Archive for March, 2010

Conferences, Trade Shows, and Hype Fatigue

This wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t force myself to read, listen to, and follow so many sources for videogame coverage. I am over-saturated with gaming news and commentary by choice, and it makes me cranky. Still, I hate announcement season. I hate the Kremlinology that takes place in the weeks before every conference or trade show, and the endless parsing that immediately follows.

Do you think Sony is going to reveal its motion controller at GDC or hold off until E3? How will Microsoft respond? What does Nintendo have to do to maintain its lead? What games will they announce at GDC, and what will Microsoft keep under wraps for TGS? How’s that going to play in Japan?

And these conversations repeat for nearly all of spring, summer, and early fall, as publishers and manufacturers parcel out hints and teasers from week to week. Stock analysts offer running commentary to help us keep score at home.

“Oooh! It looks like Take Two’s holiday line-up is in bad shape, Peter. I really don’t know what they were thinking there.”

“I’ll tell you what they were thinking, Bob. They were thinking, ‘Boy, I wish GTA 5 would come out already!’ Hahaha! But seriously, it’s going to take a big E3 announcement to keep this from turning into a rout.”

Then there is the self-congratulation that marks so many major announcments: Hideo Kojima sneaking onto the Microsoft stage during the E3 presentation while the MGS alert sound played, Cliff Bleszinski showing up to Microsoft’s GDC press conference with a Lancer and a promise that Gears 2 would be “bigger, better, and far more badass.”

This is not to say I find announcements boring or pointless. You think I wasn’t squealing with school-girlish delight when John Davison said that the next GamePro cover was going to be Civilization V? The day Valve announce Episode 3 (or Half-Life 3 as the case may be), I will probably pour myself a celebratory cocktail and start reinstalling the entire series.

But the wheres and hows of announcements don’t interest me in the slightest, and I don’t care that much about the details, either. I’ve learned to be skeptical of preview coverage and developers’ pre-release promises, which means I’m mostly content to wait for an actual game to be released before talking about it. I dislike the way we’re all co-opted into marketing campaigns as we press for details on an upcoming release (“Tell us about your co-op campaign!” “We’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op.” “OMG, they’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op!”).

I suppose I’m also troubled by the way announcement season often seems to degenerate into a thinly-disguised form of money worship. So much of what passes for industry analysis isn’t really analysis at all, but a series of ‘attaboys for people who are releasing new entries in product lines that have already made a mint, and tsk-tsks directed at publishers and manufacturers who aren’t as flush with exploitable properties. Then, with a nod vaguely in the direction of criticism, the question is asked: “But how is it going to innovate?”

And perhaps that’s why I’m a bit snarky this morning. The idealist in me says that GDC is a time to discuss what works in games and why, and to consider possibilities for the future while revisiting lessons from the past. But we end up talking about which ideas can be copied and whether or not the copies will sell. Then, without a trace of self-awareness or irony, we demand innovative games and “new IP” from companies that are never quite so happy as when they are releasing the same game over and over. And we have turned GDC into yet another platform for them to make their sales pitch.

With the exception of Gamasutra, so much GDC coverage seems focused on the commercial side of the industry. There are far too few pieces like this one from Destructoid’s Anthony Burch, covering Soren Johnson’s discussion of theme. In fact, a glance at Johnson’s Twitter reveals that he seems to be attending a different GDC than the one I’m reading about.

If I’m wrong, if there’s a lot of exciting, thought provoking material that I’m missing, please tell me so in the comments, and feel free to throw in some links. Still, GDC is a good time to rant and air grievances, especially if you remember what GDC is supposed to be about: serious art.

The Napoleon Total War Conundrum

During my sophomore year of college, I bought a car with the money I saved working in a 115 degree packaging factory for a summer. A single bus trip was all it took to make me scrap the idea of hanging onto those savings. When the four hour trip from my house to Lawrence University morphed into 10 hours of bus travel, I decided it was worth it to me to spring for a car. At a stroke, a whole new world opened up to me beyond the neighborhood around campus. And a host of opportunities for disastrous misjudgment.

I could go grocery shopping, and when I was out grocery shopping, I could impulse-purchase a copy of PC Gamer in which they reviewed Rome: Total War. And when I read the review of the highest-rated Total War game yet, and saw those glorious, glorious screenshots, it was no trouble at all to cut class, drive to Best Buy, and pick up my own copy.

If I didn’t have a car, I might have had to wait. I might have waited to hear what some of my fellow fans were saying, instead of a magazine that I felt was in serious decline, and which had developed a disturbing habit of publishing suspiciously positive WORLD EXCLUSIVE first reviews.

When I was starting with Rome, I told my friends what an amazing game it was. How it was the best yet. The battles were spectacular, the map was amazing, and I was so glad at how the battlefields changed depending on where you were fighting. It was the best ever!

But I was a Total War veteran, and I started to notice how the AI never seemed to defend its cities, nor finish up a siege against one of mine. I noticed how the enemy would seem to come charging straight across a battlefield at my army, taking a straight line regardless of terrain. I noticed how, after the touch-and-go early game, the AI kept fielding crummy first-tier units against my increasingly powerful and deadly Roman armies. I noticed that it no longer seemed possible to lose in Rome, whereas catastrophe was always just a mis-timed charge away in Shogun or Medieval.

When the Roman civil war broke out, I thought that things were bound to pick up. German primitives, decadent Egyptians, and Macedonian pederasts might not have been a match for my legions, but surely the Roman Republic would give me a run for my money.

Except that it didn’t. I came at them with full stacks of urban and Praetorian cohorts, and they shot back with penny-packets of regular legionary cohorts supported by some ill-advised cavalry charges. All my units had to do was stand there and carve through them until the enemy units broke, as they always would.

Past the earliest stages of the game, there was nothing to keep the game interesting. The AI failed on both levels of the game, and the game’s entire balance was off. Roman primacy was a given unless the incompetent AI was managing them.

Rome marked the start of a lot of bad trends in the Total War series. Inflated review scores and hyperbolic review copy, over-promising and under-delivering from Creative Assembly, ugly fights within the Total War community between the people who couldn’t stomach the flaws and the people who wouldn’t see past the spectacle, and AI that couldn’t play the game.

All those trends persisted through Medieval II and Empire. I was smart enough to predict that Medieval II was going to be a dog, and waited until it went on a hefty discount. But with Empire, credulity got the best of me again. How could it not? I’d just spend two years reading the works of Christopher Duffy and pretty much memorizing every detail of Frederick the Great’s military career. My mind’s eye could see the Prussian grenadiers leaning into the hail of shot and the sheets of flame to storm the Grander-Koppe at the Battle of Soor.

So I found myself at Best Buy on release day grabbing my copy. The Total War games have a knack for short-circuiting my better judgment.

Empire was in far better shape than Rome or Medieval were at release, and probably better than they were even after the last patches came out for them. The AI could deliver a few sound spankings on the battlefield if you weren’t careful. Strategically, it was still very poor. The naval invasion bug, where the AI would simple refuse to load its troops on ships and take them across the ocean, was unfortunate but it’s not like an AI army would have done anything useful once it made landfall.

The more I played Empire, however, the less I thought of it. The Civilization-esque touches proved to be entirely superficial or just plain obnoxious. You couldn’t really do much to affect the character of your cities. Some would be large cities capable of producing advanced units and civic buildings, while others would remain provincial backwaters, good for small tax revenues and little else. Was unrest becoming a problem? Raise more dragoon regiments to keep the Morlocks sufficiently terrified. Then be sure to put up a whorehouse in one of the neighboring villages. In Empire as in other Total War games, prostitution breeds lower-class contentment.

And all the towns could do anything and everything. So you could make a new town into a university, a factory, or a tavern. Whatever you wanted or needed, really. Your call.

Let’s not even discuss the fortress assaults, which are easily the worst in any Total War game.

The gentlemen were useless, except for sending into universities to buff the research rate. You could have them duel with other gentlemen but what, really, was the point of doing that? A coin-toss would decide whether or not Kant helped you invent the steam engine or perished while trying to put a bullet between Voltaire’s eyes. Better to keep him at the university, generating a steady supply of science.

Diplomacy was a tedious mess. Naval combat was ridiculous, exactly the kind of counter-intuitive mess you can expect from a game that has been idiot-proofed. The ships handled without any sense of mass or wind, spinning around like three-masted tops, and whipping broadsides in every direction.

We could go on. Suffice it to say that with Empire, the Chick Parabola was alive and kicking. At first you were curious about its slightly baffling and seemingly interesting mechanics. Then, the more you understood, the hollower was the edifice. Finally, you were left with contempt for the broken features and disinterest in the few rudimentary features that worked.

It took me about 60 hours with the game, maybe a bit longer, to grasp how screwed up it was. Probably far longer than most reviewers had to spend with it. But that’s part of the point, isn’t it? Creative Assembly makes games that are so big and cumbersome that it takes forever to comprehend the whole. Once you do, it all falls apart. But you might convince yourself that you’re playing a good game before that happens.

Creative Assembly have habitually abused the trust of their customers and released buggy, half-finished games packed with ill-conceived features. Then they’ve turned around and whined about how unfair people are being when they get called on it. Or consider this breathtaking post from Mike Simpson over at the Total War Blog. Remember that Empire came out on March 3rd, 2009 in North America, and this post is being written in early October.

I had 6 copies of Empire: Total War sat on my shelf intended for close gamer friends that I didn’t send out because I was too embarrassed about the flaws. Old friends are the harshest critics. Well they’ve gone out now.  I think the game now meets my personal unreasonably high quality threshold – not just good but great. Hopefully my friends will agree.

So the head of the Total War franchise sat on his complimentary copies of Empire because he was too embarrassed to send them to his friends. For seven months after releasing the game to the public and asking $50 a pop. But it’s cool, because this is how SEGA had to play it.

We do however also have another customer who we make the game for, and in one particular way they are the most important of all. It’s our publisher, who is driven by the grim necessity of commercial reality. Those necessities tend to be short term compared with the dev time of a game or the lifetime of a series. They are also necessities that we cannot ignore – if we do it’s Game Over. Empire: Total War happened the only way it could – it had to be in a box in Feb 09.  Damned stressful for all concerned, but it’s so much a fact of life it’s almost not worth talking about.

I think some people think that when “commercial reality” wins, they lose. If the car parks at Sega or CA were full of Ferraris, I might agree. But they are not.  When “commercial reality” wins, we live to make another game.

Got it. Empire had to sell huge exactly according to SEGA’s timeline, regardless of the game’s condition at release. And Total War customers got clued into this eight months after the fact.

I rehash this sad, bitter past because the saga of the up-and-down relationship between Creative Assembly and the die-hard fans it won in 2000 with Shogun is important to how I approach their games now. I don’t have a clean slate with any of their work, and never will. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt, and as far as I’m concerned, they haven’t made a great game since Medieval Total War. They make “decent at best” strategy games with some stunning spectacle attached to them, and that formula has long since worn thin.

This is the attitude I took into Napoleon Total War, and this is why I really do not know what to make of that game. Because having played it for about 25-30 hours, I must reluctantly concede that it’s pretty good. And at times, even great.

I’ll get into that  in another post. But right now, I’m trying to figure out an answer to a comment that Jason Lefkowitz left on Flash of Steel, in response to Troy’s remarks on Napoleon. Jason said:

Here’s what annoys me: buying a game at full retail, finding it to be broken, and then being told by the vendor a year later that I can play the game they promised me back then by paying them again now.

Hearts of Iron 3 was broken as well, but at least Paradox aren’t charging me $35 for the patch. You know?

And I don’t know what we should say to that very good point. Napoleon is a good game, in part because it’s Empire without all the screw-ups and bloat. I’ve played Empire with the 1.5 patch and still find it to be a bit of a dog, but Napoleon is pretty good right out of the box. Empire may never be brought up to this standard.

As a furious consumer, I’m inclined to say that Napoleon should have been free to everyone who bought Empire. We subsidized the development of a good game buy purchasing a bad one, and now Creative Assembly is charging for the “fixed” version. Screw those guys.

But then I consider Napoleon Total War and some of the unexpectedly nail-biting battles and the solid, if not brilliant, action on the campaign map. This is pretty much the game I wanted when I bought Empire. And now that it’s here, I still want it. If it were anyone other than Creative Assembly, and if it were devoid of all this context that I’ve outlined above, I’d say Napoleon Total War is steal at $40. But this expansion brings a longer baggage train than the Grand Armee.

Strange Days in Feminist Film Criticism

I saw Hurt Locker in a theater last summer, or I think I did. After reading this rather nasty take-down of the film and its director from Martha Nochimson over at Salon, I think I might have seen something else.

For instance, Nochimson sees in Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. Will James a modern John Wayne character, stripped of the humanity and feeling that marked Wayne’s protagonists and reduced to being masculine machine. And she’s convinced the film gives this character the hero treatment.

When they bonded with young, earnest boys, Wayne’s men became meaningful mentors — Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) in “The Shootist” couldn’t have grown up without the wit and wisdom of Wayne’s John Bernard Books. But Will, with his Wayne-ian steely gaze, his laconic ease at the portals of death, and his patented hero saunter, loves “just one thing,” as he tells his baby boy before leaving him, maybe forever, to return to the killing fields of Iraq. And it isn’t women or kids.

To their credit, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal never reduce “the thing” to a word. Will’s unnamed passion is left to the enormity of our imaginations when we see him back in Iraq in the humongous bomb-disposal suit that insulates him from any direct contact with the world. What’s less happy is the confused adulation of this solitary savior at the end of the film, as Will takes the place of the bomb-disposal robot we saw in the opening scene — a better “bot.”

Adulation is a strong word there at the end, and I’m pretty certain that nothing in the film supports its usage. If you look at Hurt Locker as, among other things, a character study of Will James, then it reveals him to be a man who is fundamentally broken and unheroic in spite of numerous admirable traits. He is brave to the point of foolishness, and unconscionably reckless with the lives of the soldiers around him. And the last shot of the film does, indeed, show him with that “one thing” that he loves, but it never asks the audience to share or admire that love. Coming on the heels of his unsuccessful and half-hearted attempt at resuming life with his family, James’s return to Iraq seems more like a defeat than anything else.

But I was really taken aback by this passage. I love a nasty cheap shot as much as the next guy, and I’ve taken a few of them here, but shouldn’t the targets at least have it coming? Nochimson really dislikes Bigelow and this film, and she doesn’t care how she comes across.

Quentin Tarantino, who should know better, having just directed a piercingly original ironic study of war and blood lust, dubbed Bigelow the “Queen of Directors” when she took the DGA award. I prefer the “Transvestite of Directors.” Looks to me like she’s masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.

OK, I see you objecting back there in the last row. Is it because Bigelow and Boal seem to think they have made an antiwar film, as they made clear when they accepted their BAFTAs (the British Academy Awards)? Something to do with an ironic presentation of Will? Uh-huh. We spend one-and-a-half hours enduring crisis after crisis in which Will is the only person with the daring and skill to save us (since we identify with the American soldiers) from being blown to bits. We hover over him anxiously, for seemingly endless stretches of time, watching (beautiful) extreme close-ups of his skillful and steady fingers palpating wires and wielding wire-cutters, our vicarious lives hanging on each motion. Our field of vision is so completely limited to his expertise in defusing bombs and dealing with invisible enemies that our capacity to think about the larger context of the American presence in Iraq is replaced by nuance-free instincts more characteristic of the tea party movement.

No, I can’t believe she just played the “Real Woman” card either. But we’ll come back to that in a moment, because Nochimson is going to revisit this theme. I’m more interested in her interpretation of the film.

First, we hover anxiously over Will because this is a movie about defusing and disposing of bombs, and Bigelow has told the story with all the tension and stomach-churning terror that it deserves. But in a number of those scenes, I think it’s easier to identify with the other members of Will’s unit. Because here is the funny thing about what Will does: he’s not really saving anybody. He doesn’t really even need to bother with defusing the bombs. He is summoned to sites where US troops have already found, or suspect they have found, explosives or booby-traps and have withdrawn to a safe distance. And the bomb squad always has the option to detonate the bombs from safety. But Will, regardless of what the smart or safe course of action would be, insists on sticking his head inside the lion’s mouth. And his men are forced to come along for that ride.

Nochimson also underplays the importance of Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Eldridge in this film. Eldridge is wrestling with severe PTSD from the start of the film, and it’s obvious that he needs to get the hell out of Iraq but can’t until he is finished with his tour. We last see him being placed on a medevac chopper and cursing out Will. He is being sent home wounded because Will, as he always does, needlessly put his men in danger. Sanborn, Will’s second in command, is the responsible one of the group. When the unit comes under a deadly sniper attack in the desert, Sanborn reveals himself to be as steady and skilled as Will. The difference is that Sanborn doesn’t feel the need to test himself, nor does he relish such occasions. He is a professional soldier. Will is a cowboy in the worst sense of the word.

None of this is subtext. It’s front and center throughout the film, and while there are moments we might think Will is brave or heroic, by the end we’ve seen through him, as has Sanborn.

As for the “larger context” that The Hurt Locker supposedly lacks, I’m not certain what more Nochimson could want. We have a sequence where Will, in a blind fury at the murder of a child he believes to be one that he befriended, breaks into an Iraqi’s home and holds him at gunpoint and demands answers through a mild language barrier and Will’s own incomprehensibility. Will is demanding an explanation from a man who has no idea what Will is talking about. I don’t think we need to look very far for ways this scene applies to our endeavors in the Middle East. And honestly, a movie about guys fighting the shadow war against Iraqi insurgents seems to invite some serious thought about context.

Toward the end of the piece, Nochimson comes to her real complaint. Bigelow has been praised to the skies for directing a brutal, kinetic war film. She demonstrated her technical proficiency in the kind of macho genre that Hollywood loves. In the meantime, the work of other female directors is the veritable tree falling in the forest if it’s work that can be dismissed as part of a “chick” genre.

I think the outsize admiration for her masterly technique and the summary dismissal in the current buzz of directors like Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers reveal an untenable assumption that the muscular filmmaking appropriate for the fragmented, death-saturated situations of war films is innately superior to the technique appropriate to the organic, life-affirming situations of romantic comedy.I don’t begrudge the praise for Bigelow’s depiction of urban war violence, but why the general opinion that Ephron and Meyers aren’t up to much because they don’t use hand-held cameras and flashy cuts that tensely survey an inscrutable environment? That’s not their material. Why isn’t there also some praise for Ephron, for example, for the scenes in “Julie & Julia” that capture the love of life conveyed by Meryl Streep in her celebrated performance as Julia Child? When Julia and her sister, reunited in a Paris train station, run toward each other, so adorably full of affection they don’t care about their resemblance to two lurching cows high on jouissance grass, does anyone think that incandescent moment was achieved only by acting? That the director’s framing of the scene had nothing to do with it?

I sympathize on this score, but I see two problems. First, Nora Ephron is not a great standard-bearer for female directors (I can’t speak to Meyers). I watched Julie & Julia six weeks ago, and I cannot for the life of me remember the scene that Nochimson describes here. I can remember The Hurt Locker almost scene for scene, and I saw it only once about nine months ago. The scenes I tend to remember from Julie & Julia stand out because of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, or because they are the flat Julie Powell sequences that bear the self-conscious cuteness that is practically Ephron’s signature. Ephron makes enjoyable, often charming movies that usually have one or two flaws or tics that drive me insane each time I see them. She does not make movies I consider great.

The larger problem is that the issue Nochimson identifies has less to do with gender than it does with Hollywood’s views on what constitutes a “serious” film. Hollywood has always been a sucker for the passable epic, the “issue” film (Gentlemen’s Agreement, anyone?), and the oppressively serious drama. Spend a few minutes poking around IMDB comparing academy award nominations in a given year versus which movies came out that year, and the full scope of the travesty should be clear. To get you started, here is 1995: A year in which Braveheart beat out the superb Babe and Sense and Sensibility for Best Picture, and Before Sunrise and Clockers received no nominations. Heat, Se7en, and The Usual Suspects also came out that year. Men and women both have grounds for complaint when we consider the types of movies that always seem to make the biggest pseudo-critical, pseudo-artistic splash. So Nochimson has identified an old, recurrent problem and interpreted its latest instantiation through the lens of gender-bias.

Nochimson’s critique of The Hurt Locker is based, I think, on a seriously flawed interpretation of the film. But her attack on Bigelow highlights a persistent problem between women and Hollywood. Nochimson accuses Bigelow of playing the transvestite to advance her career. She has made a masculine film and has therefore somehow betrayed feminism by not using her talents to direct feminine “life affirming” movies. Ironically, by using this line of attack, Nochimson has tacitly accepted sexist Hollywood’s gendering of the genres. The Hurt Locker isn’t a masculine film, and I don’t consider Julie and Julia a feminine film. They are films about different subject matter and characters, and different material requires a different approach. But it doesn’t require a gendered approach, and it’s wrong to insist that female directors take one.