Month: May 2014

Episode 4: A Wolf in Andy Griffith’s Clothing

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Consider watching The Andy Griffith Show if you haven’t.

Similar to the doctor who saves Sheriff Bigby, the latest entry of The Wolf Among Us (“In Sheep’s Clothing”) sews up the wound caused by Episode 3’s dumb, hackneyed violence. Although Episode 4 has a fight scene that could have been cut, it refrains from Episode 3’s tired comparisons of Bigby and the X-Men favorite, Wolverine. In fact, Episode 4 gives Bigby the potential to resemble a more profound character. Players who choose to make Bigby unsympathetic to Fabletown’s citizens will miss the most interesting development of the series: Bigby as Andy Griffith (not in attitude, but in purpose).

Before Episode 4, The Wolf Among Us couldn’t make a clear statement about community, power, or responsibility. Eric Swain’s review of Episode 3 provides insight into this lack of focus:

The Wolf Among Us has been rather obviously about the economic inequality plaguing Fabletown and how the power structures in place have either been inept, willfully blind, or actively complicit in the plight of the downtrodden and soon to be downtrodden. I feel like no matter how obvious this theme is and the messaging of it may be, it is lost due to the presentation of the murder mystery that is central to the plot of the game.

While I disagree with Swain that The Wolf Among Us has “obviously” been about these things from the beginning, he is correct about Telltale allowing the murder mystery — and corresponding trashy elements — to overshadow social inquiry. Up until Episode 4, The Wolf Among Us has been a tease as far as power structures are concerned, getting no help from Auntie Greenleaf’s deceit or Bloody Mary’s moronic appearance. But Telltale has finally gotten serious about addressing the politics of class. “Either way I’m getting screwed,” laments Toad, who doesn’t see hope in the above-the-law Crooked Man or Snow White’s business office. Clearly, Fabletown needs an Andy Griffith, an authority figure who keeps the community together while consciously avoiding power trips. If you’re convicted to turn Bigby into Andy Griffith, The Wolf Among Us becomes as much about community well-being as personal redemption. By explicitly tying Bigby’s morality to the preservation of community, Episode 4 surpasses Episode 2 as the strongest entry in the series.

At long last, Telltale’s preselected big choices have lost their obviousness and dominant relevance, meaning that Episode 4 requires more consistent moral thought than its predecessors. To keep the Fabletown community together, Episode 4 is all about what you say to people — or what you don’t say, a distinction Andy Griffith knows all too well. Although Snow White isn’t comical like Barney Fife, she has a similar by-the-books shortsightedness that can be held in check by withholding information. Following White’s strict mandates in Episode 4 is not only toxic to the confused Fabletown community; it confines you to another tired video game about order.

Like Andy Griffith, Bigby can see that order doesn’t always gel with the realization of community. Consider that you have the opportunity to let characters like Toad and Colin be themselves. Refusing to disconnect these characters from the community is reminiscent of Andy Griffith giving Otis, the town drunk, the responsibility to put himself in a jail cell. A trickier moment in Episode 4 is when you meet Tiny Tim, who works as a doorman for the Crooked Man. The game forces you to consider Tim’s disenfranchisement as a disabled Fable in light of his troubling association with the criminal mastermind. To be an Andy Griffith for Tim, you have to walk a line between order and respect. Even the pretentious Beauty and Beast deserve a better community leader. Beauty and Beast resemble duped Americans whose aspirations were exploited by subprime loans. “We were royalty once,” they cry. For a Wolf in Andy Griffith’s clothing, their debt isn’t as important as taking down a predatory lender in the community.

The great message of The Andy Griffith Show is that not everything should be done by the book. Of course, the show is much more family-friendly than The Wolf Among Us, regardless of your choices as Bigby. But playing as close as you can to Andy Griffith in The Wolf Among Us reveals a lesson about community: people first, rules second. By the end of Episode 4, Bigby can transform into a paragon of ironic wholesomeness: although Andy Griffith rarely smoked in his show, Bigby lighting a cigarette while facing a crime boss and his gang recalls how Griffith, no matter what, was cool, collected, and strong. Despite the Episode 5 preview leading me to believe that The Wolf Among Us might get very stupid again, Episode 4 shares a compelling fantasy about community leadership. Doesn’t that beat everything?

Child of Light: A False Prophet RPG

by Jed Pressgrove

As its rapturous title suggests, Child of Light is a cunning product for a gaming mainstream in need of hope. The game panders to the nth degree by throwing together a collection of enticing parts: the poetry, the “check me out” visuals, the Disney/Miyazaki allusions, the turn-based combat with “a real-time twist,” the crafting, the skill tree, the female protagonist, the puzzles. These trendy components help explain the cynical thesis of Arthur Gies’ review: “Child of Light is exactly the kind of game I never expected to play.” This remarkable level of cynicism implies that game things are only notable when they come from “AAA” companies with a bow on top.

I would like to agree with Jim Bevan’s in-depth, enthusiastic breakdown of Child of Light, but not even a connection to Joseph Campbell can convince me that I should ignore the shallowness of the game. Child of Light isn’t an inspiring hero’s journey so much as a lollypop coated in blissful immaturity. The game finds the blandest way to start a fairy tale in 2014, channeling the stylish prologue of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and landing in the death-centric fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth. After Child of Light’s seen-it-all-before opening, you’re plopped into a dark forest that, despite the great technical development on display, showcases as much original thought as a new flavor of bubble gum.

The game’s ballyhooed visuals are there to impress, not elate. Child of Light is a visual downer compared to recent Rayman games, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Mario Galaxy. Even if Child of Light’s world is theoretically beautiful, the mishmash of styles doesn’t make sense. The watercolors might be pretty, but the background art’s more traditional style and stillness make the modern polygonal creations look like litter on a painting.  The game’s inconsistent beauty comes to a head when you see rising lava that looks more like a solid floor than a depiction of nature that fits the framing of the world. This inconsistency isn’t much of a factor during the turn-based battles, but the magic attacks lack the visual charm of SNES-era spells. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that protagonist Aurora is dull once you get past her flowing red hair; as a visual personality, Aurora has nothing on the child protagonist of Lilly Looking Through.

The visuals are masterful compared to the writing. Instead of sharing poetry from the heart, Ubisoft uses poetry as a device to convince audiences that the game is cultured, funny, and epic. Child of Light wants you subscribe to the idea that as long as the words rhyme, the poetry is fine, even if it completely ignores the importance of rhythm. One might claim that Child of Light deserves credit for taking a risk with poetry, but this defense becomes ridiculous once you read the crap:

A lady waits,

Hair long as a forest stream,

With skin like moths and gleaming eyes.

A seer, she’ll know the way out of this dream.

Whether you read that quietly or aloud, the passage doesn’t flow. And this isn’t an isolated case. There is example after example of this “style”:

And zounds! The Dark Queen cursed ma kin to birds.

The Water of Lethe would cure ’em an’

I have to make the journey down.

But fear has — Poor man.

The “Poor man” comes out of nowhere for three reasons. First, it’s an interjection from another character. Second, it’s a sorry rhyme. Third, the stanza has no rhythm. But that’s not even the worst stanza:

Pleased to meet you, Sir.

Like weeds it is.

I am lucky to be alive. When at ma house,

Besides the bloomin’ apple tree in the forest I arrived, this whiz

Not even a highly skilled rapper could make those lines flow. You’re better off zipping through the poetry because the writing also fails to create meaningful relationships. The game tries to build camaraderie between the characters with silly rhymes and puns, but the writing is so god-awful that these “human” moments translate as nothing more than interruptions in the gameplay. The flimsy characterizations fall right in line with the death-centric premise of the game; a lot of the cast would be better off working in a funeral home than going on an adventure.

The gameplay mainly tells a so-so story. The game graciously allows the main character to fly, a major improvement over the lame platforming. Even with flight, the game still makes you solve puzzles that are puzzles in name only. Letting you control Igniculus is the game’s claim to fame and shame. As a souped-up version of Mario Galaxy’s cursor, Igniculus can blind enemies and heal you. The more you use Igniculus, the more you might recognize the poor design of the game. For example, Child of Light works like Earthbound in that you have to run into enemies to enter turn-based combat. If you run into enemies from behind, you get a surprise attack. However, given that Igniculus can blind enemies, surprise attacks outrageously become a norm.

Igniculus winds up being the real-time glue that holds the bastardized combat system together. The main concern of the combat is based on an uncommon but unoriginal idea: interruption of attacks. Igniculus slows enemies down when he blinds them, allowing the player to manipulate who gets to perform commands first and thus potentially interrupt enemies. However, if you see that an enemy will be able to attack before your character can perform a command, it’s best to defend, which allows your character to move faster in the next round. The real-time element and interruptions might trick you into thinking the battles are complex, but you’re better off playing Penny Arcade 3, another 10-hour RPG with an interruption system that offers far more attacks and possibilities than the insultingly paltry selection in Child of Light.

If it weren’t for the sound design and Cœur de Pirate’s soundtrack, Child of Light’s banality would be fully exposed. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the sonic brilliance of the game will keep me playing. I’m six hours into Child of Light, and there is nothing to suggest I will be saved from the tedious arrogance of the game. Child of Light thinks it’s the Jesus Christ of video games, but saviors don’t give you substandard versions of things you’ve seen before.

Note: Special thanks to Ray Valgar for sending me this game as a gift on Steam.

Criticism vs. Marketing: A Response to Colin Moriarty’s ‘Evil is Good’

by Jed Pressgrove

Months ago, I provided my definition of criticism: “[C]riticism is sharing reactions to something without sounding like a commercial.” In a response to criticism of Far Cry 4 box art, IGN writer Colin Moriarty sounds like a commercial. We should examine the marketing implications of what Moriarty and other game critics have said about Far Cry 4.

First, none of us are innocent when it comes to giving Far Cry 4 attention and, thus, potential for more sales. The box art debate is exactly what Ubisoft wanted. With the Far Cry 4 box art, Ubisoft knowingly used the tact of an immature schoolboy to get people curious about the game. This consumer curiosity might take the form of “How will Far Cry 4 the game actually handle its themes?” or “I can’t wait to shoot some bad guys in Far Cry 4.” There’s nothing wrong with these curiosities, but I believe that Ubisoft used racially and religiously charged imagery — a clear play on post-9/11 anxieties — to get us talking. In this respect, Moriarty’s talking is no guiltier than any other critic’s talking.

The problem is that Moriarty takes word-of-mouth marketing to a more troubling level. I immediately disliked the “Evil is Good” headline because it sounds like a phrase from a dumb movie trailer. Unsurprisingly, the phrase ties into Moriarty’s assertion that a “potentially controversial bad guy” is something powerful that can challenge us. To support this conclusion, Moriarty makes several banal, obvious comments about the importance of bad guys in art. Once you get past all of this philosophical posturing, you get to what Moriarty’s article actually says: “Buy Far Cry 4.”

The evidence is especially clear in the third paragraph:

When I first saw this artwork, I had a few thoughts. My first thought was, “man, I can’t wait to play Far Cry 4.” I absolutely adored Far Cry 3. It was an exceptional game, one awash with a host of non-linear, explorative qualities, solid gunplay, and a surprisingly engaging story. It deserved every one of its 9 million sales, and I was so pleased to see that Ubisoft would follow it up so quickly (Far Cry 4 is slated to come out this November).

I’m sure Ubisoft executives love this passage, which doesn’t represent a critical reaction so much as evidence that Ubisoft has a loyal ally. While I can’t call the passage’s honesty into question, Moriarty gives Ubisoft exaggerated praise when he brings up the sales figure. The idea that a game “deserves” all of its sales shows a flagrantly uncritical mindset. It doesn’t consider that some bought Far Cry 3 and thought it was garbage. It doesn’t consider whether sales provide insight into game quality in the first place. Indeed, such considerations are unimportant when the critic becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece for a game company.

Moriarty enthusiastically supports Ubisoft’s marketing purposes with the Far Cry 4 box art. From a sales perspective, the fact that the box art contains racially and religiously charged imagery is irrelevant. The most important point is that the image looks edgy and violent. Greg Magee’s line about the box art’s “gun porn all over the place” provides insight into Moriarty’s approach, which is revealed in the second paragraph of “Evil is Good”:

In the artwork — seen below — a person in a fine pink suit is leaning on the head of a subjugated man cradling an M67 grenade. An AK-47 rests to the left, an RPG-7 to the right, and some ammo is strewn about.

From a technical standpoint, Moriarty’s specificity about the weapons is impressive. It also raises a question: does it really matter what kind of grenade the darker-skinned guy is holding? Moriarty’s fixation on weapons plays into Ubisoft’s strategy of appealing to the classic shooter theme of power through weaponry. The racial and religious imagery is only icing on the cake and therefore easily dismissed by Moriarty as window dressing for a “good, believable antagonist.” Of course, given that he has yet to play Far Cry 4, Moriarty has no critical reason to suggest that the antagonist is “good” or “believable.” The effect of Moriarty’s article appears to be selling a game for Ubisoft under the guise of engaging in a critical discussion.

Moriarty also markets the edginess that Ubisoft was going for with the following proclamation:

Far Cry 4 isn’t an innocuous, inclusive children’s book or an afternoon Nick Jr. cartoon. It’s an M-rated video game, made for adults, and it may just deal with some brutal realities of the world. What if this blond man is, in fact, a shameless, violent, narcissistic racist? Doesn’t that give you a strong reason to dislike him, and a powerful motive to chase him through Far Cry 4’s campaign? Isn’t that more compelling than some vanilla, sanitized antagonist with no noticeable personality flaws or nefarious motives? Racism is, unfortunately, a very real force in contemporary culture, so why should gaming ignore it? I love that Far Cry 4’s writers are treading down the same path the previous games did, making for an experience that may just be, at times, totally uncomfortable. Maybe Far Cry 4 will give you pause and make you question your own motives in the process. Isn’t that a positive in a landscape flooded with the same old thing?

Notice that Moriarty begins by casting aside the nonexistent argument that Far Cry 4 is a children’s book or Nick Jr. cartoon — hey people, this game is “M-rated.” Such language reminds me of my childhood in the early 1990s when games like Mortal Kombat made me feel like I was playing something mature and original. Looking back, my feeling as a kid was legitimate: as a fighting game, Mortal Kombat had a unique approach to violence. In contrast, Moriarty’s words should be interpreted as marketing, not a legitimate feeling, because nothing he predicts about Far Cry 4 is a unique idea. Far Cry 4’s blonde man will not be the first violent, narcissistic racist in video games. He will not be the first game villain I’ve strongly disliked during a chase. He will not be the first villain with personality flaws or nefarious motives. And Moriarty knows this. He admits Far Cry 4 is “treading down the same path.” Then he turns around and gives us that now-classic slogan about questioning “your own motives.” If it weren’t clear that Moriarty is marketing Far Cry 4 rather than engaging in criticism, I would wonder whether Moriarty has played any of the numerous popular or underground games — everything from Fallout to Traitor — that encourage players to question their own motives.

On a broader level, Moriarty makes a mistake that game critics should try to avoid: suggesting conclusions about a game that nobody has played. Regardless of our reaction to the Far Cry 4 box art, we don’t know what the game will do. But there’s a deeper problem with Moriarty’s approach. In instructing people to be excited about Far Cry 4 rather than skeptical of its conniving marketing, Moriarty betrays the purpose of criticism and journalism. With the Far Cry 4 box art and the discussion it continues to inspire, Ubisoft doesn’t need any help from Moriarty.

Representation in Far Cry 4 Box Art

by Greg Magee

Representation. That’s a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me, representation has never been an issue. I see white males in every form of entertainment — books, TV, movies, video games. When you’re white, it can truly be difficult to see an issue with representation, as everything seems normal to you. But a person of color might have to watch specific channels, view straight-to-DVD films, research books prior to purchasing them, or even read a daunting heap of game reviews just to find content with relatable characters. This process requires far more work, both mentally and emotionally, than what I have to do. Being white is an advantage and a privilege when it comes to finding representation in media.

Imagine growing up as a person of color in society. Sociological research clearly shows that people of color, especially those with darker skin, have less access to resources than whites in the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that despite a decrease in minority imprisonment, black and Hispanic males were 6 and 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males in 2012, respectively. Given these discouraging facts (and others that I cannot cover in one article), we can gain insight into why representation in media matters to many people of color.

We might even start to see why criticism of representation (both positive and negative) occurs when a person of color is included in, say, video game box art. The fact that many representations of people of color in games are stereotypical cliches — such as magical turban-wearing genies, angry and loud black men, or threatening Middle Eastern men — adds salt to the wound of social disadvantage. So when box art (just the box art folks, not the game) for a beloved franchise comes from a AAA, international company, maybe the company should be a little tactful with the direction of said art.

Last week this Far Cry 4 box art was criticized as racist by some Twitter users. Five days after this criticism, an IGN article provided a quote of clarification from Far Cry 4 creative director Alex Hutchinson:

“Just so it’s clear for those jumping to conclusions: He’s not white and that’s not the player.”

At this point, Hutchinson’s statement is irrelevant. By itself, the box art doesn’t have clear context, and it doesn’t matter who the player is. When a random person walks into a game store, they will see the cover, not Hutchinson’s quote addressing the content. As the box art stands, the central figure looks white, and he’s dominating a brown, submissive character holding a live grenade, which links the character to post-9/11 stereotypes about foreign-born brown people. Keeping with this cultural insensitivity, the white-skinned Asian man is sitting atop a defiled Buddhist statue with gun porn all over the place. I don’t think the artist intentionally wanted to offend people with racist imagery, but unfortunately, that’s what happened.

Some argue that the Far Cry 4 box art isn’t racist or that it shouldn’t be offensive. I would ask a question, though: if you saw a painting of a smiling white male cracking a whip over a person of color picking cotton in a field, would you argue that no person of color should be offended by it? If there is no indisputable context for the picture, why should the art be above offense? Just because the reason for offense may not be obvious to us — or if the intent of the artist is innocent — doesn’t mean we are correct to declare that it shouldn’t be offensive.

If people of color tell us that something is racist, we should listen and not automatically “agree to disagree,” as that gets us nowhere. Hopefully, as we move forward in the conversation about representation in games, we can open our eyes to criticism related to race and other social issues. Through interaction, games provide a unique opportunity for telling stories that can help broaden our understanding about representation of all kinds.

Freedom and Virtual Rape in DayZ

by Jed Pressgrove

I once had no interest in DayZ. The zombie apocalypse is one of the most overplayed ideas of our time, and I would only play massively multiplayer online games if they were the last type of game on Earth. But months ago, a YouTube video titled “DayZ – rape victim 2” made me care about DayZ [after reading this article, the user temporarily removed the video from public view]. The video, along with its companion “DayZ – rape victim 1,” shows a dark side of gaming that can be difficult to watch.

The simulated rape in the video is set to a sentimental musical theme from Jurassic Park — it’s as weird as hearing “Singin’ in the Rain” while Alex and his droogs rape and torture people in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The similarity with Kubrick’s film suggests sociopathic territory. The DayZ rape video is held up safely like a comical trophy on YouTube, in stark contrast to how video evidence of actual rape would land someone in prison. The fact remains that DayZ is a game. As disturbing as the video might be, our society regards the power and humiliation on display as an approximation of real-life cruelty and horror.

Even so, curiosity and concern dictate investigation of this video and similar occurrences in DayZ. I contacted the YouTube user who posted the video. I learned through emails that the YouTube user, Brucee Dinkleberry, was responsible for the Jurassic Park music in the video. Brucee Dinkleberry told me he would answer any questions I had via email; he also said he could get me in touch with the “guy doing the actual ‘raping.'” Unfortunately, these interviews never happened, but judging by comments that Brucee Dinkleberry left in the comment section under the video, it’s not unfair to conclude that he thinks the video is humorous: “Just like my initial suspicion was that only people with no humor goes and comments on clips that are sup[p]osed to be fun.”

Kim Correa has been on the opposite side of such activity in DayZ. She wrote a piece called “Being a lady and playing DayZ” that details her experience. Given the humorous intentions of Brucee Dinkleberry and others, Correa’s final question is poignant: “When do you stop laughing?”

One interesting thing about Correa’s piece is that she hasn’t stopped playing DayZ, which makes it tough for me to see the game from a totally negative standpoint. I still have no interest in playing the apocalyptic game, but the rape videos and Correa’s article left me with several questions. What follows is an interview that Correa graciously granted me via email.

Jed Pressgrove: In your article “Being a lady and playing DayZ,” you say that the appeal of the game is the freedom to do things without repercussions. What appeals to you personally about this freedom?

Kim Correa: More than anything in games I value the human interaction. The games other than DayZ that I’ve put the most time into have been Left for Dead 2 and Team Fortress 2, both of which I’ve had mostly good experiences with. What I enjoy about DayZ’s freedom is the freedom to interact with other players outside [of] the constricts of objective-based games like L4D2 or TF2. If we choose, we could climb a hill and sit and talk. We could go on a mission to find supplies. Or, obviously, the meeting could go not so well and we could end up in a fight to the death.

The freedom isn’t so much about the outcome for me; most times I run into dangerous areas without caring if I end up dead. I want to force the situation to see the outcome. In most games with objectives, the end result is one thing: either you win or lose. In DayZ, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Jed Pressgrove: Do you feel DayZ offers you something that no other game can?

Kim Correa: In my limited experience with games – I’m a relatively new gamer – the opportunity for interaction in DayZ is very unique. The only game I can think of that I’ve played on a scale similar to DayZ is World of Warcraft, and again, WoW is very objective based. The in-game chat is limited to text only, plus limited character animations. There are ways to find guilds to play with and to use a chat client to speak with voice, but I never did. Rust is similar, I hear, and I recently started playing 7 Days to Die, which also is apparently similar in a way, but no, nothing I’ve played so far compares to the experiences I’ve had in DayZ. I played a few hours of Arma 3 and I feel that with some of the mods that Arma has, I could probably get a similar experience, but I haven’t explored that much yet.

Jed Pressgrove: In your blog post, you write “[I]s today the day someone tells me I’m going to get raped?” Did you ask yourself this question because of previous incidents of rape on DayZ that you were aware of? Or did this question simply represent an individual fear that you had, knowing the freedom of the game and what people could do in it?

Kim Correa: I had never heard of anyone being verbally assaulted in the game before. As awful as it sounds, it seemed like a logical next step that players would take in the game. I know what happens in games that aren’t as realistic as DayZ, games that don’t provide the hyper realistic ways to torture and hurt other players. It was an individual fear, but I don’t think an unreasonable one.

Jed Pressgrove: When describing the incident that made you quit playing the game, you note that someone ordering you to take off your clothes had “happened so often I don’t even think it’s weird anymore.” Why had people in DayZ asked you to take off your clothes before? Is being ordered to take off one’s clothes a typical occurrence in the game?

Kim Correa: Asking people to take off their clothes serves two functions, at least to me: one, it makes sure that a player isn’t hiding a weapon in the pockets of their clothes, and two, it feels like a lighthearted, fun type of way to make friends. When I take off my pants, it feels like I’m making an unspoken gesture of goodwill and peace. I actually met a group of players who I ended up adding on Skype to talk to while playing by taking off my pants. We were bandits, with no pants. It was very fun. So it’s not something I usually think has sinister meaning.

Jed Pressgrove: You said you quit playing DayZ after a guy killed your character and started making “moaning and groaning noises.” Can you describe how you felt after you logged off?

Kim Correa: After I logged off I didn’t know [how] I felt. I felt sickened. I felt unsafe. I struggled with using the term “violated,” since I feel it’s such a loaded term. I know I didn’t want to play the game anymore, at least that night. I had no interested in what had just happened to happen to me again.

Jed Pressgrove: As I told you before our interview, I had watched some DayZ “rape victim” videos before I even read your post. You said that those videos gave you something else to consider. Could you expand on that?

Kim Correa: I had considered what had happened to me a more or less isolated incident; I hadn’t heard of it happening to anyone else before, though I was also more or less certain that it had happened, by virtue of it being an online game. When I watched those videos, I felt even sicker. To watch the act happen, as opposed to just hearing it, felt more devastating than possibly anything I’ve ever seen happen in a game. I felt that what happened needed to be written, somewhere, which is why I wrote about it; after watching those videos, I’m even surer it’s a situation that needs to be watched. We’re in a weird time of physical presence and virtual reality intersecting and I feel that if we’re not vigilant in deeming what is acceptable and what isn’t, we run a risk of accepting things that should in no way be accepted.

Jed Pressgrove: Some people state that interactions in DayZ aren’t “real” and that players can turn off DayZ when something’s going wrong. What would you tell people making this argument?

Kim Correa: I would say, you are correct – I can turn it off. I could even never turn the game on again. In fact, I could just not turn on my computer ever again. I might as well not even leave my house, maybe that way I won’t run into a situation that I feel unsafe in.

To me, that response is ridiculous. I know that DayZ isn’t real, I know that to lessen the chances of running into harassment online, I can choose not to play. These are things I understand. If your response to that is “it’s not real!” I feel that you’re missing the point. Everyone – particularly women and people of color – face harassment in real life and online every day. What’s your response to that? Wall yourself off completely? Never talk to another person?

There don’t have to be two extremes here. Saying “it’s not real” is an easy way to not look deeper into the issue. It’s a way to easily skate over the fact that what happens online affects human beings out in the real world and we have to deal with that. If someone says that, they need to work on their empathy skills.

———————

I hope that if you, like me, have never played DayZ, the commentary and interview above will give you a clearer understanding of the game’s unique appeal and questionable potential. In one respect, playing DayZ can lead to exhilarating moments of narrative construction on the part of the player. But due to the game’s norms (such as the practice of having people remove their clothes), playing DayZ can lead unsuspecting players to endings that they would rather forget. I do not condemn DayZ for the possibilities, but I do believe it’s important to be informed about the positive and negative consequences of such freedom.

Note: I contacted Dean Hall, creator of DayZ, via Twitter for his thoughts. He did not respond.

Castlevania: The Adventure Is Better Than You Have Heard

by Jed Pressgrove

Castlevania: The Adventure is an ode to toughness and simplicity. It’s the Casino Royale of the Castlevania series, the only game to boil the Belmont concept to its core: whipping monsters. Unfortunately, critical reception to Castlevania: The Adventure has significantly soured since its release on Game Boy in 1989. You might see a critic like Tim Turi let the hammer down easy: “This handheld experience pales in comparison to its console brethren.” But it’s not unusual for the verdict to be more damning, as when Nate Ewert-Krocker calls the game “objectively terrible” and something one might play due to an “obsessive series completion syndrome.”

Before I explain why Castlevania: The Adventure is better than its reputation, I should mention two things that everyone would probably agree with:

1. Castlevania: The Adventure is for Castlevania fans. The game’s uniqueness or weirdness is only apparent if one is familiar with the classic series. In the classic Castlevania tradition, you walk up and down stairs. In Castlevania: The Adventure, you climb up and down rope. In the classic Castlevania tradition, hearts function as ammunition, allowing you to use various secondary weapons. In Castlevania: The Adventure, hearts heal you (which kind of makes more sense), and there are no secondary weapons. In the classic Castlevania tradition, your whip length and strength only go away when you die. In Castlevania: The Adventure, your whip length and strength decrease when you get hit — and in a strange twist, your whip shoots fireballs when completely powered up. I have a theory that some Castlevania fans, maybe unconsciously, dislike Castlevania: The Adventure because it lacks traditions that, while a bit weird anyway, have the quality of a trusty coat.

2. Castlevania: The Adventure is slow. The game’s slowness inspires writing like this: “It’s like someone tried to fit fifteen pounds of bologna into a ten-pound bag, and you, the hapless player, are the flea larva trying to squeeze your way out.” This is where I diverge from the pack: the game’s not that oppressive. For one thing, Castlevania: The Adventure doesn’t make you question why you bother playing video games in the first place like the frustrating Castlevania III (the best Castlevania ever made, by the way). For another, Castlevania: The Adventure was rereleased in 2012 on the 3DS Virtual Console, which allows you to create save points. Despite this sanity-preserving feature, the game is still maligned for being too slow and difficult.

Castlevania: The Adventure simply requires precision and trial and error. The gameplay is what it is due to the limitations of the Game Boy as well as the fact that the game was an early title on the famous Nintendo handheld. These technical limitations nonetheless result in very focused action; the hyper-deliberate pacing makes being a Belmont grittier and more suspenseful. Contemporary critics imply the game is monumentally unfair, but the first stage is a training ground suggesting that Konami was aware of the game’s demands. For example, the first stage has a series of thin platforms you have to cross in order to advance. If you fall during this section, you hit the ground and must start over. This section is meant to prepare you for the jumps later in the game that kill you when you mess up. To make tough jumps, the front half of your body must be hanging off the side of a platform. If you can make one of these jumps, you should be able to make any of them in the game.

The level design is more interesting after the first stage. In the second stage, rolling eyeballs blow up sections of a bridge if you kill them, and later you have to figure out which rope you should climb, as sections of the level will repeat if you don’t choose the right path. The third stage is when Castlevania: The Adventure gets brilliant, sending spikes at you from almost every direction in a slow-mo marathon of intense “I just barely survived that” platforming. This stage made me realize that Castlevania: The Adventure was ahead of its time. Consider that in the non-handheld Castlevania series, you couldn’t jump on or off of stairs until Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (or Dracula X on the SNES). Since you can jump on or off of rope in Castlevania: The Adventure, the game essentially innovated the series years before Rondo of Blood.

I wouldn’t call anything else in the game “innovative,” but the changes to the Castlevania formula amplify the game’s distinctive take on the Belmont way. As mentioned earlier, Castlevania tradition involves secondary weapons, such as knives, axes, holy water, and boomerang crosses. When used correctly and at the right time, secondary weapons can make levels or bosses really easy. In contrast, the lack of secondary weapons in Castlevania: The Adventure forces you to confront the challenges presented by enemies and bosses head-on with a whip. You have to become a whip master to beat the game. There’s also something relieving about no secondary weapons: you never have to worry about losing a weapon you prefer by accidentally picking up another weapon icon. All power-ups in Castlevania: The Adventure help you no matter what.

Castlevania: The Adventure isn’t a “take what you can get” Game Boy product. Critics have talked so much about what the game doesn’t have that they have overlooked a unique distillation of the Belmont concept. You know this is a serious entry when you hear the music and its terms: if you can’t get it done with a whip, you’re not getting it done at all. In a gaming world where “more” has come to mean “better,” there’s something attractive in such uncompromising simplicity.

Irrationally Buried at Sea: How Infinite Flunks Philosophy

by Paul Schumann

I have fond memories of BioShock and its good story, stunning graphics, and fun gameplay. I played Ken Levine’s last game, BioShock: Infinite, hoping it would live up to the original. After finishing Infinite and its Burial at Sea DLC, I considered how the philosophies of Levine’s games differ — and why Infinite is an intellectually unsatisfying experience.

The fictional cities in BioShock and BioShock: Infinite are extensions of the philosophies of their founders. In the original BioShock, Andrew Ryan’s underwater city Rapture recalled the objectivism of Ayn Rand, only this paradise of the individual had fallen — the one place on Earth with “no gods or kings, only man,” but man’s failings had not been checked at the door. A classic utopia scenario, Rapture’s flaw was assuming that an economic system based on glorifying the individual could overcome the baser instincts of human nature. Ryan would have done well to read Jefferson and Madison, who saw the virtue of the populace as essential to the preservation of liberty in society. The difference between the Founding Fathers and Ryan lies in the former’s belief that liberty and license are not the same thing. In Rapture, the supermen and superwomen of tomorrow succumbed to a madness born of envy and license. Genetic experimentation led to addiction to the supposed wonder drug ADAM. As a result, unwanted children were pressed into service as “Little Sisters” to harvest and recycle ADAM from the dead bodies scattered in Rapture.

BioShock: Infinite appears to start the same way as its predecessor. A man enters a lighthouse that takes him to a mysterious city. The city is not Rapture under the ocean in the 1960s but rather Columbia, high above the clouds in 1912. Nevermind how a city floats; “science” is the answer that’s given, but it’s quite a cheerful sight. No blood or corpses like in Rapture — Columbia appears to be another happy city in America at the turn of the century. Yet there is more than meets the eye about both this place and your character, private detective Booker DeWitt. The city’s shiny exterior hides a rotten core, built on the excesses of industrialism, violent racism, and a cult-like devotion to the city’s founder, Zachary Comstock. The “protagonist” Booker turns out to be the alter ego of Comstock, your nemesis for most of the game. Your mission in Infinite is to right a wrong you did many moons ago — to save your daughter from Comstock’s clutches — a situation that came to pass due to your pride as well as guilt and despair over past transgressions. What could have been an incredible tale of redemption becomes a depressing exercise in condemning a man to death for his sins.

Gameplay shows how BioShock and BioShock: Infinite part ways. In order to escape Rapture in BioShock, your silent protagonist first has to survive, and that means using the drug that helped drive the city mad. The edge ADAM grants you in combat requires you to constantly obtain more from the Little Sisters. Here, choice plays a role, for the player could either rescue or kill the zombie-like carriers for a lesser or greater amount of ADAM. As your enemies grow more numerous and more dangerous, it could be tempting to rationalize the deaths of Little Sisters. (Though truth be told, on the lower difficulty levels it didn’t really matter what you decided. You just thought it did.) In any case, the more “good” or “bad” you are in relation to Little Sisters determines whether you flee the city or attempt to become its new master. The philosophy of BioShock is clear: doing good may not yield instant gratification, but the alternative can lead to a worse place than before.

In contrast, everything about Infinite’s gameplay is a case of serious deja-vu for the doomed protagonist Booker, who killed many Indians during the American frontier wars and violently broke factory strikes as a Pinkerton agent. Booker’s past is brought back to haunt him by acquaintances old and new. Even his drinking habit gets revisited by a new dependence on a wonder drug known as “salts,” which grant Booker powerful combat abilities. The deeper into the story one goes, the more it feels like a bad dream, as Elizabeth, the woman you rescue, can open portals to alternate realities, known as “tears.” In order to survive this dream, you have to gun down countless police and militia who are merely trying to keep their city safe. When you get mixed up in a revolution and start shooting Irish and black freedom fighters, there seems to be something off about the whole situation.

Perhaps that is because choice is mere window dressing in BioShock: Infinite. The grand twist in the first BioShock was that your most significant choices up to the reveal were not your own. Even so, BioShock was about our choices defining us. Infinite’s twist is that all the choices that matter were made before the game began. Booker has made bad choices throughout his life, bringing pain and suffering to all in his path. His attempts at “redemption” are a lie he keeps telling himself. In the first BioShock, there are different endings based on the morality of your in-game actions. Infinite, however, declares there is only one way the game can end. The Burial at Sea DLC attempts to tie Columbia  and Rapture together but does little to change Infinite’s nihilistic tone. Elizabeth, the Burial at Sea protagonist, must die before the story’s done, not knowing the results her actions will yield.

Levine has said he doesn’t set out to write a story for any particular agenda. Levine deserves credit for writing characters who are interesting rather than seeking to please whichever interest groups are in vogue. He certainly achieves that — there’s no question that the Lutece twins, Booker, and Elizabeth are beloved by fans. But what is BioShock: Infinite trying to say if choice is meaningless? Through Infinite’s tale of amnesia, madness, death, and despair, the player learns that attempting to do good is folly. Death for the protagonist is the only way peace can be secured; you can’t see Booker and Elizabeth ride off into the sunset. I almost wonder if Infinite’s nihilistic ending is a sly statement about the huge amounts of time gamers spend with their favorite pastime. In a way, the only way to stop the madness of Infinite is to stop playing the game. As much as “player choice” may be a tired or poorly executed game mechanic, the fact does not change that we are human beings who can and must choose.

At best, Infinite warns the player not to be Booker. According to Thomas Aquinas, Natural Law can be discerned by reason, so one’s path shouldn’t be regarded as entirely a result of chance, environment, or fate. If anyone is doomed, it is the person living an unexamined life. Booker DeWitt would seem to fit the bill. He’s not concerned with good or bad — he’s the guy with the gun. In light of that, the takeaway from BioShock: Infinite is simple (forget trying to explain the rabbit holes of different dimensions). Booker’s unexamined life makes him a slave to his passions, and refusing to face his faults leads him to use religion as yet another excuse for his bad behavior.

There is perhaps a bigger puzzle than the meaning of Booker and Elizabeth’s tale: what caused critics to fall in love with BioShock: Infinite in the first place? The combat mechanics are similar to those in the first game, but the enemies in Columbia are a far cry from the mutated freaks of Rapture. Wreaking mayhem in the form of bloody head shots on the poor schlubs in Columbia gets tiresome after a while. It’s quite ironic that some critics who look down on Call of Duty players were satisfied when Infinite ramped up the shooter elements to provide countless enemies to mow down along with weapons, shields, and powers with which to do so. Is Infinite a great game because it tells a postmodern fairy tale, where there are no heroes and no truth, only a cruel universe? Is it a great game because it’s packaged as a gung-ho jingoistic shooter but is, in reality, a deconstruction of the dark side of American history seen through one troubled man’s eyes? While some might see such ideas as claims to fame, I think it was the quasi-philosophical feel of Infinite that captivated many critics. Much like the thought coming out of most modern liberal-arts philosophy departments, Infinite tends to confuse rather than enlighten. In the game’s second act after multiple “tears” are opened and entered, the story’s logic of worlds within worlds is reminiscent of Inception, a movie many loved but couldn’t understand. Since philosophy literally means “love of wisdom,” an “intelligent” game should give us something tangible to take away from the experience. The first BioShock possessed a clarity of vision that accomplished this, but Infinite ultimately wasted excellent characters by embracing muddled storytelling.

In interviews promoting Infinite, Levine was very clear about the message of both BioShocks. He said the games are a warning against extremism or “true believers,” such as Andrew Ryan of Rapture and Zachary Comstock of Columbia. It’s an understandable idea when one considers the death that extreme ideology has brought to the world. Infinite is ultimately weakened by its rejection of absolutes, however. With Infinite, Levine proposes an absolute commitment to “questioning everything” (a contradiction in terms), but there is more to the world than mere constants and variables. Indeed, there is a danger that Infinite’s commitment to open-mindedness can lead to a denial of absolute truth and, following that, denial of good and evil. My basic issue with Infinite can be summed up by this quip from GK Chesterton: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Great Game Writing of 2014 – January to April

by Jed Pressgrove

Great game writing is already collected by some. My intention is to provide a different approach and give attention to overlooked work (though some of my selections are well known). For each of my 14 selections, I will explain why the writing is worthwhile and indicate if it has limitations. If you disagree with my selections or reasoning, please share your thoughts. If you feel I have overlooked an (ahem) overlooked piece, please share it and why you think it’s great.

Being Black and Nerdy, by Sidney Fussell

This is the first time game writing has sounded like Public Enemy. This piece would be ordinary if it were just personal and political. (I do cringe when a piece starts with images of tweets, but Fussell indicates he is aware of postmodern egotism.) “Being Black and Nerdy” is not a mere polemic; Fussell uses his experience to make the intersection between racial identity and games real. Ironically, this realness rejects the “Stand for anything” call in the final paragraph. A lot of game criticism stands for anything — for popularity, for power, for ego. Fussell’s criticism of race in games stands for something genuine and important.

Naked Design: When Narrative Strips Mechanics, by Ryan Perez

No matter what you think of him, Perez is one of the most challenging game critics out there. Here, he takes on the “It’s not a game” criticism directed toward games like Gone Home. Perez confronts the argument directly, identifies its flaws, and, finally, finds some common ground with the idea. This piece reveals that perhaps what we’re looking for in Gone Home is already a part of more mechanic-driven games. One might argue that Perez is biased toward mechanic-driven games, but his concerns about “naked design” are worth considering.

Broforce Early Access Review, by Nick Capozzoli

Only a shortsighted perspective would dismiss the critical value of game reviews. In this very good review, Capozzoli dissects language, questions content, and provides a historical framework (via Contra and action movies) that might make you grin. It takes a lot for long-form criticism to be as engaging as this energetic piece. I would also like to note that this review just beats Capozzoli’s The Castle Doctrine review, which was a bit tiring in the middle despite its great conclusion.

Cookie Clicker and Banana Bonanza, by Indie Gamer Chick

Some people might point to “The Indie Ego” as Indie Gamer Chick’s best article of 2014 thus far. But like I said above, it takes a lot for a long piece to compete with a great review. Indie Gamer Chick is one of the best at taking a review in unexpected, but readable, directions. She starts off discussing Banana Bananza, an Xbox Live Indie Games title whose cover features two women “suggestively wielding bananas like they were dildos.” She then shares that such “boob games” have brought a lot of attention to her site as well as the often overlooked XBLIG platform. From there, she learns from friends that Banana Bananza is a clone of Cookie Clicker, which she goes on to play and then defend in this review. Game criticism needs more humorous storytelling like this. I do wish this piece had more thoughts about why Cookie Clicker should be given more attention, though.

Gaming Is My Safe Space, by Jessica Janiuk

Female protagonists continue to generate debate in the gaming community. Janiuk doesn’t discuss the politics here; she simply shares how games with playable female characters have been a comfortable outlet for her as a trans woman. I’m not sure if this article would change anyone’s mind about representation in games, but Janiuk’s perspective is presented excellently and speaks to the power of avatars.

What Games Need?, by Ian Bogost

This daring transcription was the best thing that came out of the Critical Proximity conference. Bogost tackles three things that game criticism shouldn’t be about, though all three things are often on the game criticism agenda. Perhaps his most significant statement comes from the third point, a clear call against solipsism: “[T]he critic’s work is not oriented around the self, but around the other.” With this and other thoughts, Bogost will have you giving all criticism and the “game criticism community” a second glance. My only dispute is that perhaps technological progressivism has some merit, though I agree with Bogost’s general concern.

The Game I Played When I Was Scared to Death of Being Deported, by Patricia Hernandez

After nine paragraphs, this article has some brilliant analysis about Papers, Please and concludes that the game is a white power fantasy over the disenfranchised. In my view, Hernandez’s criticism of the game is original and challenges the status quo. My only issue with the article is that it needs more focus on Papers, Please’s fantasy and what it means for the gaming world. A big chunk of the piece is about Hernandez’s personal fear of being deported by America’s xenophobic power structure. While I understand why she incorporated her personal experience into the piece, I felt that her personal experience could have played a more powerful role with fewer words about it and more words about the limitations of Papers, Please. Personal experiences should inform criticism, but criticism, as Bogost argues, is primarily about the other, not the self.

Being a Woman in the Gaming World, by Sabriel

This piece is a little disjointed and could use a stronger conclusion, but it’s a great read because it provides a very well-rounded take on what it’s like to be a female gamer. In one of the more interesting paragraphs, Sabriel condemns harassment against Anita Sarkeesian while pointing out that the harassment does not prove Sarkeesian right. The article’s general significance is that Sabriel pays equal attention to the bad and good experiences that women might have in the gaming world. The overall opinion is critical and hopeful.

What Video Games Should Be Borrowing from Television, by Bryant Francis

Francis is one of the only critics who seems to care about the influence of television on video games. That alone makes this piece interesting, but the connections he draws between television and games elevate the article to another level. (Note: This piece beats the Guardian article “Why Gaming Needs Its Games of Thrones Moment” that was published today.) My one problem with this piece is that I believe Francis is too positive about this development — but more on that later (HINT HINT).

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 Is As Grotesque As It Aims to Be, by Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker

This review comes across as the definitive take on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Ewert-Krocker acknowledges the intentions of the developers but focuses on their execution of ideas and how this can impact player perception of the game (nevermind the character of Dracula). The closing question is something every gamer should ask when playing a controversial title. One could suggest Ewert-Krocker is biased because of his love for the Castlevania series, but this review warns against blindly excusing flaws in light of intentions.

Narrative Choices in Virtue’s Last Reward, by Amanda Lange

As a developer, critic, academic, and, last but not least, player, Lange can switch hats in the middle of an article very eloquently — she has the talent of bridging the seemingly sizable gaps between us. This piece about the sometimes conflicting intentions of developers and gamers has Lange reaching across the aisle while not discrediting different viewpoints. Her position is as much about telling an original story as it is about satisfying the player’s need for choice.

A Straight Path to Success – The Brilliance of Linear Gaming, by Ryan Davies

A very straightforward, provocative article. Davies presents a populist argument in favor of linear gaming over open-world gaming. While one could dispute every part of this opinion, the casual confidence of Davies’ claims — such as drawing a line between The Last of Us and Super Mario Bros. — is entertaining and could inspire detailed counterarguments despite the simplicity of his case. (Just for the record, the guy’s not right about Indiana Jones vs. Uncharted.)

Missing Representation and Infamous: Second Son, by Reid McCarter

The implications of addressing reality in fiction is explored in this tightly written piece. The idea of “cultural cowardice” is especially compelling. While McCarter has a particular issue with Infamous: Second Son, he provides a critical framework that can be used to assess many games with “realistic” locales. A potential limitation of McCarter’s specific argument is the lack of a Native American viewpoint on the representation in Infamous: Second Son, but his analysis nonetheless raises valid questions about the use of real-world places in games.

Beyond: Two Souls – A Lesson on Internalized Patriarchy, by Kate Reynolds

A lot of game critics despise David Cage, so perhaps Beyond: Two Souls was doomed before it came out. Interestingly, Reynolds admits to expecting Beyond: Two Souls to be sexist, then finds herself sympathizing with the game’s protagonist before returning to a critical mode after she stopped playing. With this conflict between the personal and the critical, Reynolds provides a warning about the difference between expectations, personal experience, and criticism.