Archive for June, 2010

Us Surrender? Aw, Nuts!

Some people like to be buried before they are dead. A friend of mine started calling himself an “old man” at fraternity events within fifteen minutes of graduating. He’s younger than I am, but that doesn’t stop him from taking stock of his diminishing powers and and freedoms every time we meet for drinks. I fear he’s willing his youth away by constantly telling himself that it’s leaving him.

Wargamers and hardcore PC gamers can be like that. Like Elves they talk in weary, faraway voices about the world that was before the age of metal, steam, and consoles. They lament the vanished kingdoms of SSI, Dynamix, and TalonSoft while constructing the ships that will bear them to Grey Havens. The industry has changed. It has evolved. Things will never again be as they were. We understand.

Julian Murdoch observed on a recent Three Moves Ahead that most people like to be on the bandwagon, on the winning team. But strategy gamers and wargamers always seem defeated, evangelizing with all the charisma and conviction of Eeyore. “You probably won’t care. I couldn’t blame you. But Scourge of War: Gettysburg is out. It’s pret-ty good. It’d probably bore you. You probably just want to play Red Dead.

Sometimes we are guilty of this on TMA, but on balance we spend far more time celebrating strategy and wargames and checking out under-the-radar projects like Gettysburg and AI War. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we make strategy gaming sound cool (in what universe are Bruce, Julian, Tom, Troy, and me at the “cool kids’ table”?). At least you can tell we’re having a lot of fun, and you’re invited.

Grognards, seen here fending off an aggressive probe by mainstream gamers.

On the other hand, when Alex Macris, the publisher of The Escapist, writes something like this, I get a little frustrated. I am in complete agreement with him on most of his points. Like him, I sometimes feel alienated from gaming’s mainstream. Like him, I have been a harsh critic of the industry’s drift toward the blockbuster business model, and I’ve expressed that opinion at The Escapist.

What bothers me is the fact that Alex Macris laments the slow death of the type of gaming that he loves, but he of all people is in a pretty good position to champion it. Yet you would never guess, from looking at The Escapist, that the publisher is an old-school PC gamer and a dyed-in-the-wool grognard.

It’s not that The Escapist caters solely to mainstream interests. If you look at the features and columns they run, to say nothing of their video series, you’ll find quite a lot of diverse content. They review all the major AAA game releases, but you’re also likely to find some reviews for manga  and the odd indie puzzler. Just about the only things The Escapist ignores, in fact, are strategy and wargaming.

So when Macris writes:

I don’t blame Creative Assembly or Matrix for adapting to the new ecological realities. They needed to in order to survive. I’m the one who hasn’t evolved.

So at E3 this year, I’ll be prowling around like some sort of saber-toothed tiger of videogaming. My food supply has grown scarce; my days as an apex consumer are limited. I’m rated E for Endangered.

I can’t help but think, “Well I wonder why.”

Is there no room in The Escapist for a grognards’ corner among the science column, the tabletop RPG column, the game design column, the movie column, etc.? Is the publisher of The Escapist so resigned to going extinct that he won’t use his platform to try and reproduce? Surely, if he is still buying games from Matrix he could take space to review one or two of them.

More grognards, deploying for an attack on the marketplace of ideas.

Admittedly, it’s easy for me to say this. The only thing I publish is this here blog, and I’m my only employee. I know my readers by name, and I pay my hosting fees with change I find underneath the futon. Nor am I responsible for churning out the volume of content that The Escapist editorial staff have to manage. And I will absolutely confess to feeling proprietary toward The Escapist, a combination of pride that I’m a part of it and frustration with the fact that it is not always the exact site I would have it be if I ruled the internet.

Still, it’s disconcerting to see the publisher of a major games site acting as if he has no agency when it comes to the decline and disappearance of his favorite types of games. The least he could do is tell readers what he likes. Maybe a few of them would decide they like it to.

I know a few of mine do.

Update: Irony

A couple days after writing the above, I dropped by The Escapist and noticed a new column, “The Game Stash”, by Steve Butts. This is exciting for a couple reasons. First, Steve Butts was the only person I ever made a point to read regularly at IGN, and I’m glad to see such a good writer showing up with a column at The Escapist.

Butts is also a great wargame and strategy reviewer. He kept reviewing them at IGN and was one of the few people I could trust when I came to gnarly, hardcore wargames and strategy games. I remember that the guys at the Wargamer forums used to go batshit when he teed-off on a Matrix game, screeching that he was being unfair to wargames and IGN wasn’t fit to review anything deeper than Peggle… but what really drove them nuts was how fucking right he so often was. Butts didn’t slap wargames around for the hell of it: he knew that they were mired in outdated production values and design philosophies, and that the standards for videogames had gotten tougher in a lot of areas. He was unwilling to grant the “well, it’s a wargame” absolution that so many grognards dispense.

I don’t know whether his column will be focusing on strategy and wargames, nor do I know what types of games he will be reviewing for The Escapist. But from his past record, I can only believe that Butts’ arrival at The Escapist will go a long way to plugging the gaps I mentioned above.  I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the space.

A Stack of Previews

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I have a trio of previews up at GameShark right now, and there are actually a couple more on the way. This is the harvest from a press event I attended at the start of the month in San Francisco. These are also the first previews I’ve written, so again, constructive criticism welcome.

1C  games are hard to get a handle on, especially in the constraints of an overbooked presser. Interface and intuitive controls are not the hallmarks of the brand, so the demo experience is a lot of , “Okay, what the hell do I do now?”

However, you have to check out my Captain Blood preview. You may never heard of Captain Blood or maybe you just don’t care about it, but it was hands-down the most fun game to preview. I have no idea whether all the ridiculousness on display will add up to being a good game. But writing about it was surreal.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Death to Spies 3, which had kind of a neat Three Days of the Condor vibe going. You could be churlish and say it’s derivative, but who really cares if its derived from good predecessors?

Go take a look over at GameShark, and while you’re over there, take a gander at the terrifying tsunami of GameShark E3 coverage that’s hurtling toward you as we speak. And keep an eye on my Work page, as more stuff is going up soon.

Seriously, though. Read the Captain Blood preview.

Pat on the Head, Kick in the Ass

If you cruise on over to The Escapist this week you’ll find that my latest piece, “The Player and the Pusher-Man“, has been reprinted in the “Best of” issue this week. I’m pretty certain this is because The Escapist editorial staff absolutely cannot get enough of my work, and when they don’t have anything new to publish, they like to roll around like Scrooge McDuck in piles of drafts I’ve submitted in the past. I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact they were all at E3 last week and probably too busy to put together an issue. It’s all about me.

It’s flattering to have a piece singled out as one of the best, but it’s also strange when the piece selected is one for which I have complicated feelings. You always find things you could have improved, that’s the nature of writing and having deadlines that force you to relinquish control. That’s every piece I’ve ever written. But with this one, I never quite got within hailing distance of the article I originally envisioned, and I know why that is.

When reread this piece, I see the many, many interviews that didn’t come through, and know that I should have been more aggressive with getting some of my subjects to commit to a time and place to chat. When I read my section on ZT Online and the rise of the free-to-play business model, I get frustrated because I spent so much space rehashing observations that Soren Johnson had already made, and with greater insight. When I find that I have a brilliant behavioral economist explaining Skinner’s conditioning experiments, I know that I failed to cover all my bases during background research, and I didn’t develop my story quickly enough to delve into more advanced subjects before I ran out of space.

On the other hand, there were some great experiences writing this piece. Soren Johnson confirmed my assessment of him as one of the nicest guys in the games industry… and maybe on Earth. He raised some very good points in our conversations and pointed me to some excellent resources that I might not otherwise have found, in addition to putting me in touch with some of his contacts.

One of those contacts was Jon Blow, who spent a lot of time discussing rewards systems and what designers should be trying to provide to players. It was one of those interviews where you just want to paste the entire thing into your article, because every other exchange has something provocative and perceptive. I also appreciated that Jon was so forthcoming, despite the fact that he seemed like someone who is used to getting calls from reporters who are looking for a bomb-throwing quote, and patient with me when I had trouble finding the right phrasing for a question.

So it’s not that I’m particularly unhappy with this article, but I saw a lot of things during the writing process that sent me into a period of rather harsh self-criticism. Now that it’s been republished, it’s time to stop fixating on what went wrong. The big challenge now is addressing some of the shortcomings I’ve spotted in my work habits.

You can read it here. Comments and criticism are welcome, even more so than usual.

Niko Bellic

There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said, “No.” Somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time. – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

One widely-held complaint against Grand Theft Auto IV is that its protagonist, Niko Bellic, is presented as a decent man, but the gameplay and the story render that portrayal untenable. Niko is a brutal and vicious murderer, and the we find him reprehensible and repulsive no matter what Rockstar tell us we should feel toward him.

This critique has come up again in connection to Red Dead Redemption. People bring up Niko Bellic as an example of failed storytelling, one that Rockstar corrected with John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. I went through GTA IV a few weeks ago, however, and came to suspect something else. The reaction to Niko Bellic is a failure of criticism based on a misreading of the game. GTA IV never presents Niko Bellic as anything other than what he is: a self-deceiving golem.

Certainly the game initially wants players to be on Niko’s side, just as the people who surround him initially welcome him. Niko is sympathetic: his life is marked by misfortune and tragedy: he had an abusive father, his childhood ended with the Balkan wars of the 1990s, he and his fellow soldiers were led into a massacre from which he is one of three survivors, and the postwar economic collapse made it impossible to make an honest living. He hopes things will be different for him in America and we hope so to. But we do not know Niko yet.

His comments regarding the war are instructive. Early on, he remarks to his cousin Roman that war is a lie told by the old to the young and gullible (or something to that effect). Later, when he finally confesses the details of his wartime experience to Roman, he explains that his unit was ordered into an ambush and that someone within the unit had sold them out. All his friends and comrades died, except for Niko and two other men. Niko is on a mission to find out which of the two betrayed them. All very understandable, but there is also a common thread in these stories that reveals something important about Niko. Niko believes what he is told, does as he is asked or ordered, and views the consequences as something for which he is not responsible.

In this he is a perfect videogame character, similar to Bioshock’s Jack. Jack, it was revealed, had been conditioned to respond to code-phrased commands, which is why Jack follows his mission prompts exactly as the player does. Players don’t have agency in a game, and neither does Jack. He is led along a path, same as the player. In a similar fashion, Niko takes orders from anyone who could plausibly give them. But the key difference between them is that Niko really does have choices and alternatives.

We tend to forget this because we, as players, do not typically have agency in a game. The narrative is fixed and our job is to play through it. But Niko does not know that. Within that narrative, Niko can do as he wants. The path he takes is one he is free to choose, while our choices are constrained or nonexistent. What Niko does with that agency, however, is obey and kill with little conscience and almost no self-interest. He denies this, of course, and his denial fools us at first. This was why a lot of players rejected him. This was not “their” Niko. Rockstar had betrayed the relationship it created between player and character.

But there are two problems with this assessment. The first problem is that players and critics seem to feel an exaggerated sense of ownership of their characters. In controlling an avatar, they end up projecting a non-existent relationship and identity onto the character. When the character frustrates this desire, they find fault with the game. I can’t quite make up my mind on the validity of this desire. The medium is interactive, after all, but it only very rarely has allowed interaction with a character’s nature. It strikes me as narrow-minded to reject playing as a deeply flawed character on the grounds that he is deeply flawed, but in games we are asked, as we are not in other media, to act as and for the character we control. Michael Corleone deserves the icy hell to which he has confined himself at the end of The Godfather II, but Coppola does not ask us to inhabit Michael and commit his evil for him. On the other hand, The Godfather’s appeal is based in large part on the degree to which we are made complicit witnesses and spiritual accomplices to the business of the Corleone family. A videogame merely concretizes the relationship between audience and character.

The second problem is textual: in GTA IV self-presentation is deception. That our protagonist is no exception is not a creative failure on Rockstar’s part, but a clever expression of the game’s theme. From the moment Niko arrives in America, he tries to frame the narrative for himself and the people he encounters. He is hopeful for the future and weary of the violence that has marked his past, he wants to turn over a new leaf, but he is also possessed of a tragic worldview. This is what audiences respond to, in much the same way that Niko’s friends and loved ones respond. This is the Niko that Rockstar couldn’t sustain because of a ridiculous story and relentlessly violent gameplay.

It’s also bullshit.

The moment the bullets start to fly, another Niko rises to the surface. We tend to discount contextual dialogue in videogames, but we shouldn’t. It is the only way we see the character reacting to what we do. In GTA IV, we find that Niko is enjoying the killing just as much as the player, if not more. When he unloads a submachine gun into someone in a warehouse, he’ll scream something like, “YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE FFFUCKED WITH ME!” or just a simple, “Fuck you!” Hiding in cover while bullets streak overhead, he’ll just begin spewing threats and obscenities at his tormentors. “I am going to rip out your heart!” Toss a grenade a blast someone out of cover, and he might just start screaming, “YEAH? YEAH? YEAAAAH?” His accent thickens, his voice breaks and becomes guttural, and you can almost see the red mist descending across his vision.

This is every bit as revealing of Niko as some of his monologues to other characters. He doesn’t just commit murder because he’s paid or because that is his only skill; Niko finds release in killing that gives lie to his protestations that he just wants things to be different. That rage has to go somewhere.

The same goes for his sense of morality. With the exception of a fanatical and unbalanced devotion to his closest friends, Niko is no longer capable of being guided by laws or customs. When he levels a gun at the driver of a car he wishes to take, he will often say something like, “I grew up in a war. This means nothing.” He’s not lying. Killing a stranger for a car is an act that carries almost no weight with Niko, especially as he grows more desensitized to violence.

It’s also revealing that less than halfway through the game, Niko no longer has any reason to continue doing contract killing, yet he does not stop. When he finishes up a bank heist with the McReary family, his cut comes to a quarter of a million dollars. This score is what will finance Niko for the remainder of the game. Nothing else he does will ever be so profitable.

It’s discordant. Niko is sitting on a massive pile of money, but you still see him negotiating hard for a five grand hit that will almost certainly turn into a bloodbath. He does work for men who are obviously fools and incompetents, and he does it for peanuts. Toward the end of the game Niko talks about retiring from crime and starting afresh, the same way he was talking when he arrived in Liberty City, but he’s already had chances to quit. He never did.

His justification for most of the game is necessity. He is looking for the two men who may have betrayed his unit during the war, so he needs to work with people who have the resources to track town his targets. Or he is being blackmailed. Or the people who hire him won’t let him quit.

But the justifications wear thin. Early in the game he hooks up with the character who will help him find his enemies, a federal agent who has a lot of dirty work that needs doing. This man even advises Niko not to do business with most of his associates, because they won’t be able to help. Yet Niko keeps working. A corrupt police captain spends a lot of time blackmailing Niko into assisting him with a cover up, but the idea of Niko Bellic being blackmailed is laughable. The man has done nothing but leave corpses scattered around Liberty City, and he would not hesitate to kill someone who threatened him. The same goes for anyone who tried to turn him into an indentured servant. He acquiesces, however, because Niko never acts for himself.

Niko’s biggest weaknesses are evident in his dealings with the Pegorino crime family. The Pegorinos are Alderney (Jersey) gangsters led by a whining, paranoid fuckup who dreams of making the Pegorinos one of the Five Families of Liberty City (New York). By the time Niko starts working with him, his organization has already been ravaged by informants and is down to a skeleton crew that sees feds in every shadow. Yet Jimmy Pegorino has a plan to turn everything around: he’s going to ask a more powerful family to let the Pegorinos start doing business in Algonquin (Manhattan). After all, Jimmy explains, the Pegorinos let these guys operate in Alderney. It never occurs to Jimmy that the Pegorinos no longer have the power to prevent anyone from doing business in Alderney.

From the first, Jimmy blunders from one disaster to another. He wastes his remaining manpower and shrugs off the losses. He turns against a top lieutenant. Throughout everything, Niko keeps Pegorino’s head above water. Things finally come to a head when Pegorino demands that Niko go make a deal with a Russian gangster who has repeatedly tormented Niko and his family. When Niko demurs, Jimmy threatens Niko and tells him that this is a favor owed. Niko lets Pegorino leave thinking that they’re on the same page now.

This is the conversation that sets up the tragic finale, and Niko is passive throughout. He feels nothing but contempt for Jimmy, that much is obvious, but he never actually sets Jimmy straight. He retains his posture of deference, even though Jimmy Pegorino is a floundering third-rate mafiosi while Niko is unquestionably the scariest motherfucker in Liberty City. He could easily say to Jimmy, “I’m through working for you, and if you think you can threaten me you should consider how many people have promised to kill me, and how many of them are still walking around.” He doesn’t. Niko doesn’t talk back.

Nor does he ever take charge. Niko is clearly more perceptive than most of the people he works for. He could easily supplant Jimmy and the Pegorinos, or the Russian gangsters in Hove Beach. By the end of the game, his best friend is a major drug dealer, he has the backing of an absolutely fearless family of Irish hoods, he is sitting atop a massive pile of cash, the capo di tutti capi owes him a stack of favors, and he’s about to wipe out most of the Russian mob. Niko could be a boss, if he wanted.

That, or quitting, would be the smart thing to do. The last thing he should do is keep taking orders, but he does. He learned nothing from the war, and he learns nothing during his life in America. He and his friends were led into a slaughter by following orders and trusting the genocidal gangsters who led them, and when he comes to America, Niko still leads his friends to slaughter and obeys gangsters. Niko is a skilled fighter and is, in some ways, a shrewd judge of character. But he refuses to think for himself or act for himself. He prefers simply to work, even though he claims to despise it.

Maybe this does make him despicable, but I still find Niko more tragic than anything else. Because there are things about him that are genuine, and one of them is that he cares fiercely for his friends and loved ones. In fact, the only times we see Niko reject orders or start taking action on his own is when he his motivated by loyalty. He kills everyone who harms Roman. His pursuit of the traitor from the war is motivated by the fact that Niko can neither forgive nor forget the fact that most of his childhood friends died before his eyes in that ambush. The game ends in an orgy of revenge killing. All Niko has is the family he attempts to construct around him, and it is that family in which he places his hopes for the future.

The tragedy is not that Niko does not get his fresh start. We know that’s impossible, even if he doesn’t. The tragedy is that Niko’s habit of obedience creates the circumstances that will destroy his family. Throughout the game he follows orders that place him and his friends in increasing peril, but he will not attempt to shape events. He will take revenge, and he will act in a crisis, but he refuses to do anything more than react. That is why the game ends with payback and no comfort. Love and loyalty might be his primary motivations, but hatred and rage are all that can move him to self-directed action.

Somehow they always seem to take him back to the exact same place.

Straight into the Wall

At Tosci’s tonight, I overheard a guy say this to his date.

“I used to watch a lot of movies, but now I mostly listen to NPR.”

That brought my head right around. At a table by the wall, a bro-stereotype straight out of a Mountain Dew-Halo ad sat across from a cute, brown-haired girl who seemed to be saying little. A few minutes later:

“Oh, I guess you’re really liberal, huh? Ha-ha.” The girl was wearing a stony expression. An awkward moment. “My mom’s a Democrat.”

Let Me Show You Where to Stick Your Trophy

I used to be fairly positive about achievements and trophies. I saw a lot of great possibilities for them, because I saw how people like Valve were using them. Some of my best Team Fortress 2 memories are of those moments when I would do something I couldn’t believe, and then achievements would start falling into my lap.

But it has all gone to hell. The entire concept has been diluted into complete meaninglessness, as developers pile pointless trophies into every game that are not so much achievements as inevitabilities. As I played through Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune last week, I received “trophies” for getting 10 headshots, or for killing 50 enemies with my pistol, and so on. It’s like Naughty Dog were surprised they made a shooter.

“Whoa, look at that! He just killed a bunch of people with that machine gun. Dude has mad skills.”

It happened in the middle of a tense firefight in a church. I was running out of ammo, snipers were drawing a bead on my position, grenades were falling like hail, and I was desperately diving from cover to cover, killing as quickly as I could. I was completely into the moment, hanging on the edge of my seat as Drake slid his last clip into the M4 carbine. Then, just as I killed a sniper and a stream of gunfire doused my position, a window popped into the screen congratulating me on my 50th kill with the M4. The tension that had been building since the encounter began was broken by the intrusion. The reward that mattered was the thrill of riding out this desperate firefight. But the game forced a lesser prize into my hands, and took away the real one.

Worse by far, however, is the narrative mutilation that achievements perform on games. No plot point, no crucial character development escapes its requisite asinine and self-consciously clever achievement. The work of the writers, animators, and artists who create important moments is crippled by the attitude that unless it comes with an achievement, it doesn’t matter.

A few weeks ago I was playing through Grand Theft Auto IV on PC, and the end of the first act is marked by the destruction of everything Niko and his cousin have accomplished since arriving in America. The Russian mob has turned against Niko, his apartment and his cousin’s taxi service have been firebombed, and now Niko and Roman must flee Broker and go into hiding in Bohan.

It’s a great sequence. The player and Niko realize that they’ve been betrayed and have made their worst enemy a very powerful man, and now Niko and Roman race around Broker trying to salvage the pieces of their lives. But it is too late, and Roman begins wailing as he watches first his apartment and then his hard-won taxi garage burning to the ground. The pair race out of Broker with nothing but their lives, and Roman is yelling at Niko for ruining everything and lamenting the lost status and possessions he worked years to acquire. Niko tries to defend himself, but is also clearly racked by guilt over his colossal fuck-up. When you finally get to the safe-house in Bohan, Niko can’t even stay in the apartment. He walks back onto the street for some much-needed air and privacy. Outside, a street-preacher’s sermon is in full swing, telling you that you’re mired in so much sin that you’re already in hell.

I watched him from across the street as he stared back, and oblivious pedestrians brush past both of us. It was a crowning moment after a powerful bit of storytelling. Several hours into the game, Niko had only managed to ruin things for himself and his best friend.

Then a message box appeared on the screen: “Achievement Unlocked! – Lowest Point.” And that was the end of that.

Or how about this punishing moment from Heavy Rain, when the Origami Killer forces Ethan to amputate a finger in order to get another clue about where his son is being kept? It’s an unbelievable sequence. A prerecorded message gives you five minutes to chop off your finger in front of a camera. You go around a fire-damaged apartment, finding useful things like a knife, a cleaver, and some alcohol. Then, once you’ve set the place, you take a few shots of liquor, chop off a finger, and then pour alcohol over the wound. Ethan is screaming and crying from pain. I felt sick.

A few seconds later we get a loading screen, and the game announces that we’d won the “Goldfinger” trophy. Haha, how clever! Because, you see, we just chopped off a finger. Actually, I don’t even know what the fuck “Goldfinger” has to do with what just happened, but at least we can all agree that we really accomplished something here. We got a trophy!

Most games have trouble sustaining my interest in the plot and my emotional involvement with the characters. When a game manages the trick of pulling me into the gameworld, of making the room and the controls disappear, it has managed one of the most difficult and important tasks in telling a story within a game. That’s the achievement. That’s what creates the possibility that a game might actually mean something to you long after you’ve stopped playing.

Trophies and achievements destroy that. They piss on the narrative importance of anything you’ve seen or done, and they increasingly mock the concept of skilled play. They break in at every turn, rushing to reassure you that you’re doing well, that you’re not wasting your time, and that what you’re doing actually means something. And they only succeed in making it seem meaningless.