Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Videogames can never be art" - Roger Ebert

Well, it's been a bit of a while, hasn't it? Guess there hasn't been anything to really get me going yet. That, or I've been playing an unreasonable amount of Dragon Age, and by "an unreasonable amount of Dragon Age", I mean "replaying the opening 20 hours with increased eficiency". First it was an elf mage, then I remembered I like to stab things, so I made a Dual-Wielding Berserker psychopath, then I discovered the Constitution stat was more or less useless for Dual-Wielding Berserker psychopaths, so I restarted and am now pumping stat points into his dexterity like they're monkeybar steroid candy.

Anyway, onto today's little bit of fun: this article.

Let me forward this whole thing by stating that I am, in fact, an avid follower of Mr. Ebert's writing: I faithfully read his reviews and sometimes use them to judge whether or not I'll enjoy a movie I have mixed feelings about (though if I really like a movie he hated, odds are I'm seeing it anyway). I like his articles. I fondly recall a quote that I think was by Gene Siskel (don't count on this one, I'm going on memory) that reads something like "I can speak a great review, but Roger can write the best." And it's true, Ebert's a great writer. You should read his stuff, by and large it's worth consideration.

But here I'm taking issue with his very right to speak in the first place. I know that sounds a bit extreme, but follow along with me. Bring yourself back to your days as a highschool student (or if you're still in them, look around). Remember that one really lazy guy (or team of guys/girls) who claimed that Shakespeare sucks because it's "Boring". People who've any interest and actual reading in literature scoff and laugh at such remarks, because they realize just how hilariously uninformed the kid is. In some ways, this is precisely what Mr. Ebert is doing. He is commenting on a subject without, frankly, having done one tenth of a hundredth of the required reading. Whether or not videogames are art is one matter, but it is not for film critics who have never played a videogame save perhaps Tetris to discuss. They simply do not have the experience. It would be as if I launched on a criticism of Christopher Marlowe's career after having read Fautus. Worse, actually, considering that by and large the people commenting as such haven't even done the industry the credit of playing one game.

One good game, mind. If Bioshock is cerebral gaming with a soul, like a three-course meal, then Gears of War is the popcorn and soda pop of the industry.

However, now that you mention it, what is the point of being called "art"? Art is a term that whoever's-important bestowed upon something revolutionary, then is imitated for decades before the next big revolution. The meaning of "art" in the present is directly translated as "pretention". The label of "art" can only be properly applied to things which exist in the past, otherwise in my humble opinion you're just trying to look cool. The result is by and large sounding like a douchebag.

Are our videogames art? Heck if I know. But that's for gamers to decide. No, not the morons on Xbox live calling each other (and I'm only using this word to demonstrate the bottom of the spectrum) "faggots", but the ones who're a little wiser and a little more informed about the industry. People like Jerry Holkins, not Roger Ebert. We all, in fairness, have a right to be judged by a jury of our peers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Know your history: death of the intellectual in gaming

In my eagerness to start the blog, I never did outline the real aim of it, which might've been a misstep. My basic intent is to write a series of critical arguments about videogames, how they relate to other media, and so on. Mostly because I love videogames and I love talking about them, but also because it's the sort of thing I'd like to see on the internet: intellectual debate rather than mindless warring over consoles, games, etc. Also because there's no real prescribed format for referencing videogames or the like, to hell with MLA!

I've a personal, intense hatred for standardized referencing. Not in-text so much as the Works Cited nonsense. IMO all that's needed is the author's name, title, ISBN, and pages referenced. The rest is irrelevant and easily discovered if one knows those four bits of information, but I digress.

Part of me wonders if what feels like a leaning towards vast immaturity in gamers (samplings of GameFAQs or 4chan will make this leaning readily apparant) has anything to do with the types of games which have populated the mainstream lately. Over the weekend I was playing Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest (GBA Port), and I marvelled at how the level design consistently advanced itself: one skill was acquired one moment, tested the next, and mastery of it was thereafter expected. The game was not challenging in the "Beat your head against a cement wall" manner of modern RPGs and the like (Yahtzee, Zero Punctuation), but involved careful application of the gamer's intellectual prowess and dexterity (I'll be honest; one of the jumps in the game I made purely by fluke after 20 or so tries). The game was and is genuinely hard. In fact, as a ten-year-old playing it, I didn't come remotely close to beating it until a few months' hard work. I completed the game this weekend in about 5 hours between studying.

Essentially what I'm saying is, Donkey Kong Country 2 was hard, and it was not afraid to be hard. This is paralleled in other games of roughly the same era: Super Mario 3, Final Fantasy (Most of the earlier games up until IX or so were deceptively difficult, though this was often owed to a clutter on-screen and a distinct lack of direction). More to the point, the manner in which these games was difficult in an intellectual manner: for platformers one needed to solve a puzzle (and combine timing to execute), while in RPGs one needed to find clues to "unlock" the next series of events. I pick these two genres to focus on primarily because they were two of the most popular back in the fourth generation (SNES), to essentially the sixth (PS2, Gamecube, Xbox).

However, upon returning to modern-day gaming, I find such challenging experiences are lacking, in favour of more visceral thrills mainly bereft of intellectual depth. And though I'm not one to wade into "console wars", I find that one system of the three current-generation home consoles is at deepest fault here: the Xbox 360. Again, I speak not of the more independant, small-scale titles on the 360, but rather of some of the most popular games released on the console. The PS3 is guilty as well, to some extent, but as most of the offending games on the Playstation 3 are found on the 360 as well the 360 will remain the centerpiece of this post. The Wii, meanwhile, is an entirely seperate creature worthy of a post devoted to it alone.

From the List of best-selling Xbox 360 games:
Halo 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2; the never-ending title (excuse the bad joke), Gears of War, Gears of War 2
Note that Grand theft Auto IV placed 5th on the list: I have not played it myself, but I believe the above four games reasonably represent the most popular choices on the 360 console.

The first and most obvious similarity between the four games is genre: they are all first-person shooters. But as Valve's arguably classic Half-life 2 shows, it is not impossible for a shooter to be an intellectual, intriguing experience. Having played all of the above four games--and having enjoyed them--I argue that they all feature essential scenes of proceding forward on a linear path ("linear" being a buzzword in gaming discussion which I am using differently here) with no interruption save the next fire-fight. These fights boil down to essentially the same thing in either game: in Halo 3, one typically must take advantage of a vehicle/weapon/environment to defeat the opponents, in Gears of War one must take cover and take potshots at oncoming enemies until they dry up, and in Call of Duty, perhaps best emphasizing my point, 90% of the gameplay relies on being able to twitch to targets and shoot them instantly. I'm not saying there's no intellectual exercise at all in any of these, but it largely consists of the same thing. Halo is arguably the game which requires the most planning and forethought, but this is only really on the entirely optional Legendary difficulty mode. Cleverness is not built into the levels so much as the enemies are made hard as steel while the player becomes made of glass.

Essentially, these games all offer visceral, drive-releasing thrills, transitioning moment-to-moment without bothering to slow the pace for more measured entertainment. In Gears of War 2 one segment features the player being swallowed into the digestive system of a massive, city-consuming worm. Expecting some sort of puzzle or challenge, I was disappointed when the entire section was essentially: run here. Stop. Shoot. Chainsaw. Run here. Stop. Shoot. Chainsaw. Repeat. In Gears of War 2 (and the other games listed above), the player acquires all the essential skills for the game within roughly a half hour of playing: after that, it's a matter of repeating the same comfortable skillset rather than advancing as in Donkey Kong Country 2.

Now back to the beginning of my argument. I believe that gaming's shift towards intellectual dampened, sensationally impacting games is what is contributing to the firey, territorial nature of gamers. Perhaps the games played by gamers affect the attitude of gamers, or perhaps the popularity of certain games attracts a kind of person with a certain attitude, but that is neither here nor there. Games are no longer about simply having fun and engaging with media, but now are essentially competitions: online multiplayer, "Acheivements" and "Trophies" all contribute to this mindset. And because games have become so visceral, I believe that gamers identify so closely with their game/console of choice that anyone simply not enjoying it is so reprehensible that they clearly must be a lower form of human being: thus propelling the mindless arguments that frequent so many forums like GameFAQs.

Come to think of it, there's something to be said for gamer-identification and the evolution of gaming protagonists... but that's a story for another day.

Comment if you've got anything to say, I'd love to hear some input.

P.S. Simply because it's awesome, I've included a track from the Donkey Kong Country 2 soundtrack, which was stunningly well-crafted given the capabilities of the Super Nintendo console. I give you Lockjaw's Saga

Friday, April 9, 2010

Adventures in Dragon Age: Origins

Forward: I'm not going to preface my blog with an introductory post. No one wants to read those.

My relationship with Dragon Age has been an unusual one. Visiting a game store on boxing day, I discovered the game on sale for 40$. This being a relatively cheap price for the typically 65~70$ game, I picked it up without hesitation. This, of course, devalued it: I didn't touch the thing for months because it had been acquired so easily.

For months I didn't touch it. I started it one night but couldn't get into it. The structure of the game was unusual to me. Understand the most recent wRPGs I have played have been Bethesda titles: it was only after playing Final Fantasy XIII (and thoroughly enjoying it, take from that what you will) that I replayed Dragon Age, and realized how similar it was to the jRPGs I'd enjoyed as a child that I actually was able to stick with it. The idea of Dragon Age being similar to Final Fantasy is probably something I'll have to justify in a future post, but for now let's leave it at that.

Anyway, Dragon Age has, unsurprisingly, taken my free time hostage. I cannot stop playing the game. There is something viral in its mechanics, in its design. This probably owes a lot to its story: having the opportunity to genuinely roleplay something that is at least reasonably different from Good Guy, Bad Guy, Ambivalent Bastard is deeply engaging. My character can best be described as a medieval version of James Bond who is coniderably more willing to settle down as long as "settling down" entails casual sex while romping through the countryside slaying things with entirely too many warts. The game offers a fair degree of freedom, which is wonderful. But at the same time I feel as if I am being cut off from playing the game simply as I wish. One of my biggest complaints is that flying in the face of videogaming tradition, instead of there being endless grunts to kill and a hard level cap to prevent one from becoming a godly titan, there are a limited number of enemies in the game which offer experience. Furthermore, characters do not gain experience as a party, but as individuals: whoever gets the kill, gets the experience.

I understand the intent of the idea: this is to be a gripping, realistic mid fantasy adventure, so the realistic thing to do is have there only be a certain number of enemies. The problem is that this is not a book, it's a videogame. Not to say I don't love videogames pretending to be books, but were one to compare Dragon Age to a book the frank conclusion would have to be a "chose your own adventure" book. Not exactly a flattering comparison. The point is, it's a game, and it should behave like one. Give me things to kill. Further compounding the problem is that in limits the way the game can be played: depending on how many sidequests one does or does not take, one can finish the game with characters ranging from level 17 to 25. This hampers the roleplaying experience because the player cannot simply play as they would choose: they must make sure to select the correct quests, weapons, et cetera, to ensure a maximized game or be nerfed when fighting what I imagine is the fiendishly difficult endgame period. There are people who claim that the game is easy: I am not one of them, perhaps because I'd rather not play in some GameFAQs recommended "Best strategy" style.

The fact that there is a limited amount of experience in the game is made more forehead-slappingly painful because of the frankly outdated and irritatingly difficult system wherein the character who lands the killing blow gains all the experience. In this I think Bioware aught to take a page from the books of Valve (Team Fortress 2) and Zipper Interactive (MAG) and diversify how experience is gained. Give my mage some exp for buffing the party and keeping them from making the Darkspawn dinner table. (NOTE: The game does offer minor experience for disarming traps, disabling locks, and reading books, but this is essentially available only to the main character and the party rogue, who may or may not be the main character in the first place).

Finally, one of Dragon Age's biggest failings is once classic to RPGs. In attempting to give the player multiple options, there are periods of the game where certain character types are desperately shafted, for want of a better word. My character, for example, is a dual-wielding berserker maniac who is frankly not that good against mages (Ideally, the party Templar, Alistair, would make up for such a failing, but his sword has a hard time against little wizard bastards throwing ice spells from a hundred feet away). Permit me to present, linearly, the events leading up to and surrounding my party's quandry.

We visit a reclusive village named Haven. We suspect craziness.
Unsurprisingly, we discover a mad shopkeeper who has killed a knight. We slay him.
We then discover a circle of craziness, spear-headed by a cultist leader. We slay them with minor difficulty.
We enter a mountain, to discover a second, deeper circle of craziness.
It is quickly learned that these circles surround a dragon.

Option 1: Fight the second circle of craziness. This is deeply challenging for my party.

Option 2: Comply with the second circle so as not to die. This leads to intense dislike from my character's love interest (Who, remember, he gave up his philandering ways for: the man had an elf maid within about five minutes of the game starting up) and his wise-cracking best friend. I suppose this sort of problem is to be expected in a game like this, but it's still frustrating.

Of course, all these issues are relatively meaningless, I suppose. I still play the thing as if it's hooked up to an IV drip keeping a baby kitten alive.