Tag Archives: videogame

I’m not saying this is my GOTY but…


In other news, if you haven’t purchased Brendan Keogh’s book-length critique of Spec Ops: The Line, Killing is Harmless, I’d recommend getting on that rather soon, boss.

New Horizons

Late last month, Alan Williamson (whom many of you will recognize as half of Split-Screen and the man behind Critical Distance‘s latest incarnation of Blogs of the Round Table) approached me asking if I wanted to be in on a new webzine of his, Five Out Of Ten. The timing was short notice–he wanted to approach me for the next issue, but another contributor had had a scheduling conflict and needed to back out, leaving him a writer short for the premier issue–so I gathered up some ideas that had been kicking around and tried putting them into words. They each came out decently–at least, enough so that I don’t stand out too awkwardly next to the likes of Brendan Keogh, Lana Polansky, Bill Coberly and Alan himself, all of whom are spectacular writers and whose work here is as grand as always.

The zine comes priced at £5.00, although you can donate a little more, if you like. The cool thing is that revenue for the magazine is split evenly among the five contributors, so basically if you pay £5, you’re paying each of us £1, which is cool because that means I can take that money and start saving toward the things I need to Write More Stuff for you, like coffee and antidepressants. That’s a pretty awesome cause, right?

Each author contributes two pieces to the collection, one pertaining to the theme “new horizons” and the other on a subject of the writer’s choice. Here’s a little preview of my two so you can sneak a peek before buying your very own copy, which is available as a DRM-free PDF suitable for most platforms.

Piece #1 – New Horizons – “Letting the Sunlight In”

On indie games, Papo & Yo and the virtue of an individual voice.

The final summit of Papo & Yo is set far above the familiar Brazilian favela in which the rest of the game takes place. Our player-character, Quico, travels above the clouds on a magical skylift which bears him and the monstrous alter-ego of his father toward the floating island of a mystical shaman. Around them, rusted iron siding and discarded tires float alongside the fragments of family homes, suspended weightlessly across the sky just as other improbable mountains of shacks and lean-tos rise up to meet them.

It’s a profoundly destablizing moment, even in a game premised on a departure from the normal laws of physics. What starts out as an imaginative trek through the muddy, rain-drenched city streets of a boy’s childhood adventuring spaces soon becomes an increasingly desperate escape from violence. Finally the world Quico has spent the entire game cleverly bending to his will is coming apart at the seams of its own volition, as reality starts to seep back in.

Piece #2 – Writer’s Choice – “Unfinished”

On the nature of unfinished things, unfinished people, and The Unfinished Swan.

“This is your college education,” my father says, waving a hand toward the home studio he had invested countless weekends into, to say nothing of far more money than his railroad job paid. It’s lined with hand-made sound insulation panels and stocked with enough recording equipment to make some professional studios green with envy. “So we all need to work together to make this record label work.”

In the end the biggest barrier to our father’s dreams of a music career is himself. Every weekend and most evenings he cloisters himself away inside his home-made studio, plucking at the same chords over and over, searching for a note that doesn’t exist. Later, he loads the recordings into his Mac and plays the clips again and again, iterating by degrees, never finishing. Eventually he scraps the whole song and starts over on guitar, plucking strings, never finding whatever it is that he’s listening for.

Sooner or later he’ll say that it’s our fault that he can’t find it.

The Unfinished Swan isn’t simply the title and explicit goal of the game; it’s the singular work which ties the family of three together, and provides the player with the game’s theme. Unfinished things, unfinished people. Children doomed by their genetics to the sometimes-beautiful, mostly-horrible agony of being artists. Of facing the void of boundless creativity and having to sort out the path to not going insane for themselves.

Those who enjoyed my previous bit in CTRL-ALT-DEFEAT on growing up among hoarders will recognize some resonance here–but hopefully not too much familiar territory. You can go buy your own digital copy of Five Out Of Ten now.

My Own Personal Key of the Twilight

In many ways I owe .hack//G.U. for my involvement in games blogging.

I’ve spoken before –everyone has– about the games that influenced me, and to be sure, there were a decent handful which made a particular impression and I could say I “owe” my current career path to. But .hack//G.U. is, for once, a direct case of cause and effect.

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Burning Invaders: A Return to IndieCade

“I hope one day this thing is huge,” a young games journo tells me breathlessly. He wears a fedora and a pixel tie and I would peg him as not old enough to drink.

I frown. The kid has just finished bragging about “sneaking in” to his first E3 this summer, a so-called industry conference about which I have some pretty strong feelings. E3 is still not back up to its tottering pre-2007 top-heaviness but it’s still horrifically large, unsustainable in its girth and the inertia of its own technological obsolescence. I do not want IndieCade to ever resemble that.

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Visions of sugar plums

I’ve been having trouble sleeping.

There are a number of reasons for this. Chiefly: I still struggle at sticking to a mostly regular sleep schedule, so that one day I might turn in as soon as the sun tilts toward the horizon, and another I’ll stay up long enough to see the sunrise. Both such tendencies have their own motivators –depression and all-night FF7 binges, respectively– and a certain kitten-shaped constant who ensures that whenever I do decide to sleep, that is the time she’s most active.

There is another reason, in that whenever I do stretch out in bed I start thinking about setting again. Very particular settings: fortresses built into mountainsides with five compounds representing the five traditional elements; and the territory that fortress would oversee, and the taxes it would collect in exchange for protection from its militia. What is the attitude of the servant class within the fortress; are they from the region, or transplanted from the empire capital? How many are more loyal to the emperor than his son who manages this territory?

In other words, I’m writing again.

Or more precisely, preparing to write. I had another project in the pipelines for a while about war and aliens –you know, all-new literary territory– but after spending months neck deep in The Journey to the West and other Chinese and East Asian half historical/half mythological texts I decided the chances were slim of being able to suddenly change gears into some inverted Starship Troopers story. So, I gave in and went with the flow of my current interests.

(I’m making the SF project sound more banal than it is. It’s a narrative I believe in, or I wouldn’t have spent almost two years to date developing it. But SF is about politics and extrapolating from the present world’s circumstances, and right now I’d like some escapism.)

And since it’s that kind of fantasy novel, the sort about beds and the folks occupying them, the mind wanders to those before-and-after conversations that sound most authentic when you’re half-asleep when you come up with them. Except I then don’t sleep, largely because other things seep in: do I have time to think of frivolous things like novels when I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford rent next month? how will I ever find a way to sell off enough of this stuff to fund a move? how many of my books will I need to part with?

And then come the anxiety attacks, because my serotonin levels are low, and my new health insurance plan is very good at being expensive and little else, and then there’s the crippling debt I now face, and all the glib responses from well-meaning colleagues how it should be so easy to just pick up and go, change everything, choose life, get out of this country before the GOP turn it into a wasteland, did you hear Clint Eastwood got into an argument with an empty chair and lost?

So yes, fantasy novel, I choose thee. Of all the things giving me insomnia, you are the least unpleasant at the moment.

The other is Final Fantasy VII, which I mentioned I was replaying. That’s going well, except the problem with videogames for me at a time like this is their machine logic is precisely the opposite of what I need. Simon Parkin once wrote (and it’s still one of my favorite essays of his to date) that games (and especially JRPGs) “function how we want the real world to function”:

“Because, while the battles may be random, the war’s outcome is always predestined,” I continue. “You’re predestined to succeed. Just so long as you keep going. And jeez, that may be escapism or a gross oversimplification of the reality we live in, but isn’t that sense of… of justice the yearning of every human being? Are not JRPGs maps of perfect worlds where everything behaves how you expect it to.”


“Because, when your life turns to shit and people let you down, or when you study hard but still flunk your exams regardless, or when you work your ass off and your boss doesn’t notice…. Or, or even if he does but is too preoccupied with his own quests to congratulate you… I mean, that’s sort of a broken system. It certainly feels that way. That’s just not how things should be. JRPGs counter all that disappointment and unfairness with dependable justice. They reward you for your efforts with empirical, unflinching fairness. Work hard and you level up. Take the path that’s opened to you and persevere with it and you can save the world. You can fix the things that break…”


“No, wait. They give you that power, sure. But more than that, they give you consistency. This world, and the people in it, do not. JRPGs are, well, er, I guess they’re sort of like heaven in that regard. Except with, like, improbably large swords and nuclear-grade hair gel.”

It’s one of my favorite heartbreaking little rambles in any piece of New Games Journalism to date, and 99% of the time, I agree with it.

Right now I just want all the numbers to go to hang themselves. I toil at leveling up these little masses of polygons, meeting all the necessary quotas to advance stats and limit breaks and fill out all the necessary check boxes on every unnecessary sidequest and the only persistent impression I get is that I’m fumbling to connect, that the virtual world on the other side of the screen isn’t ever going to come alive because of numbers or command combos. Its story is a dead thing unless you let the machinic part of it go. Otherwise it’s just… hell, it’s just Confucianism.

Because I really don’t want the world to be fair, just now. I want it to be extremely unfair in my favor. Not for very long; just to make it through the next month or two. That would be nice. FF7’s new PC version even accommodates that very kind of cheating, which throws Parkins’s “heaven” for a hell of a loop. Not that I could bring myself to partake in it if I did have the funds to spend juicing characters in a game I’d already beaten a half-dozen times. But I wouldn’t mind a Character Booster for my own life. Or even just something to let me sleep.

BrE3thing out

Over the span of several weeks I’ve been contributing a series of E3 retrospectives for the Features section over on Gameranx. The last finally went live today –thank you, Ian– and with it, I feel like a bit of weight is finally off my chest.

I won’t say they were difficult to write or to commit to– better writers than me are writing more incisive and heart-rending pieces every day, and at some point, doing this series just felt like I was reiterating an already well-articulated personal stance. If these pieces went live at Kotaku or IGN, I could potentially wake up to an inbox full of death threats and comments about my weight, but at Gameranx I’m pretty well insulated from the fanboy vitriol du jour. Although surely an exaggeration, it feels like even more of an echo chamber than the sort of feedback loop I’m criticizing. It doesn’t feel bold, no. Not compared to the writing of folks like Katie Williams, Jenn Frank or Mattie Brice, women who truly stick their necks out there fully expecting the unsavory elements of the internet to go for their throats. Me, I’m cowardly, compared to them. I don’t feel I have much of a right to call what I wrote difficult. It was very easy, in fact. Arduous at best.

But it’s still nice to have it done and over with. It’s August now, a full two months since E3 wrapped, and it’s a relief to finally have the subject behind me since, you know, I really do not care for it, nor do I care for discussing how much I don’t care for it. That may surprise you. In point of fact, I chose to write a negative series because 1) no one else seemed to be paying E3’s atrocities the attention they warranted and 2) honestly, negativity is easier to write, even if it’s much harder to sustain. So it was a matter of taking a path of least resistance, once again.

Because positivity is tougher, it really is. I told my E3 photographer Jennifer Roy –who is a personal friend of some 12 years; I even tend to call her family my own– that I was lucky to have her around this year because I could enjoy the event vicariously through her. As a critic, it’s not even a matter of being paid to be negative; it’s that positivity is bred out of you from a very early point in your critical education. Everything comes to be viewed through a lens of spotting the flaw, or developing a problematic, and that’s a nice academic way of doing things but tends to rain on the parade of average fans. Which is why I envied Jenny during the conference. Jenny, as one of those average fans, could simply embrace everything that she saw and did, no strings attached. E3 would be a perfectly fine event, if it presented itself as for fans like her.

On a funnier point, around the same time as my E3 retrospectives were coming out, CTRL-ALT-DEFEAT ran a piece of mine in its “Addiction” issue on a way more personal (and consequently tougher to write) subject. It was a little baffling to see it held out as “a good example of New Games Journalism,” since what I was doing didn’t seem new or journalistic in any way. It’s really just an essay on a confrontation I had with the big dark abyss in the back of my own skull. The same one that’s currently telling me that none of this work is adequate, and I could be doing so much better, I could be bolder, I could be more abrasive/cutting/insightful/wise. That could be why I prefer the curatorial role Critical Distance offers me: it lets someone else be the brave one; the negative or positive one. I’ll just be hanging out back here in the great sweeping wastelands of neutrality, thanks, where I can’t disappoint myself with my own impossible standards.

On that note, in a last bit of State of the Kris news, I’m on the judging panel for this thing. I couldn’t be happier about that. It’s an excellent team of critics to be part of and I’m flattered for the opportunity. It’s also just a little overwhelming. By creating “winners” we create “not winners” and I’m not certain that’s the single most productive way to go about advancing what we might, at a stretch, call a discourse… On the other hand, I suppose the first necessary step to dismantling canonization is to have a canon to dismantle, so bring on the prizes, I say. And regardless of any long-term ideological goals, I think it’s great that we’re openly rewarding great work, point blank. If it convinces even one person that we do, actually, have work worth acknowledging in this field, then surely it’s a positive step in the short term.

In Defense of Boring

Poor Jacob Taylor.

It boggles my mind when game critics whose opinions I otherwise find to be deep and insightful write off a character like Jacob as “boring.” It’s not that I don’t understand where they’re coming from. I’ve heard it explained to me: he is average, he is unremarkable, his backstory and his problems are all mundane in contrast to a crew filled with scaly raptor men, genetically perfect smarmy assholes, chatty AI, and creepy unblinking blue paladin ladies out to kill their vampire daughters. Compared to all that, yeah, Jacob is practically a blank slate. Kind of like… Shepard.

Here is the thing I don’t think anyone keeps in mind when they write off Jacob Taylor. Of the entire cast of the Mass Effect franchise, he is the only character besides Shepard to bear the distinction of full on player character. Not temporary PC, ala Joker. He has an entire game to himself, Mass Effect Galaxy. I haven’t played it (and I don’t know anyone who has) but I was personally thrilled to come face to face with the only character who might qualify as Shepard’s counterpart. Because that’s exactly who he is, and I’m sure that’s what the developers intended him to symbolize, whether or not that significance got across to the average player.

Granted, depending on your tailoring of Shepard’s backstory, it’s true she can have more interesting origins than most. But over the normal progression of gameplay, she is pretty much flat as a board when it comes to her own personal depth. You barely hear mention of her past exploits, nor do the details ever matter because whichever path you choose never influences the proceedings. That’s precisely why the game surrounds Shepard with the most colorful characters with the most outrageous daddy issues in the galaxy. She’s a freaking Jacob. The only significant difference are the number of opportunities she’s offered to do big and exciting things. Without three epics under her belt, she and Jacob are exactly the same kind of vanilla, utterly malleable stock character.

It’s not that I have no issues with Jacob. Making his loyalty mission yet another tale of black paternal abandonment is lazy in the least and excruciatingly problematic the deeper down into the issue you go. But I refuse to dismiss the entire character out of hand for that. To me, he’s an image of what Shepard would be if the narrative abandoned her before Eden Prime. Mishandled, tertiary, and as an unfortunate consequence: boring.

I had the most curious dream.

Now– before you start clicking away, this isn’t your usual recounting of some bemusingly vivid decoupage of pop culture and personal psychology that usually accompanies someone’s desire to tell you their dream.

It’s more about a certain tendency I’ve noticed within media studies. Something that started itching in the back of my brain when I was writing my thesis in 2008, and which emerged from my head fully formed a couple weeks ago during my MA exams.

In the dream I was browsing through a website that was participating in yesterday’s SOPA/PIPA blackout web protests. The website had left up most of its text articles but taken down most of its multimedia, such as embedded video, replacing them with a brief encyclopedic description of their function, development history, and appearance. Each format was given a Latin name with genus and species.

It was the perfect illustration of an argument I had made repeatedly in my MA exams, which is that we have a tendency to imagine all the various media -especially new media, but any time texts speak about media “in transition”- as on its way to becoming some particular thing, as if we know its destiny. On the contrary, history is full of examples of divergent yet coexisting media “species,” each adapted to the specific habitat in which it developed.

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I have a problem. Its name is Skyrim.

This is what my manor in Solitude looked like previous to clean-up this morning. My blithely adoring wife, who stood by while I filled our estate floor to ceiling with cheese, didn’t lift a finger to help with the removal. This silent condemnation was the last nail in the coffin. I had to stop hoarding, at least where she was trying to cook.

Before I got rid of it all, I had to do an inventory. Just to see.

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Top 11 Whateverity-Whatsit Games of 2011

Why am I doing this? It’s Eric Swain’s fault, as usual.

11. Audiosurf

Okay, it’s actually been out for three years now, so sue me. When I finally got a PC this year that could handle games, this was the first thing I bought through Steam. And it remains the most-played entry in my library.

Why? Well, Brendan Keogh put it best: “You don’t just see your music in Audiosurf; you feel through a sensation less like listening and more like dancing.”[1] Audiosurf takes music and transforms it into a complex visual index of signifiers to match the aural nuances of its source material. It’s like semiotics synaesthesia.

10. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim‘s plot is pretty rank at best. The voice acting and incessantly recycled audio clips turn it into one long, unfunny Seth Rogan comedy. It’s buggy, it’s uninspired, and you need mods just to create a halfway decent avatar. But damn is it pretty. And damn, is it fun to hoard. I’ve lost the storyline completely under one of my floor-to-ceiling cheese piles and I can’t be bothered to dig it out again.

09. LittleBigPlanet 2‘s soundtrack

I’ve given the game a lot of flack for being difficult to play on anything smaller than a gigantic HDTV[2] and for falling short on its pedagogical promises.[3] But its story mode and especially the soundtrack will always be among my most treasured, particularly its ending theme from Passion Pit.

08. Sequence

This is another game which earned a harsh score from me, perhaps undeservedly so. It’s a unique experiment in genre hybridization– a music game RPG replete with Atlus-esque cutscenes and finger-on-the-pulse memetastic humor. I loved it more than my review[4] ever managed to let on and I do so look forward to the developers’ next project.

07. Zeit2

Another quiet little entry which seemed to escape everyone’s notice during end-of-year retrospectives, including yours truly when it came time for the Critical Distance Confab.[5] A traditional side-scrolling schmup with anything but traditional time manipulation and splitting mechanics, it looks the part of a luminous retro-futuristic arcade title and I’ll bet it’s the sort of thing Ender Wiggin would play.

06. Bastion

The game that’s on everybody’s list this year, and with good reason. Bastion is a luminous, candy-coated-bittersweet-center cutesy, magical and dreadful take on the American West. Even if you went in fully expecting its awesome narrator, it’s less likely you knew to expect the multiple gutpunches that rustic voice manages to deliver over the course of the story. As I wrote in my review:[6]

Bastion‘s truest beauty is in how dark it becomes, and how subtly it draws the player into that darkness. If the West had been won by nuclear war, this is how it might have played out in one’s nightmares. And yet it is so charming, so colorful, so cute with its chibi character designs that we might sooner expect something on the level of Spirited Away, not Grave of the Fireflies. But grim it is, though the game is always careful to provide you with just a glimmer of hope.”

Viciously smart in the execution and a real testament to what a small team and a distinct point of view can accomplish.

05. don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story

I read two works this year that seemed to perfectly capture the approaching social media singularity. One was Charles Stross’s Rule 34.[7] The other was Christine Love’s indie visual novel don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, involving the lives of the youth in a generation that’s grown up without conventional ideas of privacy.

There have been plenty of great readings of DTIPB, but as a mod for a kids’ game frequently (and involuntarily) privy to the growing pains of adolescents, Love’s work struck closer to home than I expected. Once again, my own remarks from earlier in the year capture the sentiment best.[8]

The mod in me envies John Rook’s squandered opportunity to meaningfully interact with Arianna and Taylor about their priorities. The feminist in me sees such an action as treating the symptoms rather than the disease in which young women (and young men) sign up for their own exploitation. Ultimately, however, my anxieties seem to align with Goodwin’s[9] description of “guilt-by-click-association”: by involving ourselves in the digital lives of others, we become in some way accountable.

04. Minecraft 1.0

Few games have the distinction of showing up on GOTY lists for three straight years. I don’t know if any blurb I could write about it here would adequately do it justice. It’s not only probably the biggest indie game success story of all time, it’s something of a new gaming lingua franca. Everyone has played Minecraft.

03. Child of Eden

I described this game recently as an atheist creation fable. It’s a loving tribute to the sheer magical awe that is biology and the ascendency of life. Sure, the space whale is silly. So was the Buddhist meditation in The Fountain. At some point you either allow these missteps in visuality to kill the experience for you or you just embrace it for the childlike wonder it’s trying to impart. Honestly, I don’t find space whale any more ridiculous than a lot of the iconography the religious hold in such solemnity. But anyway, from my various rants on it:

“For all its frenetic energy and at times vicious difficulty, it is a game about positive emotion and spiritual transcendence. Your two weapons act as purifiers, while the stages you explore are a set of technorganic ballets.”[10]

“There is a quality to its contained narrative and the role of the player as enactor thereof which is deeply moving, as in being witness to the birth and exaltation of mankind. This is a game in which human history from microorganism to vast neural networks spanning time and space takes shape.”[11]

“If games are systems, and God (as natural order) is a system, then God is the game we are playing right now and have been since the dawn of time. It’s the spin of electrons that as much give rise to life as computer games. And games are one of many ways in which we, the universe knows itself.”[12]

02. Portal 2

As I mentioned on the Critical Distance Confab, I consider the Portal games to rank among the best of a generation. Rarely do you get a game like Portal 2 which really is the complete package. Great challenges, great writing, great performances, great design. But above all, Portal and Portal 2 are teachers. If you wanted to look to one instance of what digital pedagogy looks like in 3D simulation, Portal and its successor would be it.

And if you’ve been following along, you know which one I haven’t mentioned yet, so let’s get to that, shall we?

01. Dragon Age II

I am generally in favor of any game which inspires as much ongoing discussion as DA2 has engendered. I also enjoy any game which makes entitled straight guys uncomfortable.[13] And I will happily promote the work of writers with a social justice agenda, because damned if they aren’t horribly rare in this industry.

But none of those reasons are why Dragon Age II is my Game of the Year.

This game has lodged itself into my heart the way it has because for the first time, I saw a glimmer of hope that games could be something more. That this hobby which so enticed and frightened me, which did its very best to alienate me at every given opportunity, yet entranced me again and again because it offered another world to plunge into that wasn’t mine, could be all the provocative and ambitious things we adore about other media, could prove it can do one thing excellently which denies our shallow demands for design conformity.

In short, Dragon Age II is my Game of the Year for the exact opposite reason Portal 2 is my runner-up. DA2 is my Game of the Year because it dared to suck.

No, that’s too simplistic. In terms of combat system, item management, map design and epic set pieces, all the things we’ve been programmed to believe are requirements of a good game of its genre, Dragon Age II doesn’t deliver. I can see that as plainly as any of its detractors. But what it does well, it does better than any other game I’ve ever played.

I’ve compared Dragon Age II‘s limited locations and confined scope to The Wire, and maybe that analogy doesn’t work for a lot of people. Try this one, then: Dragon Age II is to RPGs what Dead Man is to Westerns. Looked at under a conventional lens, without being aware that the creators are intending to subvert the genre, the thing is unforgivably broken. Looked at under its own terms, with the story it wanted to tell and the characters it wanted to share with the player, it is dead on with everything that it needs to be.

I would surely have not have complained if more time had been spent in development to release a more finessed game which delivered on mainstream expectations as well as providing the story it wanted to tell. But come right down to it, between a Dragon Age II with a perfected battle system and no heart, and a broken Dragon Age II with the most provocative narrative I’ve ever played out in a game, I know which one I’ll take every time.