Month: June 2018

Loaded Questions Vol. 9

Loaded Questions is a regular feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Sam Martinelli: You’ve said in the past that you don’t support the idea of downloadable content (DLC) on principle, noting that games should be finished products once you pay for them. What do you make, then, of the free-to-play model? For example, games like Fortnite, Quake Champions, or Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft can be enjoyed without paying a dime, though shelling out some extra cash for cosmetics or new cards may enhance the overall experience. Is DLC acceptable if the core game is free?

Jed Pressgrove: As with most things, there are degrees of acceptability here. If a game is free to play but requires money for cosmetic changes, it doesn’t seem as bad as a full-priced game — which may or may not be buggy or “complete” at launch — that features cosmetic options via paid DLC.

Having said that, I’m still not a fan of DLC even within the free-to-play model. Minor cosmetic changes mean nothing to me, especially given that the intent behind them has more to do with superfluous virtual-identity customization rather than a meaningful shift in, say, aesthetics. From an artistic standpoint, it would be far more interesting if the “cosmetic” could lead to a richer interpretation of the game, but if you feel this way, you might as well make the case that all such things should be available from the get-go for a one-time price. Makes life a helluva lot simpler. (The game DLC Quest has played its own small role in shaping my views.)

I also do not spend money on any kind of DLC because I don’t want to send the message that I’m in favor of DLC in any way. If you give companies breathing room on this issue, they’ll keep seeing how far they can take the scheme. That’s why some free-to-play games have been called pay-to-win games. When changes via DLC lead to in-game advantages, many players feel the pressure to pay. Yes, people always have a choice, but I frown upon an industry that always says it needs more money as it shows little evidence of higher standards for quality and fairness across the board.

Brant Moon: I know you’re not a huge fan of the term “ludonarrative dissonance” (or maybe just not a fan of its overuse), but I liked that it helped some people consciously consider, “Hey, maybe the gameplay is not jiving with the story.” If you had to name one game (or two) with the best narrative-to-gameplay synergy, what would it be? Conversely, what popular games do you think have the worst synergy?

Jed Pressgrove: You are correct that I despise “ludonarrative dissonance.” It’s a mouthful in that dreadful academic sort of way, and it looks ugly in a sentence. There’s also confusion surrounding the term, which makes me question its usefulness. It seems to me that we can talk about matters of “ludonarrative dissonance” just fine without ever employing the phrase. By avoiding these two words and being specific about our observations, we can sidestep confusion and probably make a decent point.

From my standpoint, your question is much harder to answer than some might think. As I consider what you mean here, I realize that we are often conditioned or encouraged to think of narrative and gameplay as separate entities that, ideally, fit together like puzzle pieces. But this line of thought only represents one approach to how stories can be told or how ideas can be communicated within a game.

Think of something like Missile Command. This is a game that many would say “has no story.” But it does tell a story in how it captures, through its rules and theme and unique arcade cabinet, geopolitical and existential anxiety. Could we then argue that something like Missile Command showcases the purest kind of synergy that you refer to?

Another game that comes to mind while I think about all of this is the original Ninja Gaiden on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Although the cutscenes and player-driven action in this game are undeniably obvious in their separation, the urgency of Ryu Hayabusa’s quest and emotions, as illustrated in the cinematics, comes thundering out that much more when you take control of his avatar. If Ryu weren’t as fast and agile when you play as him (a clear departure from the deliberate pace of Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden’s biggest influence), the storytelling would mean nothing, and the mechanics would betray the conviction of the preceding writing and imagery.

It’s even harder trying to determine the pop game with the worst such synergy. Perhaps many open-world games deserve the most criticism for their nonstop indulgence of meaninglessness. Their big-ass maps and countless isomorphic tasks avoid the entire challenge of expressing something in a game. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example, doesn’t really express anything. Who gives a damn whether you stop Ganon again? Nintendo is telling us (like so many other unimaginative developers), “Here it is, player! The world is your oyster! Feast!” And when you read many of the reasons why people think Breath of the Wild is magnificent, it all comes down to what they did in a particular part of a game that features a culturally insignificant, emotionally vapid, and childish sense of morality. Emergent egotism.

Ryan Aston: What are your favorite depictions of Hell in media (games, movies, television, books, etc.)?

Jed Pressgrove: Lately, the depictions of Hell that have impressed me have all come from games. Hell in Will You Ever Return? 2, developed by Jack King-Spooner, has never left me. King-Spooner’s usage of everything from clay to photographs gives the setting an organic yet unreal vibe. What really got to me was how the game employed the Seven Deadly Sins within Hell. The encounter with Lust, outside of satirizing RPG combat norms, inspires you to grapple with the idea of your unborn children. (Also, it was either this 2012 sequel or its predecessor (they both take place in Hell) in which King-Spooner somewhat portends the political rise of Donald Trump.)

I also liked how Manual Samuel depicted Hell as this place where you have to function like a cog within a society. The demented rationalism of the setting deliciously plays off narrator Brian Sommer’s contempt for the wealthy protagonist Sam. It’s like, finally, the spoiled rich kid gets to know what it means to be working class.

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Detroit: Become Human Review — Telltale’d Again

by Jed Pressgrove

Developer Telltale Games, known for titles like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, doesn’t just allow players to make choices in its games; it tells players that their choices matter — incessantly and obnoxiously. With Detroit: Become Human, director/writer David Cage offers a variation of Telltale’s player-choice marketing. After you complete a chapter in Detroit: Become Human, the game shows a flowchart of how your actions, such as talking to a certain character or not killing someone, ultimately resulted in the concluding scene of the chapter, and as a bonus, the chart reveals other paths you could have taken if you had made a different choice. While the narrative of Detroit: Become Human preaches about the potential humanity of futuristic robots, Cage’s presentation of player-driven consequences is distractingly mechanical.

In Detroit: Become Human, you alternate between playing as three androids in the year 2038: Connor, who investigates “deviant” androids, a la Rick Deckard in Blade Runner; Kara, who is designed to do chores for humans; and Markus, who takes care of an aging and ailing artist. The stories of these three characters evolve according to how you play. If you, say, overlook a clue at a crime scene as Connor, you may fail to nab a perpetrator. There are limits to your impact as a player, though: the three protagonists move toward different destinies as outlined by Cage. Connor must come to grips with whether his mission matters more than his shared humanity with the suspects he tracks down. Kara learns what it means to be a parent as she protects a formerly abused little girl. And Markus becomes a leader in a political movement that seeks to end the slavery of androids, who are seen as disposable by humanity at large.

The variety of consequences in Detroit: Become Human is interesting, especially considering that the story never stops moving. There is no Game Over, so a lack of attention to detail on your part can have repercussions that flow through the entirety of the game. But instead of allowing the voice acting, animation, and other audiovisual cues convey how the player’s actions impact people in the story, Cage uses contrived text messages in the top-right corner of the screen to spell out how other characters feel about your decision-making.

This “reputation meter” of sorts recalls Telltale’s awkward “He/she will remember that” statement, which appears when a nonplayable character perceives your decision as significant. Although Cage intends for this feature to inform you of character emotions, the messaging cheapens the emotion in generally well-executed scenes. For instance, if you want Markus to be more of a pacifist leader, a woman named North will often show signs of disapproval. But apparently, such signs are not enough for literate audiences. In addition to North’s on-screen reactions, you will see her name at the top of the screen with a downward-pointing red arrow beside it when you disappoint her. Conversely, if you please North, you will see her name and an upward-pointing green arrow beside it.

At best, Cage’s laughable reduction of human dynamics to traffic-light colors and a thumbs-up/thumbs-down binary is unnecessary. At worst, it shatters what the images of the game can say to you. One scene depicts Kara and the little girl snuggled up in an abandoned car. You wouldn’t be unreasonable to perceive warmth and security in such a picture, but during my experience with Detroit: Become Human, a screen message indicated that the child was “Distant.” Not only did this text seem to contradict what the game was illustrating, it also rejected my natural interpretation of the scene itself and asked me to buy into an idea that I personally would have no logical reason to accept without the shoehorned description.

Perhaps this sense of artificiality is intentional on Cage’s part. After all, Detroit: Become Human involves androids having messy awakenings about the purpose of their existence. Take Markus. His story has been criticized for evoking the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. However, these critical accounts have rarely mentioned the other references in Markus’ story: the perspectives of Descartes and Gandhi are alluded to via quotes and actions, and Markus frees the minds and spirits of other androids by touching them, a frequent reference to the miraculous hands of Jesus Christ. Although the allusions can feel like flippantly borrowed ideas with little depth, is it possible Cage is trying to say that androids are rather green and confused in their newfound humanity?

If so, the emphasis on our roles as players with choices throws a monkey wrench into Cage’s goal as an artist. Compared to the protagonists in Cage’s story, the audience of Detroit: Become Human has far more experience with the state of being human. We know that relationships in life often can’t be boiled down to whether someone likes us less or more, as implied by the game’s red and green arrows. We know that sometimes when we make choices, we’re not necessarily thinking of locked and unlocked paths in the vein of the game’s post-chapter flowcharts, which encourage us to admire the story for its replay value rather than its moral value. Despite how engrossing Detroit: Become Human can be, its player-choice marketing is always ready to rear its robotic head, separating the audience from the supposedly visceral and contemplative feelings of its heroes.

Loaded Questions Vol. 8

Loaded Questions is a regular feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Mingying Wang: In a tweet, you questioned if using Steam is something people should do. Just curious, why do you think that? Also, what would be your suggested alternative?

Jed Pressgrove: I tweeted that because of some people’s outrage over Steam’s policies and decisions. For years, it hasn’t been unusual to see a moral critique of Steam, but I’ve personally never seen any of these same people conclude that we should stop using Steam.

Oli Welsh’s recent reaction to Steam’s content policy is a great case in point. His final two sentences on the policy follow: “They [Steam] will watch the vast community they built devolve into toxicity and hate and their storefront get overrun with exploitative, bilious rubbish, and they won’t intervene for fear of offending anyone or taking a position on anything. It is weak, it is immoral and it is unworthy of our industry and our art form.”

These sentences are powerful, but they lose power when you consider that Welsh doesn’t even consider the idea of withholding money from Steam or ceasing one’s usage of Steam. What’s more, despite the fact that you have to pay for individual games on Steam without being able to own them (a swindle if I’ve ever seen one), Welsh’s article says, “[T]he deal with the customer is a fair one.” Bullshit, Welsh! Get off your moral podium if you can’t think in favor of everyday working people.

I’m not telling people how they should spend their money or time. If someone wants to use Steam every day and buy 1,000 games from Steam within one year, that’s their right. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to imply Steam is an indifferent dictator that doesn’t care if Neo-Nazis take over the world, I’m not going to take your bile seriously if you’re still using the service, promoting its sales, etc.

Personally, I don’t use Steam that often. The major reason is that I don’t currently own a gaming PC, though when I do purchase one (which should happen in the coming months), I will use Steam from time to time if I can’t find another way to play a particular game. But I will never say Steam is fair. If it were fair, you would either get to own the games you buy or pay a flat fee to play a wide selection of games through the Steam service.

Question 2

Jeff Hudspeth: I recently watched an Extra Credits episode that made the point that games shouldn’t cost $60 and should probably cost more based on a variety of apparently sensible factors (though the video concludes $60 is probably where prices should remain). I wondered what you, as someone who makes a point of considering things from the perspective of the working-class gamer, thought about current game prices. Is $60 an acceptable price tag even though it perpetuates loot boxes and DLC? Is $70+ as outlandish as it sounds? Is it even possible to come to a solution without reaching the conclusion that our economy needs to be massively overhauled?

Jed Pressgrove: If I’m being honest, I think $60 is too much. For starters, just look at how big-budget titles are packaged: the cases are poorly made, and they rarely come with manuals, booklets, or something akin to liner notes. Next, look at how quickly most games lose value. Then think about how many of the games are technically questionable at launch, or how you have to spend more money just to get cosmetic features.

I could go on and on. The game industry — as well as unoriginal blowhards like Extra Credits who go out of their way to defend the industry’s low standards and to lull people to sleep with patronizing baloney — can’t shut up about the costs of game production, yet at the same time, it releases (and often celebrates!) poorly made stuff on a regular basis. And do game companies ever consider that perhaps they generally suck at budgeting?

$60 price tags do not perpetuate loot boxes and DLC. The game industry must take substantial moral responsibility for releasing unfinished and incomplete games. Another group that deserves some blame is game journalists, who should represent a united front against the schemes of the industry. Finally, everyday people who spend money on DLC and the like might grapple with the notion that they’re getting ripped off. Sometimes the best thing to do is to stop spending.

Question 3

Serge Soucy: After reading through Slant’s recently revised top 100 games list, I became curious as to how you and other members of the Slant team collaborate to make a list of that size. What’s the process like?

Jed Pressgrove: I can’t reveal everything that went into the updated list, but I can speak broadly about my experience. All of the writers submitted ranked ballots (which were not shared between us). That was the most challenging part for me. I had never created a ranked list of the 100 best games, so I had to think about every game I had ever played from either memory alone or by looking at other lists and resources to help me remember.

Our editor, Ed Gonzalez (who is both a great editor and one of the best film critics alive), then assigned scores to all of the games based on a number of factors (how highly a game ranked on an individual list, whether a game showed up on multiple lists, etc.).

After the scores were tallied, it turned out that a number of the games were neck and neck. So Gonzalez asked us to write arguments for the games that we thought were the most deserving in these neck-and-neck situations. That was the most fun part.

None of the writers (to my knowledge anyway) corresponded about the list during this process. In one way, that’s a good thing. You wouldn’t necessarily want writers teaming up and trying to impose their will on a list.

But in another way, I wish I could have debated with my peers more. As I said on Twitter, I strongly disagreed with a good chunk of the games that made it to the list. But that’s the nature of the beast. That’s why if you really care, you should make your own list.

 

Loaded Questions Vol. 7

Loaded Questions is a new weekly feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Ronaldo Villanueva: Do you think The Legend of Zelda is a role-playing game? The definition of RPG is not clear for many people, which is what makes Zelda’s classification unclear. I also think a problem arises given that A Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds take a lot of their structure from Dragon Quest and other Japanese RPGs, namely using narrative as a vehicle for linear progression through a world.

Jed Pressgrove: I don’t go around thinking “Zelda is a series of RPGs,” but there is a good argument for that line of thought. Your point about narrative is a good one. Now, if someone counters and says an RPG must give you the opportunity to level up your character, we could argue Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is an RPG, as it allows you to level up your strength, health, and magic through experience points.

I was happy to read this question because a few years ago game developer and theorist Chris Bateman and I exchanged blog letters about this topic, and I mentioned The Legend of Zelda in my letter (here’s my letter, and here’s Bateman’s response). We didn’t arrive at any easy answers for this question about RPGs, but I think you’ll find the conversation interesting.

One thing’s for sure: the definition of RPG has changed a lot since Dungeons & Dragons. And at this point, tons of games use narrative to drive linear progression through a world and offer players the opportunity to level up and mold their characters. And as Bateman pointed out in his response to me, another perspective values more open progression in RPGs. So even if we’re not willing to call games like Assassin’s Creed Origins or Okami RPGs, you could make a convincing case that the RPG is currently the most influential video-game genre.

Daniel Cánovas: What are the worst penalties you’ve seen in video games? And the best? I’m playing Final Fantasy V right now, and you have to redo a lot of stuff (get experience and levels, watch cinematics, etc.) if you die in combat.

Jed Pressgrove: I know many people hate the idea of starting a game all the way over after losing a certain amount of times, but some of the greatest games ever (Galaga, Xevious, and so on) use this penalty. What I hate is being forced to watch a cutscene every time I attempt to defeat a boss, especially if that cutscene is idiotic (and pre-boss cutscenes often are). Even if the cutscene is good, who wants to watch it multiple times when your primary motivation for continuing to play is victory over a challenging foe?

As far as best penalties are concerned, it might be beyond cliched to say this now, but the penalty of losing potential experience points in Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls is brilliant in how it plays with our curiosity, greed, and pride: do you keep exploring this fascinating world, even if dying means you have one chance to survive through a series of enemies again just to regain what you once had in your possession? I also like how if you don’t wait for Shadow at the Floating Continent in Final Fantasy III (SNES), you will never see him again and thus will never be able to use his powerful techniques in battle again. Finally, if you don’t eat the egg (for health points) in Earthbound quickly enough, it hatches, and you’re left with a chick taking up a precious spot in your inventory. That’s just great.

Doggie: What are the best video game canines? And what are your favorite Mega Man bosses?

Jed Pressgrove: The best video-game canine is … not Dogmeat in the Fallout series. While I like him (especially in the first two Fallout games), he can die permanently, and he’s not that versatile. I prefer the dog in Secret of Evermore. He’s with you for most of the game (in one sequence, you get to play as him alone), he changes forms as you travel to different worlds, he’s powerful, and he locates items for you. I also like Interceptor for his random combat behavior in Final Fantasy III (SNES), and Rush in Mega Man 6 is incredible in how he fuses with Mega Man to give you a jetpack or power armor.

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite Mega Man boss from the classic series. I think the best Mega Man bosses are in some of the more modern games. Chill Penguin from Mega Man X is great. I like his little laugh and his variety of attacks. And if you count Mighty No. 9 as a Mega Man game in spirit, I have to mention Countershade, who spews anti-human and anti-government rhetoric as he snipes at you throughout his stage, and Avi, who speaks in an obnoxious news-reporter style.