Monday, 27 May 2013

Why Amnesia The Dark Descent Isn't At All Scary

If you don't know the gist of Fraction's Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it's simple: You're being chased the whole game by a monster and you don't have any way of hurting or killing it. The idea with that of course is to up the scare factor. We're so used in games to just turning and shooting at things, to being able to mount a defence with a good offence. Taking our guns away should, by rights, be the scariest thing a game can do - since when were these anything but male power fantasies? But Amnesia is actually kind of rubbish. It highlights what I think is an interesting paradox. It shows that, inside horror games at least, having a gun is actually more frightening than not.

Having a gun in a game always means you have to do something with it. Name a game where you're given a gun only to never fire it, a game which has guns in it but no killing or violence. Bet you can't. You know like how before a boss fight a game will feed you bullets, power-ups and health packs to get you ready, and you just know what's coming? When you're handed a gun, you know you're going to have to fight with it. With that power always comes responsibility.

And responsibility is scary. The reason businessmen pay a dominatrix to treat them like a baby for an hour a week is so they can shrug all the responsibility of the adult world off their shoulders and remember how much nicer it was being a child, how much easier. Amnesia is like that. By taking away your gun, it kind of infantilises you; it absolves you of responsibility. When you see a monster, you know you don't have to fight it, you don't have to do anything, and that's not frightening. Coming up against an enemy and wondering "how the fuck am I going to deal with this?" and knowing that you do have to is scary. Simply being allowed to run and hide and not do anything at all isn't frightening, it's a get out.

Amnesia's too rule based as well. It does its initial flip of expectations, breaking what you might argue is the first rule of first-person games (arm your players) but then becomes as mechanical and predictable as backgammon. You hide in the dark and the monster can't see you; when you're chased through the water by something invisible, you jump on boxes and it can't get to you. Keys unlock doors, levers turn cogs and lamps burn oil - Amnesia's a thoroughly logical game and again, that doesn't make for good horror.

You take Resident Evil 2 and look how it fucks with you. It's set mostly in a police station but takes great pleasure in twisting that familiar place around. Doors are unlocked with jewels and plugs; corridors are lined with fine art and statues instead of vending machines and chairs. It's a weird, illogical place. Silent Hill as well is all a mess. It's lateral, non-sensical - in Silent Hill 2 you unlock a door using a wax doll.

You need this kind of illogic to make a game scary. Amnesia plays its opening gambit of "hey ma no guns" but then becomes a run-of-the-mill, lock and key, Pipedream kind of game where everything clicks together like you'd expect. It's fathomable. It's not scary because it makes sense.

Oh and there are jump scares which unless your game is written by Ken Levine and Drew Holmes are always shit.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Games are just the best thing

Reading back the writing I've been doing in the past year, I feel it would be easy to think I didn't like videogames. That goes for a lot of writers, actually. As a general rule, my Twitter feed is mostly game critics complaining about the industry this or violence that, how games are inherently sexist or unable to express complex ideas. We're a complaining press. After so much complacency in the eighties and nineties, when games that were even vaguely exciting or horny got 9s out of 10, we're into a period of stubbornness and rebuttal now. It's cool not to like games. Brooker doesn't like games. Jim Sterling doesn't like games. Yahtzee doesn't like games. I remember being at Eurogamer last year and listening to a group of friends, a group of friends I could imagine fifteen years ago getting excited about Mace Griffin or Smuggler's Run, systematically turning their noses up at everything being announced on the Tannoy. "EA, pfft. Activision, pfft," they said. Indie games are in now. Game games are for sheeple.

But fuck if games aren't just the best thing sometimes. It's rare - so rare - that one really comes all together, but when it does, when the planets align to let a BioShock or a GTA IV or a Limbo slip out, videogames are, even for an ostensible whinge-a-list like me, powerful creative works. I hate the inherent childishness expressed in things like Indie Game: The Movie and The Unfinished Swan, but I do agree that the magic, the mystique of videogames is their ability to take you away somewhere, to whisk you off like James on a giant peach. Often, it's that very same formal unique which makes games a target for their critics. Impassivity, the need for action and feedback, is the scourge of creative integrity. It's the very same thing which makes games great entertainment which makes them poor art. I think that too, but I still love them. The examples given above are just some of the games which inherit everything that's right about this medium while turning everything that's wrong to their advantage also. It can be done, and when it happens, games are just the best thing. They're expansive, they're exciting, they're talkative. They're something you can do with your children. They're something you can make more yours than any book or film or stageplay.

I remember walking my girlfriend home in GTA and watching the city lights come on in Manhattan. I remember swilling whiskey in a disused bunker in Fallout while playing back old tapes of my dead dad. I remember in Limbo, being scared to death of that fake, mechanical spider. When I think back to the moments in fiction which have made me the most awed, the most excited, they're generally in games. And that's not because I'm a philistine. I find it regrettable that this point has to be laboured, but it's possible to be well-read and still be turned on by what happens in games. They are, every now and then, the best thing. They're expansive, creative, new, intelligent, exciting, fun, expressive. They're wacky and stupid and playful; sometimes they're sombre and reflective.

Now, while it's trendy, games are easy to bitch about. We're in the process of discovering their implicit flaws, the subtraction points inherent in the form, and that's naturally kicked the gate open for a whole new wave of churlish criticism. But that will pass. We'll find games, we'll work out what they can do and what they are and I'm confident, despite my complaining also, that we'll find they're just the best thing.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Forming the Canon and That's It

I think I've pinned down what's been bugging me about videogames for so long. We already know they're incestuous, right? From the esoteric little jokes printed on Insert Coin t-shirts to the impenetrable jargon of online games, videogames are for the initiated only. This an exclusive club (generally for boys) which you have to learn your way into. Figuring out how to use a game controller and how games work is like learning to read, the difference being it's not taught in schools and probably isn't worth the effort. Culturally, games are more like comics or Warhammer than paintings or music. There's a barrier to entry.

That's not what's been bugging me, though. What's been bugging me is that the games of the past two years which have ostensibly been breaking that barrier down are, in fact, strengthening it. I look at work like Spec Ops and Papers, Please, work lauded for tackling subject matter usually kept at arm's length by the gaming industry, and rather than see progress see retreat. These are games which have nothing to say. They show, I think, that the creative voices in games, even those with free license, have nothing to add to the forum. Spec Ops tells us killing is bad; Papers, Please tells us life is difficult for refugees. I'm not wanting to deny the individuals represented by these games, not at all, I just feel their stories are being explored more thoroughly and more carefully elsewhere.

I don't think games really give a shit. I think that rather than want to drill down into or raise awareness of these things,  these games are more interested in propagating the medium. Spec Ops and Papers, Please have just enough sprinkling of adulthood on them to make people think "hm, games are different now" but in terms of teaching us much, I'm not convinced. It feels more like showing off than genuinely caring; it feels like deliberate contrariness rather than substance.

With Papers, Please especially, I look at it and see a game that's almost, just almost, got something to say, but doesn't say it. I see something obvious -  I see a perspective any right-minded person would already hold. It's a new kind of game but it's not a new anything else. It's for the betterment of the medium but not for the increase of general understanding, and the fact it's lauded makes it look just as incestuous as a Toluca Lake hoodie.

Our games are improving but our games aren't improving anything else. If I wanted to learn about 1980s Eastern Europe, Papers, Please would not make for a good reference text. We're not making anything worth putting in a library; we're charting a history of videogaming but not a history of the world. There is nothing specifically in Papers, Please that's relevant beyond the timeline of a closeted, still niche culture called games. In fact, I struggle to think of a single videogame that could plausibly be recommended to history, sociology or art students. Compared to literature, cinema and music, that's pretty sad. You can wheel out the argument that games are still young, but if we take the "start" of videogames as the launch of Pong in 1972, then that's 41 years now. Roundhay Garden Scene, the first film shot on a motion picture camera came in 1888. By 1929, 41 years later, we had October, Birth of a Nation and Der letze Mann - we had work of much broader significance. I don't have an excuse for games anymore. There's been time, technology and talent poured into them. Rather than hand-wringing about what the medium is or isn't, what it can or can't say, it's time they got in the ring.

All this to say Papers, Please is good but only because it's a videogame. Same as BioShock Infinite, there's a thin layer of intellectual pondering about it which, applied to any other medium, would spread very thin indeed. Just as Infinite slips in racial caricatures and mentions of capitalism and expects us to go "woah, games are political heavyweights now" Papers, Please half-explores a vaguely adult topic and expects to become a marker for some new wave.

Thanks to malaise, ignorance and some inherent childishness, games have kept the bedroom door locked against the adult world since they began. I'm glad they're peeking around it at last, but unless you're into videogames, Infinite, Papers and Spec Ops are of little to no worth. They represent the formation of a canon.  That's it.