Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Internet Lies To You. WHEN WILL YOU GET THAT!?!?

My heart is singing a joy song.

Take a moment to Google "iOS 7 waterproof". Do it. It's worth it.

Yes. Someone Photoshopped some fake iOS 7 ads to tell people that a software update would make their phone waterproof. And some other people, who may in fact not be as insightful as they possibly could be, believed it. So now thousands of articles saying that, no, a software update will not change the physical properties of your phone.

Anonymous evil ad maker with Photoshop, I wish I could shake your hand. Here's why.

The Internet is an immensely new, hugely important mode of human communication, but we don't yet know how to use it. People don't understand this about the Internet: It is half lies. At best.

Most people who saw the fake ad read it, smiled, and moved on. A few people, however, believed it. They took their phone in the shower. The device was destroyed. They learned a valuable lesson, in a way that won't soon be forgotten, and all it cost them was a few hundred bucks.

And you know something? Maybe they will be less like my older relatives, who never read anything in e-mail so ludicrous they didn't believe it.

I promise you this. One of these days, someone who trashed their phone will get a message saying vaccines are killers, or a guy in Nigeria wants to give them a hundred million bucks, or that they should quit the chemo for their Stage 3 breast cancer because eating enough lemons will take care of it (yes, real example). Maybe, dare to dream, when this happens they will think about their phone and maybe, just maybe hit Delete. Like they should.

It is a small price to pay for a lesson of such value.

Oops. Sorry. What I meant to say was, it's real. You can install iOS 7 on your iPhone and give it to your kids to play in the bathtub. Go try it. You know it's true, because you just read it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

State Of Art In Vidya Games. Exhibit 1. Spec Ops: The Line

This looks like a nice person!

One of the most painful things about stepping away from blogging was the really cool games that came out in my absence that I never got the chance to pick apart.

I mean, the Are Video Games Art? argument is stupid, right? Of course they're art. Just usually crappy art. Art is helped by careful criticism. So I want to go over a bunch of games and pick them apart.

(Standard Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers. So what? We're trying to have Real Talk about art here, which means looking at the whole thing. So put on your grown-up pants, come along, and don't freak out.)

The first game I wanted to talk about was Spec Ops: The Line, a game that looked like a totally bog-standard Call Of Duty clone, suffered for it sales-wise, and became a cult classic by being something infinitely more cool and weird.

How On Earth Did This Thing Get Green-Lit?

Spec Ops: The Line is an enjoyable, competently made Call of Duty type shooter, with most of the focus being on the single-player campaign. (Reviews of the multiplayer part would be difficult, as it would require more than one person to have ever played it.)

This is really important to remember when reading what follows ... It's a fun game. Good shooting sections, clever design, some really nice vehicle bits. It's not artsy-fartsy. It plays.

Its greatness comes from the fact (and this is where I'll start to lose people) that it's not just a game but commentary on both the state of video game storytelling and the way people play games without really thinking about what they're supposedly doing.

In any contemporary shooter, you're generally given a long hallway, a vaguely designed mission, a half-assed story, and a bunch of people to shoot. And you do. You trudge forward, center little images of human beings in your crosshairs, and blow them away. Then you get more half-assed story, shoot more simulated people, and it soon becomes hypnotic and repetitive. Soon, it's just a reflex. People. Shoot. People. Shoot.

I am in no way part of the Fox News hysteria about how this process manufactures spree killers, but isn't it just a little bit weird?

This trend is still continuing. We are still trying to find the limit to the horrors gamers will enact if that's what it takes to get to the next mission.

Spec Ops: The Line takes this process and completely turns it on its head, telling the story of a group of soldiers who start to reflexively kill people, and the nightmare that results.

Call Of Duty On Shrooms

You start out as ordinary soldiers, on an ordinary mission. Then, as the game progresses, it gets more violent, the missions more questionable and vague. At the same time, everything about the framing of the game gets more bizarre and hallucinatory (the best touch, in my opinion, being the increasingly hilarious and disturbing loading screen tips).

The most commonly cited example: At one point, there is an artillery section highly reminiscent of the Death From Above bombing mission in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.  It's flashy and fun. Then, immediately after, you wander the land you shelled and see the results. And it's ... not OK.

(By the way, you get several chances to choose whether or not to commit atrocities. I always chose to. You don't play a game like Spec Ops: The Line to NOT commit atrocities.)

It's become an industry joke that every new Call of Duty game has to have some bit that's allegedly surprising and shocking. You can take every 'shocking' bit in every Call of Duty game, wrap them up in a ball, and it's still playschool recess next to Spec Ops: The Line. That is because war, and we should occasionally pay at least lip service to this fact, is actually quite horrible.

The game has a real, visceral emotional punch, which is understandable, considering its source material.

The horror. The horror.

We All Stand On the Shoulders of Giants

Spec Ops: The Line is one of many, many interesting retellings of Joseph Conrad's classic novel, Heart of Darkness. I believe that if you put an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters in a room, they will come up with a retelling of Heart of Darkness in about 2 seconds.

(Even I tried my own Heart of Darkness homage, and it turned out quite well, though it strayed so far from its inspiration as to be unrecognizable.)

The basic Heart of Darkness template is a simple one: Agent A of Law/Order goes off into some sort of wilderness and is seduced by Chaos/Power. Agent B of Law/Order is sent after Agent A to try to control him/her/it. There is a harrowing journey through the wilderness, and Agent B (Law/Order proxy) finally confronts Agent A (Power/Chaos proxy). Awesome drama happens.

It's a terrific story model, and there's a lot of meat on it. The final showdown between these two models of civilization always has a ton of punch, which is why my one problem with Spec Ops: The Line is a big one.

And it turned out he was a robot the entire time. Storytelling!

I Hate Wacky Surprise Endings

As I played Spec Ops, I thought, again and again and again, "I know you're building up to a wacky surprise ending. PLEASE don't have a wacky surprise ending."

It had a wacky surprise ending.

These things are a curse. They lie to the player. They obscure character development. I'll write more about this in another post, but I'll get to the meat of it here. The real problem with it, in this game, is that it's such a less interesting choice.

Turns out, much of what happened was a hallucination of the main character. (YAWN! Things that didn't happen are always less interesting than things that did happen.) The rogue Colonel Konrad you've been hunting, who has been effectively taunting you this whole game? He's dead.

So I'm spending this whole game at the edge of my seat, waiting for this epic confrontation between your character and this awesome rogue soldier. Instead, the game ends with one crazy asshole in a room talking to himself.

Two engaging characters in conflict of any sort (even if they're only arguing about whether cake is better than pie), will always be more interesting than one crazy asshole talking to himself.

But Let's Not Go Overboard

It's a terrific game. It's fun, it's full of awesome little touches, and it brings something unique to the most tired of genres. It feels truly fresh, and I think it's required playing for people who take this design wonk stuff seriously.

Next game, to be written about someday: The Last of Us. You don't think I can go without talking about that one, do you?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Few Fundamental Truths About Game Reviews, So Stop Being So Mad

Always remember: If it makes lots of money, it is perfect and immune to criticism.

To catch you up: There's a game called Grand Theft Auto V. Maybe you've heard of it. Like all games in the series, you commit horrible, violent crimes. Arguably, in V, those crimes tend to be a bit more on the gruesome, appalling scale than in earlier games.

Reviews are coming out. Greg Tito of the Escapist gave the game the shocking, war-crime level rating of 3.5 stars out of 5, saying "only buy Grand Theft Auto V if you're prepared to play as characters with no justifiable motivation for doing awful things to people."

Predictably, their forums exploded into haterage, as a huge portion of gamers are nothing but giant, ambulatory, exposed nerves mainly good for the spraying of spite

So Greg Tito had to back up the largely obvious, expected, self-evident points he made earlier with a long follow-up article. It's worthy reading.

Man, I loves me some good internet drama. It's like fudge. I can eat it all day. Keeps me from working. But ...

oh god why am i trying so tired so tired

A Few Sanity Comments

1. Evaluating the worth of a work of art with a number, a clump of stars, or the positioning of one's thumb is completely arbitrary and useless. We know that, right? Ignore it. You can't judge a work of art with a number. It's not like there's some Art Scale you can put art on and weigh it and say, "This weighs 7.32 Arts, so it's good."

2. The point of a critic is to criticize. Anyone in our developing art form who actually tries to stand up and make real points is worth applauding, even if we don't agree.

3. If you, as a critic, don't ever make a bunch of people angry at you, you're wasting your time. If you're never challenging anyone, why are you bothering? 

4. Also, ProTip: When a carefully reasoned comment makes someone angry, that means you're on the right track. When you are being calm and thoughtful and people still rage at you, it means you hit a nerve that probably needed hitting.

5. As the art form matures, you have to expect that really egregious crap is going to get called out more and more. Sure, you're allowed to make a game that's morally repellent. But realize, as gamers grow up, have kids, and start to lose family members, they’re learning just how funny death isn't. The voices saying, "Why are the biggest, most glorious, most expensive worlds in the game industry being used for such a horrific end?" are only going to get louder.

6. This just makes me appreciate Saints Row IV so much more. Practically all of the comical violence in it is directed against evil, invading aliens or computer simulations. Makes it go down easier for us olds. And, yes, I am plausibly pointing out Saints Row as the sane, mature option, which is how we know that the world has gone mad.

7. A lot of the comments claim everything Greg Tito says is invalid forever because he gave Dragon Age II 5 stars out of 5. One, if you're wrong once, it doesn't mean you can't be right 500 times after that. And, two, read Sanity Comment #1 again. 

8. That Grand Theft Auto V depicts what it does and yet is as popular as it is is very interesting. I think it says something about us as people. And I'm not about to get all liberal and sensitive and say that it's something inherently bad. I think the game addresses less the desire to do wrong and more a deeper, fundamental frustration. Not sure. Just a hunch. Bears more thought.

9. Finally. If we are going to assign numerical values to represent the value of a work of art in a storytelling medium (which we shouldn't, because it's dumb and useless), it is necessary to take the quality of the story into account. I mean, right?

Yeah, I'll probably play GTA V one of these days. For as long as I can stand it, anyway. It sounds like a stunning technical accomplishment, the sort of thing a game designer has to play to keep one's skills current. I just dream of a day when the most technically spectacular games can be played with my kids in the room.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Tale of Anita Sarkeesian, or How Geek Culture Lost Its Mind and Can It Be Gotten Back?

Let the shouting commence!
Due to a combination of burnout and health problems, I haven't been blogging for a while. Now that everyone has forgotten I exist, I am starting again, in order to fix a serious problem: I am still employable in the game industry.

Look. I'm 43 and I have 2 kids. The game industry doesn't want me, and, if it ever does, it'll just be to make me do 80 hour weeks and ruin what's left of my life. So I'm going to solve the problem by saying things that make the game industry think I stink like old fish.

And, if you want to piss off gamers, here is the number one thing you can say: "Women are human beings, and they deserve to be treated with respect."

And no, I'm not about to talk about Penny Arcade. There's a much bigger, more significant ongoing story that's been going on since I started my blogging sabbatical. So let's talk about Anita Sarkeesian!

(If you know this whole story and don't want to wallow in the absurdity once again, just skip to the last section. But I think the tale is surreal enough to merit multiple tellings.)

Anita Who Now?

I really think this story is fascinating, and, despite all the virtual ink that has been spilled on it, there are fresh things to say. So here's some background to the story. It's a good one.

Anita Sarkeesian made videos on YouTube for her channel, Feminist Frequency. It's what you'd expect: Analysis of popular culture from an "Are women in it? How are they portrayed?" kind of perspective.

They were decent videos. A little dry. Some people criticized them for not being up to the LOFTY quality standards of YouTube (chuckle). The standard, young male, testosterone-poisoning, Make Me a Sammich crowd that gets mad whenever women are discussed in any context, tended to come out and shout, but other than that, it was pretty quiet.

Then Sarkeesian did a Kickstarter, to fund a series of videos called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The idea: To prove that women in video games might, get this, not be portrayed in a well-rounded, three-dimensional way (when they are portrayed at all).

When I heard about this Kickstarter, I kind of shrugged, because women being portrayed badly in video games? Duh. Might as well have a Kickstarter to prove the moon exists. But anyone who takes time to call out game designers for crappy, hack storytelling is doing The Lord's Work, so I hoped she did well.

Instead, She Pulled In a Fortune

Turns out, she struck a nerve. As obvious as her conclusion was, a lot of people were thrilled to pony up bread to make some noise about it. And good for them. Her goal was $6000. She pulled in over $150000. Because, it turns out, fixing even an obvious problem involves people making some noise about it.

The Kickstarter was a phenomenal success.

And the testosterone-poisoning crowd LOST THEIR MINDS.

Tales Of Moral Courage In Video Gaming

If you ever have any doubt that nerd culture has some nasty, toxic issues with women, the harassment Anita Sarkeesian received should dispel them entirely. Her Wikipedia page lists all of the abuse she received, but the most infamous example is the anonymous and gruesome Flash game where people could beat her face.

Folks, this is beyond trolling. This is profound psychological damage. This is Invest In a Bulletproof Vest territory. That Sarkeesian persisted in the face of all of this shows her virtual balls are well bigger than mine. I would have hid under the bed and never come out.

This is surreal! It's a Monty Python sketch. And here's the thing! What was she trying to do?

Was the trying to eliminate Twinkies? Cancel My Little Pony? Make some giant James Bond laser and blow up Mount Rushmore? No! She was trying to make some lousy YouTube videos! To prove an obvious thing everyone knows!

(You know how everyone knows it? Because, in every one of the million discussion threads that bring out people to put down Sarkeesian's work, the arguments are always: It's not a problem. It's the creators' right. There's no need to make this video. The production values suck. Women don't spend enough on games to be considered. [WRONG!] Nobody ever says her actual conclusion is wrong. For the same reason there aren't impassioned arguments about whether adding two and two gets you four.)

So the money came in, and, unlike certain other Kickstarters I could mention, the promised product is forthcoming.

Videos That Exist!

As of this writing, three of the videos are out. They're exactly what you would expect. Carefully considered, methodical in their arguments, decently made, a bit dry, with occasional sparks of true brilliance.

I often see guys online saying that her videos are pointless and don't prove anything. This is how I know that they never bothered to, you know, watch them. Don't believe me? Go to this one and skip to 7:40. If anyone has come up with a better display of the tired hackwork that so often passes for video game story-telling, PLEASE send me a link.

One thing you'll note about her video pages is that commenting is disabled. Something that is inexplicably considered a horrible crime by the testosterone crowd. Setting aside that YouTube comments are the most useless way to make an argument about anything anywhere, I think it should be a rule that once the death threats start coming in, you are allowed to start controlling the channels by which people communicate with you. Duh doy.

(You will note, for example, that having YouTube comments disabled has affected my ability to give my opinion not at all.)

Now On To the Main Question

So that's the prologue. Nerd culture, as a whole, engaging in the biggest over-reaction/freakout in the history of freakouts. Whenever these videos are discussed anywhere, go to the comments and read the rage. (Which, you will find, is not unanimous, but not hard to find at all.) This, again, is far beyond mere trolling. Sarkeesian has poked a huge, sensitive nerve in the entire culture.

Now here is the thing, the point, the puzzle, the question at the heart of the whole mess ...

Why are guys so mad about this?

Y U So Mad?

(All nerd-based blog posts are federally required to contain 5% Pony content by weight.)

It's a handful of YouTube videos, saying an obvious thing in a quiet way. Why the rage? Why any rage at all? Why not just go on to the next video?

The obvious reason surely has much to do with this: Humans are naturally loss-averse. In other words, people with privileges (the privilege in this case being young men having video games made to please them and only them) get very angry when those privileges might be taken away. Some people just never learned to share their toys.

This is a lot of that, but I think there's more. I think it's a real mystery, and, as much as it's been discussed, I think it's important to prod it a bit more. (Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it really is that simple. But it's at least worth thinking about, when I'm not going on about esoteric design issues or making fun of the stupid new Star Trek movie that was stupid.)

I have a self-serving reason: my two daughters are some of the biggest nerds in nerdworld, and I want them to grow up in the sort of geek culture where they can say things and have opinions and write games without getting harassment or death threats.

So, if you missed my blog, it's back. I've missed a lot of good stuff to talk about, and this is one issue I want to talk about a lot more. And thank you, Anita Sarkeesian, for tolerating a lot of garbage to say True Things. And hopefully make game stories better. Because it's needed.

Am I unemployable yet?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Go To Bed, Grand Theft Auto. You're Not Drunk Enough.

I've decided to get back into blogging, because not enough people are angry at me. I was going to wait and come up with a careful, well-reasoned article, but I'd rather jump back in with a cheap shot instead.

I've been playing Saint's Row IV and enjoying the heck out of it, because it reminds me of when Grand Theft Auto games were wild and wacky and fun and hadn't yet deluded themselves into thinking they had deep, profound things to say about American society. I was guardedly optimistic about Grand Theft Auto V, until I read this quote from Dan Houser, Rockstar's head writer and VP:

"If GTA IV was a classic New York story, [GTA V] is the endpoint of the American dream."

Yeah. Great. If we're cool, I'm going to go back to flying through the Matrix and shooting alien ships with my Dubstep gun now.

(I was also going to comment about how GTA V kind of lost me when, after 100000 games, they announced a game with three main characters and they STILL won't allow you to play as a woman. But the dialogue in geek culture has degraded to the point where even saying, "Um, women exist." is super-controversial, so I'll just leave that one there.)