Category Archives: Video Games

The Legend of Polybius. Now on YouTube!

Just today I found out that someone put my Polybius talk on Youtube. So, if you want to watch me talk about a killer fake video game, here it is.

Destroy all Consoles

Sony announced the PS4 yesterday, and it is a thing that should not be. Game consoles as we know them need to go extinct. They present system is clunky, inefficient, bad for the consumers, and frankly annoying. Below are a few of my cranky gripes about the state of gaming, why consoles should die, and what I’d like to see.

All consoles should be able to play all games. Remember back when CDs were a thing? I know, it was a long time ago, but bear with me. Would you have bought a CD player that could only play discs from EMI? What about one that would only play albums by artists on Atlantic Records? How about some indie player that only ever played Kill Rock Stars? Would you accept that? Obviously not. Yet, that’s the system we accept for games. It’s mind boggling in how long it’s persisted, and kind of maddening that consumers aren’t more upset about it. In no other kind of media to buyers accept such limitations, but when it comes to video games people actually get fanboyish about their favorite consoles. That’s ridiculous.

Physical disks should die. Why the hell do we still have physical disks? We have the Internet. Cutting out disks would mean that game companies would no longer have to worry about the manufacturing and distribution of disks or retail middleman taking a cut. That would (hopefully) drive down the costs of games. Hopefully. Maybe not EA or Activision’s games, as those companies are kind of shadowy and evil, but hopefully those of other companies.

There needs to be an iTunes for old games. Yes, Nintendo had the Virtual Console, but that wasn’t enough. Far too many old games are fading away because the hardware that ran them has gone obsolete. I’d love to have a service where I could purchase classics like Planescape: Torment, Monkey Island, or the Sega X-Men games.

Nintendo should just be a software company. The whole reason people buy Nintendo’s consoles anymore is to play Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games. I seriously doubt that anyone buys Nintendo’s consoles because they want to play games in general. No, they want to play Nintendo’s games specifically. As someone who grew up with Mario, Link, and Samus I’d be happy to sit down and revisit some of these old IPs for a game or two, but not so much that I want to actually buy the ridiculously clunky flop that is the WiiU.

Consoles should be generic and upgradeable, like PCs. I replaced all manner of parts in my old desktop. I jammed more RAM into it, gave it a new graphics card, replaced the fan and the power source, swapped out all of the peripherals, and replaced just about everything except the motherboard and CPU. I’d appreciate that kind of screws-not-glue approach to consoles. Instead of things being upgraded in fits and starts with new generations of consoles coming every few years, we’d just have a gradual increase in what people’s machines were capable of.

Fuck it, consoles should just be PCs. A PC that hooks up to your big TV where you can do stuff with a controller, and you’re not locked into a single company’s hardware, OS, game library, or anything like that. Can we have that? No?

Fine, I’ll just wait for the Steam Box.

In Praise of Makoto

I love fighting games. I love Soul Calibur, Super Smash Brothers, Mortal Kombat, and Guilty Gear. I even kind of tolerate Tekken, if there’s nothing else available.

For and away the best by far, though, are the Capcom fighting games. Capcom has been making pretty much the same game again and again since Street Fighter II over two decades ago, but it’s a successful format which has successfully consumed a good portion of my fan energy, despite (or maybe because of) its sameness/consistency.

I will admit to being a fairly boring Street Fighter player, in that I usually choose Ryu or Ken, easy-to-use characters who spew fireballs. However, due to zoning out after work and playing way too much Street Fighter III at Ground Kontrol, I think I have a new favorite Street Fighter character: Makoto. We need more Makotos in video games. Badly.

We need more female characters in games.

This is kind of a “duh” point, but it’s important. We actually need more female characters in all media. A frightening amount of movies and TV continue to fail the Bechdel test, prove the Smurfette principle, and otherwise fail at portraying half the species in any meaningful way. So, there’s that. But…

We need more female characters whose gender is not the defining characteristic of their being.

I love Chun-Li as much as any fighting game nerd- she’s fast, she’s dodgy, and if you know how to play her she can be really, really cheap. However, Chun-Li is very much Street Fighter‘s Smurfette- the defining bit of her character (at least initially) was that she was the one lady amid a series of dudes. Her little bit of victory banter wasn’t anything about her fighting style or any kind of trash talk. She said to her vanquished opponents “I am the strongest woman in the world.” It was all about her XX chromosomes. Later additions like Cammy and Sakura hit the same note- their gender was pushed front-and-center, and their identities as martial artists were secondary.

Makoto’s different. She’s a fighter first. Wearing a gi, she’s doesn’t have any kind of costume that shows off her tits or ass, and there’s no obnoxious schoolgirl posturing or spurned-lover weirdness like there is with Sakura and Cammy, respectively. Makoto looks and acts like a martial artist, and in Street Fighter III it’s her martial arts skills and her fighting style that define her, rather than a costume that barely covers her butt. She is a martial artist who is female, rather than a female martial artist. We need more of that. Which brings me to my last point…

We need more female characters whose play style transcends their gender.

Let’s go back to Chun-Li again (and I want to emphasize that I like Chun-Li, I’m not trying to rail against her or anything- I just want a broader pallete here). Chun-Li is lighter, faster, and dance-ier than the other Street Fighter characters. Her play style, broadly speaking, is strongly influenced by the fact that she’s female. This is true in lots of games. The female characters are the quick, light ones speedy-dodgy ones.

Makoto, on the other hand, hits hard. Makoto is all about hard punches and high, close-range damage. She is not a character who flits about elegantly or whose movement or play style is at all feminized. One of her moves is a choke, and one of her super techniques involves her turning red, hulking out, and turning into a relentless damage juggernaut. The Street Fighter character whom she resembles more than anything else is Zangief, the immense Russian bear wrestler.

When Capcom designed Makoto they did something right. They’ve put out a lot of nonsense like Crimson Viper, but with Makoto they got something right. I’ll take Makoto over the Laura Crofts or Bayonettas of the world any day- more than anything else she’s a punching, choking, utterly punishing martial-arts damage machine. She just happens to be a woman. We need more ladies like her.

PAX!

PAX is, bar none, the best convention I have ever been to.

Granted, I don’t have that much experience with cons. I’ve been to Seattle’s Emerald City ComiCon and once went to a Star Wars con in Japan. I’ve also turned up at several geeky gatherings in Portland, but I’ve never really traveled with the sole intent of going to a convention. Until now, of course. It was entirely worth it.

Being able to go at all was something like winning the geek lottery- PAX had long been sold out, and it was by pure fortuitous chance that I was able to get a three day pass at face value. Pass in hand, I made my way up I-5 with the photographer extraordinaire Sarah Giffrow and two other lovely Portland geeks.

Day One: I Am Surrounded By Shiny Stuff and Don’t Know What to Do

Upon arriving at the Washington State Convention Center, I had only a vague idea about what was going on. I knew that there were panels, exhibits, and free-play areas but had no coherent idea of how to address them all. I flipped through the schedule and, not really knowing what to do, just wandered into the main exhibition hall.

The hall is probably the most “normal” part of PAX. It’s all exhibits by major game companies promoting various triple-A titles and new releases. The screens are huge, the lines are long, and noise and light pulsate from displays that range in size from big to huge. I don’t really try to stay current with my gaming habits (the last game that I got really into was the original Dawn of War) so the new releases didn’t hold much interest for me, but the exhibition hall was amusing in an over-the-top sort of way.

Wanting to do something that did not have the volume turned up to 11, Sarah and I attempted to get in line for the Wil Wheaton panel. We thought that we would most assuredly have a spot, given that we were there an hour ahead of time. The line, though, was closed. Wheaton is a popular fellow at these events.

We wandered around the indie games exhibit for a while, and were somewhat amused by a booth promoting a game called Uncle Slam. “It’s like Punch-Out but with presidents.” The game’s concept was amusing enough, but the poor play control got in the way of my enjoyment. For my comments, they gave me a t-shirt.

We ended up playing some Marvel VS Capcom 3 in the console free play area, which I found to be an absolutely wonderful space. PAX goers could sign up to play games on current-generation consoles and stay there as long as they liked. It was a great space to try out new games, and it also served the function of being a place where people could chill out, sit down, and yet still do be doing something PAX-related.

I got a text from a friend of mine, and we ended up joining him and his wife for a panel on indie RPG design. I wasn’t initially excited about it, but it was kind of inspiring to hear self-made creative types talk about what they do. After that, we got some dinner, played some Steve Jackson card games with people, and went to bed. It served as a nice introduction to the whole thing, and the next day I was able to much more coherently enjoy the event.

Day Two: You Will Stand in Line and Like It

One of the main things that I’d wanted to see at PAX was Tycho and Gabe from Penny Arcade actually make a strip in front of an audience. Even though it was one of the first events of the day, I knew it would be popular. I took my place in line in front of the main theater an hour and a half early. My expectation would be that I’d spend most of the time reading, but someone shouted “JOE!” and I ran into someone else from Portland. The line ended up being quite the fun social hangout. People were playing card and dice games, I ended up having a nice chat with some complete strangers, and various PAX volunteers (amusingly known as “enforcers”) kept things interesting by giving us stuff to do. Several of them were handing out pipe cleaners for people to make pipe cleaner art (there were some very magnificent specimens- later on, one woman ended up making a pipe cleaner Sonic Screwdriver), enforcers gave out candy and buttons to people who could answer trivia questions, and several beach balls ended up getting bounced around the crowd. (At one point a beach ball got lodged in a fire escape and had to be rescued by a rather daring gentleman. He was cheered as a hero, and was pretty much our very own Spiderman.)

I appreciated all of this. If participants are going to spend a lot of time in line, then the line might as well be interesting. There was very much a carnival atmosphere in the air, and by the time we all went into the main theater, we were already having lots of fun.

Tycho and Gabe (aka, Jerry and Mike) both have fairly good stage presence, and it was clear that they were quite happy to be in front of their fans. Tycho wrote a comic script in the first few moments of the event, comically pretending to make typos and punctuation errors. For the rest of the event, Gabe’s drawings were projected onto a large screen, and various fans asked them questions.

I found the relationship between the Penny Arcade guys and their fans to be kind of wonderful. Neither of them seemed standoffish or inaccessible, and frequently fans presented them with whimsical gifts such as stuffed animal microbes. It was amazing to watch Gabe/Mike draw. It really is true about skilled people making it look easy. What he was doing looked extraordinarily simple and intuitive, but only because he’s been drawing for years (I guess it’s fair to say that at this point, it’s simple and intuitive to him.)

The whole thing was excellent, and later on I met up with Sarah again to see a live recording of the Acquisitions, Incorporated┬ápodcast. It was pretty much the PA guys, Wil Wheaton, and Scott Kurtz all playing D&D, but they were amusing enough to make it a whole lot of fun. Later on I went to a panel all about gaming’s relationship to the LGBT community, and ended the evening playing the Battlestar Galactica board game until about 1:30 in the morning. (The game perfectly captures the paranoia and desperation of the show- I kind of want it now.)

I went to bed immensely satisfied

Day Three: Portland Geek Pride

On day three I wandered about a bit more, played a whole lot of Marvel VS Capcom III and Street Fighter IV, and realized that as much as I like fighting games some guys are just mind-bendingly skilled. I also went to a panel on freelance game journalism, which is relevant to my interest, but none of that is what I want to focus on. No, day three was all about the Omegathon.

The Omegathon is a competition wherein a small number of lucky PAXers are randomly selected to participate in a tournament-style gaming competition. Five rounds precede the finals, and various preliminary rounds can feature games as disparate as Dance Central or Mario Kart.

The final round of the Omegathon acts as a closing ceremonies of sorts for PAX, and one of the players was actually from Portland. Normally I wouldn’t have had any kind of emotional investment in the outcome, but one of the guys was from my general geographic area, and that changed things.

Several Portland geeks crowded near the front of the theater, bumping up against the stage in a manner that reminded me of mosh pits. None of us knew what the final round would consist of- in previous years it had been claw games and ski ball, and is usually something whimsical or weird.

So, we were very surprised when a familiar eight-bit theme started playing. Two televisions were set up side by side, and the final round was to be competitive Legend of Zelda. Whoever got to the first piece of the Triforce the fastest would be the winner.

A large mosh-pit like conglomeration of Portland geeks proceeded to absolutely lose their shit, and shouted various bits of high-volume encouragement at their representative on stage. Including myself. I was utterly emotionally invested in the outcome of this game, solely because one of the guys who was playing was someone I’d seen before at Geek Trivia.

When something like this happens, I sort of mentally prepare myself for disappointment. I try to cope with losing before it happens, which I’m sure is probably unproductive in a lot of ways. There was no need for that here, though. Our boy from Portland actually won, and got himself a trip to the Tokyo Games Show.

I can understand why soccer fanatic feel the way they do. It was exhilarating to be part of a large, cheering group, all of our various enthusiasm bent on one thing.

I went home exhausted, and satisfied, but also sort of wishing that I didn’t have to go back into the real world again. There’s something nice about hanging out with a bunch of like-minded people, and simply playing games together, striking up impromptu conversations, doing things off the cuff with people you’ve never seen before. That can happen in the real world, certainly, but it’s far easier for that to transpire when you know everyone in the vicinity shares something with you. You’re all there for the same thing, and common ground has already been established.

In Which I Rant Angrily About a Particular Feature of StarCraft II

After a long, long wait, I recently purchased StarCraft II. Yes, I know it came out last year, but I only recently got a computer capable of running it. The game is great. It is absolutely everything I wanted out of a StarCraft sequel. I even love that it’s not even the complete game- that we have to wait for Zerg and the Protoss campaigns. Knowing that there’s more there adds excitement.

However, there’s one thing that I don’t like at all about StarCraft II. One thing that I find almost inexcusably loathsome. Horrible. Hideous. Disgustingly terrible.
I hate, hate, hate, hate that it’s an online game. Or rather, I hate that it has to be one. I have no problem with Battle.net, Blizzard’s multiplayer network. In fact, I kind of love it. I love that it matches players of like skill level and that you can import Facebook friends. I love that there are all kinds of achievements that you can get to decorate your profile. I love how easy it makes online gaming.
But I don’t want to have to be there.
It is impossible to play StarCraft II without logging into Battle.net. This is distasteful. Right now, I’m playing through the single player campaign, yet every time I start up the game, I have to log into Battle.net, and that offends my sensibilities. This is not because I don’t like Battle.net- it is a veritable strategy game paradise- but because StarCraft II is so closed and locked-down, it might as well have been designed by Apple.
There is no option to play on a LAN. This is repulsively horrid. I have fond memories of playing SC on my dorms LAN back in college. It’s ridiculous that a multiplayer game won’t allow for such things- multiplayer games and LANs are practically synonymous.
Mods and whatnot will be much more difficult to implement. I’ve played quite a bit of Civilization IV, and that game was greatly enriched by Fall From Heaven, a fantasy-based mod. Several other player-made mods (sometimes of dubious quality) abounded on the Civ forums, and the old copy of Unreal Tournament that I’ve got socked away on an old hard drive is very heavily modded with all kinds of ridiculous add-ons and extra widgets.
I also very much believe that games should be playable for an indefinite period of time. If you get a copy of Risk, for example, that game is playable as long as you have all the pieces. Likewise, if you were to get an old NES you could fire up any old cartridge you wanted and it would still function. Games that are dependent on online support don’t have this. StarCraftII demands that you authenticate it with Blizzard in order to work. I know that some enterprising hacker will find a way around this, but it’s terrible that if in thirty years there’s no more Blizzard, those old SCII discs will be unplayable as-is. Old NES cartridges and copies of Risk, on the other hand, will still work fine.
I guess I’m starting to sound like Corey Doctrow or some other anti-DRM digital web-libertarian type. I’ve all but shouted “screws, not glue!” I do believe in that sort of thing. I do believe that once you own something, you should do with it as you please, and that games, after money is exchanged, should be play-withable without a lot of mandatory interference from their makers. And, it’s not that I don’t like Battle.net. But, as beautiful, as wonderful, and as expertly engineered as it is- it should be optional. 

BOOMSHAKALAKA!: In Which I Play NBA Jam

I recently had the pleasure of accompanying my friend D to that temple of geekery and consumption known as Fry’s- the magical place filled with myriad shiny toys and software. It’s one of those stores that fills you with the aspiration that consumption relies upon. Stepping over its threshold, one is filled with the knowledge that they, one, can own all manner of shiny gizmos.

I was there because D was getting a new laptop and I like to look at electronic things that I can’t really afford. While she was checking out the various computers, I amused myself by walking over to the game section, because, hey, video games.

The games that were set up were all fairly family-friendly and inoffensive. Gran Turismo and that ilk, and mostly sports. I suppose having bloody FPSs set up in an area with potential kids would not be the best PR move. I grabbed a PS3 controller and started playing the newest version of NBA Jam, a cartoony basketball game for people who don’t really like sports games.

Of course, I chose to be the Portland Trailblazers. When selecting my opponent, I chose the villainous and vile Los Angeles Lakers.

I don’t know much about sports, but I do know this: If you like the Lakers, you earn some major douchebag points. Likewise, if you are a fan of the NY Yankees or Dallas Cowboys, you’re publicly stating what prick you’re capable of being. Liking the Lakers, Yankees, or Cowboys is sort of like wearing Dockers: It’s boring and jerk-tastic at the same time. I know this is irrational, but whatever.

In my game of NBA Jam, Brandon Roy’s knees were working just fine, and he was able to outmaneuver, outshoot, outblock, and generally run circles around big-headed AI-controlled Kobe Bryant. The announcers kept shouting goofy catchphrases (BOOMSHAKALAKA! being the big one) every time my zanily-proportioned basketball dudes made a basket. I thought I was just going to give NBA Jam a try, but I ended up playing a whole four-quarter game right there in Fry’s.

I realized something about sports games: Of all of the types of games out there, they are the only genre wherein players can bring the hurt to actual, real celebrities. I have watched many a Blazer game going “NOOOO!” at the screen while the Lakers (bastards that they are) played well and scored points. While watching it with other Portland fans, we all believed that it was because the refs were biased and Phil Jackson has some kind of Nietzschian hypno-power that he was using on the officials.

Watching the Lakers win was always massively, horribly painful. Other teams, like San Antonio, never quite brought on that sort of emotion. When I watched the Spurs kick our ass I just thought, “Wow, the Spurs are really good at this basketball thing.” When I saw the Lakers do it, I filled up with rage. There was just something weird and awful about the Lakers- they were, after all, from LA. Jack Nicholson and his self-satisfied smirk goes to all of their home games. They represent a city that is everything Portland (supposedly) isn’t- sprawl, waste, stress and utter lack of culture.

Playing NBA Jam, though, made me realize how much I enjoy that rivalry and hate, how much sports really does need villains. It’s great that lots of people think LeBron is a dick- that’ll be a major boost to the drama and emotional stakes of his games. It was that rivalry that made NBA Jam so much fun. Also, I could not think of any other genre of video game where you can best actual, real media figures.

There is no game out there where I can challenge Sarah Palin to single combat, or get into a boxing ring with Glenn Beck. (Actually scratch that. Beck wouldn’t be any fun. He’d just start crying. I’d rather fight Bill O’Reilly- he’d make it interesting.) There isn’t any kind of game where I can humiliate Brit Hume or challenge Larry the Cable Guy to a lightsaber duel. Most of the time (unless you count fighting Hitler in Wolfenstein), I can’t pwn celebrities via video games.

Athletes, though, are a different matter. Dunking on Kobe was hugely satisfying not just because of the game play, but because, through the magic of video games, I was able to vent out a whole bunch of Blazer fan-rage onto cartoon Lakers. It was a nice release, and scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.

Boomshakalaka.

Goodbye, Blank Slate or What I Think About That New Tron Movie Coming Out

It is occasionally alarming how much geek culture is defined by nostalgia. Watching Star Trek or Star Wars or the rest of it does not make me me think of the future or possibility or sweeping vistas of the world of tomorrow. Instead it calls to mind childhood and adolescent comfort, something familiar, tested, and proven. They are narratives and artifacts that don’t have to stand up to the rigors of contemporary scrutiny. Why should they? They carry so much emotional cache.

The fact remains, though, that they don’t transport me to the future. They transport me to the 1990s.

Nostalgia pieces by definition wistful, and bring to mind forgiving smiles and gentle rationalizations of their flaws. An object of nostalgia might appear simple, but we justify it by saying that it was from a simpler time. Effects were less sophisticated. Budgets were lower. Audiences weren’t as savvy. That’s what we tell ourselves to excuse Luke Skywalkers’s ludicrous comment about “power converters,” or to justify transparently cheap monster costumes.
Nostalgia is not bad or wrong per se, but it is warm and unchallenging. It is easy to idealize the objects that produce it, to put layers upon them and add dimensions that are not there. In almost every incident, the idea of the nostalgic item is much better than the work itself.
Which brings me to Tron.
Tron blew my fucking mind. I don’t remember how old I was when I first watched it. Maybe eleven? Twelve? I don’t really know. But there were glowy lights on everything and it was about a guy who got zapped into a computer and, man, that was cool. The guy had to play computer games inside of a computer! C’mon- how neat is that? There were tanks and motorcycles and everything was covered in neon because back then that’s what the future looked like.
I watched it again in college, and, much to my surprise, found that I still liked it. Last year I actually got my ex-girlfriend to watch it and she had to concede that the movie that her geeky, overenthusiastic boyfriend had recommended to her was “kind of fun.”
And it is. Tron, though, is quite a simple movie. There isn’t much to it, really. Why is the Master Control Program so evil? He just is. Why is Tron the good guy? He just is. How is it that Tron’s disc will bring about a new order on the grid? It’s a MacGuffin- just go with it.
Tron is a very pretty movie with an okay plot. Fortunately, it seems that the filmmakers knew that. Tron is shallow, but has no pretension to depth. It is thin, but does not pretend to be substantive. The ultimate message of Tron is, really “Hey, look! Shiny computers! Whee!” This is all well and good, and makes it the perfect nostalgia piece.
Because Tron is so basic, it’s completely possible for a thirty-year-old geek like me to invest it with all kinds of layers and awesomeness as I wistfully recall it. Fans like me can imagine any sort of drama or depth we want of Tron, because the movie is ultimately just a bunch of cool blinky lights and zoomy computer game action. In lots of ways its a blank slate that we can project all kinds of affection and imagination onto. The idea of Tron is oftentimes better than Tron the actual movie. If it were to come out now as an original film, it would probably be dismissed as readily as Avatar was by people who actually care about science fiction.
Disney has decided to cash in on the widespread affection and nostalgia for Tron and release a sequel later this month, nearly three decades later. Like many other genre fans, I’m completely geeking out about this and probably will fork over the extra cash to see this thing in 3D. However, once the sequel comes out, a certain amount of the nostalgic “oomf” of the original is going to get taken away. Tron will cease to become an object of nostalgic affection, and turn into a franchise.
With that, it will go from being something that can be vague and unspecified, to something specific. It will no longer exist primarily in the minds and emotions and memories of fans- instead it will be an actual thing, separate from their feelings and ideas of of the original. Tron won’t be something that belongs to fans anymore, a pop-culture byword that recalls shared experiences of wonderment about computers. Instead, it will become the first movie in what is likely to be a series. We won’t have a blank slate to play with anymore. The idea of Tron will be gone, and in its place there will just be Tron.
This does not bother me too much. Later this month, though, I’m going to buy a movie ticket, put on a pair of 3D glasses, and a little bit of my nostalgia and geeky affection for Tron will be gone forever.

In Which I Am Reduced to Screeching Fanboy Status by the Brilliance of BioShock

Of the various loves in my life, one of the most abiding and constant has been video games. I haven’t really blogged about video games at all. I never blogged about how much I love the Fallout series or how many hundred yen coins I spent in Japanese game centers. It’s a topic that I’ve avoided, semi-intentionally.

However, I’m compelled to gush about how much I love BioShock. Not that the series needs it- BioShock is a tremendously successful franchise and it doesn’t really need any more geeky adoration being spewed in its general direction. I can’t stop myself, though. I need to shout like a screeching fanboy. There is a big overriding reason why I love it so much, something utterly apart from the great gameplay, wonderful design, excellent writing, and creepy atmosphere. Those things are great. However, there is another, very simple reason why I love this particular FPS so much:

BioShock is a game about shooting Ayn Rand in the Face.

The original game is a refutation of Atlas Shrugged in video game form. Somewhat more importantly, though, it is also a satire of video games in general, and at the same time makes a point that could only be made in video game form. That’s what I really want to talk about. BioShock wouldn’t be what it is if it were a movie, book, TV show, or any other kind of media. It’s great because it makes the most of what it is.

Okay, spoilers ahead, everyone! For both games.

The First BioShock game is all about the hubris and failure of Andrew Ryan, a stand-in for Ayn Rand. Ryan built himself an undersea utopia that failed miserably. His vision was based on unabated individualism and constant nattering about “parasites” who spoil life for the shiny paragons of industry and brilliance.

BioShock is also all about the protagonist (you) gradually finding out about who the hell you are. At the beginning of the game, we see the main character in a plane that crashes into the Atlantic, and immediately assume that he’s just an ordinary, hapless survivor who happened upon the underwater city of Rapture. Much later, we learn that he actually hijacked the plan and caused the crash.

What’s more, we find out that the character has been manipulated the whole time. He has been under mental compulsion for the vast majority of the game, but you wouldn’t know it from the gameplay. At no time is control really wrested from you- you play BioShock as you would any other linear game. However, you don’t have any control about what the character will do. You do what you do because NPCs tell you to do stuff, and because you are led by the nose in a linear fashion.

It’s amazing because you are able to embody someone you know nothing about. You can’t see the protagonist’s face, can’t hear him speak, and know nothing, really about who he is. Yet you embody him and identify with him anyhow. Eventually you find out that what you thought was a bland, voiceless video game protagonist was actually a genetically manipulated zombie who had very little choice about his actions. The surprise of the big reveal could not have worked in any other medium.

BioShock 2‘s ending is somewhat less satisfactory- you find out that your daughter has been watching you the whole time, and that your actions have determined her character. I chose to be a nice, shiny paragon of goodness who helps people, so she, in turn, turned out to be an idealistic, sunny person. Apparently if you decide that you like killing and selfishness, your daughter turns out to be a kind of a bitch at the end.

I suppose that this is a pretty good approximation of parenting- you’re actually raising your kids all of the time, not just when you think they’re watching you. You know, like this:

Anyway, BioShock (both of them) are great video games because they take full advantage of the fact that gamers embody the protagonists, and don’t really think that much about whom they are embodying. At the end of the first one you get hit with “Guess what! You’re a juiced-up zombie bitch with no free will! How do you like that? Now, would you kindly kill Ayn Rand with a golf club?” The big surprise at the end of the second comes down to “I learned it from watching you!” wherein you discover that parents who mercilessly harvest Little Sisters have kids who mercilessly harvest Little Sisters.

In books, movies, television shows, comic books, or any other medium, the observer cannot slip into the protagonist’s shoes, cannot embody them. In video games, though, that can happen. BioShock allows you to embody characters that are not who you thought they were, or doing things that you did not think they were doing.

Gaming can put you in disorienting the position of not only observing actions, but doing them and not understanding them, with great emotional effect. It is something I would like to see more of. Rather than just games where players pursue goals for pasted-on reasons, I would like to see games that take advantage of this disorientation that comes from character embodiment. The only other video game that I can think of that has effected me as much as either of the BioShock games has been Silent Hill 2, wherein the protagonist wades his way through the shadowy world of love and uncertainty that is husbandhood. (Given that I was living with my girlfriend while I played it, it kind of hit a nerve.) In all cases, my emotional reaction came from the fact that I did not just watch the drama happening, but had to deliberately make it occur, had to move it forward via the character. I empathized more strongly, and felt more real fear, because of that. I do think that video games can be a powerful medium, and am happy to see that they have become more complex and emotionally charged over the years.

Also, more things should be about giving the finger to Ayn Rand. Just putting that out there.

Rock Your Pixels Off

I love video games. I don’t think I’ll ever really get over them entirely. When I was a kid I cared way more about Mario than Mickey and recently I’ve had a good portion of my brain eaten by Grand Theft Auto IV, a game that’s probably better written than most TV shows. When I see people mix up the trappings of video games in their work, I’m generally interested, and I think that if Warhol had lived long enough he would have done a few prints featuring Mario. Apropos of nothing, here’s a bunch of video game-laced musical things.

This video is probably one of the more awesome things that I’ve seen on the internet in a while. The video below is not game footage. It’s certainly inspired by Megaman, but all of it is the work of a guy called Myk Dawg, who’s made a few unofficial game-like videos. Kanye West really ought to just buy off this video from him and use it, as it fits well with West’s aesthetic. Take a look.


(HD) Kanye West – Robocop (1988 import version) from Myk Dawg on Vimeo.

I love this type of stuff. Nothing gets my nostalgia going like 8-bit games. Another group, Desert Planet, is sort of the audio-equivalent of this, as all of their music is intentionally made to sound like it’s from a video game.

What surprises me about these videos and music is the realization that I’m attracted to a certain kind of technological imperfection. Visible pixilation was not initially the result of any kind of artistic process. It was an artifact of technological limitation. Had the developers of Pac-Man had their way, Pac-Man would have probably have looked more like this:

And less like this:

I personally prefer the second image. As irrational as it is, I find the second image to be “warmer” or more “authentic” in some kind of way, but I know that that’s simply the result of nostalgia and conditioning. People who say they prefer the sound of vinyl to digital music are usually fooling themselves, and I know that I’m sort of fooling myself with my experience of the pixelated image, but I enjoy it anyway.

Anyway, here’s another video, but this time it’s a cover of actual video game music with footage of an actual video game:

I couldn’t post about this stuff without including The Minibosses, a band I’ve known about for some time and do some rocking covers of old 80s games. The video is amusing enough, but I distinctly remembering Castlevania III being only one player.

This sort of stuff reminds me that art doesn’t really need to be realistic or accurate. That’s obvious, when you think about it. I’m far away from being a luddite, and I think it’s great that the images that jump out of modern video games and CGI movies are more realistic than every. Realism, though, is a tool. It’s something that can aide and enforce emotional reactions in the viewer, but it’s not a prerequisite for something to be good.

Think about this: One of the most popular game ever is Dungeons and Dragons specifically, and RPGs in general. RPGs don’t have any graphics. Players might use drawings and models, but these are static. The experience is not diminished by the absence of realistic representation. If anything the addition of animated images would distract from the experience. It’s all about what’s going on in the player’s heads, not what’s going on in front of their eyes.

Anyways, I’m a sucker for this retro stuff, and I’m sure I’m not alone. A whole slew of twentysomethings are probably going to remember the NES and Atari 2600 in much the same way that our parents remember the Beatles. That will be sort of trip- think of the future equivalent of VH1 specials.

Anyway, here’s another video. It’s newer, yes, but still cool. A very talented dude plays Zelda music. I quite dig his light-up hat and use of kitchen implements.