Tuesday, 4 March 2014
The first rule of Write Club is: No-one cares about anything you write, ever
The second rule of Write Club is: No-one cares about anything you write, EVER
The third rule of Write Club is: No matter how good your pitch is, the editor will either be on holiday, on the phone or at lunch when your email arrives.
The fourth rule of Write Club is: You won't see money from completed work for at least two months after it's published.
The fifth rule of Write Club is: Every idea you want to do has either been covered by other people, isn't of interest to any money-paying publication or is impossible to write about because it requires interviews with people who live by rule 3.
The sixth rule of Write Club is: The only people who will respond to your work in any sustained way will be people who hate it.
The seventh rule of Write Club is: You'll hate yourself for wasting your life writing about videogames. Then you'll hate yourself even more because you can't seem to get even that right.
The eighth rule of Write Club is: You'll never make money, be admired, become famous. You'll sit in front of Jimquisition/Zero Punctuation/anything on IGN and wonder what the f*ck it is readers want.
The ninth rule of Write Club is: Despite the knocks to your confidence and the moneylessness, this is nevertheless preferable to doing a real job. You're a lazy so-called "creative" and the idea of getting out of bed before *you're* ready to in the morning terrifies you.
The tenth rule of Write Club is: You better have a spouse who actually works and is willing to support your bullshit dream. You also better be able to cope with the crushing, only fair guilt of knowing she/he is going out to work while you're trying to explain to Kotaku why your article about the monsters in The Last of Us is a work of searing genius.
The eleventh rule of Write Club is: Everyone more successful than you is also much stupider. See rule eight.
The twelfth rule of Write Club is: Despite your awkward, weekly pestering of PR reps, review code will never arrive on time. This means you will either a) miss the embargo and cost both yourself and the site you're writing for credibility b) have to write a review of a game you haven't even completed and/or c) miss the invoice submission date for this month and have to wait four weeks until you can bill for the review, by which time your f*cking gas has been shut off.
The thirteenth rule of Write Club is: The best way to get published is to fake enthusiasm. Claim you believe games are significantly artistic or a force for change. Everyone loves to jack off. Play up to it.
The fourteenth rule of Write Club is: You'll never be any good.
The fifteenth rule of Write Club is: Neither will anyone else.
The sixteenth rule of Write Club is: Nothing you write will ever influence the creation of videogames in any way.
The seventeenth rule of Write Club is: Previews, press events and expos always have been, are, and always will be a complete f*ucking waste of time.
The eighteenth rule of Write Club is: Never ever bloody anything, ever.
The nineteenth rule of Write Club is: You can't do this anymore. You wake up every day and it's the same: no emails, no interest, no money. Day by day your conviction is dissolving. You're embarrassed by how poor you are. You're guilty about embellishing your career when you describe it to your friends. All you have are your old articles and you check them daily, hoping they've been commented on or re-shared on Twitter, anything to make you feel like someone, somewhere is interested. You can't take feeling like this. You hate your work but you're also guilty about hating your work. Look at those people doing real jobs, with real responsibilities, and here you are shitting and moaning about having to write (or not write) about poxy videogames. There's no point to you.
The twentieth rule of Write Club is: If this is your first week at Write Club, you have to write.
Wednesday, 18 December 2013
Condemned: Criminal Origins isn't a fantastic game. The scares are cheap and the plot, though supposedly grounded in reality, devolves into Clive Barker hooey towards the end. But in discussions on videogame violence, I think it makes an interesting example. In two articles I've read recently - this interview with Consensual Torture Simulator creator Merrit Kopas, and this, by Steve Gaynor, who directed Gone Home - there are arguments that violence in videogames can be approached differently.
Kopas says that, without needing better physics or graphics technology, the effect violence has on a human body can be more realistically depicted in games than it is now.
Gaynor says that violence is most effective in fiction when it's visited upon characters who have identity, and that rather than cut down swathes of faceless "enemies" videogame players should only commit violence against people with specific relevance to a game's plot and world.
Both argue that, in doing these things, videogames can achieve a more meaningful treatment of violence.
Condemned gets at least part way there. Starting with Kopas's argument, and the physical effects of violence on a human body, Condemned is a game that, partly, is about the collection of forensic evidence. Your character, Ethan Thomas, is a crime scene investigator for a metropolitan homicide unit and at various points in the game, in the early levels in particular, he has to analyse crime scenes to locate wounds, blood splatters and potential murder weapons. In fact, the first real gameplay in Condemned, prior to any combat, is investigating the murder scene of a young woman who, by taking photographs of her neck and scanning for fingerprints, you determine has been strangled to death.
It's a framing device for the combat that follows. In this opening scene, players are given to understand the effect that violence has against the human body. They analyse the wounds in detail. They're told precisely what it is that caused this person to die.
Rarely do we get this close to the people we kill - or the people we find dead - in videogames. Often their bodies show no physical signs of the gunshots or stab wounds we've inflicted. Other times their corpses disappear altogether, making their deaths, and the violence we commit, completely meaningless, since the game cleanly brushes them aside and continues, literally unchanged.
Even games that take an ostensible unsanitary approach to violence fail to depict is consequences. Videogames that receive X-ratings, are derided by the mainstream press and called "realistic" by players often feature hyperbolic and silly depictions of violence. In Manhunt for example players can remove an enemy's head using a line of strangulation cord. Visually satisfying though these games may be, they do not accurately depict the physical results of violence committed on the human body, unlike Condemned which, from its very beginning, encourages players to appreciate the damage caused by violence, damage they are going to inflict themselves.
It's not a perfect representation. Rather than anatomically accurate wounds, the damage caused by players in Condemned is summarised by generic patches of blood, which appear on enemies' bodies at the approximate place where they were hit. So, instead of an open wound, a blow to the head will leave a bloody patch on the side of the face, while the facial features will remain undamaged.
However, although injuries are glossed over, violence - as in, the act of violence - is unusually detailed. Killing a person in Condemned is never a case of merely pressing a button, nor does your target ever die quickly or cleanly.
Most of your encounters are fought using a blunt weapon and your boot, meaning you have to slowly beat targets to death. There's a deliberate focus on the gradual effect of violence. Hit someone once, for example, and they'll reel back, grabbing their face and screaming. Continue hurting them and they'll try to run away from you - if you've hit them in the leg, they'll limp.
Once you've hit them five or six times, they'll no longer be able to stand, and will fall to all fours. At this point you can either finish them off with a final blow or give them time to recover their strength and start attacking you again. If you hit them, unfortunately they transform instantly into a ragdoll model, precisely the kind of "weightlessness" that Kopas criticises. However, if you let them get up, they'll continue fighting but with diminished ability - their co-ordination and the strength of their blows will be reduced.
Condemned shows the gradual, corrosive effect violence has on the human body. Your enemies become steadily damaged. Their ability to function is gradually weakened by your blows. And this is depicted not by a slowly lowering health bar or number of hits points, or any other cold, numerical markers: It's depicted with ragged breathing, screams of pain and faltering limbs.
The effect of violence in videogames is usually simple: A character ceases to be a combatant - a component of gameplay - and an obstacle between the player and the objective is removed. There is no half-way point. Your enemy will continue to function healthily and to attack you until he's dead.
In Condemned, however, we get a sense of damage, of the slow degradation of the human body that violence will cause. Like the murder victim, strangled to death, our victims die slowly and in pain. They are not simply "switched off" by a tap of a button, before vanishing from the game world: they are incrementally and viciously beaten to death.
To put it in game reviewer's lexicon, the violence in Condemned is "visceral." It substitutes simple patterns of gameplay (alive/dead, playing/not-playing) for a more complex representation of how the human body is affected by violence. It does not simply "die." It does not cleanly "lose points", or "lose health." It bends, bruises and eventually breaks.
And this makes the violence more unpleasant, more true to life. My own problem with game violence is that it's always associated with positive emotions. Developers will conceive ways of making it spectacular in appearance; fun to perform; exciting to experience. Rarely, if ever, will the act of killing in a videogame be miserable, unfulfilling, or punitive. It may have some small implications - killing a non-player character at one point in a game may slightly affect the story, or what items you receive later on. But in terms of gameplay, it will usually be a blithe action; it will be something you perform either happily or without worrying about it.
That problem may be tied to what Gaynor is arguing for, about how the characters murdered by the player need to be individuals rather than nameless masses, but I think it may also relate to what Kopas is saying, about how game violence lacks "weight."
Violence in games is easy to perform. Particularly in Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, it is simply a case of holding down the aim button and then pressing "fire." Your enemies are often weak as well, and plentiful. In terms of your own skill-set and the counter-abilities of your targets, it doesn't take a lot to kill people in videogames.
Not so in Condemned. Your enemies are strong and resilient, and your own attacks are difficult to co-ordinate. At its launch in 2005, Condemned was a peculiar example of a melee fighting game that used a first-person viewpoint, lending the combat an unfamiliar and disorientating effect.
Rather than dispatching enemies via a routine pressing of buttons, your encounters in Condemned involve frustration, an abortive mashing of the controller and luck. Enemies attack in unpredictable ways while your own weapons have ill-defined characteristics and rarely land where you're aiming. It's a hard game wherein fighting two or more enemies at once presents a significant challenge. Any kill that you "score" comes by way of completing a complex chain of attack and block commands, and outsmarting the erratic behaviour of opponents. Killing, or even harming, is difficult in Condemned. And rather than joyful, it's typically awkward, dissatisfying and unfair.
Killing is hard to do. The enemies are frightening. You come to want to avoid violence, rather than associate it with pleasure. If I had to give an example of what I think Kopas means by "weighty" violence, the combat in Condemned would be it.
It certainly seems more meaningful than typical game violence, which is throwaway and disinterested in consequences. The violence in Condemned is "real" in the sense that the emotional responses it provokes are unpleasant. They may not be the unpleasant emotions solicited by real-world violence - you certainly don't fear for your life while playing Condemned - but at least it isn't joyful. At least it's closer to the real, terrible thing than most videogames get.
Onto Gaynor's article which proposes a metric for violence in games: "violence performed by the player in a videogame is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual."
Condemned is certainly not that clever - the people you kill are still "enemies" in the depersonalised, mechanical sense. But they're nevertheless imbued with a level of identity uncommon for first-person action games.
Their facial expressions change depending on their situation. If they're attacking, they'll grit their teeth and furrow their brow. If you've just hit them, or electrocuted them with your taser, their mouths will open and they'll squeeze their eyelids together. A small touch, but it makes them appear more human, more like the "individuals" which Gaynor defines as having "families, homes, jobs [and] friends."
And although they are lacking back stories, distinct physical characteristics or relationships to other characters in the game, your opponents in Condemned are still individually significant - they still respectively mean more to the player than typical game enemies.
A single enemy in Condemned can drastically alter the player's experience of the game; his ability to progress. As I've described, they are each of them strong and difficult to kill - they each have the power to significantly harm, if not kill, the player. Unlike Call of Duty, BioShock Infinite, or other games where the player cuts down harmless groups of enemies, in Condemned, each enemy has a significant bearing on the gameplay. He is able to meaningfully impede the player's ability to continue, either by causing the player significant loss of health or sustaining the player's attacks until the player's weapon breaks, or runs out of ammunition. The enemy's bearing on the game's narrative, or the bearing his death has on the game's narrative is admittedly minimal. However, he is able to noticeably affect gameplay and his defeat always marks a significant victory. More than a single enemy in most videogames, a single Condemned enemy can influence the player, and the player's experience of the game.
The way Condemned treats firearms is also tied to how it wants players to respond to enemies. Not only are players limited to the ammunition remaining in the gun when they pick it up, meaning that, even if they find the very rare sub-machine gun, they'll only ever have a maximum of thirty bullets, they're also forced to physically check how many rounds are in the weapon - there is no heads-up display giving them weapon information.
And so the game, even during gunfight sections, never degenerates into an anonymous, effortless "mowing down" of enemies. Players literally do not have the resources to behave that way. Bullets are so scarce that they must carefully decide when to use them and where to aim, something that's reinforced by the physical checking of the ammo clip.
You begin to count your bullets as you use them meaning that, when you kill an enemy, you're aware of how many rounds he absorbed and how many that has left you with. This precious and exact parcelling out of your resources makes each enemy feel significant. Unlike a lot of action games, where you kill a group of enemies and can then expect to be given enough ammunition to kill another group, in Condemned, you're consistently aware of your precarious supply situation: Additional bullets are rare and, in fact, health recharges are only available at fixed places in each level. Each violent encounter has a marked and potentially progress-threatening effect on your inventory. You're unable to carelessly "blast through" enemies, to think of them as surpassable obstacles - the way Condemned gives, or rather, does not give you weapons lends each enemy you have to fight a sense of menace.
It also adds a narrative to each of your fights. You never remember how you "killed a bunch of guys." You remember how you hit one in the head with your last bullet, took a punch from another, was able to quickly grab a pipe, hit him back, and so on. Weapons and supplies are so rare in Condemned that their every usage becomes a significant moment in your game, and any violence "achieved" with them is memorable. The enemies may not have real narrative bearing, certainly not to the extent that Gaynor wishes for, but they're a significant, game-affecting drain on your supplies. They're never just some guys who you killed. They're guys who forced you to use your last three bullets.
But, to end on, there are two things that I think damage Condemned's credibility.
First is how the narrative slides into supernatural drama. The enemies you meet are decreasingly human, culminating in a dual-sword wielding final boss with blank white eyes and pieces of metal sticking out of his body. It's absurd, and undermining of the tangible, meaningful, human-on-human violence you experience for much of the game: It's hard to take Condemned seriously as a treatise on violence when its plot starts to include monsters and evil cults.
Second is how, occasionally, the bodies of your enemies will disappear. I noticed early on how small details like blood-marks and bullet holes would appear in the game: In the fifth level, I shot an enemy in the head with a revolver, and found his blood sprayed across the floor behind him and the bullet lodged in a wall on the other side of the room. Stepping back and looking at the scene in front of me, I was reminded of the crime I investigated at the start of the game, the case of the strangled woman. In the way I looked for fingerprints and DNA, it was easy to imagine another detective discovering my murder and having to search the room for the bullet, and match the blood trail to the gunshot wound. This gave the game a kind of poetry - the visual similarities between the two scenes made my own kill seem as significant as the one I'd investigated.
I liked the idea that every murder I committed would become a crime scene, that the game world wouldn't just forget what I'd done, that cops would eventually arrive to search the place. It made it seem like the enemies I killed had, like Gaynor talks about, identities. They died in similar circumstances to the people whose murders I policed. Perhaps they had lived similar lives as well.
But then I left the room and came back, and the body, the bloodstain and the gunshot in the wall had all disappeared. I don't know if it was a creative misjudgement by Condemned's developers, or a technical limitation of their hardware, but I wish the bodies in the game would remain on the floor.
Nevertheless, Condemned is a good example of how violence in videogames can be done differently. Killing in Condemned isn't fun or easy and the enemies, though hardly fully formed characters, have a significant bearing on the player's performance, experience and decision making. As Gaynor points out, there's no harm in using violence in fiction - in Greek tragedies, English literature and Hollywood films, the deaths of characters have enormous dramatic and emotional effect. Games however continue to appropriate violence for the wrong reasons: for fun, exciting spectacle and repetitive, meaningless mechanical activity. Though imperfect, Condemned is counter-intuitive to those traditions and should serve developers as the template for a better class of violent videogame.
Monday, 9 December 2013
It's hard to find people who understand your depression. I don't mean that in a "we're all beautiful damaged roses, and the world just won't get it" kind of way. When you're ill with depression, reaching out can be hard. You don't want to tell your friends, or your partner, because you're scared you might alienate them. And you don't want to call a doctor because your illness is telling you that you don't deserve attention - you're a middle-class, white, heterosexual Westerner, so who are you to complain? And who should care about a screw-up like you anyway?
It's hard to even admit it to yourself. Coming to terms with the fact you have depression can make you scared that it's somehow going to be taken away from you. The thing I struggled with most about my own diagnosis was in realising that depression was an illness and that as such, it could be cured. You come to rely on and live with your depression. There's this weird Stockholm-syndrome phenomenon where you come to depend on your illness as the basis of your personality: "Once my depression is cured," I used to think "who will I be?" Allowing yourself to be treated is a threat to a lifestyle that, although deeply unhappy, is at least familiar to you.
Talking about this illness is hard. It's why I wish that Depression Quest, developed by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler was available seven years ago. Since 2006, when I was diagnosed, I've read books, watched films and listened to music which all claimed to "deal" with my illness, but nothing has gotten right to the core like this game: It's eye-opening, comforting and therapeutic all at once. If you've never suffered from mental health problems, Depression Quest will help you understand what it's like. If you're currently struggling or have struggled, this game will help you - it will reassure you that you're not alone.
I'm in an interesting place at the moment where, although I still have problems and am still in therapy, I'm able to look on my illness with a sense of clarity. Depression, and the medications and counselling used to cure it, are all familiar to me now, and so playing a game about a young man who so far has been unable to ask for help is at once enlightening and disturbing.
It enables me to see how I got to where I am. Like the game's protagonist, my depression began mildly, with awkwardness at parties, never having motivation to work and feeling inadequate compared to my older sister. It then spiralled into self-harm, alcoholism and broken relationships with family and friends. "It gets a lot, lot worse before it gets even slightly better", is what I used to tell people about this illness. In Depression Quest, the same is true.
A missed day at work becomes a full blown anxiety attack. A few stilted social functions cause you and your girlfriend to break up. Depression in the game, as in reality, destroys everything in your life except itself and as much as you want to change it, some errant thought or crippling neurosis will always prevent you from being proactive. This is why some of the choices in Depression Quest are blocked out. At the end of a week at work, some friends might call and ask you to come out drinking. You can see the option to go join them - it's listed at the bottom of the game screen along with all the others - but it's scrawled through with a red line. You just can't do it. Depression is an illness like the flu. You can't just will yourself to get better, to buck up and go out. Your mind makes it impossible. So does Depression Quest.
It's why it works best as a videogame. When we're gaming, we're used to freedom of choice and freedom of expression - within the confines of the game's rules, we can do virtually what we like. To have that dynamic interfered with, in the way it is in Depression Quest, represents just how powerful the illness is. It affects the very core fabric of our experiences. It destroys our ability to behave the way we want to. Choice, as in life, is everything in videogames. But depression, and the way it's depicted in Depression Quest, takes that choice away from us. The option is there to leave your bed, shower and go outside, but you just can't do it. You want to click "go out with the guys" but your character's illness won't let you. Life and gaming, as we know them, are ruined by depression.
I used to visualise my illness this way, with "gameplay options" like meet a girlfriend or go to work crossed out for me.
It's why Depression Quest was hard for me to play. The creators have gotten the nuances of being depressed - the sensation - down to a fine point. There was a moment (in the game) where, having lost my girlfriend, screwed up my job and refused therapy, I was alone in my flat, about to get drunk. But I fucked up opening the wine - the cork went into the bottle and spoiled it. These small defeats are soul-destroying. It feels as if the world is conspiring to destroy you, as if you, you fuck-up, can't get anything right.
It mirrored an occasion in my own life where, having been in the pits for around six months, I was desperate for the delivery of a videogame I'd pre-ordered. I was so excited for it. It was all I had to cling onto. The night before it was set to arrive, I switched my PS3 off at the back, corrupting the hard-drive and bricking the console. I broke down. The next day I woke up still drunk, covered in self-inflicted cuts and unable to leave my bed. To some people, that might sound absurd. But the makers of Depression Quest understand. Clearly this has happened to them as well.
Another reason I found the game difficult, emotionally I mean, was because I tried to play it honestly. There are no trite solutions when you're ill like this, no get outs. When someone asks how you are, you're not going to open up to them. If you have friends before you get depression, in all likelihood, by the time you're feeling "better", a lot of them won't know you any more. The game broke my heart because, with every honest decision I made, every helping hand I turned away or person I scared off, I could see myself, over the past seven years, doing the exact same things. It brought me face-to-face with my own, not mistakes, I guess, but miscalculations. Even that's not the right word. At the time, I couldn't help what I did.This game made me realise how much the illness fucked up my life.
It cost me a good relationship with a woman. It prevented me from having fun at university. And although they don't know it, it alienated me from pretty much everybody in my family, partly because counselling led me to blame them for some things and partly because, like Depression Quest's central character, I came to feel like we had nothing in common. I answered Depression Quest truthfully, based on my own experiences, and with every new text prompt, my character's life got worse. I ended the game jobless, single and unable to find anyone even willing to talk to me, let alone someone who I could explain everything to. And still, I wasn't in therapy and I wasn't taking medication. This is where my own life was in 2010. Although it might upset the writers to hear this, I have to admit that Depression Quest made me guilty and angry at myself. But then, at the same time, it reminded me that it wasn't me - or a clean-thinking version of me - that made all those misjudgements. It was the bug in my head, gnawing away, driving me mad.
I've never played a game that affected me so personally. Once I'd finished Depression Quest, I sat and cried, and then double-checked to make sure my appointment with the doctor was still set for next month.
It will help you feel understood and help you realise that it's not you that's the problem in your life, it's this wretched illness.
But above all else, it'll help those around you to see that this is not a small matter - not something you're affecting because you want their attention. Depression Quest shows depression for what it is, a slow, encompassing destroyer of the patient's life, an impossible to explain on paper, debilitating illness. Play it and then pass it around. It has the power to do good.
Depression Quest is available to play here for free: http://www.depressionquest.com/dqfinal.html
But please, contribute some money to the three developers: http://www.depressionquest.com/
Friday, 6 December 2013
Ever since I finished The Last of Us I've been looking for more videogames that challenge the concept of male agency. As I wrote for the New Statesman in July of this year, Joel's actions in The Last of Us, the ones driven by a traditional sense of masculinity, are detrimental to the game world and to other characters. I see the game as an affront to the idea that male protagonists in games are always right, that their decision to take action against something always leads to resolution. With the example of The Last of Us in mind, I've been mentally working back through other games of the past decade. In hindsight, I feel the reason Call of Duty 4's nuke sequence shocked me was not because of the big explosion of the bomb, or the fact my character died, but because I failed the mission. My male character took action to rescue a downed pilot and didn't end up rescuing her.
The same can be said for Max Payne 3, where, in almost every level, Max fails his objective: He doesn't rescue Fabiana at the dock, he doesn't hand over the money at the stadium, he doesn't protect Rodrigo in his office, he doesn't catch Becker at the police station. Both of those examples, and plenty of others, are interesting to me because they show game men taking action, attempting to exercise their agency, and still failing. They represent impotence, displacement - they wrestle with the pervasive social idea that our world is a man's world. The strongest example of this I've come up with so far is Silent Hill 2, which not only undermines its male character's agency, but criticises it also, depicting, like The Last of Us, a male protagonist who makes things worse.
On gender roles
You've probably read elsewhere about the game's pervasive sexual imagery. James, our player character, has murdered his terminally ill wife because she was unable to have sex with him. Arriving in Silent Hill, his guilty psyche creates Pyramid Head - a rampaging, muscled figure with a gigantic knife - and the "mannequins" - creatures resembling two sets of female legs placed end on end.
Throughout the game, we see Pyramid Head rape and murder the mannequin creatures - in our initial encounter, he is sodomising two of them in the kitchen area of an apartment .
We also see the mannequins behave suggestively towards the player; when we approach them as James, they hold a fixed pose until we get very close, bending their womanly legs into alluring positions.
What we see are two different types of sexuality: Pyramid Head represents priapic male sexual agency, while the mannequins are submissive, subjugated females. Pyramid Head is more obvious. The way he lumbers around the game driving his big weapon into female bodies tells you all you need to know. The mannequins are more interesting. Their physical appearance and relationship with Pyramid Head identifies them as female, and the way they respond to James indicates sexual submissiveness.
They present themselves to the player, waiting with legs bent until he gets near. And it's only when he gets near that they start attacking - that they become something. These female shapes require a male presence before they are allowed to move - if you stay out of range, they will remain locked in a pose, totally still, waiting to jump you. Without James, a man, they have no agency.
They attract the player by remaining still. It's their lack of movement which makes us curious, makes us want to approach them in the first place to see what happens when we do. It smacks of stereotypical female servitude, the 1950s/Stepford Wives misconception that without a man in their lives, women serve no purpose. I find it fascinating that Pyramid Head is assaulting the two mannequins in a kitchen. He's trapped them there, in the area of the house most widely associated with domestic subservience, and now he's taking them for himself.
I want to move onto James, who is struggling with his maleness.
James is a man who will fight (and kill) for his sense masculinity but is also not secure in himself. He killed his wife because she wouldn't have sex with him, because she wouldn't (couldn't) fulfil the traditional wife role to his would-be traditional husband.
In his relationship with Mary, James could neither contain nor exercise his ardent male sexuality. Silent Hill, the town, is littered with places that speak to this, locations that are innately and recognisably male, but also difficult to negotiate. If James' mind really is creating Silent Hill around him, its his frustrated sexuality which has fashioned many of its buildings.
He begins the game in a men's toilet, a place which has "Men" literally written on the door. But James and the player controlling him, this area is difficult to navigate. We can't see the door; we might run toward rather than away from the camera. The exit itself is hidden out of our view, behind a wall. It's takes fiddling and guesswork to get out of this room.
And this goes on. Neely's Bar is one of Silent Hill 2's most famous locales, home to that notorious line of graffiti: "There was a HOLE here. It's gone now. "
A quick word on bars themselves. Without wanting to pigeon-hole or generalise, bars are typical gathering points for men looking to meet women. The reverse, of course, is also true, but what we most commonly associate with bars is that they're places in which men go looking for casual sex. In films, books, TV shows and videogames, male characters hangout in bars to "pick up chicks." These are places for men to ply their sex.
Now that graffiti. It's invites several interpretations, all of which seem plausible. It might point to the town's amorphous architecture; Silent Hill is known for its frightening day/night pattern, whereby buildings and places change shape and appearance whenever the sun goes down, or comes back up again. Perhaps it's that - perhaps at night, there was a hole here, but it's daytime, and it's gone now.
It may also point to another interloper in Silent Hill. Through conversations between James and the other characters in Silent Hill 2, we decipher that people see the town subjectively. James sees sexually suggestive monsters, whereas Laura, a little girl, sees nothing extraordinary at all. Perhaps that's what this is. Perhaps one visitor to Silent Hill found the diary of another and expected there to be a hole here, but he saw the town differently, and there wasn't.
I have an alternate interpretation which may seem a little overstretched, and is definitely more vulgar.
I've always been intrigued by the emphasis placed on "hole" - it's the only part of the graffiti spelt all in upper case. We've established James' forceful male sexuality and the fact that, with Mary, he was often denied it. Now he's in a bar, a place to pick up chicks and the HOLE - the yonic symbol, the vagina - is gone. Our frustrated, impotent male protagonist is once again frustrated, once again impotent. Despite the healthy sexual relationship marriage connotes, he was unable to have sex; despite the casual sexual encounters traditionally available in bars, the HOLE is gone now.
Finally, on Eddie
Eddie, whom James first meets in the apartment building near the start of the game and again, later, in a bowling alley, is a chubby, lazy man.
He represents inactivity, castration.
The bowling alley meeting is particularly important. When James finds Eddie, he's crouched over a table, eating pizza.
Laura, the little girl character, symbolic of archetypal female vulnerability, has just run off into Silent Hill alone. But Eddie refuses to go after her. James is outraged. He demands Eddie help him look for Laura, but Eddie would rather sit still and eat pizza. James calls him a coward and storms off.
Three things stand out here. Firstly, Eddie's refusal to help. We're used to game men - and men in broader media - enacting a plan to save other characters, especially female ones. The narrow gender roles that are commonly and socially accepted dictate that the men should do the work - they should find a job, buy a house and, if needs be, go to war. But Eddie won't fulfil his role. He isn't, in a myopic traditional sense, or in James's view, a real man.
Secondly, Eddie's in a bowling alley. In films like The Big Lebowski and Pleasantville, this is where long-term married men, or divorced men, come to hang out with their similarly married or divorced friends. And bowling is not, by general social estimation, a "real sport." It's derided as a game for people who want to feel like they're playing a sport. It's half-way. It's tame.
Thirdly, Eddie looks like James, albeit a fatter version. He has long blonde hair and light eyes. Even his facial features are similar, same mouth, same eyes:
In Neely's Bar, we're made to understand the impossible ultra-masculine standard James has set for himself. In the bowling alley, through Eddie, we see the kind of sub-male decrepitude he's fearful of and refuses to stoop to. Eddie is inert and scared. And he's sat in a place commonly associated with married men, men who, by dedicating themselves to a single woman have, in James's eyes, somehow given away their maleness by relinquishing their freedom to search for holes in bars.
Eddie represents what James fears he would have become had he stayed with Mary, had he allowed himself to be "contained" by their asexual marriage: Fat, inert, wimpy, unable to play proper sport, resigned to the company of other married men. He's chubby instead of muscular, frightened instead of responsible. He's the opposite side of the spectrum to Pyramid Head. Where Pyramid Head is a warning of what might become of James if he lets his priapic desires get the best of him, Eddie is a warning against becoming complacent, of letting masculinity and male agency slip away.
James's conflict in Silent Hill 2 is finding the middle between those two extreme poles. If you play the game well and get the best ending, James leaves Silent Hill with Laura as his new, adopted daughter. He becomes a father, a traditional male figure that doesn't carry any sexual or aggressive overtones. That, I think, is the balance he is looking for.
Sunday, 27 October 2013
These are the notes I made for myself for a lecture called "Escape From the Movies - How Videogames Stole Cinema, but then Gave it Back". I was going to go in and edit them some, but I've decided to just upload them wholesale. I wrote these in a 50-minute-or-so flurry just before I was due to start speaking. As such, I think there's a good flow of thought that you can trace as you read though them. Hopefully you can follow my argument.
However, I should say, to anyone who regularly writes or reads, or teaches about videogames, that this might not be for you. The lecture I gave was aimed at people who do not necessarily play or read about videogames. It was meant as an overview - as an introduction to some of the key issues and questions being addressed, currently, by both popular and academic game criticism. You might hear a lot of things you've heard already. I only had an hour. This isn't all encompassing.
The notes are better understood if you also read the handout I gave to the students. I've posted it online:
- The common belief, among game critics, film academics and also game makers is that games borrows heavily from films. Though that's still true to some extent, and was very true 15-20 years ago, games are now developing their own aesthetic and their own ways of relaying narrative.
- I'll come back to that at the end, but first I want to chart a brief history of game aesthetics. And to understand game aesthetics, you have to understand the technology around gaming.
- Films are not as reliant on hardware – a script written today, as long as it isn't laden with special effects, could feasibly be shot using equipment from 10 or 15 years ago. The same can't be said for games. Certain types of games and certain types of game aesthetic are only possibly on advanced hardware – a lot of game maker's creative potential is locked behind the next wave of machines.
- Let's look at games from the 70's, 80's and 90's. If you read the quote from Chris Sanyk, game designer, he explains some of the hardware limitations imposed on game makers during the 1980s. (Pics of Pong, Space Invaders, Keen).
- You can see that, in these days, the gaming aesthetic was dominated by bright colours, heavy pixels and basic shapes, such was the level of tech available at the time.
- However, although Stanyk seems to be describing this as a restriction, I'd argue that in fact, these technical limitations birth a gaming aesthetic more unique, more quickly identifiable, than anything that appeared on more sophisticated machines.
- We still identify, I think, with that “retro” aesthetic – we still conflate games with pixels, 2D scrolling and basic, cartoon characters. It's an aesthetic that is purely “of games.” It's not something that existed before games or that has been found, in any considerable sense, in any medium developed thereafter. If it has, it's been inspired by games.
- (show Mario) If we look at Mario as he appeared on the NES in 1985, we can instantly identify him as a game character – pixels, 2D, basic colours. However, if we look at Mario as he appears on the more recent Nintendo Wii console (show Mario Galaxy) we wouldn't necessarily identify him, instantly, as a game character. He looks as though he may appear in a kid's TV show or animated film.
- So we can see, I think, how gaming used to have its own aesthetic but how, as more sophisticated machines have been released, that aesthetic has been muddied somewhat to resemble different media, namely movies and TV.
- This began in the mid-nineties thanks to better PCs and consoles like the PS1 and N64 (pic of MGS) Game makers were now able to create visuals that looked closer to real-life – the term “photo-realistic” started to be used more – and that unique gaming aesthetic drifted out of style.
- The new machines also brought with them higher production costs, and that's where the shift to a more cinematic aesthetic really came from. Donkey Kong (donkey kong pic) for example, in 1981, cost around 100,000 dollars to make. Resident Evil 2 (resi pic) by contrast, in 1998, had a budget of around five million. These booming production costs – the need to hire more and better trained staff to use the more advanced hardware – forced game makers to seek out a larger market.
- The market for cinema was much bigger than the one for games, which were still being enjoyed, mainly, by young men. And so the adoption of a more cinematic aesthetic, I'd argue, was inspired by the pressure to appeal to cinema fans, in order to offset rising production costs.
- It also, I think, was the natural result of games maturing as a medium. Game makers began to think of themselves more highly, and as more skilled, and wanted their work to be identified as a legitimate cultural artefact. The adoption of the cinematic aesthetic was, consciously or not, a move by game makers designed to have their work validated by the greater public. It was to make games look less childish, more grown-up and bona fide.
- However, although it had a positive financial effect, and the game market swelled as a result, the gaming aesthetic and the way games told stories, started to suffer.
- Let's take a look at MOH Frontline (clip) Now you can see that that's basically just the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. This is what happened. Rather than inherit SOME visual element of films, game makers began to steal plots, sequences and visuals wholesale from movies. Other examples include CoD (pic) which stole the Enemy at the Gates Stalingrad scene and Max Payne (pic) which was heavily inspired by The Matrix and John Woo films.
- So the aesthetic got muddied. And the way games told stories also suffered. Rather than use the idiosyncratic, interactive nature of the gaming medium to relay narrative, “cutscenes”, short films played at key story moments in a game, became popular. (resi 2)
- If you look at the quote from Pierre Gaultier, he sums up why this was problematic. Rather than develop as an aesthetic and narrative medium, games merely became a hybrid of themselves and cinema. They adapted cinematic sensibilities to tell stories – they would literally pause gameplay, stop “being a game” in order to display their most aesthetically pleasing elements and their narratives. During this time, we had less an aesthetic of games, and more an aesthetic of games AND films.
- And it remained that way for a long period of time. Even a game as recent as Dead Rising (picture) from 2006 is heavily based on Dawn of the Dead and uses many, many cutscenes to spell out its story.
- This drew criticism from writers like Gaultier and others in the more mainstream press, who accused cinema of cheapening the medium – of preventing games from developing an aesthetic and a narrative form of their own.
- The cinematic also created a key structural problem within games, which Clint Hocking summed up with the term “ludonarrative dissonance.” What we had in games was two opposing forces: the creator and the player. By adopting a cinematic aesthetic and cinematic means of telling a story, the game maker is inviting players to not play. The game maker is creating a story that can only make sense if the audience is passive – once that cutscene is over, and the player assumes control, he is free to alter the direction of the narrative and the aesthetic as much as he likes. Though the game maker may want his characters to behave in certain ways, and to draw attention to certain images, the player is able to behave in some sense how he likes and to pan the camera to look at whatever he wants.
- There's a certain amount of self expression and exploration expected in the act of “playing”. By trying to adopt cinema to games, the game creator is ignoring that, and winds up with a story and aesthetic that is only consistent if it ignores the player's contribution.
- (play red dead clips)
- And this is what brings me round to where I started, when I said that games have now developed, or are developing, a new and unique aesthetic of their own. Though Hocking wrote about ludonarrative dissonance in the game BioShock, I actually think it's one of the strongest examples of this new aesthetic, and this new way that games tell stories.
- What BioShock does is attempt to partner a game player's desire to be mischievous and to explore with the game creator's desire to relay a story. It does this by removing (or at least lessening) the presence of cutscenes and instead placing narrative artefact within the game world – the game's “set” if you like – itself.
- (Take a look at some BioShock pics, explain the world of Rapture). The player in BioShock is free to move the camera and move around, and the game follows a non-linear path, with lots of optional space to explore. However, these areas are littered with narrative artefacts, like statues, signs, audio diaries and other things, which relay a certain level of story and atmosphere.
- This creates an interesting pattern whereby the player's willingness to explore and exploit the game world actually heightens his understanding of the narrative. By creating what I'd call an “aesthetic of abundance” - by hiding narrative points within the game world itself, rather than in cinematic forms such as cutscenes – the makers of BioShock are using the player's own will, own agency as a means of telling their story.
- It's also present in a game from this year called Gone Home, which features even less cutscenes or passive media than BioShock (explain Gone Home, show the clip)
- The gameplay of Gone Home is about piecing togetherr the story of your family. The more you explore the game world, the more you learn about the narrative. Again, it's that aesthetic of abundance.
- And this, I think, brings us back to the 1980s when games had their own distinct aesthetic. What we're seeing now, and what I think we'll see much more of in the future, are games based in hyper-designed, very busy worlds that are pregnant with narrative paraphernalia. And it's only through the unique, interactive nature of games that that aesthetic, and that way of conveying narrative, can really be appreciated. Like in the 1980s, games will operate on their own aesthetic terms. Cinema will become an increasingly insignificant presence and I'd like to believe that, as time draws on, and people start to trust and appreciate games for what they are, there won't be that pressure to borrow from cinema to meet a mass market. People will buy and like games as they are. They will be able to effectuate and make money on completely their own terms.
Escape from the Movies – How Videogames Stole Cinema, But Then Gave it Back
How Games Used to Look
- Due to technical limitations, the aesthetic of games in the 70s, 80s and early 90s was dominated by chunky, pixellated environments, stark colours and basic shapes:
“Basically every design principle in the graphics of early 80′s arcade games was governed by the insane limitations of the tiny systems of the day. A list of qualities and factors that fed into creating the early 80′s aesthetic [includes]: Large pixels, tiny sprites, limited colour palette and 2-3 frame animations. At the time there often wasn’t a dedicated video processing unit, or even dedicated video memory — everything was handled by the CPU, which often dedicated most of its processing power to simply drawing each frame of video, leaving relatively little processing power left over for handling game logic.”
Sanyk, Chris. “The Early 80s Arcade Aesthetic”, May 2nd, 2012, Csanyk.com.
- Though Stanyk seems to suggest that these technical limitations stifled game aesthetics, we may argue that in fact, they inspired an aesthetic much more unique to videogames than anything created on more advanced consoles.
- Sophisticated consoles such as the PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64 allowed game-makers to create detailed, photo-realistic worlds. With these possibilities now open to them, and with the growing cost of videogame development adding pressure to appeal to a broader market, game developers started to take influence from cinema, a form similar to games in its reliance on visual spectacle, which also enjoyed a much more lucrative market:
“Along with the industry’s growth into a significant section of popular culture, the audience had shaped to consist mostly of casual players and children, and the proportional number of “sophisticated” players who shaped the audience of the 1980’s interactive fiction had de- creased to a margin.”
Karhulati, Veli-Matti. “The Aesthetics of Early Adventure Games: A Reflection of Film History,” The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 6, Issue 2, April, 2011.
- However, rather than adapt visual elements of film into games, game-makers simply borrowed from film wholesale. “Cutscenes”, fully-animated short films shown at key narrative points in games, became the standard format for videogames to tell stories. Aesthetically and narratively, games became an indistinct hybrid of cinema and videogaming, and over time drew criticism for ignoring the aesthetic idiosyncracies of the medium and instead merely stealing from films:
“Cutscenes, which clearly don't have anything to do with videogames, might be the most misused and excessive element in contemporary videogaming. Some developers seem to forget there is an art of writing videogames which doesn't rely that much on cinema. Squaresoft, notably with Final Fantasy 8 and the infamous The Bouncer, totally forgot the fact that a game cannot be summed up by a succession of cutscenes punctuated with vague gaming sequences”
Gaultier, Pierre. “Videogames and Cinema,” Polygonweb, March, 2001.
- The adoption of cinematic aesthetics into a game leads to a creative conflict between the game-maker, trying to impose the controlled creation and passive viewing of cinema, and the game player, who, as the term “playing” suggests, expects a certain degree of freedom, deviation and self-expression when interacting with a videogame:
“A videogame is a network in which the player is free to choose his own path. Each crossroad implies a choice and some risk-taking. The viewer is free and active. At the movies, the viewer is captive and passive: he follows a story from beginning to end, a story whose rhythm and twists he cannot influence.”
Delorme, Gerard. Premiere Magazine, as quoted in “Videogames and Cinema,” March 14th 2001, Polygonweb. http://polygonweb.online.fr/acinema.htm
- Game designer Clint Hocking summarised this conflict, coining the term “ludonarrative dissonance”:
“By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all. The leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either, forcing the player to either abandon the game in protest or simply accept that the game cannot be enjoyed as both a game and a story, and to then finish it for the mere sake of finishing it.”
Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock,” October 7th, 2007, ClickNothing.net. http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html
Giving Cinema Back
- In response, a new type of videogame aesthetic has emerged, which aims to blend the game-maker's narrative intentions with the player's desire to explore. This new aesthetic is illustrated by the games BioShock and Gone Home:
“Where Gone Home truly excels is as a masterful execution of implicit narrative—conveying key story and character information using subtle environmental elements instead of explicit dialogue. It is only as a game that Gone Home is able to so effectively convey the subtle nuances of character that give it its deep emotional impact, and as such it represents a huge leap forward for narrative videogames. It may not tell an incredible story, but it certainly tells it in an incredible way.”
Lindsey, Patrick. “On Time and Space in Gone Home”, August 21st, 2013, Tumblr http://patrickwlindsey.tumblr.com/post/58927460954/on-time-and-space-in-gone-home
Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissoance in BioShock”,October 7th 2007, ClickNothing.net. http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html
Smith, Edward. “The Time I Wasn't John Marston”, March 29th 2013, Escapist Magazine.
Juul, Jesper. “Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics – The Whole Thing”, June 29th 2004, JesperJuul.net
Bogost, Ian. “Perpetual Adolescence – The Fullbright Company's Gone Home”, September 28th 2013, Los Angeles Review of Books
King, Geoff and Krzywinska, Tanya. “Computer Games/Cinema/Interfaces”, March, 2002, Digital Games Research Assocaition (DiGRA) Library
“The Stanley Parable”. Galactic Cafe. Available on Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.
“Kentucky Route Zero”. Carboard Computer. Available on Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Credit to Lorenzo Pilia (@lorenzopilia) for the picture.
"A first-person shooter about love." That's all I knew about Martin Hollis's new game, Aim for Love. Before travelling to GameCity, Nottingham's annual videogame festival, I'd seen a few previews and write-ups floating around. But I'd ignored them, on purpose. I wanted to go into this blind.
I've been doing that more and more recently. Since I left my job at IBTimes, and exonerated myself from ever having to write a preview again, I've been shunning pre-release hype. If someone writes an excited tweet or posts on Facebook about how X unreleased game is Y, then I'm bound to catch it. But if I see a link with the word "preview" in, then no. I want to be surprised.
It worked with Beyond, it worked with GTA V and boy did it work with Aim for Love.
Looking around Nottingham's Old Market Square, where the game was set to be exhibited, I couldn't see a game console, or a first-person shooter or a Martin Hollis anywhere. Then I looked up, at the two big flat screens plonked smack in the city centre. And there I was - paunch, stubble, hang-dog look - staring back at myself in...I want to say disbelief, but it was more like dumb confusion.
The set-up for Aim for Love, I later found out, goes like this. Two people, selected at random, sit in a tent behind the two big screens, presiding over a keyboard. They each use a set of arrow keys - up, down, right, left - to control two cameras aimed at the Old Market Square.
On their screen is a reticule in the shape of a love heart. The idea is that they talk and work together to pick out two people in the crowd who look like they might hit it off.
Once they've made their choices, they line their targets up in the love hearts and signal to Hollis, who blows a whistle and gets the GameCity volunteers to go grab the chosen twosome out from the crowd to come and replace the two that were controlling the cameras. And then the new couple starts talking to each other. And they pick out another pair of strangers. And the whole thing rolls on.
So that's how I found myself shuttered in a tent, coordinating with some bloke I'd never met over which two strangers on the CCTV looked like they might want to snog each other.
He, my partner, picked out someone almost immediately, a young woman who, in the spirit of things, waved and cheered at the camera and waited for someone to come get her. I didn't have the same luck. Most of the people I aimed at either walked off, pretended they were talking to friends and ignored me, or simply "weren't playing." There was a guy right at the back wearing a North Face jumper and carrying five shopping bags, and he looked like he could do with a cuddle. But as soon as I aimed at him he just sort of sneered and went off. I tried to track him but it got a bit creepy. I felt like Keifer Sutherland in Phonebooth.
Is that the point? Is this how nutters with guns see the world? Is Aim for Love an experiment in subjective narrator storytelling? (a-thankyou)
It reminded me of the "Meet the Pyro" trailer for Team Fortress 2, where instead of a flamethrower shooting fire, he imagines he's carrying a magical tuba that shoots rainbows. Is this how it is? When snipers pull the trigger on someone, are they actually thinking "this will make them love me!"?
Maybe. Or Maybe Aim for Love is just kind of...nice. I sincerely tried to pick out someone who looked like they'd get on with the young woman. And when I finally had him zeroed in, and he came to take my spot at the controls, I was quietly hoping that he and his new partner would talk and get on and go for a drink and then get married. Maybe they did. Maybe I just helped match up the happiest couple the world will ever know.
Or maybe they did what I did, which was slink off, sheepishly, to look at the picture my friend had taken on his iPhone of my face on the big screen. We joked for a while about the surveillance state: Maybe people would be more welcoming of the NSA's spying if every CCTV camera had a big pink love heart strapped onto it. "Big Brother Wuvs You!" the posters would say. Instead of re-education, you'd be sequestered to the Ministry of Yay for snuggles and kissies.
I think that's what Hollis is going for. I think that, as well as a fun bit of pubic spectacle, Aim for Love can, if you want it, become an amusing commentary on the nanny state, game violence and of course, romance. How much easier would dating be if a big camera just picked your partner for you? I'd give that a go. It'd be better than Match.com.
Aim for Love is available to play all this week in the Old Market Square. If you want to play a first-person shooter where, instead of killing people, you potentially set them up with the love of their life, then go try it. You might just meet someone.
Oh, and to the guy I played with: I'm sorry, guy. You were very handsome and you seemed polite, and I'm sure we could have hooked up, fallen in love and eventually tied the knot. I'm imagining the summers we would have spent in our cottage in the Cotswolds; the skiing holidays; the late nights in Paris. It could have been something.
I'm just not sure my girlfriend would have approved.