Friday, November 20, 2009

All Apologies: the current state of videogame criticism

This won't surprise anyone who knows me. I spend most of my work breaks and micro-breaks listening to videogame podcasts and reading videogame blogs.

This sporadic immersion in game journalism steeps my brain in videogaming conversations throughout the day as I work. It's almost blissful, really. I'm continually amazed at how the flame-ridden, nerdy, proto-adolescent conversations in the Usenet enclaves of yesteryear have gradually transformed into a culture of mostly intelligent conversations surrounding game design, theory, and possibility.

While quite a few venues of videogame discourse seem to have grown up with their interlocuters, gaming as a medium and practice appears to be entering the awkward, slowly evolutionary, "teenage" phase of its development, seemingly trailing the critical expectations surrounding it by a few years.

This prototypical stage has lead to an admittedly frustrating disconnect between public mass media, which continue to approach gaming as a primarily juvenile pop-cultural phenomenon (with all of the hysteria accorded to this cultural sector if potency or influence becomes a perceived issue), and a deeply invested critical community of game designers who see where videogaming can evolve as a new art form.

I'm sure many critics in the blogosphere would like to see the evolution of games accelerated toward their obvious potential, as recent discussions concerning the need for a "Citizen Kane" of gaming have indicated. But I have a confession: I actually hope that games remain in their current stage for a bit longer as the critical community eventually breaks free of the apologetic rut in which it seems to be trapped and instead begins to foment, mature, and refine the discourse surrounding games and their relationship with aesthetic cultural practice.

I think the current state of gaming is, in fact, the perfect backdrop for a deepening understanding of what the subject of gaming criticism should be, and what games themselves are capable of becoming.

In the past couple of years, for economic and technological reasons beyond the scope of this post, the attention of game criticism has been effectively split between two spheres: "AAA" games created by large development studios and marketed by publishers with deep budgets, and indie games usually developed by teams that can be enumerated on a single hand.

The former sphere is driven by mass-market sales and largely comprised of franchises or "intellectual properties" which are executed as flawlessly as possible and iterated for as long as the market or brand loyalty for that IP stands. Recent examples include Uncharted 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rachet & Clank Future. Growth here can be characterized as iterative and evolutionary, and primarily honed to the tastes and expectations of their targeted demographics.

The indie sphere is characterized largely by innovative design and a rapid development model, a necessity given the restricted budgets & resources. It also seems to have a stronger imperative to create uniquely engaging and/or experimental game experiences aimed at a smaller, more auteur-oriented audience. Iterations or sequels are sparse here and are usually moot. Examples include: Machinarium, Flower, Braid.

I'm admittedly painting these two spheres in large brushstrokes, but I think that anyone who has read or participated in game criticism lately has noticed this rough distinction and the split attention it has effected. This has created some very productive and encouraging moments of critical dissonance where expectations developed in one arena have been brought to bear upon the other.

For instance, such dissonance has been fruitful in galvanizing critics into holding games accountable for "growing up" in the face of market forces that seem to be actively discouraging this growth in the AAA arena.

I think of this as the "ludic pull" in criticism, a drive to break gaming out of the imitative constraints and genre assumptions it has placed upon itself and to explore what makes videogaming experientially distinct and important as a medium unto itself.

In the opposite direction, the paradigm of the super-produced "blockbuster" title has continued to contextualize gaming in the tropes of cinematic narrative in its critical, marketing, and visual vocabularies, for better or worse.

While this has allowed games to mature in some aspects, such as visual devices and narrative structure, arguments have been brought against this implicit "cinematic imperative" in game design, which purportedly risks hampering growth and exploration, relegating videogames to a perpetual "para-cinematic" medium.

I think this fear of marginalizing videogames is largely misplaced and disempowering to a certain extent. This is the "apologetic pull" in game criticism, and it has outlasted its own usefulness. I agree with much of Michael Abbott's argument concerning the places where cinematic appropriations are actually worthwhile in videogaming if they're taken confidently as tools in a larger palette. The problem is that most game critics and designers aren't entirely confident in that palette yet, mostly because it hasn't been fully defined.

In opposition to this apologetic pull, I'd ask critics to consider the following: Could films, in fact, come to be perceived as "paraludic" in the coming century?

When it comes down to it, I think the tables are slowly turning in this direction. Though it's difficult for visual arts and film critics to see it now, I believe that cinema in its current form will eventually be percieved as a subset of whatever it is that games are becoming.

In my perception, videogames aren't just a new narrative medium or visual art, or interactive entertainment. Agency, interactivity, and systemic thinking are indeed significant aspects in gaming, but they meld with subjective experience and imagination to such an unprecedented extent, that I'd venture to say that videogames are becoming a completely new cultural aesthetic practice. What we're facing is the birth of a new technology of the subject, or technology of subjectivity, which I don't think has really occurred since film.

That's a pretty big change to be evolving toward. As with most paradigm shifts of this order, criticism really won't have the vocabulary to wrestle with it until the shift has already occurred. Modernist critics couldn't entirely fathom or articulate the rupture that art had undergone in the late 1950's until well into the 1970's, when a philosophical discourse on contemporary art had finally solidified around necessary ruptures in its own assumptions, namely with the advent of post-structural and post-historical criticism.

I think gaming criticism is finally entering the preliminary stages of developing such a framework.

However, the recent pursuit and question of a "Citizen Kane" of gaming indicates that escape velocity from quasi-modernist genre concepts hasn't been achieved yet. When we can move past that question and put it to rest as, at best, misplaced, then the real questions can begin to be asked.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Shrink wrapped

I suck at games: Shrink wrapped photo

As I write this, I'm running on roughly four hours of sleep. Not because I was partying last night, and certainly not because I was gaming.

I was awakened at 4AM by my three-year-old daughter who was having difficulty breathing and could only describe it as "my mouth hurts" followed by gagging and wheezing. She's OK. It was a croupe, common in kids her age and exacerbated by the wildfire smoke that's been filling Santa Cruz for the past week. A few minutes in the cool night air cleared it up. Several days before, my five-year-old son had the same problem around 5 am.

These early awakenings aren't an uncommon occurrence though they're of course usually less scary. Just a kid wanting his/her cereal, or wanting to go potty, or complaining that his/her sheets are sandy. You name it. And in case you're wondering, no, you can't "order" a kid to go back to sleep, and try as they may, they cannot snuggle themselves back to sleep in your bed. At least mine can't, and that's alright. Warm fuzzy morning for the kids; kinda groggy morning for the adults. We can handle it; we have the coffee.

Where was I going with this? Sleep deprivation, yes. Often a sign that your time has become a precious commodity, and that you've been spending more of it than you can afford. This in itself is sometimes a sign of regret, of staying awake in some vain hope of regaining the time you took for granted as a 20-something. Trust me, it doesn't work.

I'm 36, a married father of two, and owner of entirely too many shrink wrapped videogames. They've remained unopened because, whether I admit it to myself or not, I barely have the time to actually play them. I've come to discover that, as I grow older, my game purchases (and book purchases for that matter) signify something more than my intent to play them.

When I'm buying a game, I seem to be buying the idea that I'll somehow have the time to play it. Games are the idealization of free time for me, a symbol that somehow, between the hours of 8 and 11 PM, I will escape the tyranny of the clock (and the onset of sleep). Or sometimes I'll think of it as an investment in future free time, when X game will no longer be available but I'll eventually have the bandwidth to enjoy it.

I've made my peace with this realization and have tempered my purchases somewhat, but I wish I could have seen it coming much earlier because I have left quite a few old games unopened in my earlier gaming years assuming I'd have the time to complete them after playing whatever hot game of the month had shoved it out of the spotlight. And these have accumulated, not into some sort of prized trophy collection as it would to some, but as an embarrassing sign that I made a fundamental mistake as a gamer: I took my damn hobby for granted.

So these pristine pieces of plastic sit there on the shelf, leering at me, and I've often walked up to a copy of say, Persona: Revelations, and thought about cracking it open and basking in the luxury of a JRPG time-sink. Then I look at the clock, put it back, and fire up some XBLA.

Recently, I've decided, both for the sake of my credibility as a gamer, and for the sake of my wallet, that I need to stop doing this.

So I've started a new habit of opening some of these shrink wrapped time capsules with my kids (maybe not the Shin Megami Tensei stuff, but you get the idea), and to them, at this age, the event is almost like opening a Christmas present.

As for me, sitting there with my kids, reading lines of slowly scrolling dialog aloud and listening to my son giving me advice on what spell to cast, I start to feel some of that coveted time coming back to me in an unexpectedly different form, a better form, and one that I certainly won't take for granted, ever.

Friday, August 21, 2009

This was a triumph: a freakin old review of Portal

To alleviate the somber tone of my latest gaming obsession, Fallout 3, I had recently decided to try out Portal. This decision was based largely on the ending song that I'd stumbled across when I googled some of the more bizarre lyrics someone had quoted from the tune. The cheerful morbidity of the AI seemed to hold the humor I was missing in Bethesda's post-nuclear opus.

Admittedly, I'm also a sucker for spatial puzzles.

Upon completing the game, my only regret is that I hadn't played this sooner and that I didn't pick up the rest of the Orange Box package. Any universe that can spawn a spinoff as clever and affecting as this one most certainly deserves a playthrough regardless of my aversion for most FPS games.

The synergy of Portal's presentation, narrative context, and central mechanic is rare enough in itself, but I've never experienced a game that complements such a level of design with a commensurately intelligent and layered level of humor. Much of this is effected through an AI named GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) who functions as the player's coach, tester, and warden, delivering a sadism that is as strikingly humorous as it is disturbing in its unassuming, antiseptic quality, spoken in warmly musical vocoder tones.

"Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an "unsatisfactory" mark on your official testing record, followed by death. Good luck!"

GLaDOS is absolutely inhumane, yet equally sincere.

This mirrors the functional detachment the player is made to feel in relation to their own character. The "protagonist" is a rather blank slate whose sole purpose is to wield the portal device and follow your input as you navigate her through each testing room. Our only actual glimpses of her occur in moments when the portals happen to create a recursive field of view that includes her body.

With one ambiguous exception (that I won't describe in detail, lest I spoil it; for those in the know, this does more to personalize GLaDOS than the object in question), one could go so far as to state that there is little to no emotional attachment to any figure or object in the game.

This oddly functions to enhance the player's immersion, directing it as a lightly narrative but mostly cerebral & playful exercise in physics and the pursuit of the next Aha-Erlebnis moment.

And these moments, to my honest surprise, were not nearly as serendipitous as I'd felt them to be. Upon completing the game, I returned to most of the exam rooms and listened to the commentary nodes out of idle curiosity, and I was stunned by the carefully orchestrated and play-tested nature of many of my "discoveries".

Architecturing the lure of these "aha" moments to be the primary driver of the game, and doing so successfully (I never once felt stuck), really shows expert restraint, in my opinion, by keeping the focus on the gameplay and shunning the "cinematic" tropes that many games would fall into in an effort to further immerse the player and drag them along the correct course.

Portal exemplifes the qualitative difference in game design between polishing and belabouring the narrative context. The studio could have easily piled on more visual clutter, more writing, more voicoever work, and possibly a coda at the end, but they obviously understood that this would have diminished the game.

Scattershot "epics" such as those devised by Hideo Kojima almost seem needlessly baroque in contrast to the lean devices here.

Granted the comparison is rather unfair due to the drastically different genres and intended effects, but Portal's style does make a strong argument for finding smarter, more efficient, and dare I say, mature ways to engage the player that don't necessarily use reams of dialogue, contrived plot twists, or hamfisted characterizations. Incidentally, I also believe that it's time for videogames to finally divorce themselves from the cinematic imperative and begin to stand on the strength of their own unique, and uniquely powerful, devices. But that rant's been done before.

In another clever, though somewhat foreseeable twist to the game, the player's progress is accompanied by an increasing sense of distrust in their own trajectory. As the requirements ramp up, so does the player's ability to perceive the possibilities of deviation afforded by the portal gun, and the increasing probability that these will be put to the test.

I'll leave the rest for the reader to experience. The final path one takes, and the obviously inevitable confrontation are too entertaining to spoil here. I can only describe it as something between HAL's demise in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the verbal abuse one might sustain if one managed to really... really piss off Laurie Anderson.

I can only hope that Valve, or at least their Source engine, will bring similarly clever games in the future. In the meantime, I have some catching up to do with the Half-Life universe.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On the Sublime

The texts that have brought me the most enjoyment and fascination have always been those that confront me with an inscrutable strangeness while themselves modeling encounters with the ineffably strange. For me, these push the boundaries of the act of reading and somehow make me feel changed from having read them.

Viewing Mushishi definitely fell into this category of experience for me.

This anime consists of a series of 26 stories that are mostly self-contained and set in what seems to be the late Edo period (though some of the clothing seems anachronistic in places). The main character is a peripatetic wanderer named Ginko whose profession as "Mushishi" impels him to catalog and contain the Mushi, a life form that both precedes and exceeds our known spectrum of living beings. In the first episode, Ginko describes them with a curiously recursive anthropomorphic analogy: if humans are represented by the middle finger of the hand, which is the furthest point from the heart, and microbes are at the base of the wrist, then the Mushi would be somewhere near the chest.

Sounds fairly formulaic enough, until our first encounter with the Mushi actually takes place. Their first visual appearance occurs in a scene where a child, practicing his calligraphy, watches with exasperation as his Kanji once again float off of the page and prance around the room in a growing parade of loping life forms. This same trope of "living writing" recurs in one of the final episodes, as does another materialization of the Mushi: as a parasitic inhabitant of the human eye. I think these are very purposful "bookend" parallels but haven't been able to fully analyze their significance yet. In any case, this isn't your typical series of ghost stories.

Each episode consists of increasingly bizarre manifestations of the Mushi and the situations they create for their hosts, or the society that surrounds the host. Sometimes these situations are seemingly symbiotic, only to reveal deeper problems that have gone unaddressed in the host or his surroundings. At other times an initially hostile infection or possession by Mushi comes to be understood as the correct course for all involved. This isn't as clinical or strictly parasitic as my description might sound, however. The series inhabits an entrancing gray area between zoology, epidemiology, and mysticism, something I haven't experienced since Princess Mononoke, and a few other works.


For instance one of the later episodes portrays a seaside village where those who are known to be on the verge of death are sent to an offshore site to be "offered" to the ocean which, on a full moon, will produce small egg-like spheres. A mother is then chosen to ingest one of these eggs and give birth to their "revived" relation. Ginko of course eventually discovers that a form of Mushi is producing these eggs which contain a homunculus-like replica of the living being that was absorbed. The protagonist is called to the village by a woman who struggles with a bit of an identity problem. She has given birth to, and is raising, her own mother, which occasions questions of teleology, the limits of parental love, immortality through progeny, the profound yet familiar "otherness" of one's own child, and so on... I could write an article for each of these episodes, to be honest, so I'll end the synopsis here.


The Mushi and the underground "lifestreams" that they cluster around are as alluring as they are absolutely uncaring, often forcing the character into a tricky negotiation between transformative fascination and self-preservation... one that sometimes pushes the boundaries of what it means to be human.

This simultaneous dwarfing and integration of the individual into the scale of an unfathomably uncaring yet absolutely living universe reminds me somewhat of the concept of the Sublime in the philosophy and aesthetics of the Romantic period, namely that of Arthur Shopenhauer in The World As Will and Representation. But this concept in western philosophy gained much of it's ideological heft by centralizing the self and it's pursuit of this experience, that of it's own staggering insignificance in relation to the larger external world.

In the narrative of Mushishi, the self is usually woven into a larger social fabric, whose intersections with the Mushi are quite a bit more complex than a generalized feeling of wonder and individual insignificance. The Mushi operate as protonatural "drivers", functioning both as a trope that mirrors human problems and as a catalyst toward achieving a certain balance or homeostasis in the character's interaction with extra-human forces.

Where the western sublimist would place the distinct self against a limitless background, the brand of sublimity in Mushishi posits a complex social self in the gravitational pull of an unknown, but constantly interactive, transformative, and sometimes destructive, attractor which is equally boundless.

This sublimity is truly stunning to experience.

With each episode, I've felt compelled to write something until the conclusion of the series essentially obligated me to put something here. Though I feel that I might have diluted the experience of the show by academically blathering about it at such length, I do encourage any thinking reader/viewer with an analytical bent, a penchant for the sublime, and an open mind, to seek out this series in whatever format they can. They won't be disappointed.