Friday, December 20, 2013

Games As Art, the Toughest Standard, and Not Having To Worry About Ebert Anymore.

Art in video games is a boring topic, but it's my blog, so I indulge occasionally. For the rest of you, here's a funny YouTube video.

This week, I'm gonna' get all good and pretentious. I've been playing a lot of terrific games lately, and I want to engage in my tedious, semi-annual rant about the state of video games as art.

I am a lifelong fan of Roget Ebert, and I was greatly saddened when he died. And yet, in nerd circles, every mention of his name must now be marked with anger and bitterness. Not by me, but some.

Near the end of his life, he committed the greatest of crimes, the one thing no geek can ever forgive. He told us a truth we didn't want to hear. Here is the introductory sentence (context can be found here), written in 2005, that started the whole mess:

"To my knowledge, no one in or out of the [video game] field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers."

He said that video games had not yet produced a work of Great Art, and he did not yet see how they could. Which, in 2005, was pretty darn reasonable. We had barely even set out on the path. But nerds, being, as they are, a tense collective of eternally exposed raw nerves, reacted with limitless rage. Which is how we know he really struck that nerve.

(The old aphorism: The truth hurts. That's how you know it's the truth.)

The problem here, I think, is simply one of not yet having defined our terms. He was just using a different vocabulary, a different standard. A tough standard. We video game fans tend to be systematically uncritical of the products we play, which is a key part of the problem.

But I get what he meant. How can I not? The quote above threw down the gauntlet. Only now are we starting to be able to pick it up.

(Disclaimer that you should read: If you only want action and distraction from your video games, Candy Crush Saga and Battlefield 4 style, there is nothing wrong with that. This just might not be a conversation you care about. We're still allowed to have it, though.)

Still with us? Good! Here is a funny YouTube video!

But Why Would You Bring It Up Now, When Everyone Was Sick To Death Of Talking About It

Good question. After all, before he died, Ebert wrote that he was sick of the whole thing and wished he'd never brought it up.

But I think this is a perfect time to start hashing it out again, because games are getting better so quickly. Fantastic, innovative titles are coming out almost every day: Games that approach video game storytelling in fresh ways that really take advantage of the medium. Really good, emotionally involving stories that could only be properly told in video game form. (My examples: Gone Home. Stanley Parable. The Last of Us. Papers, Please.)

Ebert is, sadly, dead, and I won't mention him again in this piece. We don't have to care about impressing him, and we never should have, anyway. He wasn't the final arbitrator of art truth, he never claimed to be, and the way nerds fetishized his opinion bothered him.

Instead, we should set higher standards for ourselves and then meet them. I dream of a video game that is a piece of Great Art.

But what does that mean? And how will we recognize it when it arrives?

What Makes a Work Perfect?

A theatre professor I really respected once lectured a class I was in about the distinction between a Perfect piece of art and a Great one, and, the longer I live, the more truth I see in it.

A Perfect piece of art is, just that, perfect. Without flaw. It has a goal, a story to tell, and it does so in the most efficient and skilled way possible. You look at it, and you can't see a thing you'd fix. It's just really good.

He gave the example of the play Cyrano de Bergerac. I'd suggest Casablanca. Raiders of the Lost Ark. I just played the indie game Gone Home, and it was Perfect. Loved it. Have a lot more to say about it some time.

Being Perfect doesn't mean you have to like it. Tastes differ. It means that the work achieved its goals in the most successful way possible. It's really hard to do.

Perfect video games come out all the time, but they aren't Great, because the goals they achieve perfectly are so terribly low. And that brings us to the place our young art form has never reached: Greatness.

Halfway there. Time for a break. Here's a really cool YouTube video!

Perfection Versus Depth

Perfect doesn't mean Great. Thinking otherwise is a common mistake, but a key one. Here's why. It's a matter of depth.

Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. I've watched that movie a million times. It's terrific. However, whenever I watch it, it's the exact same experience. Indy runs from the rolling boulder, and it's exciting. He kisses Marian, and it's sweet. The Nazi's face melts, and it's awesome. Done. It's immensely enjoyable, but there's nothing else there.

When you play Gone Home to the end, you're done with it. You can spend two hours giving everything in that game full and proper consideration, all the songs, all the secrets, and then you're done. Return to it tomorrow, and the characters probably hit you the same way. Same with five years from now. It might be tinged with a bit of nostalgia, but there will be nothing more to learn. It's a good story, but a simple one.

And that is enough. Not everything has to be Great, but the distinction exists.

What Makes a Work Great?

It's not perfection. Great works are rarely Perfect. They're too complex.

What makes a work Great is a mystery, a depth, an ambiguity of meaning, that is best detected in this concrete way: You can return to it every few years, and it's meaning to you can entirely change.

I am a fiend for Hamlet. I try to see that play at least every five years. Every time I do, it hits me differently. Someone who seemed sensible now seems like a jerk. Parts I never noticed before suddenly slay me. I'll have a better understanding of how someone acts the way he or she does.

This is what a work being Great means. You never truly get all of it. You never will. Every time you're sure you Understand it, give it a few years and that certainty will slip away.

Great work is rare. You can only get so many powerful, enduring pieces of art in any given century. That's why so much of it is so old. It's not the sort of thing that, once you have it, you let go to waste.

It is the most subjective thing there is. I know lots of smart, sensible people who hate Hamlet. Other works affect them that way. Maybe The Godfather. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. The Girl With a Pearl Earring. (The painting, not the book, of course.) Ulysses. Infinite Jest. Leaves Of Grass. 

And It Takes Time To Find the Great Ones

It's completely subjective. I listed several works just above that are commonly hailed as Great, and there's one of them I can't stand. On the other hand, I consider The Stranger by Billy Joel to be a true masterpiece, and believe me, there are plenty of people who would disagree with me vigorously about that.

The process of finding Greatness happens inside all of us, a quiet personal thing, and then we bring our opinions out to the world and see if any trends emerge.

If enough people find a work Great for them, it eventually gets elevated into The Canon and kids are forced to suffer through it in school.

Great works are usually difficult. They take time. It's not all on the surface. It may take those repeat visits over the years to get what they're going for. What makes them Great is the way they, for some many people, reward the effort.

You are not obligated to like any particular work that has been christened Great. In fact, I guarantee there will be many that do nothing for you. However, if you never like ANY Great work of art, it is possible that the problem is you.

That's right! I just put The Stranger on the same level as The Godfather! Nobody can stop me! Here's a disturbing YouTube video.

But Back to Video Games. 

To find a work that has Greatness in it for you, you need to live with it for years. You need to see if it has that lasting effect on you, that it grows up with you. Key point here: Video games are young enough that, even if we have produced a true masterpiece, it's too early to know.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, generations from now, people will still play emulated copies of Journey and Gone Home and go back and forth about what it means to them. I really, super don't think so. There are games I enjoyed very much. They're Perfect. Sometimes, when you're talking about a work enduring for decades or centuries, that's not enough.

God. We Embarrassed Ourselves.

When the challenge was given, we gamers gave our pitiful examples of works to be judged. Flower. Braid. Portal. Shadow of the Colossus. Fun, worthy games, all Perfect. But more than that? Something that can stay with you for a lifetime, constantly offering new emotions and new meaning?

Are you kidding me?

Hey, Flower is ... Well, it's kind of fun. It's pretty. Relaxing. I imagine, after a bong hit or two, it's fantastic. But would you go up to people who cut their teeth on King Lear and La Dolce Vita, offer them that glittery trinket, and expect them to slump away shamed? Embarrassing!

At least, that's what I think. I also might be wrong. It's not up to me.

Almost to the end. If you are fading, here is a controversial YouTube video.

Here's the Great Part

Maybe I'm wrong. I don't know the future. I don't know what's in your head. It is possible that Flower and Gone Home might strike a chord in peoples' heads, and they will still be played in fifty, a hundred, a thousand years.

Video games are young. There is no canon, no room of musty old dudes with tenure saying what you are obligated to love. Are there games that are Great, that have what it takes to keep you engaged through a lifetime? I don't think so, but I only get one vote.

You get one too.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is that I get to use my little voice to push forward things that are worth emulating, and say why. I don't think video games have produced anything truly Great, but I see the potential coming forward more and more every day.

Papers, Please, for example, is a work of art. It's a fantastic window into a different world, a foreign way of thinking. It's even fun.

I bet a lot of people who bother to read this will come away from it feeling angry and cranky. "How dare Jeff Vogel say Bioshock: Infinite isn't a game for the ages. What a dick! And his games suck anyway!"

So fight. There's a comments section below, and a lot of industry people, actual game makers, read this blog. I hear from them in private all the time. As I never tire of saying, the art form is new.

If something in a game really affected you, shook you, moved you, and you keep going back to it, say it below. If you see a little glimmer of Greatness somewhere, make your case. It doesn't have to be a whole game, just one section, one moment. If you want to join the argument, you can do it in a constructive way. Try not to be an asshole.

We don't have a grown-up art form yet, but we're getting there. And it's pretty fun to watch.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Katawa Shoujo, Sex Stuff in Games, and Choosing What You Are Allowed To See

What I expected: Weirdo smut. What I got: A little box full of therapy.

This is one of those blog posts it's really hard to hit the Publish button. Basically, what I’m going to do is publicly throw my support behind a sexually explicit dating sim that takes place in a school for the disabled. (Yes. You read that right.) It's kind of hard to do without coming off as a perv or a weirdo.

But I'm old and cranky enough to think that good, sincere work should get its due. If nothing else, the amazingly off the wall circumstances of its creation make it worth a look. So here we go.

I've been spending the last few weeks playing through my backlog of dozens and dozens of indie games, enough to help me realize I have played enough 2-D platformers for my next ten lifetimes. And, while I was poking around online, a very odd title came on my radar.

Pictured: The Feels.
Katawa Shoujo

I love looking at new trends and apps and memes online. I've been on the Interwebs since 1988. (Yes, they existed then, and yes, I am comically old.) The weird electronic culture that sprung to life in front of me provides ceaseless fascination.

And that's why I started to hear about an odd little indie game called Katawa Shoujo. (Literal translation: "Cripple Girls." Katawa is generally considered a slur in Japanese.) It came out in early 2012. While it got some press, it didn't get as much as its quality and the fascinating story of its creation deserved. You can download it for free for Windows or Mac here.

Yes, I know I'm late to this party, and that Katawa Shoujo is a huge underground hit, but mainstream coverage of the game has been really lacking (with some exceptions), for reasons I want to dig into. So bear with me.

This game is the indiest thing that ever indied. It was made by a group of a few dozen volunteers recruited from the hugely popular anonymous image board 4chan (a source of so much reprehensible behavior and remarkable creativity). It took over five years to write. It is a dating sim set in a high school for the disabled. There is already no way this thing should exist, let alone have any chance of being good.

Katawa Shoujo is a Visual Novel, basically a romantic choose your own adventure, a genre of game I know almost nothing about. And, apparently, young people were playing it in droves and losing their minds with, as they say, The Feels.

(Some people actually argue whether Visual Novels are games or not. I could not care less about this argument. If calling Katawa Shoujo a game makes you angry, shout your rage at your love pillow.)

The amount of fan art for this game is mind-boggling. Not quite at My Little Pony levels, but ...

In An Infinite Universe, Anything Is Possible

This game is kind of marvelous.

The gameplay is pretty simple. You play a boy with life-threatening arrhythmia, who enrolls at a school for the disabled and meets five female students there. As the story unfolds (via text over graphics), you are occasionally given choices. If you choose correctly, you might end up dating one of them. Then, depending on later decisions, this relationship can end very well or very badly.

It takes about eight hours to play, with around 10-20 choices based on the path you follow. And it sounds, from any casual description, like a playground for pervs and fetishests.

It's not. It's a quiet, deliberately paced story about young love, growing up, and discovering sexuality, one of the best I've seen since Judy Blume. And yeah, there's sex, of the endlessly awkward young person variety. If it was a movie, it'd be an easy NC-17. (By the way, it is made explicit everyone having sex is over 18. The developers wisely decided to avoid that minefield.)

Yet it's not porn. It's basically a story about figuring out the things about yourself and those you love that can't be changed, accepting them, and how really difficult that is. It's heady stuff, and yes, I sound like a crazy person. But I've learned to accept that.

(By the way, no matter what you do, it takes several hours of play before anyone will even kiss you. If you are looking for smut, you may wish to keep shopping.)

I played through two of the five paths and am slowly going through a third. I'm approaching it like ... I feel like a magician who is picking over someone else's trick to figure out how they did it.

While the art and writing can be uneven, this game is beautifully made and keenly observed. (And it has a storyline around a character named Rin which, if it came in the form of a book or movie instead of an obscure indie game, would receive massive acclaim.)

Happiness not guaranteed.
"But Will I Like It?"

Beats me. Maybe? It's certainly not for everyone, but that's how art works. If you picked a book at random in a bookstore or wandered into a random theater in the local multiplex, you probably wouldn't like what you got.

It has a fanatical following among the young and socially awkward (God, I would have loved it when I was 16), but I have no idea how much Regular People (tm) would like it. I'm sure some would. I asked my wife to play it, just to make sure I'm not insane, and she really liked it, so that gives me hope.

It's hard to tell how big this game's audience is, because a casual inspection of the forums on the game's official site reveals that most people who like it keep it a secret. In a Reddit AMA, one of the game's writers said that nobody who worked on it can use it on a resume.

For people like me who want gaming options for grownups that don't involve shooting fifty people in the face, this is really, REALLY depressing. We've created a system where games that deal with relationships in a daring way like books and movies just can't exist.

An actual YouTube video, that actually exists.
Murder Is Good and Sex Is Bad.

Look. Sexuality is one of the fundamental facts of human existence, and thus is has a place in art. If video games are ever to be taken seriously in art, sex has a place in them. And yet.

It's the old conundrum in our society. Make a game like Grand Theft Auto V where you murder policemen by the hundreds and engage in excruciatingly detailed torture? Walmart welcomes you with open arms and you make billions. Make a game which depicts adults being intimate in a consensual, loving way? Welcome to business oblivion!

Sure, there's plenty of sex in video games. Grand Theft Auto V had a minigame where you grope strippers, and, if you do this efficiently enough, they will prostitute themselves to you. The Witcher invites you to sleep with as many women as possible to earn "romance cards." So basically, you can have sex in video games, as long as it is adolescent, fake, and gross.

Meanwhile, Bioware, which has at least tried to put real, emotional relationships in its games, earns a public freakout whenever they try to depict actual sex. At this point, even the extravagantly mild scenes of Dragon Age and Mass Effect are gone, replaced by Mass Effect 3's clothed hugging.

I don't want porn. I just want it possible for love to be depicted with as much care and attention as murder. The Grand Theft Auto thing can exist, fine, I just don't want it to be the only thing. Is this not reasonable?

Katawa Shoujo is an underground sensation, but I've spent the last few weeks polling my nerd-savvy friends, many of them fans of Manga and visual novels, trying to find a single one who had heard of it. No luck, because we've built a system where mainstream awareness of a title like this is impossible.

Happy endings not guaranteed. (But where is that wind coming from?)
If It's Not For Children, It Can't Be For You

I am not exaggerating. If you tried to make a game like Katawa Shoujo for money, the odds are so against you. Placement on XBox or Playstation? Forget it. This game would be perfect for the iPhone, but Apple categorically refuses to accept any program with non-murder-related adult content. (A movie? Of course. A video game? Absolutely not.)

Do I like this? No, I do not. But we decided, as a culture, that these three corporations can have near-total veto power over this whole chunk of our culture. Now we get to enjoy the consequences of this decision.

This depresses me. After weeks of slogging through insanely gruesome AAA games, it was such a relief to play a title that was, basically, about decent people trying to be nice to each other.

A Final Bit Of Crass Consumerism

One last little thing, since I know a lot of young, aspiring indie developers read this. I think one of the biggest, most unexploited markets now is for short, sincere storytelling games. Think Gone Home. Stanley Parable. This is a great, growing genre for good writers.

In the money arena, you still kind of have to avoid sex, which is stupid, but you can't fight City Hall. There's still so much room to explore. Consider this.

Katawa Shoujo was made by volunteers, covers some really edgy ground, got near-zero publicity, and still has a large and passionate following.

If you're looking for a way to make money writing indie games, your nose might be itching now. The thing you're smelling? Money, waiting to be earned.


Edit: The "Romance Cards" were from The Witcher, not The Witcher 2.

And, as always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

More Arguing About Women In Video Games. But This Time the Women Can Beat You Up.

Frankly, I want my avatar to look more like this ...

The argument about how women should be portrayed in video games rages inexplicably on. Speaking as someone who writes these things for money, not systematically alienating half the human population and almost half of actual gamers is just good business.

Happily, progress is being made. There have been quite a few games out this year, indie and AAA, that prominently feature interesting women as main characters and supporting cast. (e.g. Gone Home. Last of Us. Tomb Raider. Bioshock: Infinite, sorta.)

We're getting there. Fossilized designs like Grand Theft Auto V are increasingly out of place. But angry young men on forums make it seem like there's an actual controversy, so on we go.

It's all kind of a waste, because, as far as I'm concerned, the interview that should settle the argument decisively came out in September, and it didn't get nearly as much attention as it should have.

It's an interview with two female soldiers, one who served in Afghanistan and one who served in Iraq, about how women are portrayed in gunshooters.

It's full of great quotes, but here's a nice one, talking about Call of Duty (which only finally put in playable female soldiers in the newest title) ...

It's because you have men who are designing these games in the first place. Put me, or any of the women who have served in charge of a shooter that includes women as the main protagonists. You can bet that you'll get a character who is far more concerned about her kill streak than she is her makeup or how she looks. And you can believe she wouldn't be running around in a bikini either. Save that for Dead or Alive where the women don't do any real combat, and flounce around with their tits bouncing like they are in a rodeo.

I think that this should be the beginning of the end of the conversation. Here's why.

... than this.

Soldiers and Video Games, The Basics

Bear in mind here that video games are insanely popular among soldiers overseas, as they provide a reliable distraction during the inevitable seemingly infinite hours of boredom and inactivity.

I have received so many e-mails from soldiers who wanted to get my games up and running before they leave on a long deployment. Of course, I find it impossible to reject requests like that.

The Last Stand of Principle

Of course, in our society, pretty much any moral principle can instantly be abandoned if the money is right. In the video game industry, it's gotten to the point where anyone’s appeal to basic ethics is generally treated with open mockery. (How many huge games in the last year or two shipped in a basically non-functional state?)

There is one principle, however, that is almost never questioned by the sane: The people who chose to sacrifice years of their lives (and perhaps their entire life) to defend their countries deserve respect.

The people willing to die for us should be honored for that. Must it be said that this is still true when they are women?

From the upcoming game, Warface. This is a PR image. Everything about it was carefully planned. What does it want to say, and what does it want to teach? (Answer below.)

So Here Is The Absolute Minimum That Is Required

One. If it's a game about soldiers, female avatars should be available whenever possible. With a AAA budget, there is NO excuse to not have this in the multiplayer. You can afford it.

Two. Women soldiers should look like soldiers. When someone goes overseas and gives up years of her life in public service, she should not see that her culture regards woman warriors as a bunch of mindless sex dolls.

I mean, right?

And let's be clear. I know game devs. I've been around them for decades. They are mostly doughy, deskbound guys who never came within a thousand miles of serving in the military. That these guys are insulting the women doing the tough job so few of them signed up for is truly galling.
Answer: Thank you for your service.

And It Matters

Culture matters. I mean there's not a question, right? The images we surround ourselves with affect us. Why are such massive fortunes spent on advertising? You think they don't affect people? Corporations like wasting money?

(And don't kid yourself. There is a wealth of research that says that ads do affect you, even when you don't realize it.)

We absorb the media around us, and it shapes us. Nobody plays these games more than kids, and kids learn.

So ask yourself the question. What do you want young people to learn? Not what it is easiest or most profitable to teach them. Ask what we want. What is best for the country. What is just. What is right.

I'm no white knight. The women in the interview don't need my help or my pity. They do, however, deserve respect. Depicting soldiers as soldiers, man or woman, seems like a tiny, reasonable way to start.


As always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tomb Raider, Torture Porn, and Looking For an Audience That Exists

Someone thinks this will arouse you.

So let's talk, months late, about the recent Square Enix Tomb Raider reboot, which I played on the PS3.

First off, let me say that it's a really well-made game. Excellent production values. Flat but reasonable writing. Fun gameplay. Enjoyable combat and puzzles. Environments that are neat and worth exploring.

I have to make it really clear before I get into the mess: This is a good game, and the people who made it should pat themselves on the back.

And yet, one simple decision, one minor choice of tone and content, blows the whole expensive thing up.

Here's the thing. Yes. Tomb Raider was a hit, kind of. It sold millions of copies.

But this Tomb Raider is the newest game in an iconic franchise, with brilliant design and top-rate production values. Of course it sold a lot of copies. It just wasn't the hit it could have been, and, more importantly, it wasn't the hit Square Enix needed it to be.  This is a phenomenal shame.

I think it's obvious why it didn't perform.

Yes, this is a lake of blood and rotting human flesh. Alas, the game does not contain soap.

First, About the Bewbs

I have no problem with using sex appeal to sell games. As of this writing, I've spent the last several weeks listening to females in my acquaintance wax rhapsodic about Benedict Cumberbatch and Thor. They can let me have an athletic young archaeologist/grave robber in a tanktop.

However, here is the first rule of Sex Appeal: If you want to make something sexy to sell it, it has to be sexy.

This game is meant to be an Indiana Jones-style romp, with a sense of lightness and fun. I mean, watch Raiders of the Lost Ark again. (This is never not a good idea.) This is a movie full of gory death and violence and Nazi melting faces, but it's still FUN. Look, Spielberg is a true master, and I don't expect everyone to pull off the miracle of getting this tone right, but you have to come closer than Tomb Raider did.

The problems start with the packaging. When I picked up the box and turned it over, I saw three pictures of Lara Croft covered with mud, filth, and blood. It's gross. Not sexy. Also, ewwww.

This doesn't stop when you're playing. The game is full of gratuitous gory bodies and chopped off limbs and cannibalism and tortured corpses. Set aside that this is the most obvious, cliched way to depict the evil cultists that serve as your foe. It's excessively gross and boilerplate, but that's not even the real problem. 

Warning: Do not look at this image.

Tomb Raider is violent. Like Saw movie murder porn excruciating to watch violent.

Sure, Lara brutally kills hundreds of evil guys. It's a video game. We can kinda sorta live with that, though I really wish they'd come up with a more clever solution. Instead of killing ten guys and then ten guys and then ten guys in a series of boilerplate shootouts, I wish they'd had a way to have there be far less killing but for it to require more care and cunning. 

(The Ellie boss fight from The Last of Us should be played by all designers for a perfect example of how this can be done. Also the Mr. Freeze fight from Batman: Arkham City.)

But that isn't even the problem.

Tomb Raider has lots of Quick Time Events ("Press the triangle button now FAST or die! Ha! You suck!"), which is already unfun design. They are really tricky and fast, which is even more terrible. And when you fail (and you will, a lot), you will see Lara die in a really horrible way.

You will see Lara, for example, have her throat ripped out by wolves. Be hacked with machetes. Have the neck impaled on a wooden stake. Swim through a lake of blood and rotting human flesh.

When you die, we're not talking about the camera cutting away and you hear nasty sound effects and get to imagine the gruesome thing that just happened. No, when that bad guys strangles her, you will see it lovingly animated, no detail lost as the life slowly drains from her eyes.

Gamers are inured to this sort of horror. It's time for a reminder that most people aren't.

This is what fun looks like.
The Finest Game Critic Working Today

Talk show host Conan O'Brien does a series of segments for his show called Clueless Gamer. In them, Conan, a self-professed non-gamer, tries out the hot games. Watching a civilian come face to face with all the bizarre design choices we've all trained ourselves to take for granted is a humbling and educational existence.

They're also hilarious.

It's real game criticism, the sort we need, the sort that doesn't shrug our shoulders and let us get away with lazy crap. (His Grand Theft Auto V segment does an awesome job of getting at what works and doesn't work about the series. I wish so much they'd had him play the torture mission.)

The Tomb Raider segment is particularly informative.  Jump to 6:00. Watch the gruesomeness. Listen to the audience reaction. Listen to what Conan is saying. "Don't let it happen again." "This is a nightmare."

This is what the game industry is selling. This is what we're proffering to people as Art. The problem isn't that Normal Humans see us as creepy sociopaths. The problem is that it's hard to argue they're not right.

The Real Problem

Kurt Vonnegut wrote, about writing, "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia." This is brilliant advice. Don't try to write for too many people at once. It will just dilute your work.

So who is Tomb Raider written for?

Is this game for people who want to ogle a young, attractive woman? Hey, I don't categorically oppose using attractive people to sell product. I'm as intrigued by a sexy assembly of polygons as the next guy. 

But I have a hard time getting into my "Hey, that's sexy!" headspace when the woman I'm supposed to ogle is being constantly horribly mutilated and coated with filth. I don't want to ogle her. I want to give her a sweater.

Is this game for people who want a rollicking Indiana Jones style of adventure? The sort of thing promised by the name "Tomb Raider"? Then bear in mind that most people who want to explore catacombs and look for treasure may also have a small tolerance for watching young women being strangled in long, lovingly animated segments.

Is this game for young women who desperately want to play a game with a protagonist who, in some way, reminds them of themselves? Like, say, my daughters. My seven year old was playing a little World of Warcraft the other day, and she asked me, exact quote, "Why are all the pandas boys?" My family wants games with women in them, and we spend money.

Well, I won't let my seven and eleven year old daughters get within a thousand miles of Tomb Raider. Pity. They might have become lifelong fans of a series that wouldn't give them perma-nightmares. 

Is this game for young dudebros who grew up watching Saw and other torture porn and get off on a bit of the old ultraviolence? Well, I get e-mail from these kids all the time. They will only rarely play a game where they control a female character. I think they're afraid they'll catch the gay.

So I'm really trying to think who this otherwise terrific game is being aimed at. Apparently someone who's saying, "I want to spend my leisure time watching a young, talented woman being repeatedly tortured and mutilated. But I also like puzzles!"

Hope For the Future

It's a real shame because, I must again stress, there's a terrific game in here. If you can look past the gruesome (and many people can), Tomb Raider is a ton of fun.

I've read that a sequel is in the works. I really hope so. If I can get through it without needing therapy, I'll totally buy it. My little hope? Man, I would love to play it (or parts of it) with my kids. I hope it works out.


Another good analysis of the game is at Errant Signal. And, as always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why We Need Video Game Critics, Even If the Whole Topic Is Boring

Video games need more of this ...
We've reached the point where video games have a huge place in our culture, and yet most of them are ... well, I want to say "terrible," but that's not true. Look at the top of the sales charts, and you'll see a lot of Product. Competently made, bland Product with good production values and a lack of thoughtfulness or creativity or interest in exploring what these odd electronic contraptions can do.

Video games have gotten big faster than they've gotten good. We have fantastic tools at our disposal, but, apart from a few remarkable works (The Last of Us, for example), they aren't being used at anywhere near their potential. I think this is why video games need more and better critics.

Not reviewers. Reviewers are necessary, but we don't need more people to say, "Yeah, Grand Theft Auto V is deeply flawed, but it has lots of polygons and it doesn't crap itself and I don't want to get death threats. 9/10." We have plenty of that.

I was recently in a discussion with some indies where someone commented that too much discussion of the game business was about business, not about the craft of making better games. I agree with this totally. If you want to write games, anything that helps you to make a better game is better for your business.

We need people who take the time to think about these games, break them down, understand what works, what doesn't, and why. They then bring their opinions back to the masses, and we can agree or disagree and have a conversation about it and then, if we're lucky, we might get better games.

... and less of this ...
Who Criticism Is For

Grand Theft Auto V is a huge, ambitious, high-profile title, and it deserves to have a lot written about it. (And, for what it's worth, I plan to.) But who would that writing be for?

Well, first off, it wouldn't be for Rockstar. Sure, they wrote the game, but that really is the end of their part of the conversation. They made a thing. They made a ton of money. They'll make another one. Maybe they'll read what people write about it. Maybe it'll even make a difference, though I doubt it. It doesn't matter.

They wrote the game, but the discussion about it isn't for them. The discussion is for two sorts of people.

First, us developers. People who make games. We should always be playing and picking apart new work, mercilessly deciding what works and what doesn't. This is how we get better.

Second, criticism is for gamers. In particular, it's for gamers who want to enjoy games in a more thoughtful, engaged way. You don't need to understand how editing and cinematography work to enjoy a movie. However, better understanding of the craft can help you to enjoy movies on more than one level, and thus to enjoy them more.

It is possible to play a game and have a part of it really engage and excite you (or disappoint and frustrate you), and not really understand why. Good criticism can help you see exactly why the game worked (or let you down).

I know, some people don't care. They don't want more understanding of what they watch/read/play. I really don't understand this, but it's there. If you don't care, I can't make you care. But if you do care, these discussions are how you learn.

... but I would settle for this.
So ...

I have a lot to say about Grand Theft Auto V and the new Tomb Raider reboot, both hugely ambitious, partially successful titles. Discussion about what they do right and wrong are merited.

I don't know if anyone will care. But writing is what I do, so let's go.

In the Meantime

There is some thoughtful game criticism out there. For starters, take a look at the YouTube channel Errant Signal. In particular, the videos on Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us.

I think the Bioshock: Infinite video is a terrific analysis of a game that, despite its good qualities, was embraced with an excessive and insufficiently considered enthusiasm. And I think their The Last of Us video is poorly considered. It's blind to the real appeal to the game and holds it to an unfair standard not applied to other titles.

But that's the great thing about criticism. It's not about agreement. It's about conversation and, yes, argument. That's where the fun is.

If you care about movies and storytelling, Film Crit Hulk can't be recommended highly enough.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Joy and Despair of Writing These Stupid Games.

Please, Charlie Bucket, save me from this hell of my own devising! I've been in 80-hour-week crunch for 15 months!
"We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams." - Willy Wonka
"Forget it. Music makers and dreamers of dreams make no money." - Every Sensible Human

Last week, I wrote what is probably the most viewed blog post I've ever written, about the rough road of writing indie games for a living. I decided not to post it like ten times before I finally hit the Publish button. Now I'm really glad I did. The response I received was far more positive than I ever expected.

Also, I made a lot of young, talented, ambitious people sad. Which is its own reward.

As is my style, I want to follow up with a few points raised, questions I wanted to answer, the occasional rebuttal, and a few words about making a living in this marvelous, gruesome industry.

The Good and Bad News

I wish I could remember where I first heard this, but it's true wisdom:

Video game development is not a software industry. It's an entertainment industry.

If you want security and stability in your life (and believe me, if you are sane, this is what you want), write web infrastructure or banking software. Trying to make a living writing games is like trying to be an actor, or a musician, or a cinematographer. Not as bad as wanting to be a poet, but close.

This is a business for misfit toys, people who are in it because we love it, because we live and breathe it.

This doesn't describe everyone who makes games, of course. Doesn't describe the executives. (But what can you do?) Doesn't describe the people who moved into the casual space  and iOS to chase the easy money. (They will be winnowed soon enough.) But the people who design the stuff? Who test and build it? We're the freaks. The true believers.

You want to write indie games, and you're scared? You should be scared. I'm scared every damn day. I've been writing games for my whole life. I HATE writing games. I'm sick to death of it. I do it because I have to. It's all I'm good for.

(But sometimes, every great once in a while, I do something right. Some tweak of dialogue, some clever design decision, some encounter that just comes off right. And ... It's just joy. Wouldn't trade it for anything.)

Games workers are treated like garbage. If only there was something that could be done. If only someone had faced these same problems before. Hmmm. It is a puzzle.
But Also, Game Writers Are Victimized. They Don't Have To Be.

This is a truly fantastic article about how gruesome life in the games industry is, and what needs to be done about it. Everyone who cares about games should read it. It explains why almost nobody can spend a full career writing games and perfecting their craft. And, thus, why most games are so derivative and terrible.

Where Baby Indies Come From

In Chekhov's awesome play The Seagull, Nina, a young actress, says, "You have no idea how awful it is when you know you're acting badly." This is true across all art forms.

Sometimes, you play Dudegunshooter XXXL 1 and say, "Wow, that was awesome!". Then play Dudegunshooter XXXL 4 and say, "This is sort of getting tired." Then you play Dudegunshooter XXXL 7 and says, "Boy, they're really phoning it in now." Then you stop buying them and last you heard they're on Dudegunshooter XXXL 10 and everyone is just sort of sighing and shaking their heads.

You ever play a game and think, "This is so tired and phoned in and joyless."? Well, imagine how painful it is to write that game. To burn your life and youthful energy away in a cloud of 100-hour-week crunchtime to create a big pile of creativity-free meh.

I've done it. I've written games where my heart wasn't in it. It shows in the final product, and it's excruciating. (You might not like Avadon 2: The Corruption, my new game. That's fine. But there's a lot of neat stuff and attention to detail in that game. Like it or not, I think it's clear I'm at least trying.)

It's hard to be young and creative and ambitious and burn those super-productive years away on something you don't believe in. That is why developers turn indie. Not for money (though that helps a lot), but for the joy of creation.

I don't want to discourage anyone. I don't want anyone to give up. I want them to make awesome games for me to play. I just want them to be prepared. I want every word I write to help make more successes.

Never forget. If you are willing to pay any price to work in a field, someone will eventually try to make you give up everything.

Let Someone Tell You a Story

In my previous article, I came down way too hard on Alexander Bruce, creator of Antichamber. He's the real damn deal, putting in his years in the trenches to make good work. If you want to write indie games (or start any small business), treat yourself to this talk.

It's all there. The passion. The good luck and good connections. The quest for perfection and the toll it can take on you. The recognition of and correction of mistakes. It's a perfect example of that old, true aphorism: It takes ten years to make an overnight success.

But this was also the path taken by a relatively unencumbered young person with the serious chops necessary to win design competitions (and the precious funding that comes along with that). If you lack this sort of superhuman energy or have the obligations that can come with getting older (such as, Heaven forbid, having kids), you will have to do less. This has a direct cost, paid in lower odds of success.

Luck, and the Making Of Same

Antichamber is the story of what it takes to make a HIT: Write a first-rate title, and market it until you're on the ragged edge of a nervous breakdown.

My previous article was trying to say, among other things, that this isn't the route you have to take. Some games don't lend themselves well to this sort of press. Some developers aren't capable of it. Heck, I'm close to freaking out all the time doing a fraction of what Alexander Bruce did.

I mean, I'm not a hermit or anything, but I'm really introverted. I hate meeting strangers, and I like my house a lot. If I had to go to a million conventions doing heavy PR to sell my games, my games would not exist. Like my work or not, I don't think gaming would be better off without them.

However, this bit is key: The less you do, the smaller the rewards and the more you need a lucky break. The more you do, the less you rely on luck. If you listen to the talk, don't let it destroy your will. Only understand that it is showing you one point of the yardstick that will be used to measure you.

These children will not be successful game developers. Must be because they are lazy.

And One More Thing About Luck

I knew that the thing about the previous post that would get up peoples' noses the most was the luck part. That luck makes a difference in whether a business succeeds. It's the most controversial obviously true statement I can think of.

Look, you have to work hard. The more you scramble, the more often good breaks will come your way, and the better you will be able to take advantage of them when they do.

And I know why people hate talking about luck. People who haven't made it want to believe they are entirely in control of their own destiny. People who have made it want to believe it was entirely because they were awesome. Neither are ever true, but facing it is too scary, so we don't.

Luck matters at every single point along the journey. Look at me. I'm lucky. How was I lucky? Well, I was born in a wealthy, safe country where I wasn't at risk of dying from dysentery or civil war. (Not a lot of hot indie talent coming out of Syria these days.) I had supportive, reasonably affluent parents who were able to get me a computer and programming lessons and didn't freak out when I spent 80 hours one summer beating Bard's Tale II. (And they worried. I know they did.) I'm lucky that the brain tumor I had removed when I was 18 didn't take me out of the game entirely.

Obviously, this isn't about games anymore. It's a whole way of looking at life. In the end, we'll all believe what we need to to get where we want to go. Sometimes, however, someone needs to point out the reality of the thing.

Thanks To Everyone Who Said Nice Things

I really appreciate it. Thanks to everyone who follows me on Twitter now. I'll try to be cute and clever and not murder my career. And that's all I have to say about the business end of things for a while.

I want to do some game criticism for our bit. Our art form is flourishing in a lot of ways, and people trying to say intelligent things about how to make it better are really needed.


Edit: A Quick Addenda About Luck

The frustrating thing about this topic is that everyone hears a different thing when I say the word "luck." Here is a quote from my previous article in which I make explicit the mechanism in which luck works (and helps or doesn't help niche developers like me):

"Some gamers will love you, and some won’t. You have to hang on until one of those gamers becomes an editor somewhere. The more niche your product is, the longer you will have to wait."

It's not about magic. It's about how you can search in the wilderness for a while until you find that person who can appreciate that weird thing you do and has the power and willingness to help you. You have to do the searching, and luck tells you how long you have to endure until you find what you need.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Marketing, Dumb Luck, and the Popping of the Indie Bubble.

This article is kind of depressing, so here is a puppy hugging a kitten.
Sigh. I hate writing articles like this. Even if I’m right (and I really think I am), nobody thanks the bringer of bad news. If what I predict does come to pass, people will resent me more, not less. But I really think what I have to say should be considered by the jillions of ambitious game devs who are quitting their day jobs to go indie. So here goes.

Interesting game article in the news recently. This guy named Alexander Bruce wrote a puzzle game called Antichamber. It did very well. He just did an interview (written by Brendan Sinclair) about how it’s very important to do marketing and develop a good relationship with the press and your players.

The article contains a lot of questionable statements (by the writer, not Bruce) like …
"Just a few years ago, developers didn't need to worry so much about their relationship with the end users."
Does this match the experience of anyone trying to keep a small software company alive in the last few decades? The ability to keep a good relationship with end users was our best tool for staying alive. But I digress.

(Edit: Just to be clear, a lot of stuff Bruce says is very sharp and worth heeding, especially about how dealing with limited resources forces you to be clever.)

Despite the weird stuff, Bruce gets a bit of good advice in too. To a point.

Now, first, it's evidence how amazingly sweet things have been for indie devs for the last few years that anyone would even think "You should do marketing." is news. When I started out writing shareware in 1994, the first piece of advice anyone ever gave anyone about anything was, "Yeah. Marketing. Do that."

Not the right way to market your game.
But, Um, Duh, Right?

Isn't it kind of an obvious bit of advice? When you finish your game, you'll tell people, won't you? Is anyone trying to succeed at business by finishing their game, putting it in a lead box, and burying it in the backyard?

But here is where the article sort of falls apart. There are many paths to success in the indie biz, and each needs its own marketing plan. Each developer has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, both mental and in cash and time resources.

Just because one path (Hint: Steam) has been popular of late doesn't mean it's the right one for that particular game (since the genre you are working in will require its own strategy, depending on how niche you are), or that it will be a plausible path forever. If you are trying to make it writing high-cost, boutique games in a serious niche field like, say, turn-based wargaming, following the strategy Alexander Bruce used for his puzzle game will lead to ruin.

You see, the conventional wisdom now is that, to make it in indie games, you need to blow it all on one big, flashy title. Spend all your time at GDC giving the gaming press hot oil massages. Then release it on Steam, get fifty articles written about you, and make meelions of dollars. Buy a Tesla, give interviews, have your next game be a 2-D platformer, and die happy.

But buried in the article is the real news. The little tidbit that really says where things are going ...

"Even being featured in a coveted place like the Steam Daily Deals doesn't mean as much as it used to."

Yes. This is true. A Steam Daily Deal used to mean doing a happy dance and putting on your Super Money Pants. What? That's fading? Uh oh. And this is the beginning of the real story.

By The Way …

I’m not happy about any of this. A few years ago, there was a huge demand for indie content, and I had a bunch of quality games ready to go. I profited from this temporary state of affairs far more than I deserved. I am not gloating about sweet times coming to an end. My modest games will be the first on the chopping block.

I can't get rich selling THIS anymore? NO FAIR!
When Can We Start Using the Term "Indie Bubble"?

On October 29, Steam accepted 100 titles for publishing from their Greenlight system. A HUNDRED. IN ONE DAY. JUST ON STEAM.

This is the problem with so many indie devs cozying up to the Escapist and Kotaku and the PA Report. There is a flood of new titles, so many that Humble Bundle sells them in Costco-sized bundles of a dozen for a dollar. A lot of good titles won't ever get that press. They just can't. There's not room.

And that's just for the flashy titles (the "AAA Indies"). My turn-based, low-budget, word-heavy RPGs are a lot of fun and have a real audience, but nobody at Kotaku gives a crap about them, nor should they. Why would a Let's Play channel on YouTube want to do one of my games? It'd be like putting up a movie of someone reading a book. Alexander Bruce's marketing path is useless to me, but my business is still valid. Has been for 20 years.

Also, the gaming community doesn't care about indies as much as we like to think they do. (Minecraft is an ultra-mega-uber hit, right? Well, Grand Theft Auto V made more than it in like 18 seconds.) The gaming press knows that gamers only want to hear about so many indies. Soon, they'll start picking who lives and who dies.

The point? Any article about marketing indies that doesn't mention the word "luck" is lying to you.

Even if she was alive, she still wouldn't want to play your 2-D platformer.
By the Way, Luck Exists

I know all you young developers are brash libertarians who believe in a just, deterministic universe. So feel free to get angry at me for this part: Unless times are really good, you need luck for your business to succeed. You need the rare sort of good times where there's a ton of demand and very little product. A time like the period that is now ending.

Yes, Luck: Getting a good break. Meeting the right editor who will champion you or making the right publisher connection. My company, Spiderweb Software, has been lucky. Many times. I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Worthy titles sometimes fall by the wayside now. There is no inherent universal justice that decides that the "best" games succeed, whatever you mean by "best". Some gamers will love you, and some won’t. You have to hang on until one of those gamers becomes an editor somewhere. The more niche your product is, the longer you will have to wait.

Disagree? Think that everyone who fails only fails because they were lazy or stupid or just suck? Fine with me. It's your call if you need to believe in a universe based on justice and fairness. I hope someday to join you there.

This article is kind of depressing, so here is a puppy.
Can There Only Ever Be One Path?

Here's how it works now. Everyone makes a team, puts something together with flash, pushes the heck out of it at GDC/PAX/whatever, and waits for Steam to wave its magic fairy dust wand and make them rich.

Which is great. If it works. But there's a problem. There's still a lot of fairy dust in that wand, but it's getting spread awful thin.

Is there another route to success in this business?

You could try what I did to make a long career. You could pick a neglected genre, write the best games you can for it on a limited budget in your spare time, release one game after another, and push your work where you can to build a loyal audience with word-of-mouth and good customer support. Then, maybe, years later, thanks to your persistence and hard work, you might go full time. A loyal audience can keep you in business through good times and lean.

All you need to make a game is a $299 computer, a chair, time, and some software which we'll pretend for the moment you didn't get on BitTorrent. It will probably look cruddy, but a lot of people don't care (and many people get off on the rough DIY thing). You won't be on Steam, but there are plenty of ways to sell it like on your own site. It'll be tough, but starting a new business is never easy.

When I did it (shut up, grandpa), there wasn't even the web. Now there are forums and communities galore. There are a million places to start assembling that customer base, and you don't even need to say the word Steam.

Is this possible? It should be. It happens. I'm not the only small dev who has made a living this way. But, sadly, there aren't many. I don't know how feasible the slow and steady building of a clientele is in indie gaming. I am, however, confident that we're going to need to start finding out.

Dear God, please let Polygon notice meeeeeee!
But What About the Future?

I think we're in for an interesting few years in the computer game industry. I have my own opinion about the future of small game development, and it's this:
If your game can't succeed based on word-of-mouth marketing, unless you get real lucky, you need to adjust your budget, your quality, or both.
I know, I know. "Jeff Vogel is just being a crazy old coot again." Sure. Nobody wants to hear a whole business model being called into question.

But I've lived through rich times and lean times, several of each. Small-scale software development is a rough business, and you need to operate lean and mean to live in the long term.

Some indie devs will use their bubble money to get big and survive. Anyone who can't grow huge and doesn't have the patience and persistence to go the small company path will have to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to see anyone lose their jobs. I've actively enjoyed seeing people who do what I do getting rich.

However, Microeconomics 101 is still true. When people start making a ton of money, they will attract competitors until nobody makes easy money anymore. It’s an iron law of capitalism.

Alexander Bruce deserves his success, but it is important to remember that the path he described in his interview is only sometimes the best way, even if the press often treats it as the One True Route. Not everyone can market their way to success.

(Edit - The final sentence was perhaps a bit too hostile, so I changed it.)


My incoherent mumblings are now available in condensed form on Twitter.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

We Finally Released Avadon 2.

Keeping the single-player, turn-based, story-heavy flame alive.
After two years of development, we have finally released our first all-new game in three years. Avadon 2: The Corruption, the second game in the Avadon trilogy, for Mac and Windows, is now out on our site, Steam, and

It's another hardcore, story-heavy RPG. Cool tactical combat. In-depth story with a ton of tough choices and many different endings. (Far more than in Avadon: The Black Fortress.)

It's very much in the spirit of the older Interplay/Black Isle/Bioware games, back when Interplay and Black Isle were still going great guns and Bioware still wrote Bioware games. If you liked Avadon, you should like this one. If you didn't like Avadon, Avadon 2 is bigger, has more tough choices that make a difference, and doesn't start as slow. Maybe you'll like this one.

Don't like our business model? Allow me to phrase a retort.
I'll Take a Good Start

We've sold about 2000 copies in the first 24 hours, after pretty much zero attention in the gaming press (not that we deserve attention, I guess). Now that most indie projects are made by big teams, these numbers seem super low. For a small lean-and-mean company like ours, it's really promising.

We'll still be in business.

"But This Looks Like It Was Made In 1995!"

And that's an insult? Um, kid, haven't you heard? That's the hip style now.

Pictured: My development process.
Time Will Take Its Toll

It's been a long road. I'm in my forties and have been doing this for about 20 years, and questionable health and creeping burnout are taking their toll. I'm proud of this game, I truly am, and I think it's a lot of fun. But I can't rely on my body and brain to support my usual machine-like pace.

It'll be a while until reviews come out, but I'll spoil the surprise. 7/10, or 8/10 if the reviewer had a good day. That's how the prevailing standard of reviews go. Avadon 2 has low production values, but it's basically competently made and a lot of fun for people who like that sort of thing.

There will also be the standard cheap shots about how I should be doing different things. Even though spending my life trying to perfect my skills writing games in a beloved genre almost nobody else works in already makes me so edgy that I live out on an edge made of edges.

Anyway, there's a big demo. Hope you like it. I'm going back to bed.

Finally, I'm on twitter now. Follow me. I'm cranky and I don't want to be employable in the computer game industry, so it should end up pretty amusing.