blazing lazers

Loaded Questions Vol. 5

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.

Dalton Miller: It seems like Eastern influence is once again dominating the space of major publisher games at large (see The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata, the Dark Souls series, the newfound popularity of the Yakuza series in the West, etc.). Do you agree? If so, do you think this will be a lasting influence, or will the Gears of War-style Western games space return eventually?

Jed Pressgrove: I don’t know if I would say Eastern influence is dominating the market. If we look at the top 10 best-selling games of 2017 in the United States, there’s more Western influence represented in that list, and guess which 2013 Western game made the list? Grand Theft Auto V.

But I would agree there is a shift of a sort. People do seem to be far more interested in Japanese games than they were a few years ago. The Nintendo Switch’s popularity is a clear indicator of that. We can also see this shift in the rapid emergence of games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which was directly inspired by the Japanese film Battle Royale.

Also, if we’re talking about countries within the Eastern hemisphere, you would have to cite games like The Witcher III. So the influence goes beyond Japan.

It really doesn’t matter to me if this influence is lasting. I’m more interested in what games are doing and saying. It’s also hard for me to predict what the public will gravitate toward. For one thing, my standards often don’t align with the standards of the public. And in the next five years, there could be some cultural or political event that somehow inspires a lot of people to start playing certain games.

Ryan Aston: What is the best video-game boss? What is your philosophy for bosses in general? Do you think they should test how proficient you’ve become with skills learned across the game, introduce new mechanics, or what?

Jed Pressgrove: M. Bison. Beyond his devastating standing kicks and strong horizontal/vertical game, M. Bison embodies everything that’s wrong in Street Fighter II. Think about how important geography is in Street Fighter II. You don’t just pick a fighter. You pick a country to represent, and you fight the champions of other countries. You watch a plane fly around the world. Every character is represented by a specific stage. But you don’t know where Bison comes from. All you know is that you fight him in Thailand, on the same stage that you fight the Thai fighter Sagat, because that’s where Bison is headquartered. He is completely divorced from ethnicity, home, and background, and that, not his brutality, is what makes him more inhuman than anyone else in the game.

My only philosophy on bosses is that they should make for interesting conflicts, which can involve testing what a player has learned, throwing mechanical curveballs, and so much more. In Blazing Lazers, the first boss can be “defeated” without shooting a single bullet. This particular boss can split itself into three different parts, forcing the player to move to different safe spaces. The boss is a cinch to defeat if you are powered up, but if you keep dodging its different parts — as if you and the boss are part of some synchronized dance — the boss will eventually leave, and you get to move on to the second stage.

Jeff Hudspeth: Are there genres you struggle to engage with, and how do you approach them critically? I’m thinking here of my own difficulty getting into real-time strategy games and how game genres seem to contrast with each other more starkly than, say, movie genres.

Jed Pressgrove: There are a few genres I don’t engage with, and I typically don’t or won’t review them because of a lack of interest and/or experience.

Although I am very familiar with a variety of role-playing games, I stay away from massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), primarily because of the money and/or time that they often demand. I’m not interested in being part of a 30-member party and chatting with people before a raid. I have no desire to play a game that controls so many aspects of one’s life.

Sports simulations are another breed that I try to avoid. I love sports (particularly basketball, football, boxing, and mixed martial arts), and sports games can be brilliant (from Blades of Steel to Pyre), but games that attempt to resemble a real sport tend to be uncreative, and they’re pretty much bound to fail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played a Madden game, only to marvel at how goofy it is despite a pretense of realism.

The truth is that no game critic can be dedicated to every single genre out there. It takes too much time to play games, and they’re being pumped out at an alarmingly fast rate.

Having said that, I try to cover as many genres as possible. When it comes to fighting games, turn-based strategy, real-time strategy, RPGs, shooters, platformers, adventures, puzzlers, and others, I feel comfortable dissecting them because of my prolonged engagement with them.

Brian: Why do a lot of the arguments in your reviews always amount to a game being either “sexist,” “pandering,” “misogynistic,” or some other overused mainstream word? I’m genuinely curious. Personally, I think games are an art form and should be given the same freedoms as any other art form. Artistic freedom is what makes movies, books, and drawings so interesting to watch, read, and look at. I would write more, but I don’t want to waste your time. Thank you for writing back if you do.

Jed Pressgrove: If the word fits my purposes, I’ll use it. Doesn’t matter to me whether the word is mainstream. I use words that reveal my feelings, thoughts, and personality. I will say, though, that it’s interesting you bring up the terms “sexist” and “misogynistic,” as I don’t use those descriptors that often. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve used those words in any of my reviews this year for Game Bias, Slant, or Unwinnable.

On your point about games as an art form, I agree artists should have the freedom to express themselves. I also believe criticism itself is an art form, so I should have the same freedom as developers. Nothing I do or say should prevent developers from expressing themselves, and vice versa. I have no interest in “changing” games (and I hope developers have no interest in “changing” criticism) — that’s a pointless dream, as no one can control art, and art will never satisfy us. But I will say what I want, and I hope others do the same.

Ian Mossner: What are your thoughts on the criticism of games that don’t have “true” gameplay? I’ve seen multiple tweets like this recently taking aim at Detroit: Become Human.

Jed Pressgrove: There is no such thing as “true gameplay.” People who say otherwise are behind the times. Games have changed, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that. That’s why I judge games for what they are. I may not end up liking a game that goes in a different direction than the norm, but it’s important for me to experience the game so that I can be informed on a basic level.

One more thing to consider: games directed by David Cage often get judged before anyone plays them. Detroit: Become Human is only the latest example.

Many commentators think they’re cute and smart when they dismiss upcoming games based on preview material like interviews. When people judge games before they come out for whatever reason, they are being fundamentally close-minded, not to mention unoriginal. In an answer above, I admitted that I don’t engage with sports simulations or MMORPGs. Imagine how ignorant I would be if every time a new MMORPG is announced, I started lambasting it based on preview materials and assumptions. A lot of people love speaking from a standpoint of ignorance, especially on Twitter. It’s easy attention and work. Anybody can highlight a couple of sentences from preview materials and go to town as their buddies cheer them on. If the frequent disparity between artistic intent and execution can’t convince these uninspired analysts that it’s mindless and meaningless to judge things they’ve never experienced, I don’t know what will.

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Loaded Questions Vol. 3

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.

Question 1

Ryan Aston: What do you think is the all-time worst game you’ve ever had the misfortune of playing, and how far did you play through it? Articulate why you consider it to be the worst, be it unplayably broken, thematically offensive/incoherent, or whatever. Same question for all-time worst movie you’ve seen.

Jed Pressgrove: There are so many candidates for the worst game I’ve ever played. For instance, there’s Messiah the Healer, a free game at Game Jolt that trivializes the miracles of Jesus Christ. Then there’s Pregnancy, which, as I said in my review here, uses “in-detail rape to hook you into a shallow lecture on abortion debate.”

But the king of bad games is Ryan Lambourne’s The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary. To make a point about gun control, this game allows the player to assume the role of Sandy Hook murderer Adam Lanza and shoot as many kids and teachers as possible at the elementary school. Afterward, the player must start over and use a sword to try to kill the same number of people. The idea is that, naturally, you wouldn’t be able to kill as many people with a sword, thus identifying gun control as the answer to the issue. Lambourne doesn’t consider, however, that his point will be lost on anyone with a shred of respect for the real-life victims of the crime. What decent person wants to reenact real-world carnage and tragedy, especially when it’s obvious that Lambourne is pushing propaganda and hoping to be seen as an important game developer?

As for worst movie, that’s easy. I have to go with an atrocious Japanese film my friend got me to watch: Killer Pussy. The name says enough, but to go into more detail, the story concerns a woman with a parasite in her vagina that kills people. If the concept alone isn’t enough to disgust you, everything about this movie is terrible. The most laughable part of the film is the special effects. In certain scenes, the parasite is depicted with the worst CGI you can imagine. In other scenes, the parasite is a puppet. I doubt Jim Henson would be a fan.

Question 2

Erlend Grefsrud: Do you see games as expressions or contrivances? Elucidation: expression is “communicating an intelligible intent,” while contrivance is “struggling to cohere.”

Jed Pressgrove: My first instinct was to say that a contrivance can be an expression (a bad one). But based on the two specific definitions here, I’d say the majority of games seem more like contrivances than expressions. We can see this in the way games often awkwardly transition between cutscenes and actual play. We can see this in the way games frequently tutorialize, suggesting that developers struggle to present rules and ideas intuitively. I suppose I could go on and on. I feel a lot of my reviews have an underlying anger about contrivances.

There is one thing I want to point out in light of recent dialogue about Far Cry 5. I agree with the critics who suggest Far Cry 5 is a contrivance. At the same time, just because something is a contrivance doesn’t mean it lacks ideology. In addition to the right-wing ideology I discussed in my review, Far Cry 5 also pushes a conservative game-design ideology that favors contrivance over expression. It’s interesting to me that many critics who dismiss Far Cry 5 as a contrivance are willing to accept an ideology of contrivance in other games when it suits their desires and worldviews.

Question 3

Martina Eva: Do you think there’s any potential left in the classic graphic adventure format?

Also, where do you think game criticism is heading?

Jed Pressgrove: Yes, there is definitely potential left, but developers have to play a careful balancing act. Mere homage to the genre is not good enough anymore, and to play off the point about expression and contrivance above, special care has to be taken with how, for example, puzzles are designed. Tim Schafer’s Broken Age both illustrates the potential of the genre and the pitfalls that developers should avoid. Broken Age is split into two games. The first game (or Act 1), in my estimation, is fairly brilliant. Act 1 of Broken Age allows the storytelling to dictate the puzzles. This approach gives the game an organic quality, and because of this, the story in Act 1 is able to make a powerful statement about how gender and race can divide us and bring us crashing together when we least expect it. Schafer, unfortunately, pisses all this potential away in Act 2, which features one contrived puzzle after another. It’s clear that Schafer backed away from his more creative instincts when he made Act 2.

Your second question is tough! There are a lot of critics out there, so you never know who might capture people’s imagination. But right now, I fear game criticism is headed toward more deception and marketing. Specifically, I think you’re going to see a lot more critics who claim to be more analytical than the obvious game-enthusiast movement, but instead of catering to people who worship games, they will cater to particular political factions. Now, I’m not saying game criticism shouldn’t be political, but there is a difference between the following two things: (1) the personal politics of the critic coming out as part of their creative expression within the art form of criticism and (2) the critic functioning as a lackey for a particular political persuasion. A critic in either case can be “liberal,” for example, but the second type will almost always fall on the most obvious, pandering side of liberalism. The second type will also be far less willing to consider the artistic merit of work that doesn’t cater to their political faction’s whims. The disgusting part is that game companies are becoming increasingly aware of this unexamined bias, and they’re ready to exploit critics with politicized marketing. Look at how Bethesda’s marketing for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus panders to the “Punch a Nazi” crowd. Look at how games keep overusing the word “resistance.” Look at how the developer of Kingdom Come: Deliverance implies that a lack of racial diversity automatically equates to “historical accuracy.” Instead of ignoring this type of marketing altogether, many critics want to be a part of the publicity, whether good or bad, and they’re ready to redraw the lines that divide us, all in the name of ego and success.

Question 4

Adam Eisentrout: Was there one specific game that made you want to be a game critic or write specifically about gaming?

Jed Pressgrove: If I must boil it down to one game, it would have to be Blazing Lazers. It wasn’t the first game I wrote about, but it was the one that made me want to be a dedicated game critic. I first played Blazing Lazers after I had become a bit jaded about video games, and its brilliance showed me that sometimes you have to search for greatness rather than expecting it to show up for you in the popular channels. On a very basic level, Blazing Lazers made me excited to write about games.

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest Shooters List — #5-1

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Here’s the introduction, #15-11, and #10-6 of the list.

5. Blazing Lazers (1989)

Building on the groundwork laid by Gradius, this vertical shooter, released on the elusive TurboGrafx16 console, suggests power-up management is an art form of choices and consequences. Four primary weapons can be leveled up by collecting orbs, and each weapon enables different play styles, whether it’s shooting smaller bullets in front of, behind, and to both sides of you simultaneously for extra defense or unleashing blue lightning that cuts through machinery like butter. Provocatively, a level-three weapon can be more effective than a higher-level weapon depending on the situation, so having to avoid orbs to maintain your bullet expression can put you into some dicey situations with enemies. Your style can be further augmented by secondary power-ups like floating drones that shoot with your ship, a shield, and homing missiles, but unlike the case in Gradius, you can’t activate all of these options at the same time. You must make a decision and live and die with it until another power-up, going back and forth like a pendulum, tempts you to change plans.

4. Resident Evil 4 (2005)

No one could have guessed the fourth installment of a franchise known for survival horror, a subgenre notorious for inexact controls and awkward action, would be one of the most exhilarating shooters ever made. Given Resident Evil 4’s incalculable influence on all sorts of 3-D third-person titles, it might be difficult for some to remember how this Shinji Mikami-directed game energized the very idea of aiming: one button press pulls the weapon up and zooms the camera closer to the shoulder of Leon (the pretty boy with enough cheesy lines for two games). This visual trick, copied shamelessly since, focuses one’s eyes even more on the target (a kinetic proxy of the lining-up process in real life), and every firearm having a red laser ensures something close to fetishization of the aim. How much fun it was, then, to find a favorite pistol and slowly improve its bullet capacity, sturdiness, power, and so on until zombie shooting became a sport that it had never been before. This unique pleasure was only surpassed by the unlockable The Mercenaries mode, which, if the world were just, would have its own arcade machine. If you must, complain about the fact that you can’t shoot while moving; almost anyone who has gone to a shooting range will tell you that freestanding target practice, which Resident Evil 4 beautifully simulates and demands, has a distinct intimacy and discipline to it.

3. Metroid Prime (2002)

Like Doom, Metroid Prime is full of shooting and areas to explore. But this Nintendo game, directed by Mark Pacini, tops its gorier first-person predecessor by calling attention to the beauty and importance of perspective itself. The way Metroid Prime reintroduces the morph ball from Metroid is the most obvious illustration of this point: the shift from first- to third-person when you ball up is a treat every time due to the natural-feeling transition. More importantly, the game’s different visors transcend the cliched detective modes of modern gaming, offering not one but three new ways of seeing the world and unearthing its mysteries. Metroid Prime’s radical design shines in its final action-packed stretch, which has you shaking off life-draining metroids via the perspective-changing morph ball and trying not to fall while scaling small platforms; surgically dispatching a giant spider with every major blaster (each with its own quirks and eye candy); and swapping to the right visor during the final boss battle so that you can actually see where to shoot.

2. Missile Command (1980)

In most shooters, skill leads to relatively instant gratification. Line up, fire, and know soon whether your target is wounded or destroyed. With Missile Command, Dave Theurer rejects this pattern as too comfortable, requiring the player to anticipate the trajectories of enemy missiles and deftly catch them in explosions that gradually widen and shrink back down. As great as Missile Command is on any platform (I first played it on a collection of Atari-produced games for PC), the arcade experience is essential, as the roller ball and stylized three buttons make players feel like they are part of a station that stands between obliteration and everyday homes. With this full package, Missile Command stands as a testament to the anxiety of the Cold War era.

1. Galaga (1981)

Shigeru Yokoyama’s Galaga is the most straightforward shooter on this list, and it’s that simplicity that magnifies the appeal of every detail of the game, whether it’s the sounds different enemies make when you land hits; the “Challenging Stage,” which grants you both respite from the “real” game and stress due to its special emphasis on accuracy and timing; the excitement of annihilating almost every enemy before they can line up and begin their malevolent swoops toward your ship that can only move left or right; the unforgettable little tune that plays when one of your ships gets sucked into a tractor beam and the reprise when you save it; the almost hollow-sounding explosion — a fitting complement for the disappointment in your gut — when you lose an extra ship. This Namco classic renders its ancestors, including Space Invaders, almost irrelevant in my mind. That’s what a true masterpiece does; it is the high bar, making otherwise good games seem like stuff made by shortsighted amateurs. I play the arcade machine every chance I get to remind myself of what game design is capable of, how razor sharp it can be with every aspect.