Recent Video Games and the Advent of Moral Universes

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 10:00 am
Does Snake have morals?
As a part-time academic (I teach at a university), I think it's never too late to summon video game analyses that first appeared more than five years ago. It's important to understand those texts, and to engage in a dialogue with the original author(s) as we build on their findings. Think link blogging with some fancier words.

Through a little digging, I came across Neal Thomas' well-rounded 2006 piece "Video Games as Moral Universes," which, as the title suggests, considers how video games "simulate the real world in increasingly complex ways." It's a think piece worth exploring and applying to Metal Gear Solid 4, among other titles.

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BioShock's Rapture Is A Tacit, Metaphorical Narrator

Monday, August 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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Firsthand exploration is an experiential storytelling device peculiar to video games. In no other narrative medium can I peer through a window into what is essentially a functional, living, and moving world -- one that lets me interact with what stands before me. It goes beyond that of other narratives; a video game world doesn't need to be described, and I can do more than just see the setting, static and within a few frames.

But it is in the setting where many games fail to realize the video game potential for that whole new dimension of storytelling. Too often the backdrop of a game is utilized as just that -- a landscape on which the events of a game occur. But video game worlds can portray rich histories, character arcs, and aid a narrative in aesthetics and atmosphere. And it is never more evident than BioShock's broken kingdom, Rapture.

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Is There a Video Game as Campy as The Room?

Monday, August 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm
Oh hai, video game!
My local indie theaters has been screening Tommy Wiseau's magnum opus The Room as its midnight feature. After years of ridicule and celebration in pop culture, it's a cult classic labeled as a black comedy. But really, it's a drama so bad, so putrid, that it falls under what we consider "pure camp," which I'll cover later. It centers on a man named banker/computer businessman named Johnny betrayed by friends and his lover, Lisa. The dialogue, minimal scene changes and nightmare-ish sex scenes - let alone the suicidal ending - make for a narrative like no other, something that looks like Wiseau puked on Melrose's Place.

When it screens at my theater, certain rituals are at play. People throw plastic spoons whenever they see the framed spoon picture in Johnny's home. They throw footballs when Johnny and his friends throw football three feet apart, and they yell "Go! Go! Go! Go!" when the camera pans across the San Francisco skyline.

But you might already know about the magic of The Room. As a new fan of the film and a gamer, I'm thinking about video games that deserve the same recognition. There are plenty out there for consideration, including The Room video game at

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Gameplay Distracts & The Evolution Of The Narrative I.V. Drip

Monday, August 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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There has long been a problem inherent to first-person shooters. Per their general formula, they attempt to offer a bi-linear experience to gamers. Primarily, most first-person shooters are challenging and aggressive exercises in coordination, response, and precision, which the developers typically handle brilliantly. And secondarily, they are narrative conveyors -- producing stories swirling with themes of war, rebellion, and unrest. This second portion isn't usually quite as successful.

The problem resides in how these two facets have detracted from one another, with the gameplay aspect representing the bulk of the package, and the narrative shelved because of it. For me, the games have just been eight-hour long distractions from hour long stories. But a slow evolution in the first-person shooter genre has allowed for the narrative to shine, and sometimes even benefit from the gameplay that shares its space.

This week I'm going to look at a few of the most popular and lauded first-person shooters of all time, including Halo, BioShock, and Portal 2. It is within those three examples that we can understand the maturing of the FPS narrative.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

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Yes, a Video Game's Sandbox Can Kill its Narrative

Monday, August 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm
Do you really know Niko Bellic?
Of course the question of gameplay versus narrative is still relevant, and it will remain so for many years to come, especially as more games feature narratives unraveled and knit together by open-world gameplay. These are often billed as "sandbox" games, which is a gameplay style that allows the player to freely explore a game's world, completing side-quests, advancing subplots, killing random people, or engaging in various other activities that aren't oriented directly towards beating the game. Or as Steve Berlin of Gamasutra posits in "The History and Theory of Sandbox Gameplay"

"The concept of sandbox-style gameplay, as we know, suggests more-or-less undirected free-play. The metaphor is a child playing in a sandbox: the child produces a world from sand, the most basic of material. This in contrast to a game where the upper-level content is presented fully formed and ordered."

Game commentators like Berlin have tackled the aforementioned question, considering such titles as Grand Theft Auto IV, Assassin's Creed and Red Dead Redemption. My piece is a follow-up to such commentary, which has legitimate concerns about sandbox elements negating a game's narrative. Narrative struggles in the sandbox if that sandbox is too big and malleable.

From an optimist's point of view, L.A. Noire makes a case for a narrative complemented by a scaled-down sandbox, or a world with fewer distractions. Some argue that it's not a sandbox at all.

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LA Noire's Video Gameness Makes For A Twisted Character Study

Monday, July 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm
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A character study is a work of fiction that puts the delineation of a central character's nature ahead of all other plot and story elements. For most video games, the developers' intent is to shelve any deep backstory, nuance, or exposition in favor of protagonist anonymity. This is to allow the player to project his or herself onto that protagonist as a means of becoming more immersed in the story.

Innately, LA Noire is a rare calculated character study. The events that unfold in the story are merely vehicles to usher along the revelation of Cole Phelps' history and the complexities of his personality. But while the deliberate content of the narrative makes for a painful and somewhat eerie story, there is something intrinsic to the video game medium which makes LA Noire very different -- something unintentional and off-kilter. Away from the suspension of disbelief, LA Noire is a sort of ridiculous study of an unhinged, possibly psychopathic, police officer looking to rehabilitate himself. And more, an exposé of how strict realism can't yet be achieved in video games.

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead...

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Does the Double-Narrative Structure Work in Video Games?

Monday, July 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm
Can video games have three narratives?
Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is the most gripping book I've read in the last year, and it's something I should have read in 2000, when it first hit book stores. The Rich Shivener then, just a teenager, wasn't ready for a tome like this. I barely am now. Maybe that's why I enjoy it so much. Each chapter leaves me with more questions about the key characters -- Johnny Truant, Zampanò, and the Navidson family. It haunts me. It challenges me.

A rare case, it's a book that affects three narratives, all with their unique conflicts, character developments, diversions and resolutions. Readers are compelled to follow a story within a story within a story, or perhaps three stories connected by the mystique of the central characters. I still struggle to explain the book's structure and level of interactivity. I hazard to give away what's at play there.

Some recent video games, like House of Leaves, unpack multiple narratives, aiming to flesh out such characters as Spider-Man, Desmond Miles of Assassin's Creed and Captain Alex Mason, the central character in Call of Duty: Black Ops.

We can examine them with what I'll call the House of Leaves lens. Drinks are welcome. 

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Deadly Premonition & The Unreliable Narrator

Monday, July 11, 2011 at 10:00 am
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Though it was largely criticized for its dated gameplay, graphics, and controls, Deadly Premonition was almost universally praised for its intriguing characters and gutty, ultimately very harrowing narrative. I've waxed ad nauseum since its release, as have other cult fans, not because it is a game that we love deeply, but because the contents therein are so disturbing and compelling that it requires a high level of consideration.

Part of the brilliance of the story is how it flits back and forth between the quirky, Twin Peaks real world and the phantasm-laced shadow world as violence and evil become focal points in the immediate plot. And, while that can be taken at face-value as a typical mechanism of the horror genre, I think there's something much more intrinsic and methodical about this approach, and one that enlightens us about our hero. It lies within Francis York Morgan's damaged psyche, and psychological deception within the walls of the narrative.

Warning: Game-ruining plot spoilers ahead. Only read if you've played the game...

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Aye! The Case for Tales of Monkey Island as a Saturday Morning Cartoon

Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 4:00 pm
Guybrush Threepwood, Awesome Pirate.
As I've been swashbuckling through the iPad version of Tales of Monkey Island, I've been focusing on its narrative, something that outweighs its gameplay, which is essentially limited to clicks and drags. Many graphic adventure video games operate this way, and it's a design like this that calls for a strong narrative. Tales of Monkey Island has just that, chronicling the exploits of Guybrush Threepwood and his seaside friends and foes. The five-episode set was developed by Telltale Games, the collective mind behind such releases as Back to the Future: The Game and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People.

Telltale's releases, including these Tales, are oft regarded as humorous, irreverent, puzzling and seriously awesome. Tales of Monkey Island saw another revival late last year when it dropped on the iOS, and like those aforementioned titles, it's now available on a number of video game-ready devices. In fact, Episode 5: Rise of the Pirate God dropped June 23 on the iOS. 

It shouldn't stop there. Tales of Monkey Island is ready for another voyage in the seas of media: television. To plunder a few cliches, I suspect smooth sailing because the game has the booty of an animated series - and perhaps an animated feature.

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Limbo Is A Poem

Monday, June 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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As I've mentally hashed it out over this past year, I've come to realize that Limbo is not a video game in the traditional sense. It plays, looks, and feels like one, but it employs a certain literary device in its narrative that brands it distinctive. Limbo isn't just a simple platforming puzzle game. It is a poem. And it hits like one -- it is raw, intimate, and immediate, and brimming with interpretive symbolism.

And since its release, it has haunted my thoughts on a noticeable scale -- far more than any other video game I've played since. I would say that I go back to its dark, lurid confinement daily and meditate on it briefly, in confused admiration, and then store it away again. It has become something that I need to work to grasp.

Warning: Serious Spoilers Ahead...

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