Monday, December 26, 2011

Progress bars & load screens

Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! has a new installment up at Gamasutra. As always it's pretty great! I agree with a lot of the criticisms made. However, there is one in particular that caught my eye:
Giant Internet Explorer's little circle goes 'round and 'round, telling me nothing. Yet the tiny, free xScope browser for my Android phone includes a progress bar that shows me how much of the page has loaded. It's invaluable.

[...]Put in a progress bar that fills up, once, until the load process is complete. It doesn't have to be perfect; if you load 2 files and one of them is 10KB and one is 10MB, but you allocate half the bar to the first one and half the bar to the second, that's tolerable. We don't really care as long as we can see movement.

The "donut" of the spinning progress circle gets a lot of shit. I just feel compelled to mount a brief defense of it, since the justification makes sense to me. If I were designing a loading screen, I wouldn't want to draw ire for making an entirely justifiable decision.

First, let's look at IE vs xScope to understand how a donut and a progress bar serve slightly different uses. Internet Explorer is normally on a desktop machine, whereas xScope is a mobile browser. It's safe to say that in the author's case Internet Explorer is more likely to be hooked up to a high-speed internet connection, while  xScope is most likely on a 3G mobile connection. The differences between the two are important. If IE listed out every single element on a webpage and calculated how long each would load, it would probably spend more time on those calculations than actually acquiring the data through its fat pipe connection. On a mobile device, however, two things are important: You send out a mobile useragent, which often gets you a simplified version of webpages, and you have a laggy, slow, fairly unreliable connection. Less elements + higher chance something will hang = better reason to do the calculations to show what's left in the loading process.

Now let's look at the suggestion to fake progress bars with the naive approach of grouping files into buckets and just showing rough estimates progress. In this example, the two files differ by four [Three? - ed.] orders of magnitude. Let's be unrealistic for a second to illustrate a point and assume that it takes 1 second to load a 10KB file. So, you sit at the loading screen, and after 1 second of watching an empty progress bar it goes up by half. Very nice!

Now, let's take our naive loading algorithm and assume that it is linear with regards to file size. 1 second for a 10KB file means to load a 10MB file would take... Oh.

(1 second / 10 kb) * (1000 kb / 1 mb ) * (10 mb) = 1,000 seconds.

After waiting for 1 second to see the progress bar move, you are now waiting 16 minutes to see it move again, according to our naive algorithm. The point is not "this would take 16 minutes to load", the point is that files can easily differ by orders of magnitude, so tying progress to file size means your progress bar will have gaps with orders of magnitude. An experience with large time gaps calls the conclusion ("we can see movement") into question, since the majority of time the progress bar is not moving.

Furthermore, there is user research  on the subject of progress bars - ever watch something hit 99% complete and sit there for a while? It's annoying. Much more annoying than, say, waiting for something to go from 0% to 1%. If you want to do loading "right", you need a non-trivial algorithm to display this information to the user.

So now we have two pieces of data from our thought experiment. One is that a naive approach to progress bars is ineffective and doesn't always give the user an assurance that their box hasn't crashed. The other is that users prefer certain algorithms to displaying progress. This is becoming a complicated issue! If you look at documentation, even the MSDN page for progress bars is full of caveats about usage.

Sims2: Pets loading screen. Progress bar with caption:
"Scolding Splines for Reticulating" [Source]

The reason for the spinning donut is simple. It doesn't give the user information to guess a time to completion, so the user can't be frustrated by that last 1% on a loading bar or a fake progress bar that has no relationship to actual completion. Progress bars, in the context of a game, don't really provide useful information to the user. Showing files and categories loaded might be interesting to some, but The Sims shows complete nonsense to the user and no one I'm aware of has ever complained that "reticulating splines" or "Dividing by zero" is misleading - so how useful can accurate information be? The user, as No Twinkie! cedes, is only interested in making sure their console hasn't crashed. So what additional benefit does a progress bar provide over a spinning donut?

My point isn't that progress bars are always bad. My point is that for progress bars to be effective, they need to be carefully considered in context and implementation. It's not just a matter of hacking together the first thing you think of. It's possible to implement load bars properly, but it takes time and effort and risks aggravating your load times even further. All that time and effort spent will need to be revisited when assets are added or removed. Why not just show a spinning donut instead? Users are always going to be frustrated by load times. A donut is not "accurate", but your loading bar isn't going to be accurate either. If you're working on a game, wouldn't you like to fix 5 or 6 more bugs instead of hyper-optimizing something for no benefit?

Edited to correct minor typos, including "an assurance that their box has not crashed" and an off by one on the orders of magnitude involved. Oops.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mega Man Generations

This video explaining why Mega Man X is actually a great sequel was making the rounds (warning: is a YouTube video about video games--jump to 12:11- 15:45 for the relevant bit), but one claim in particular stood out to me. The author says, “Mega Man X is about growing stronger,” and he cites evidence from the game-play and the scripted sequences. It’s true! The Mega Man series has a lot of hidden depth that tends to get ignored. The games are separated into sub-series, each of which takes place about 100 years apart. While the games evolved to keep up with (or even define) modern conventions, the progression of the Mega Man games when examined together also tracks the optimistic rise of a new technology, the unforseen side effects, the struggle to control and contain technology, and the rejuvenation that comes at the end, starting another cycle.

Mega Man, Dr Light and Rush stand on a ruined highway beneath a clear, blue sky as Dr Wily taunts them with his magnificent mustache.
Source []

Mega Man 7 - 20XXAD. Mega Man 7 was the first Mega Man game that took plot as something more than a few words on an interstitial screen. In this game, Mega Man is a bright character in bright world, and the game even starts with a bit of slapstick as Mega Man dons a met hat instead of his helmet. Oh, and let’s not forget the wince-inducing naming schema of Rockman, Roll, Blues, Bass and Treble. The sky is pure blue even with the temporary devastation of yet another Dr. Wily jailbreak. Mega Man is a new creation, a new technology, fighting against those who use the same technology for evil. The comically-evil bad guy always goes to jail at the end, even if he breaks out in the next game.

X leaps above a torpedo shot from a giant flying bee under a dark sky. Some Blade-Runner-lookin skyscrapers rise up in the background. 
Source []

Mega Man X - 21XX AD. The X series was a major tonal shift. It was on the same hardware as MM7, but the palette is completely different. No mention is made of the world previous to this one, except for Dr. Light’s ghostly hologram. X is a bright character in dark world. He literally glows with energy, and his armor upgrades turn him towards pure white, even as the highway collapses in ruins under his feet.

According to the plot, X is lost technology rediscovered by Dr. Cain. Cain clones the technology he finds from X to revolutionize industries across the world. However, the Sigma virus rewrites this poorly understood technology and destroys the earth just as the new automation has finished building it. The future is grim. X sees a future with constant warfare and wonders at the futility of his goal. Does he have to fight forever? 

Zero sits in the rain, alone. A ruined city is in the background
Zero chills out in an underground ruin while a giant robot hand grabs Ciel.

Source Gallery []

Mega Man Zero - ~22XX AD? The Zero series starts with a dark character in dark world. The techno-utopian Neo-Arcadia (literally: a new place where people are believed to live peacefully) sentences dissident robots to death while the city’s humans remain mysteriously out of view. Technology is wielded by the entrenched hierarchs of Neo-Arcadia, who use their endless supply of Pantheons to maintain power through complete control, in this case, of energy supplies.
The shining optimism of new technology present in Mega Man is gone. The struggle to control existing technology in the X series has been lost. Zero is from the past, and he is the only one who can dismantle the tight control of production maintained by Neo-Arcadia.

The game emphasizes Zero’s brutality. Unlike X, he gets up close with his sword for the kill (rewarded in boss fights with a shot of your enemy split neatly in half, revealing their inner circuits before they explode). The Zero games have a scoring system which emphasizes Zero’s remorseless killing--levels where you finish under a par time, kill lots of enemies and don’t take any damage get you higher ranks. This leads to a guerilla-like approach to combat: move quickly, exploit terrain to your advantage, only engage when necessary.

Zero’s mobility is reinforced by the nomadic nature of his allies, who travel in caravans and attack remote bases in the desert. They are outcasts, struggling for survival and hoping Zero’s ancient technology can lead them to victory.
ZX (look, I don't name 'em, ok?) is chilling in a verdant forest fighting a snake-monster thing. The trees in the background have faint traces of wiring sticking through. Well, except that one tree, which has a big-ass wire wrapped around it. 

Source []

Mega Man ZX - ~24XX AD? The ZX series got weird. It was the shortest series and probably the most reviled*. It was about technology regenerated, as the palettes started shifting back towards bright. Z and X have become “biometals”, merged with a human, and their collective angst has been toned down.
You explore cities and wilderness meshed together in an open world. It illustrated the tension between this happy safe world of technology but also the wilderness of unchecked Reploids.
However, the game is also about the influence of the past. You collect the remnants of the last series’ Big Bads, and their ghosts guide you. Technology has been tamed again, but will the ghosts of years past let it sleep peacefully? Where will this world be in another 100 years?


*Well okay anything past X4 or X5 is really the most reviled since the whole thing with Keiji Inafune having his creative authority overridden by Capcom’s insatiable desire for sequels really got out of control after X5 (the series went up to X8, unfortunately), but there were only two ZX games, and they were largely hampered by an inscrutable map screen and a blandly designed, forgettable world.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

Hey look, if you’re going to make a by-the-book game, then I am going to write a by-the-book look at it. With bullet points.

  • Pacing problems: the Desmond plot is urgent while the Ezio plot is languorous. The game works better when you feel like you need to explore the ancient memories while Desmond poopsocks in the Animus because otherwise why are you reliving an ancient male power fantasy when you are actually dying?

  • Plot problems: Not really “about” Ezio or even Altair. It’s about filling in a few blanks and spending some time on the Apple of Eden subplot instead of cramming said subplot into the last five minutes of the third act.
    • The more we learn about these crazy time-travelling aliens, the dumber they seem. “Fragmentation of society due to the massive unchecked power of the Apple” would have been a lot more thematically appropriate than “unstoppable natural disaster”. 
    • Even the Ezio plot didn’t have the elaborate conspiracies and double-crosses I’ve come to expect. Instead it was, “Hey, grab six Macguffins. Now here is a bad guy. The end.”
    • Actually, it’s not really fair to say that the plot is about filling in the alien subplot. It’s also about the philosophical battle between the Templars and Assassins. Ezio kills a man who turns out to be innocent. Altair deals with the corruption of a friend. Desmond has just killed his mentor and almost-girlfriend. The Templars, in contrast, claim to be seeking knowledge. They fight in self-defense against the Assassins who invaded their city. The Templars aren’t all good, of course, but neither are they entirely in the wrong this time around. It’s like Ezio’s age has tempered the message of the series. It’s no longer “Templars Bad, Assassins Good”. It’s “Who Do You Trust With The Apple?”

  • Mission structure: I really enjoyed the missions where you had to hold down forward and A, almost as much as I enjoyed the missions where you didn’t have to do anything except walk up to a person and put down the controller.
    • There was ONE infiltration-and-assassination mission. That’s ridiculous.
    • The game has a ton of trouble sticking to its core strengths. It’s not that additional systems are diluting the experience, it’s that for a game about assassination, there were an awful lot of horse carriage chases and walk-and-talks.
    • The Desmond scenes really illustrate this perfectly. The Animus “island”, which I suppose is a poorly explored, clich├ęd metaphor for “the ocean of the unconscious”, has none of the climb-and-explore game-play AC is known for. The Desmond missions are a first-person jumping puzzle game.
      • Which I don’t even. I got turned around so many times that I lost sight of where I was supposed to go, and I didn’t have any access to any of the tools I would normally have in an AC game (like a minimap or eagle vision) to help me out. It was abstract for the sake of being abstract. Desmond’s whining retcons* about how he didn’t listen to his mommy and daddy doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his moral fiber. I ended up rage-quitting** the second puzzle just so I could get on with my life.

(*) Seriously, didn’t he wake up in an Abstergo building and play dumb about Templars and Assassins? The entire point of Desmond--as I saw it--was that he was the “everyman” who gets swept up in something larger than himself. He is the player vessel, meant to guide the player through a complicated plot. To say that he was secretly aware the entire time (and trained!) not only means the player cannot relate to him as well as before, but it also means that the Animus’s bleeding effect, which supposedly was serving to train “everyman” Desmond in the ways of the Assassins, was a waste of time.
(**) It’s worth noting that I am the guy who rage-quit Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I am not a patient gamer.

Fiddly Bits
  • The game starts with the Ubisoft logo glitching out, implying a sort of digital corruption. Then Ezio hallucinates that he sees his ancestor in a callback to the bleeding effect. Then you see Desmond is in a coma, wherein his subconscious is dealing with the scrambled personality of the previous Animus test subject and is struggling to regain his sense of self. These elements are perfect for a ghost-in-the-machine type of story about Desmond’s shattered conscious, Ezio’s aging mind, and Sixteen’s shattered sanity. Instead, we got a story about a Strong Male Character who seduces a sexy librarian.
    • The bleeding effect itself is an extremely powerful element. We’ve all gone to bed and dreamed of the games we’ve just marathoned. When Desmond is first confronted with the ghosts of guards in AC2, I about jumped out of my skin while mashing the attack button. It’s something that connects to the player in an instinctive way. To hint at the glitch in the Matrix in the intro and then drop it completely is the biggest tease in the series so far. 
    • Incidentally, will Desmond ever explore his matrilineal memories? Hahahahah no.
  • The assassin deployment mini-game is improved, making map territories more meaningful. I complained about that in Brotherhood, and it’s fixed now. Okay.
  • Too many fiddly bits with the bombs. Finding treasure, especially early in the game, is less about, “Sweet! A much needed infusion of cash,” and more about, “x2 impact shell IMPACT SHELL FULL.”
  • It’s one thing to have a unique control mechanism that is slightly quirky and unpredictable for your first game in the series. By the time you get to the fourth installment, you should really prevent the button for “use the hookblade to swing up a building really fast” resulting in “wall jump backwards from the tallest building in the game and go flying into the void”.
  • The god damn bug where parachutes randomly disappear is still fucking present. You buy fifteen parachutes, do some missions, and when you come back, try and jump off a building before noticing your parachute counter is at zero.
  • It's worth your time to read what Corvus had to say about the game as well

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Arkham City Map App

One of the interesting things about Arkham City is the $3 iPad app that lets you know where Riddler Trophies are. Collectibles are an interesting topic and there are a lot of great essays covering what makes for good and bad collectibles, but what’s interesting about Arkham City and the companion app is the gaping hole between games and their companion pieces.

There are about 400 trophies scattered across Arkham City. In the game, you can either scan in existing trophies to record their location, or take out green-colored bad guys in order to wring the information from their mouths onto your map. However, location is not enough - each trophy might have a puzzle or a required gadget associated with it (Catwoman has her own set of trophies which only she can collect), and so the OFFICIAL Batman: Arkham City Map App (OB:ACMA?) gives you a touch-screen interface where you can tap the riddle and get a screenshot and some text purportedly containing the solution to the riddle. Of course, there are some complications.

Let’s say you’re like me, and you’re easily pressured into finishing the main plot, but along the way you manage to scoop up a healthy serving of easily-solved riddles and trophies. Ten hours in, you finish the main plot, and start looking at how many effing trophies there are. From the accumulated scans and interrogations, you have a pretty good idea on how to start up but every five to ten trophies you get stuck, or you can’t find the thing, or whatever. You could walk to the other room, get on your preferred search engine, and start searching for terms like “arkham city bowery riddler trophies” (hah! Good fucking luck finding the one you mean!), or you could try and find sites that give reasonable and complete solutions while cross-referencing that with other sites and their maps, or you can just spend the measly three extra dollars on a really good game with really good puzzles. So you do, and you open the app, and oh my god the entire map is covered with riddle icons.

There are a few ways to proceed. You can either try and eyeball the solution and the screenshot to see if you remember getting a particular trophy so you can mark it complete. This is risky - a lot of solutions are very similar, and locations are hard to discern, so you might get a false positive. Plus, it takes a long time (four hundred trophies, and about five seconds to click a riddle, look at it, and mark it done or not). Or, you can go back in time, start playing with the app in hand, and mark every. single. trophy. as you receive it. This means constantly dropping in and out of the game, double checking your location on the map, and going through that five-second process four hundred times--just spread out from minute 1, when you might care more about other things (like enjoying the new game you’re just getting used to). Or, you can try the pragmatic approach: interrogate a few thugs until you have a reasonably complete map, and just approximate your location against the OB:ACMA when you get stuck on a tough one. This is what I did. I am missing exactly two trophies.

There is a better way.

The Xbox Companion app for the phone will eventually allow you to control your console from your phone. This isn’t completely a new idea. It’s just a specialized form of remotely accessing a machine which has been around since basically forever, but for some reason this is the first big shot in the “three screens” war. The premise of “three screens” is that we have information we access in 3 ways: smartphones, televisions, computer monitors. Right now those three are fairly isolated from each other. Although it’s possible to have a media PC that outputs to a TV screen, or a smartphone app that remotes to your computer, it’s generally pretty rare and/or clunky.

What technical limitations prevent an iPad app from talking to an Xbox game to figure out what trophies you’ve already collected? Xbox games are free to talk to the Internet - Ubisoft already has a proof of concept for this, and Burnout: Paradise allows you to upload a PS3 save file to see what you’re missing. I can imagine it adds a fair amount of work to the game in development, but a read-only API doesn’t require much in terms of assets or voice work. Costs could be more or less recouped with official map apps that actually track your progress. It would keep people playing your games longer, blah blah blah, monetization strategy, synergistic transmedia experience, etc.

Of course, I’d like to take this one step further, right into Crystal Chronicles territory. How come me and my six poker buddies can’t sit in front of an Xbox and have the pot and buttons and community cards on the television while our pocket cards are sent to our smartphones? How come when “the” Age of Empires Online app is finally published to Windows Phone 7, it’s just a list of recipes I can make instead of a tool to let me craft those recipes during my bus commute?

There is wasted potential here. The technology exists, and I’m pretty sure there’s a market for it as well. It just hasn’t been touched - at all.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Procedural Rhetoric and SPAZ

Procedural rhetoric is the idea that the execution of a series of rules (such as in a game) creates a persuasive argument. Space Pirates and Zombies (hereafter: SPAZ) is a 2D top-down action RPG in the vein of Elite, Escape Velocity, Space Ranger, etc.

SPAZ puts you in the role of a space pirate. A galaxy is generated on demand, populated with star systems inhabited by factions (initially Civ and UTA to represent civilians and military) who are always at war with each other, and may or may not be at war with you. Each faction has a random value from the subset {Hate, Dislike, Neutral, Like, Friend} assigned to you, where anything below neutral becomes “shoot on sight” and can be altered through bribes or missions at the expense of the other faction’s relationship. Each star also has gates leading to other stars, gates protected by the UTA.

There are three resources: goons (essentially hostage humans), rez (money), and data (experience). All three can be obtained from destroyed ships, but goons can be bought for rez and sold for rez or data, or to buy faction rep. Goons and rez are required to make new ships when your fleet is destroyed during combat.
Unlike other Elite games, you can’t ferry trade goods back and forth to make a profit. You can mine by exploring asteroid fields or hanging around mining bases to pick up spare rez (and if you run out of resources, this is your only recourse) but once you have built up a fleet of significant size, it’s quite a bit easier to tear down a few UTA blockades and scavenge their remnants for all three resources. Each star system also has starbases that can sell techs if your relationship is high enough, but those techs also are yielded when the starbase is destroyed as well. Hint, hint.

In any given star system, you can either spend resources in bribes or gain resources by playing the factions against each other. Resources can be gained peacefully but slowly, or quickly and savagely. Factions can help you out, but their destruction would grant you equal benefits. To top it all off, it’s much cheaper to blow through low-level blockades than to bribe your way through them.

Ergo, SPAZ essentially gives you two options. The lawful trading game, which is tedious and low-reward, and the pirate game where you get to have exciting space battles (the mechanics of which are beyond the scope of this post for now) that reward you with plenty of resources and as a side effect, grant you a few Steam achievements. These two mechanics aren’t even, and end up forming a compelling reason to be the titular space pirate. Thus, the mechanics create meaning.


I think it’s important to continue cataloging how games create meaning. Once again, the Fun/Not Fun argument is rearing its head and is reinforced by the constant re-visitation of the ludo-narrative experience. There’s not anything wrong with it, but you know how this goes. Stand on empty beach, draw line in sand. Stranger shows up and asks, “But what is a line, anyway?”

Someone else appears and holds up a ruler, and yet another person drops in to say, “Rulers are hegemonic instruments of coercion, and do you even know how that ruler was made?” All of a sudden a thousand people are defining a thousand lines.

You look down at your feet to find that you are enclosed by a hundred tiny scribbles. You wonder how to even begin building something out of this mess, this shared illusion of our metaphorical beach. You look up and imagine a beautiful sandcastle that we can all agree is a beautiful castle no matter the definition of “castle”.

You look down at your feet again and those lines are still there. Straight, slashes, dashes, sinusoidal. You pick up your Game Boy and tell yourself it’s not just a distraction. There is something here. You are giving away your time and receiving something precious and ineffable, and you are in no way fooling yourself, right?

The beach collapses. Only the screen exists. You are absorbed. You feel something come into you from the screen. You want to explain your journey, depict and delineate it so others can follow. You draw a line.

Friday, September 16, 2011

PAX Panels 2011

PAX is always a great opportunity to collect your thoughts and reflect on the industry. Last year the themes I saw crystallized around the changing demographics of games: the takeover by casual gaming, the encroaching territory of free to play, the failure of developers to reflect the diversity lurking beneath the surface. Those problems haven't been "solved" by a long shot, but now those ideas have baked for a while and don't seem to terrify as many people. The message this year, if I may blithely condense 3 days and 80k people into a single concept, was taking these new developments for granted and focusing on the best methods for moving forward.


“We Study Games...Professionally: Academic Research and Game Studies”:

This seemed to be a repeat panel from last year. A few people talked about their research, some of which involved creating games to collect data from users. Lots of focus on MMOs and player models. One panelist was involved in using games for education. I asked why older edutainment games were largely ignored and got several dismissals: they weren't fun, they weren't educational, etc. I'll have to explore that myself, I guess.

“The Harridan's Guide to the Game Industry”:

I thought this was more focused on women's issues on getting into the industry but instead it was just issues in the industry that happened to be discussed by women. Which is fine! Actually better than fine, right? Because not all women need to talk about women issues all the time, and there were other panels that were more focused on feminist perspectives. One touching moment came from a questioner who said she was in grade 11 and unsure how to tell people around her she wanted to be a game designer. The advice: "Ignore people who tell you otherwise. One day your game will be in the news, will have a trailer or a commercial, and you will be able to point at it and say, ‘That's what I do.’ You are good enough to be in this industry.”

“It's About All of Us: A Follow Up To PAX East's The Other Us Panel”:

This panel was moderated by Abbe Heppe, who wrote a critique of Metroid: Other M that focused on Samus' shift from strong warrior that happened to be a woman to a weeping, weak tool used and controlled by men. (Obviously, Abbe got a lot of shit for that review.)

This was a great panel that focused on how to build communities that aren't fostering harassment and sexism. The Naughty Dog community manager suggested being open with the community while curating an aggressive word filter: many people "don't get" that using “rape" in a casual context is actually Not Acceptable until it gets blocked, and that’s a great way to start a conversation about why some words are not appropriate for a gaming discussion. A questioner brought up the objection that word-filtering can further marginalize invisible groups that want to talk about gay issues, survivor issues, etc. The panel didn’t have an easy answer for how to eliminate harassing language without shutting out legitimate conversations. The only advice was to be open with your users, listen carefully to feedback, and continually monitor usage of problematic words. Other panelists also emphasized the need for self-moderation in communities. It’s up to community members to make sure harassment doesn’t get normalized.

Dudebro moment: an audience member asked a question trotting out, “But male characters are bad too,” a common fallacy that suggests that women’s issues are irrelevant because men also have problems. Unremarkable if ignorant until in a follow-up comment he dropped the c-bomb during a panel about harassment and diversity. He got shouted at after the panel ended by a few other audience members for that.

Fat, Ugly or Slutty: Exposing Harassment in Online Gaming

This was also a great panel that touched on some of the same concepts as above. It was recorded, and their hilarious parody video of "how to not get harassed" is well worth watching.

Change at a Moment's Notice... User Interface

This was a hidden gem of a panel in my opinion. It was led by guys from Warner Entertainment who work on a core UI team that shares its work with every WB game. It was mostly about the process that goes into creating a good user experience / user interface. (Please don’t ask about the conflation of terms. It drives me nuts.) A few insights: A UX designer needs to know everything from user psychology to the intricacies of 3D modeling. Art is not just about skinning things, it’s about communication. Mirror’s Edge uses color as representation instead of icons; Deus Ex is entirely about enabling game-play through the UI (i.e. upgrades tend to be UI upgrades).

The Agony and Ecstasy of RPG Writing:

This was a panel hosted by people who have written for Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (!!!), Alpha Protocol, Guild Wars 2, and Fallout: New Vegas. With the exception of Guild Wars, all games that had excellent writing marred by deep technical issues. They talked about common issues that writers experience - the poor V:TM:B writer had his head in his hands when the topic of cut content was raised. They suggested instead of time-to-crate metric, RPGs needed a “time-to-diary” metric to see how long a player could go through an RPG without finding an email, journal or book conveniently exposing a door code, Evil Plan, or back-story that couldn’t be exposed in a more natural manner, especially in “open” games where you can kill quest-critical characters or info-dump characters. I asked how boss fights fit into the writing process - unsurprisingly, the answer was that boss fights were something forced in by level designers as opposed to organically written in by the writers. Money quote: “Everyone working on a game is a storyteller.”

You Call That Fun?!:

Well, I went to this panel with skewed expectations due to the conversation K.Cox and I had. As it turns out, while the panel was filled with dudes who had an incredibly impressive history in the gaming industry, the talk was mostly about typical stuff in game design - game-play loops, extensive play-testing, etc. I posed my thesis on fun to them as a question and they rejected it. Oops. Maybe my response to the aforementioned conversation with Your Critic won’t be finished after all.

What Women Really Want:

This was much better as a panel where women talked about games rather than an in-depth discussion on feminism. There were a lot of instances of the word “slutty” being thrown around as kind-of-negative, which I always find weird. Bayonetta and “femShep” were both brought up, but they largely mirrored the discussions online: Bayonetta is “empowering”, beauty contests for femShep’s look, etc. However, hearing the women talk about Alistair and Garrus and playing Heavy Rain for the father-son relationship was amusing and interesting. I’d file this one under the “Harridan” category of “topics that happen to be presented by women” instead of the harassment or Fat,Ugly or Slutty category of “women speaking about definitively women’s issues” with the same caveat--maybe not what I expected, but perfectly fine and amusing in its own right.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution photojournal

No spoilers here.

Deus Ex versus Deus Ex Human Revolution review:

Did Human Revolution have a come-to-Jesus moment like when Icarus is pursuing you, or Daedalus blows you out of prison? No.

Did Human Revolution have a you-lost-all-your-equipment-because-it’s-a-breakout-level moment? Also no.

So, I call it a draw.

Some of the encounters are framed beautifully.

Human Revolution has some classy old-school loading screens. It also has lorum Ipsum text visible in the background text.

Some of the background architecture is absolute nonsense and I love it.

Shenga uses a lot of tight corridors and high ceilings to make you feel enclosed, but then you look up and see you’re under a “hood”. Oh.

A lot of shit is just weird, which is awesome. This level is kind of weird anyway. It fits.


The Most Deus Ex screenshot possible. From left to right: air vent, weird cyberpunk vision marker, goofy sci-fi concept vehicle, crates crates crates, GIANT FUCKING HAND CRUSHING THE EARTH , “unconscious” guard with a broken arm who will get up if another soldier runs over and waves his hands at him.

Just to fuck with you. No “game-play” purpose whatsoever.

Sarif’s office is very round. Round balls, baseballs, rounded corner desk. Dragon Lady’s penthouse is not.

Honestly I appreciate the showboatin’.

The lens flare is even distorted through Jensen's artificial lenses.

Fucks with your sense of scale.

I was uncharacteristically mean to the #CHAN guy because, come on.


Red is the tertiary color in Deus Ex palette to make you stop and look for a bit.

nb: All pictures can be found on my Steam library with larger versions, plus a few extra to boot (still no plot spoilers but some endgame locations).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

PAX 2011

brief reminder that yrs truly will be on-hand at PAX. if anyone else is there I am not above bribing readers with alcoholic (or, if you insist, non-) drinks of yr choice after panels have concluded. I live here, you know. I know where the good places are.

anyway. I will be live-tweeting interesting panels about sexism, UI design, and penises. if you @ me I will @ you back. what I'm trying to say is: holla@chaboy

I will also make a reasonable attempt to write up interesting panels. if you are not able to attend pax feel free to suggest panels and I will make best-effort attempts to get there unless I have a conflict or I get hungry or drunk.

DISCLAIMER: I have excellent taste and the panels you may suggest are probably already on my schedule.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

[test] I broke my website

1.0 –> 1.5 CHANGELOG:

* Stopped being a lazy cheap ass and bought a domain name (

* Temporarily broke Disqus comments, they may/may not be percolating back in, will report back later

* Added a logo The Editor made for me

* Made a horrible tacky favicon

* Upgrading to 2 posts/month or else I have to abstain from alcohol as punishment.

* Testing if RSS is broken


Saturday, July 30, 2011

I dig a hole, you build a wall

Bastion was the first game for this year’s Summer of the Arcade on Xbox Live. I love Summer of the Arcade - previous years have brought us Limbo and Braid, as well as Shadow Complex and Castle Crashers. Like all those titles, Bastion has become one of my favorite games of the year.

I will now take a second to politely inform you that major spoilers for Bastion follow. It’s a new game and the ending has become one of my favorite endings, so be warned that I am about to discuss the glorious ending in all its wonderful detail. If you haven’t finished the game yet, I’d suggest not continuing much further!

One of the great things about Bastion is the structure. On its surface the plot is a traditional “find the four magic MacGuffins”. If you played the game with the volume muted and subtitles turned off you could have a lot of fun, but it would be just another RPG. The combat is smooth thanks to a very agile roll that lets you dodge and pop up behind an enemy. The weapons are responsive and distinct with plenty of room to upgrade and customize them, and you have lots of control over difficulty beyond a simple Easy/Medium/Hard selection. The narration and music serves up so much, though, that it completely transforms the game.

You start off alone in a literally-broken world, with a disembodied voice narrating your actions. As you proceed, you find a trinket belonging to a lady-friend, implying she did not survive. Shortly after, you find the source of the voice. Another human! You are not alone after all! As you continue to travel, other people’s survival is hinted at: as one level collapses, the Narrator implies another human must have grabbed the MacGuffin. This implication is untrue in this case, but shortly afterwards you discover Zulf in The Gardens, where you must slip through winding alleys full of corpses embalmed in stone. The Narrator reads off the names of each of the deceased and a short sentence about what kind of people they were. This is another humanizing touch. It constructs a world and places Rucks and The Kid in it in relation to other people. Even smashing each statue to bits gives The Narrator a chance explain The Kid’s actions in relation to the world around him; in this case, anger and remorse that these people are gone and can never come back, even if their statues remained intact.

Finding Zia is even more heart-wrenching. The level’s music is nothing more than a looped melody in a minor key with some daunting lyrics (“One day that wall is gonna fall”), yet also some resolute and hopeful lyrics (“build that city on a hill”). The lyrics match the game’s motifs. The Shifting Walls are where The Kid starts the game, destroyed utterly by the Calamity, and The Bastion is being rebuilt by The Kid. As you return to the Bastion with Zia, the narrator even quotes the song back at her, “We’ll be there before too long”.

The Singer’s Song

This is all the first half of the game, which establishes the previous world and The Kid’s connections to it, giving the player plenty of opportunity to realize the human aspects of the story. Most games are content to just put a ruined building up and an audio clip or codex entry saying how sad it is, but Bastion gives a name and a face to almost every one of the dead you meet here. The few people you meet are never the ones you want to see (you can ask Zulf and Zia about the woman’s hairclip you found - the answers are not optimistic), but they are so sparse and important that you’re glad to see them anyway.

The second half of the game changes tone with the discovery of the Calamity’s origin. The Narrator doesn’t focus on human cost; he develops a steely edge as you leave the city and explore The Wilds. He draws comparisons between animals seeking MacGuffin #2 and the residents of Bastion about how both are just trying to survive, gathering around MacGuffins for comfort, and then says that the animals have to go if they stand between us and survival.

Or the penultimate act, where you track down the Ulra. Humans! Who exist! Remember how exciting that was in the first half of the game? Well, now you have to kill them. All of them. Rucks explicitly says it’s time for you to finish “what the Calamity started”, i.e. genocide. The game spends so much time building up the human aspect of this world, but Zulf’s discovery of the Calamity’s purpose looks at the inverted side of that equation. Humans are important and lovely and wonderful and we miss them when they’re gone, but they’re also scheming, paranoid, jealous, greedy warmongers. Now you are personally forced to put “vengeful” on that list too, otherwise you can’t turn back time to prevent the Calamity. As the player, I actually felt heartbroken about each and every Ulra I had to put down even as I felt compelled to keep going.

In the final level, this conflict comes to a head when you can either forgive Zulf or abandon him. To forgive him means to stop perpetrating the cycle of violence. To abandon him means keeping yourself armed and well-protected against the people who attacked you. I haven’t finished my second playthrough yet, but I chose to forgive. I picked up Zulf’s body and dragged him back to Bastion.

As you do, the Ulra continue attacking you while this song plays – calling back to Zia’s song, but altering it heavily to reflect the tension:

The End song. I don’t know the title.

The game mechanics are slightly modified at this point. The health bar and health potion trackers are gone, although the screen still flashes and fades out when you take damage, and the “Press Y to heal!” tip comes up above The Kid’s head. This makes you feel besieged, anxious and helpless as you can’t retaliate when carrying Zulf, although why would you, now that you’ve chosen forgiveness? Yet the lack of explicit indicators implies the exact number of health potions you have is no longer important, encouraging you to use as many as you need in order to survive as long as possible. The payoff is when the Ulra finally understand what you’re doing and stop attacking, silently watching as you prove the fighting is finally over. Now it’s time to see if you will restart the cycle, or embrace this broken, but promising new world.

nb: I’d be out of my mind if I didn’t give a shoutout to my blogger buddies who served as a sounding board for my opinions on this awesome game. So thanks Brendan and Kris who both came into my self-serving G+ thread to talk about their impressions of the game.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

frozen synapse and poker

This GDC talk is a fantastic overview of poker and what makes it so compelling. As I was playing Frozen Synapse, I saw a lot of those same elements at work. Frozen Synapse is largely a battle of imperfect, asymmetrical information. In poker, you know what your hand is, but you can only guess at what your opponents are holding. In FS, you know where your troop locations are, and what your next move is, but you can only guess where your enemy is and how they will act next turn.

As a result, a lot of Frozen Synapse strategy ends up being nearly-pure game theory. In a zero-sum game (where +1 for me means -1 for you; this sums to zero, hence “zero-sum”) game theory basically states each player will act optimally to minimize loss and maximize gain. Multiplayer FS relies on this principle heavily because both players are hidden from each other unless there is a direct line of sight, and moves are hidden from each other until they are executed simultaneously.

The best strategy is to:
1) figure out your best move,
2) figure out your opponent’s best move, and
3) compare the two positions and find the “equilibrium” - the state in which you are making the best possible moves, given your opponent’s best possible moves.

Here’s a heavily annotated video of one of my few multiplayer Frozen Synapse victories.

You can visualize it as a probability cloud surrounding each unit according to their maximum range in a move, colored according to the color of their owner (green for you, red for an enemy). A better position (such as behind cover, or with a long line-of-sight) will have a higher probability, which you can visualize as a darker color. A inferior position (next to a wall when a rocket unit has line of sight, out in the open when there are machine gun units in play) will have a lower probability of occupation, and thus a lighter color. You want to assume the enemy units will occupy the dark-red parts of our theoretical cloud, and you want to hold the dark-green parts of the cloud. Thus you will try to deny the enemy access to the dark-red sections while making sure your dark-green positions can’t be compromised. Again, this is similar to poker, where you share information about the community cards, and you try to visualize the likelihood of your opponents hand beating yours against the value of the pot. Instead of community cards, there is the level layout. Instead of the value of the pot, it’s the risk to your units.

The random placement of units and walls can sometime determine the outcome of a match before it starts.

There is also the issue of emotional control. Planning out two sets of optimal moves for four troops on each side, using that information to re-compute the optimal counters to optimal moves, and then double checking to make sure you’ve reached an equilibrium (minimizing losses and maximizing gains) can be long and difficult. If you’re losing, you might want to throw in the towel. If you’re frustrated (or drunk) the patience required to figure out the optimal move can seem beyond your abilities. In poker, as noted in the GDC talk, this is just called “tilt” - everyone can work out the probabilities and expected values of a hand. It only takes patience, which you might not have if you just lost a hand or have been drinking heavily.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

brief programming note

apologies for the interruption, but a few items of note re: the upkeep of this blog.

(1) This Blog now has a Facebook Page in case you find RSS too clunky, my Twitter too cluttered, and the fact that I don't have access to your face and name inconvenient. It is automatically propagated with new posts as well as links to older items with witty commentary. Right now it is "experimental" but if enough people "like" the page, it will continue to exist.

(2) Comments have been upgraded to the near-ubiquitous Disqus plugin, replacing the old, horrible terrible default Blogger commenting system. It shouldn't be too intrusive, and it should allow the rambling reply-focused nature of my comments to be a bit better-formed. I don't think anyone should "care", and old comments have been ported over, but if you have any ideological or practical issues with Disqus let me know? I'll fix it.

(3) This blog's "one-year" anniversary came and went without comment. Except for this comment. Ok.

(4) (VIDEOGAME RELATED) Outland is a truly excellent, well-designed and well-crafted game. It seems to have received a criminally small amount of attention, sandwiched between Portal 2 and L.A. Noire. It's bullet-hell meets Metroid and it might be one of the few games I actually finish this year.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I want to talk a bit about my aesthetic sense, something I’ve previously touched on here (when my tone was less subdued, I guess). This isn’t meant to be definitive, and I might continue to build on it when the fancy strikes me. It’s also not exclusionary - it’s entirely possible for something to be pleasing to me without necessarily following these elements.

Tiny Fey recently spoke at Google. She was explaining comedic improv, and said, "when you are creating something out of nothing - agree". This is a common principle, more often applied as "yes, and":

1: "Let's go to the beach!"
2: "Yes, and let's bring the children!"
1: "Yes, and let's make some additional children!"
2: "Yes, and let's raise them to worship the sun"
1: "Yes, and make them foot soldiers in our cult!"

This works as a principle because each line adds something to the world as opposed to the following:
1: “Let’s go to the beach.”
2: “No, I’m going to the amusement park.”
1: “No.”

In the first example, the relationship between the characters is clear. Their immediate goal is clear. Each line develops them further. They are sexual partners. They are nature-worshippers. They are founding a cult. In the second example, no relationship comes forth. No goals are set. No world is built around these two people. In the first scene, the players are agreeing and therefore building. In the second scene, they are negating and therefore destroying.

All premises, at their base, are cliche and overdone (nothing new under the sun &c.) and that's fine. But truly impressive works start from a cliche and agree with it. They build on it--sculpt additional layers until it is something new entirely. Less impressive works never seem to settle on what they are saying. They negate their own premises and destroy.

Community acknowledges its own cliches openly, much like Glee. Glee reverses course as soon as the acknowledgement is made (Sue’s attitude towards bullying is one of the most obnoxiously inconsistent things I’ve ever seen on TV - “I hate bullying”, “I love bullying”, “Being gay is okay”, “...but I’m going to call you ‘lady’ even though you don’t like it, because you’re gay”), essentially disagreeing with itself. Community embraces its cliches, makes it part of the story, expands on the cliche. The Paintball episode, “Modern Warfare”, layers cliche on top of cliche to create an aggregate of action movie cliches that tell a story that lacks originality. However, the story does have emotional resonance since each character's cliches reflect something particular to that character--Shirley speaks a line from The Boondock Saints which reflects her religious views--and the interactions between these cliche characters end up building into an experience they share, which ultimately alters the nature of their relationship. This, in turn, draws in the viewer.

Video games are very susceptible to negating themselves. One form of this is ludonarrative dissonance, essentially a fancy way of saying the game play (ludo) disagrees with the story (narrative). In the Dragon Age mythos, templars are responsible for leashing mages, yet players using magic in front of templars during combat suffer no consequences. More generally, in many games when a party member “dies” in battle, they can be revived by an item or magic, but when Aerith* dies in a cutscene, oops! No backsies! Ludonarrative dissonance is far from the only form of disagreement for a game. Games are made, after all, with a large collection of different layers--music, textures, voice, music, as well as game mechanics and narrative. All these elements can disagree with each other as well as themselves. It’s a huge clusterfuck.

At some point, it becomes cliche to trot this out over and over again, but Planescape: Torment does a fucking great job of agreeing with itself. It starts with the ultimate RPG cliche--awakening in an isolated room with amnesia--and builds on that premise. This isn't the first time you've had your memory wiped. You burned instructions into your flesh. Each amnesia onset resets your personality as well as your memory. Other revelations build as well. You're immortal. Your companions have been with you longer than you remember. Your body parts become game objects. Your gameplay stats allow you to recall memories. Dying is (mostly) temporary. All of these revelations are not unique to this game by a long shot, but the depth to which they are implemented and to which they interact with each other is unique. Your party members might be cliches--the sullen warrior, the power-hungry mage, the whore with a troubled past--but when they react to each other’s cliches, they are building relationships with each other, giving the player a reason to invest in them.

(*) trollbait.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dragon Age and Baldur’s Gate

Here is the primary difference between the Baldur’s Gate series and the Dragon Age series:

Most people quit Baldur’s Gate after 20 minutes, when they are killed by wolves after walking out the front gate. Baldur’s Gate used the full range of game mechanics to build a world, and that included making your first death nearly inevitable as a learning experience. The people who quit Dragon Age did so because the prologue never ends.

Here’s why that primary difference is so important to Baldur’s Gate: after bandying about in the world for a significant period of time, growing stronger and gaining party members,  you might encounter some of the wolves who gave you Death #1 (or Near-Death #1)--and you beat the shit out of them in seconds. They're not a threat anymore. Your growth is clear and evident. Is the conquering-what-once-conquered-you method primitive in terms of emotional engagement? Sure! It's a method using the narrative of games; “you died, try again” (aka losing) is the most familiar element of a game, and Baldur’s Gate is sure to teach you this lesson early. Is this mechanic user-friendly? Not as implemented, although low-level D&D is a crapshoot to begin with, but it's certainly possible to make death less frustrating through judicious use of auto-saves, fast reload times, and/or a "rewind" function  (god bless the PSP’s Tactics Ogre for this function, by the way).

Baldur's Gate used game mechanics to 1) show you the world is a big, unfriendly place and 2) make you feel powerful after a long progression of incremental progress. Furthermore, an important part of Baldur's Gate’s expansive  and hostile world is the constant reminder of being underpowered - nothing’s more demoralizing than stumbling on a Lich’s tomb and getting wiped out after a single Time Stop spell - but once you’re more powerful, you can return and wipe the Lich out and claim his useful stash of weapons and spells. It's an emotional roller coaster, which keeps you engaged in short bursts across the sixty hours it takes to complete the game.

It's also reflected within the central conflict of the plot, which is (GENTLE REMINDER THAT SPOILERS FOR A TEN-YEAR-OLD GAME ARE INCOMING. I HOPE THIS DOESN'T OFFEND YOUR DELICATE SENSIBILITIES) the revelation that the player character is one of the offspring of Baal, a God of Murder And Stuff. Which grants a shitload of Power, which the sequel’s Big Bad, Jon Irenicus,  wants to corner the market on (specifically, the Murder Market, and specifically by utilizing the act of Murder, multiple times, until no competitors are left). The PC hunts down other Baalspawn, and later Jon, across multiple realms while struggling to control/go completely fucking bonkers with his own infusion of Power. So yeah, it's a D&D plot, not exactly subtle, with the expected levels of thematic density (none) and emotional resonance (marginal), and yet, the theme of "power" is constantly reinforced by both the plot and the game’s mechanics.

With Dragon Age 2, as you progress from poor disenfranchised slug to Champion of the City and engage in an open three-way power struggle with the SeriouslyRealChristianity church and the We’reNotTerroristsWe’reModerateMagicians mages, your enemies are--from the beginning of the game until the end--the same mix of ogres, darkspawn, and human/quasi-human beings. Who look exactly identical. And take nearly the same amount of time to kill.

I would love to say that Dragon Age 2's plots are about the Futility of War, but unfortunately while DA2 is a bold move away from The Bioware Plot, it is Not A Plot. It's a series of vignettes that tie in with each other, but not necessarily with the player's emotional state while playing the game or with the combat mechanics (i.e., using magic in front of Templars has no in-game consequences, compared to BG 2 where the use of magic in-city got you Effed Up right quick). Progression means something that gets you the next cutscene, not something that makes you feel like you’re systematically mastering combat.

I think it says a lot that DA2’s only skill check comes in the form of locked chests, whose contents are hilariously worthless--because giving powerful items to the small subset of players who can pass the skill check might mean the game isn't balanced! You might become too efficient at killing ogres and darkspawn, and the facade would crumble.

TL;DR: In Baldur's Gate, when you first encounter wolves, they will kill you and you will have to reload from a save that you almost certainly didn't make. When you see wolves later, you kill them mega-fast and feel great. In Dragon Age 2, when you first encounter an ogre, it kills your sibling in a cut-scene and then you kill it. When you see ogres half a dozen times later, it takes the same exact amount of time to kill it--every time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Persona 3 Portable

Shin Megami Tensai: Persona3 Portable (!) is actually two games. As part of the Shin Megami Tensai series, it’s a dungeon crawler populated with demons from a wide range of cultures who can be recruited to fight, breed, and hand over powerful spells and items used in the turn-based combat system. As part of the Persona sub-series, dungeons are a small part of an otherwise normal world populated with characters you can befriend, date, or leave for dead - but there is only so much time, and too many possibilities. Unlike many other RPGs, Persona makes you pick and choose what you want to spend your time on. Your social life enhances demons of a certain alignment (represented by the tarot’s Major Arcana), and capturing demons of a certain Arcana in turn makes it easier to connect with friends of the corresponding alignment.

The interplay between these two games is compelling. New dungeons open up once every 30 days, but going into the dungeon gives you less time to spend with your friends. Scarcity of time means your time has great value – picking one person to hang out with means forsaking dungeon time, study time, and other friendships. By the end of the game you can easily max out about half of the total friendships, but each friendship is one you’ve chosen for any number of reasons – maybe they are genuinely interesting, or attractive. Maybe they correspond to an arcana you use frequently in dungeons. Sometimes, it’s because you don’t have anything else to do – it’s either hang out with a six-year-old girl or head to bed early.

Another tension that arises is emphasized from the very beginning – when you enter your dorm to find a girl with a gun pressed against her head, you know you’re into some freaky shit. See, the dungeon lives outside the normal time/space continuum – in the Dark Hour, a witching hour squished somewhere within the stroke of midnight. Consequently, not many people know the school becomes a magic tower of demons every night – the “normal” world containing your school and your friends is almost entirely mundane, save for the mysterious, mildly concerning “apathy syndrome” secretly linked to the appearance of the dungeon. You therefore lead a double life: one involving school trips and vacations, and one in which you court demons and explore dungeons.

The plot does a great job of exploiting these mechanics to give meaning. The majority of the game is about establishing the balance between school, friends, and slaying demons – between the dangerous and the mundane. After you solve the mystery of the dungeon and banish it along with the Dark Hour, however, the game doesn’t end. You keep living your life, but instead of a city full of activities, there is nothing left for you. The shops serve no purpose anymore. Your friends are too busy for you. School is over, so there is nothing to study for. You can search in vain, but time only passes when you take an action, and there are no actions left to take save heading to bed. And the next day, the same. And on the last day, resigned to a life without monster hunting or chance encounters, empty of all actions to consume your time, you fall asleep on the roof while waiting for your friends. They aren’t coming to make you more efficient, to give you better stats, to make your strategies more effective – they come because you are their friend too, but in a world without monsters to conquer, the player has no more role to play – and the game ends.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

a moment of violence

Streetlight Manifesto is the last, best ska band. This song is necessary for understanding the song at the bottom of the post.

Some ground rules for today: we are sailing over morality. Let’s not focus on right/wrong/good/bad; let’s just talk openly and frankly about some current events.

A guy opened fire in Tuscon and murdered several innocent people. Americans spent a few days assigning blame to several factors. For the first time since Doom, videogames were barely mentioned as a factor.

In fact, the primary inflection point in the calculus of some stranger’s brain seemed to be Gifford’s unknown reaction to the question: “What is government if words have no meaning?" This question launched the media into a week-long argument over the contextual meaning of words — i.e. what is violent rhetoric if "don’t retreat, reload" has no violence embedded in its intent? This argument was then compounded by the debate over the phrase “blood libel”, as used by the woman who blessed us with the excellent malapropism “refudiate”.


To be frank, I lost track of who in this country was sane and who was delusional—who had a misogynistic streak and a disturbing series of bizarre YouTube videos, and who was manipulating the country into a nihilistic debate about the proper, state-mandated usage of language. For most people the crazy one is “the one who opened fire into a civilian crowd with no provocation, murdering several”, but I actually find that difficult to accept when every day my country wages war. We have at least that much blood on our hands.


We, as Americans, don’t think about violence when we wage war against Iraq or Afghanistan. We don’t think about violence when we use drone strikes or execute civilians at checkpoints. We just accept the violence because it happens to Not Us—until it does happen to Us, in which case the president hauls ass across the country for a funeral. We accept violence much in the same way we accept torture and indefinite detention and cops killing the “wrong” suspect, but stage massive Twitter protests at the injustice of the TSA seeing our breasts and penises.


Violence is an inevitable part of our culture. We’re capitalists. We’re a republic. War is an industry that creates jobs in congressional districts, jobs are profitable, and profits sponsor political campaigns. We can talk about RPGs without combat all we want, but violence is the mode of expression for the vast majority of games we play. I don’t think Ben Kuchera is even aware he wrote, “As I blew things up and bodies flew and missiles zipped to their targets, I felt like pumping my fist in the air.” That unawareness is a privilege accorded to him because after years of tenuous links between gaming and violence, we’ve finally stepped out of the shadow of NWA and into the spotlight of socially-acceptable violence—the kind targeted against America’s enemies. It’s just patriotism!


Again, this post isn’t a conversation about right/wrong/good/bad. As a rule, performative violence—the not-so-subtle idea that violence can be metaphorical[1]—is a concept our brains can probably handle quite comfortably in games, movies, TV, and everyday language. I mean, I haven’t been tempted to commit the murder act at any point. Still, at some level that violence is ingrained in us. Fuck, it’s probably a part of us at the basest level, and we embrace the performance while simultaneously denying its literalness. We pretend that shooting people in the face and carving up Necromorphs is just a mechanic. We’re thrilled by killing that difficult boss, murdering the worthy multiplayer adversary, and racking up body counts with everything from goomba genocide to the calculated extinction of WoW mobs for their drops.


Sure, sometimes Nathan Drake is told that he “also murdered a thousand people today” by the genocidal Bad Guy, and we ignore the glib conflation of performative violence -- unloading twenty rounds into a dude wearing a wife-beater just before hiding behind a wall for a few seconds until we recover from the gunshot wounds we received in retaliation -- with actual literal violence because, for a moment, we are asked to forget that violence is really our only verb when a controller is in our hands. When Andrew Ryan (fuck you if this is a spoiler; I haven’t even played the game and I know this) “Would You Kindly”’s Jack into involuntary obedience, the interface between player/avatar and real violence/performative violence gets muddled – the irony of our in-game actions being outside the avatar's control contrasts the fact that the entire game is predicated on aiming and squeezing the trigger.

And, bizarrely, it seems to work. Despite ourselves, we transcend “shooting people in the face” as a performative mechanic and look at it as an unholy action, an action with consequences and context and meaning. We look under the veil, we “go under”, and submit to the maya of the performance. Then, satisfied with our momentary adventure, we let the veil fall back into place. Another round of fake gunshots are exchanged, and we teabag corpses.



See? totally worth listening to the first song. Incredible album, by the way.



“’When Big got into it with Tupac, some hip-hop journalists were like, ‘Hey, isn’t this the same nigga who said c4 at your door? Why hasn’t he planted a bomb in Pac’s house yet?’ which is just the kind of dumb shit that rap always gets subjected to. Not to say there wasn’t real beef there, lethal beef, maybe, but Entertainment Weekly isn’t outraged that Matt Damon isn’t really assassinating rogue CIA agents between movies.” – Jay-Z, “Decoded”.

Jay-Z talks a lot about the duality between the act rappers put up and the reality of the rapper’s life. He also talks a lot about the literal violence inflicted on the black population by the government:

“…hostile to us, almost genocidally hostile when you think about how they aided or tolerated the unleashing of guns and drugs on poor communities, while at the same time cutting back on schools, housing, and assistance programs. And to top it all off, they threw in the so-called war on drugs, which was really a war on us.[…] Almost twenty years after the fact, there are studies that say between 1989 and 1994 more black men were murdered in the streets of America than died in the entire Vietnam War.”

These quotes from Jay-Z reflects the kind of real violence/performative violence divide I’m trying to explore here. Real violence occurs, shockingly, terrifyingly often—not to us, but it permeates the barriers, it seeps into our culture, and we erect these metaphorical acts of violence. Thus: violence is inevitable. Can we transcend it? Can we find meaning in it? Should we?