Your Handy-Dandy Field Guide to “X IS NOT A GAME”

People love to talk about what is a game and what isn’t! With this HANDY-DANDY FIELD GUIDE (TM), understanding what those insistent people mean can be up to one infinity times easier!

It can also be up to two infinity times harder, if you disagree with me or are easily confused. But hey! That’s your brain, not mine, so it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

1) ”You and I: let’s argue, please.”

For some people, the word ‘game’ has acquired a numinal halo of strange and powerful magic. This is because the word ‘gamer’ is so meaningful and important to them! Often suffering from an inability to separate themselves from the things they love, these people will attempt to attack your identity or self-image by insinuating that you are not a Real Gamer. They may do this by suggesting that the games you like are bad, or are somehow not Real Games.

The easiest way to deal with this species of X Is Not A Game is to demonstrate your inability to care about their opinion, or your indifference towards your gamer status. Once aware that you simply do not care about being a Real Gamer, their claws will  be pulled, and they will slink sullenly away into the shadows of the nearest troll-den.

2) “I know a lot about game design!”

For some people, having a specific and well-rehearsed opinion about what games ‘are’ is part of an ongoing quest to become a game designer or a games critic. Most of the time, these people are not and will never be game designers, but harbor as their deepest wish a desire to become one.

These people are not always aggressive or hostile: sometimes, they simply want an intelligent discussion about games, but cannot find the words to initiate one properly. Other times, they are simply semantics whores. Occasionally, they are sad and angry academics (usually, the kind of strict ludologist who has written a paper about Whist, or stabbed a games copywriter in public). Sometimes, however, they actually believe that there are restrictive rules about what can be a digital game and what cannot be. These people will probably lecture you for hours. Feign overt boredom and escape by pretending to go to the bathroom.

If subject is a real game designer, do not engage.

3) “I am uncomfortable with things I do not understand!”

Some people will play art games for half a minute, back away from the computer, announce “this is not a game,” and leave the room. For whatever reason, these people are profoundly unnerved by experiences they feel doubtful of their mastery over. They may also feel that their identity as a “gamer” is threatened by mere contact with digital experiences that fall outside their comfort zone. By declaring something to not be a “Real Game,” they can distance it from themselves and handily push from their mind whatever it is that has discomforted them.

Do not worry about this one. If you can play and learn from the game which unnerves them, you have already won.

4) “I think game X is total shit.”

These people have a strong, well-defined taste in games, and they are fiercely defensive of it. Their taste in games is always highly conventional. They are bringing up the X Is Not A Game argument because they wish to knock X, or knock its developers, or insinuate that its developers have done a bad job, or that their work is not worth any attention. They use the argument dismissively, as if no further thought is necessary once one has realized the sub-par gaminess of X. They also use the argument with hyperbole, saying things like “Flower is not a game, it’s a screensaver!” with the assumption that you will laugh.

Appropriate reactions include: short, horrified snorts of laughter, silence, and if you are strong and patient like ox, “What do you think was so wrong about X?”

5) “The game we were just talking about does not have many ludic elements in it, does it?”

Some people say “X is not a game” when they really mean to say “let’s have an interesting discussion about the different elements which make this game so unique.” This specimen of X Is Not a Game should be ignored– passed over as if it were never spoken– lest you alarm your interlocutor, back them into a corner, and force them to support an argument they may not actually believe. These people know what the word ‘ludic’ means; they will agree that the digital experiences made in the “games industry” are not always ludic in nature; they can tell you what a “loop” is, in the context of game design; they may find Minecraft’s bravely persistent “&e0” a chuckle-worthy commentary on games in general. They are nice people. Don’t beat them up.

In an age when ‘what digital games are’ is changing so rapidly that none of us can truly claim to be keeping up, having a proscriptive opinion about what games “are” demonstrates that you are very silly indeed. The games industry has been producing relatively-nonludic digital entertainment experiences for at least twenty years– but we still call them all ‘games.’ We’ve got nothing else to call them that doesn’t make us sound like poncy morons.

Since we’re stuck with the vocabulary, we’re going to have to work harder to keep our brains as limber and accepting as they’re going to need to be. And they’re going to need to be super limber, guys, and waaaaay accepting. Way, way accepting.

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POST-PAPERS EXHAUSTION POST!

All of my writings for school are done.  My brain hurts, and migranes have inflicted me with temporary blindness. I wrote 35 pages in two days and read over a thousand pages in one weekend to prepare myself for the process. Now I cannot focus my eyes more than five feet in front of my face, and I have a headache. Hooray!

So I wrote this frivolous thing. It is a list of all possible definitions of the ‘Second Person Shooter.’  See, most of the random web searches that get directed here are phrases like “definition second person shooter” or “example second person shooter.” People out there want to know what a second-person shooting-people video-game would look and feel like. And they think we know? Pah! We don’t.

Frankly, we’re curious, too. We picked the name “Second Person Shooter” basically because it sounded interesting. Our excuse: we were despairing. We’d just spent over an hour combining random nouns in the hope that something would click, but we’d only come up with monstrosities like “Antelope Rapture” and “Black Hole Church.” (I still think either of those would have been awesome. Perhaps we can sell them to nameless indie-rock bands.) At any rate, we are definitely not the experts on what a ‘second person shooter’ would look like. I myself don’t think that a second person shooter would be any fun to play, unless the idea was approached with a certain amount of drunken levity.

1)      A GAME WHERE YOU ARE EMBODIED, AND CONTROL A DIFFERENT GUY WHO SHOOTS A GUN

In this game, you have control over yourself, in a first-person perspective, and over another individual, the shooter. It would be a little bit like that one team-building exercise where blindfolded people team up with non-blindfolded people who shout instructions at them while they and navigate mazes or throw yarn balls at one another. Have you ever done that? I did it once at a summer camp staff training, and it was horrible.

Anyway, for this game, I’m thinking of things along the lines of the robot segments from TLC’s Logic Quest. Remember that one? You had to program a robot-like boxy-man painted up to look like a king or a knight. He was always inside this weird kind of spacious jail cell, and you would have to program him with a set of commands that would let him unlock the cell. Anyway, this variety of second person shooter would require your embodied digital self to either 1) program or 2) directly control a separate individual who has a gun. Objective: shoot dudes without getting you or your puppet-man shooter shot. It would be INCREDIBLY COMPLEX. There would be WAAAY TOO MANY CONTROLS. Basically, this setup would translate poorly to the kind of moment-by-moment excitement of a shooter— it would be awesome, but only for five minutes. After which point every player would either tear the game directly out of their hard-drives with the brute psycho-magnetic force of their unholy rage, or commit pathetic, despairing suicide in the drippy corner of their local basement. That’s what I did after a few sessions of Logic Quest. Yep.

2)      A GAME WHERE SOMEONE DESCRIBES YOU IN SECOND PERSON AS YOU SHOOT PEOPLE.

Such a game almost already exists. It’s Night of the Cephalopods: A Terrifying Experiment in Narrative Excess, a lovely bit of indie freeware from 2008. In it, you, the terrified Lovecraftian protagonist, run through a foggy forest while squidly-face monsters chase you. You shoot them. EVERY TIME YOU DO ANYTHING, the narrator describes it. There aren’t too many variations in the voiceovers, so you’ll quickly reach the extent of your amusement with this game—but for its length and complexity, it’s brilliant. It would BE  a second person shooter, except the descriptions are phrased in first-person rather than second.

3)      A GAME IN WHICH OTHER PEOPLE SHOOT YOU

I’m thinking of something in the style of The Onion’s ‘Close Range’, but instead the player is the guy who gets shot. And dies. Over and over. Or maybe the player never dies, and just stands there while he or she gets shot again and again for no reason. Not sure which would be more effective. Basically, though, that’s the bottom line: you watch as someone shoots you over and over and over and over again. Infinitely. Not much else to say about this idea. Maybe the environments would change? In one level, you’d stand there while people shot you in a jungle; then there’s be an ice level, and every time you’re shot your body would physics-slide all around the map, ragdolling against barriers? No idea. Not even sure where player action would fit into this game.

(Also: the staff members of the embarrassing college humor magazine I write for consider Close Range to be one of our favorite-ever videos. New recruits sometimes have a hard time understanding why we love it so much. But we do. It is sublime. And I love the Max Payne references.)

4)      A GAME IN WHICH YOU MUST SHOOT THE SECOND PERSON OUT OF EVERY PAIR

Pros: Would teach our children the important moral binaries they will need in order to navigate the modern, adult cultural world.

Cons: Would be very short. Also, very easy. Too easy.

5)      …GOD OF WAR?

While checking over this post, Kent suggested to me that the famous from-the-victim’s-perspective death scene in GoW III is a second-person death scene. A shooter version of that, he posits, would be a second-person shooter. So: like idea number 3, but instead of playing the silent victim, you’d shoot yourself. Gosh! So  crazy!

I would only play this game if there were a bit where time slowed down while the bullet flew towards your face, and you had to contemplate the philosophical profundity of your self-capping act.

Logical Journey

In 1997, I made a new best friend.

He was the son of an incredibly famous person, but I didn’t know this at the time. I actually remember my parents being rather shocked when they met his mother—as I learned much later, she’d been all over the news for reasons related to Bill Clinton’s government appointments. For some reason, they moved to my area just before September 1997, and now her son was in my school. Let’s call him Ricardo. He was in my third-grade class for a single year.

Ricardo was absurdly charismatic. He had twelve kinds of Napoleonic complexes, claimed to have read Hamlet, and showed off his family’s wealth with a shameless, mesmerizing kind of pride. He spent nearly every Reading Hour arguing with the teacher about whether or not he was permitted to spend the period reading the dictionary. He started a club “about Egypt.” He started another one “about Rome.” He got half our entire grade to sign the membership lists. He wore little polo shirts instead of t-shirts or turtlenecks. Despite not being Hispanic, he had a haircut like a novela actor, and he pulled it off. For whatever reason, we all thought he was awesome.

And he wanted to be my best friend. See, we both played the same computer games: we were absolutely hooked on edu-games made by The Learning Company. There was Treasure Mountain, Treasure Cove, Treasure Mathstorm and Treasure Galaxy, all math games; then there was Reading Rabbit and its bland successors. Additionally, we loved Broderbund’s The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, a logic game he and I both begged our parents to buy out of that year’s book fair catalog. We were obsessed. We’d go over to each other’s houses and sit for hours to watch each other play. We solved math problems together. We discussed secrets and strategies. He had a computer of his own, and it was in his room. He was the smartest and luckiest kid I knew. But he was new in school, and his friendships were all nervous alliances of awe and mistrust, and I was pretty awkward and lonely myself. So I guess we were good for each other.

There’s one day in particular from that year that I still remember. I arrived at his house sometime in the early morning; we ran upstairs to his bedroom, where he still had Zoombinis running from the night before. I plopped down in the chair next to his and was rather horrified by what I saw happening on the screen.

“What have you done?” I asked.

Ricardo settled down in the rolling office-chair his parents have given him, crossed his legs on the seat, and gave me a look. “I haven’t done anything,” he said.

“But you have two of each Zoombini,” I said.

The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is a selection of logic puzzles which focus on pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, and deductive reasoning skills.  The chief elements of each puzzle are the Zoombinis themselves—little blue fellows, a bit like punk-rock Mr. Potato Heads, each with a different arrangement of facial features, nose colors, hairstyles and limbs. Many of the puzzles involve arranging the Zoombinis in series or matrixes according to which facial features they have in common. Failure usually results in one or two Zoombinis getting left behind. Run out of Zoombinis, and you fail.

You’ll have to work quickly to get them through the puzzles and out of harm’s way: as players progress through the difficulty levels, not only do the puzzles get harder, but they begin to incorporate timers, penalties, and three-strikes-you’re out mechanics. I remember feeling the difficulty level increase, as if the air around me were filling with smoke, or some frantic kind of fear-gas. As a kid, I felt these logic puzzles viscerally. I began as a logic-starved whelp : by the time I began to tackle the highest difficulty levels, I could tell that I had grown mentally. I’m pretty sure that my brain was actually altered by this game.

The genius thing about it was that your own choices—the Zoombinis you designed for your team at the start of each play session—were one of the primary sources of difficulty. The more diverse you made them as a group, the tougher it got to solve some of the puzzles, particularly the ones that required you to arrange them by shared elements. You’re not supposed to have two of each Zoombini. You’re supposed to be battling against the clock with a crowd of misfits. Against all odds, even self-imposed ones, you’re shepherding them across this puzzle-studded wilderness to safety at the end of the overworld map. The final destination is Zoombinivile, and the Zoombinis, in fact, are refugees. The plot is: you’re rescuing these refugee Mr. Potato Heads from a dark and stormy prison-island with the righteous power of pure logic. It’s glorious.

So, having two of each Zoombini is cheating, I thought. Unquestionably. I could feel in my bones that it was a shortcut, an unfair advantage, and an unforgivable sin. Having two of each Zoombini makes each puzzle twice as easy.

I could not express my horror. Ricardo just smirked. “You know, if you double-click on the ‘make Zoombini’ button when you’re designing them at the start of the map, you make each Zoombini twice,” he said. “You get two of each instead of only one.”

“But that’s cheating!” I exclaimed.

“No, it isn’t. Why does the game let you do it if it’s cheating?”

He had a good point, but my world was falling apart. We argued for a long time about what constituted a ‘fair’ game of Zoombinis. “You have to follow the spirit of the law, not the letter,” I proclaimed. It was a garbled version of a phrase I’d just learned from my father, and I thought it sounded dramatic.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ricardo told me.

I suppose it makes a kind of symbolic, cosmic justice that the first gamer friend of mine to play a game with shrewdness and corner-cutting slyness, the first of my friends to take confident possession of an exploit, was Ricardo, the son of United States politicians. But that’s a trite and useless observation for me to make, really, and I feel kind of stupid making it. Ricardo didn’t teach me how to cheat; he taught me how to think about games. He taught me when to take my head out of the game-world and look at it from the outside. He taught me when to mess with the system and when to play by its rules. Before our argument about Zoombinis, I’d regarded games as rigorous but entertaining exercises passed down to me from some higher power, totally immune to my criticism or critical thinking: I’d perform the required actions and receive fun, like a hamster in a laboratory cage. After my  Zoombinis revelation, I began to look at my games with suspicion. I began prodding at them, manipulating them instead of letting myself be manipulated by them.

At the end of the day, I went home and started up my own copy of the game. I started a new game session, beginning at the Zoombinis’ home base. As I put a new team of them together, my sister ran up to watch.

“How do you do that?” she gasped.

“Do what?” I asked.

But I already knew what she was going to ask. “How do you have two of each Zoombini?”

I shrugged like it was nothing. “You double-click the ‘Make Zoombinis’ button each time you make one. It makes two instead of one.”

“Oh.” She stood there for a while, watching as I assembled a team of lifeless clones. “Doesn’t it make the game too easy?” she asked. “Are you still, like, doing logic?”

I was still doing logic, yeah. Just… a different kind of logic.

Enduring Oblivion

When I was a little kid, every trip to the mall was a potential trip to the arcade.  A five-dollar bill clutched tightly in hand, my brother and I would rush into that flashing cavern, fidgeting in anticipation while twenty quarters clattered into the coin-machine dish.  My favorite games were Tekken, Time Crisis, and The Simpsons, but I rarely chose to play those games.  Instead I would thumb my quarters into skee-ball machines and sport simulators, not because I liked these games, but because these games gave me tickets.  The tickets were key.  You could exchange them for prizes.  Maybe my brother had more fun when we were there, blowing all of his quarters on Time Crisis, but I was the one with the brand new Chinese Finger Trap, and wasn’t that the important thing?

I’m on my third character in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  I promised myself that this time I would just have fun, but it was a promise that I couldn’t keep.  As I write these words there is a rubber band strapped to my Xbox controller, forcing my character to swim into a stone wall, endlessly pumping his arms but never going anywhere.  Once an hour a message flashes across the screen: “Your Athletics Skill has increased.”  I’m a hundred hours into the game and I’ve barely played it at all.

When you start out in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind you’re a shadow of what you will one day become.  The path from the poor harbor of Seyda Neen to the bustling city of Balmora is grueling and dangerous; you’re so weak that any battle could end in death.  I remember getting lost in the hills with no idea where I was going – just somewhere, anywhere.  I staggered from fight to fight, growing in confidence and skill.  By the end of the game I was slicing up enemies like loaves of bread.  Morrowind made me feel like a hero, but Oblivion makes me feel like a muscular man who never leaves the gym.

Or a metaphor: Oblivion is a creepy man who wants to hold my hand. The game begins with a tutorial in a cave.  “Here’s how to stab things.  Here’s how to shoot a bow.  Isn’t it cool how when you shoot that bucket it reacts realistically?” asks Oblivion, pulling me along, gripping my hand a little too tightly.  “Now,” he says, bending onto a knee.  “Now it’s time to pick what you want to be good at!  How about sneaking?  We had fun practicing sneaking, didn’t we?”  I fall for his ruse, picking a bunch of useful skills as my majors.  Thirty hours in, I die in the same necromancer-infested cave a dozen times over before I quit the game in confused frustration.

 

It turns out that the enemies in Oblivion, unlike those in Morrowind, level up with you.  If you don’t carefully pick your major skills and plan out each level efficiently, even relatively weak enemies can quickly overwhelm you, and there is nothing that you can do to fix it short of cranking down the game’s difficulty.  If you select major skills that you actually plan to use, you will accumulate meager attribute bonuses and become weaker relative to all of the enemies in the game.  The Oblivion wiki suggests that you should only pick major skills that you don’t intend to use, and then intentionally grind those skills when you actually decide to level.  In short, Oblivion tricks you into making stupid decisions and then it punishes you for them.

My second character is an exercise in misery.  Grinding is boring and my first character just finished these quests.  I sink hours into endlessly, pointlessly tapping the same button on my keyboard, before finally giving up.  The game just isn’t fun anymore, and other games are calling my name.

Two years later, after buying an Xbox360, I find a copy of Oblivion for ten bucks.  I remember that I never finished it and, on a whim, take it home to start a new character.  “This time,” I tell myself, “this time I’ll just have fun.  I won’t worry about my Endurance level, and if worst comes to worst I can always lower the difficulty.”  As I make my way through the tutorial cave for the third time, though, I remember what it was like to fail.  I hate the private humiliation of being beaten by a game.  I’ve never played on easy, and goddamn it I’m not going to start now.  I skewer a final squealing rat and once more it’s time to choose my major skills.  I sigh as I select Speechcraft, Security, Hand-to-Hand, becoming a master of all things useless.

“Well,” I think, “if I’m going to do this again I might as well go all the way.”  I grab an empty notebook and write “1)” in the top left-hand corner to indicate my character’s level.  I fill it with my skill and attribute values, and I mark each marginal upgrade with a tally.  The skills that I actually plan to use – Blade, Heavy Armor, Block, Destruction, etc. – are pitifully underdeveloped, so I decide to just grind those for a little while before I start the actual game.  Twenty-four levels later my book is filled with scrawled pages of numbers, tallies and skill names.  I’ve used my pen nearly as much as my controller.

Maybe playing the game isn’t just about trudging through dungeons and saving the world; maybe it’s also a process of discovering the rules of the system and outsmarting them.  It has become that way for me, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve opened a door that I wasn’t supposed to know about and now I’m tinkering behind the scenes.  Back here the bandits and minotaurs are just sad cardboard cutouts, and I realize that they aren’t my enemies at all.  I’m playing against the developers.  Isn’t this a step away from being a role-playing game?  Scribbling on stat sheets and keeping track of skill levels hardly makes me feel like a battlemage.

The odd thing is that for some reason I’m still actually enjoying myself.  I didn’t think that trailing rats through the Imperial sewers in order to level my Heavy Armor skill was my idea of fun.  There’s something about the grind that keeps me coming back for more, and game designers know it.  World of Warcraft, one of the most successful video games ever made, is practically nothing but grinding.  Almost every JRPG that I’ve played requires me to perform the same repetitive, mindless tasks for hours, just so that I can move into the next area or kill the next boss.  And yet these are the games that I love.

For whatever reason, Oblivion takes the monotony to a whole new level.  Here’s a glimpse of how I’ve spent my 100+ hours of game time.  For a while I just summoned the same skeleton over and over again, killing him each time with a rusty dagger.  That was leveling my Blade skill.  Before that I literally pressed the right bumper over 3000 times, while jumping up and down.  That was leveling my Restoration and Acrobatics skills simultaneously, because hey, I wouldn’t want to waste time.

One of the biggest accusations thrown at gaming is that it’s a waste of time. We’re taught from a young age (at least I was) that time is our most valuable possession, and how you choose to “spend” your time is one of the most important decisions that you can make.  Time is to actions as money is to merchandise: you can convert it into anything.  Gaming is a double evil because it consumes your money and your time.  At least that’s the common assumption.  As a result, games have to prove to us that they’re worth our time by making us feel productive.  I think that this is one of the key reasons for the success and proliferation of grinding.  Every time a skill level flashes on the screen it reminds us that we’re achieving something.  It makes us feel good about what we’re doing.  Dozens of tiny rewards keep us interested, and the big rewards on the horizon keep us going.

Oblivion is a skee-ball machine.  I don’t play it for the experience of playing it.  I play it for the tickets.

Distilled to a purer substance

Have you ever played a game where the minigames or secondary goals were more exciting and compelling than the rest of the entire game?

It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Through extensive research (asking my friends), I’ve found that this varies in a highly personal way. I had a friend in high school who could never get enough of KOTOR’s Pazaak, which I hated. Whenever I played that minigame I was just dicking around with extra credits, but he had a real strategy and everything! Gosh! And while I absolutely adored the underground mining game in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, I know a number of people who thought it was incredibly stupid. Kent loves scanning planets in Mass Effect 2; I’ve only done it for maybe twenty minutes, and I find it dull. On the other hand, I found hunting for arrowheads in Psychonauts to be pretty entertaining—I mean, I spent as long a time amassing a grossly enormous fortune in that game as I spent trying to beat the Meat Circus level. And Meat Circus is a crazy.

Why do we do this? I suppose if the satisfaction we get from doing ‘trivial’ and secondary tasks in games is high enough, and if the effort it would take to ‘play the game properly’ is too excessive, we’ll all just sit around and do the trivial stuff instead.  Which sounds a bit cold and mathematical, but there you go. It’s not too much of a mystery why these things happen. I could wax philosophical about the nature of these appealing little secondary games, but they’re not really so mysterious either: they’ve got highly appealing sunk effort/returned reward ratios. And all that jazz.

I think the real question is: why don’t we have games for these trivial things, if we enjoy them so much? Why do they need to be secondary? I mean, narrative, pretty pictures, and man-shooting are clearly no longer the hallowed characteristics of ‘real successful games.’ What if we could take these big-name games and reduce them down to their secondary objectives– what if my friend could have a game of just Pazaak? What if I could take all the games where I’ve ever been distracted by a crazy secondary objective and imagine new, ridiculous games out of them?

Er, I can imagine that. Here they go.

Oblivion becomes: Herbalist Adventure

The most compelling thing about Oblivion is the alchemy.

Yes. I actually believe this. Out of the nearly 100 hours I have spent playing Oblivion in the past year, about 50 of those must have been spent entirely on collecting and combining plants, herbs, fruits, and bits of dead foes into potions. I don’t think I’ve ever gone past the bit in the story where you’re on the snowy mountain where the Blades are at. I did that part only once. All the rest of my characters are soft, pasty fellows with ridiculously good alchemy levels and backpacks full to bursting with every possible kind of plant. I once camped out in the basement of a townhouse, hidden in the shadows while the occupants ate dinner mere inches from my face, waiting for them to leave so I could steal their potatoes and make potions of shield out of them. It was my most epic heist ever, even beyond the Thieves’ guild!

Furthermore, I don’t even use the potions I make: I just carry them around. There’s a character from a famous Jack London short story who hoards insane quantities of food: he basically sleeps on a mattress of biscuits. See, I imagine my Oblivion characters sleeping in glass nests made up of glimmering bottles. The moonlight on the bottles, the strange cordials and elixirs sloshing about with the tiny movements of sleep, and all that. I mean, he’s got to protect them somehow. And it’s picturesque, no?

Herbalist Adventure would be my favorite game of all time. You’d be practically helpless: a weakling lost in a VAST world (let’s make it much bigger than Oblivion; make this a Just Cause-sized world, a huge thing with a million different kinds of plants). Your only skill: the ability to turn flowers into juices. All combat—what little of it there’d actually be—would be enabled by the crazy cocktail of stimulants and steroids you’d chug before every encounter. See a kobold? DRINK THAT POTION OF STRENGTH! DRINK TWELVE! While you’re at it, drink fifteen potions of shield, a potion of accuracy, a potion of Learn to Swordfight, and a Potion That Gives You a Magic Sword. Boom. All ready to go. You’d spend most of the time just skulking around in the bushes, gathering plants, admiring the scenery, researching and cooking up batches of Magical Buff Stew whenever you find a safe place. You’d cook amazing potions—potions that let you fly or run at a million miles per hour or clone yourself or breathe in lava or eat whole trees or tame bears or summon Panzer tanks or talking whales. But mostly it would be beautiful and calming—mostly it would be zen, my friends. It would be gorgeous.

Pokemon Diamond and Pearl become: Magic Dwarf Crystal Garden Tales

I already mentioned that I adore that mining minigame. I also adore Dwarf Fortress. I also adore Minecraft. It all makes sense: I must secretly want to play a game where you adventure in tunnels and grow crystal gardens. Yes. But not like those silly crystal gardens we used to have in the nineties: those are shit. I mean: great caverns of dagger-sharp gems! You’d have to travel around and water them with magic chemicals or whatever and harvest them later. Like Farmville with its guaranteed success, I suppose—but I wouldn’t have any of that schedule-your-life-to-the-game nonsense.

No, I’d have giant cave spiders or sand worms or goblins instead. So: the Pokemon mining game mixed with survival horror. Occasionally, you’d have to craft weapons out of the gems and protect your farms from the invaders with cunning traps and desperate barricades. Multiplayer play could be a Garden Siege Mode, or something: people would try to invade each other’s magic underground wonderlands with some kind of stealth mechanic.

Yes. Just take the whole Pokemon overworld away. I want my gem gardens and I want my secret bases and I want my capture-the-flag games. I want my silly underground time-wastey tomfoolery, please, but more awesome. Can that happen?

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 become: My Alien Girlfriend 1 and 2

Okay, I don’t actually want to play this game. But I know people who would! I remember when ME2 came out, all sorts of people were twittering things like “JUST NAILED ALL THESE ALIEN LADIES, WOOO” and I kept thinking things like “Oh my god, Bioware are such a horrible bunch of dicks! They’ve destroyed love! With a video game!”

But it’s not true. They haven’t. The universe continues to be not such a terrible place after all. What it needs, though, is a game where this absurd repressed sexual tension can be truly exploited.

What we need is a game where the whole point is for Man-Shepherd to have sex with alien chicks. Apparently, for maximum success, it must actually be Man-Shepherd in the title role. Not a new IP! Either that, or we need a spinoff of Fable 2 where the whole point is to marry people and then have sex with them. Admit it: you have a lady/man/both in every town in that game, don’t you? I’m under the impression that most people do. Is it too tempting? Is that what the deal is? Anyway, clearly we need a western game specifically for this kind of stuff. The Japanese have already got this shit figured out, guys.

Team Fortress 2 becomes: My Hometown Haberdasher

Hats. Whole game is: receiving hats. You run around in a big room with every other online player and trade hats with each other. You can hang out with guys who have the same hats as you. Or maybe you can do a fashion show while wearing a neat hat, or design your own hat? I don’t know. Just hats.

Hats. Whole game is wearing silly hats.

Alternately, we could be talking about a game I suggested in the comments to my last post: a game where you simply customize characters. Like the Spore Creature Creator, the whole point would be to give you extensive control over the appearance of some in-game avatar. People love messing around with that stuff: I hear stories from friends who take forever to design the perfect Sim, or the perfect Fallout character, and so on. Clearly, we need more games which make this obsession with avatar appearance more central– games which transform it from petty fiddling into an actual game mechanic. I remember that a young friend of my family’s used to be hugely into Gaia online, and from what I saw of it, that game seemed to tap into this customization desire pretty well: the whole point was to get points to buy clothes with, I think. So: games like that, but not totally stupid. A MMO character creator crossed with Spore? Can it happen? I think so.

The mechanics of this imaginary game would revolve around this appearance: you’d have to manipulate it to defeat your enemies. The game I suggested in the post comments was a professional wrestling game where the point was to design a stage presence that would resonate with fans. Best resonance would make your agent cast you as the winner in the staged fight: the better you fine-tuned your look and style to your target demographic, the more often you’d be the winner. Look terrible, and you’d be the heel. You’d spend hours in the editor before every match, fiddling with hair and clothes and catch-phrases and things like that. There could be epic campaign modes, people.

Or could we have something like that with just hats, though? Please?

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.”

Having a minor crank about games PR

There’s something that’s always bothered me about games PR and marketing: some companies turn out hype copy that’s either grammatically incorrect, soulless, or nonsensical. Stuff that reads more like a frantic commercial software pitch than an attempt to capture my imagination. It’s true for plenty of products, yeah—I mean, this is the whole point of having television commercials—but it usually only bothers me when it’s for games. See, try reading the new XCOM FPS’s press release aloud:

XCOM is the re-imagining of the classic tale of humanity’s struggle against an unknown enemy that puts players directly into the shoes of an FBI agent tasked with identifying and eliminating the growing threat. True to the roots of the franchise, players will be placed in charge of overcoming high-stake odds through risky strategic gambits coupled with heart-stopping combat experiences that pit human ingenuity – and frailty – against a foe beyond comprehension. By setting the game in a first-person perspective, players will be able to feel the tension and fear that comes with combating a faceless enemy that is violently probing and plotting its way into our world.

It’s miles better than a lot of other stuff out there, but it still fights my tongue: I feel like I want to pause for a comma, but I never get a chance. The second half tends toward evocative description, but it’s not enough to make up for OVERCOMING HIGH-STAKE ODDS THROUGH RISKY STRATEGIC GAMBITS COUPLED WITH HEART-STOPPING COMBAT EXPERIENCES et cetera et cetera.

PR people sometimes seem to think that LOTS OF WORDS WITHOUT STOPPING is better than dramatic pacing. Have they been locked to a certain number of sentences? Is there some company rule commanding that “YOU ARE LIMITED TO ZERO COMMAS,” or something like that? Maybe every PR staffer contributes one ‘exciting’ phrase to a giant bucket, and their team leader stays up until four in the morning trying to figure out how to fit them all into a hundred words? I sometimes feel like these things are written by robots or Pinocchio-boys who desperately want to understand human ecstasy: they grasp helplessly at words while we pity them for their sterile alien minds. It’s almost wistful, it is.

Passion’s the thing here—why do they dance around the original game so much? Why not reference it directly? So many wonderful things have been written about X-COM that it this marketing fluff seems even more out of place to me than it normally does: ever since I started keeping up with games journalism about five years ago, I’ve been constantly impressed by the enthusiasm great writers have for X-COM. Alec Meer wrote a powerful account of his youthful collision with the game only a few days ago, and it made me want to run out immediately, find a copy, and slobber all over it. It grates against my sense of justice, this marketing nonsense does. There should have been some genuine emotion here—I mean, if any game has really grabbed people by the hearts and the brains simultaneously, it’s X-COM. There are a bunch people out there who could have made pretty words about the new game. It shouldn’t have been hard to put together a release that’s more– more on an emotional level– than just a picture and a paragraph. If they’d done that, the response might not have been so hypercritical.

I know this is not terribly important. It’s just that XCOM is the thing this week, and for once, the Thing of the Week demonstrates a long-standing pet peeve of mine. I mean, take a look at this blurb about Assassin’s Creed from Steam:

Assassin’s Creed™ is the next-gen game developed by Ubisoft Montreal that redefines the action genre. While other games claim to be next-gen with impressive graphics and physics, Assassin’s Creed merges technology, game design, theme and emotions into a world where you instigate chaos and become a vulnerable, yet powerful, agent of change.

It sounds like the kind of thesis proposal I would churn up at two in the morning on a Sunday.

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.

Max Payne and the Pictoralists

Kent’s post about games and their relation to old media got me thinking. It’s best to read this one if you’ve read his first.

Because my 360 is at school and my computer is too shoddy to handle Bioshock 2 right now, I’m currently playing Max Payne. In case you never played Max Payne, here’s what you need to know: it is The Departed crossed with John Woo crossed with every B-movie cops-and-robbers flick you’ve ever seen. All the cutscenes are comic strips. They’re not even real comics: they’re photographs layered over with ultra-cheesy Photoshop art filters, with speech bubbles and word boxes slapped on top. The language is such a heavy kind of noirish nonsense that it gets hard to handle after a while. Constant references to the dark nature of the city, the predatory howl of sirens, the call of the night, that kind of thing. In short, the game wants so badly to be everything that crime novels, action movies, and gritty thriller comics have ever been that it’s practically bleeding out the anus to accomplish this.

Nevertheless, it’s fun as hell. The John Woo fighting moves are incorporated as bullet-time dodge-jump-and-shoot attacks—at one point, Max even remarks that he’s about to get “all Chow Yun Fat” on his enemies’ collective rear ends. It’s marvelous. The whole game crawls right up into that sweaty place under the armpit of twentieth-century pulp fiction and sits there grinning like a monkey and clapping its hands, and there’s nothing you can do but love it.

Aside from the bullet time effects, which were very unique and awesome when the game came out, there’s not much special about the stuff the player does in the game. You’ve got a million different weapons, grenades, rocket launchers, et cetera. Stupid boss fights. A couple halfhearted puzzles, because every game in the universe needs a puzzle, right? It’s the standard shooter rigmarole through and through. A few hallway laser-bomb puzzles are direct references to situations found in Half-Life. What saves it from being derivative is the style: By accessing that whole antihero-thriller- noir-cops-and-robbers heritage, Max Payne transformed itself from a poorly-balanced shooter into something completely magical.

Its aims are a bit like those of the Pictoralists, described in Kent’s post, but with a bit more punch. Max Payne adopted non-gamic inspiration in the most audacious manner possible by flaunting its relationship to movies and comics. It’s trying to be a movie and a comic, at the same time, while also being a game. The basic attacks are obvious homages to Woo’s Hard Boiled, for crying out loud! It doesn’t try to be a movie in the same way that Heavy Rain does, but it’s still trying, and it cleaves so tightly to that heritage that it inherits all the excitement and energy of the old media. It knows why we love movies and trashy books and comics, and plays up to that. We don’t keep playing Max Payne simply because the game itself is well-made; we love it because it’s a bombastic send-up of everything pulp and horrible. In spirit and attitude, it’s the ultimate action movie and the ultimate comic.

So: Demons’ Souls is fantastic, on a gamic level. But not every game has to be Demons’ Souls. And not every game should be. Games that go in the exact opposite direction are often just as marvelous.

Becoming Art

Monet, Boulevard des Capucines (1873)

In response to the popularization of the daguerreotype in the mid 1800s, Paul Delaroche famously declared: “from today, painting is dead!”  For the past few centuries, paintings had been coming closer and closer to reality, and suddenly here was a new medium—photography—that seemed to render all of those efforts pointless.  Enter Manet and the impressionists, who stopped trying to precisely mimic reality and instead tried to capture the surreal quality of light and the emotion of a landscape.  Of course, painting was far from dead.  Painters just had to discover what set them apart from other art forms, and they had to capitalize on these differences.  The work of Manet, Monet, Van Gogh or Matisse could never have been made with a camera.

Similarly, when photography was invented it struggled to be perceived as art.  Pictorialists like Demachy and Davidson tried to mimic the efforts of the impressionists in their photographs.  They used techniques like gum bichromate to blur the details of a photo to make it look more like a painting.  The Pictorialists were trying to get photography recognized as an art form by showing how it could be like a medium that already attained artistic recognition.

Ansel Adams, Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite (1933)

Along came Ansel Adams and friends, who founded Group f/64.  In their manifesto, they stated that they were “striving to define photography as an art form…through purely photographic methods.”  They defined pure photography as “possessing no qualities…derivative of any other art form.”  Instead of trying to make paintings with their cameras they explored the unique capacity of photography to create sharp and accurate images.

Still with me?  Here’s the connection to games: Mass Effect 2 is Demachy and Demon’s Souls is Ansel Adams.  We all want games to be perceived as a medium capable of creating art, but we’ve been trying to get there in different ways.

Demon’s Souls approaches narrative in the exact opposite way that Bioware does.  In Mass Effect 2, the story is told through conversations and journal logs.  The voice acting is stellar.  The writing is great.  The camera sweeps in cinematic motion and all of the visuals are coated in film grain.  Mass Effect 2 tries to hoist itself onto the pedestal of another medium (and it isn’t alone).  It is certainly a great experience, and it’s tons of fun to play, but it doesn’t embrace its identity as a game in the way that Demon’s Souls does. Demon’s Souls demonstrates the unique storytelling capacity of games better than any other game I can think of.  It plays to the strengths of its medium; it isn’t trying to be a book and it isn’t trying to be a movie.

In Demon’s Souls you discover each place’s history without any help from a datalog.  There is a constant sense of mystery as you explore the rich corridors and caverns.  You are always pressing further into the fog, unsure of what one-hit-killer is waiting just beyond your range of vision.  Your clanking armor echoes on the cave walls and you are surrounded by groans and heavy breathing.  The space around you is crowded with shuffling life, but you still feel so lonely huddled in the womb-like dark.

Crowded with shuffling life

Demon’s Souls forces you to absorb its environment.  You trudge through the same spaces over and over again and become intimately familiar with each tunnel and vista.  The game doesn’t give you a map, but after playing it I could draw one.   In a game like Oblivion or Assassin’s Creed, space is repetitive and disposable.  In Demon’s Souls no space is wasted.  The world is big and it’s filled with variety.  You will visit every corner of it.

Everyone agrees: Demon’s Souls is difficult.  This is offset by the best melee combat mechanics that I’ve ever experienced.  The blocking and dodging are intuitive.  You can hear the thwack of flesh when you chop into an enemy with a sword.  The controls are so right that mastering them is a wonderful experience.  The precise manipulation of my digital body gives me a very physical sense of the game.  Each on-screen movement is a natural extension of my thought.

After I kill the first boss in the Boletarian Palace, I am once again in human-form, complete with shiny body and robust health bar.  I wander into the wind-whipped Shrine of Storms.  Imagine my chagrin when a dual-katana-wielding skeleton rolls over to me and dispatches me in a single hit.  “Damn you, rolling skeleton!” I shout at the screen.  I come back for more.  He kills me again.  And again.  I slowly learn the pattern of his attacks: roll, roll, slash, pause, roll, slash.  I hold my shield up to him in a challenge.  I sway and I dodge and then—BAM!—I get him from behind.  Several blows later he lies in a pile of bones at my feet.  But the next rolling skeleton has an archer friend who thwarts my masterful tactics by staggering me at just the wrong time, and I’m dead again.  Fast-forward to a few hours later when I’ve been killed a long ways into the level.  I dodge and hack my way through what used to be grueling battles with ease.  It isn’t because I have a bigger health bar or a more powerful sword.  The game has taught me how to fight, and that is why I love it.

Some rolling skeletons in the Shrine of Storms

In order to be widely recognized as a means for artistic expression, games need to explore the unique qualities of their gaminess, just like Manet did with paint and Adams did with a camera.

Demon’s Souls tells a story through the way that the player inhabits the gamespace.  The combat isn’t just a way of getting you to the next cutscene.  This is what ‘gamic’ means.  You don’t have to learn excruciatingly difficult fighting techniques in order to read a book or watch a movie.  I’m thirty hours in and Demon’s Souls has told me an amazing and visceral story in a way that a movie or book could not have done.  Surely this is art.

—-

This certainly won’t be the last thing I write about Demon’s Souls.  I haven’t even mentioned the unique multiplayer component of the game, and there are so many more stories to tell.  I’m also planning on putting my fancy HD PVR to use and recording some nice videos for you to watch!

In the meantime, why not check out my two favorite articles on Demon’s Souls, by Michael Abbott on GameSetWatch and Tom Bissell on Crispy Gamer.