BG47 – Hang All The Critics

Futurismic have just published my forty-seventh Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Hang all the Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing’.

I originally wrote the column about ten days ago but last weekend I became aware of two significant blogospheric shit-storms that seem to provide an interesting context for the column.  The first shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by an article about yoga and the second shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by a review of an epic fantasy novel. Though ostensibly very different in their origins and subject matters, both shit-storms involve a community reacting very angrily to negative coverage from a perceived outsider. In the case of the ‘yoga community’, the outsider is the New York Times senior science writer William Broad and, in the case of the ‘epic fantasy community’, the outsider is the Strange Horizons reviewer and post-graduate student Liz Bourke.

The link between these blogstorms and my most recent video games column is that ‘Hang All the Critics’ is an attempt to confront the fact that the age of the critic has now passed. Criticism and its less well-heeled cousin reviewing rely upon the assumption that a person of reasonable insight and creative flair can consume a cultural product and issue an opinion or reaction to that will be of use to other people despite the fact that these other people might have very different tastes and interests.

It is no accident that the role of the critic has its roots in the cafe culture of the 17th Century as the coffee shops frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson tended to be cramped places where all kinds of bourgeois intellectuals were forced to rub shoulders. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the Internet’s infinite potential for space is that people from a particular class and with a particular set of interests are no longer forced to rub shoulders with people with ever-so-slightly different sets of tastes. These days, if you are interested in steam locomotives but not other forms of train then you are in no way obliged to encounter the opinions of people who consider steam trains to be a quaint but outmoded form of technology. The more the Internet matures, the more interest groups fragment and the more interest groups fragment, the more isolated and tribal these communities become. There is no place for criticism in a world dominated by tribal conflicts and persecution complexes, this is why Liz Bourke and William Broad got it in the neck and this is why Rotten Tomatoes is filled with people reacting angrily to the idea that a film they haven’t seen might not be as good as they expect. The age of the critic is at an end and it is time to change the way we do business.

Needless to say, I am not the first person to notice the collapse of our culture’s public spaces. Indeed, many reviewers and critics have attempted to respond to the increasingly commercial and tribal nature of the public sphere either by retreating into the walled-garden of academia or by creating a tribal space of their own. While I can entirely understand this desire for retrenchment, I think that it is ultimately an act of cowardice:

As someone who has never once tried to review a game for a major site, I am not in the least bit opposed to the fracturing of public space in order to create environments in which inaccessible forms of writing are protected from the vagaries of commerce and popular tastes. A recent comment on one of my pieces described my style as “masturbatory” and I find myself absolutely powerless to disagree. There is something decidedly self-indulgent about sharing one’s opinions online — particularly when one makes little or no effort to reach out to the majority of people interested in a particular topic — and this kind of self-indulgence is not about subjecting games to serious intellectual scrutiny or ‘consolidating a continuous counterbalance’; is a cowardly retreat from the public sphere, driven by the recognition that my opinions are of use to nobody but myself. There is absolutely nothing brave or revolutionary about taking your ball and going home.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad is not that they are wrong to feel the way they feel. Life in the 21st Century is frequently lonely and it is easy to begin thinking of one’s sub-culture as a kind of family that provides us with both an identity and a set of values. When you invest yourself that heavily in a particular sub-culture then it makes perfect sense that you should bristle when that elements of that sub-culture come under fire from outsiders. Even if you don’t like a particular novel or have your own concerns about the way that yoga is taught, it is one thing to hear those feelings from someone you trust and quite another to hear them from someone you don’t know. Ever bitched about a sibling to a member of your family? ever defended that same sibling when they came under fire from someone else? Some truths can only be spoken inside the family.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad (or the people who complained about Uncharted 3 only getting 8 out of 10) is not that they are wrong, it is that they are being insular. As I said elsewhere, the most wonderful thing in the world is to have someone care enough to listen to you and tell you that you are completely full of shit. By wanting to protect epic fantasy from outsiders like Bourke, the defenders of epic fantasy (and those of yoga) are closing themselves off to a potential source of cultural renewal.

I would like to believe that there is a place for people like Bourke and Broad because I would like to believe that there is a place for cultural generalists and for people who take the ideas and values of one culture and carry them into those of another.  This blog is very much devoted to the idea that a single person can look at radically different forms and subject matters and say something of value about them. Unfortunately, while I would like to believe that there is a place for that form of cultural generalism, I think that the Internet is growing increasingly hostile to it. After all, why listen to random strangers when you can only listen to fellow academics, fantasy fans, yoga enthusiasts, republicans or furries? Why listen to anyone other than yourself?

BG45 – Demon’s Souls and the Meaning and Import of Virtual Death

Futurismic have my forty-fifth Blasphemous Geometries column about From Software’s Demon’s Souls and its place in the history of video game attitudes towards death.

Following on from some of my thoughts on Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, the column argues that rather than trying to downplay virtual death by re-packaging it as with Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia‘s talk of death-as-flawed-memory, video game designers ought to follow From Software in embracing the cataclysmic number of deaths that feature in their games. Indeed, what makes Demon’s Souls such a fascinating game is its relentless downbeat tone and its recognition of the fact that characters will die and players will give up in disgust. Clearly, if Demon’s Souls had been a film, it would have been directed by Ingmar Bergman. The column also draws the reader’s attention to Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon, a book all about the psychological impact of experiencing a futile death over and over again…

Nowhere is the need for unpleasantness greater than in video gaming’s attitude to death.  What was once a means of rationing the time people spent hogging a particular arcade machine has now ossified into a set of linguistic tics that are now completely disconnected from both their real-world and in-game significances. Video games ask us to die over and over again but rather than acknowledging this fact, many game designers seek to minimise the impact of these sacrifices by explaining them away as lapses in memory. By trivialising death, game designers have not only cheapened the lives of our characters, they have also deprived themselves of one of the most powerful thematic motifs in all of art and literature.

Games like Demon’s Souls recognise that they are dealing in death and this recognition is genuinely disconcerting. Like death itself, Demon’s Souls is utterly indifferent to both our presence in the game and our attempts at engaging with it. Demon’s Souls is a game of misery tempered by frustration, and its unapologetic recognition of this fact is what makes it both different and great. While I appreciate Walker’s point, I cannot help but feel that he is looking at the problem in entirely the wrong way: Let us not repackage death, but rather celebrate it as the core of the video game experience.

Having spent a good deal of time playing carefully-packaged AAA-rated titles for this column, one of the continuing joys of Demon’s Souls remains its complete indifference to my presence.  Forty hours in and I’m still not completely clear on how many basic aspects of the game actually work. One of the game’s major mechanics involves shifting between different forms and you begin to pick up magical items helping with that transition a long time before you actually realise what it means. Similarly, it took me about 20 hours to realise that the game had a magic system. In a video game culture full of shallow joys and craven player-pandering, there is something truly wonderful in From Software’s complete indifference to whether or not we ever get the hang of the game.

BG44 – The Shameful Joys of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column devoted to Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.

A lot has been made of this game’s boss fights and the myriad niggles and irritations that conspire to make its game-play something of an uphill struggle. I will not deny, this game inspired more rage-quits than any game in recent memory. However, rather than seeing these irritations as products of genre-confusion and outdated game design, I decided to consider these problems as part of the game’s central aesthetic and sub-text. I conclude that, whereas the original Deus Ex games were all about empowering the player, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions is all about claustrophobia, prejudice and being forced into a position of willing servitude:

Taken together, these racial and economic narratives combine to create an almost intolerable atmosphere of disempowerment. Whereas Deus Ex sought to empower its players, Deus Ex: Human Revolution constantly reminds them of how worthless and incompetent they really are. Playing DXHR is like spending an afternoon with a depressed and alcoholic mother who is not only disappointed with what you have made of yourself, but also insistent on letting you know how she feels about your failure as an individual. However, as unpleasant as DXHR can be, it is an intensely enjoyable game. Indeed, the game’s real thematic power lies not in its narratives of disenfranchisement and oppression, but in the fact that it keeps us coming back for more in spite of them.

All too often, reviewers tend to assume that any mechanic that is not fun is broken. I simply could not disagree more, all mechanics tell a story… you just need to open your mind and play the story that the game wants to tell.

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.