Pokemon is a sport game

Earlier this week, while speaking to a group of game-savvy people, I declared rather incoherently that Pokemon was a sports game.

Everyone laughed at me. There were some games-studies people in there, and they all said “Arrr, noooo, me hearty, games can only be sports games if they’re about simulating real-world sports, and if they address the problem of physical embodiment in a digital space, arrr.” Which is pretty much true, yeah, if you think about all the games that get sold as sports games, and also if you are a crusty old academic.

Some of them thought that Pokemon couldn’t be a sports game because it uses RPG mechanics and involves travel across an overworld. I dismissed this, too. “I’m talking about general categories of games, not about actual commercial genres or genres of mechanics,” I said. “Pokemon is about sports in the same way that a game about fox-hunting, cockfighting, or bearbaiting would be about sports.” Actually, I didn’t say that. I was being incoherent and frustrated and didn’t bother to explain myself properly. But I’m writing this now, so I’m editing my stupidity out of the conversation.

Anyway, here is why Pokemon is a sports game. And, at the end, I propose a redefinition of the concept of ‘sports games.’ Wooooo!

It’s about a competition.

Aren’t a lot of games about competition? Well, yeah. Lots are, and many of those have nothing to do with ‘sports.’ Simply including competition doesn’t make a game be ‘about sports.’ But Pokemon, like many conventional sports games, is about structured, rulebound competition. A specific kind of competition. It’s a game which contains a game, and the game is Pokemon Battling. Pokemon Battling exists separately from Pokemon the Nintendo game in the same way that American Football exists separately from Madden 2010. It’s not real, but we know its rules and can imagine it on its own, in television shows, card games, and in video games developed for other platforms.

Within the world of Pokemon, Pokemon Battling is a sport.

It has regulations, leagues, tournaments, rulebooks, referees, ladders, matches, arenas, qualification tournies, and all the other superficial surface-elements we associate with real-world sports. We’d be forced to consider it a sport if it existed on this side of the screen. Much of the story energy that goes into Pokemon is directed at convincing us that we’re taking part in an exciting, new kind of sport.

Mechanics do not a sports game make.

Madden’s mechanics, where you control the actual players on a team and execute actions contained within the game of American Football, are not “the” sports-game mechanics. Plenty of games which are widely accepted as sports games do not contain that kind of control system or play style, and many contain lots of mechanics in addition to these ones. Football Manager games are a great example of sports games which aren’t solely about playing the actual sport itself. And remember Cycling Manager? Steam insists that it’s a sports game, and I think you’d be unable to find people who disagree who aren’t already crazy people. Furthermore, sports games have been including RPG-ish mechanics—where the players get better the more they play, and can upgrade different abilities—for years. These days, as everyone says, there’s a bit of RPG in everything. Anyway, in Pokemon, plenty of things occur that aren’t about actually playing the actual sport, but many of those things are presented as directly effecting sport performance. We travel the overworld to seek new team members and to test ourselves against opponents; even the underground digging game in Diamond and Pearl could produce items useful to the sport. Just because alternate mechanics and goals were there doesn’t mean that the game itself wasn’t ‘about the sport.’

Related news: it has story

Some suggested to me that having a story rules Pokemon out of the ‘sports’ category. Well, true: commercial sports games, as a rule, don’t have scripted stories. But this doesn’t mean that they should or could never have one. I’m being creative here, people. I’m suggesting that the ‘sport-ness’ of sports games is totally independent of story. In fact, I’m challenging someone to make a soccer game where you fight evil soccer mafias and save the world from an evil soccer manager intent on destroying the universe with a mutant soccer player named BeckhamTwo. Do it.

I know that it’s not commercially useful to think of Pokemon as a sports game. I’m suggesting that there are commonalities between Pokemon and traditional sports games which are useful when it comes to analyzing them. I think that there’s something about the structure of traditional sports games– the reward structure, the illusion of progression and growth, of competitive achievement, of being the best and winning vetted awards from imaginary masters and experts– which has much in common with some aspects of Pokemon’s structure. I’m sure that part of the reason why Pokemon and, say Madden are so successful is that they’ve mastered this elusive element. Pokemon isn’t all about collecting them all– it’s also about defeating your friends, defeating the Elite Four three times in a row, being tougher and smarter than everyone else, knowing your strategy, being so good at your game that your game stands for goodness and purity and can actually defeat evil— it’s about Sport, ‘sport’ in the ancient meaning of the word, in the sense that includes grit and stiff jaws and firm handshakes in the arena. “Sport” in the nineteenth-century sense.

At any rate, I think that I could convince those nutty academic types to accept my comparison by merely changing the name of the ‘genre’ slightly. If I’d said “Sport Games” instead of “Sports Games”—‘sport’ in the ancient sense that would include cockfighting and all the rest of those bloodsports I mentioned at the top of this post—I would have been more persuasive. The problem with proposing weird ideas is that the associative power of our language can confuse your audience if you don’t manipulate it properly, particularly if your audience is ultra-semantics-sensitive. Pokemon is “sport.” In the traditional sense, it isn’t “SPORTS,” it isn’t Gatorade and sweaty dudes and drooling self-insertion in Superstar Mode, but it’s ‘sport.’

I rest my case.

Let’s come up with excuses for why I die in Spelunky

You’ve played Captain Forever, right? If you have, you’ve picked up the drips and slivers of its story. Despite its neon graphics and cheekily deadpanned flavor text, it’s secretly a soul-crippling tale of sacrifice and cyber-horror! Hooray! Captain Forever is a trapped pilot doomed to fly forever in a kamikaze ship that reassembles itself after destruction. He must kill hundreds of enemies in an infinite cycle of death and gruesome rebirth! It’s like something out of Harlan Ellison, but with less Harlan Ellison. I adore it.

See, it’s awesome when games bother to explain in-game death and rebirth. Lord knows they don’t have to—have you ever seen an arcade game that bothers explaining ‘INSERT COIN’ in the context of the game’s story? It’s hard to talk about that mechanic directly without leaving the perspective—the ‘diegesis’, to use the technical term—of the game-world. Farbs didn’t have to come up with a backstory that explains why I can play Captain Forever over and over again, even after losing. But he merged old-school permadeath shmup game-logic with a WOWlike focus on repeat play and mined this for every ounce of crazy, and it’s awesome.

I started thinking—what would it be like to explain permadeath and infinite rebirth in another game? How about Spelunky? What’s going on there? Shall we sink into the sweaty morass of its diegesis—down into those caverns where La Mulana and Nethack collide head-on? There are bits of brain spattered all over the walls. There are little bats squeaking adorably. I am killing the shopkeeper, over and over again, throughout eternity. Yes. Let’s do this. Let’s make this as crazy as possible.

There are many archaeologists.

Under layers of dirt and grime and tattered clothing, each archaeologist seems identical, but each is really a unique man, each capable of unique mistakes and uniquely spectacular deaths. Some die in a fluke accident five seconds inside—others last longer.

Some are wicked, heartless fellows. They toss the women around like beanbags. Some are kinder. Some proceed cautiously, wringing every last ounce of gold out of the place before creeping on. Some will use the lady’s corpse to bludgeon a skeleton to death. Some will sacrifice her to Kali! But in the end, everyone wants to kill the shopkeeper—web him to the floor, blow out his brains from behind with a pistol. What can we say? It’s something about these caves.

The archaeologist is a ghost.

That’s why you keep running the same dungeon over and over, see. You ran it once, in human form—you probably died in the tutorial cave, or moments afterwards, feeling the first bat’s teeth in your jugular. Whatever it was, it wasn’t impressive.

So now you’re a ghost. Still unwilling to release its pathetic grip on your corpse, your spirit dreams endlessly of running the dungeon, of the infinite disasters you would have met had insane chance allowed you to live a minute longer—another minute—a few seconds. You run the dungeon over and over and over again, but your imagination always fails you: you have not yet imagined the dungeon’s furthest point. Someday, you might. You might dream a victory profound enough to bring this all to an end.

It will probably take you a long time.

There is no archaeologist.

We plumbed these tunnels with sonar long ago, and found them so complex and endless that it would be madness to send a team down there—and worse than madness to send a man alone and unaided. So we’ve simulated all its terrors, and now we’re taking applications. Applications for Suicidal Hero, that is.

Each applicant is tested  against the program. We’re looking for the ideal string of hops and whips and sprints and crimes. We’ll put them through again and again until we’re sure: the perfect super-soldier. We’ll train him up. It’ll be like Ender’s Game, but underground. Or something. When it all comes down to the big win, the blood will be real. The archaeologist will be carrying a machine gun, and he’ll be wearing a super-science bodysuit that gives him super-strength, and he won’t actually be an archaeologist. If he dies on the spikes, it’ll be a lot grosser than what you’re used to in 8-bit.

The archaeologist is a mistake.

We didn’t mean for you to see us. Truly, we’re very sorry. Usually when we go out into public, we make sure the holographic cloaking devices are fully powered. Nobody wants to see a tentacle-beast straight out of HP Lovecraft go waddling down the street in full daylight, and none of us wants to have to hunt down and mind-erase the blistered memories of any Earthling who saw us like that. It’s a sticky business, it is.

But you—with you, we screwed up. By the time we found you huddled in the dumpster, brain a soup, face stained with tears and twisted permanently with disgust and horror, your memories were burned too deep to wipe away. So we gave you Spelunky instead: we took you to the orbiting mothership and hooked you up to the game. It’ll give you something to do while we research a cure for Madness. It’ll provide you with infinite bliss! There’s no getting tired of Spelunky. Not as far as we know, anyway—we once had a patient on it for forty years while we tried to fix him up, and we’ll keep you on it, too, as long as we feel is necessary. It’s like a kind of therapy. It’ll soothe your splintered consciousness back into shape, so it will. You’ll play it forever, if you have to!

And you can play it forever. That game is a bitch to beat, even when you’ve got forty tentacles, like we do, and a mind capable of thinking twelve thoughts simultaneously.

Pfft. Spelunky.

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.

Magazines, Games and Trees

Magazines. I have them.

One of my favorite panels at PAX East was on “The Death of Print.”  In this panel John Davidson, the Editor of the new GamePro, raised a point that has worried for me for some time.  Print media seems to be at odds with environmentalism.  The UN says that deforestation is “now widely recognized as one of the most critical environmental problems facing the human society today with serious long term economic, social and ecological consequences.”  John shared a startling statistic: if a print magazine sells 30% of the magazines that it prints, this is considered a success.  That means that 70% of magazines are simply thrown away.

Chris Dahlen, the managing editor of Kill Screen, raised the issue of the magazine as artifact.  The problem with an article on the Internet is that you can’t hold it in your hands.  You can’t put it in a box in your attic and find it twenty years later, brushing off a cloud of dust and swelling with nostalgia.

I love books.  I love the way that they smell and the way that they feel on my thumbs and my index fingers.  I love the sound of a page turning and I love lying on a couch with a book on my chest and a lamp behind me.  Flipping through Kill Screen and GamePro on the bus to Boston was a wonderful experience – the writing was uncommonly good and I didn’t have dozens of banners and tabs distracting me.  If print died a part of me would die with it.

Which is why I struggle with this so much.  Sometimes it seems like art and the environment are at odds and I have to choose a side.

The issue is bigger than just print magazines – video games themselves are by nature unsustainable.  Computers and consoles have dangerous toxins in them that are often illegally recycled overseas, posing serious health and environmental risks.  (Read this.)  Playing games consumes lots of energy, and I’ve bought dozens of games, only rarely considering the environmental implications of my purchases.  I care about the planet, but I deeply care about games as well.  I’ve been struggling to reconcile all of this.

Other mediums like movies aren’t particularly sustainable either, but movies have been vehicles for change more often than games have.  Documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Exporting Harm (topical – a 2002 documentary about electronic waste in China) have been able to profoundly raise public awareness about important issues.  We haven’t had our world-shaking game yet.

A view inside the burn houses where women sit by the fireplaces and cook imported computer parts. Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

The thing is, I think that we can.  Games are an extremely young medium, and we have a lot of room to grow.  Right now, the primary concern in game design is whether or not the player is having fun.  This isn’t the case in other art forms; many movies, paintings, photographs, novels, and plays are crafted to make the viewer uncomfortable, for instance.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having fun, but why can’t we have other emotional experiences as well?  Why can’t we have a mystery game where we explore a recycling factory in China?

I appreciated John Davidson’s comment because I’m glad to be reminded that other people out there struggle with these things too.  Once a year there’s an exciting festival in New York called Games for Change – it happens in a bit over a month. Unfortunately that’s right before exams, but you should go if you can.  Here at Dartmouth, the tiltfactor lab is focused on game design for social change.  In the coming weeks I’m going to play a few games that are taking risks and pushing the boundaries of what games might be able to be and write about them here.

So those are my thoughts.  I read an article today that deforestation has been on the decline in the past decade – the rate is “remains alarming,” but it’s nice to read good news once in a while.  I have to believe that there is a way for video games and magazines to exist in a healthy world.  What do all of you think about this?

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

Torchlight is like a job you don’t get paid for

Attention universe! I have completed the primary Torchlight campaign! Why did it take me three months of halfhearted, intermittent play? I will tell you. It is because there is no point to Torchlight.

See, unless clicking on colorful enemies is what you enjoy most in life, there’s almost no reason to ‘finish’ playing the game. Because Torchlight has an Endless Dungeon mode, finishing the primary plot only enables more and more of the same-old same-old: you get to go further down, and you get to click on baddies and receive loot. Nothing new there. There’s also no emotional or narrative reward to finishing the plot itself. Quite a lot has been said about the skeletal nature of the game’s plot, about how tepid, uncommitted, and unclear it is.  Not only does it provide no resolution—the dungeon continues—but it makes no sense. The final boss-fight is a tedious and largely-unfair low-framerate ass-raping in which the game’s evil mastermind—a badly-explained, overpowered something called ‘Ordrak’—spams mobs at you for twenty minutes. When you’re done you get a shit-ton of worthless loot.

So why did I keep at it? Frankly, I’m a sucker for numbers that go up. Preferably, numbers that go up very high, and very quickly. It’s why I bothered finishing Infectionator: World Dominator, even though I broke the game, balance-wise, while still in Africa. In Torchlight, the numbers never stop going up. It is impossible to play for an hour without leveling up twice. You are presented with improved gear so frequently that it is hard to keep track of how fast those numbers are rising. There’s not too much need for strategic assessment: each weapon has a tooltip detailing its DPS and bonuses and providing a side-by-side comparison with your current loadout. You simply look at the numbers and choose whatever has the bigger ones. At times, this kind of constant reward feels very sinister, as if the game is trying to keep you sated with numerals while it simultaneously performs a subliminal and evil reconstruction of your brain. You stagger away from the computer, a lizardlike numbness reigning in your mind, and all night long digits scroll before your eyes while the clink of gold rattles in your ears. This is Torchlight. It’s addictive like a Facebook game, but with all the garish stupidity of that genre replaced by Diablo nostalgia. It is a powerful and scientific designer drug.

But the habit is relatively easy to break. Like I said, it quickly becomes clear that there’s no higher reward to playing the game. No dramatic conclusion, no ultimate weapon, no satisfying plot twist. Just more and more of the same. This was apparently the aim of the design team, and by gum, they seem to have accomplished it. If ‘the same’ isn’t enough for you, I can’t see why you’d bother finishing the game, unless it’s for street-cred-related reasons. Instead of dragging me onward, it only left me exhausted.

This raises questions for me, though: do I play games because I want a continuing experience, or because I want a story or a progression that eventually comes to an end, the way a book or a movie does? For me, I’ve discovered that it’s the latter. I don’t want to play the same thing for ever and ever; it’s only human that our tales come to ends. If a game doesn’t want to tell me a serious story, fine, but it’s at least got to resolve itself somehow, because that, too, is human. Currently, my conception of a ‘good game’—and I understand that, with social games, casual games, DLC and so on, this isn’t the way the industry is heading—is something with a beginning, a middle, and a proper, conclusive end. A death. A max level. A final challenge that unlocks extras, maybe. Anything but an infinite perpetuation of identical play experiences. I don’t need to be able to win it—I just need to be able to feel a sense of closure, or to have a chance to find my own kind of closure. Me, personally. Any thoughts on this, guys?

Here’s a secret about me and Torchlight: I almost didn’t quit. Apparently, there’s a secret level filled with horses for characters in the 40s level range, based on the cow level in Diablo II. I consider this idea incredibly attractive. But you have to grind the incredibly dull fishing minigame to get there, so I’ve decided that I won’t be bothering.

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.