Archive for October, 2009

Looking Back at the Aughts

For the next several weeks, I’m going to be working with my friend and colleague Troy Goodfellow on a special project over at Flash of Steel. Troy is wrapping up 2009 with a decade retrospective on strategy gaming since the turn of the millenium, and he was kind enough to invite me to contribute. Troy, Bruce Geryk, and myself are picking out a game from each year of the decade that we think was significant in some way.

In true strategy gamer tradition, we don’t remotely agree one what constitutes a strategy game, so you may see some eyebrow-raising choices over the next couple months. We’ll probably stretch and twist the definition pretty mercilessly.

Anyway, I kicked things off yesterday with a piece on Shogun: Total War. It’s not my favorite of the Total War series, but I would argue it is the most important and perhaps the most interesting. So come gaze into the Pensieve, and together we will revisit 2000, and a pivotal moment in my life as a gamer.

Captain, Pride Will Be the Death of You

Patrol, March-April 1940 – Off the Yorkshire Coast

The greatest danger I face in Silent Hunter III is overconfidence. After a few months of raiding British and Norwegian shipping without having to worry about destroyer escorts or air cover, I have developed bad habits.

I bring my U-boat to the surface without bothering to do a periscope check, because there is never anyone nearby. I start surface cruising while the sun is still setting rather than waiting for nightfall. I push my luck well past dawn, enjoying the higher speeds my Type VIIB U-boat can achieve compared to its glacial pace below the surface and its crummy batteries.

I have shot it out with a flight of Hurricane fighter-bombers rather than dive to safety. The other morning I launched torpedoes at a British cargo ship while a destroyer closed in from behind. It’s not like the Royal Navy is suddenly going to become competent.

Most missions in Silent Hunter III are not this exciting or rewarding. At this stage of the war, there is not enough shipping traffic across the Atlantic to make deep-ocean patrols very productive. Furthermore, blue water commerce raiding is conducted almost exclusively with torpedo attacks. The seas in the Mid-Atlantic range from rough to terrifying, so I can never use my 88mm deck gun. This is the downside of the way the U-boat is designed. It has such a shallow draft, and rides so low across the surface, that it gets tossed around like a bath toy in stormy seas. Unless the ocean is smooth as glass, crew members can’t safely walk out to the gun platform on the bow of the boat.

This used to drive me crazy, because there were times I would look at the gentle waves rocking my ship and think, “What kind of wimps couldn’t walk fifteen feet across the deck in this?” I’ve mellowed, however, since I took a ferry across Lake Michigan last month and encountered significant chop. I was standing below the bridge on the ferry’s upper deck when I got slammed in the face by a wave that somehow vaulted the 20 feet from the waterline to my face. Then I tried to walk back across the slick and pitching deck while being pelted by more shockingly cold waves. I was almost on my hands and knees by the time I made it inside the cabin. Now I understand, and you couldn’t get me onto the deck of a heaving U-boat at gunpoint

Still, it’s annoying to be forced to rely on torpedoes. They’re unreliable even when they hit the target, and hitting the target is far from easy. Plus, my Type VII only has room for about ten of them. Since it’s rare to sink a ship with anything less than two torpedoes, and they fail 30% of the time, I’m probably not going to get more than three kills with them.

Fortunately, my most recent mission assigned me to calm coastal waters off the northeastern coast of England, which allowed me to use the deck gun. Better still, it put me on the trade lanes between Scandinavia and England, near the bay leading out of the Firth of Forth. Once I arrived on site, my patrol turned into the beach scene from Jaws.

No sooner had I sent one freighter to the bottom than I stumbled across another one. From sundown to sunrise, every night was a killing spree. Once I’d finished my assigned patrol, I started angling closer and closer toward the Firth of Forth. The Royal Navy seemed to vector more destroyers into that sector as the body count increased, but they couldn’t detect me even when we were within a couple kilometers.

My ammunition for the deck gun started to run low and I tried a more frugal routine. I would strike first with a torpedo, then finish them off with shots from the 88.

My first attempt at running this kind of attack, however, is when the computer decided to screw me.

I was stalking a medium sized merchantman in the middle of the night. He had no idea I was nearby as I moved to close on him. However, he was moving fast and would soon leave my ideal “attack window.”

Because  torpedoes are so dodgy in this game, you really want your shots to approach the target from close to perpendicular.  A torpedo that strikes the hull at less than a 45 angle is very likely to glance off.

So I was going to launch from medium range and finish him off with the 88. Since it was a rather large cargo ship, I decided to launch a pair of torpedoes with a one degree spread between them. At this range, that should have both of them striking the fore and aft of the target. With luck, they might kill it.

What I didn’t realize is that they were two different models of torpedo: the first was the steam-powered torpedo with variable speed settings. I adjused it to medium speed, since I didn’t want it running out of power before reaching the target. The slowest setting has a very long range, but I have found that the longer the time to target, the lower the chance that you will actually hit.

Unfortunately, the second torpedo was the electric model, which has one speed: slow.  It pretty much walks from your U-boat, stops at a diner along the way, has breakfast and two coffee refills, then finishes its leisurely commute to whatever the hell you’re trying to kill.

I am not a fan.

Not checking to make sure the torpedoes matched was my fault. However, what the computer did wrong was calculate a firing solution as if the torpedoes were identical.

So when I fired at 5000 m, one of the torpedoes was a miss straight away. I watched it fall behind the first torpedo, until over a kilometer opened up between them. However, the first torpedo was still on track to hit.

This is when I sent my gun crew topside and the computer screwed me over for a second time. Because I was busy making course adjustments, crew reassignments, and tracking my torpedo’s progress, I detailed my watch officer to oversee the gun. I’d relieve him once I was finished with my other tasks.

We were at 3500 m and the torpedo was still 90 seconds from impact, when he started blasting away as fast as the crew could reload. I quickly ordered him to cease fire, but the damage was done. Through my range-finder I could see the merchantman freak. He throttled up and jammed the rudder to port. My torpedo’s firing solution was completely blown, and it passed behind the target.

The reason my watch officer opened fire is because, three days earlier, I had given him the order to fire at will. Silent Hunter III remembers what your last orders were to the watch officer, and considers those orders to be standing. So when he took position, he had the order, “Fire at will” even though it made no sense to do so.

The merchie was making an impressive run for it, so I fired another fast torpedo in the hopes of hobbling him. It was a beautiful shot and caught him squarely in the middle of a starboard zag… but the torpedo bounced off the hull.

Three torpedoes. Not a single hit.

I popped a pair of starburst shells into the night sky above the merchant. They blazed to life on either side of him, turning his patch of ocean brighter than daytime and letting me watch my shot-fall. I took over the deck gun and opened fire.

It refused to die.

I hammered it for over ten minutes before it finally gave up the ghost. Between my idiot watch officer’s moment of glory and my own gunnery, this attack had cost me about 20 high-explosive rounds for my gun. This represented about a quarter of my high-explosive ammo.

Just like that, my picture perfect patrol had taken a sharp turn for the worse. Suddenly I was low on every kind of ship-killing ammunition, because of bad luck and some insane decision from my AI crewmen.

Even though I scored quite a few more kills over the remainder of the patrol, I had to become much more miserly in how I attacked. My cause was not helped by the fact that I only scored about four torpedo hits on my entire patrol. I headed home having sunk about 9000 tons less than I should have.

At this stage of the game, I’m pretty much playing for high-scores. My next sortie, I’m going to try and break the 35,000 tons that I sank on this patrol. It’s frustrating, however, to be so hindered by misfiring torpedoes and boneheaded mistakes. I always get back to the sub pens at Kiel, look at my patrol report, and immediately start thinking about how many more ships I could have killed if only things had worked.

Then I promise myself things will go better next time, and I head back out. In early 1940, ammunition is the only thing slowing me down.

Heir to the Empire Rediscovered

A couple days ago I moved the front layer of sci-fi paperbacks off the bookshelf and started digging around in the row they had been hiding. I was trying to locate my copy of Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn’s first Star Wars novel and the book that pretty much launched the “Expanded Universe”. I probably read his trilogy a dozen times when I was growing up, and his books did as much as the movies to turn me into a Star Wars fanatic. In point of fact, Timothy Zahn understood the Star Wars universe much better than George Lucas ultimately did. Much of what I cherished in that universe is actually Zahn’s doing, not Lucas’s.

Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire

Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the main protagonists in TIE Fighter and its expansions, was Zahn’s creation and remains one of the best villains I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Thrawn is as calculating as Sherlock Holmes, as charismatic as Patton, and as coldly brutal as Michael Corleone. An aesthete who studies art to psychologically profile his enemies, Thrawn consistently remains two or three steps ahead of the New Republic’s leadership until the very end. He is also an outsider to the Imperial power structure. A nonhuman who attained the highest rank in a deeply xenophobic military, Thrawn always seems to regard the dead Emperor and Lord Vader with a mixture of contempt and amusement. He is cleaning up after their mess because they were stupid and racist, and Thrawn is neither. He represents both the kind of talent that is driven underground in a society based on inequality, and the kind of unrelenting self-assurance and ruthlessness that come with being a minority member of such a ruling class.

If you played the Star Wars video games, you saw a lot of material and concepts that came from Zahn’s work. The Imperial Interdictor Cruiser, which prevented ships from entering hyperspace and often played a crucial roll in TIE Fighter missions, was his creation. As was the Z-95 Headhunter, the Dreadnaught-class Heavy Cruiser, the Escort Carrier, the Golan Defense Platform, and many of the other craft that showed up in Lawrence Holland’s Star Wars sims. I loved the movies, but Zahn and Holland ultimately made Star Wars real to me.

Like Fine Wine

When I was moving into my apartment a few months ago, I unpacked Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command and held them briefly, wondering if their 1500 pages would still be as magical to me now as they were when I was a kid.  Much of the sci-fi and fantasy that I enjoyed as child and teenager has not really survived my growing sophistication as a reader and writer. What was once exciting is revealed to be contrived. What was vivid is gaudy. What was romantic and sexy is cliched and childish.

Happily, Zahn’s trilogy seems to have escaped that fate. I was in its grip from the moment the book began, with Captain Pellaeon dressing down a young lieutenant aboard the Star Destroyer Chimaera before taking a report to Thrawn’s private chamber. Characters like Pellaeon, Thrawn, twisted Jedi Master Joruus C’Baoth, smuggler chieftan Talon Karrde, and Mara Jade remain as interesting to me as ever. In fact, I find in many ways I am getting more out of the books now than I did when I was young. Some of the subtleties of character that I missed are more apparent.

For instance, Lando Calrissian often seemed like the dandified fop of Star Wars’ band of heroes. But Zahn understood that most of what we saw of Lando was an act. His smooth charm, gaudy tastes, and rakish attitude toward business was mostly an act he put on to fool both Han and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. He was “good old Lando” with Han because he had already sold Han out and needed to cover that fact. He was a low-rent criminal and gambler with Vader because that was the only way he could keep Vader from simply killing him and seizing Cloud City. The “gentleman gambler” persona that he cultivated was overplayed by later and lesser Star Wars writers. Zahn takes care to show that Lando is shrewd, far more perceptive than he shows, and deadly serious about his enterprises.

Thrawn is another character who I find has eluded me until now. Where before I only noticed his tactical and strategic brilliance, and his uncanny ability to reach the right conclusions based on scant and fragmentary evidence, I am now realizing how blind he is to people’s feelings. Pellaeon sees it, which is why Pellaeon is secretly one of the book’s heroes. Pellaeon, despite a lifetime steeped in prejudice and service, understands people far better than does Thrawn. As Thrawn engages in a battle of wills with C’Baoth, Pellaeon realizes that Thrawn is the one who is out bounds. While Thrawn is making certain that C’Baoth knows his place, Pellaeon sees that Thrawn is trying to wring servility out of a proud man who already agreed to provide service. Pellaeon, not Thrawn, realizes that the Noghri assassins that Thrawn uses are not simply robotic killing machines. Thrawn dismisses a failed operation that will “only cost us some Noghri”, ignoring his Noghri bodyguard standing nearby. Pellaeon knows that Thrawn is falling prey to hubris.

Caught between an insane Jedi Master and a strong-willed genius, Pellaeon is forced to become a subtle manipulator and self-effacing counselor. He finds compromises between the two men that preserve their tenuous peace, and works to curb Thrawn’s worst excesses without Thrawn ever noticing. That Pellaeon has to do this, and is able to succed at it despite Thrawn’s keen intelligence, is the warning that Thrawn himself has fatal flaws.

Perhaps what most surprises me in this reading, however, is what Zahn did with the character of Luke Skywalker. What I missed in previous readings was how incredibly lonely and isolated Luke Skywalker has become since Return of the Jedi. Zahn really considers the implications of the tasks that Luke has been given, and what happens to someone like him as a universe that needed him starts to move on. Han and Leia are married and expecting the birth of their twins. Luke is suddenly on the outside of their relationship. His best friends have a life that is separate from his own. The Rebel Alliance has become the New Republic, and political operators are starting to take the reins from the Alliance’s original leadership. They are careful to show Luke respect, but neither need nor want his advice.

Worse, Luke must train the next generation of Jedi and does not know how. There are few records and no peers remaining. He must train his sister, and someday her children, but is haunted Ben Kenobi’s catastrophic failure with their father. People expect him to do a dangerous and delicate job for which is has had no training. He barely understands what it means to be a Jedi, yet people treat him as though he were an authority on the subject. He is oppressed by the specter of failure, and no longer has anyone who can really understand what he is going through.

It is telling that when Mara Jade changes course and drops out of hyperspace without really knowing why, the Force is guiding her to the place where Luke Skywalker is stranded with a broken hyperdrive. He is sleeping in the cockpit of his damaged X-Wing, the symbol of his identity as a war hero, lost in space and unable to move.

Like I said, I’m surprised at how well these books have held up.

Just a Restless Feeling

It’s about 7:45 and I’m finishing up coffee and breakfast in a cafe near my apartment in east Cambridge. I’ve been awake since 4:30. It has been raining all morning, and outside these windows it is a parade of dark umbrellas and shockingly bright ponchos. I am glad to be in here with my coffee and scone.

I used to arrive at school every morning at this time, and being up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning did not seem like much of a feat. For the past couple years, waking up anytime before 8 seemed like a miraculous event, one deserving of some kind of commendation medal. “For Excellence in Getting Out of Bed Prior to Lunch, the Committee Awards on This Day…”

Now my day starts well before dawn, because I have reluctantly acknowledged that I am unable to do any work that is the least bit intellectually taxing after lunch.

I don’t know what happens. Whatever I have for lunch, however much or little I have of it, I become an uncreative, distracted procrastinator the moment the dishes are cleared away. I can still do chores, play games, or even do some light editing work, but I cannot write or conduct much research.

It was killing me how I would deceive myself. I would front-load the day a bit, but I’d always promise myself that I could make up for lost time in the afternoon or early evening. Didn’t make my word-count? I’d get there before dinner. At the very least I’d put together a good outline.

So time and again I’d find myself, at 10 at night, staring at a legal pad with “OUTLINE” written across the top. Underneath, I’d have: “Main argument: WTF happened to video game manuals? This is bullshit.”

And underneath that: “Supporting argument 1: Manuals were cool.”

The rest of the page would be blank. This would represent 12 or 13 hours of “work” in which I pointlessly browsed the web, wrote and deleted several introductory paragraphs, and refused to let myself do anything else because I had not accomplished my day’s goals yet.

If there is one thing of which I am sure, it is that I am consistent in my inconsistency.  A few years ago I could only work in coffee shops, one in particular. If I couldn’t make it down College Avenue to one of the cafes, my entire day would end up going to waste. Then, for no reason at all, I stopped being able to get work done there and started to do all my work in my office. Then that stopped working, and I split work between my living room and libraries.

When I was a freshman in college, I couldn’t write a damn thing before 11 at night. My best papers were completed between midnight and dawn, except that suddenly I started missing deadlines because the night schedule stopped working. Suddenly I could only work between lunch and 10 P.M.

I hope my current schedule will last. It’s liberating to know that my workday has a set endpoint, and that it won’t drag itself out through my afternoon and night. I have had problems in the past with letting work sort of consume my life, simply because I never really scheduled breaks from it. I would be tremendously sick of an article I was writing before I’d even finished three paragraphs, because it was pestering me from the moment I turned on the shower in the morning to the moment I fell asleep.

Here’s the dilemma I can’t solve: some days I can’t get a damn thing done. I can tell, halfway through, that I’m not going to write anything usable or have any clever insights. Should that be a signal to walk away, or do I honor my commitment to work for a given number of hours, whether or not I accomplish anything. Because giving up can also become habitual, yet beating your head against a wall is undeniably pointless.

Except that I always wonder: when I have that flash of insight after days of struggling with a piece, is that just a sign that I’m having a good day and things have finally come together, or is it the product of a subconscious cognitive process that’s happening while I struggle through unproductive workdays?

I write all this because it’s on my mind. My approach to the workday gets the job done, but I still feel  like I end up wasting a lot of time. I’m just not sure how to improve my efficiency.

The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 3

continued from Part 2

Having and Eating Cake That Is a Lie

Denby, unlike Pulsipher, actually seems to like games and the people who play them. He argues that it’s not an either-or choice between accessibility and challenge. Admitting that there are many games he’s rubbish at, he asks if it’s so unreasonable to expect developers make a “Denby mode” available. While he’s cruising through on a fail-proof difficulty level, I can still have the brutal and demanding experience that I (occasionally) love.

It’s nice to think that gamers of all skills and tastes can unite over games of all stripes, but I have seen precious little evidence that this is the case. Denby uses Bioshock as an example of a game that went out of its way to be friendly to less skilled or less patient gamers. It allowed for instant respawning after death (thanks to the Vita-Chambers that littered each level), and was a breeze to finish on the easiest difficulty setting. Failure was hard to come by, and it wasn’t punished. Yet hardcore gamers still had fun with it on higher difficult levels.

Or did they? I enjoyed Bioshock immensely when I first played it, but “does it have legs?” Not really. I have played Bioshock one and a half times. Compare that to its predecessor, System Shock 2, which I played at least five times and still consider the more interesting game, if woefully unpolished compared to Bioshock. While admitting the truth in Yahtzee’s characterization of SS2′s difficulty as ranging from “hard to murderous”, the game also featured more interesting decisions for the player to make. There were a number of workable approaches to how you could tackle the game, but what you couldn’t do was take advantage of all of them. So you could be a heavily-armed soldier, blasting his way through enemies and obstacles, but then you couldn’t use psionic powers (which were especially useful in places where ammo became scarce). Conversely, you could pour a lot of character development points (cybermodules) into technical skills like hacking and research, which could ease your passage through the game and reduce the combat required.

No matter how you built your character, you made painful trade-offs. If you tried to avoid making any trade-offs, you ended up with a hopelessly mediocrity that would begin having serious trouble in the midgame. However, it also made the game slightly different every time I played it. Furthermore, it was inherently challenging to play through the game with one of these characters, because some things were always easier while some things were suddenly more difficult. My marine could smash and blast his way through hordes of the Many, but he couldn’t break security barriers or hack the item dispensers. My naval technician could make the ship his ally by turning the security system into a friend, and he could break into any weapons locker or vending machine, but he had a tough time with some of the heavy-duty enemies. The two experiences were so different as to be practically different games. Another example of this kind of game would be Deus Ex.

The complexity and challenge inherent to System Shock 2 was stripped out of Bioshock, making the game friendlier to a Denby-style player but ultimately shallower. Your character could do anything and everything in Bioshock, making him effectively invincible. This makes the experience identical every time I play. Furthermore, higher difficult levels do not offer anything interesting. There is no way of making the game more interesting than the breezy experience Denby is having on the easiest setting, because that’s how the game was designed. Higher difficulty levels simply make the enemies more difficult: they absorb more shots  and hit harder, but the solution is hardly a stimulating challenge. You just shoot them more. The difference between easy and hard, then, is “kill them” vs. “kill them a lot.”

It’s easier for developers to create interesting challenges while they are designing the game, and much harder to bring it in ex post facto through difficulty options. Furthermore, there’s a point at which challenges inherent to a design cannot be mitigated by difficulty levels without breaking the game.

Ultimately, I cannot grant the premise that a game should be designed with the goal of being enjoyable or completeable for every potential player, and that seems to be the logical extreme where both Denby and Pulsipher converge. You can’t please everyone, and gaming is never going to disprove that truism. It would be disastrous to try.

The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

The Marines in the original Half-Life are the classic example of a challenging enemy and, with the possible exception of the Replicant soldiers in FEAR, have never really been superseded. What made them such outstanding enemies was the fact that they were hell to defeat while remaining entirely fair. After all, the Marines were effective because they used the same weapons and tactics that players were used to exploiting. They tossed grenades to flush you out of cover, they unleashed nonstop gunfire when you came within sight, they ran for cover when they were exposed, and they tried to find good flanking positions where they could trap and kill you.

Unlike the zombies and aliens you encountered earlier in the game, you could not march up to these guys and shotgun them at close range, nor could you simply pick them off from a moderate distance. You had to actually fight, burning up ammo just to hold them at bay, maneuvering the moment your position was compromised, and listening closely for the sound of a frag grenade bouncing at your feet. You had to improve your twitch-shooter skills, but also start thinking like a tactician. However, “twitchier” players could lean on those skills and power through the ambushes, while slower, more thoughtful players could make up for lagging reflexes with a good plan and smart use of the available tools. There was more than one way to handle the Marines, and between the three difficulty levels, anyone could get past them with a little effort. Better still, making the effort was actually enjoyable.

Valve left enough room for players to find an approach that worked for them. Also, the Marines were not so overpowering that a single slip-up would result in instant death. Players had a fair chance in almost each and every encounter. It was the kind of challenge that was fun to encounter and rewarding to overcome.

It’s difficult to choose a single example of frustrating, challenge-free difficulty from all the choics that bad shooter design has given us. However, since it is cloudy and rainy outside my upper-story window, I find myself thinking about Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and its ghastly “Sniper Town” level.

The sniper level was inspired by the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the squad is ambushed by a German sniper in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. The American sniper engages the German in a brief duel, and unforgettably shoots the German through his scope. The scene was so good that the MOH:AA team made an entire level out of it, but what worked as a ten-minute movie sequence was utterly excruciating as an hour-long shooter level.

In the sniper level, you are given a scoped rifle and have to travel through a French town that’s been infested by enemy snipers. There’s probably about 20 of them, all hanging out along your route just waiting to shoot you. Unfortunately, there’s no way to locate them until they’ve already taken a shot. Since you are the only person they’re going to be shooting at, this means that you have draw their fire. However, they can also kill you in one shot.

So what the player has to do is lean on the quicksave / quickload buttons. You shuffle along for a few steps until you hear a rifle shot and fall down dead. Then you reload, take the same few steps, and get killed again. But this time you think you saw where the sniper was. Reload. Die again. Yep, he was definitely hiding in that attic. Reload. Look through your scope and train it roughly where the sniper will be. Step sideways out of cover, duck back in just before you get shot. Now you know exactly where he will be when you step out of cover again. Step out, shoot as the crosshairs glide over him, and you’ve defeated the sniper.

Now repeat twenty times.

There’s no skill involved. The enemy snipers always see you first and kill you before you’re aware they are there. So you just repeat until you’ve memorized where they will appear. You aren’t improving and you aren’t being clever. You’re just taking advantage of the save / reload feature to overcome a roadblock the designers put in front of you. It’s not there to challenge you, because there are no tactics or skills that can see you through. There is only rote memorization.

Bad adventure game puzzles are similar in that they are wholly illogical even by the genre’s wacky standards. Gabriel Knight needs to create a fake mustache out of cat hair and maple syrup in order to disguise himself as a man who actually does not have a mustache in order to fool a moped rental clerk? No gamer is ever going to deduce that this is the correct course of action, so all this puzzle wants from players is their endless patience as they flail at item and object combinations until they begin making progress.

The bottom line is that a game can be tough as hell, but all is forgiven provided it remains stimulating and doesn’t make players feel like they it is rigged against them. The Myth series was savage on its highest difficult levels, reducing me to a sense of despair on more than one occasion, but I always had the sense that if I was just a little better with my formation management, and if I just found a slightly better piece of terrain to defend, I could get through it. To the game’s credit, I always could.

Is Passivity Ever Good?

Lewis Pulsipher would still consider these games self-defeatingly challenging. By his reasoning, the notion that games should challenge players, should actually demand something of them, is outmoded. The sooner we hurl that notion overboard, the sooner games can become as big a medium as they deserve to be.

After all, he writes, “Viewers of movies, which are passive experiences, are rarely challenged.” The same cultural and commercial ubiquity is within gaming’s reach, if only they stop being so damned challenging and embrace the non-gamers who find games too frustrating to play.

I must be watching movies incorrectly, or perhaps I am just watching the wrong ones. While movies are passive insofar as I do not have to do anything in order to get through to the end, my mental engagement with movies is quite active. I contemplate characters, judge performances, notice shot composition and editing, and identify cinematic influences. If I cannot engage with a movie on most or any of these levels, it’s probably a crap movie.

Furthermore, anyone who actually likes movies (rather than the revenue figures that have such a mesmerizing effect on Pulsipher) would argue that movies can be and frequently are challenging. It is painful to watch the series of misunderstandings and the bone-deep desire for vengeance that culminate in a tragic killing in Mystic River. Watch Dave Boyle beg for his life and try to explain the truth through a psychosis that has finally broken him. Watch how Jimmy Markum reveals that he is past caring, and that he will forever be settling scores with a world that keeps taking from him. That’s powerful, challenging filmmaking, and it’s why film is a great medium. No one is ever going to point to Terminator Salvation as a reason why he watches movies.

Pulsipher doesn’t really care, though. His attitude is that big, dumb movies like Terminator Salvation make a lot of money, therefore they are a role model. Games should also be big, dumb, and easy so that the same people who love watching battling robots will play videogames. You cannot argue with commercial success.

On the other hand, as a gamer and a cinephile, I’m at a loss as to why I should care. As long as Pulsipher was looking to Roger Ebert for insight into the nature of entertainment, he would have done well to read what Ebert had to say about the arguments people made in defense of Transformers 2:

Do I ever have one of those days when, the hell with it, all I want to do is eat popcorn and watch explosions? I haven’t had one of those days for a long time. There are too many other films to see. I’ve had experiences at the movies so rich, so deep–and yes, so funny and exciting–that I don’t want to water the soup. I went to “Transformers” with an open mind (I gave a passing grade to the first one). But if I despised the film and it goes on to break box office records, will I care? No. I’ll hope however that everyone who paid for a ticket thought they had a good time, because it was their time and their money.

The opening grosses are a tribute to a marketing campaign, not to a movie no one had seen. If two studios spend a ton of money on a film, scare away the competition, and open in 4,234 theaters before the Fourth of July, of course they do blockbuster business. The test is: Does the film have legs?

Pulsipher’s argument might provide a roadmap to more lucrative games, but it has absolutely no relevance to anyone interested in better games. Pulsipher conflates them and is careful to present a dismissive, inaccurate view of what gamers get out of challenging games, but the bottom line is that he cares about audience share and not quality.

concludes with Part 3