty one. As Williams puts it:

To condemn GTA as a game that thrives on wanton cruelty to achieve happiness is to condemn other “systems” (like the America portrayed by Rockstar as fixated on a pursuit of happiness) whose “rules” do likewise. GTA provides a game where criminal choice is one of the few options available, but the vision of America provided by GTA suggests a “game” of similar nature grounded in capitalism and greed.


http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90041944

The Wasteland CommentariesThis week we find our hero in bed, laid up with a serious head cold. But This Week In Videogame Blogging goes on ahead regardless.

Lyndon Warren finishes his 11-part pacifistic play-through of the original Fallout. Highly recommended game diary.

Here's another Fallout related idea: this time it's Gerard Delaney's 'Wasteland Commentaries' which are going to act something like valve's in-game developer commentaries, but for game criticism and discussion instead. I was intrigued by the prospect, and plan to record some excerpts of my Fallout 3 essays for the project, and I emailed Gerard to get a bit of his reasoning behind the Wasteland Commentaries. Via email he told me that,

My intention with this mod is to place commentary that exists in Fallout 3 into context, the areas of the game that gave rise to them, which is why I requested that contributors elect where they wish their audio to be placed. I hope that there will be a multitude of viewpoints expressed, and I hope to avoid confusion by clearly labelling the notes in-game as well as encouraging clear and largely self-contained responses. Two possibly unrelated viewpoints near each other in the game might not speak to the same ideas but they will show how Fallout 3 provides for a broad scope of interpretations.

It's almost a wonder why no one has thought to do it before.

New videogame criticism blog 'Form 8' talks about why 'You Can't Count on Me'. I'm usually quite excellent at being mediocre at online games, so I can empathise with this.

The creator of Half-Life 2 mod 'Radiator' talks about underlying homophobia in society and game playing audiences in a piece for The Escapist called “Handle with Care“.

RPS' Fifth Beatle Quintin Smith writes about Fable 2 and communicates many of the things that made me dislike the game so much. It also lead me to Shamus Young's 5-part dissection of the narrative inconsistencies that made the Fable 2 story rather inconsistent.

Conversation is Conflict: Lyndon Warren again, this time talking about Tarrantino, dialogue and what games designers stand to learn from cinema about conversation, etc.

But conversations are never like this in games. Most of the time NPCs serve as exposition dumps cheerily telling me everything I want to know at the drop of a hat. Why don't NPCs ever try to withhold information, or deceive you? Or better yet have a goal that they're trying to achieve? I want the conversations in games to not be something you skip to get to the game but actually the game itself.

This week I was made to play Photopia, a decade old Interactive Fiction story that really is quite moving. The article about it at Necessary Games is from a few weeks ago, but I'll let it pass since it's the first I saw of it. I have a few reservations about basing an article around an offhand comment someone made about the game, but otherwise it's entirely worth reading.

What Photopia demonstrates, is that there is a big difference-somewhere, somehow-between something that is barely interactive, and something that is not interactive; that allowing a person to step through a story is not the same as letting them read it straight out.

Steven O'Dell puts the hard yards into discussing a bunch of the inconsistencies present in the Australian Classification Board. Worth a read.

I must confess that I haven't had the time to read all of these yet, but I will as soon as I kick this illness in the face and feel like doing some real reading. The Moving Pixels Blog ‘Plays Telephone’ all week and considers the effect of breaking, changing and usurping game rules. Part One is here. Did you know that I never even knew it could be called Telephone? I’ve only ever known it as ‘chinese whispers’. You learn something new every day.

Jorge Albor at the Experience Points blog writes about “Dead Ends“: videogame endings that feature deaths. Hey Manveer, are you reading this?
Matthew Wasteland writes about Meat and Conversation: a 20 year old Indie Art game. Was something in the digital waters this week to make everyone talk about old art games?

It also seems there was something in the water making everyone write game diaries, for Trent Polack's Demon's Souls game diary is last for the week before I collapse into a TV show watching stupor, only to have to valiantly head off to work somewhat later. In his 3 part diary he goes through the game's first few areas and writes about them, with intriguing results.

Finding Gold in the Wasteland

October 7th, 2009 | Posted by David Sahlin in Uncategorized - (Comments Off)

HL2 Developer CommentaryWhen Valve started to put ‘director commentary’ into their games, it opened the conversation of game design to a wider audience. Personally, it allowed me to enjoy the game even more than my first playthrough. It’s a wonderful bonus, and I’m very thankful to Valve for them.

Gerard Daleny, of the blog Binary Swan, is assembling ‘The Wasteland Commentaries.’  It will be a mod for Fallout 3, and will include locational commentary by the gaming community into the game itself – much like what Valve has done.  The comments will have a wide range; anywhere from “anecdotes, commentary, analysis or even humor relating to their experience with Fallout 3.”

This is a really nifty idea, and a fantastic way of serving a lot of particularly dense discussion into a more savory dish. A lot of people, including myself, can get lost or distracted while reading something that tends to be more academic in scope.  Adding an audio/visual anchor to the process could be a novel way of including folks who are stronger at learning things spatially.

(In the interest of full disclosure, he has invited me personally to contribute.) [And I'll have a bit more to say about The Wasteland Commentaries in TWIVGB this weekend - Ed]

censorethStraight into This Week In Videogame Blogging with some links to stuff I missed last week.

Peter Kirn of create digital music interviews indie game 'Osmos' creators.

Michel McBride talks audio-visuals and the game Audiosurf: a sure-fire way to get this author’s interest. Audiosurf got a huge update this week and it's currently 50% off on Steam. If you don't have it yet, it's pretty much a no-brainer. Michel also pokes holes in the MDA framework for game design/analysis, making a compelling argument for additional elements (or at least a refinement of the existing ones).

Michael Clarkson continues his analysis of Muramasa: The Demon Blade. His great opening paragraph is not to be missed.

Now, to the interesting things that interesting people have written this week:

Manveer Heir ponders “Why don't games have more compelling endings?”,

Why don’t we see more ambiguous or downer endings in games? These sorts of endings are prevalent in film and novels. Blade Runner spawned the debate on whether Deckard was a replicant or not for many years. 2001: A Space Odyssey’s surreal ending has confused generations of people. 12 Monkeys and Se7en have two of my favorite endings in film history, both with protagonist “losing” in the end.

Interesting points, but my only response is “Play Far Cry 2 already, Manveer!” Heir also talks checkpoint spacing in 'Save This'.

Simon Parkin linked this on Twitter this week: it's someone named 'Suki' writing about why bigger is not better, and how the hypothetical Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 will be ruined because we want what isn't good for us. A strong language warning is in effect.

Jorge Albor continues the discussion started by Chris Lepine at The Artful Gamer last week, with his piece entitled 'Kids These Days'. End of the decade introspection/reflection seems to be turning up all sorts of 'generational' questions like this.

Michael Abbott expertly dissects the way in which most games deal with 'The Superhero Conundrum' of needing the audience to identify with a protagonist who is, through his or her nature as a Superhero, unsympathetic or difficult to empathise with.

…So the only apparent way to make him interesting is to imbue him with loads of internal conflict. And the only apparent way to convey that conflict is via cutscenes. As Halo/Gears/Infamous et al. have proved, it’s cool to be the bad-ass, but that bad-ass is destined to be a brooding cipher, and our attachment to him must come through what we’re told about him, not through what we experience first-hand.

It's in the context of a discussion of Halo 3: ODST. He also talks about a visit to a game development studio and what it means to him as a critic.

Gerard Delaney picks up on the ODST discussion, examining the relative success of feeling like a regular soldier rather than an elite super soldier like the Master Chief.

This game might not be art, and Firefight might be the better game on this disc, but even there you will die many many times. You will fail and only a score, not victory, will give you a sense of achievement. I did not feel like an empowered Master Chief-like character at the end of ODST, I might have acted like one but ultimately I just felt lucky to get out of there alive.

Trent Polack makes a contribution to the ODST critical reception also, talking about 'The Loneliest Space Marine'.

Beautiful game diary The Runner has its penultimate episode up on the blog. Here's a taste:

…I bypassed the guard and outran the lot; this is by no means an action you have to take. But doing it feels balletic and absolutely right in the context of the game and the character. It's something you can tell others without knowing if they'll have seen it. It's a share-worthy moment.

Greg Cokstikyan puts up an extra-large talk on randomness and how it works in with game design.

A limelight-seeking fish complains of trouble reaching the top of Google searches in '“Call of Duty has crippled my Googlability,” says local Cod', by (who else?) HardCasual. I hope you like puns.

“What is a man if not Googleable?” ponders a sullen Cod over an extra large mug of green tea. The moment exposes Cod's existential side. Friends describe his as an open book. They say Cod never plays koi.

Also, by way of a HardCasual tweet comes word of new website Gaming Laid Bare Times, newcomers to “the fake game news scene.” There's a scene now?

Simon Parkin talks about Frogs, Children, Trampolines, Scribblenauts and why imagination trumps expertise in said game. This is probably my favourite piece on the game that I've read to date.

LB Jeffries sums up the entirety of Jesper Juul's book and the entire Story-Gameplay discussion about videogames ever, saying “…every game has a unique relationship with its narrative elements.” Okay, that's a bit of deliberate hyperbole on my part, but it really is quite a good summary of both the book and the discussion.

Chris Dahlen writes about “The Rise of Ugh-Meck“: or User Generated, Machine Mediated Content: and how it could be applied in novel and interesting ways. I'm thinking, scribbling messages on Left 4 Dead safe-house walls for the next group of survivors to come through.

Margaret Pomeranz, for those not blessed to be living in The Lucky Country, is Australia's foremost film critic having been a reviewer and critic for longer than I have been alive. Since 1986 she and her television co-host David Stratton have almost single-handedly shaped the Australian film criticism landscape and simultaneously opened it up to a mainstream audience.

So what's she got to do with videogames and This Week In Videogame Blogging? Well she was interviewed by the Australian games and technology talk-show 'Byteside' and talks about some really great things. Comparing the interactive nature of videogames to “the gigantic game that is cinema”, she problematises simplistic notions about the passive reception of media in non-interactive formats. She also talks about the impact of Australia's conservatism making distributors wary of picking up films, and the right for consenting adults to regulate what they see themselves without government interference. Here's a choice quote about classification, particularly of relevance to the issue of Australia's lack of an R18+ classification for games, effectively banning any game unsuitable for a person 15 years of age;

It's the start of danger where you have a government effectively saying 'This is what we will allow you to see and this is what we will not allow you to see'. Fortunately they have very little power these days because we can see anything we want as long as we're prepared to break the law. And what you're doing is turning basically middle class people into criminals.

Some Australian gamers are hoping that the news that Gabe Newell is coming to the land of Oz will be a catalyst for finally changing the draconian laws themselves. Here's what I see needs to happen: Newell or someone similar needs to actually take the opposite position of most gamers and argue that the Australian classification system is not tough enough and lets 15-18 year olds play games completely unsuitable for them. The media may then have a bit of a 'think of the children' moment and put pressure on the lawmakers. That seems like the most likely strategy for getting an R18+ rating introduced. Until then, however, I would like to calmly suggest that Australian gamers chill the hell out and remind themselves that they are living in a capitalist society in which companies actually have no obligation to bring out excellent games for them to play. Valve actually isn't providing a social service for their benefit, but a product for them to pay for.

How does a new collaborative blog called 'Red Kings Dream' sound? It was launched late this week by a few Australian game writers – here's what their 'about' page has to say,

RedKingsDream was created by four Australians who just wanted to find a new way of writing about games, one that doesn't really exist in any organised fashion.  Their aim was to fill the gap left by PR release-driven reporting, to get the thinker's hearts racing, and to elevate the esoteric, insider commentary that a scattered bunch of sites focus on into something that's accessible and provocative.

Lastly for the week and by way of David Carlton, Critical Distance Editor-At-Large, comes this extensive theoretical musing on game interfaces and immersion by videogame researcher Mitu Khandaker. I haven't had time to read it completely yet but it's referencing of the film eXistenZ is A Good Thing.