Thursday, May 27, 2010

Revisionist history: on the mertis of updating classics

Yesterday's update to Half-Life 2, which "modernised" it by plugging it into the newest version of Valve's Source engine, got me to play through nearly half of the now-classic shooter in one evening - pretty good, considering that usually when I game I tend to play in smaller bursts.  Featuring updated visuals and audio, achievements, and a few tweaks to the gameplay, I was happy to replay the game out of sheer novelty value, even though I'm also halfway through Deus Ex: Invisible War and Unreal Gold.  However, I also came across a number of bugs which, while relatively small and insignificant on their own, eventually ended up tarnishing a game which I have poured over a hundred hours into over the years, and that has really defined gaming this decade for me.

This got me thinking about why we seem so obsessed with re-releases, updates, and the like, to gaming classics especially.  It's one thing to have an update that fixes bugs, but often it seems like we're sucked into spending our money on games purely because they give us a fresh coat of paint over some old thrills.  That's not to devalue the original games, but I can't say that there aren't a dozen or more remakes I've played solely because of visual refinements.

In some cases, these sorts of refinements are necessary.  Old games, such as Bionic Commando, look and feel dated by today's standards, not just because of their visual styles, but because the limitations of the technology actually get in the way of some of the game's playability.  Swinging from platform to platform is a lot easier when you have a smooth, graceful animation rather than a choppy, three-frame one; the Rearmed version of the game is certainly appreciated here.  Updated audio and controls serve a similar function, since often our nostalgia for a game ends up tainting our memories of it.  Some games do age gracefully, but at the same time I would never play Duke Nukem 3D ever again if it wasn't for the awesome EDuke32 mod.

Ah, memories.  Huh?  What do you mean, "it's been updated"?

At the same time, though, one has to wonder what sort of value comes out of these updated versions.  We all hold fond memories of classics like Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Doom, etc., and in fact, often it's hard for us to think of anything other than the original 8-bit version when those names come up.  I certainly don't imagine Super Mario All-Stars and its updated version of Mario Bros., and I doubt anyone else really does.  Sure, nicer graphics can be a plus, but for games that have such an iconic look, it almost feels like sacrilege to make changes to something so hallowed in the annals of gaming history.

There's also the case of updates fixing bugs and changing controls.  One of the reasons I really dislike the updated version of Mario Bros. in Super Mario All-Stars isn't due to the visuals, but due to the fact that the game's handling has been changed quite a bit, and some levels have been altered.  It looks different, but I wouldn't care so much if it didn't play so differently either.  Even things like the distance Mario can jump and the speed he can run have been altered, and this makes for a game that is frustrating when one is so used to the classic version.

Moreover, there's the slightly more philosophical point that changing a game, which is so iconic and important for the development of the medium, is in some sense morally wrong.  This is of course a highly subjective angle to take, but I think we need to consider what we are attempting to do when we remake a game: we're altering something which people already consider to be classic, and perhaps by that token, perfect.  Is it really a good idea to take something that already worked so well, and then try to make it "better"?  It seems to be a form of revisionist history: by updating a classic, you also infer that the original wasn't as good as it could have been.  At least some remakes, like The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, include the original game as well as the updated one, so that the original isn't overshadowed or lost

Allowing you to switch between the original and updated games at will,
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is respectful of its source material.

What purpose does "modernising" a game serve in most cases, other than cashing in on the nostalgia of older gamers?  If I can play a Flash version of Zork, do I really need or want to pay for an "updated" version featuring full graphic illustrations?  Updating a game for compatibility is all well and good, until you start to change things that are fundamental to making a game what it is.  For some, that might mean taking Pac-Man out of the arcade and onto your Xbox 360; for others that might be updating the graphics; for yet others, it could be that producing a sequel to a classic is insulting.

This argument is akin to remaking films such as King Kong in order to take advantage of new technology, a new audience, the old audience, and an existing brand all at once.  Unfortunately, turning to film for answers doesn't seem to help much.  There are some great examples of film remakes, such as the aforementioned Kong, but others, like the updated Friday the 13th, serve only to tarnish the original.  It seems that Hollywood hasn't quite figured it out either.

In any case, I'm confident that Valve will patch up what is perhaps one of their most famous games; it simply won't do for them to have so many visible bugs, especially when they're now trying to sell it as a closs-platform product.  With the emergence of auto-patching via digital distribution services like Steam, it means that Valve can effectively choose to rewrite what is a landmark title for all of gaming, and I can't help but be reminded of George Lucas and his Special Edition versions of Star Wars.  Unfortunately, unlike Star Wars, I can't just save my old Laserdiscs or VHS tapes; short of disconnecting myself from the Internet, Valve has free will to continually define what their game is.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Violence in pursuit of gaming purity

Cold.  Calculating.  Ruthless.  Unpredictable.  Invisible.  Devious.  These are the kinds of worst that I'd use to sum up Agent 47, the famous protagonist from IO Interactive's Hitman series of games, which unfortunately are probably a good deal less famous than their own hero.  The games are well-known for their trial-and-error mechanics, with little wiggle room for mistakes.  Difficulty is achieved not by making enemy AI clever, or the firefights chaotic, but by giving the player a set of goals with no obvious way to accomplish them, and then tasking he or she with completing those goals, without much in the way of direction.  Quicksaving and quickloading are made impossible due to the save system employed, and most players will say that the only "true" way to enjoy the game is to go for Silent Assassin ratings, which represent flawless performances on missions.

The Hitman games are kind of an anomaly.  They're not particularly polished or high-budget, and they have their fair share of bugs and cheap design decisions.  But there's something about them that is utterly nihilistic, which rarely seems to come out in coverage of the games.  Hitman is, if you want it to be, a Columbine massacre simulator.  It allows you to arm yourself with exotic, high-powered weaponry and then go to town slaughtering innocents in the most unexpected of locations, from opera houses, to vineyards, to exclusive country clubs.  Some of the imagery that's brought out in the games is downright chilling - innocent people on their knees, hands in the air, begging for their lives as you systematically execute them.  Forget "No Russian", Hitman is more disturbing than Modern Warfare 2 ever could be, because it doesn't include its imagery for shock value; it's simply profusely matter-of-fact about depicting the life of a trained assassin.

What utterly confuses me is how Hitman is able to get away with such graphic imagery, while games like Fallout 3 and Modern Warfare 2 try to skirt the line by either refusing to allow the player to do certain things, or by depicting scenes of violence that dance around what we consider "acceptable" in the West.  What makes it all the more frightening is that the Hitman games don't attempt to rationalise their violence.  Although the player is able to avoid killing people, this isn't justified by some moral appeal; rather, it's simply more efficient to get in, kill a target, and get out undetected than it is to risk going postal.  The protagonist, as I already described, fully reinforces that utterly goal-driven mentality.  Agent 47 is nearly emotionless, and perhaps what's worse, his only motive for doing the things he does is money.  There's no stilted "revenge" backstory that's supposed to allow us to identify with him.  He's just doing his job.

 Think of the possibilities!

Too many times, I've spent hours playing the game, trying to figure out exactly how I can manipulate a situation to come out on top.  Do I kill Guard A and steal his uniform to fool Guards B and C?  Do I slip poison in the drink so that the waiter delivers it to the target?  Do I kill the waiter and steal his outfit, then deliver it myself to ensure the target's death?  Do I sneak into the room of the target and plant a bomb?  The possibilities are often nearly endless, and the fun comes from overcoming the game's challenges while playing within its own rules.  We are able to demonstrate our mastery over the scenario before us not by doing what the game wants us to do, but by using the tools that the game gives us.

Hitman's appeal, I think, doesn't lie in the violence and the chaos that the player can create.  Rather, there's something more fundamental that appeals to us, that goes to the core of the games.  When we take control of Agent 47, we put on the shoes of a man who is an empty shell, a person who we cannot possibly identify with.  He is a tool, rather than a human being, with his resemblance to genuine humans making him that much more deadly a weapon.  We manoeuvre him throughout the game word with a sense of purpose, the same sort of purpose with which we'd use a drill, or a can opener, or a fork.

Hitman is unique because of the way that the protagonist is presented as something so inhuman.  We don't form an emotional bond with him, and we aren't intended to.  We don't spend hours upon hours customising his appearance, or leveling him up.  Even though there's violence, and blood, and mayhem, we don't play it because we want to see those things.  On the contrary, there is a certain disassociation from the violence, which isn't just necessary for us to be able to so easily digest the repulsive scenes before us, but also because it allows for a game which is wholly centred around its mechanics. There's something unfiltered that Hitman possesses, the same thing that Super Mario Bros. possesses.  It's a game, in its absolute most pure form.

I think this might be one of the reasons why Hitman has largely avoided a good deal of mainstream critique.  Make no mistake, a good deal of it is no doubt due to the fact that the games are simply not high-profile enough to be picked up on by the Fox News Moral Crusaders, but I suspect a good deal too is just how genuine the Himan series its about its violence.  Hitman doesn't play the violence for shock value; it isn't trying to be "subversive"; and it's not there to allow us to indulge in our dark fantasies.  It's done with a straight face, honestly, not out of a love for blood, but out of a love for gaming

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Transphobia... in my Fallout?

A recent post on Border House, a blog dedicated to examining games on subjects of race, gender, sexuality, and so forth, came to my attention yesterday via a news post on longtime Fallout fan site No Mutants Allowed.  In breaking slightly from my previous articles, I'd like to use the topic addressed in Border House's article to launch into a discussion about depictions of sexuality in games, and ultimately, to assess the validity of the claims in their article.

To sum up, the Border House post examines a particular character in the upcoming Fallout: New Vegas.  In the Fallout canon, super mutants are genetically modified humans who have been made particularly strong, and durable.  Imagine the Hulk, but not quite as green or angry.  Super mutants aren't bred, but created from existing humans, and thus sometimes have memory of their past lives, especially those who are particularly intelligent.  A side-effect of their transformation is that they also lose most of their sex- and gender-related characteristics.  In New Vegas, a particular super mutant, Tabitha (who will be referred to as female out of convenience), leads a gang of other super mutants, but her most distinguishing feature is that she dresses up in women's clothing.

Hey, this one's even uglier than the rest!  Open fire!

The accusation levelled by Border House is that New Vegas is encouraging transphobia by playing upon stereotypes about transgendered individuals.  Tabitha, it claims, is intended to be a bizarre, humourous character, mixing both hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine imagery.  Furthermore, Border House asserts that by allowing the player to kill Tabitha, the player is able to "triumph" over her by killing her.  Not only is she supposed to be an abomination for being a mutated human, but she is made out to be even more grotesque by playing on mainstream concerns surrounding transgendered people.

I have to admit that when I heard these claims, I was fairly skeptical.  I am usually one to take notice of offensive imagery in games, but in this particular case, I wasn't so shocked.  If super mutants indeed have memories of their past lives, then it makes sense that ones who were previously human females would want to recapture some of their identity.  From my perspective, it's not meant to be offensive, but rather, it's a sad commentary upon the desperation of the mutants in Fallout, who are forced to live a depraved existence, only accepted by those of their own kind, feared and even hunted by "normal" humans.  These sorts of themes have been touched upon in Fallout previously, and this isn't really anything particularly new - if anything, it's just a slightly more visible manifestation of those themes.

It was only after I was able to set aside my knowledge of Fallout canon and my understanding of the series' aims, however, that I could understand the complaints - and I actually quite agree with them.  The fact of the matter is that most people, and even most dedicated Fallout players, are not going to have an extremely intimate knowledge about the game universe.  This doesn't mean that they are stupid, or ignorant, but it does mean that, potentially, a good deal of players aren't going to be able to interpret the imagery within its true context.  The majority of players are going to see a super mutant in a wig and glasses, and they are going to laugh due to the way it crosses the boundaries of what we consider to be normal.  For them, it's shock value and little else.

The problem with this sort of imagery isn't necessarily the intentions behind it, because I know from experience with their previous titles that Obsidian, the game's developers, are extremely intelligent and knowledgeable people, but rather, it's what gamers take away from it.  Even if characters like Tabitha aren't meant to be offensive, they can be construed or interpreted as such by players regardless of what the developers wanted.

Visibility of GLBT identities is improving in mass media, no doubt, but games are lagging behind. While sexual imagery is rampant, and strong implications and messages exist because of it, actual discussion about identity is nearly nonexistent.  There are precious few games that even bother to delve into it - in fact, I can only think of one at the moment, Dragon Age: Origins, which allows for gay and lesbian relationships between the player and other characters within the story.  These relationships can actually be quite complex, but despite that complexity, there is surprisingly little talk about the implications of such relationships; none of my party members objected when my dwarf decided to have a same-sex affair, for example, and, throughout the entire game, it was never addressed by anyone as even remotely unusual.

Dragon Age's romances are well-written and
fulfilling, but also somewhat superficial.

The fact that Dragon Age, with its relatively tame (if well-executed) depictions, is the most inclusive game that comes to mind in recent history, shows the rather dire state that the gaming industry is in.  Developers, more often than not, prefer to avoid addressing sexuality directly, in order to avoid controversy, and the result is that gaming is an extremely limited and poor contributor to discourse surrounding sexuality in mainstream media. This is understandable: games are expensive, and those making them want to maximise the potential market.  While controversy can often sell copies, few are willing to take that risk, and it can be pretty discouraging when Fox News is quick to vilify anyone who tries to inject adult themes into a "children's toy".

A secondary downside of this is that, when a developer like Obsidian decides to create a character like Tabitha, it risks coming under fire, despite undoubtedly good intentions.  There isn't inherently wrong with anything that Obsidian are doing, especially as it fits the pre-established lore of their franchise, and they are likely to approach the subject with far more tact than any other developers.   However, if there aren't any other more outwardly positive depictions to balance theirs against, this means that the only depictions we have can and will be interpreted as negative, and that is not at all healthy for social discourse. 

A fly in the ointment is Bethesda's repsonse to Border House (not Obsidian's).  Bethesda claims is that Tabitha has been made "crazy" by prolonged use of in-universe cloaking devices called Stealth Boys.  While this is documented in canon, there is a further negative implication here, namely, that transgendered people are the way they are due to mental disability.  I don't think it's worth considering Bethesda's statement, mostly because Bethesda is not the game's developer, and thus likely had no input into Tabitha's design, but also because Bethesda has an extremely poor track record of dealing with issues of race, class, sexuality, etc.  Creating a "Black race" analogue in Oblivion, which featured lower default intelligence and higher physical strength statistics, should be evidence enough of their general insensitivity and cluelessness.

So, while Border House's accusations are to some degree ignorant of the Fallout canon and the intentions of the developers, it's also worth pointing out that the intentions behind those accusations are also extremely important, just as Obsidian's own intentions were no doubt totally innocent and faithful.  Being critical of gaming as both a culture and of the images within it is what keeps us sharp, and what will help us move towards a future where gaming is able to address interrogate society-relevant topics in thoughtful and insightful ways.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why can't we be friends?

First of all, I'd like to apologise for the lack of a post yesterday.  I'm trying to give a decent article each day, but it can be difficult to come up with ideas at times, and I was fairly busy on top of that.

I've been talking a little bit about violence in games lately, and there's one question which has been bugging me for the last several months.  So much of our time playing games is spent inflicting violence upon other people, often with relatively little justification for doing so - at best, you'll have a villain who has committed horrible atrocities, and at worst, you'll just be punching random bystanders in the face because you felt like it.  But is this really the only way that we are able to, or need to, interact with people in games on a consistent basis.

Of course, there are exceptions.  Role-playing games are the first to come to mind, since they often revolve around as much talking as they do killing things.  They tend to treat their characters as actual people, rather than gameplay mechanics, a means to an end.  In Final Fantasy XIII, we don't care about the fighting as much as we do about the overarching narrative, and we usually accept the fact that in these games the violence is justified by the situation.  But does it need to be that way?

Think of a first-person shooter, any will do.  Your primary mode of interacting with the world is by shooting at it.  Your hand in that world is literally represented by a gun, which usually sits suspended in the air in front of you.  For all intents and purposes, you'd might as well be a gun.  The actual gameplay is, when it comes down to it, mechanically simple.  Beyond resource management (conserving health and ammunition), a shooter relies upon the player being able to place a cursor over targets.  Adding slight variations (slow-moving projectiles such as missiles, sniper weapons, etc.) can allow for some small gameplay changes, but for the most part it's an extremely simple and repetitive operation.

Now, ask, "why does this extremely simple and neutral, abstract operation of pointing at a target have to be connected to violence?"  There really is no good reason why such a mechanic has to be infused with negative meaning, because it's applicable to plenty of other situations.  Isn't throwing a ball the same as throwing a grenade?  Patching leaks in a pipe the same as quick-draw shooting?  It's not as if these sorts of things aren't seen in games.  In fact, we can find them all the time.  Sports games often use similar play mechanics to action games, but with slightly different rules.  I can name probably a dozen games that implement shooting-equivalent elements as mini-games.  So why is it that violence is so prominent in games?

Catch this!

Of course, the answer should be fairly obvious.  Violence isn't used so much in games because of the fact that it offers up totally unique gameplay mechanics, though it certainly has its strengths, and it makes sense to attach it to certain types of games.   There is a certain aesthetic to violence that we find pleasing, and it's the same reason why there are so many films that revolve around it.  I won't go into why this is (that's a totally different subject), but suffice is to say that we like to see things go boom.

However, the key difference between violence in games and violence in movies is that the ultimate point of the games is to commit violence, whereas in film, violence is something that comes out of the story.  In Halo, my impetus for shooting up aliens isn't the plot, it's because it's fun to do so, while in Star Wars, the fighting exists due to the plot details; our motivation for seeing the film isn't to see Stormtroopers get shot, it's to see the good guys triumph over the villains.  Once again, there are exceptions (did anyone who watched Rambo really care about the story?), but by creating games that revolve around mechanics that are so easy to link to violence, not only do we limit the scope of what we're able to accomplish in games, but we're also very much streaming ourselves into accepting violence as normal, if we haven't already done so.

The next question that follows is, predictably, can we really create compelling game experiences with the same play mechanics as violent games, but without the violence?  This is where it gets more complicated.  We already know that people like violence, and that violence is a good way to justify certain play mechanics.  Strictly speaking, it's much easier to simulate gunplay or swordplay than it is to simulate complex interactions between individuals.  Even the most complex of role-playing games are limited to relatively few NPCs with totally predetermined behaviours, and while some games have focused on creating dynamic AIs capable of adapting to the player's behaviours and dialogue, their success is limited, and the interface is totally text-based.

In other words, it really sounds as if we are still limited by our technology and our budgets.  We don't have the computing power or experience to simulate AI in a way that would allow for complex interaction, and we already have a winning formula in using violence to create compelling, if somewhat unoriginal, experiences.  If we did depart from the standard formula, we also have no guarantees that it would be successful on the market - in fact, history indicates it would be totally unsuccessful.  Are we going to eventually move beyond the current definition of gaming, or are we going to be limited by technology and market demands until the inevitable next new medium comes along and starts the cycle all over again?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cultural xenophobia and the Other

It's a tired story: aliens have invaded and it's up to you and a team of the most badass military dudes around to kick their asses back to their homeworld of Lyxaar VII!  We've all played a dozen games like this, and usually we treat them as campy and fun, enjoyable because of how overtly silly they are.  Duke Nukem might be the ultimate example, followed by the likes of Doom and Serious Sam, but self-serious games like Crysis and Gears of War also take a similar approach.  We can be touched us emotionally at times by these simplistic stories, but for the most part we're numb as we mow down wave upon wave of monstrous invaders, which for lack of a better term can be called Others.

The Other is a concept within the humanities which generally refers to an individual or group which is separate from the dominant, mainstream, the normal, etc., usually characterised by being from a distant place, and separated by culture, language, physical appearance, clothing, and so forth.  There isn't necessarily anything inherently wrong with this sense of Otherness that we have towards groups outside of our own: we need to categorise those we aren't familiar with in order to make sense of them, and, in cases where we are in conflict with or don't understand that Other, it's reasonable to think of them as mysterious or hostile - after all, our experiences support them, even if that stereotyping doesn't necessarily reflect reality.

When it comes to games, it's natural to exploit this.  Constructing a villain or enemy is an involved and difficult process, because you have to create a hero who has clear motivations for fighting, and the villain has to be constructed as deserving of his or her fate, otherwise we view the hero as a jerk.  Sometimes a little empathy goes a long way.  One of the reasons the Star Wars films are so successful, for instance, is because they feature a tragic villain, someone who we disagree with, but that we can identify with.  This isn't par for the course, though, and it tends to be a lot more work to create a complex villain.  This is why so many games rely upon enemies that are more symbolic of "evil" than they do on people we can understand.  Hollywood has been doing it for years, even before the science fiction boom of the 1950s.

The problem arises in games when we begin to use humans as villains, but don't take the time to flesh them out in any meaningful way.  Just as there are many games featuring enemies that we're expected to kill without thinking simply because they look intimidating or ugly, there are plenty more - the majority, I'd argue - that require us to slaughter humans simply because the game says we have to.  In most cases, games will use symbols in order to identify who is "good" and who is "bad", or that is, who is to be spared and who is to be killed.  This can be anything from the use of colour (dark colours mean evil, light mean good), uniform (helmets mean evil, visible faces mean good), and so forth.

Yeah, I think you need to shoot them.

But what happens if we substitute real-life symbols instead of creating our own?  The sad fact is that an extremely large number of games play on existing cultural and political attitudes in order to construct villains.  The most egregious example is in the Call of Duty series of games, especially Modern Warfare.  Set in roughly our current time period, it features battles in the Middle East and Russia.  It's the parts of the game in the Middle East especially that are the most disturbing.  The enemies the player goes up against are the same "terrorist" stereotype that the Western media has been committed to vilifying over the last decade, and their cities are set up as mazes of buildings as opposed to anything resembling real locations, only able to be navigated by way of advanced firepower.  The player isn't just expected to see these these people as evil, but as evil precisely because of the way that they look, the way they sound, and because they live in unfamiliar places.

In other words, they are as Other as the aliens in Doom; the differences might as well be cosmetic.  We then have to ask: what impact does portraying human beings in such dehumanised ways have on the way we interact with people in real life?  I'm not at all the type to claim that media has a causal relationship on our behaviour, but to deny an influence is also shortsighted, and we have to take a notice of how these sorts of images play into our understandings of the people around us.  The United States in particular has a strong sense of xenophobia towards those from the Middle East, and it's troubling to think that the role we primarily see them filling in the mass media is the same one traditionally delegated to aliens and zombies.

Of course, it's convenient for shooters in particular to circumvent all that messy stuff about human life, morality, and simply present foes as obstacles to be dealt with in the same way Mario deals with a Goomba.  The shooter genre, true to its name, is all about shooting things, not necessarily about thinking about what you shoot or why you're shooting.  Is it even possible to put such ethical quandaries in a shooter and still call it a shooter?  Would it be nearly as successful a game if they were there?  I have to wonder what kind of game Call of Duty 4 would be if you could just sit down and talk about it instead.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tropico 3 and managing morality

I have to admit that today's post is going to be a bit impromptu.  Yesterday I purchased Tropico 3, due to an enticing sale and some prior interest in the title.  I've since found myself nearly addicted to it, and despite my lack of real skill at the game, it's eaten up several of my hours already.  Truth be told, I'm not much of a management game expert, and this post will likely make that clear for any veterans of the genre, but I'll try my best to offer my insight.

Management games, including SimCity, Roller Coaster Tycoon, and the aforementioned Tropico, task the player with controlling the operations of a business, country, sports team, etc.; both macro-level decisions, like diplomatic policy, and micro-level ones, such as who to hire and fire, are found in these games to varying degrees.  The fun comes from the fact that the player has to balance the often-conflicting needs of a number of parties, which all the while is confined by a budget.  To say that the games are complex is an understatement; while they can be enjoyed by relative rookies like me, oftentimes there is so much depth behind the scenes that the obsessive can regulate nearly every single event.  It's pretty common for the virtual societies to slowly slip into decay if one doesn't understand its quirks, but by carefully managing resources, the player can either try to appease all parties, or pamper some at the expense of others.  Or just kill 'em all, but that usually doesn't win you the game.

Management games like this resonate with us because of the way that they force us to juggle multiple balls at once; wants are weighted with needs, and we only have so much time and money to accomplish our goals.  As individuals, we are well aware of these difficulties, and through games that both simulate and exaggerate those challenges, we can achieve a degree of satisfaction.  That's not to say that this genre of game operates primarily as catharsis, but we feel accomplished when things end up going our way, and management games provide us with an environment where, while we don't have absolute control, we do have enough that we can significantly influence the outcome of events greater than ourselves.

There is also a powerful educational element to the genre.  It's common to have a jaded outlook on government, business, etc., but they are extremely complex systems of interaction, where decisions have to constantly be made despite there being no clear right or wrong answer.  Although the systems are obviously simplified for the sake of the player's sanity and for general playability, a good management game will always keep the player on his or her toes, never quite comfortable in how things are going, because there's always a chance of being voted out of office, going into debt, etc.

Ah, another beautiful day in Slumsville.

In the case of Tropico 3, an interesting moral dimension is added.  As the game puts you in the role of the dictator of a tropical Caribbean paradise, it's up to you to decide whether you want to rule with an iron fist, working the people like slaves while quelling rebellions, become a jewel of industry by exploiting natural resources, or become a giant tourist trap.  Throughout the game, depending on your actions, political factions will gain and lose favour with you, and this can often result in peaceful protest, but can occasionally escalate to strikes, or even assassination attempts and coups.  As a leader, it's important to maintain control, but often the easiest way is the most brutal.  Choosing whether to execute a political opponent or to change your national policy is often far more difficult a decision to make than what many role-playing titles offer, since the consequences of your actions can persist for decades.

In fact, the game's entire tone is a little bit troubling.  Although its intentions are no doubt good, putting issues of poverty, disease, political oppression, civil war, etc. in such a lighthearted package is off-putting.  The game clearly intends to be taken in a non-serious manner, as it features a string-pulling Fidel Castro look-alike on its cover, but seeing your people starve in the streets while fat, White tourists gawk at your "Ethnic Enclaves" is strangely perverted.  That one of the main objectives of the game is to funnel money to your private Swiss bank account seems to suggest that the game's expectation is that you treat your people in the poorest fashion possible.  Imagining myself in the role of such a dictator is difficult, but it also allows me to empathise with those who have to make far more difficult decisions than I do.

I realise these questions aren't wholly important to the core mechanics of the game.  At the end of the day, Tropico 3 is just another management game, albeit one with a fairly unique twist to it.  It's got issues with balance (certain industries are better than others, AI can be a bit dumb, etc.), but it stands out for me precisely because of its strangely conflicted message.  Management games are certainly some of the more cerebral, but Tropico 3 managed to make me think about things I didn't quite expect to... even if I'm not quite sure whether to thank it, or scowl at it for trivialising human suffering.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

That old chestnut: Grand Theft Auto, objectionable content, and mixed messages

It's a name that includes within it so many conflicting ideas: Grand Theft Auto.  The series, which started out as an arcade-like PC game played from a top-down perspective, and transitioned to a fully-3D, open-world action game with many "life simulation" elements, is certainly not a stranger to controversy, and arguably relies upon it to stay in the spotlight.  It seems like at minimum, once a year, a moral guardian publicly attacks the supposed evils the games encourage, often demonstrating a lack of understanding about both the Grand Theft Auto series and videogames in general.  Violence, racism, and sexism are the most common complaints, but there have been others, including the game's graphic sexual imagery, and a general disrespect for social authority.  This controversy has been not just one of the most visible in games, but it's also been perhaps the one that gamers have become most involved in.

It's very easy to see where both parties are coming from.  Gamers love Grand Theft Auto not only for its addictive and freeform gameplay, as well as its comedic satirising of American pop culture and politics.  The incredible sales of the franchise, not to mention the number of successful releases it's had, demonstrate that even if it does feature content some find objectionable, the quality of the games is enough to overshadow any of those objections.  The games may even be popular among certain demographics precisely because of the way they skirt the limits of what is considered socially acceptable; much like how teenagers try to sneak into R-rated movies, there's a certain "forbidden fruit" quality to the games due to the more conservative standards for adult content in games.

On the other hand, those who object to the games have every right to do so, and I can't say that they aren't justified in some cases.  The games allow for a blatant disregard for human life, and even encourage it in some situations.  Although the most recent game in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV, features a reluctant protagonist, those in the series' older titles featured heroes that never seriously questioned the chaos they spread.  Moreover, in an open game like Grand Theft Auto, the story is just as much the player's as it is the writer's, and the player can simply choose to ignore whatever messages the creators may have included.  That it takes place in a modern-day setting, accurately modelled after actual American cities, is also somewhat suggestive and, arguably, distasteful.

Gamers are often quick to defend Grand Theft Auto by saying that the titles encourage law-abiding behaviour, rather than law-breaking, and cite the fact that players are punished by the police for their negative actions.  Such claims, however, are transparent and disingenuous to the nature of the game.  Stripped away of all the satire and window-dressing, Grand Theft Auto is still essentially the same game it was a decade ago.  The goal is, and has always been, to commit violence and then evade the police for as long as possible.  This is the primary mechanism the game's entertainment value comes from, and while Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in particular focused more on the aforementioned "life simulation" elements, they are very clearly not at all the main reason the game exists.  A cursory glance at most of the game's story missions make it obvious that it encourages violence and mayhem over everything else.

This isn't to say, of course, that the moral guardians are totally right.  Games, and their relationship with players, is extremely complex, and is studied in a large number of fields, including psychology, sociology, culture studies, narratology, etc.  Were it easy to say that a game was a bad influence or not, we wouldn't need so many different perspectives on the matter to help us understand it, nor would we have so many conflicting ideas.  Context in particular is one of the main deciding factors in how we interpret a game's subject matter.  Much of the graphic imagery in Grand Theft Auto could be taken as offensive, but set within a story, its meaning is altered: it's no longer just a series of images, but a narrative.

However, one question keeps coming to mind for me, and it begs to be asked: as gamers, why do we care so much whether Grand Theft Auto has mainstream acceptance or not?  Its sales show that it has the support of millions in North America alone, and while it is routinely attacked in the news media, often in a reactionary and poorly-researched manner, this isn't anything new for gaming (or for any other vaguely controversial topic for that matter).  My belief is that it comes out of gamers' own reactionary qualities.  We are used to being looked down upon by mainstream society, and despite the games industry's large size, we still find ourselves fractured and without a positive, stable place in public discourse.  When someone criticises us, no matter how valid the critique may be, we jump at it, furious that someone would even dare question our hobbies and lifestyles.

As gamers, it's important to look at Grand Theft Auto, and admit that it's less than wholesome.  In fact, it's often downright crude, sexist, racist, violent, and juvenile.  This is exactly what Rockstar, the developer of the series, intends the games to be.  Why is it that some gamers don't seem to want to accept that?  Moreover, when it comes to the "do games affect us?" question, why don't we want to acknowledge that there might actually be truth to it?  When we go on a killing spree, mowing down innocent pedestrians by the dozen, giggling with glee as their bodies go flying left and right, can we really deny that we're revelling in violence?  When we go check out the strip club to watch a virtual lap dance, can we really believe anything other than that it was made to appease our own sexual fantasies?  The reactionary side of gamers seems to overrule all potential consideration of the other party's claims, and that is not a healthy stance to take in any debate, even one where the arguments can sometimes be insulting and patronising.

The fact is, Grand Theft Auto is a mishmash of ideas.  It's got social commentary and satire, it's got humour, it's got violence, it's got sexism, it's got racism (and often the three are combined), it's got anti-authority messages, it encourages personal profit at the expense of others, and it states that the law is there as something to be broken, not respected.  Of course, it's also a lot of fun, and the gaming community needs to acknowledge that that's the reason they play it.  At the same time, it also needs to recognise that it's something that needs to be examined critically.  We can't afford to be so naive about a game as popular as Grand Theft Auto that we outright dismiss any objections to it; we are responsible and intelligent people, but our passion for gaming isn't something that should be blind.

[Image credit]

Friday, May 14, 2010

A move towards more significant games?

Far Cry 2 was one of the biggest games in 2008, and perhaps with good reason: it was the follow-up to a blockbuster PC hit that later spawned a successful console franchise, renowned for its freedom in gameplay and great visuals, and many were eager to see what sorts of gameplay benefits the next generation of technology could bring.  Its reception was a little bit murky overall; while some loved the game, a lot of people cited poor AI, repetitive missions, respawning enemies, and an empty world as buzzkills for what was otherwise a fairly competent shooter.  I reviewed the game myself around the time of its release, and noticed immediately that one of the things many reviews, in part my own, failed to touch on, were the wider implications of the game.  The fact is that, while Far Cry 2 as a game may have its issues, it is perhaps one of the most important mainstream titles in years, and I'd like to explore why.

A little background may be necessary.  Far Cry 2 is set in an unspecified country in "Africa", and revolves around a civil war between two factions, which has torn the land and people apart.  Amidst this, an arms dealer called the Jackal has been reaping the rewards by supplying both sides with arms, and has perpetuated the conflict for his own benefit.  The player takes the role of a mercenary, who serves not so much as a blank slate, but as a neutral party in the game, willing to do the dirty work of both sides.  The player has a little bit of wiggle-room in the decisions made, but for the most part, it's a linear slog through a number of vaguely-linked missions.  There are a few plot twists, but given the impersonal role the player has in the conflict, as well as the lack of real character-building for both the player and the NPCs in the story, it's hard to care about it for most of the game.

Far Cry 2 is both a success and a failure at what it attempts to do artistically, which makes it perhaps all the more interesting a game to examine.  On the one hand, the developer's intentions are quite clear: demonstrate both the specific sorts of problems that occur outside of the Western world, including the social and political turmoil produced by wars, as well as the exploitative involvement of the West.  On top of that, allusions to atrocities such as genocide and the blood diamond trade are made.  There's a fairly clear "why are we doing this?" question that runs throughout the game, hammered home by the fact that the player is called upon to do increasingly unsavoury things, like destroy medical supplies.

Upon closer inspection, however, things become muddled.  The non-specificity of the region the game takes place in is a major contributing factor.  "Africa" exists in the Western consciousness as an Orientalist stereotype (as defined by Edward Said), a vague amalgamation of desert, jungle, savanna.  Culturally, we tend to view it as a land caught between a tradition of what we might describe as "savagery", and the "civilised" West, existing in both a familiar but also somewhat hostile, unknown, and Other space.  It should not be surprising that Far Cry 2 presents its version of "Africa" in much the same way: an assortment of  images that resonate within us precisely because of their non-specificity.

The difficulty with taking such a stance is that the game is unable to make more specific commentary.  While doubtless this was done to avoid offending certain groups of people, and it allows for the developer to explore issues that may well be geographically distant in real life, the inability to link the in-game conflict to any real-life conflict means that the response in the player is emotional, but not necessarily rational, and as a result, the game risks undermining its own goal of producing positive social change, although it does not eliminate it.

One other major issue is that, while the game attempts to show the negative effects of war at the individual level, we see very little of this actually taking place.  The towns and villages in Far Cry 2 are populated with mercenaries for the player to slaughter without mercy, not families, workers, farmers, or children.  It's explained in the game briefly that the country is being "evacuated", but very few signs of this are ever seen, and the player is left to negotiate with a world full of English-speaking thugs who are there for the same reason the player is: profit.

Clearly a good deal of the developer's trepidation in showing the specific effects of war and exploitation comes down to the fact that Far Cry 2 is a mass-market product, a game which has to appease both the shooter fan who just wants to have a fun romp in the jungle, as well as the type who might want to pull some deeper meaning from the game.  I touched on this distinction yesterday, but suffice is to say that, as expensive products expected to return on an investment, games absolutely need to appeal to a large number of people.  You can shoot for the artsy crowd, but then you won't sell to the more casual fans.  Of course, the opposite exists as well.  A story full of vague emotional appeals might garner you lots of sales, but you'll also alienate the more cerebral of gamers.  Finding a good balance is key, and is one of the principal challenges in game design today.

In the case of Far Cry 2, the fear surrounding a negative public reaction to the game was responsible for neutering it, and robbing it of much of its emotional impact, as well as its significance to the ongoing political discourse.  Upon playing Far Cry 2, it's easy to become caught up in the belief that something interesting is being alluded to, but precisely what it is can become lost, especially as so much of the game revolves around gunning down the nondescript mercenary types that seem to populate nearly every contemporary shooter.  Even the uncomfortable themes of xenophobia and colonialism that might stem from killing Africans themselves are removed, as they seem to be a minority compared to the White men who dominate the game world.

Perhaps the disappointing part about Far Cry 2 is that, despite its problems, it is actually one of the most important games for the medium in a long while.  Far Cry 2 goes to places we almost never see in games, and it asks hard questions about the role of the West on a global stage, as well as broader questions about the nature and purpose of human conflict and suffering.  You often don't see these sorts of things in mainstream titles, especially shooters, and it's refreshing and inspiring to have them appear in such a big-budget game.  For once, we're reminded by a game that the West is not the only place that exists in the world, and that the things that allow for our convenient, comfortable lives cause damage elsewhere.

While it's understandable why sacrifices were made, one has to ask whether they were really needed.  Much like the dumbing down of gameplay in BioShock over its predecessor System Shock 2, some of the cuts made to Far Cry 2 were done to appease a mainstream audience, yet it may well have been totally unnecessary.  There is an implicit assumption that the mainstream fans of a game aren't able to understand, don't approve of, or otherwise can't tolerate being asked to think about difficult things in games.  That the average age of gamers these days is approximately 35, according to the Entertainment Software Association, shows that gamers are not only capable of, but also prepared to deal with important questions.  Here's hoping that Far Cry 2 is the beginning of a trend towards games that deal with truly mature subject matter.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Introductory Remarks

Well... where to begin? My name is Eric, and I'm a person who's both passionate about videogames as entertainment, and as a medium for expression and exploration of topics central to contemporary human issues. I have had a lifelong involvement with games, and they are something which hold profound emotional value for me.  I firmly believe that games represent a more compelling form of storytelling and narrative than traditional modes, such as literature and film, primarily because games are able to adapt the strengths of those mediums, and compensate for their weaknesses.  To me, games aren't merely idle entertainment or a means for socialising with others; they allow for us to experience places, situations and people that are fundamentally different from what we are normally able to, while at the same time, linked to the things that we know and hold dear.

One particular deficit of gaming as a culture, however, is the lack of any real analysis of games from a critical standpoint. This is reflected in the popular culture surrounding games, as well as in the sorts of coverage the industry receives from its own major news sites and journalists. Much of this is centred around what I like to call the "reviews industry", which serves as, effectively, a means of marketing games by using an artificial and highly compartmentalised system to grade titles in relation to others. This has resulted in a myriad of problems that have been well-documented elsewhere, but ultimately has led to a culture of gamers who ask what I believe are fundamentally the wrong questions about games.

The prevailing question in the gaming sphere is "is this game good?" The problem with such a question is that it takes the emphasis off of the things we really need to examine in games, if we want them to go beyond the rather juvenile state we find them in now. In evaluating things like "quality", we emphasise technological and mechanical factors. While such things are important for games - they have to be playable, engaging, free from bugs, etc. - at the same time, it leads us to be ignorant of the incredible capacity for expression and commentary that games have.

Part of this can be blamed on the fact that the games industry is an entertainment industry. Like film before it, games are caught between appealing to wide audiences, and having artistic integrity. The two are not incompatible, nor mutually exclusive, but it can be difficult to achieve both goals at the same time, especially given the soaring costs that come with high production value, marketing, and testing. Yet with technology at the level it is now, we need to move beyond questions of "how do I make this look better?" or "how can I improve the controls?", and focus on creating experiences that resonate with people in new ways.

One of the ways we can accomplish this is by getting rid of our binary separation between things like "story" and "gameplay". For years, story has been something largely cordoned off from the player's own interactivity. While sandbox gaming has achieved certain levels of player freedom, storyline tends to be either nonexistent, non-interactive, or separated into discrete units rather than presented as a cohesive whole. That old Atari games often have more compelling stories than modern games, created entirely out of gameplay elements, is telling of the problems that come with separating the story from the game.

Certain titles in history, such as Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout - all role-playing games, notably - have offered up immersive worlds where the player's own decisions have lasting effects on the course of the story, the progression of events, and the gameplay itself. Most importantly, in these games, there is no "story versus gameplay" distinction; the player's own actions constitute narrative. By tapping the strengths of this framework, designers can discuss questions more fundamental and more specific than the vague allusions most "depth" in current games constitutes. Fallout is a game in particular which is able to transcend its highly dated interface, visuals and so forth, on sheer strength of its universe, gameplay, themes, and narrative. Can the same be said of modern titles designed with mere entertainment and mass-market sales in mind?

As I stated earlier, we tend to examine games on a relatively superficial level: we evaluate how much fun they are, how much of our time they can suck up, how good the graphics, audio and controls are, etc. By constructing games that transcend the technological and mechanical aspects that gamers have been so enamoured with, we can move beyond mere evaluations of quality, and instead look at something altogether different: meaning. The question changes from "is this fun?" into "what significance does this have?" and "what is this game trying to make me think about?"

This is what I mean by being critical about games, and it is the basis for this blog of mine. I don't profess to be an expert. My writing is serviceable, but I am not a literary scholar. This is just a blog, and these are just my opinions - the opinions of someone fresh out of university, no less - and so they can't be taken as authoritative. They can, however, be taken as genuine. The goal of my writing is to interrogate games through a critical lens, and ask not how good they are as just simple entertainment, but how good they are at making us think about things that are important to us as humans, rationally, emotionally, and existentially. Of course, as a blog, my more general thoughts on games and the game industry might show up as well!

To any potential readers: by merely choosing to read what I have to say, you are taking part in a discourse that is more important than the sum of its parts. For that, you have my thanks.