Do We Jet Ski or Scuba Dive? A Gamer's Dilemma

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 9:00 am
When I play Modern Combat: Fallen Nation, can I multitask?
A few years ago, I found myself neck-deep in a pool of self-loathing when I read Nicholas Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," and I drowned when I came across this passage: "My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

My writing and gaming habits are similar. It's true that I rely too much on the Internet; in fact, thanks to distractions such as news tickers, interactive ads ("Click here for your free iPhone!") and Google chat, I admit that errors have made their way into my work. Distraction - that's the keyword here. [Update: In fact, I looked at this again and noticed a few typos. Damn!]

From a gamer's point of view, I've looked at Carr's article once again and thought about how it relates to our discussions on video game narratives. I think I'm turning into a Jet Skiing gamer, skimming over long-form narratives and touching lots of different areas in the sea of the video games.

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Perspective & The Potential Of Rainbow 6: Patriots

Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 2:00 pm
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I'd argue that video games rely on perspective to convey a story more than any other narrative medium. As we follow our protagionists, we are tethered by perspective so that we can only witness the things that directly happen to us. Sometimes we move between characters to fill out a sequence of events. Others, we're given a few different angles to view a singular situation.

But the stories we experience really never capitalize on the potential of perspective as a device in a video game saga. As we cycle between characters, the personas that motivate our objectives are usually more or less uniform. For instance, its easy to imagine a story where an elite soldier from the US is trying to infiltrate the same compound as a Russian mercenary, and we get to see it from both angles. We shoot things, creep, escape, all the same, though our characters may serve different masters. Things of that kind are found in first-person shooters all the time. The problem is that those perspectives have very little differentiation besides location, and while they can serve for some intriguing gameplay variations, the actual degree to which they innovate and improve storytelling is only a tiny increment.

Part of this is due to the nature of how video games function as human-digital interactive experiences. Because we're the ones driving the ship, it can be difficult to shift from one perspective to another because, while the characters change, we remain the same in reality.

I think that can evolve, though. And I think that Rainbow 6: Patriots could be championing that sort of evolution - if the lord is willing and the concept footage is true.

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NBA 2K12 is Fiction Ripe for Reality

Wednesday, November 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm
History as Entertainment.
It's a no-brainer the NBA is losing piles and piles of revenue because of the lockout, a deep cut on basketball and its fanatics. Except those who play video games. NBA 2K12 is the answer to this so far non-existent season, offering aesthetics and gameplay that stand face to face with reality, at the tipoff. Compared to NBA 2K11, which I reviewed last year‚ the game, at its core, is fairly similar to the last iteration, but the major slam dunks are the "NBA's Greatest" mode (more in a moment) and, in my experience, easier shot mechanics (release, control, fluidity‚ maybe even automation).

I still suck at NBA video games, but I get my kicks from 2K12 because, like others, it's recreating history and forecasting the future of the NBA. When analyzed with theories on fiction, it's one of the greatest basketball games of this decade. 

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Tags: NBA 2K12

Before They're Art, Video Games Need To Mean Something

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 11:00 am
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April 26, 1937 fell on a Monday. It was a Market Day throughout most of rural Spain, and in the northern Basque country, this day of quiet commerce was clogged by lines of sooty men in tattered clothes. They, like the rifles in their hands, were of various ages and calibers, and they believed dearly in freedom. General Franco's Nationalist army was skirting their region, threatening to send hot shells and sharp swords through the thinning, improvised Republican army as it sought to maintain the Basque's political and ethnic autonomy in light of the fascist regime.

On that same day, Adolf Hitler held an experiment. He had found an ally in Franco -- the two were similar in their core ideologies, save for expansion -- and an ally in the precarious Spanish Revolution that was brimming at the time. Hitler's mind was clever, and he coordinated a plan with Franco to send a clear and vivid telegraph to the Spanish people. The two chose the town of Guernica. It was largely populated by Basque civilians, a feature beneficial to the fascist leaders because whatever message they sent would transmit to the core of Republican sympathizers, no matter their level of involvement in the revolution. Guernica sat close to Germany, was besieged by the ocean's waves to the north, and buffered by hostility on the remaining sides. 

Knowing this, the Nazi Condor Legion dropped twenty thousand kilograms of explosives into Guernica's crowded streets. Hitler wanted to see what would happen. Franco saw the opportunity.

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Is Another World the Video Game's Answer to Silent Film?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 11:00 am
Take me to Another World.
Another World (a.k.a. Out of This World) is celebrating its 20-year anniversary, and rightly so. A 2-D, platformer game that by today's standards seems outdated, it's seeing another revival as an iOS app, offering highly defined graphics, touch controls and enhanced sound effects, which are minimal at best. The game centers on Dr. Lester Knight Chaykin, a physicist stumbling through a unforgiving world, one riddled with laser-wielding ogres, faulty environments, man-eating cave dwellers and one dopey partner, Buddy. It's certainly an adventure worth remembering, mainly because of its difficulty. Little instruction or tutorials are given; as Dr. Chaykin, you're simply dropped into a foreign land and expected to fend for yourself. Dialogue is almost nonexistent.

But Another World's silence is the engaging facet of the game. To me, that facet allows me to imagine the details of the narrative arc. Though it's clear that Dr. Chaykin enters Another World (conflict) and exits it (resolution), the actions betwixt the two will be narrated by my imagination, thanks to the aforementioned silence. The game is freeing, and it's mysterious, just like a good silent film. (If this was a proper review, I'd slap a 4 out of 5 on it.)

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What Military Shooters Leave Out

Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm
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​For a little while now, I've struggled with military shooters and what they represent. Across all other forms of entertainment, stories about war have to be about something much more than combat to be widely accepted as fair, legitimate works of art. They have to discuss the large-scale collateral damage of war, explore the various perspectives of warring communities, or try and tease out some amount of sympathy for the opposition by imbuing in them a measure of humanity.

Throughout history, films that glorify war, like John Wayne's The Green Berets, have been maligned by popular culture for not portraying the horrors of war or the opposition accurately, and using the drama that surrounds it all as a cheap mechanism for entertainment. I think that no one who has the luxury of experiencing art and entertainment should be escaping to the brutality of a battlefield. And artists and entertainers shouldn't glamorize it.

But video games commonly romanticize war. It is almost never questioned. In many of the most successful releases to date, we take up arms and simulate the killing of faceless, nameless enemies in the name of some flimsy premise. We absorb bullets and retain our lives. There's no concern in the slightest about what that might represent. There's no concern about the amount of care these sensitive subjects need when discussed. And there's no sanctity in the mil-sim genre at all -- it is built to exploit and excite, regardless of reality.

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The Narrative Poetry of Rez

Monday, September 26, 2011 at 5:00 pm
Rez is poetic - and awesome.
Like Child of Eden, Tetsuya Mizuguchi's music video game Rez is worthy of several critical musings. In "Playing on the Plane of Immanence," Serjoscha Wiemer cites that music video games, including Rez, "constitute a simultaneous play of action and reaction, a joint motion of image, sound and body: the temporality of the image follows movement on a fundamental level, that is, movement and image assert themselves in the feedback-situation and tend to merge in a liminal space of perception."

Rez, a rail shooter, has an abstract narrative concerning a hacker infiltrating a super network cluttered with viruses and the like. From my view, it's a collection of symphonic poems complemented by transient visuals. That is, the hacker's story is explained through the trance music and her progress through the depths of the super network. Little text or voice is provided. For the most part, the player is expected to construct the narrative by connecting the music and accompanying visuals. This union speaks to theories of symphonic poems. As Jee-Weon Cha writes in an overview of those theories, "Unlike the text in a song, the literary impulse embedded in the form of a program [extramusical language?] cannot be literally heard, but can only be imagined by the listener who has already read it and is willing to unite it with music." Further: "To listen to a symphonic poem without the act of relating the program to the music--the prescription filled by the autonomy aesthetic--to reduce it to something else and to destroy its identity as a composite artwork."   

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Silent Protagonists Expand Video Game Storytelling

Monday, September 19, 2011 at 4:00 pm
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The "silent protagonist" is a narrative device unique to video games. The perception of these characters has long been that they help players become a part of the game they are playing, rather than just an interactive member of the audience. This enables us to feel like we're the ones leading a rebellion or saving the world, not just the puppet-masters of some foot soldier or spy or expert assassin taking on something much larger.

I've struggled a bit recently with this sentiment. As I scroll through my mental Rolodex of memorable video game heroes, I notice that a great many of them are quiet, and yet they have been functions of some incredibly thoughtful, character-driven narratives. To me, this means that contrary to the original long-standing belief, silent protagonists aren't really used as blank slates on which we draw our escapism. Instead, I think they're used to put the attention on more important aspects of the interactive narrative.

This week we're going to look at three characters who typify the "silent protagonist" role -- Jack from BioShock, Link from Legend of Zelda, and finally Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series. They each deliver a peculiar experience that is made resonant by their silence.

Warning: Some spoilers ahead...

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Where War Video Games Could Go Post 9/11

Monday, September 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm
We lost Six Days in Fallujah.
Yesterday Joystick Division's own Mitch Krpata offered a thought-provoking piece on Gears of War functioning as an artistic response to 9/11. Simply put, the third-person shooter chronicles a gun-loaded, adrenaline-pumped team against an overwhelming, underground enemy known as Locust.

Gears of War can be viewed as an allegory of American affairs post 9/11, and like many popular war video games, it does not tackle 9/11 head on. However controversial, it's time for a commercial video game that doesn't hold back, offering a rich narrative that explicitly reflects on the atrocious attacks and what our country is doing in their wake. Other media has been doing just that for a decade.

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The Ideals of Andrew Ryan & Cave Johnson

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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The space of time between World War II and the Vietnam conflict was filled with brilliant, far-flinging ideals and concepts put into practice. Both science and industry were propelled forth with a tremendous fervor, built on the shoulders of the working class by men who needed able bodies to perpetuate their grandiose ideas. This space has been the broad canvas on which video game developers have explored the nuances of that time, and of the conditions of society there, to portray some of the most compelling stories of our own current generation.

Cave Johnson of Portal 2, and BioShock's Andrew Ryan before him, are characters that serve as foils for societies of that specific time, embodying all that was great and innovative about the post-war philosophical renaissance, while being ultimately crippled by its foundational flaws. Video games have the potential to explore those fictional scenarios -- where complicated philosophy can be acted out in full. We enter their worlds, discover the tumult and woes that plagued them, and understand how character revelation, marked by hubris, is an electric and enlightening narrative device.

Warning: Spoilers ahead...

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