Category: Gaming Culture


When I’m watching recent trailers for games like Deus Ex 3 or Dead Space 2 I am both impressed by the visuals and the cinematics, yet somewhat put off by one simple thing: these trailers don’t make me think of a video game. They could be trailers for a movie or TV show–they utilize the same tricks of the trade, the same juxtaposition of brooding monologues or music against a rapidly changing series of scenes, edited together. They often don’t show gameplay. They often use non-game music, or maybe a particularly grandiose track from the game’s score. But they don’t make me think of a video game–as I imagine video games to be.

Gaming has become much more cinematic as technology has evolved, and more power to it. Games look better now, certainly, and there are many truly amazing spectacle moments, such as the Stage Fight in Alan Wake or scaling the destroyed train in Uncharted 2, and these are examples of a great blending of beautiful graphics and Hollywood-esque dramatic flair with engrossing and hard-hitting gameplay. It lets you feel as though you really are doing whatever it is you are doing on screen. But a part of me is victim to that crippling industry curse of nostalgia, and so I wonder at times if games have lost a bit of their identity.

Look at Anamanaguchi.

THAT is the sound of games. Something you could never imagine seeing in a movie or any other medium. An artistic blend of primitive sounds for primitive visuals, yet stellar gameplay. When I hear bands like Crystal Castles, I think of games–when I listen to the soundtrack for Alan Wake, I don’t. Music in games has always been important, but there’s more to a game soundtrack than it just sounding good. When games were stuck in the 16-bit era, games had an identity–every pixel and animation was unique, imitating nothing but previous games, while at the same time invoking unique art styles or cartoons or even attempting to replicate real life. Pixels were a paint all of their own, and talented artists who had no histories to draw upon instead had to craft something truly different, using tools untested and unproven, and the result was a collection of some of the most, if not THE most memorable games of all time.

Look at Megaman. Megaman is one of the oldest and most enduring (if maybe the most overplayed and oversold) franchises in gaming history. Anamanaguchi takes great inspiration from the stage themes for these games, the strange, off-kilter, synthesized Midi tracks that were all they could fit into the cartridges. You take one look at Megaman, any old Megaman, and you know it is a game. You immediately recognize everything a game has: a life bar, side-scrolling, pixel art, Midi music, enemies and power-ups. It’s the absolute quintessential game experience–a test of a gamer’s skill and reflexes as he or she must win against insurmountable odds and forge the adventure forward. The plot relies on the gamer completing the levels–whether the story ends happily is entirely in the hands of the player, and all that transpires on-screen is because of your actions.

This is a video game.

Modern games are not bad, and I don’t want you to think that this is a criticism of modern games in anything more than maybe aesthetics. This is really just me being  nostalgic for a time when games had their own identity–when the medium was unique and vibrant, more than just a simulator or pastiche.

Compare. What tells you this is a game, despite the CG model?

The above screenshot might as well be an actual gameplay shot. Or how about this:

Take away the ammo counter and the nametags, and what is this?

Games have only gotten better over the years. Yes, there’s tons of derivative games on the market and, yes, many would say that the market stifles innovation, but games play better, look better, and generally have better stories and writing. But I can’t help but wonder if the term “video game” really means much nowadays. I wonder if games have an identity anymore. 3-D models are now the norm, but 3-D models don’t invoke the same degree of…I want to say charm, but perhaps the better term is “uniqueness”. Old 3-D graphics, like Silent Hill 1, look horrible in today’s day and age, whereas old NES graphics, like Megaman up above, still hold up, despite their age and the jutting pixels. 2-D has aged incredibly well, all things considered, and it’s nice to see it isn’t completely dead and that pixel art can still be seen even in modern games like Call of Duty: Black Ops. Back in the day, games simply had a look that was wholly and completely their own. Now, that’s less the case.

There are many games that have a distinctive appearance, of course. Many modern Nintendo franchises retain something of their 8 and 16-bit sensibilities even in their more modern offerings–probably because the Wii might as well be a 16-bit console (no no, I kid, Wii games look very nice for 5 years ago). Sonic as well, though god forbid they’ve done everything they can to  make Sonic as anime as possible. For a realistic-looking game, Assassin’s Creed also has a rather distinct visual style, integrated into the story as well by the Animus and the means through which you are actually viewing the past. It’s actually a sterling example of explaining gameplay mechanics in a way that furthers the story and immersion, rather than requiring gamers to ignore it in favor thereof. But the traditional trappings of games are falling by the wayside. Scores are gone from everything but arcade titles or those trying to BE arcade styles, health bars are being replaced by red screens and blood spatters, and music is becoming traditional, utilizing orchestras or heavy guitars and all that business. And it is good, yes.

But a part of me can’t help but sigh a little, as nostalgia creeps into my cynical mind, when I listen to the Scott Pilgrim Videogame soundtrack and I remember how games looked, and how games sounded. I still think it’s good. I still think these older titles hold up in aesthetics and sound, and while I’m not one who goes on about  how older games are much better than current ones (They aren’t, for the most part) I do feel that older games were more…game-like. They had a feel,a  voice, a look all of their own, and of all the casualties of innovation that we’ve shed a tear for, this may be the only one that really strikes me. I don’t want a return to health bars and three lives, score counters or anything like that. I don’t feel the trappings are as necessary to a game’s identity moreso than the feel of the experience is.

Gaming is going through a tough adolescence. It was a prodigal child, ambitious and impressive, full of attitude and vigor, and underneath the corporate manufacturing process, the demographic-fueled imitation industry that grips game development like an infant with a rattle, I feel that there remains a potent lust to make games their own again. Give gaming back its identity, its sense of self. How can we do this without sacrificing variety or innovation? That I don’t know. How can we do this while still pushing graphics engines as far as they can go? I don’t know. What I do know is, there must be a way. Maybe someone can tell me. Maybe someone will make a game that shows me.

For now, I’ll toast my nostalgia and listen to my midi soundtracks and let out a single wistful sigh. Then I’ll plug in Bioshock 2 and see how many Splicers I can get in one Electro-bolt chain.

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Heavy Rain is shit and you are shit for liking it.

There, that’s a way to start off a new year. Happy 2011 everyone! It seems that the general consensus about 2010 was that it was quite awful and so everyone’s looking forward to this year being better, and what better way to improve your year by bitching about game’s journalism and likely black-listing myself from ever having a respectable job with a credible gaming website ever again, but god damn it.

This is not going to be a review for Heavy Rain. Having not literally played the entire game all the way through–having played bits and pieces here and there–since I don’t own a PS3, I’ve only experienced Heavy Rain via a rather informative Let’s Play. This particular LP is a better criticism of the game than anything I could possibly write, illustrating the game’s few strengths and many flaws in a very hands-off manner and I’d recommend anyone still on the fence about buying this pile of shit interactive storytelling experience to watch at least the first four or five videos of the LP to see exactly what you are getting into.

Origami: Waterproof I want to talk about the fact that everybody and their mother fucking loved Heavy Rain. It’s gotten high scores and rave reviews across the board. IGN gave it a 9.0, 1Up awarded it an A+, GameRant 5 stars, and Joystiq said it was one of the top ten games of 2010. Well, damn, with that degree of praise, it must be good, right? Surely it couldn’t actually by a mysoginistic cliched piece of crap with poor writing, enormous plot holes, absolutely horrid voice acting, and character and facial animations that look like somebody with Downs syndrome tried to make clay figurines. Except that it is. It’s ludicrous–seriously, go and watch that Let’s Play if you have never played this game and tell me that this game isn’t a series of cliched scenes bodily ripped out of a dozen different Hollywood movies and strung together with Quick Time Events and bullshit. There’s a character who exists solely to be sexually objectified, plot twists that make no sense, plot threads that are abruptly abandoned, and across the board you see complete ignorance as to how actual law enforcement officers operate, how psychiatry is practiced in the United States, and generally how human beings actually interact with each other.

But I’m just a shithead with a blog. What’s my opinion matter? Let’s take a look at what the professionals have to say:

IGN: “Rather than taking out the bad guy right then, you might get knocked down but get another chance right after that. Miss too many and the bad guy might get away, but like I said, the story will continue on, no matter the result. In other instances, these options (as there is often more than one button available to you at any one time) will decide what a character says, how they react to something, what you interact with or so on and so forth.

The result is that although you’re still matching button prompts, Heavy Rain feels much more like you’re choosing and influencing what happens in the game, rather than simply reacting to it.”

This is talking about how  there’s no “game over” in Heavy Rain, nor indeed, any permenant fail state at all. Even if you fuck up the QTE’s, the game continues on, and you have to live with your fuck-up, and every action has far-reaching consequences. Except that they don’t. To IGN reviewer Chris Roper’s credit, you have no real idea that this isn’t true just playing through the game normally. It’s been said by the game’s fruitbat designer David Cage that this game should only be played once. Just once–no replays, no going back and trying a different route, just once, so as to maximize your emotional investment in the game. Really, though, the reason he says this is because, for pretty much the first half of the game, your actions have no consequences at all. Missing vital clues at a crime scene just results in you being given those clues an hour later. Abandon a woman to be beaten half-to-death and she still comes to your aid later in the game. It gets worse than that: let a suspect escape you? Doesn’t matter, his plot thread is dropped immediately afterwards. Kill a man thanks to an itchy trigger finger or let him live? Doesn’t matter! You get one line of dialogue, maybe a slightly different read on the next scene, and that’s all.

This game is painfully linear, despite its pretensions to the contrary, and in execution it plays out much the same as Yahtzee describes: The “best” ending is so happy and complete that everything else just feels like a nonstandard game over. You have a game lauded on choices having meaning, but choices in this game have almost NO meaning at all, and the ones that do are painfully obvious as such and almost impossible to do “wrong”–unless you suck at inputting thumb-breaking button combinations.

From the same review:

“Each of the four, main playable characters is interesting, developed well and important to the story. The way that everything comes together and winds up feeding into the story progression is nothing short of fantastic. Games have come pretty far in terms of how well stories are told and the level of writing quality that some of them are able to achieve, but Heavy Rain is easily amongst the best that’s ever been put onto a disc. Were this filmed as a Hollywood picture, it would perfectly fit the body of work of someone like Martin Scorsese or David Fincher.”

This statement is an insult to Scorsese or Fincher. It would almost be an insult to Michael Bay. But we’ll come back to this in a second, as it continues:

“Now, that doesn’t mean that the story is told flawlessly. Like I said at the start of this review, the first couple hours are a little slow. As I’ve mentioned in previous coverage for Heavy Rain, this is largely due to the fact that, with a film, you’re able to edit out dull bits like walking down stairs or going from the kitchen to the living room. The exposition and character development that happens in these opening chapters wind up being very important to what happens later, but the pacing is a little on the sluggish side. And, when some of the first things that you’re able to do include drinking orange juice and taking a shower, it may seem like things will get lost in unimportant actions and details of everyday life.”

Yes, so this narrative, comparable to the director of fucking Goodfellas, includes such important details as peeing in any available toilet, showering, drinking juice, and shaving. Because that’s exactly the best way to get me engaged in a story–by letting me piss all over it. The problem here is that this review gives you the mistaken notion that there is character development at the beginning of this game–a much-ridiculed and rightly so beginning that cements that “your choices matter” by having you do absolutely nothing of consequence and then losing your son without any ability to save him or, indeed, any ability to influence the plot at all. The “character” development is: Ethan Mars is happy. He is an architect. It is his son’s birthday. He plays with his sons. They go to the mall. One son runs away. Despite all his efforts, Ethan loses him in a crowd. Ethan finds his son. His son is hit by a car going five miles per hour and dies. Ethan is sad. Two years go by. Ethan is sad.”

There’s no character development at all in this game. Ethan’s motivations are never explored, his thoughts and feelings are thoroughly single-minded: he is always trying to save his son and when he isn’t saving his son he is either happy or sad, and that’s the only defining trait he has. Considering he is more or less the protagonist of the game, my only guess is that they wanted to make him a tabula rasa so the player could project him or herself onto him, but that falls flat because Ethan is a complete moron whose actions do not accurately mimic any sensible person’s actions. Much of the drama in the plot relies on Ethan–and basically every other major character–being as stupid as possible, showcasing not even the slightest degree of common sense towards their situation. On top of that, Ethan is a character with one mystery–blackouts that cause him to wake up on some street hours later holding a piece of origami in his hands, with no memory of what he did in the intervening time–that is never actually explained. So if he is a character for the gamer to project upon, he fails completely because his actions are pre-determined ahead of time and all you, the player, can do is steer him in one direction or the other.

This is a pretty lengthy post, so I’m going to stop here. Tune in tomorrow when I finish up this rant and maybe actually have a point to it all! Thanks for reading.

Ef Pee Ess

Let’s talk about the humble First Person Shooter genre. Boy, there’s an enduring game genre. Ever since Wolfenstein 3-D first handed us a pixellated pistol and had us kill Nazis for fun and profit, gamers have time and time again gotten behind the barrel of their favorite rifle to make a nameless bad guy a little holier than thou.

I like FPSes. There’s a simplicity to them–point, shoot, dodge–that makes just about any given FPS easy to pick up and play, and the fun is right there in the title–shooter. Who doesn’t like shooting things? And what about the novel concept of the first person at all? Beyond the world of literature, the first person perspective has been ignored by most entertainment mediums, for a variety of reasons–in movies, it makes you dizzy, it’s hard to film. In comics you COULD do it, but why would you? It’s far more dramatic to have two superheroes visibly punching each other than to have just one giant fist filling a panel. But games? There’s a different story. It’s instant immersion–you and I see the world through the first person every moment of every day, and it’s a natural transition from the real world to the digital one as soon as you pick up the controller.

An image for the smudgy pixel history books.

But it’s not exactly fresh discourse to say that FPSes have grown just a tad bit…stale. I mean, how many times can you shoot an alien with a plasma rifle, or snipe a sneaky Kraut from atop a clocktower 100 yards away before you start to get a sense of deja vu? The FPS genre is very generational–each gaming generation, a new FPS introduces a fresh, innovative mechanic that captures the hearts and minds of gamers, and then for the next three years every other game studio tries to emulate that mechanic until it has been run into the ground like Mufasa.

It started getting really bad around the Halo years. Now, Halo was a great game–it wasn’t exactly innovative, but it took a variety of different gameplay mechanics from a bunch of other shooters and combined them in a slick package with a fun story and co-op so that you and your friends can do more than just shoot each other. It popularized the shield mechanic, limited weapon inventories, and grenade-heavy combat scenarios against multiple, varied, and deadly intelligent enemies. It was lauded for the ground it broke and heaped with awards and awards. So how did the game’s industry respond?

They ripped it off. Boom! Space Marines everywhere! Limited weapons everywhere! Dodgy vehicle sections everywhere! A female voice in your ear telling you where to go! Bang, boom, and only the World War II shooters–who have been stuck in their own inescapable quagmire since the mists of time were still fresh upon this earth–were spared from the unending rush to be Halo–or to beat Halo. Problem is, everyone wanted to beat Halo at its own game, ignoring completely the reason why Halo was so popular–not because it had space marines or grenades or blue aliens, but because it was something new.

Remember when this was new?

Then Halo 2 came along, changed the formula even more (regenerating health! Smarter enemies! Not shit level design! Bigger storyline!) and shit went bananas. I’d argue that we’re STILL ripping off Halo 2, almost unavoidable at this point when you start making a game about space marines.  Everything was basically “Halo with X Gimmick” and very few of them were particularly good. Now, though, we stopped ripping off Halo because a new kid came to town and kicked Halo in the balls, took his lunch money, and then shock-tortured him with a car battery.

Of course, I’m talking about COD.

It's starting to look...

No, wait, wrong one. I meant Call of Duty–specifically, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. While the Call of Duty franchise has always been a somewhat above-average World War 2 shooter franchise (never seen that one before) doomed to the comfortable quiet mediocrity that has afflicted the World War II shooter genre (and by Christ, am I the only one who is bothered that that is an actual genre?) and it would have remained as such if not for the fact that, in a stroke of utter brilliance, Treyarch decided to hand development over to a studio called Infinity Ward, who promptly dropped the played out WWII trappings, set the game in present day, and created a tense, powerfully cinematic, poignant and topical first person experience. So good was Modern Warfare that its sequel, cementing it as an official spin-off series, Modern Warfare 2 was like a nuclear bomb made out of money, exploding into millions and millions of dollars and leaving the poor bastards stuck in ground zero a slow and painful death of ten thousand papercuts.

And thus…you may have guessed it…everyone ripped it off. It’s kind of a vicious cycle, isn’t it? A camo-clad, alien Ouroburos, the genre continues to churn out derivative and samey shooters, each one like a fat man at a buffet, desperate to get all the fresh chicken wings before they all go cold, heedless of the flecks of hot sauce staining his shirt, dribbling down his triple chins, splashing everywhere. Let’s keep pumping this shit out, because people buy them. And they will. And you have. Remember the idea of an economic vote? Y’know, where the games you decide to buy determine what games will be made? Yeah, well, you fuckers love shooting things and apparantly you love shooting things the exact same way. We’ve had Call of Duty with Vehicles, Call of Duty with Dust, Call of Duty with Vehicles and Dust, Call of Duty in a Jungle, Call of Duty in my Pants–it’s unending!

...so very very...

And when it isn’t Call of Duty, it’s Halo! Still! Halo evolved combat in 2001–almost ten years ago, and we are still playing it. I understand why of course–there’s many reasons, chief amongst them I would say is the accessibility as well as the emphasis on multiplayer over single-player. FPS games basically thrive off their competitive (or occasionally cooperative) play, and when a formula works, folks don’t seem to want to change it. Half the people who contributed to the 55  million Modern Warfare 2 units sold are the kinds of gamers who only play first person shooters anyway. They’re the ones who want a simple, familiar, pick-up and play experience so they can shoot people online for hours on end. It’s a kind of sad reality, especially considering just how innovative FPS games can be.

Look at Metroid Prime. Or Half Life 2. Mirror’s Edge, Vampire: The Masquerade, Fallout 3–also first person, mostly shooters. But each is radically different from each other, and from the mainstays of the genre–Metroid focuses on platforming and exploration, Half-Life on story and physics, Mirror’s Edge on falling off tall buildings a lot, Fallout on the 1950’s. The first person perspective opens up as of yet untouched, fertile avenues for storytelling and gameplay. The idea, the concept of not just experiencing events through an avatar, but through your own literal two eyes is incredibly alluring, and there’s still so much to be done. The shooter genre has fallen behind even the most conservative gaming genres, and while the smart developers have taken the FP part of FPS to new and exciting places, the S remains stuck in 1944, still trying to liberate France.

...familiar.

So what can we do? Simple. Stop it. Stop buying this shit. Stop accepting the bare minimum–you have Modern Warfare, you have it. Don’t pretend like you don’t, everybody does. If you want it, you have it–why buy the same game again and again and again? Wake up and smell the ashes! We live in a world of easy information, where we can compare and contrast anything and everything, where we can be as informed about what we buy and consume as we care to. Does nobody care? Does nobody care that one of gaming’s cornerstones–one of the most enduring and historic gaming genre in the history of the medium–is also one of the most stagnant, most bereft of creativity, thought or innovation? Who is going to be the first person to shoot these lazy games in the kneecaps and shake them until they give you something new and unique? Will it be you?

Or do you just not care?

Gaming is more than just games.

Well, okay, no it isn’t, but you need people to play games in order to fund the industry and, chances are, you’ll want people to talk about games, people to follow gaming sites and keep eyes on the bigger companies and gossip and rage on the Internet about whether it’s Aeris or Aerith. Somewhere in this churning sea of discordant bellowing and autistic obsession emerged what we know as “gaming culture”.

And now it’s today. Sites like 1up sit comfortably atop the gaming media mountain, Yahtzee makes angry reviews to the enjoyment of the Internet, SomethingAwful spawns Let’s Plays like tadpoles in stagnant water, and LordKat plays games…until he wins.

Behold the face of gaming.

Until We Win is a remarkably simple show–basically a simplified video walkthrough of games old enough and hard enough to warrant one. It isn’t in-depth or comprehensive, but it’s sufficiently entertaining and as educational as it can be. LordKat–or Jason Pullara, whichever you prefer–doesn’t do a lot of sketches or dress up in costumes like many of his contemporaries over at That Guy With the Glasses which is almost a shame, since he’s got a very sharp sense of black humor, as many of his crossover videos will display. But he doesn’t need to sing and dance to earn our coppers. That’s not what we watch him for.

Pullara’s website is host to a few of his other projects, and he’s hopped onto the incredibly popular streaming bandwagon as well, often streaming live playthroughs of games or podcasts or videologs. I’ve not really had the time to sit down and listen to a full podcast, though he has one called This Week in Games that’s really quite good. It’s a lot of industry talk and, like most semi-professional podcasts, goes on for quite a while. If you are into industry talk and have a fixation for Brooklyn accents, you may very well find some good listening there. It and many more–such as LordKat Eats, where he bravely stuffs himself with horrifying exotic foods like the fat bastard he is–make up an already quite sizeable backlog of videos, and all of them make for good watching. He also plays D&D or something.

I like Pullara because, unlike many web shows out there, he’s not really reviewing or commenting on anything. He has opinions which sometimes slip into his UWW videos, but for the most part his only interest is the challenge–he yearns for it. You can see his eyes light up whenever he’s about to dig into a particularly hard game, and he has bested–legitimately, according to him and those who know him–games that even professional game critics have balked at. Fuck me, he beat the bullet hell Silver Surfer for crying out loud!

Remember that one blog post I did about the different types of gamer? Pullara, if his show’s name isn’t indication enough, seems clearly a type-A gamer. He’s in it for the challenge–he wants to break the game mechanics over his knee, wrestle the system to the ground and feast on its digitized blood. Old-school tricks that all of us had to sharpen our thumbs on at some point–memorization, quick reflexes, pattern recognition and just plain, simple luck–sit at the top of his arsenal and it’s pretty epic to behold him conquering the hardest games there’ve ever been.

The show isn’t perfect, mind. He repeats a lot of footage (which he uses an emulator and savestates to get, though he says that he always beats the game legitimately beforehand) and it only occasionally follows what he’s saying. He’ll describe challenges or obstacles or situations that you’d expect to see on screen, but don’t. It has to be a stylistic thing too, since he seems to get footage from the whole of any game he plays, so I don’t know what his excuse is. Some episodes as well seem a little questionable–he doesn’t always play Nintendo Hard games, and sometimes seems to give himself a break between particularly tough games.

But those are pretty minor complaints. I’ve given you the links–you should check out his stuff. First and foremost because it’s good, secondly because it’s entertaining, and thirdly because I say so. Just…be careful about any videos that mention strawberries. You have been fucking warned.

Rated T for Titties

Hey guys! Wow, it’s been a long time since my last post. I apologize–classes have started up and I had to do lots of grown up stuff like find a job and take care of an apartment, so I had no time to ramble about video games on the internet. Still, to you, my small but loveable fanbase, I feel as though I’ve let you down. Let me make it up to you.

…a little disturbing, isn’t it? I understand that we have fancy things like jiggle physics and that we may be tempted to give our lovely video game ladies some more bounce, but one doesn’t need to reduce the female breast to a rubber ball surgically grafted to a 90-pound frame.

The female breast is actually something quite familiar to gamers–an enduring image associating with changing times and technologies. With every console generation we have had games that set out with one singular purpose–to render the female body as lovingly as possible. From Lara Croft to Ninja Gaiden’s Rachel, the female anatomy is almost always the very first object to be rendered by a next-gen console, and that’s kind of my problem with it. That it’s an object.

Sex sells. We all know this. In gaming, however, sex doesn’t just sell–it practically drives the market. It’s no big surprise to anyone that women are not particularly well-treated within the context of gaming. When they aren’t being paraded around in tight, skimpy, or otherwise ludicrous outfits then they’re being snatched and held captive atop some distant tower, awaiting our rescue. Neither depicti0n is particularly flattering, and anyone who is confused as to why there are significantly fewer female gamers compared to male ones needs only to play Bayonetta.

I mean, Jesus Christ, what the hell is up with her legs? This is anatomy gone horribly wrong!

And you know what? There isn’t really anything being done about it. There’s no particularly loud outcry demanding that gaming stop representing women as objects and try to at least provide some veneer of dignity to the fairer sex. While gaming journalism calls it out when it sees it, most reviewers seem to take it in stride, or at least see no overarching problem with it. Maybe once we could chalk it up to gaming being an “adolescent” medium, young and still allowed to waste its resources on silly things like boobs.

Except now it doesn’t seem so silly. We live in fairly enlightened times–and I think we’re smart enough as consumers to know when we’re being pandered to. Games like Wet or X-Blades exist solely to cater to sex-starved shut-ins desperate for any sort of virtual love they can find, because real love has abandoned them. Sadly, these developers seem to assume that the mass gaming market falls under this unfortunate description, and you know what? We’re not really all that offended at the suggestion. In gaming, you have trade conventions marked with B-list models strutting the floor in flimsy cosplay efforts just to drive up interest in whatever schlocky, cut-and-dry, bland simulation that company happens to be peddling that day.

Yeah, that’s right. I don’t like E3 Booth Babes. I don’t like the notion that a supposedly journalistic conference–a literal trade show, where writers and experts on a technology (in this case gaming technology) gather to see what major companies have planned for the year ahead–is treated like a Vegas gala, complete with half-naked women traipsing around trying to grab as much attention to their employers as they can. Games with big marketing departments, who can afford the most lavish parties and most gorgeous models get the largest write-ups in the big magazines and websites, regardless of whether the product they are offering is at all newsworthy!

E3 was gutted because of this Caligula-esque hedonistic facade, but that lasted what, a year? Maybe two? I won letter of the month from EGM commenting on how I felt this was a very good thing. And what happened? E3 came “back”, resumed it’s regular circus show, and is scarcely even a credible tradeshow anymore.  The Tokyo Game Show and especially PAX have completely eclipsed the once gargantuan E3, and we’re all the better for it.

This is all game developers think you really care about.

I don’t really consider myself a feminist. I laugh at too many inappropriate jokes for that sort of moniker. That being said, the treatment of women in gaming is absolutely abhorrent. It’s reminiscient of comic books, really. Both comics and games are considered a “male-dominated” medium, and thus they put out a product that not only alienates any potential female customers, but actually drives them away with shameless and insulting imagery while promoting shallow, insubstantial products loaded with nothing more than innuendo and blatant gratification. Comics is, I think, slowly turning away from this sort of disparaging imagery–writers like Gail Simone are certainly doing their best to move their medium away from that, and I’d like to see something similar happen in gaming.

The problem here is that the mainstream gaming audience doesn’t seem to care. Why aren’t we indignant that developers think so little of us? Why aren’t we calling them out on their sexist bullshit? Is it really enough to slap a pair of tits on the cover of a game to get sales? Why do developers need to resort to such petty sales tricks to get the numbers they need? It seems odd to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What do you think of the portrayal of women in the gaming media? More importantly, why do you think they’re portrayed in such a way? I wanna know what you think.

Sorry again for the late update. I’ll be moving to a more regular schedule from now on.

Standing in for the Internet is me. I saw it, yes, and if 1up.com is allowed to write a review about it, then so am I.

So, Scott Pilgrim. What did I think?

I liked it. I think it was well-made, and I think it was a good adaptation. I feel a little disappointed, but I can’t really determine what by. I think, honestly, I was too distracted as I watched it by the subtle changes to the pacing of the comics–the movie doesn’t follow the manga’s order of events, but it generally fits all the events in there. It’s like clever reediting of the comic, and I approve–but it was distracting for most of the film.

Then I had to get used to the casting. I never fully bought into Michael Cera as Scott, but he does well here. He’s got enough of Scott’s attributes that it doesn’t seem like he’s derailing the character in anyway. He’s Scott–but he’s not necessarilly the one you imagined.

I derail myself slightly to discuss something I read in Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” textbook. In it, he discusses realistically drawn comics and cartoons. Realistic comics can show off more detail in terms of characters and settings, but cartoons get something special. The more simple the drawing, the more the reader imparts their own imagination into it. So, a cartoon smiley looks however you want it to–your mind constructs an image for it, rather than have an image given to it. So, Scott Pilgrim is well known for its distinctive, manga-esque, cartoony style. People get upset about the casting because no actor could ever match what they’d seen in their mind’s eye. The way the characters are interpreted by the reader/audience is unique to every individual reader’s preferences. Scott’s lines, his attitude, his tone and type of voice, his physical appearance are all generated by the reader’s mind, and as such, may not reflect either what the author intended the character to be or how others see the character. Edgar Wright must have taken this into account, and probably just decided to do how HE envisioned the Scott Pilgrim universe to be. No cast could ever cater to everyone’s unique tastes, and with that in mind, the movie’s cast is quite solid.

Everyone gives an energetic performance, the pacing and chemistry between characters is generally pretty good. The movie’s overabundance of style leads to some conversations sounding stilted or forced if only because the actors are also reacting to strange events happening around them, or else are making a pose or performing an action that requires a lot of concentration. Cera’s Scott is definitely not a rehash of his earlier characters–the similarities are there, but they are more token than anything else. Cera does his best to embody Scott’s doofy sort of simplicity and it comes across well, even if it…well, I don’t know. In the end, I still don’t fully buy Cera as Scott. I don’t think it’s any fault of the actor, but I do think it was a bad casting. I can’t imagine who could do Scott to be honest. Maybe a young Will Ferrell. My friend suggested that to me one day and I laughed, at first, but it made sense. Ferrell’s so damned flexible and emotive, capable of hitting highs and lows quickly and effortlessly–if only he was twenty years younger and didn’t have curly hair he could absolutely play Scott. But that’s a digression.

The movie is definitely all about its action sequences. At least half are completely different from what was seen in the comics–which is an added treat for the theater audience. We get much more kung-fu, and crazy-awesome sound effects bounding around everywhere. The style is cool, the comedy is present, and there’s always a rockin’ sound track to accompany it all. Best of all, Sex Bob-Omb, the band Scott is in, is brought to life vividly; leading us into the opening credits and accompanying us throughout the movie. The band holds the movie together as a set piece, a traveling bit of familiarity and fun to mesh all of these scenes together. The music is stellar, fast and loud and crazy as hell, both funny and foot-tappingly strong. The band members grow on you immensely as well.

The supporting cast is done really well. Gorgeous Anna Kendrick plays Scott’s little sister pitch-perfect. Kieran Culkin is really good as Wallace too–he has that sleazy, yet charming sort of aloofness, and probably remains one of the better cast characters. Knives Chau, a very important character, is also very well done. Newcomer Ellen Wong gets the spazzy, obsessive nature of the character as well as her determined, stoic side, and she manages to steal the show in many a scene, though, like in the comics, Knives is a character that starts to grate on you, and the best part of her subplot–her father trying to cut Scott in half for a whole volume–is sadly not in the movie.

A lot was cut, mostly for the better–the movie is overloaded with conversations as it is, so a lot of the character-developing filler was left out. Sadly, most of the Envy Adams chapter got removed as well. She shows up and plays her part and gets a few good scenes, but she’s scarcely more than window dressing compared to the comics. I feel they could have left some of the flashbacks to Scott’s past–if not kept all of them–and not lost too many people in the audience. They really develop Scott, which is important because he’s kind of a dick. He’s called out on it many a time in this movie and in the books, but you really feel for him once you know a little about where he came from and what he’s gone through.

Oh, and of course, the movie is [i]loaded[/i] with video game references. The screen is awash with bleeps and bloops, eight bit numbers, all sorts of stuff. The pop culture overload is embraced whole-heartedly. Indeed, this movie gets that probably best of all, able to bring sound and motion to what were otherwise just throwaway remarks. Most noticeable is a part where Scott mentions he can play the bass line from Final Fantasy II and then just starts strumming away. Most of the references were expanded upon in this way, which makes for another nice treat to the movie public.

Having seen it once and am now familiar with the way the movie goes, I think I’ll enjoy it much more the second time I see it. It’s definitely worth catching in theaters and grabbing on DVD–or Blu-Ray preferably. It’s very fun, certainly on par with Kick-Ass.

Plus, y’know, it’s Scott Pilgrim: the movie. Are you really NOT gonna want to see it?

So, I’ve been listening to the Decemberists lately–and by lately I mean “replaying every album they have over and over again for the past four days” and I think it’s making me sick. I’ve stopped eating meat, I’m growing a big bush beard, and I found a scarf in my closet, along with all natural, 100% hemp clothing and…and even right now I feel…pretentious…and…and finicky and…AAARGGGH!

Hello, I’m the MidiMaestro, and I’ve now taken over this insipid video game blog to educate you plebeians about proper culture. None of these blips and bloops, these synthesized pseudo-sound effects to accompany your silly digital simulations–I’m here to talk about REAL culture, REAL music. None of this mind-numbing dreck that takes a sophisticated mind and reduces it to a liquified quivering mess.

Which brings us nicely to the Decemberists. The Decemberists, a Portland-based folk-rock band are, of course, a Bad Band. Now, you insipid sheep who think that Kanye West and My Chemical Romance are the epitome of culture and sophistication may be confused by what this means, because your infantile minds are incapable of grasping the graceful elegance of true culture, so I’ll explain. A Bad Band is a band that fails to do what it should do. The Decemberists are a bad band because they are a fusion of folk and rock who utilize rousing ballads about sailors and whales and an alarming amount of rape to express their sound. With their doughy faces and their big buttons and their heavy coats and their enormous hard-on for any word or phrase that is at least 80 years out of date, they smack of pretentiousness whilst remaining devoid of any real…real…AAARGH!

I can’t do this, I’m not snobbish enough. I love the Decemberists. I love every silly lyric and every rousing sea shanty ballad. I love their ersatz war songs, their twisted love songs, their heavy, intricate and obscure vocabulary. Sure, I can’t disagree with such scathing critiques as this Something Awful article, though I’d say it’s just a little unfair, but y’know what? They sound nice, and sometimes, very rarely, that can be enough for me.

The face of Rock and Roll, ladies and gentleman

Actually, let’s discuss appearances. It’s cripplingly difficult at times to try and justify the artistic merit of video games, mostly because not everyone can agree on what exactly qualifies a particular piece of work as “art”. Everyone’s favorite gaming critic, Yahtzee Croshaw (more famous for those ever-so-entertaining Zero Punctuation videos) remains one of the biggest defenders of gaming’s artistic credibility, assisted by his incredibly broad definition of just what art is. By Yahtzee’s definition, spelled out here, essentially defines Art as anything that inspires an emotional response (emotional attachment, he says). It’s a fair and fine definition, slightly less broad than TVTropes’ “everything ever written, filmed, drawn or shat upon is art and deserves its own page and twenty bazillion examples yes including gay fanfiction”.

The key to Yahtzee’s little article isn’t the definition of art he subscribes to, but rather his statement that art is “subjective” and nobody can agree on what that means. Personally, I think art is something that challenges you to think, that offers valid social critique and commentary, and/or touches you in some way, inspiring a powerful emotional response. See? Yahtzee’s definition is there and I just added to it. Problem is, games are such a new and unique medium, even twenty years later, that we still haven’t quite figured out what to do with them, and how to utilize them in an artful way.

Games are still rigidly trying to recreate movies, trying to make us cry using the same tricks of the trade that films do. This is, of course, changing–Modern Warfare has one of the most heart-wrenching finales I’ve ever seen in a game because it chooses to play out the final, tragic scene not in a non-interactive cutscene, but rather as part of the regular game experience. You get to lay there, paralyzed, able to look around but helpless to stop the horrible things happening around you, but in the end, you are still in control, and the final actions of the game are yours to deliver. To this day, I still hold that the climax of Modern Warfare is one of the finest in gaming, because it does what a game does, but still makes you feel.

But here’s the thing–it isn’t that hard to make a person cry. I mean, I could post a picture of a baby seal getting clubbed and 50% of you would burst into tears. Emotion is pliable, easily manipulated. If inspiring an emotional response is the prerequisite for something to be considered “art”, then I argue that true art has to step beyond that. It can’t simply be trying to make the audience feel–it has to be an expression of the artist’s feelings and, more importantly than that, it has to have a message. Maybe not a moral–but at the end of the experience, you should be able to look back and say “Ah, I see. My actions here have taught me X.”

See? Art! (Note: I do not condone the clubbing of baby seals and oh god I think I'm going to go cry now)

I don’t see that as often as I think we should. It does exist, of course–games like Persona 4, Fallout 3, Phantom Brave (though you may kill yourself out sheer despair before learning this game’s lesson) have morals and messages built into their narratives, and the first two actually tie their message into the gameplay itself, but…well, I guess what I’m getting at is, where are the protest games? Where are the games that make a political statement, that demand revolution and change, that inspire controversy beyond just “oh it is corrupting the children”? Where’s the game where you play a closeted homosexual suffering prejudice and intolerance in a society that claims itself to be a bastion of acceptance and freedom? Where’s the game where you are a poor, uneducated Afghani boy who has to join a sadistic terrorist organization or watch your family die? Where’s the game where you play a corrupt politician who casually subverts the desires of his own constituents whilst crafting broader and better lies to keep them placated?

In 1979, Pink Floyd released the Wall and it blew everyone’s fucking mind. Subversive, intricate, full of social, emotional, and philosophical impact wrapped around trippy melodies and satire-ridden lyrics, the Wall remains in my mind–and the mind of many–as one of the best albums of all time, and certainly one of the best pieces of social commentary ever made. And don’t get me started on Bob Dylan–he managed an entire career of protest songs in just three years, and then found drugs and later Jesus. MY point is, where is video gaming’s “The Wall”? Where’s our Bob Dylan?

The game would force you to eat your meat or you won't get any pudding. Then you have to jump on the Hydra's back.

I’ve seen games that made me cry. I’ve seen games that made me feel. I don’t doubt games can pass as art, but can games inspire revolutions? Can games unify people, bring us out of our apathetic ignorance to raise our skinny arms to the sky and scream for the walls to come tumbling down? Why is it that gaming hasn’t tried to spark a revolution? Maybe it’s because we don’t have as big an indie gaming scene as we should. Maybe games are too expensive to make, and have too much corporate oversight. Maybe because there isn’t a game developer with the balls to actually make a game that isn’t “shoot bad guys til you when”. Maybe because gamers are too finicky to accept anything that challenges them. Maybe we’ve all grown stupid and complacent. Maybe we don’t believe in anything anymore.

I don’t have any answer for it. Twenty years old, gaming is still in its awkward adolescence. It hasn’t found a battle to fight yet, a flag to fly. Maybe it never will–maybe gaming is meant to remain a simple distraction, a means of escaping the doldrums of our lives. Maybe gaming shouldn’t try to tackle real world issues. I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you have any. But for me? I’d like to see it. I’d like to see games that try and confront issues that we refuse to talk about. I’d like a game to force me to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, just to show me what it’s like.

Is that too much to hope for? Well, I suppose I can just keep listening to the Decemberists. They’re playing a song about drowning children now. I don’t know what lesson it teaches, but it sure sounds nice.

A Winner is You

There’s a lot of reasons why we play games. Some do it for the competition–a game is a contest between two players to determine whose skill is superior. Some do it for the distraction–all they want from a game is a simple amusement, a time-waster. Others still play a game for the immersion–for the ability to enter a virtual world and perform great feats therein.

Most, though, play games to win.

Victory

The carpal tunnel was totally worth this little screen.

This may be a bold statement, but I think that a game is only a game if you can win it. Every game has a goal–from board games to tabletop RPGs. There’s a “victory condition”. The games rules and the manner in which it is played exist to facilitate the fulfillment of this goal, or else increase the difficulty in which the goal can be achieved.

This means, for those paying attention, that I don’t classify Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games as actual, well, games. Yes, the word “game” is there in the title, but they aren’t really games-they are exercises. It’s like playing basketball by yourself–yes, you are “playing” basketball, but without another person it is not a “game”. A game in and of itself indicates a sport, a contest of some kind–either between you and another person or you and a computer. If you can’t “win”, then it isn’t a “game”.

The drive to win is at the very core of gaming. Back before there was any semblance of story, when graphics were poorly rendered, incomprehensible pixels, the only reason any of us had to play games was to win. Sometimes victory meant getting the highest score, sometimes it meant reaching the end of the screen or beating all the bad guys. Then victory meant rescuing the princess, getting the Tri-Force, beating Mother Brain, saving the world.

High Score!

Even now, even as gaming has become ten times more complex, with flashier graphics, intricate storylines, and more varied game modes and characters, oftentimes the basic goal is still the same–win. It’s no longer the only goal–games like Red Dead Redemption and Fallout 3 have victory conditions and end games, yes–but that’s hardly the point. These games exist to provide immersion, to have the player enjoy simply reveling in their virtual world.

The growing complexity of games, and the growth of immersion-based titles has developed a sort of schism between gamers. You have gamers who play games solely for the sake of victory–completionists, high score junkies, leaderboard competitors. Gamers who consider trophies and achievements to be the ultimate reward at the end of a gaming session. On the other end of the spectrum you have gamers who are in it for the escape, for the context–gamers who care why they are running to the left, who the princess at the end of the castle is, and how they got there. They don’t care about getting 100% of the game finished, getting the high score, or min/maxing their character until they’ve completely broken the game engine and can annihilate the final boss in three hits. Like with the Kinsey Scale, most gamers fall somewhere in the middle of these two camps, with different genres appealing to different fans.

In my mind, there’s little better illustration of these two types of gamers than in Gabe and Tycho, the creators/main characters of the popular gaming webcomic Penny Arcade. Gabe is type A–the scorehound, victory-hungry win-at-all costs, while Tycho is the more introspective one, who cares more about context and story and characters and all that–the type B. This is illustrated perfectly in this comic:

Gabe is in the yellow shirt, Tycho in blue

Gaming culture is becoming more and more diversified, yet some things I feel remain cornerstones of the very appeal of games. Even as they grow and develop as an artform, games remain at their core contests–tests of skill, where the player’s primary obligation and only assumed investment is the desire to win. This is why games can be too easy or too hard–both extremes make achieving that victory condition either unsatisfying or near-impossible, thus eliminating the gamer’s investment.

Gameplay and story in video games have long been segregated, initially due to technical limitations, later due to stylistic choice and difficulty in balancing the two. A good game manages to make the actions that the player undertakes–the steps and actual “playing” of the game impact and shape the story, whereas a bad–or perhaps, for lack of a better term, lesser–game offers the player no control at all, making gameplay almost separate from the context and actions in the games narrative. Role Playing Games, especially Japanese RPGs, are especially guilty of this, with most modern ones (like the utterly abysmal Final Fantasy XIII) not even giving the player the ability to give a main character a name.

This segregation mirrors the dichotomy between the two types of gamers–a dichotomy which I feel can and should be bridged. Like any art form, gaming culture is a mirror of its most popular and influential examples. As gameplay enters into a new age, and as we experiment with things like motion controls and cameras in our search for the next big innovation, I think it should be prominent in every game developer’s mind what kind of gamers they are appealing to, and how they can. It may not be possible to please everyone, sure. Yet with a little creativity, a little innovation, we can see games that appeal to both sets of gamers–where the “high score” is the conclusion of the story, where the narrative is the gameplay. We’ve come close, a few times–but we’re still not there yet. But hey–gaming is still a young medium. There’s plenty of time left–and I think gamers everywhere can get behind the idea of a game for everyone, can’t they?

I’m curious to know what you think. Send me a tweet @8bitscholar or an email at 8bitscholar@gmail.com. I’d be curious to know what other types of gamers you think are out there, and what distinguishes them from each other–as well as what kinds of games might have wider appeal to these different groups. I’m eager to hear your thoughts!