1. Gone Home: “Finally, a story about an upper-middle-class white family with angst!”

    So, I have some concerns about Gone Home. Well, not so much about the game as about the way it’s been covered in the gaming press. Well, also somewhat about the game.

    Before we get started, let me say: I think the game deserves the vast majority of the praise it’s receiving. It’s a good game. I liked it. I found it moving. I think everyone should play it. I would like to see more games like it. But…I have some concerns.

    (Oh, spoilers, obvs.)

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  2. The Last of Us

    So, first off, let’s get this out of the way: the game is fantastic, and if you have a PS3, you should play it. Seriously. If you’re remotely considering playing this game, play this game. Okay? Cool cool cool.

    I’ll try to do this with a minimum of spoilery content, but if spoilers are a particular concern of yours, obviously you want to play the game before reading further. Also, I’m not going to lay out the basic parameters of it story, so if you aren’t familiar, just check out any review or preview or what have you.

    Story

    The Last of Us is frequently compared to Children of Men, which is a reasonable comparison, but I think in some ways it’s more like Gareth Edwards’s Monsters. Children of Men is a story about people fighting the death of humanity, and fighting to give their lives meaning in a world which may not have a future — which is a story that The Last of Us could have told, but for the most part does not.

    Rather, as in Monsters, the apocalyptic landscape of Last of Us forms a kind of backdrop and mirror for the humans who inhabit it. It shows us who they are, by outline and by reflection. Its history is not narrated so much as it’s furnished — in the homes people have made for themselves in the quarantine zones and in the wilderness, and in what they’ve left behind.

    It’s not that everyone gets the devil they deserve in Last of Us — nobody could deserve most of what happens in the course of that game. It’s that everyone’s experience of hell is their own, and for better or worse, they all carve out their own places within it.

    Games have made us accustomed to finding narratives in audiologs. Environments are littered with breadcrumb recording conveniently left behind by important characters compelled to provide exposition dumps about themselves and their world. The Last of Us uses audiologs almost not at all, instead filling the world with hastily scrawled notes to loved ones, inventories and shipping manifests, children’s drawings, and ad hoc memorials.

    These traces rarely flesh out world-important characters or people we actually meet. Mostly they just populate the world with uncounted numbers of everyday people — essentially anonymous and interchangeable, as we ultimately all are in our essential concerns: to live, to take care of people who matter to us, to hang on to the places and things that furnish our identities.

    There is perhaps one case where these traces serve to provide backstory for a person we actually meet — in a sewer level where your party explores the tragic remnants of what had been a small colony of survivors, there is a fleeting reference to a man with the same name as someone you encounter later in the game, at first as an ally and again as a horrible antagonist leading a much more sinister community. Is it the same person? Is the predatory society he has constructed all that could be salvaged out of what was once a small bastion of hope? Perhaps, perhaps not. That in either case it really could be anyone is the point. (As Joel tells Ellie of highway ambushes, “I’ve been on both sides.”)

    Update: Nope, I was totally, totally off-base on this one. I thought a certain name appears in a child’s drawing in the sewer level, but doesn’t — the name is similar, but not the same. Oh well.

    This is not a story about what is happening in the world and why, and it’s not a story about saving the world, although some of the characters are striving for that. These aren’t messiah characters or even typical legendary antiheroes — Joel and Tess aren’t selected to transport Ellie across the country because they’re the best smugglers available. They aren’t the chosen to do this job because they’re best qualified for it; they kill the guy who was chosen and qualified in an arms deal gone wrong and get stuck with Ellie by default. He’s just some guy.

    Joel and Ellie never uncover an evil conspiracy or the mustache-twirling progenitor of their apocalypse. There’s no global or national narrative beyond what we can infer from the terrain over which they travel. Everyone we meet — even the one possible “savior” figure — is just a person, just trying their best to get by. No heroes, no villains. Just people.

    This is my favorite aspect of The Last of Us — its comparative restraint of scope, and its insistence on telling stories about human beings, rather than abstractions.

    Of course, it doesn’t execute this perfectly. Enemies aren’t as fully fleshed out as they could be, and Ellie is definitely somewhat over-idealized. And there are definitely some aspects where they’ve clearly sacrificed a smooth, consistent narrative to the needs of gameplay. But on the whole, it’s an amazing feat of game storytelling.

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  3. But games don’t need to be purely about escape. They don’t need to let us be people with wildly different experiences from our own in worlds that are wholly foreign to us. As I played through the demo for Gone Home, an upcoming game by The Fullbright Company, I experienced something extraordinary. The game wasn’t just allowing me to be someone else; it was illuminating parts of myself.
    — 

    The Places of Our Past: Exploring the Emotional Intimacy of Gone Home - GameSpot.com

    I keep coming across statements like this about Gone Home, and I keep wincing when I see them.

    A white suburban home is not less foreign to me than, say, Mass Effect's Citadel. It's actually more foreign to me, because I have a lifetime of being at home in imagined futures, whereas I cannot say the same about white suburbs.

    Mind you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the setting of Gone Home. There’s no wrong place to tell a story — it all comes down to whether you do your setting justice, no matter where it is.

    But in a lot of the previews I’ve encountered, games writers have embraced the setting of Gone Home as representing “our” past, when of course it’s a past that belongs only to some of the people who may be interested in playing the game.

    It’s important — for both creators and critics — to remember that specific cultural contexts are never universal and that every work set in a particular context is going to be experienced both by insiders and by outsiders. And if you’re going to talk about how a work relates to “our” past, you need to be able to say with clarity who is being included and who is being excluded in your use of the first person.

    This is true in all media — it’s very much the thing I was complaining about in regard to Beth Yarnelle Edwards’s Suburban Dreams, and it’s part of the main problem I have with Buffy.

    Now, I don’t know whether it will be a problem with Gone Home, because I haven’t played it yet. Hopefully it won’t. But from the start it’s been a problem with how the media has covered the game.

     
  4. Quick-ass Bioshock Infinite Review

    The World

    Bioshock Infinite has one of the most impressive worlds I’ve ever seen. Not because it’s beautiful (although it is), and not because it feels particularly complete and fully realized (which it doesn’t), but because it holds up such a strong and critical mirror to American nationalism and racism.

    The Hall of Heroes setpiece, in which Booker and Elizabeth walk through lovingly rendered, utterly grotesque, themepark depictions of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, is pretty much what justifies the game’s price for me. This isn’t casual bigotry that taints a community but a thorough, studied, artful hatred that forms the community’s foundation. It’s beautiful and disgusting and perfect. Everyone should at least youtube this part of the game.

    The Story

    The story of Bioshock Infinite, which I will try not to spoil, is in structure more or less a Borges story: all idea, little characterization, and requiring the most precise tolerances in execution in order to work well. And it almost does.

    The problem is that this kind of story almost always requires a short form execution. There are maybe two hours’ worth of story in the actual narrative of Bioshock Infinite, and if this were a suitably short game like Journey or Papo & Yo, it would be brilliant.

    However, they’ve taken a AAA-length game (albeit maybe a touch on the short side) and stretched it over that two hours of story, and that’s a problem. It shows in the narrative dead time where you’re doing busywork or running around for no good reason, and it shows in the unfinished and generic characters — including Booker and Elizabeth, who when compared to, say, Monkey and Trip of Enslaved, or Drake and Elena of Uncharted, feel like straight-up cardboard cutouts.

    (By the way, Enslaved has a narrative structure that is quite similar to Bioshock Infinite, but it does a much better job of fleshing it out into a full-length story.)

    The Gameplay

    It has Bioshock's controls, but the design sensibilities of Uncharted — which is to say, it’s built around much more gamey/set-up encounters, enemy behavior is pretty rote, and the whole thing is waaaaaay linear.

    Which doesn’t really bother me at all; I like Uncharted style games.

    Go play Kentucky Route Zero, damn it

    Ultimately, I find that Bioshock Infinite is a great demonstration of what’s broken about AAA games. If you take similar values — Americana, tragedy, political awareness, trippy narrative — and instead of strapping them to a $60 shooter experience, put them in another format, like the art-game adventure style of Kentucky Route Zero, then you can have a vastly more complete and fulfilling experience. (Or so I hope after playing the first act of KRZ. It could always fall apart.)

     
  5. image: Download

    Guru Meditation, part of Ahhhcade at SFMOMA. Few more photos here.

    Guru Meditation, part of Ahhhcade at SFMOMA. Few more photos here.

     
  6. The works on display here also trace the extremes of our capabilities and the frontiers of our patience as both viewers and exhibitors.

    Are we capable of viewing these works as they were meant to be viewed? Do we even want to be?

    Limits and Demonstrations

     
  7. Mass Affect (WORDPLAY!)

    So, I seem unable to shut up about how much I like Mass Effect, and how great the ending is, and fuck everyone who didn’t like it. Well, maybe writing an overwrought blog post will fix that. Probably not, though. I’ll try to keep it short (har, har), and I’ll let you know before we hit spoiler territory.

    Oh, also, because of how I relate to this game series (I really buy into the fiction), there’s going to be a ton of narrative infodump here. If you haven’t played the games, it’s going to read a lot like a kid who’s excited about something ruining it by telling you what happens in the most boringly enthusiastic manner. So, heads up.

    What genre are we in, here?

    I’m not going to point to the series as breaking any new ground. Mass Effect isn’t groundbreaking science fiction, and it isn’t about introducing new and unforeseen ideas into the genre discourse. It’s about taking classic genre themes and putting them into a really enjoyable, really satisfying, popular audience space opera package. In other words, Mass Effect is playing in roughly the same league as Star Wars.

    It’s a role-playing game, motherfuckers. Roleplay it.

    The story will look very different depending on how you played the game — what choices you made, what relationships you formed, and, more importantly, what fiction you built for yourself around those choices and those relationships.

    That really matters in Mass Effect. It’s not the kind of RPG where you can just manage stats and chase points all day long. If you don’t build that additional layer of fiction between yourself and the character — if you don’t fucking roleplay at least a little — then you’re not going to get all that much out of these games.

    This does mean, however, that my experience won’t be transferable to everyone else. I once heard a lecturer talk about Marx (at least, I think it was Marx), and he had to pause and clarify that when he talked about Marx, he was talking about his Marx — meaning his reading, his interpretation, his understanding of Marx. His Marx worked. His Marx was relevant. But not necessarily everyone else’s Marx. Similarly, my Mass Effect is fucking awesome. I can’t guarantee yours is.

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  8. Reading List: a Notional Video Game

    Here’s an idea for a video game:

    You play as the tutor or mentor to the heir to an empire. It can be an historical empire, or a fantasy empire, but if it’s a fantasy empire, the protagonist character should be from our world, and have access to our culture.

    The primary gameplay mechanic would be the selection of a series of reading lists for the future king. Your choices have consequences for his (or her) moral development, thinking skills, political and interpersonal savvy, etc. Do you have them read Machiavelli, Jesus, Ayn Rand? Shakespeare or Arthur Miller? Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys? How much can you assign them, before you risk diluting their attention or earning their enmity? How much should you cater to their tastes? How much can you afford to challenge them? What are the unintended consequences of your selections? (For example, what if you select a story which you think is about justice, but your pupil is far more interested in the gender mores, or how a certain character reminds them of their father?)

    Your pupil has limited time and attention, and you have to decide what is most important for them to learn. You make those decisions based on the ongoing history of the empire and the world, the current political situation, and events (some pedestrian, some momentous) which unfold around your pupil — and in response to the feedback they give you.

    This could include a secondary game mechanic, question and answer sessions in which your ability to maintain a socratic dialog will shape their perceptiveness, their moral inclinations, and also their degree of respect for you. Your choice of answers, but also your speed in answering and even indicators of uncertainty (like changing selections a couple times before settling on one and confirming it) would shape your pupil’s perception of you as well as their understanding of the topic at hand.

    The nature of these questions, and the pace and rigor of the discussion, change over the course of the game, as the pupil grows and eventually comes into power. At the end of a game, you are presented with the ruler you helped shape: is the new king a wise ruler, or a foolish one? Do they tend towards tyranny, toward democracy? Do the conquer, do they create peace, or are they incapable of holding on to their lands?

    Repeat play would be rewarded with different historical events, different side characters, and, most importantly, a different pupil — a sickly but intellectual one, or a strapping but idiotic one, are obvious possibilities. But what about one who is both weak and dumb? Could such a person rule well, by learning how to delegate effectively and how to recognize whom to trust? What about a budding sociopath? Can you help create a productive outlet for violent urges?

    Another secondary gameplay mechanic could cover how you spend your time when not tutoring your pupil. Do you stay abreast of court gossip, news of diplomacy and war, or do you research the past for clues to the future? Do you consult with other adults who influence your pupil — mother and father, other instructors, influential courtiers? How much do you observe your pupil, and how clandestinely?

    From a technical standpoint, I suspect this sort of game would not be that hard to create. In terms of interface, a text interface would suffice for full interactivity, or you could pile on lots of graphics, provided you weren’t too dependent on word-for-word scripting.

    You could also play into interface limitations as part of the gameplay mechanics — for example, you could learn about your pupil by watching their behavior from a distance, out of earshot — from a tower window, for example. You could see how interactions play out by observing body language and consequences, and thus eliminate the need to script those interactions. This would make it possible to generate whole relationships (over the course of decades, in-game) procedurally, and subtly different every time.

    Those relationships would shape the future as much as the future king’s beliefs and skills. A king who makes enemies from his earliest days will be more likely to be assassinated; one who cannot stand up to those whose interests are contrary to his will be unable to command or negotiate with other nations.

    The tricky part in all this would be in research and writing. It would be necessary to assemble a fairly extensive body of metadata about a fairly extensive catalog of cultural literacy — tagging books for political orientation, key themes, character archetypes, etc. This would not really be all that difficult provided you had a reasonably large staff of researchers — it’s really not that much qualitatively more difficult than the creation of the Scribblenauts dictionary.

    You would also need to hire some consultants on psychology, etc., to build in some procedures for how your pupil will learn in response to input. This needn’t be too intensive — randomization can model real behavior about as well as most of the current social science models, anyway, so randomization can do a lot of the heavy listing in place of determinism. (Sort of like dice rolls when creating a character for roleplaying games.)

    Of course, no one will ever make this game, because how could you possibly make money at it? It would be pretty delightful to see someone try to advertise it, for example. There isn’t even any combat! : )

    Seriously, though, to sell something like this, you’d probably have to add a puzzle component, or some other such thing. Or else brand it as a dating sim and sell it in Japan…