BG43 – QWOP, GIRP and the Construction of Video Game Realism

Futurismic have my forty-third Blasphemous Geometries column.

The column uses Bennett Foddy’s flash games QWOP and GIRP to investigate the concept of realism in a video game concept.  In a recent article in Wired magazine, Foddy was championed for his commitment to “soul-crushing, low-reward realism” in video games but are GIRP and QWOP really more realistic than Assassin’s Creed?

While there is definitely something ‘unrealistic’ about the ease of physical movement displayed by the characters in Assassin’s Creed, it does not follow that QWOP and GIRP are ‘realistic’ simply because they make physical activity seem a lot more difficult. Indeed, most gamers are in fact capable of walking a few steps and climbing over a wall without falling over or drowning. They can do these things because, for most people, walking and climbing are skills that are learned in infancy, skills that they have mastered to the point where using them no longer required conscious thought. By asking us to focus upon how the laws of physics interact with the movement of our muscles while walking, Foddy is asking us to take control of a character who has not yet mastered the art of walking. But such a character is no more representative of ‘real life’ than a character who can scale a building without breaking a sweat. Both Assassin’s Creed and QWOP present us with highly selective visions of reality, visions that instantly belie any claim to artistic realism suggesting that, yet again, claims or artistic realism are nothing more than rhetorical hot air.

A better way of looking at Foddy’s games is to consider them as an interrogation of the control mechanisms that gamers have come to take for granted.  Gamers pick up a game assuming that they will be able to run and jump and kill with effortless grace, Foddy’s games deny them that ease of access. His games make the most mundane tasks crushingly difficult and so draws our attention to the manufactured nature of gaming reality.

I conclude the column by pointing out that a lot of what we think of as ‘hardcore games’ are in fact nothing more than games that refuse to call into question the basic assumptions and conceits of gaming.  In order to play a hardcore game, you have to be familiar with the games that came before it. In truth, ‘Hardcore’ games are nothing more than unimaginative games that are content to echo the design decisions made in earlier games. ‘Hardcore gaming’ is nothing more than unadventurous and conservative gaming rebranded.

BG42 – Infamous 2: Mindless Fun and the Basis for Aesthetic Judgement

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column.

This column is probably best seen as an exercise in consolidation as it tries to tie together some of my more recent critical obsessions.  I begin with not one but two reviews of the recent sandbox game Infamous 2 (2011).  One review praises the game’s thoughtfulness and its addictive qualities while the other uses that addictiveness as the basis for an accusation that the game is manipulative and dishonest.  My drilling down into the question of whether ‘manipulation’ and ‘addictiveness’ are necessarily bad things, I am trying to make sense both of the process of aesthetic judgement (i.e. how we decide what we like and what we hate) and the way in which our culture praises some forms of emotional manipulation whilst demonising others.  I’m not sure that I reach any firm conclusions and the column does revisit some ground I have already tended but it may well be of interest to the people who were horrified by my recent defence of Michael Bay:

Works that ground their appeal in quirks of human neural architecture challenge the view that humans are self-contained and perfectly rational beings. By playing on deep-seated fears and weird cognitive biases, these works cast doubts upon all of our thoughts and feelings. After all, if Michael Bay can manipulate our brains into caring about fictional giant robots, what does this say about the people we really do care about? Is love nothing but a squirt of chemicals? Is religious transcendence but an electrical fluke? The true crime of mindless fun is not that it is stupid or that it is politically reactionary, but that it reminds us that we are nothing more than an arrangement of neural circuits and chemical ejaculations that happen to produce this thing we call consciousness.

It seems to me that, a lot of the time, aesthetic judgements are nothing more than elaborate displays of identification.  When we proclaim our love for such-and-such an author and such-and-such a work we are not just expressing our opinions, we are also trying to identify ourselves with the values and social symbols that surround that particular author or work. “I love Glee!” also means “I wish to be seen and judged as a person who likes Glee!”

BG 41 – Last Tuesday: How to Make an Art House Video Game

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries Column.

The column arose from the fact that, instead of playing a new game like a good columnist, I instead devoted all of my video game time over the last month to replaying Oblivion and Europa Universalis III. By the way, Oblivion is so much more fun if you play it as a warrior instead of a sneaky bloke with a bow. As the deadline loomed, I realised that I had better start looking around for a slightly shorter game to play and I stumbled across Jake Elliott’s indie game Last Tuesday, which can be downloaded for free HERE. Elliott’s game so closely adhered to the template of art house cinema that the column pretty much wrote itself:

Many of the earliest writings on film are psychological in nature because filmmakers were desperate to understand how it was that the human brain took a series of stills photographs and constructed it into not just a moving image but also an entire narrative. Indeed, it is said that when the Lumiere brothers first showed moving images of an approaching train to Parisian audiences, members of the audience fled in panic because they had not yet learned to distinguish between a large moving image of an oncoming train and an actual oncoming train. In order to ‘make sense’ of what it was they were seeing, audiences had to acquire the correct interpretative strategy.  A hundred years later and art house audiences are expected to be able to draw not only on the skills required to make sense of moving images but also upon a veritable arsenal of interpretative techniques used to shed light on narratives filled with the sorts of intentional ambiguities, inconsistencies and plot holes that would be decried as incompetence were it not for the fact that they were evidence of genius.

While I’m particularly proud of how my analysis of the art-house sensibility turned out, I’m also quite happy with my analysis of Elliott’s game. Go play it!

BG 40 – Pixel-Bitching: L.A. Noire and the Art of Conversation

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column.

The column is about the various attempts by game-designers to emulate the cut and thrust of human social interaction.  I begin by taking and in-depth look at L.A. Noire‘s attempts to climb out of the uncanny valley before widening the aperture a touch and taking a look at some of the theoretical challenges that need to be overcome before games become capable of modelling conversation as well as they model shooting people in the face and slicing them up with great big swords:

Phelps’ capacity to be inhuman to his fellow man helps him to understand his fellow humans better… thereby raising the possibility that Phelps is in fact a sort of autistic Colonel Kurtz whose willingness to commit acts of terrible violence is a form of spiritual strength. The road to Nirvana is easy to walk when you are wearing jack-boots.

However, in the interest of full disclosure I do feel obliged to make clear the fact that I did not come up with the term ‘pixel-bitching’ all by myself. The term used to be bandied about on the RPGnet forums as a means of referring to a mode of adventure design whereby games masters will not allow the game to progress until the players have uncovered a single specific (and usually well-hidden) clue.  I’ve also heard the phenomenon referred to as a ‘plot bottleneck’ but I think that term fails to capture how irritating it can be to find yourself hunting for a single pixel in a digital landscape.

BG 39 – Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story: High School, Privacy and Blended Identity

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column.

This month’s column is about Christina Love’s latest indie game Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story, which can be downloaded for free on a variety of platforms.

Set in a weirdly Japan-ised American Highschool in 2027, the game explores issues of identity and social media.  As I suggest in the column, the game is best played as a companion piece to Love’s previous game, the equally excellent Digital: A Love Story, which I wrote about a little while ago. Together, the two games tackle the process of putting oneself online and interacting with other online souls from quite starkly diffing perspectives.

PS: In the article, I mention a paper by Andrea Baker called “Mick or Keith: blended identity of online rock fans”, it can be downloaded (for free) HERE.

BG 38 – Sucker Punch: Video Games and The Future of the Blockbuster

Futurismic have my 38th Blasphemous Geometries column.

The column is one part review of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch to one part examination of the nature of blockbusters to one part analysis of trends in popular culture and the way in which video games are coming to replace super heroes as the blockbuster genre medium of choice (hence the length):

Sucker Punch mirrors the growing intertextuality of the video game experience by having Baby Doll shift seamlessly between the reality of the game, the reality of the brothel and the reality of the insane asylum. However, what makes Sucker Punch such an interesting film is not the fact that it displays an impressively detailed understanding of video game aesthetics, but rather the way in which it uses these images and techniques to attempt to create a cinematic effect.

BG 37 – The American Dream is SPENT

Futurismic have my thirty seventh Blasphemous Geometries column.

Entitled “The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism”, the column looks at two different browser-based business simulation games and shows how, despite both operating on the assumption that capitalism is a functional rules-based system, the games use their different depictions of that system to produce withering critiques of contemporary capitalism.

BG 36 – Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths

Futurismic have my thirty sixth Blasphemous Geometries column.

The column argues that the reason why we tend to swing to the right when we play games is because the video game interface changes the way we perceive the world.  Strategy games effectively make us see like a state and when we see like a state certain human values (like the cost of grand strategies in individual human lives) and concerns disappear but other values and concerns (such as stability of the international system and efficiency of government) appear to take their place.

The column draws quite heavily on the work of James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998) but I am much more willing to lend the state an agency of its own than Scott was in the context of that book.  One reason why I did this is because I read and wrote about Scott’s more recent book The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), which really does present the state as a class of  entity in its own right.

BG 35 – Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events

Futurismic have my thirty fifth Blasphemous Geometries column entitled “Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events”.

Evidently, I am absolutely terrible at Quick Time events as I managed to achieve what is evidently the most downbeat ending that Heavy Rain has to offer (killer goes free, everyone else dies in misery), but despite my lack of basic competence at… well… video games in general, I nonetheless saw in Heavy Rain a quite revolutionary approach to gaming.  An approach that restricts interactivity whilst also managing to make what little interaction the game allows seem so much more important and meaningful.  A brilliant game and an enjoyable column to write.

BG 34 – Digital: A Love Story; Nostalgia, Irony and Cyberpunk

After a month’s break, Futurismic have my thirty fourth Blasphemous Geometries column.

The subject of this month’s column is Christine Love’s amazing indie (and freely downloadable!) game Digital: A Love Story and how some video games deploy nostalgia in a decidedly ironic register in order to both revisit the past and deconstruct our desire for a non-existent idyll.