Justin Keever | July 10, 2015
The most important piece of criticism about Justin Smith’s Desert Golfing wasn’t actually about Desert Golfing. Nope, the best article I’ve ever read about Smith’s critical darling was written almost three years before the game’s release by Michael Thomsen, who mistakenly believed he was writing an indictment of From Software’s magnum opus Dark Souls. Thomsen’s basic argument is that there is too much Dark Souls in Dark Souls: that the game makes its point, that “that life is more suffering than pleasure, more failure than success, and that even the momentary relief of achievement is wiped away by new levels of difficulty” (a fair, albeit simplistic assessment) in its first 5 hours, and the remaining 95 hours it apparently takes to complete the game offer nothing but light, meaningless variation on this basic idea. Again, I must admit that at first glance, there is something to this assessment of Dark Souls, especially when one need look no further than the game’s most devoted fans, the PvP community, to see a host of people whose appreciation for the game extends only as far as the “useless junk” that Thomsen believes Dark Souls is mostly about: the particulars of its combat. These are people who have spent hundreds of hours experiencing light variations on the theme “the path to success is paved with rolling and backstabbing.” But I digress. Thomsen’s basic argument doesn’t hold up, as his basic understanding of what Dark Souls means appears to derive solely from the act of its play: that is, its difficulty remains more or less a constant, and so the ludically expressed theme of “life is hell” in turn remains constant. But this basic procedural theme doesn’t exist independently: it is an undercurrent of a story that explores how people respond to their own hellish existence, a story of grief, greed, and how desperately people will fight to maintain the status quo. The game’s setting, Lordran, is grotesque and sublime in equal measure: settings like Ash Lake and the Kiln of the First Flame are worth suffering to see. Thomsen’s assessment of Dark Souls as a repetitive exercise in relentless nihilism is accurate only if you remove its narrative aspirations and visual splendor, a notion which allows us to segue conveniently to Desert Golfing.
Justin Keever | Jul 30, 2014
*Update: As of Titanfall’s Latest Update (which went live a day after this was posted!) the pre-mission audio that I spend most of this piece talking about no longer plays. Too bad, as I found it rather interesting.
Nobody cared about Titanfall’s campaign. And perhaps rightfully so, as it was marred by awkward expository dialogue, a lack of a strong emotional hook, and a thematically muddled “man vs machine” ending that had little to do with the rest of the game’s plot. But perhaps most damning was just how easy it was to simply tune out: most of the major events and conversations between named characters take place during gameplay in a small skype chat window in the top-left corner of the screen, the pre-match cutscenes double as time to pick loadouts and burn cards, and PA announcements that play during the pre-mission lobby are often reduced to background noise as the player customizes their guns and titans. Strangely, though, where most people found flaws, I found meaning. Titanfall tells a story that is designed to be ignored. The game treats the player like the outsider he/she is, actively casting him/her aside in the narrative: as skilled as pilots are, the player is a disposable grunt; merely cannon fodder meant for distracting armies from the significant actions of the protagonists. Titanfall is about being an extra, an NPC: the plot doesn’t matter because you’re not a main character. You’re just here for the thrill of the fight.
“It would be great to take a few hours to just sit here and watch life pass by, but, duty calls!”
That’s what April Ryan says in The Longest Journey if you instruct her to sit on the bench outside of her apartment complex. It’s meant to be an innocuous statement, a gentle push for the player to keep them properly playing the game, but there’s a deeper implication about what the developer thinks it is to actually play a videogame. The suggestion seems to be that the game is in the activity: you shouldn’t sit down here, because sitting isn’t actively contributing to your eventual success. You should be running around Venice, collecting random items until you’re able to divine their obtuse purpose. It’s likely because that statement’s innocent intent that I find it so interesting: it presents this idealization of human nature – unwavering, consistent motivation that contributes to constant activity – as though it were totally natural. Maybe for a lucky few of you that’s the reality of life, and Ryan’s impulse to immediately rise from the bench seems totally reasonable. But to me, this little event is a symptom of a larger issue: the functionalist impulse that dictates how most videogames treat their player characters, i.e. how they are treated as tireless automatons designed to fight and explore until the mission is done or some arbitrary meter hits zero. Thankfully, videogames both big and small are becoming conscious of this (e.g. Wolfenstein: The New Order’s nail-on-the-head metaphor of the human brain inside the robot), but reflexive commentary just starts discourse around the problem, it doesn’t actually solve it. What’s frustrating is that The Longest Journey outright rejected one of the easiest solutions 15 years ago: placing value in relaxation by simply letting player characters stop and sit down.
*Author’s Note: I have not played Sniper Elite III. I will not play Sniper Elite III. From what I can tell from gameplay videos, it treats itself too much like a videogame to be of any interest.
Justin Keever | Jul 16 2014
This weekend I was possessed by some illness – madness, more like – and found myself compelled to boot up Halo 3. I was told by my doctor that this illness, most likely brought on by my annual listening of “Never Forget”, is apparently called “nos-tal-gia” (I’m told my pronunciation with a hard “g” is incorrect), and its symptoms include a rosy tint over one’s vision, and a predilection for media intended for children. I only played Halo 3 for a very short period of time, as most of my fond memories of the game consist of playing custom matches with friends with whom I’ve not spoken in years. Simply put, I’m not fond enough of Halo 3’s single player, even in a nostalgia-addled state, to devote to it any serious amount of time. So I walked through the forest of the game’s beginning, shooting at grunts and brutes and what have you until I died for the first time, which provided a convenient, albeit abrupt, stopping point. I obviously wasn’t awash with positive feelings about Halo 3 after our little reunion, but I nor did I feel particularly negative towards it. In fact, I came away from the first fifteen minutes of the game’s campaign with exactly one thought lingering in my mind: “why was I walking through a canyon?” Sure enough, the beginning of the Master Chief’s journey through the forest begins with a short jog between 2 short but sheer rock walls, which seemed somewhat out of place in a dense forest with no major river. But there they were, defiantly placed on either side of me, made meaningless by their own clear functionality: “this is the path” they told me, and I readily accepted their explanation for their own existence.
*Author’s Note: Contrarian opinion time! I consider Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days one of the best shooters of the last generation. I touch on its appeal a bit, but I won’t defend its quality here. Smarter people than me have already done so
Justin Keever | 9 Jul 2014
Recently, against my better judgment, I found myself contemplating the iOS game Mountain and, I’m ashamed to admit, what exactly makes a videogame a videogame. I’ve always abided by a performative definition of videogames: that is, if it calls itself a videogame or feels the need to define itself in terms of the videogame medium (that is, things like Gametrekking’s “notgames”), then it is a videogame. End of discussion. Reading about Mountain didn’t shake my resolve on this point, but I did start contemplating possible commonalities between Mountain and other games, in some futile attempt to find some heart of ‘gameness’. One particular perspective on Mountain crossed my mind again and again: a tweet from Ian Bogost, where he says simply that “Games are about experiencing other things. A game about being a mountain is important.” From that, I managed to parse out an answer to my question: games are about empathy. Games model subjective experience, asking the player to take on a role – the role of a soldier, a writer, a pirate, a mountain, a team, an army, a nation – and then invest the player in that experiential model by placing them at the center of it. Perhaps, I thought to myself, that the structure of most videogames: placing the player at the center of a world that doesn’t move forward until they do, isn’t a model of empowerment, but a model of subjectivity. The world doesn’t move forward not because it’s an objective reality that looks to the player for guidance, but because it’s a perceived reality filtered through our avatar. Or, maybe, videogames model solipsistic empowerment: the freedom to look around and think “this is all for me” and be right. Maybe all games are power fantasies, existence given purpose, even if that purpose is to let things fly into you, a mountain in the void.
Justin Keever | Jul 2, 2014
There’s a line in the television show True Detective where Detective Rust Cohle says the show’s setting, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, “is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading.” Had this line been uttered on our television screens about a year earlier, I would be thoroughly convinced that this line was the conception of Ether One. It’s the perfect elevator pitch: remove Cohle’s resolute cynicism and any semblance of metaphor, and the entirety of Ether One lies dormant in the words: the contemplativeness, the frustration, the nostalgia, the subjective filter of reality, the grief of losing your grasp on your happiest moments. White Paper Games chooses to tackle the fading of memory head on, (supposedly) setting their game literally inside the mind of woman with dementia, and (supposedly) casting the player as a “Restorer,” a person with the necessary ill-defined ability to withstand the process of being transported inside another person’s mind for the purpose of treating mental illness – specifically dementia. Whatever concerns given rise by the bizarre sci-fi conceits of the game’s opening are alleviated through the sheer force of aesthetic wonderment: a painterly style with a focus on deep blues, warm oranges, and delightfully earthy greys and browns combines with a minimalist piano score and precise diegetic sounds to create a lovely portrait of a small British port town. The story becomes equally enticing: the game expands from its starting point – the dementia patient Jean – to include the entirety of the town, allowing the player to glimpse into the trials and aspirations of the majority of Pinwheel’s denizens, witnessing for themselves the interweaving relationships and acting out moments both pivotal and typical. Ether One presents its experience with a level of subtlety and nuance that far outshines last year’s Gone Home, by presenting the core narrative with a level of heightened ambiguity that prevents it from ever completely overshadowing the embedded mini-narratives. Until the ending, that is. For a very long time Ether One commits to its ideas, until it appears to become frightened of its own accomplishments, eschewing complexity and ambiguity for a rushed finale that misunderstands the game’s own fiction and structure, favoring an overt thrust at starting a discourse around dementia at the cost of everything else, not realizing that it had already started the conversation hours before.