Thursday, September 30, 2010

So you want a job as a games journalist?

Click for full size.


Friday, September 10, 2010

The Bechdel Test

In my last post, I received comments challenging me to quit bitching and actually do something to improve games' shortcomings. While I believe strengthening the craft of games journalism is one of the best (and obviously my preferred) method, I shall have to expound on that topic in the future. For now, consider this blog a note to the game designers of the world, big and small: More of your games need to pass The Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. The test was popularized by Alison Bechdel's comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called The Rule.

Like the quote mentioned in my previous post, the Bechdel test was originally constructed as a critique of films, but I think narrative-driven videogames would also benefit from it. Also note that passing the Bechdel test does not make a film good, nor does failing the test make a film bad. 12 Angry Men fails all three criteria and is an all-time classic; on the other hand, The Women passes the test easily and received a paltry 13% on the TomatoMeter.

So why does the Bechdel test matter? Because I think it's important to remember that, as statistics so often remind us, a significant portion of videogame players are women, and they don't like having their intelligence insulted any more than men. Because for every female videogame character who looks like this:

...there are dozens more who look like this:

Videogames, at least most of the big-budget mainstream ones, tend toward what TV Tropes identifies as the Smurfette Principle, i.e. largely male-dominated casts with one woman thrown in for sex appeal or comic relief or to be the "token female." Gears of War and Halo, for example, the two biggest-selling franchises on the Xbox 360, both have a main female character who is mostly just a voice on the radio feeding useful information to the main character. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, one of the biggest games of all time, has exactly zero female characters.

Surely this is an imbalance that can be rectified. I'm not saying every game must pass the Bechdel test, or even should. But seriously, don't you think we'd start seeing better, more intelligent games if more game designers at least acknowledged its existence?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Because I haven't updated in a while

I found this quote by film director Alexander Payne, whose made some of my favorite movies (Sideways, Election and especially About Schmidt). He's talking about the current state of American cinema, but I feel like this quote could just as easily apply to games.

"For some 25 years, we've had American movies but not movies about Americans. For 25 years we've largely been making not films but rather glorified cartoons which can be as easily digested in Omaha as on a bus in Thailand; films whose principal message is, We need your money to keep our stock price up; films that exploit banality and violence as come-ons to the lowest angels of our nature; films based on formula so they can be consumed as readily and predictably as McDonald's hamburgers. We've turned away from the need and utility of art in favor of impersonal product to maximize profits and at the tremendous, tragic expense of our culture."

Friday, July 30, 2010

Whoa! What happened to your blog, man?

You may have noticed I redesigned the blog a bit. Don't panic. The old design was drab and cramped into tiny margins, and this new one finally lets the text have some breathing room. I'm definitely happier with it.

Mostly, the thing that annoyed me about the original template was that the text was always squeezed into this narrow margin that reminded me of the text on the inside flap of a book jacket. It always looks so bereft of space. I finally have the wide margins I desire. This will also make the posting of images and YouTube videos much easier, as I won't have to fuss about reducing their width so much.

I hope you like the new template, and feel free to suggest any new changes you'd like to see. Your regularly scheduled video game posting will resume forthwith.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cakes can never be art

Having once made the statement above, I have declined all opportunities to enlarge upon it or defend it. That seemed to be a fool’s errand, especially given the volume of messages I receive urging me to eat this cake or that and recant the error of my ways. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that in principle, cakes cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say "never," because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no pastry chef now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.

What stirs me to return to the subject? I was urged by a reader to consider a video of an interview of Margaret Braun, a designer and baker of cakes. I did so. I warmed to Braun immediately. She is bright, confident, persuasive. But she is mistaken. 
I propose to take an unfair advantage. She spoke extemporaneously. I have the luxury of responding after consideration. If you want to follow along, I urge you to watch her talk, which is embedded below. It’s only six minutes long, and she makes the time pass quickly.

She begins by saying her cakes "definitely are" art. Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a cake worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, filmmakers, novelists and poets." To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.

Then she shows an example of one of her cakes, calling it "Islamic or 18th Century." Braun concedes that chess, football, baseball and even mah jong cannot be art, however elegant their rules. I agree. But of course that depends on the definition of art. She says the most articulate definition of art she’s found is the one in Wikipedia: "Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions." This is an intriguing definition, although as a chess player I might argue that my game fits the definition.

Plato, via Aristotle, believed art should be defined as the imitation of nature. Seneca and Cicero essentially agreed. Wikipedia believes "Cake is a form of food, typically a sweet, baked dessert... Cake decorating is one of the sugar arts that uses icing or frosting and other edible decorative elements to make otherwise plain cakes more visually interesting. Alternatively, cakes can be molded and sculpted to resemble three-dimensional persons, places and things."

But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one. For example, I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist. Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn’t start dancing all at once.

One obvious difference between art and cakes is that you can eat a cake. It has sugar, flour, eggs and frosting. Braun might show an elaborate cake in the shape of Chewbacca, but I would say then it ceases to be a cake and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot eat; you can only experience them.

She quotes a definition of good baking as "being motivated by a desire to make the audience hungry." This is not a useful definition, because a great deal of bad food is also motivated by the same desire. I might argue that the cakes of Nancy Silverton are so motivated, and Jacquy Pfeiffer would argue that his cakes are so motivated. But when I say Silverton is "better" than Pfeiffer and that her cakes are artworks, that is a subjective judgment, made on the basis of my appetite (which I would argue is better than the appetite of anyone who prefers Pfeiffer).

These days, she says, "grown-up eaters" hope for cakes that reach higher levels of "joy, or of ecstasy....catharsis." These cakes (which she believes are already being baked) "are being rewarded by audiences by high sales figures." The cakes she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a cake that will deserve my attention long enough to eat it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a cake worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets."

Why are pastry chefs so intensely concerned, anyway, that cakes be defined as art? Ray Kroc, Carl Karcher, and Tommy Koulax never said they thought their foods were an art form. Why aren’t pastry chefs content to bake their cakes and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.

Do they require validation? In defending their baking against dieticians, nutritionists, personal trainers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the mixing bowl and explain, "I’m studying a great form of art?" Let them have their cake and eat it, too, if it makes them happy.

This blog post is a parody/response to Roger Ebert's post, "Videogames can never be art." No offense or plagiarism is intended. All images taken from Cake Wrecks.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I'm only 9 years late on this, but...

"There's a tendency among the press to attribute the creation of a game to a single person," says Warren Spector, creator of Thief and Deus Ex.

Seriously, fuck you, IGN.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Moving towards real games journalism

Comic via Penny Arcade.

I think people sometimes get the mistaken impression that "videogame journalism" is nothing more than reviews of games, previews of games, top 10 lists that compare various aspects of games to each other, and so on. In reality, there's much more to being a journalist than just playing a game and doling out an arbitrary score from 1 to 10.

If you read publications in any other area of arts, entertainment or culture, be it Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly or The New Yorker, undoubtedly what you'll find are not just articles about films, or CDs or what have you. What you'll find are articles about people. These are usually the most important and most interesting stories in any given magazine. Rolling Stone even has what it calls "The Rolling Stone Interview," detailed profile pieces on notable figures within popular culture.

I point this out because I can not find anything like this within the world of videogame journalism. Yes, there are interviews, but they are almost universally about some new game that's coming out. The interviews in essence turn into free commercials for the game company.

Luckily I'm not alone in identifying this problem. Leigh Alexander, author of the blog Sexy Videogameland, recently posted a piece bemoaning this exact issue. She linked to a New York Times article on M.I.A. and compares that to the state of videogame journalism. She writes,

Let's pretend I was skilled enough a writer to do a piece like Hirschberg's. I couldn't in this business. Because game developers aren't vocal enough about who they are. If they have creative identities (many don't), they don't express them. But even if I could grasp at a couple people who would be nuanced enough "personalities" worth covering -- the Housers, Infinity Ward, Bobby Kotick -- there's no way in hell I could get close enough to them to do a piece like this. The PR machine wouldn't let me.

Essentially, the problem is twofold. Many game companies seal themselves off and only want to talk about their product, and I believe there's a lack of real games journalists who are willing to pursue personalities in the industry. The one notable exception I've come across is the 2005 book Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby. The book contains candid interviews and profiles with such noted videogame figures like Cliff Bleszinski, Nolan Bushnell and Will Wright. Read it not just because it's a good book, but because it's practically an anomaly in the world of games journalism.

So far, I don't see a real resolution. Alexander notes that games need to be more culturally relevant, and that's certainly true. I think the pursuit of serious games journalism goes hand-in-hand with making serious games. Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, and he was the first person to do so. Can you imagine anyone winning a Pulitzer for writing about games? I sincerely hope that the answer will one day be emphatically yes.

Friday, May 14, 2010

So bad it's good

Have you ever seen the movie Hard Rock Zombies? Chances are you haven't, as it's not very popular. But given pop culture's current fetish for zombies, debating how to best prepare for zombie attacks, and inserting zombies into classic literature, I'm surprised it hasn't become more popular. Nevertheless, Hard Rock Zombies remains my favorite so-bad-it's-good movie of all time.

The concept of a movie being "so bad it's good" is at the heart of TV shows like "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and purposefully ludicrous films like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. No one goes into a film with a title like that expecting greatness. On the contrary, we enjoy it because it's so bad. My personal favorite musician Frank Zappa even paid homage to the genre in a song called "Cheepnis."

When it comes to games, though, the genre of "so-bad-it's-good" is practically nonexistent. Sure I've played plenty of bad games, even really bad games, but they almost never cross that boundary into being so bad that they're enjoyable in a perverted sort of way. More often then not, they're so bad they're terrible. Even when it comes to games being purposefully made bad (a sort of videogame version of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus), I can name practically none.

I've often wondered why this is. It's not enough to make a game with a ridiculous plot and laughable voice acting. Such games abound, and such traits surrounded by solid gameplay would still be called a good game (like Dynasty Warriors 4, just to throw out an example). But more importantly, bad special effects, bad acting, etc. are the hallmarks of films. If we're talking games, the "so-bad-it's-good" part of it would have to be an inherent part of that medium. The actual game part has to be so-bad-it's-good. And therein lies the rub.

If you, for example, make a racing game and design the car so that it's near impossible to drive without swerving off the road, then certainly you've succeeded in making a bad game. But how do you get from there to making it so-bad-it's-good? As I'm not a videogame designer, I'll leave it up to the men and women of that noble profession to definitively answer the question.

But I do have some good news. I was inspired to write this post by a game I started playing recently, a game that I believe deserves the title of the first ever true so-bad-it's-good game. And that game is Deadly Premonition for the Xbox 360.

Oooh, scary.

The first thing you notice is the graphics. They're truly terrible. Trees are lined with two-dimensional branches. The ground is lined with ugly, blurry textures that are supposed to be grass. Squirrels sound like monkeys. When characters try to emote, it looks like invisible hooks are pulling the corners of their mouths. People do not walk, run, or even move. They contort.

The plot, such as it is, was clearly ripped off of the show "Twin Peaks." A woman in a small town is murdered under mysterious circumstances, and a snarky FBI agent is sent in to crack the case. You play the FBI agent Francis York Morgan, who spends as much time investigating the crime as he does ruminating on cheesy 80s movies. (Perhaps the game hinting that it knows how bad it is?)

Virtually every part of this game reeks of incompetence. You can shoot, but the aiming is haphazard. You can drive, but the car will inexplicably veer off the road at random times. You can talk to the townspeople, but conversations are slow-paced, stilted and . The soundtrack will frequently cue up inappropriate music, such as a folksy ballad during a tense moment, and the same five or six tracks repeat over and over throughout the game.

There are so many small gameplay touches that amount to a thoroughly uniquely bad experience. Every time you pick up an item, you're taken to a separate black screen that says, "You picked up [whatever]" before being dropped back into the action. The game is mainly played from an over-the-shoulder perspective a la Gears of War or Silent Hill, except for certain instances where the camera zooms out to a third-person perspective where suddenly it's like you're playing the original Resident Evil. You earn money for killing enemies, but you also earn money for completely random things like changing your clothes, driving through gates, and peeking in windows.

And yet, despite all this, the game is fucking hilarious. It's bad, to be sure, but it somehow compels you to keep playing so you can see just how bad it gets. I'm only 5 hours in, and I think I've already seen enough to make a comprehensive guide on how not to make a game.

What makes Deadly Premonition truly stand out, though, isn't just that it's bad. It's that no other game I can think of descends to such a level of badness. And I don't mean to say it's the worst game I've ever played, either. Deadly Premonition has somehow managed to reach that golden equilibrium where it's so bad, it becomes good again. I think all Xbox 360 owners should go out and buy it simply because of its uniqueness.

What other games are there that accomplish what Deadly Premonition does? If you think of any, please leave a comment or email me because I'm dying to know. I own over 100 so-bad-they're-good films. I own only one so-bad-it's-good game. This inequality must be addressed.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Unfair Comparisons, Vol. II











See Vol. I here

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Virtua Fighter 5 announced!

The Virtua Fighter series has always been awesome, and this Japanese trailer for Virtua Fighter 5 looks spectacular. Check it out:

Hopefully this will make its way to America pretty soon.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dostoyevsky said it best.

The estimable ants begin with the anthill, and they will probably end with the anthill, which does great honor to their consistency and trustworthiness. But man is a flighty deplorable creature, and, like a chess player, he may be fond only of the process of achieving the goal, rather than of the goal itself. And who knows (no one can vouch for that), perhaps the only goal toward which mankind is striving on earth consists of nothing but the continuity of the process of achieving....He is fond of striving toward achievement, but not so very fond of the achievement itself, and this is, naturally, terribly funny.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from Notes From Underground

Saturday, March 13, 2010

My name is Brian and I am a recovering Achievement addict

For some people, simply beating a game isn't enough. They need something more. They need to feel as though they've "achieved" something, even if that achievement is entirely symbolic. Microsoft was all too happy to cater to these sad souls, and they created the Gamerscore system. Accomplishing certain in-game tasks ("Achievements") would grant you a given number of points ("Gamerscore"). The more games you play, the higher your Gamerscore. This, of course, has led to some people feverishly hunting as many Achievements as they can in order to boost their score as much as possible. Sadly, I used to be among these people.

Ultimately, Gamerscore is just a number. It signifies nothing except the amount of time and effort you've put into playing Xbox 360 (or PlayStation 3, as their "trophy" system is very similar). Getting a huge number of points doesn't grant you anything except a larger e-peen than your friends. It's easy to get sucked in, though. Before you know it, Achievements are altering the way you play games.

For example, some games offer Achievements for beating the game on a higher difficulty, others for finding every gold coin or hidden box or other assorted tchotchke the designers may have put in there. Many Achievements you can get by just playing the game normally. "Achievement Unlocked: You beat level 1!" SoulCalibur IV grants you 5 points just for watching the opening movie. But it's the ones that you have to go out of your way for that are trouble.

Achievements are strictly voluntary, and I know lots of people that are totally indifferent to them. I used to be that way. "I could get more Achievements on that game, but why bother? I already beat it." But somewhere down the line, and I can't remember exactly when, things changed. I found myself going out of my way to earn extra Achievements. I went back and played old games just to increase my Gamerscore. In a way, this was a good thing. I was able to put off buying new games because I was trying to earn new Achievements in my old games. Some Achievements led me to parts of the game that would have otherwise gone unexplored. Mass Effect, for example, has Achievements for playing as a Biotic, Soldier, or Tech character. So in order to get every Achievement in the game, you'd have to play through it a minimum of 3 times.

There's a dark side, though. My lowest point was probably when I bought the game Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Burning Earth. See, all Xbox 360 games have a minimum 1000 Gamerscore, which usually get divided up into around 50 Achievements. Avatar, on the other hand, has just 5, and they are ludicrously easy to earn. I did it in about five minutes:

Yep. 1000 Gamerscore just for standing in place and mashing the B button. After I saw that YouTube video, I knew I had to do that myself. And once I did, I immediately returned the game. I didn't bother playing past the first five minutes. I didn't care. I got what I was after. It was soon after that, though, that I began to take a look in the mirror and think maybe I should just try to enjoy games for their own sake.

What really shook me out of my Achievement whoring was Assassin's Creed. Among the game's Achievements are these: Find all of King Richard's flags; find all flags in Masyaf; find all flags in Jerusalem; find all flags in Damascus; find all Teutonic flags in Acre; find all Templar flags in Acre; find all Hospitalier flags in Acre. Now, that is a lot of flags. And I actually tried to collect every last damn one. Never made it, though. Gave up in Acre and never looked back. Three words: Fuck. That. Shit.

So clearly, Achievements have the potential to alter one's playing habits, both positively and negatively. Game Developers Conference wraps up today in San Francisco, and although I couldn't attend this year, I caught coverage of several panels that explore the very issue of how Achievements affect the way people play games.

In one, Geoffrey Zatkin of Electronic Entertainment Design and Research said, "Achievements are a reward. People use reward mechanisms in game to get players to do what you want them to do. If there were no rewards for collecting coins in Super Mario, you wouldn't do it. Achievements can be a very powerful tool that have a very low impact on a development budget."

He suggests that designers place certain Achievements in games with the intent of aiming a gamer's behavior. Based on my own experience, I can certainly see some truth in this. Would I have ever attempted to collect all the flags in Assassin's Creed if there weren't Achievements for it? Hell no. And yet, if you put a carrot on a stick, even if the carrot is a meaningless collection of points, I'll chase after it.

In another talk, Chris Hecker of the independent game studio definition six argues that Achievements can spoil the fun. GameSpot reports,
Hecker's "nightmare self-fulfilling scenario" was that extrinsic motivators [i.e. Achievements -Ed] would ruin the intrinsic motivation to play their games. And with the industry's current "fetish" for metrics, Hecker said developers will wind up being pushed toward designs where extrinsic motivators work well.

Again returning to my Assassin's Creed example, this is exactly what happened. It wasn't until I realized that collecting flags had turned into a chore, devoid of any fun or game-oriented purpose, that I stopped caring. However, I think Hecker is off the mark if he thinks his conclusions apply to all gamers. As I mentioned before, I know many people who are totally indifferent towards Achievements. And Geoffrey Zatkin's research showed that "On average, only 27 percent of players managed to get half of the available achievements in each game."

All in all, I think Achievements are a good thing and I'm glad they're there. Their best function, as far as I've found, is to let you get more life out of your old games. Do you have an old game that's been collecting dust on your shelf? Try beating it on Hard. But if you find yourself crawling through every nook and cranny looking for all 500 Secret Orbs of E-Peen, you might want to think twice.

(Further reading here, here, and here.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

So close, yet so far.

In my last screed, I wondered when we'd see a positive videogame story in the mainstream media. It appears I may have spoken too soon, as the Los Angeles Times just did a piece hyping a videogame tournament this weekend in their Entertainment section. It's easy to see this is a good sign, but before I go overboard heaping praise upon the article, take a closer look:
On Saturday, UGTL will hold its fifth official Streetfighter IV tournament at a warehouse just south of downtown L.A. Streetfighter IV is a popular video game, available on PlayStation II or Xbox, in which players battle each other in simulated hand-to-hand combat.
If you didn't find anything wrong in that passage, then you've probably never worked as a copy editor or proofreader. To put it plainly, the correct terms are Street Fighter IV, PlayStation 3 (not PlayStation 2), and Xbox 360. To give credit where it's due, kudos to the Times reporter for at least including the Roman numerals in the title of Street Fighter IV, as I've seen "Street Fighter 4" much more often. You'd think it would be easy to get such a small detail right. I mean, come on, it's right in the logo on the front of the friggin' box:

Perhaps you think I'm nitpicking. Well, you know what? So should the Los Angeles Times. As I mentioned almost a year ago in my entry about the Videogame Style Guide, one would be completely in the right to criticize the Times if they, for example, wrote about The God Father 2 instead of The Godfather Part II. It should go without saying that writing about videogames should be held to the same standard as writing about film.

But I want to be clear that I only criticize, not to nitpick, but because I want videogames to be a more regular part of the LA Times' coverage. But if a major publication like the Times keeps making simple mistakes like these, then I'm much more likely to continue to get my videogame news from fan-made and amateur Web sites. (By the way, go to Get Your Tournament for the most up-to-the-minute videogame coverage!)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I've been a Satanist since the age of 5, apparently.

That is, if you agree with self-described "frumpy, middle-aged mom" Marla Jo Fisher of the Orange County Register.

I truly believe that video games were created by Satan to turn otherwise normal children into his drooling, glassy-eyed stooges. After my son plays them at his friends’ houses, he comes home irritable and testy for the rest of the day.

Even though his skin is normally mocha-colored, after a day spent in a darkened room with a controller in his hand, he comes home with a sickly pallor.

Nice hat.

I'm tempted to call bullshit, as Marla Jo Fisher seems to fit the stereotype of the panicked, uninformed parent to a T. But no, Ms. Fisher really is a staff writer for the Orange County Register, and some of her previous missives deal with such hard-hitting topics as children wanting cell phones and the sudden popularity of Blackberries.

I breathed a slight sigh of relief when she revealed in her next article that the whole "Satan" bit was a joke. But of course she's still convinced that games will turn your child into fat, lazy zombies.

I'm not going to refute Fisher's comments point by point, as many others on the Internet have beat me to it, and most people with common sense can see right through the bullshit anyway. Instead, I'd just like to point out how every counter-point comes from a gaming blog or Web site, and I've seen pretty much nothing from traditional, mainstream media. This says to me that ignorant opinions like Marla Jo Fisher's are still the most prevalent, and it's up to us in the interim to set the record straight.

I'm still waiting for the day when this balance shifts. Just as comedian Bill Hicks wondered why you never heard a positive drug story in the news, I'm wondering when the major news media is going run a positive video game story.