Archive for July, 2010

Hope Is the First Step on the Road to Disappointment

Would you believe I volunteered to do this review of Real Warfare: 1242? Me either.

This is the price you pay for optimism. I installed the game and played the first level, and while I didn’t think it looked brilliant, it looked like it might be a pleasant diversion. Since most games like this don’t get reviewed, I thought I would take a crack at it.

L.B. Jeffries once wrote about why he sometimes takes a detour into shovelware. He said it applies a corrective to the “quality bias” that sometimes colors a lot of game criticism.

Almost all reviewers and critics that I read suffer from a quality bias. If all you do is play highly polished, sophisticated AAA games or acclaimed indie titles then you’re only playing the cream of the crop. This leads to a lot of nitpicking. Complaints that the controls “could be smoother” or “the story is a bit dull” are all a bit grating because these are highly personal, impossible to perfect attributes.

Basic achievements like the game working, having a coherent story, and me not wanting to quit after ten minutes of play are all things that are difficult to put into words.

I’m torn on this. On the one hand, I want to believe him here, so that the hours and hours I spent on Real Warfare: 1242 are something more than a life-stealing waste. But I’m not sure I grant the premise that playing bottom-of-the-barrel disasters really helps us get the right critical perspective. In fact, I think it might be harmful.

Reviewers love to complain about the 7 to 10 or 7 to 9 grading scale that afflicts game criticism, especially with big-budget titles. A crummy AAA game gets a score of 7, and a really good one gets a 9. There are a lot of reasons for this. It’s probably exhausting fighting battles against vindictive publishers and their PR people. Review aggregation and the deafening volume of instant opinions on Twitter push everyone, subconsciously or not, toward the median judgment. And maybe most of the people reviewing games are just bad at it, for one reason or another.

But I think something else is at work, too. Most review scales are using an out-of-date calibration. The 1 to 10 scale, or whatever scale you want to use, used to reserve the lowest scores for hopelessly broken and buggy games. There were a lot more of them twenty years ago. “Unplayably bad” was a common verdict. These days, it isn’t. Quality control really has improved throughout the industry. These days a buggy game means features that don’t work right, or an AI that misses some important tricks. Twenty-year ago, a buggy game crashed every time you opened a certain window, or had a number of commands that simply did not work.

By those standards, yes, most games are pretty good these days. The standards for incompetence have changed. Real Warfare: 1242 works just fine, for instance, except for the fact it’s awful.

So should we play terrible games to cure ourselves of the Quality Bias? Or should we celebration the general rise in standards, and stop pretending that the bottom of the review scale should be reserved for the most incompetent and non-functional products? Manohla Dargis isn’t watching Youtube videos and student films to help her keep studio pictures in perspective. Technical competence is the least we should expect from our entertainment. No more points for being better than the worst possibility.

Tyler, My Eyes Are Open

There are some great things about The New York Times. For instance, I have a binder full of great recipes from their food section. And people like Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott make the film section a treat. If The New York Times was a cultural and gastronomical digest, it’d be one hell of a paper.

But a news outlet is responsible for letting people know what’s happening in the world, and occasionally making a judgment about what it all means. Sadly for all of us, The Times treats this responsibility with an unappealing combination of pompous milquetoast smugness (typified by its editorials, and writers like Friedman, Dowd, and Brooks), and an elevation of fair-mindedness to the point of moral cowardice and delusion. The best recent example is probably The Times’ Executive Editor, Bill Keller, who dismissed the significance of the paper’s decision to stop referring to waterboarding as torture the moment the Bush administration told The Times it wasn’t torture.

But there are also web series like The Thread, which purports to provide an “in-depth look at how major news and controversies are being debated across the online spectrum.” We’ll set aside the usefulness of this particular service, which seems to do nothing than add more reverb to the already deafening crosstalk between blogs and opinion writers.

No, what I find telling is this meandering essay on the modern “race card” and who has been playing it lately and how that’s been received. The point of departure for this discussion is an NAACP resolution that calls on the Tea Party movement to renounce the racists among its leadership. After looking at several arguments of when it is appropriate to call someone or something racist, Tobin Harshaw concludes with this irrelevance:

It’s pretty complicated here as well, to the point that this week arguments that were initially about health care, national security and the economy are now all about race… Roslyn Brock, the new chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., told the group’s convention this week that “contrary to popular belief, we do not live in a post-racial society.” Based on this week’s evidence, it seems that nobody much held that belief in the first place.

What raises this from a merely boring article to something banally sinister is its failure to cite one important development in this story. Namely, a leading Tea Party figure writing something obscenely racist. The author, Mark Williams, has since taken it down. But The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has the original text:

Dear Mr. Lincoln

We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!

In fact we held a big meeting and took a vote in Kansas City this week. We voted to condemn a political revival of that old abolitionist spirit called the ‘tea party movement’.

The tea party position to “end the bailouts” for example is just silly. Bailouts are just big money welfare and isn’t that what we want all Coloreds to strive for? What kind of racist would want to end big money welfare? What they need to do is start handing the bail outs directly to us coloreds! Of course, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the only responsible party that should be granted the right to disperse the funds.

And the ridiculous idea of “reduce[ing] the size and intrusiveness of government.” What kind of massa would ever not want to control my life? As Coloreds we must have somebody care for us otherwise we would be on our own, have to think for ourselves and make decisions!

The racist tea parties also demand that the government “stop the out of control spending.” Again, they directly target coloreds. That means we Coloreds would have to compete for jobs like everybody else and that is just not right.

Perhaps the most racist point of all in the tea parties is their demand that government “stop raising our taxes.” That is outrageous! How will we coloreds ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn? Totally racist! The tea party expects coloreds to be productive members of society?

Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house. Please repeal the 13th and 14th Amendments and let us get back to where we belong.

Sincerely

Precious Ben Jealous, Tom’s Nephew
NAACP Head Colored Person

This is news. This is not some nut at a Tea Party rally with an Obama-witch doctor poster. This letter comes from the spokesman for the Tea Party Express. Its omission from the Times piece is exactly what makes that piece subtly toxic. Harshaw’s piece asks whether the Tea Party is racist and portrays the entire issue as nothing more than competing points of view. There is no truth, only arguments. So the truth revealed by this communique from Mark Williams, that the NAACP was right about the Tea Party having some seriously racist leadership, doesn’t make it into the final draft.

Coates says something at the end of his post that’s worth repeating here.It speaks to a lot of the way mainstream outlets cover the news now, and the way a lot of us have started conceptualizing issues.

I would not endeavor to speak for anyone but myself when I say that I owe the NAACP a debt of gratitude. I have, in my writing, a tendency to become theoretically cute, and overly enamored with my own fair-mindedness. Such vanity has lately been manifested in the form of phrases like “it’s worth saying”  and “it strikes me that…” or “respectfully…”

When engaging your adversaries, that approach has its place. But it’s worth saying that there are other approaches and other places. Among them–respectfully administering the occasional reminder as to the precise nature of the motherfuckers you are dealing with.

Point and Click

Mass Effect is beginning to bore me.

I realized that yesterday afternoon as I tore through yet another series of missions, blowing away Geth troopers that were unable to so much as pierce my party’s shields. Shepard and her squad have not been in peril since the earliest segments of the Noveria mission. Now we’re in the sky-towers of Feros, single-handedly exterminating a Geth invasion force. If it weren’t for my interest in Mass Effect 2, I think I might have pulled the plug on this by now.

What’s getting to me is the bogus inventory management I have to do and the fact that I have absolutely no meaningful choices in combat. It’s too fiddly and generic to satisfy on the same level as, say, a hack-and-slash loot-fest like Diablo or Torchlight, but it’s too idiot-proofed to match something like Deus Ex’s or System Shock 2′s balance of RPG / shooter mechanics.

Every character has the full complement of weapons: pistol, shotgun, machine gun, and sniper rifle. Now most character are good with one, maybe two of these weapons. They will never use anything else, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to try. On the other hand, none of these weapons have any real disadvantages. Not when you have a squad of three people helping each other out. So the sniper rifle might be slow-firing, but a trained sniper only needs one or two shots to kill a healthy target. The shotgun is slow-firing and short ranged, but it is also a one-hit kill weapon at times. The assault rifle is kind of inaccurate, but it shoots so fast and puts out such high damage that it doesn’t need to hit reliably. It wears its targets down. The pistol… well, it’s not too good but the characters who rely on the pistol tend to have other powers to make up for it.

And since engagement ranges always tend toward short or intermediate, every single weapon I named above manages to be useful in every situation. Under attack from snipers? Run twenty feet and murder them with your shotgun. Is a big space lizard charging you? Step aside and tag him with the sniper rifle as he comes. Just make sure to max out your chosen weapon, and you’ll never need another.

That doesn’t mean I wont have to go into my inventory and tediously upgrade from one gun to the next. It won’t change anything, since all the weapons look the same and shoot essentially the same, but I have to do it to make sure I’m doing all the damage I can. It provides a nice little illusion of progress. But I have never really noticed much change.

Boxes. Identical weapons. People standing in the open and shooting. Back in the day, this could have given Doom a real run for its money.

What Bioware missed, I think, is that good shooters are really about improvisation and opportunity. Having the right tools can make a job boring. It’s more fun to take down a squad of enemies when the right weapon is down to its last dozen rounds, and the only other thing you’ve got on hand is a pistol and a couple hand grenades, than it is to simply machine-gun them. Those are the moments that let us invent strategies on the fly and play efficiently with inefficient tools.

Opportunity comes during what Lange calls “Fuck Yeah Levels”, when the game gives you a period of super-empowered grace and the incentives to enjoy it.  The amazing weapons for which ammo has been scarce in previous levels are suddenly stocked. The most interesting enemies in the game are present in droves. The level design keeps the action fast and dynamic. It’s the lobby scene in The Matrix. Think of the climactic sequences in every act of a Max Payne title, or the street battle in Japan in Kane and Lynch, the church in Uncharted, or the scene where Sander Cohen tries to kill you in Bioshock.

In the same way a story uses the dramatic structure to vary the tension as it builds toward the climax, a shooter must vary encounter structure. If it doesn’t, the tension ultimately flatlines no matter the intensity of action. Whether I’m fighting three guys or 300 won’t really matter if my actions never change. That’s where I’m at with Mass Effect. Approximately 1/3 of the game fluctuates between dull and pointless.

Quick Hits from Mass Effect

The Paragon / Renegade meters drive me crazy. It’s not that I object to the game’s binary choice moments, since Bioware did a decent job of making either option credible for Commander Shepard. I just wish the game did not turn this aspect of character into an overt scoring system. I really wanted to create a consistent, believable Shepard, but any time a stat appears in a game, I start trying to manipulate it.

So when I face choices in handling a confrontation, I’m as likely to be thinking about my P / R scores as I am about what Shepard would do. The other evening I had to rescue some official from biotic terrorists and I made my decision on the grounds that the game was starting to think I was a goody two-shoes. “I’ve been too nice lately. Better throw in some renegade.”

Besides which, the whole dialogue tree (more of a dialogue-T) seems to be irrelevant. Whether or nor Shepard plays it tough or plays it like a counselor, my antagonists seem equally moved: “I guess you’re right.” I want something more like the tense, timed negotiations of Heavy Rain, where you’d navigate a series of conversation options and use a combination of cajolery and firmness to get what you wanted. Consequences did not directly flow from a single choice, but the steady accretion of small decisions.

I did face one dilemma that left me a bit conflicted. When given the choice between releasing or killing the last Rachni queen, a race that had terrorized the galaxy millennia earlier, I was completely at a loss. My Shepard is generally a tough, unsentimental martinet and ordinarily would have incinerated the thing without a second thought. But I’ve read Ender’s Game, and the situation was too similar. The fact is that the first war ended in a genocide and no communication ever took place with the Rachni, but now I was speaking to a Rachni queen who seemed regretful and even tragic. Morally, she was not culpable for the actions of her race, nor did I feel Shepard was bound by the genocidal decisions made earlier. Shepard might be one of the galactic Council’s special enforcers, but I did not feel that she was obligated to support some of its most heavy-handed decisions.

The benevolent Citadel Council: where the right solution is always the Final Solution.

So I let it go and for the first time had an action roundly condemned by my officers and the Council. It was an isolating moment. For once, nobody said, “I think you handled this right.” The most I got was, “I’m not sure that was our decision.”  But I must also say that Mass Effect did not make the Rachni seem like a real threat. According the game’s lore the Rachni were terrifying and dangerous in their day, but my experience ran counter to that. They were large pests that were easy enough to mow down once you expected them. It seemed unlikely that this race would ever pose much of a threat. The gravity of decision was not real to me.

But perhaps that’s just clever evocation of the game’s theme. Humanity is a young and brash actor on the galactic stage, while the older races seem exhausted under the weight of historical experience. Shepard is a young hero, and her experience has taught her that almost anything is possible and there is no problem that she can’t solve. So she’ll do as she damn well pleases, certain that she can always handle the consequences if it comes to that.

Poisoning the Well at Red Bull Racing

This is what Mark Webber said to his team after winning the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday: “Not bad for a number two driver, yeah?”

Team principle Christian Horner said to him: “Think you can manage a smile now?”

This is a team on the verge of a meltdown.

The start of the British GP, moments before Webber helped run Vettel off the track. (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images, via F1 Fanatic)

There are those, and Red Bull is one of them, who say that the bonhomie between Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button is entirely forced. It’s a PR dog-and-pony show to make the legendarily fractious and unhappy McLaren team suddenly seem like the cool kids, who just love racing, winning, and each other. Maybe so, but I have never seen a McLaren team so laid-back and consistent as this one. The fact is that most of us who watch F1 can recognize when fault lines form within a team, and this year it’s Red Bull that’s cracking, not McLaren. It’s worth considering why.

There are three key differences between the two teams, and I’m not sure how Red Bull can address any of them. The first is that McLaren has 2009 World Champion Jenson Button driving alongside 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton. Both these drivers have secured a space in F1 history and have vastly less to prove than Mark Webber or Sebastian Vettel. That’s not to say Button or Hamilton are not driven, they most certainly are. But it does mean that Hamilton and Button are secure about themselves and within their team in ways that Vettel and Webber are not. Vettel is young, impetuous, and probably flabbergasted at how his heretofore over-the-hill teammate has launched an attack on the championship. Webber has been kicked around a bit in his career and is more defensive because of it, and when this year began he looked like a marked man at Red Bull.

The second key difference is one of personal style. Button and Hamilton are entirely different sorts of drivers. Button is less inspired and more consistent, a man who has made a study of driving rather than relying on instinct. He is not a fighter, though he can pick his way through a field when he needs to, and he will not drive beyond the limits of a car. Hamilton, on the other hand, is samurai. He has been trained from childhood to be a race driver, and a highly aggressive one. He is prone to lapses in judgment and flashes of temper, but he will drive the wheels off a car and wring every extra hundredth of a second from it. Put someone in front him and tell him to have at it, and he will do whatever it takes to get the position.

Vettel and Webber are both more in the Hamilton mold, and I’m not sure either possesses all his strengths while they definitely copy his weaknesses. They are aggressive to the point of stupidity. At Valencia two weeks ago, Webber drove onto the back of Heikki Kovaleinen’s Lotus and sent himself flying into the nearest wall. It was an entirely avoidable collision, but it was vintage Webber: a reckless charge into someone’s tail. A few weeks before that incident, Vettel managed to ruin Red Bull’s entire race by trying to force his way past Webber, and then swerving into him to try and regain the racing line. Red Bull had a lock on first and second until Vettel botched this pass. Webber finished third and Vettel didn’t finish at all.

But most unbelievably, and this brings us to the third point, Red Bull tried to blame the incident on Webber. Despite the fact that the entire world saw Vettel drive into Webber, the initial reaction from Red Bull leadership was some bizarre song and dance about Webber lapping slower and having turned his engine down to conserve fuel. Therefore, the theory went, he was obligated to let Vettel past. Perhaps, but Webber drove in a straight line and Vettel hit him. There is no way to spin that. Hell, Webber didn’t even force Vettel to try the inside of the straight. Vettel had his pick of lines and went for the one barely wide enough for his car. Then he juked into his teammate.

You can watch it here. Contact happens at about 1:25, but the whole thing is worth watching. You can see the Vettel is faster but, you also see that’s irrelevant given what happened.

Strangely, this photo did not actually solve the problems brewing at Red Bull.

The reason this matters is because Webber and his fans believe that Webber is not getting fair treatment from his team. Even the commentators on FOX Sunday were making the comment that the word was the Austrian leadership of the Red Bull organization have a thumb firmly on Vettel’s side of the scale.

This weekend, for instance, Red Bull brought two new front wings to Silverstone, one for each driver. In a strange mishap, Vettel’s broke. It slid right off its mountings while he was driving. Anyway, the team’s reaction was to immediately take the wing from Webber’s car and give it to Vettel.

The official explanation is that the team’s aerodynamicist, the legendary Adrian Newey, needed race data on the new wing and so one of these two drivers was damned well going to drive it. I accept that explanation, but why give it to Vettel? It was neither driver’s fault that the wing broke, but why turn the incident into one that punished Webber?

I’ve never had much trouble with teams favoring one driver over another. The reason Schumacher got better treatment at Ferrari than Rubens Barrichello is that Schumacher was a better, more consistent driver. Rubens was treated shabbily at times, yes, but there was no doubt that he was the number two driver. This is how F1 teams work: one driver takes the lead and gets first call on new upgrades and race strategy. The other driver lags behind a bit.

But it only works if there is a clear hierarchy that makes sense to both drivers. Where the drivers are equally successful and both fighting for championship points, the team has to step aside and let them sort things out on the track, with only one rule: don’t take each other out. Red Bull can be forgiven for coming into this season thinking of Vettel as their primary driver, but the season should have changed that assessment. It changed everyone else’s.

I don’t know how you begin sorting this out. The team leadership has already fouled this situation up, and so Horner and his people aren’t really in a position to say, “Knock it off.” They’re part of the problem. But so is Webber, because while he shouldn’t be treated like a number two driver, he doesn’t act like a number one. His conduct after qualifying and after this race was classless, and only served to underline his distaste for his team. The same team that put him in a winning car, set it up, maintained it, and serviced it during the race.

Perhaps Horner should get his walking papers for mishandling this personnel issue so badly. Let him fall on the sword and then signal a fresh start with someone else. But here’s the bitter irony over at Red Bull this year: they’re hands down the best team. This is a successful, dominant formula for victory, and nobody over there should want to rock the boat. But they’ve let rot set into the team, and it’s already destroyed the ability of the two drivers to trust one another. When these guys line up next to each other on the grid, each has to worry about the other sticking a knife in his back. Webber wasn’t even allowed to catch up and lap Vettel in traffic Sunday, for fear the two would clash.

Red Bull has the best car by a half second a lap this season, and they’re in danger of losing the constructor’s championship because they’ve set their drivers against one another. The only thing to do now is to treat each driver equally and hope that restores peace. Otherwise it’s going to be a long, ugly off-season leading to an even uglier racing season in 2011.

The Love of One’s Country

The Wind That Shakes the Barley tells the story of two brothers who fight the Anglo-Irish War together, and then find themselves fighting each other in the Irish Civil War that followed.

I hate that description. It makes the movie sound cliched and sentimental. It isn’t. It is one of the most searing and beautiful movies I’ve seen lately. It is comprised of a series of unforgettable moments, and when the credits rolled, neither MK nor I could really say anything for a few minutes. Director Ken Loach and his crew produced a powerful piece of filmmaking, and you should make an effort to see it.

Perhaps most admirably, it does not stoop to using the warring brothers and comrades as simple metaphors for the broader struggle for Ireland’s soul. The men and women of this film retain their individuality, and never for a moment do you doubt that they are reaching private decisions for their own reasons. They might be caught in the tide of history, but they are also its agents.

Like its spiritual and stylistic parent, The Battle of Algiers, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is shot in an intimate, semi-documentary style. The camera is your proxy in the film, a silent and trusted fellow dissident and confidante among rebels. Later, as the band of fighters splinters in the final third of the film, the camera finds itself adrift between the players, cutting back and forth like a child watching his parents fire volleys across the dinner table.

This is a period of history I know well, but always from the point of view of the elites. That’s a distorted view of the action, however. It’s easy to see why Collins and the Army crushed the partisans so brutally: their refusal to compromise with the British would have cost Ireland its last best chance for independence. Their leaders had recused themselves from the actual negotiations with Lloyd-George and Churchill so that they they could maintain the fiction of their revolutionary purity. They seem like violent, self-serving idealists. It’s easy to forget that many of them had their own reasons, and real principles.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is not a history of winners and losers. It is a series of tragedies nestled within one another. British soldiers make martyrs of their victims and mortal enemies of those who witness their excesses, and the men who volunteer to murder British Tommies and Irish traitors spin dreams for themselves that can somehow redeem the bloodshed. But there must come a moment in a revolution when dreams give way to the possible.

Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a reluctant killer who takes on more than his share of responsibility, because his conscience won’t let him delegate a necessary evil. He would never have taken up arms unless he could believe with all his heart that the future would be worth it. When he discovers that it won’t be, he has a legion of ghosts at his back, urging him to keep fighting until he pays his debts to them.

There is also a degree of narcissism in this decision. Damien and his friend, Dan (Liam Cunningham), are breaking a hard-won peace because it is not their peace. They are deaf to the argument that most of Ireland voted for the Treaty, coming up with flimsy explanations of how the people were duped by the sell-outs. They begin terrorizing and killing their fellow Irishmen in the newborn army, because they have chosen to serve Ireland and not Damien’s and Dan’s vision for it. In a war of national liberation, Damien and his fellow hard-liners have fallen into the revolutionary trap of identifying themselves with the nation.

Still, I find myself thinking over and over about an execution scene halfway through the film. Damien has to shoot a pair of informers, and Cillian Murphy looks like a man who has just awakened from a pleasant dream to find himself in Hell. As he slams pistol rounds into his revolver, he says, “I studied anatomy for five years, Dan. Now I’m going to shoot this man in the head. I’ve known Chris Riley since he was a child.” He pauses and shakes his head. “I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it.”

In the last shot of the scene we see that all the other cell members, including those that urged the execution, have turned their faces away from it. We see them all outlined against the hills, their heads bowed and looking to the right of the frame. Chris Riley’s body lies lost in the tall grass behind them. Damien throws the pistol down and exits to the left, walking alone down the hill, a man already isolated by the choices being forced on him and the promises he’s made to himself.