Posts Tagged ‘ The Escapist

Alan Wake Reconsidered

I said that this year I would try and stretch myself a bit as a writer, and that’s always a fraught endeavor when you’re doing it on someone else’s dime in front off a big audience. Fortunately, The Escapist came through as it always has in my career and gave me space to do a close, critical reading of Alan Wake in order to provide a revisionist view of the game.

It’s the kind of thing that sounded awesome as I was pitching it and playing through the game for a second time, but was easy to start doubting once I began working on it. By the time I sent back my final draft, I was convinced that the response was going to be a collective eye-roll. I liked my analysis, and I thought it was pretty damned sound, but I know there are a lot of people who resist reading deeply into videogames, especially ones as flawed as Alan Wake.

Fortunately, the article got an incredibly warm reception both from the audience at The Escapist and my acquaintances on Twitter. No piece I’ve written this year has given me as much satisfaction, with several people writing to express how thoroughly my article changed their view of the game. There is not much more that I can ask of my work.

While I stuck pretty close to what is actually in the game, and I can readily defend just about every claim that I make in the article, I will admit that my interpretation still owes a great deal to my own experiences. I have written several times over the last year about the difficulty of balancing my emotional investment in my work with other aspects of my life, and how sometimes work seems to be crowding out the other things I love. Approaching Alan Wake with those fears weighing on my mind, it was not hard for me to make the connection between the game’s plot and the conflicts I face as someone doing what I love for a living, dependent on steady stream of decent ideas and good words, and the pain I feel when they seem to dry up.

A few people raised their eyebrows at the connection I drew between the savior figure in Alan Wake, Thomas Zane, and Bioshock. I think the use of an old, porthole-covered diving bell is too heavily associated with Bioshock to be accidental, but I will readily grant that once again my own experiences inform my analysis here.

2007 changed everything for me, and Bioshock was a major part of that. It was the first time I really heard the kind of serious, intelligent discussion of videogames that I had long wanted to have, and Bioshock was the topic of discussion that year (as it has remained, in many ways). Bioshock didn’t sequester itself from intellectual life the way so many games do. It was in dialogue with the books I read in college on history and political theory, and critics were receptive to that. There have been other games that could make you think, other games that didn’t flinch from asking harder questions or engaging with their historical moment, but Bioshock was the first time that the stars aligned and serious critical discussion of a videogame entered the mainstream.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Alan Wake started production in 2005, Bioshock came out in 2007, and the character in the game has not been able to accomplish anything in two years. The game itself did not come out until 2010, and it’s not hard to imagine that 2007 might have been the year when the Alan Wake project finally started to gather some momentum after lengthy delays and creative struggles. And from my own experience, I can see where Bioshock might have played a role in the story.

Anyway, I hope you go and read the piece. This kind of analysis isn’t something I’ve done much, but I had an absolute blast with it.

The Once and Future Format

After spending so much time among strategy gamers, and falling under the influence of people like Troy, Julian, and Bill Abner, I have become a convert to board gaming and it’s now one of my favorite pursuits. However, I’ve also become fascinated by the potential for board gaming to help revitalize strategy on electronic platforms. The Escapist let me explore how board game sensibilities are infiltrating the casual game market. That piece went up yesterday.

My thesis is that there are elements of board gaming that might well be the cure to what ails modern strategy and wargaming, and that modern networking provides the ideal platform for employing mechanics that were formerly only possible with board games. I set out to prove my case, and along the way, I chatted up Soren Johnson, Brian Reynolds, Iron Helmet’s Jay Kyburz (Neptune’s Pride), Petroglyph Community Manager Mathew Anderson (regarding Panzer General: Allied Assault), and Muzzy Lane’s Dave McCool. Go give it a read, and by all means leave comments over at The Escapist.

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.

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.

Recipe for a Great Spring Day

This spring is making me ridiculously happy, in part because it’s the first real spring I’ve experienced in many, many years. In northern Wisconsin, where I used to live, the ground is covered in snow and ice until April, until it abruptly melts into mud, then bakes in the heat throughout May. “Spring” is what you call the nice couple of weeks that precede the summer heat wave. The weather isn’t much better in northwest Indiana.

Boston winter may have sucked, but it’s making it up to me with days like yesterday and today: sunny, breezy, and cool. It was so nice yesterday that I decided to go work elsewhere, and took  a stroll down to Toscanini’s ice cream in Central Square. There is nothing like eating Caramel Delight ice cream for lunch on a weekday morning to make you feel like being a grown-up is everything you thought it would be when you were a kid.

At the risk of seeming like an unprofessional novice, I will say that yesterday also marked the first time I’ve had two pieces of paid work published on the same day. I could and perhaps should let the occasion pass unremarked, looking on with a cool detachment that says, “This happens to me every day.” But the fact is that it does not happen every day, and yesterday’s milestone was further proof that I am continuing to move the ball down the field. Such morale boosts are important, especially when there are nothing but deadlines as far the eye can see.

The first piece that went up was my GameShark review of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. No reader of this blog will be surprise to find that I gave it a positive review, but I reserved most of my judgments for the review itself. This game would have been in “A” territory easily with a little more polish and a less infuriating interface, but even with the user-unfriendliness that I’ve come to associate with eastern European PC games, it’s a really good wargame. A patch was just released that I haven’t had time to play with. Hopefully it addresses some of my complaints.

The other piece that went up is a feature on The Hunter and its moral code that I wrote for The Escapist. I’ll definitely have more to say about this game and this piece later this week, but for now I’ll just point you to the article and let you read it.

New Article and Weekend Note

I have a new article up at The Escapist this week called “A Gamer in the Kitchen”, and it is a near-total exercise in self-indulgence as I explain how cooking and gaming hit a lot of the same pleasure centers. While food was the theme of the issue, I have to admit that I was worried people would just say that I was stretching to make a connection that doesn’t exist. While I see clear similarities, there is always that worry that a personal perspective is just a little too individual.

Fortunately, most people seem to have gotten where I’m coming from and enjoyed the article. Now I have to go project my insecurities onto something else. I’m sure I have plenty from which to choose.

At any rate, I badly need this weekend. Between a podcast, a ton of blogging, finishing up production on another article that should (appropriately enough) go up on Valentine’s Day, and a lot of pitching, I am completely wiped out. Not unlike the gentleman across this library table from me, who put down his books, opened his laptop, and fell asleep on it.

So once I finish some proposals and correspondence this afternoon, I am going to get serious about relaxing. There will be drinking, West Wing on DVD, a new Adrian McKinty novel, unhealthy food, and lots of gaming. There will, under no circumstances, be work or thinking about work until Sunday afternoon. I hope you have a good weekend. I plan on having a great one.