Expertise

I have just played my best game of Nethack. My best game of all time. I got to level ten and did almost all of the Gnomish Mines but, while backing up to find the Sobokan, I got trapped between a wolf, a cockatrice, and a giant housecat and was ripped to shreds by them all before I could figure out a way to escape.

Now that I reflect on it, I realize that I had ways to survive. I could have used my pickaxe to dig a hole in the wall and hide inside it, thus limiting the attacks to a single front. Or I could have started zapping all my unidentified wands. Or I could have quaffed that one golden potion I’d found—there’s a chance it might have been a healing potion or a teleport potion. I could have thrown it at an enemy. It might have exploded and killed them (and me?) or paralyzed or confused them. I could have done a number of things. I was so close, really—eminently ‘ascendable’, as NetHack players say. My female dwarven cavewomen could have eventually won the game if I hadn’t screwed up there. A real Nethack expert would have known what to do.

I’m always telling myself that real Nethack experts exist. I honestly believe that there are actual people living in this world—in secrecy, of course, hidden among us under disguise—who have a godly understanding of Nethack and who can actually play it without feeling like a bumbling idiot. I have no evidence for this, but somebody had to write the Nethack Wiki. Those people have to be the geniuses I’m talking about. I mean, they’ve probably actually beaten the game.

You beat the game by ‘ascending’ the character: by travelling to the lowest level of the dungeon and taking the Amulet of Yendor from the High Priest of Moloch. You must then travel to the Astral Plane and offer it to your god, who will grant you immortality, ‘ascending’ you to demigodhood. In order to do this, however, you have to play the game for practically an entire lifetime, learn all the tricks and gambits, master a class and a playstyle, figure out the cost/benefit ratios of practically every risk you could take in the entire game (basically, of every action, since doing almost anything in Nethack could potentially get you killed).

In a way, it reminds me of The Arhkam Horror, a fantastic board-game based on HP Lovecraft’s writings: newbies at Arkham Horror will do everything, and they’ll have a blast. Experienced players will turn almost every risk down—even the ones likely to result in a benefit. They know something us new players don’t. They’re jaded. When they play, it looks like they’re not having any fun, because they’re practically not playing the game. But then they win it, so we all nod sagely and wonder aloud how they got so good.

It also reminds me of people who are really, really good at Civilization IV. They play absurd societies—societies where half the entire culture track gets invented before bronzeworking, societies which leap absurdly from power to power, which manipulate wonders and resources until they’re scarcely similar to real-world civilizations at all. Everything narrows down to the exactness of turns and production-times. The illusion of the game falls apart, and we’re dealing with mister Sid Meyer’s architecture. And it’s fun: that’s what the game is for. You’re supposed to get right on in there with the math and the loopholes and the broken mechanics. It’s satisfying to have that kind of expertise.

There isn’t a way to be an expert at something without surrendering a bit of wonder—without leaving the game-world behind. Not all of it, of course, mind you—just a bit. Enough so that we can peel back the story and get our hands on the numbers that make the game work the way it does. For Pokemon, there’s EV training; for Oblivion, there’s strategic leveling; for other games, like Halo, there’s the ethic behind the whole e-sports scene—three shots to the body, one to the head. Do people really die that way? Of course not, but there has to be some kind of death-math in order for us to master death in Halo, right? For Nethack, it’s the encyclopedic understanding of all game systems: people who can ascend probably know the exact probability that sipping from a fountain will release a water demon, and if they defeat the demon and it grants them a wish, they know they should ask for silver or grey blessed greased +2 dragon scale mail. They know that you can guess the identity of an unknown potion by dropping it in a store to see what the shopkeeper offers them—because they’ve memorized the prices of everything already, and they know what they’re looking for.

I don’t know if this is the way we played games for expertise back in the day, before everything had its own online fan community and its own wiki, complete with number-crunched tables. But it’s kind of the way we play now: collaborating across the internet to rip the clothes off the game and get a look at its inner framework. It’s not bad; it’s just the way expertise works, I think. Being ‘good’ at a game means, most of the time, being an expert at the numbers, not being an expert at ‘enjoying the atmosphere,’ or ‘liking the plot.’ But it’s not like we’re killing the magic: we’re just swapping one kind for another. There’s something incredibly special about the x-ray vision we develop once we begin to look past the outer surface of a game and focus on its inner mathematics. When we learn to do that, we begin to feel powerful and wise. We enter into a kind of secret compact with the developers: we know the neurotically complex work that went into their game—particularly one as complex as Nethack—and we begin to understand it. We understand the game in a new mental language, almost. At any rate, it’s special.

It’s a kind of specialness I rarely feel, though. I’m not the kind of person who gets really really good at games—any games. I think the only one I’ve done this to is Dwarf Fortress, really. I find the process intimidating, and I’m always unwilling to take that mental step out of the gameworld and into the world of the game’s math. Perhaps this is why I run with such an awfully-balanced Dragon Age team, why it took me a whole week to figure out how to beat the Elite Four for the first time, and why the numbers-game focus of raid-level WoW often strikes me as heartless, even though I know that such players regard it as the point of the game. Expertise is the one kind of game-magic I haven’t yet learned to properly appreciate.

Here’s hoping I may, in time. Or I’m never getting anywhere with Nethack.

A bit of argument-killing on my own part, though: this binary is pretty much only the way I see things. People like the Magnasanti guy clearly can see both sides of the coin at once.

A Palmful of Guilt

The sun rises around 6 am and that’s when it starts to come full force.  Something about the hazy pink morning light strikes the perfect chord of misery.  The mouse in my hand is a palmful of guilt, guilt, guilt, and my fingers clatter on the keys like the legs of a spider.

It’s Final Fantasy XI and I’m 15.  I’ve turned off the volume and stuffed a towel along the bottom of my door so that my parents don’t know I’m still awake.  The door swings open and the silence of my father’s eyes makes my chest implode.  His shadow circumscribes me and the light from the hallway gives him a sort of halo.  “What are you doing?”  He asks because he wants me to say it.  I remain silent, too ashamed to even form the words.  My father sighs, deeply.  My eyebrows furrow into my head.  I want to melt into the floor.  “Turn the game off.”  On the screen my warrior has lost agro and the monster has killed my party.  Profanity tumbles through the chatbox.  /quit.  “We’ll talk about this when you get home from school.  The bus leaves in half an hour.”  He tries to shut the door behind him but it’s caught on the towel so he just walks away.

It’s World of Warcraft and I’m 18.  My roommate rolls over in bed.  Class in two hours.  I have a headset on and my friends are laughing because we’re winning in 3v3 arena.  “This is my last one,” I type.  “Gotta get ready for Greek class.”  We lose and they want to keep going but I tell them to have a good night and I log out.  I crack my neck and Brenton mutters something in his sleep.  In the shower I bow my head and close my eyes and feel the hot water washing down my body; I try to imagine it as a sort of baptism, a sort of cleansing, and I can still feel the guilt in my chest because I won’t be ready for the test at 8 am, because we lost that last game.  My friends are online and sometimes the booming solitary feeling of gaming overwhelms me even when I can hear them talking in my ears.  I can still hear them talking when I lie down for just a quick nap and I sleep straight through the test.

It’s Digital: A Love Story and I’m 21.  My girlfriend is sleeping on the bed behind me, illuminated in the blue glow of the screen.  Soft chiptunes pop hiss and crackle in my ears, and that purple-pink haze washes through the window, onto the desk, onto my keyboard.  The computer tells me, “I know what it’s like to be lonely, believe me.”  The computer tells me, “I think I’m in love with you.”  I turn around.  Ellie is so quiet when she sleeps, but as though she can feel my gaze, she rustles, she opens her eyes and she looks at me.  “Come to bed,” she says.

“In a minute, I’m almost done.”

PAX Indie Showcase

Nestled in the center of PAX East’s enormous expo floor, between AAA game demos and hardware booths, were two low rows of tables crowded with widescreen monitors and laptops. This was the Boston Indie Showcase, a collection of six games from Boston-area independent developers, selected from a pile of submissions. Their prize was exhibition space, and our prize was the chance to see these games, one of them—Fire Hose Games’ Slam Bolt Scrappers—for the first time.

While Showcase winners Waker, Dearth, and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!– A Reckless Disregard for Gravity have all been available for some time, Meigakure and Slam Bolt Scrappers are still in production. Meanwhile, Turba was available for only hard-copy purchase during the show, but had its online release on Saturday, April 4th. These games run quite a gamut of genres and styles—Dearth and Waker are incredibly slick student flash games from the MIT Gambit Labs, while Turba, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and Aaaaa! were developed by small production teams. Meigakure, on the other hand, is the result of Marc Ten Bosch’s individual labor. It was also an Excellence in Design finalist at the IGF this year.

The crowds were thick and the lines were long, so we split up to focus on different games and get the closest possible look at each. I focused on Meigakure, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and Waker, while Laura tackled Dearth, Aaaaa!, and Turba. Here’s what we found…

Miegakure, Marc Ten Bosch

The PAX-East show floor is filled with bodies.  I huddle over an unfamiliar keyboard.  My head hurts, my stomach aches, and I do not know how to get the little man on the screen to the glowing Japanese gate.  I feel stupid and I glance around to see if anyone is watching me, judging me.  I have to fight the urge to stand up and leave—to move on to the next game so that no one discovers my intellectual ineptitude.  And then suddenly I know what to do—my forehead lifts with a flash of insight.  I shift some cubes around, I change dimensions and I’ve solved it!  Three hops and I am Rocky at the top of the stairs, I am Kasparov whispering ‘check mate’ to Deep Junior.  My imaginary onlookers mutter in awe.

If the mark of a good puzzle game is a headache followed by cathartic victory, then this is a damned good puzzle game.

Miegakure is a 4-D puzzle platformer.  Trying to explain the game’s mechanics makes me feel like Flatland’s A. Square struggling to describe the third dimension to the baffled 2-D King.  Suffice it to say, you solve puzzles by moving yourself and other objects through different worlds and spaces where several worlds coexist.  It makes you feel like you’re using a muscle you didn’t know that you had.  You don’t fight against the game so much as you struggle against your own mental limitations.

Mark Ten Bosch says that he’s at least a year from shipping.  I think I’ll preorder.

Slam Bolt Scrappers, Fire Hose Games

Tetris is fun and everything, but I’ve always thought that what it really needs is punching.  Fortunately, Firehose Games shares this line of thought: Slam Bolt Scrappers is a team Tetris brawler.    You play as a burly little guy with a funny hat and giant fists.  He uses these fists to punch miniature chubby Cthulhus with aviator hats, an action that is logically rewarded by the acquisition of colorful tetris blocks.  You then use these blocks to build a fort with shields and weapons—you have to destroy the other team’s structures while protecting your own.

Laura and I are the best people in the world at Slam Bolt Scrappers.  I know this because we beat a team that had one of the game designers on it, who was in no way going easy on us, ok?  The game started off really confusing, but as we figured out what was going on it started to be a lot of fun.  It’s fast paced and frenetic, but that fits with the game’s overall absurdity.  The part of our brain that we use to solve spatial puzzles is very different from the part that we use to punch people who are trying to solve spatial puzzles; frequently switching between these two activities leads to a unique and enjoyable experience.

Slam Bolt Scrappers has a lot of personality, but it unfortunately also has its faults.  For one thing, the four characters look so similar that it’s easy to lose track of which one you’re controlling and which ones you’re supposed to be punching.  The screen is so crammed with color, movement and explosions that your eye never knows what to focus on.  The backgrounds are way too sharp and saturated, so they only add to the clutter.

Still, though. Tetris. With punching.

Waker, MIT Gambit

Back in September everyone was talking about an interesting gaming experiment: the MIT GAMBIT lab had created the same game twice—once as a set of abstract actions, and once with a story layered over these actions.  The idea was to see how the presence of narrative affected the player’s experience of the game.

Five months later at PAX East, GAMBIT has removed the story-infused game, Waker, from the context of its abstract companion piece, Woosh.  This lack of context didn’t do Waker any favors, though, because Waker’s story feels like it was pasted over a finished game.

It begins with a long voiceover that tells me I have to save a little girl from being trapped in her dream.   I then proceed to the actual game and it has no relationship to this plot whatsoever.  The platforming is competent and sometimes even clever, but what does hopping around on little platforms have to do with saving a sleeping girl?  Why does it say “Wisp obtained!” whenever I clear a stage?  After each level I’m fed a little piece of voiceover, but I can skip even these by just walking off of the screen.

As an experiment, Waker and Woosh were intriguing.  On its own, though, Waker is just another decent platformer with a poorly implemented story.

Dearth, MIT Gambit

Dearth is unusual. Set in a desert landscape inhabited by tribal beings with fish for heads, its play focuses on enemy creatures which look uncomfortably like hairy water-balloons filled with sweat. They’ll chase you and your AI (or human) partner, and if you stop moving for even a moment with one of these animals on your tail, it will start to kill you. Your job is to keep moving, maneuvering into positions where you can smash your creatures into your partner’s, destroying them. It’s a game about movement, constant movement, but it’s also the kind of enjoyably frustrating puzzle that makes you want to take your hands off the controls and go find some scratch paper. If you do that, however, you’ll die: the game wants you to keep thinking on your feet and compensating for your mistakes on the fly.

In the loud and distracting PAX environment I found it extremely confusing, as did the strangers who played with me. Once I figured out the rules, though, the single-player game became too easy. The two-player game, with its crazily complex maps and the added human variable, is much more interesting. After PAX, I showed this game to some friends in a public space, and as we tried to figure out some of the tougher two-player stages we attracted quite a number of spectators. For a while they crowded around us, calling suggestions over our heads and laughing at our frequent mistakes. When a puzzle game can inspire that kind of moment-by-moment excitement, I’m impressed.

I’d recommend completing the single-player levels quickly, to get an idea of the strategy involved, then quickly finding someone to play with. It’s interesting but unsurprising to me that although Dearth was designed specifically to show off a slick AI implementation, it only really shines when you get another human’s hand on the keyboard with yours, and start solving the puzzles together.

Turba, Binary Takeover

Turba is a rhythm puzzle that uses a grid full of colored blocks. Like many other games based around a block grid, it challenges players to empty the grid by removing groups of like-colored blocks before the screen fills. Unlike other, similar games, it allows players to set the challenge with their own music. The beat of the chosen song controls the rate at which the blocks are added, and clicking with the beat will award more points. A faster song means faster blocks and, thus, higher difficulty.

It’s not a simple clear-contiguous-colors game, though. The one mode I was able to see rewarded the most points only if a player was able to clear groups from each of the four colors simultaneously. Because the player has the ability to swap columns, and because there’s an incentive to hold off cashing in the points until you’ve got a group from all four colors, there’s an interesting risk-reward struggle apparent in each moment of play—should I clear the blocks now, or wait to make a bigger combo? I failed songs several times because the screen filled while I was too busy swapping columns to notice. It’s much faster and more frantic than many other, similar games, and the developers have obviously been thinking about new ways to break puzzle-game tropes and make their game unique.

Perplexingly, the Turba devs were only selling hard copies of their game at PAX. Since then, however, they’ve had their online release, and are now selling downloads from their site, and have made a demo available. They’re also working on moving it to digital distribution hubs like Direct2Drive and Steam.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!—A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, Dejobaan Games

This game has been out for quite a while, and anyone interested in indie games has almost certainly heard about it before. Though Dejobaan won’t release sales numbers for it, it’s obviously been incredibly successful: it hit the top five Steam sales during its first week after release.

Kent and I attended a PAX panel titled ‘Indies Will Shoot You in the Knees: Why We Don’t Play Fair’ at which Dejobaan’s winningly enthusiastic Ichiro Lambe asserted, several times, that the game’s success stems from the sheer quantity of personal character that the developers crammed into it. He is absolutely right: as an expression of joyous individuality, it’s a masterpiece. After playing it for the first time, when the alpha came out last year, I felt as though I’d run into an insane genius at a crowded party and enjoyed a fleeting, absurd conversation before losing him in a crowd. Watching Ichiro talk at PAX was a similar experience.

It’s not a game to play alone, really. Play it by yourself, of course, but for every minute you huddle alone with it, promise yourself that you’ll spend another minute showing it to friends, or to your family, or to random strangers on the street. Not only will they think it’s incredible, but they’ll love you to death and assume you’re awesome for liking it. And you will be awesome. The entire game is about celebrating what an awesome, sassy person you are—at any rate, about celebrating the kind of person you become once you start leaping off of floating skyscrapers in a crazy world of neon lights and hilarious graffiti. It’s marvelous.

My life is basically magical

I am a member of a college fraternity. Yes, I am! And I’m a girl. See, it’s a co-ed fraternity, and it’s got quite the diverse membership. We’ve got theater kids and government majors and engineers and aspiring writers and computer science folks. If there’s one thing that unites us, though, it’s a love of gaming.

Games of any kind. I’ll give you the overview.  We’ve got five or six members who play MW2 almost obsessively. We’ve got other members who play Brawl together all the time. We’ve got several Dungeons and Dragons games going on during any given term. We’ve got several hundred board and card games, including Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Apples to Apples, Bananagrams, a bunch of Avalon Hill games, Diplomacy, The Arkham Horror, Settlers of Catan—all the good stuff. We’ve got board-game addicts, and we’ve got casual players who almost never play. We’ve got Jungle Speed, and we’ve got house members who have Jungle Speed scars. One of our officers plays Hearts of Iron for what seems like several hours every day, usually while watching television. Though we’ve all got different levels of interest in gaming– a few members have almost zero interest– there’s definitely a strong pro-gaming atmosphere here. Every term we host a weekend-long games ‘convention’ called Dartcon where we sit around until four in the morning playing  Ticket to Ride and stuff like that. It’s excellent.

Anyway, I’ve become kind of an indie gaming resource—I like digging up neat indie PC games that other house members will enjoy. When I turned up in our living room with Sleep is Death this past weekend, I knew that there would be people around willing to play. And there were. It was excellent.

And because I know there’s an interest, I’ve been holding Indie Games Hours there. I’ve done two so far, and I plan to do more in the future. Generally, we meet in the house with our laptops and pass them around, running, say, Space Giraffe (didn’t go over so well), or Mount and Blade, or Torchlight, or something. I also want to do a MAME day at some point in the future—I’d zip together a pack of roms, have them all download MAMEUI, and email everyone the zip. And I want to organize a TF2 orgy, or something—it would be great fun to do our own kind of half-LAN, all sitting in the living room together, shooting each other in the face. So far, my Indie Games Hours have been classified as recruitment events– we understand that playing games together can be the best way to meet someone. You can get to know someone through game-playing almost better than any other method of socialization, except, maybe, for getting drunk with them. There are people in the house who like to do both simultaneously.

I want to learn about other real-world gaming communities. I was never really sentient during the grand age of LAN. Prior to joining this house, most of my experiences gaming with friends consisted of the Friday-night Age of Mythology matches I’d play with pals in middle school– a bit remote, and a bit isolated. But things are different now. Anyway, tell me about what you do. I don’t want to hear about your clan. I want to hear about the people you eat with, the people you live with, or go to the movies with—the friends whose faces you know. What do you guys do? How dead is the LAN? Do you play board games with the same folks you play TF2 with? Do you still play the old games you played together as kids? I once read somewhere that word of mouth is the biggest seller for AAA games, even over reviews—but what about indie games? Do you talk about them with your friends? Do you play them with your friends? Here at my fraternity, we’ve got a few members who sit down together regularly to play Realm of the Mad God! This is basically magical, to me. It’s marvelous.

What about you guys?

Games Ebert

Hello, I am a college student. When I am not reading academic articles about the transgression of gender boundaries in French autobiographical comics, I am reading about video games. Let me assure you, both are basically interesting, but it is far less fulfilling to study something which you cannot participate in yourself. So I enjoy the games writing much, much more.

It's Lacan! GET HIM AWAY

Why do I feel that I can’t participate in comics? See, I cannot draw, so I cannot make comics. And I can’t write about comics, either, since there are already academic rules about what you can and can’t say about comics. I consider this bullshit, but there you go: I’m getting graded on what I write about comics, and it isn’t fun anymore. But writing about games is awesome, since there aren’t too many rules, and I can say whatever I believe. I can play indie games and write about them and not feel like an asshole, whereas I would feel like an asshole if I wrote about edgy art comics, since they’ve been around since the seventies and everyone’s been writing Lacanian interpretations of them forever, so it’s old old news, and I’d be an idiot to pretend that I have something new to say. But everything about games is new news.

Do you understand? I feel that I understand the territory of games. I’ve got the map of games. It’s practically the only territory I understand at all. I’m a history student, but I don’t have the mastery of history that I have of games, and there are already a million giants of history scholarship to turn to for intellectual guidance. When you’ve got a giant to turn to, it necessarily prevents you from thinking in a fresh and unfettered way. If there were giants of games writing, I’d feel as crushed and worthless about games as I do about comics, or about Napoleon.

When intellectual giants have taken up residence in a medium, it’s hard to respond to the medium in a new way, unless your idea of ‘response’ is to fight with them over new paradigms of interpretation. Having a standard scholarship gives you the vocabulary and the shared experiences to communicate with other people about your medium, but it also limits you. Here’s a metaphor: forging a new way up a rock face is very exciting for some climbers, but those are the climbers who sometimes end up dead. The ones who stick to the pitons that are already in place aren’t going to be famous, and they’re not going to make the art of rock climbing any more exciting or diverse, but at least they’ll live to climb again.

(Anyway: read Thomas Kuhn. It will change your brain.)

But games are fresh. Games have no Roger Ebert to call their own: no mastermind of criticism who has eaten the medium up into himself, nobody who symbolizes Games Writing, scholarly or non-scholarly. I think that a lot of games people feel very inferior about this. See, Roger Ebert is, in some ways, a machine for doling out respect. Even people who know nothing about film and less about Ebert sense that the movies he likes are good movies, whatever that means. His praise actually affirms a movie’s status as art, and verifies its suitability as entertainment. Ebert is an arbiter of quality—he’s considered such an authoritative voice that the modern usage of ‘film critic’ has become synonymous with his name.

Games are pretty close to having their own Professor Ebert—there are some big-time, universally respected academic writers out there who are pretty close to becoming THE GUY, my favorite of whom is Ian Bogost. On the other hand, when it comes to non-academic writing, there are a bunch of famous writers, but they’re only famous among the members of our community. We don’t have a guy like Ebert.

Ebert is my straw man for this argument, but I think he makes a good one, particularly since we had that run-in with him several years ago over whether or not games are art. I think he’s sealed the tomb on himself with that comment—everyone knows he’s a dinosaur now, health problems or no. But he still embodies some solid qualities: respect, elitism, artistic value, authority. The Roger Ebert of video games would wield similar authority, if he existed. If Games Ebert—let’s call him Games Ebert—praised the artistic elements of a game, it would be accepted as a valid work of art, inside and outside the gaming community. Games Ebert would be like an ambassador to non-gamers. He’d be the one name they’d know. Games Ebert’s praise would confer significance. He would be respected as an intellectual.

Sounds tempting, right? That’s the kind of thing that most games-are-art arguments are really about: whether or not games and games-players can earn respect, and whether we can earn it by whining. Clever people have already noticed this: they’ve noticed that we all have this huge inferiority complex about our medium. If a Games Ebert descended from the sky and offered to organize our thoughts for us, there are a bunch of people out there who would jump up and slobber all over him like a pack of lost puppies.

I think this is a problem.

However, I don’t think Games Ebert going to appear anytime soon, at least in the non-academic games writing. Here’s why.

Some PAX East panels convinced me that the current games-writing atmosphere is too harsh to allow someone like Games Ebert to develop. One panel, ‘Journalists Versus Developers: The Ultimate Grudge Match,’ featured a pensive Patrick Klepek; musing about games journalism’s low pay, he addressed the talent bleed to other, more lucrative industries. In another panel, ‘The Death of Print,’ I saw Chris Dahlen from Kill Screen argue the need for long-form, mature, non-commercialized writing about games. The odds against his mission are pretty steep, as magazine sales are declining across the board and Kill Screen, though astoundingly well-written, is pretty expensive. Finally, I saw a panel called ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Games Journalism…’ at which a set of very well-known panelists (Kyle Orland, Chris Grant, Lou Grossman, Susan Arendt, and Gus Mastrapa) restressed the dearth of money in that profession. They also debated the problem of review honesty and addressed concerns about the ways in which treating hype as news undermines the field.

What did I learn? First of all, there was an overwhelming consensus that games journalism is pretty difficult on an economic level. Games writers who want a family and a house sometimes feel pressured to leave the field, or to make it a secondary occupation. This prevents them from developing the maturity of experience and style which is essential to our mythical Games Ebert. Secondly, games journalism is ultra-commercialized: a lot of games writing is hyper-focused on games-as-products. Writing which addresses games on a primarily critical and artistic level has yet to find the type or number of forums which it needs in order to flourish broadly. There are people writing beautiful, non-academic prose about games, but they’re still the underdogs. Finally, games journalism’s reputation is sometimes uncertain. It can occasionally lack credibility. There are probably a million reasons for this, and a million ways to fix it, and we could argue about that forever, but it’s a fact.

Would Ebert have put all those years of thought and experience into film criticism if he couldn’t make a living off of it, or if film criticism was seen as something unintelligent, inane or stupid? I tend to think that he might have not. Ebert’s fame stems from the fact that film criticism is usually seen as a non-trivial, intellectual occupation. Games writing isn’t yet seen in the same way. I’m sure that it will be in the future, but only if games writers everywhere can invest years in the business, and only when reactionary characters like Alan Titchmarch and his idiot panelists fade out of public discourse. Will forums for intellectual writing create this atmosphere? Or does such an atmosphere have to exist before those forums will flourish? Or must other as-yet-unknown conditions be fulfilled? Must everything line up perfectly and magically, like the starry elements of some crazy celestial conjunction?

This is why I love games writing.

I have no idea—someone who knows more than I do about the history of film might be able to give a guess, but it’s always dangerous for us to make those kinds of connections between games and film. Because of that, writing this has been plenty uncomfortable for me. I want, desperately, for Games Ebert, if Games Ebert must exist, to be entirely different from Roger Ebert. I want him or her to have a gloriously unique voice and personality. I want them to wear t-shirts, not bow ties. I want them to tell jokes. They’ll need a broader, more-accepting intellectualism than Ebert’s. I guess, if I have to have a Games Ebert, I would want a messiah figure.

I understand, though, that messiah figures are dangerous. Maybe film criticism would be better off—more diverse, more creative—without a giant like Ebert? I have no idea. But I’m glad that today’s good games writers are on such equal terms, and I love that they know about each other and respond to each other’s ideas with respect. Remember the argument about Leigh Alexander’s Bayonetta article? That’s the kind of mutuality that I love about non-academic games writing today—the fact that all these people can talk to each other on a level. The kinds of things that are being said by clever people about games today are hundreds of times more interesting and valuable than anything Ebert could hope to churn out by himself. Part of it is obviously because the medium is newer, and hasn’t been wrung dry yet, but I’m sure it has something to do with this exchange of ideas, too.

See—when I think about how much I adore some of the games writing that’s taking place today, I start hoping that there will never, ever be a Roger Ebert of games, that there will never be an overbearing giant who carves up the medium and eats it alive, who makes it his own. If there was, I’d be cut off from games writing—my relationship with games writing would be like the relationship I have with comics writing, or with historical scholarship. I’d feel like a spectator. When I think about how incredible today’s games writing is, I start hoping that it can operate on unique terms. I’m convinced it can happen. It’s happening today, really.

I just—does this make sense?—I just want it to happen harder.

We’re back from PAX

…and it was absolutely exhausting. After rushing around on my feet for three days in a row, lugging a heavy sleeping bag around on my backpack and standing in lines for hours at a time, I felt like a hobo must feel after fleeing a natural disaster: dirty, tired, and psychologically destroyed by forced proximity to a vast, threatening, and uncontrollable natural force (in this case, seventy thousand gamers). Unlike a vagrant disaster survivor, however, I left with profoundly positive emotions. So. There’s that!

Kent and I spent most of the weekend attending panels and taking brief trips into the main Expo floor to play the indie games, mostly: there was the Boston Indie Showcase, as well as Joe Danger, Battleblock Theater, and, amusingly, a stand featuring some of the worst XBL Indie Games I have ever seen in my entire life (more on this later). At one point we stopped by Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online booth to play a unique, two-person form of the game: Kent operated the keyboard and I screwed around with the mouse until we fell in a moat. A Turbine rep showed up and asked us what we were doing, and we ended up getting into a long conversation about how tough QA is. It is very tough! We attended one panel about breaking into the games industry which the speakers really ought to have titled “QA: the ass end of the games industry.” They all seemed to agree that working QA for a company which promotes from within is an excellent way for complete non-coders and non-artists to maybe possibly obtain probable and vague games industry jobs at some point in their futures, a proposition which the fresh-faced audience accepted with nervous hesitation.

It was only then that I began to feel grateful that I aspire to merely write about games. If you can’t do, you write, and if you can’t write, you… teach physical education, or something like that? I think that’s how it goes.

At any rate, we played Joe Danger, Battleblock Theater, the new Prince of Persia, and a few other games that I cannot recall at the moment, as I have misplaced my journalistic Steno pad with all my notes on it. Writeups will come in the future! We also attended a number of panels. Because we are totally obsessed with games writing, we found the ones about games writing—there were two—to be the most interesting, and we each have personal responses that we’re working on writing up. We also attended the 1UP Retronauts podcast, where we were astonished by the panelists’ apparent disposable incomes—they spoke for an hour about the crazy amounts of money they gleefully pay for terrible old games. There is apparently an appeal to this which I personally cannot understand. We also attended a panel about the history of General Computer Corporation, the company of MIT dropouts who developed Ms. Pacman and a number of Atari products: another enjoyable hour spent in the lecture theater. All in all, I think I learned more about the history of gaming in these two panels than I have ever learned in my entire life. Very fortifying for the soul and the mind, yes.

All I can say is that I hope they relocate to the larger convention center near the airport next time, as fitting seventy thousand people into Hynes was an incredibly foolish idea. Though the other convention center isn’t as convenient, it is so large that the Silver Line goes through its basement. Yes.  It contains multitudes.

Stay tuned for GAEMS JORNALIZM

Aw man, guys: Laura got published

Wow! I wrote something and the guys at Resolution Magazine, a British-based  game reviews site I read, put it up on their site! It’s an article about how horrible it is to miss out on really important, genre-changing games because we were too busy playing something else that sucked.

Come to think of it, most of the game sites I enjoy, like Rock Paper Shotgun, and Eurogamer, and Resolution, are British. There’s something their journalists have that ours don’t. It’s a candor, or something; an ease with personal expression, with talking about games in an engaging, human way that assumes the audience is also human and intelligent. Hmmm. Something to think about.