A presentation Maddy Myers gave in September at AlterConf 2014 went up on YouTube just a week ago. It's titled "The Objectivity Myth" and Myers talks about the need for gonzo videogame journalism which accepts that the writer is part of the story. I discovered this rather than this is what happened.
Below, you'll find the video and a brief response of my own.
The Conversation is a retelling of my meeting with Dan Stubbs, who is developing the probably-too-ambitious-for-its-own-good game, The Hit. In part one, we discussed the squandered promise of the GTA open world model.
As Belinda Carlisle belted out Heaven Is A Place On Earth from the coffee shop speakers, our conversation veered towards Bioshock Infinite.
“My favourite moment of Bioshock Infinite was a moment that wasn't a cutscene, wasn't a scripted moment,” said Stubbs.
“It was the menu?”
“You look at AAA games and they're all about playing it safe,” he said. “They're all about taking something that already exists and remaking it in a slightly different format. Watch Dogs is GTA plus Deus Ex. It's because you're trying to raise X amount of money to make these things because they're so expensive. But nobody knows what the Hell videogames are.
“Nobody knows what they're making.”
I want to talk a little about games that subvert traditional mechanics at the expense of the player, that poke at the player's assumptions and maybe make an example of him/her.
Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) is the big, mainstream example which I already covered in some detail recently but what has brought the subject back is a conversation I've been having with Boson X developer Ian MacLarty about a jam game he made called Booot.
It's given me a different perspective on such subversions, a perspective relating to player education.
My latest Rock Paper Shotgun piece went up a few hours ago. It contrasts Michael Brough's local multiplayer epic Kompendium with Alexander "droqen" Martin’s Starseed Pilgrim, highlighting how both games have a spoilery exterior that prevents you from talking about them in too much detail.
Here's an excerpt:
We were locked in a duel with unknown rules – so we talked rather than competed, exchanging theories about what we were supposed to do. Even though each game in Kompendium is a fight to the win, the ambiguity of its rules means players often start out in a cooperative struggle against a common enemy: the opaque system.
Of course, there’s a dangerous point after this where the fog lifts more quickly for one player than the other and they acquire the knowledge to win. I figured out “March Eternal” before Gregg did and had to consider whether to explain to him what I had figured out. I considered it and then I destroyed him.
Look, this is going to be a short post as I am still working on resurrecting my PC. The above image from Watch Dogs (Ubisoft Montreal, 2014) snowballed on Twitter this month. Perhaps the one with 2,000 retweets is the original although I've found a mention of this unfortunate juxtaposition back in June on the Giant Bomb forums:
How about after his tear jerking moment at the grave, you are immediately presented with a "Vault" prompt on the tombstone. I hoped over my niece's grave 4 times, having a good laugh at how silly it was.
It's true. Over the grave of the protagonist’s niece hovers a ghost. A ghost called Vault. This means we can finally discard that monstrosity ludonarrative dissonance and instead write the game vaults the grave.
It’s a brilliant example of where systems clash with narrative intent but... also misses the point.
This week’s viral video masterpiece is a surreal Russian dash cam road rage incident. Thanks to longtime Electron Dance reader Ketchua, it hit my Twitter a couple of days ago and the ensuing laughter brought tears to my eyes.
Then I started thinking about the context around the video, why it was funny and how it's an analogue to the problem of games that act all serious.
When I read some fiction about a character, say he’s called Dave, who did something terrible, I don't feel guilty about it. It's not my story, right? It’s Dave’s. And Dave is a piece of shit.
But what if the book forced you to act out what Dave did, go through the motions like some puppet? Would you feel guilty then? Would you feel like it was all your fault? Perhaps I should ask an actor.
And this here is THE LINE you should not cross if you want to avoid spoilers for third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) and the epic Immortal Defense (RPG Creations, 2007). Okay, maybe Penumbra: Black Plague (Frictional Games, 2008) too.
Of all the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, the landing at the sector codenamed “Omaha” was the most bloody. So much went wrong. The German coastal defences were completely intact as bad weather resulted in Allied bombers dropping their payload too far inland. Many landing craft couldn't make it all the way to the beach so the infantry had to wade through water first. Platoons were scattered across the beach, meaning chains of command were disrupted and chaos prevailed.
I doubt any of these soldiers, who were being mown down by German machine-gun emplacements, had hoped their desperate struggle would become the tutorial level for a videogame. But they were fortunate to have their sacrifice immortalised in the tutorial level of Company of Heroes (Relic Entertainment, 2006).
Technically, it's the first mission of the game, but it's still baby hour in the grand scheme of things. Players are effectively given an infinite supply of troops while they try to make progress up the beach. Initially, I cared about these little men disorganised and vulnerable, but I realised the only way to make progress in this crucible of death was to throw them all towards the shingle.
We might hope that the game forces players to contemplate the terrifying nature of war: that soldiers must die in pursuit of a goal which is larger than they; how a commander must remain detached to be able to send people to their deaths. But this level, as with every level of every real-time strategy game before it, taught me one thing: I was playing with pieces on a board, not people.
For a few months now, I've been playing Quarries of Scred (Noble Kale, 2014) which causes me frequently to scream at the screen. Nowhere near as much as NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) did, of course, but pretty much every time I die in the game it is because I am crushed to death by rocks. And it seems like it was my fault.
Quarries of Scred is a game that offers procedurally-generated challenge and if you die, just once, that's it for the level. No health, no extra lives. Just you versus the environment. Will you collect enough minerals to escape – or wind up dead after one wrong step?
When we talk about games that impose permadeath or similar aggravating conditions such as the sparse checkpointing of NaissanceE, we usually reference the power of consequences and how they make us feel. But have you heard of the “Peltzman effect”?