Gamification of Sex and “Human” Relationships in Dragon Age 2

I’m more or less finished messing with Dragon Age 2. I’ve put in something like 50 hours, which is a work week for me. That seems respectable enough. And while I’ve already reviewed Dragon Age 2, there were a couple of things that wound up on the cutting room floor.

I didn’t, for example, blather on about the companion romances in DA2. Others, however, have been practically hyperventilating over them.

Dragon Age 2 Isn’t Straight Enough

Mike Fahey over at Kotaku covered the brouhaha on Bioware’s forums wherein a forum poster, one “Bastal,” complains, essentially, that there is no suitable romance option for a straight male player, role playing as a straight male character, except for Isabela, who “Bastal” finds much too, “exotic” (cough, splutter); David Gaider, the lead writer for the Dragon Age franchise responded with a concise, somewhat eloquent “eff off.” Go read that, or dig in direct at the source.

That back and forth has already been done to death and, frankly, I found the whole interchange boring and really mention it only because it’s part of a larger narrative, as is the next item.

David Gaider Hates Gay People

As if on cue, and nearly certainly as a poor attempt at trolling, someone else on Bioware’s forums started up a petition to have Gaider fired, in short, because Anders, DA2‘s healing companion, is a sexually aggressive gay guy (of course, only when the champion is male, when the champion is female, then Anders is just a sexually aggressive straight guy). How one leads to the other is beyond me.

Again, I’m so certain that this is just bad trolling that I’m going to ignore most of this argument as well. I do, however, think it brings up an interesting issue with Dragon Age 2.

Virtual Relationships Aren’t a Balance Issue

Finally, Tycho over at Penny Arcade has the response that really should have been made from the get go, which is: the sexually aggressive male companion, the lack of a blonde, white-skinned, busty female romance option, “that is the game.”

Bioware is receptive to comments and concerns about bugs, glitches and game-breaking technical issues. If your save files keep getting corrupted, Bioware cares and welcomes input from the user base. There is, however, a mentality particular to the internet that a game company is interested in re-building their game to suit what the fans think is best. Don’t like the way the reboot of Prince of Persia ends? Post open letters to Ubisoft all over the internet so that they change the ending. To anyone who has ever had to work on a large creative project with a group of other people, this mentality sounds and feels quite a bit like equal parts ignorance and madness.

Anders’s dialog options are not a bug. They may be poorly written and cringe-inducing (they are) but they are not some minor development glitch to be ironed out. The decision to give Isabela a cartoon, panting libido occurring “naturally” only in camp and pornography was no doubt a bad one, but it was still the decision the writers and developers made.

If you buy that games are or can be art, then taking to the internet to demand that Fenris undergo a personality makeover (or, really, a personality injection) is akin to writing a letter to Eames to tell him his chairs suck. If you are more of the sort that believes that games are entertainment only, then demanding that Anders be patched such that the he no longer interprets kindness on the part of the champion as a come-on is like writing a letter to Michael Vick and telling him to go back in time and play in the playoffs as you wanted him to.

On the other hand, sitting down, thinking about what went wrong with the game and describing how it went wrong might be an interesting read for players and a useful one for developers.

Dragon Age 2 Just Has Bad Romances

The bit that confuses me in all this is that the romances have been notable in Bioware games by virtue of their existing, not because they were particularly well brought off. Bioware romances tend to be largely talky affairs and, at best, an interesting bit of side fluff that help to flesh out your companions. Frankly, if the alternative to this older standard of NPC romances that Bioware establishes is what we’ve gotten in the Dragon Age franchise, then I politely suggest Bioware invest in a time machine. It’s worth noting that with respect to Bioware’s games there has been an interesting vocabulary shift from, “NPC party member,” which term has its roots in tabletop RPGs and was how “companions” were described in Baldur’s Gate II, to the more recently used, “companion,” which is, in America at least (and in Firefly), a euphemism for, “prostitute.”

The precise mechanics by which a companion is wooed have varied from game to game. Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect are tied for the worst romance mechanics; the former borrowed heavily from the gifting mechanic popular in some Japanese Dating Sims (which more or less monetized in-game relationships, which is… problematic) and the latter reduced “romance” to “flirty dialog culminating in sex.” Baldur’s Gate II, of all of Bioware’s games, had the best romance mechanics. The entire thing was dialog-based, was timed in such a way that the interactions seemed to occur organically (rather than: after you have completed x mission then these next steps in the romance options are available) and had significant consequences but no real reward other than that it developed an interesting side-story with one of your party members. Romanced party members did things like get pregnant, change their alignment (which is a huge deal in the Dungeons & Dragons rule system), leave the party for a time or even leave the party forever.

Elder Scrolls: Morrowind had a number of guilds and groups you could join. What was remarkable was less the number of groups (not all that many), and more the fact that joining each group felt significant. The entrance exams were significant. Your character could climb the ranks in the guild via increasingly significant quests (that sometimes involved murdering every NPC in a different guild) until they became the guild master. Being in a specific guild not only opened up a lot of exclusive avenues for adventure in the game, it also closed a number of other ones. Bethesda’s next game in the series, Oblivion, did away with this exclusivity and thereby made the guilds a much less interesting experience. The “lesson” Bethesda learned between Morrowind and Oblivion was that players want to be able to do anything and everything, with no narrowing of options or consequential decisions. This has been an increasingly prevalent design decision in games produced this generation and it’s an absolutely ruinous path to take.

The problem here is fundamentally structural. Bioware has made two decisions when writing and designing romances, the implications of which frustrates any attempt at a serious, mature approach to romance or character development. On the one hand, Bioware has gamified romance: there are not only rewards (some of them just changes to character textures, which, given the paucity of companion modification options, actually feel significant) but also clear steps to get there (the dialog wheel displays a glowing heart next to romance-specific options). Furthermore, romancing a character helps improve the character’s opinion of you and thereby unlocks a special character-specific attribute. On the other hand, Bioware has made the experience of romancing a companion largely a boring one: because romances have rewards associated with them, and because players don’t like having their options narrowed, there is no soft limit (such as gender, preference or species) which dictates whether or not a companion is romance-able, presumably because it would be unfair if female players got two romance options and male players only one (a similar complaint was made of Balduer’s Gate II). The only limit Bioware makes is that certain companions are entirely un-romance-able; that is, if Anders is interested in a female champion, then he’s interested in a male champion as well while Varric’s disinterest in male champions also extends to female champions. The upshot is that romances, and, more importantly, the story elements they develop become boring achievement grinds. Gamification, after all, is what Jane McGonigal suggests we do to get through unpleasant tasks. It’s a delightful distraction to trick us into making sure we take out the trash every day. The implication being that Bioware couldn’t come up with compelling romances or couldn’t come up with a reason that players would explore the romance option without McGonigaling it up.

There’s a deeper implication too: that Bioware has given up on telling a human story or having “human” characters (“human” in the psychological, emotional sense, not in the species sense). Instead, we’re given puppets with occasionally cool outfits. Puppet actors, as Ken Levine points out, make for awkward sex scenes.

At the end of the day, making a video game of romance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I can imagine a fantastic Game Dev Story-esque romance game. Gamification of human interactions, on the other hand, speaks of pathological problems with whoever has to turn friendships into secret achievement grinds.And, frankly, RPGs are special. It’s one of the few, if not the only, genre of video games where things like story, plot and character development are actually important and a failure to get them right can have dire consequences when you bring a game to market. The gamification of champion-companion interactions is bad enough, but the gamification of romances really shows how little Bioware cared to flesh out DA2‘s story. That’s not to mention how the design of DA2‘s romance mechanic plays into the stereotypes of cold, metric-obsessed programmers and dysfunctional, lonely gamers.

The Lookouts on Your Table and Iconoclasts on Your Screen

Two quick updates.

First and foremost, as some of you may already know, Penny Arcade have taken their phenomenal Lookout short comics series and are working to turn it into a board game with Cryptozoic. You can check Cryptozoic’s page for updates but they need to put an rss feed on that business; as it is, I will be spending five minutes every day until the game drops simply refreshing Cryptozoic’s page. If you’re interested in checking out Penny Arcade’s Lookouts comics, click here.

Second, via Luke Plunkett at Kotaku, we’ve news of a sort of stalled indie project called Iconoclasts (or Ivory Springs) by stymied artist/designer Joakim Sandberg. It’s gorgeous to look at, developed on Construct ver. 1 (which is a sort of feat in and of itself), and shows a lot of promise. Go download the thing, it’s a measly 15mb, and then donate a buck or a hundred to Sandberg. Do it.

Note: Sandberg is also hawking his indie gem Noitu Love (1 & 2), so pick those up when you can.

images: from penny-arcade.com (don’t sue me, bro!) and konjak.com.

RPGS and Numbers

A few days back, Luke Plunkett over at Kotaku posted an opinion piece about the value and future of “numbers” in RPGs. RPGWatch provided an interesting counterpoint from Jay Barnson at Rampant Games.

The basics of the arguments are:


Plunkett Argument

Numbers often seem arbitrary and the “number cruncher” mentality gets in the way of what Plunkett sees as the point of an RPG – role playing.

Setting aside the fact that books could be written about what it means to role-play in the context of a CRPG, this is not a terribly new argument. In fact, as I’ll get to in a moment, it’s an argument that has ancient roots which predate the CRPG. The only thing novel about the Plunkett argument is the fact that its proponents can present us with modern, flashy AAA RPGs as examples of their preferred simplified style of gameplay (Mass Effect 2 comes to mind).


Jay Barnson (aka Rampant Coyote) Argument

(Note that Barnson makes a few arguments for the importance of numbers in RPGs but I’m going to only reproduce what I think is the best).

Numbers are crucial when making certain sorts of  decisions in a video game. One example Barnson uses has to do with a player character’s health. Barnson found that his tabletop RPGers hated approximated health and damage. While the approximation is generally more realistic (the boxer doesn’t know if she can or cannot take another punch, or two more or any to begin with), it’s also frustratingly vague.
Functionally, Barnson is arguing that when it comes to important information, we prefer a layer of quantifiable precision over top any approximation before we’re comfortable making a decision (Plunkett would likely argue that this expectation is one we’ve been trained by decades of number-crunching RPGs to have). Ever since Resident Evil, in fact, approximating health as a way of superficially inflating the anxiety associated with any decision in a Survival Horror game has been a staple of the genre.
What’s at Stake


What we are seeing is an old argument with some new legs; the argument in its particulars is at least as old as the tabletop RPGs of the 1970s.
But let’s fast forward past the mustiest of history (not least of my reasons for doing so is that most of the records of these spats is third and fourth hand recounts from conventions and gaming sessions). TSR released Advanced Dungeons & Dragon, 2nd Edition, in 1989 (henceforth “2d“). 2d is in many respects the natural culmination of the complexity side of the argument. The Dungeon Master’s Guide contained exhaustive lists of various RPG provisions, how durable they were, how much they weighed, a fair price for them (in the case of melee weapons, their was a weapon speed, swing radius, damage type [piercing, bludgeoning, etc.]; in the case of ranged weapons there was reload time). Fans of Oblivion would recognize the nanofintessimal exactitude with which things like weight (like how much a sheet of paper weighs). How, for example, a moderately strong warrior trained in two-handed weapons might swing a one-and-half-hander depending on his Strength and Dexterity scores (one-handed? two-handed?) is the stuff of a number-cruncer’s wet dreams.
2d can still divide a room. Some players love it for its exhaustiveness (in its defense, TSR went to considerable pains to remind players and DMs that while the rule system was exhaustive, we needn’t adhere to all of its dictates), others found 2d‘s devotion to providing a quantum theory of magic missles exhausting.
Numbers Are Necessary

On the one hand, as Barnson concedes, there are plenty of modern RPGs that are effectively numberless and work just fine without any algebraic crutches. Barnson deploys the ancient argument by duck: if it plays like an RPG, and reads like an RPG, then it’s an RPG, regardless of how much alt-tabbing to talent calculators we have to do.

2d also inspired Germany’s popular The Dark Eye RPG rule system, which system is the backbone over which the CRPGs Drakensang and Drakensang: the River of Time are knit. At first glimpse, the character sheets (there are multiple!) in the Drakensang games are thoroughly daunting. There are attributes and then sub-attributes, there are talents, skills, crafting abilities (which are leveled) ad nauseum. I’ve beaten both Drakensang games and confess to not having as much of grasp of the underlying mechanics as I’d like. Both Drakensangs are enjoyable, if a bit of a throwback, but The River of Time (henceforth “DRoT“) really stands out.
Yes, DRoT is difficult to grasp (so many numbers!), but the returns for doing so are not inconsiderable. While we can dismiss DRoT as an anachronism-ridden bit of nostalgia longing for a time when building a character seemed more involved and cerebral than abstract algebra. But to do so is to miss the fact that while the rules are difficult to master, you really don’t need to master them to enjoy or even “get” the game. 2d didn’t provide exhaustive rules to mire gamers and games in a snarl of calculations about how long a pack made of cloth could carry 40 lbs. before tearing versus a leather one, it provided those rules so that some DM somewhere could come up with an interesting set piece/encounter that involved carrying something rather heavy without touching it or dropping it (I made up one such scenario, which involved having to ferry a plague idol across an area of water knee deep – said water feeding into the drinking supply of a nearby village). Sadistic and imagination-less DMs and module writers are to blame for a poor utilization of a complex rule set, not the developers.

image credits: the d4 comes from GameScience’s Amazon page and thanks to http://www.neatoshop.com for the badass pic of the glowing d20

Dragon Age 2 Review

I promised a long, multi-part Dragon Age 2 review. Eighteen days after the game was released, I managed to finish my review. Dragon Age 2 (henceforth”DA2“) is an astoundingly difficult game to review.

On the one hand, the game fails nearly every metric by which it ought to be judged. It is half-heartedly designed, the music is lackluster, the sound effects unimpressive, the story spasmodic and horribly done, the writing generally embarrassing, the exploration non-existent, the quest design frequently numbing and the combat, when taken as a whole, a chore.

On the other hand, I’ve loved nearly all of the 40+ hours I’ve spent with it.

To put it differently, DA2 is one of the best AAA games I’ve played in the last six months, but it’s also plagued by such numerous and devastating flaws that, if it didn’t work so well on a basic, ludic level I would have been unhappy to have even spent the time installing it. At this point I’ve beaten the game once, and am about three-fifths of the way in on my second playthrough.

Note: This review is based almost solely on the PC version of this game, which I played with the High-Resolution Texture Pack, though I also played a bit on the Xbox 360. My first playthrough was with a Mage champion, my second was with a Warrior. I made no use of any of the pre-order “extras” available during my first playthrough.

Maybe the easiest way to describe DA2 is to say what it is not.

DA2 is not the “spiritual successor” to Dragon Age: Origins.

As Thierry Nguyen of 1up notes in the tagline for his own Dragon Age 2 review, DA2, “feels more like a reboot than a follow-up.” Superficially, as much is immediately evident upon the first couple hours of play; that DA2 is a reboot is evident in the notorious “streamlining,” the fact that the Elves get a pretty serious make over, the Qunari appear to be evolutionarily distinct from the Qunari in Dragon Age: Origins (henceforth “DAO”), and that the entire graphical aesthetic is largely minimalist, dire, dark and pointy, as opposed to DAO’s much more traditional (low) fantasy look. Emphatically, the design aesthetic driving DA2 is to DAO what Runes of Magic is to World of Warcraft.

Judged as part of a discrete nebula of gaming culture, which nebula has as its initial state something like Gary Gygax’s Chainmail and which seems to have most recently advanced, in the AAA video game world, to DAODA2 is a spectacular failure.

DA2 does not have a sweeping, epic storyline; it fails to convey any clear sense of the calculi underpinning the game (granted, the first game wasn’t exactly a number-cruncher’s paradise either; go play Drakensang if you want the more Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition, sort of experience and to see what I’m getting at here); there are few memorable characters (a rare thing for a Bioware game); it’s easy to miss two major characters in a play through (which seems less like one of those “tough choices” we had to make in games like Baldur’s Gate and more like a calculated decision to force replays [or it's predicated on the lazy assumption that the player is playing with a walkthrough in hand]); and what story there is is highly episodic and incredibly disjointed (Kirk Hamilton’s review of Dragon Age 2 in Paste Magazine incorrectly attributes “profound pacing problems” to the story - the attribution is incorrect in that it implies there was any attempt at pacing at all). In fact, the game feels and the story “reads” like three lengthy DLCs slapped together. Worst of all, the writing has an irksome habit of shoe-horning peculiarly modern political concepts and concerns into a low fantasy setting (which I’ll get into a bit more later). If sticking Isabela in the Dragon Age version of a minidress makes designers uncomfortable, then they probably should re-think the outfit and not write fluff conversations betwixt companions evidencing how she “owns her sexuality.”

DA2 is not a tactical or strategy RPG.

DA2 leans a lot more on combat as a means to keep the player interested than does its predecessor. Unlike in DAO and either of the Mass Effects, there are actual “bosses” (DAO had two proper “boss fights,” one of which seemed an afterthought). These new boss fights are welcome additions as they require strategy, clever planning and luck.

Interestingly, the more time I’ve spent in combat, the more obvious it is that some of the fundamentals of combat that were serviceable in the first game have been broken in this reboot. Tanking and threat management is pretty much hopeless. On my second playthrough, I’ve ignored threat-generating abilities for my tank in favor if general damage mitigation and damage dealing and things are progressing much more. Even so, too many fights devolved into an abuse of kiting techniques and a few potions. That’s not tough, desperate combat, it’s sloppy design.

That said, combat is a much more exciting, tactile and crunchy experience this time around. Admittedly, this is a departure from the deliberate, more tactical combat of the first game. Gone as well is the overhead tactical view sported in DAO and included therein as a gesture to the Baldur’s Gate games. I hated having to mash buttons on the 360 iteration of the game to autoattack, but apparently this is a “bug” and is being patched (does Bioware expect anyone to believe this?).

DA2 is not an action RPG.

Despite the fact that combat is a lot more action-y, there are a number of elements that keep DA2 from being a proper action RPG. First and foremost, there is way too much talking and decision making for this to be purely an action RPG, but, more importantly, combat may be paused to better control the flow of battle (this becomes increasingly important about two-thirds in or so).

As you can’t properly customize your companions except for swapping out belts, rings and necklaces and weapons, all but the last of which are functionally invisible on your characters, any and all armor drops are exclusively for your champion (there are also a number of non-visual upgrades you can buy or find that will add “upgrade” slots to your companions armor and will have a specific benefit; look for these as they are a huge help). Loot drops, and especially loot drops of any significance, pop at a miserly pace and the location of “items of interest” (set pieces or quest-associated items) seems entirely pre-determined. Which doesn’t mean you won’t find your inventory cluttered with armor you can’t use (hint: find and buy as many backpacks as you can, whenever you can), it just means that since you can only ever out new armor on your character, the un-equippable armor just sits like a lump in your inventory.

DA2 is not a story- or lore- rich RPG.

Kris  Ligman at PopMatters.com makes the case that, in Dragon Age 2, Bioware, “does two very important things we rarely ever see out of an AAA title: minimalism and an open appeal to middle class liberalism.” As far as this game being an appeal to middle class liberalism, I’d say that Ligman is right that the appeal is there, but I’d add that it was generally poorly brought off. I found the Mages = gay people equation to be one of the least effective, most overdrawn and ham-fisted parts of the whole game. It’s also not a very good analogy for us to make. After all, as we are reminded several times in the game, Mages pose an actual, serious danger not just to the life but to the very soul of your average Fereldener/Free Marcher/etc (?). I doubt middle class liberals would be comfortable analogizing that to gay people. Even worse, Mages seem incapable of resisting temptation, a slur that has been labeled against an imaginarily licentious gay society for quite some time now. Frankly, Bioware seems to have a difficult time handling both the Mage issue and the matter of religion (it’s hard to find a more cynical take on religion in modern video games).

As writing goes, what we get is alternatively shambolic and purple. For example, there is the following howler from the codex (which refers to a sword, “Fadeshear”):

The core of this blade is old. As old as the first smiths who sought a way to battle the nightmares from the land beyond. It has fought the demonic hosts in countless battles. Sometimes it has been held high in triumphant victory. Other times, it has lain broken besides its dying owner. But after every defeat it has always been reclaimed, reforged, and made stronger. Fadeshear has passed through many hands before yours. Now it is your turn to make the demons of the Fade pay for crossing the Veil into the waking world.

The codex entry for a subsection of the city called, (I kid you not) “Darktown,” reads, “The foul miasma known as chokedamp clogs and swells in every corner of the Darktown.” I’m not sure how a miasma “clogs… in every corner,” unless it’s Dutch. Even worse, “choke damp,” is an actual thing which made me even more confused: choke damp would be an issue in close, contained areas, but there is still quite a bit of ventilation in Darktown – about half the map is open to the air (and if choke damp is really a problem, then why does Anders -the healer of the game, and a Grey Warden no less- not lift the beds in his clinic off the ground?). Furthermore, certain sorts of choke damp are highly combustible, which makes some of the light sources and casting fire spells in the Darktown map seem like they should be a potentially suicidal affair. In short, DA2‘s writing generally sacrifices sense for a fumbled attempt at atmosphere.

All of which is a shame because when we encounter one of the more serious moments of the game (and these are frequent), they are handled rather maturely and with, as Ligman notes, quite a bit of pathos. While some may count the lack of an epic story as a mark against DA2, I found the story threads that focused on the champion’s family and matters of race to be awfully compelling. Maybe the best way to summarize the writing, lore-crafting and story is that on the one hand, Bioware has managed to create two fantasy races that feel substantial and well-formed but, generally speaking, don’t hold up under much scrutiny; the Qunari, especially, are not much developed beyond “caucasian pre-warp drive Klingons.”

DA2 is not any sort of game that allows or encourages exploration.

Outside of combat, DA2 plays largely like its predecessor. You wander about, clicking on things, and talking to quest givers. Quest descriptions, however, no longer even bother sending you in a specific direction and instead just point your way there via useful arrows on the map and minimap. This is the sort of streamlining the feels cheap and lazy. Neither DA2 nor DAO are designed to encourage exploration of the world at large as both games parcel up most of the world map into discrete subsections between which you navigate using a quick-travel mechanic. Unlike DAO, however, DA2‘s actual subsection maps are also linear and occasionally claustrophobic. As Ligman notes, the designers approached DA2 with minimalism in mind. A lot of the “extras” and clutter common to RPGs has either been pared away completely or it has been carefully compartmentalized and streamlined. There is no having to click around randomly to try and find something in the environment, no having to collect thousands of a certain plant to get enough for a potion – even better, no having to sit through a saving through to see if you failed [how?!?!?] to collect the plant or ore, “junk drops” are labeled as such and show up under their own tab in the inventory screen; vendors have a “sell all junk” button, etc.

There are, however, not that many maps on hand. In DAO, we slogged through a bunch of different maps, some lazy and tired, others interesting or challenging. About two-third into my playthrough I recall having to force myself on to the next maps. The opposite is true in DA2. There are a handful of maps, a few not in the city of kirkwall, but just a few. In an extra ballsy move, Bioware adds a third map which is just the usual topology of kirkwall, but at night.

I may be the first person to say this, but the repetition didn’t bother me as it probably should have. As any RPG fan of a certain age can attest, at this point, when it comes to “CRPGs” we are a bit like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man: doomed to banal repetition of a handful of great stories, told by giants. When it comes to things like questing, map design and exploration, Bioware seems to have taken the above truism and followed it to a particularly cynical conclusion. Despite the fact that I can “handle” the repetition, I do look forward to seeing some new locations in upcoming DLC.

In Short…

DA2 is a glorious hash. If the game were half the price it is, I would recommend it to any and all. As it is, I can’t really tell who would be well-served by paying full price for it (other than Bioware and EA), though I certainly enjoyed my time. At its best, DA2 turns a lot of the old truths of RPGs and Tolkiensian fantasy on their ears, not least of which being Bioware’s really fantastic decision to replace a more epic storyline with the Hawke family’s saga/tragedy (I am beginning to think that we should be looking at the story, what there is of it, as an episodic tragedy). This more personal, inward story experience is something which we table top RPGers see quite a lot, actually, but it’s rare in any CPRG, let alone AAA titles. Even better, Bioware chucks a lot of the older, more tired mechanics of the RPG genre out the window. A lot of the time, though, the game is a confused jumble, which, given how much has been streamlined, is a testament to how sloppily this game was designed. Frankly, it’s worth playing insofar as it is an important entry in what seems to be becoming the most prominent RPG franchise of this current generation. Outside of that… who knows if you’ll enjoy it.

Update- Deus Ex: Human Revolution Gameplay Video

Kotaku has a link to a new gameplay video for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

You’ll note that objects by which you gain ingress or egress into another portion of the map are perma-highlighted in a bright yellow; the outlines of objects with which you can interact glow the same yellow  as you approach them. This is a much caterwauled-about feature insofar as the dank beasts that stalk the interwebs and complain that no game was ever made that was better than the original Fallout or Baldur’s Gate 2 , depending on the best)(which is rediculous because no game has ever been better than Planetfall) have decided that highlighting ladders and doors dumbs do. Never mind the fact that either you can interact with a ladder or you can’t and knowing ahead of time is less dumbing-down of the game than it is cutting the level designers some slack.

 

Other than that, I notice that the game itself is awfully linear, as shown from the above clip. One of Deus Ex‘s strongest points was that you had a general objective and a large-seeming map in which to achieve it. You may or may not go on some sub- or side- quests to get there/on your way there, but the end goal was the end goal for the entire map (more or less) and was obviously a big deal. There wasn’t this parsimonious approach to storytelling evidenced in the above video (Objective: get in the building fifty feet away from you…), but then again, we are dealing with what is effectively the first part of the first mission. I’m crossing my fingers that the simplicity of what we see has more to do with this being the first bit of the game than an over-arching design conceit.

 

Blogus Interuptus

Sorry for the relative radio silence. The wife and I are packing things up and getting ready to move. More importantly, I am shoulder’s deep in Dragon Age 2 and am working on an exhaustive, multi-part review.

In the meantime, go download Enjmin’s PaperPlane, which game made a stir at this year’s Game Developers Conference, though be warned – you need one of those PC Xbox 360 controllers to play it (for now).

Say What You Play and A Vernacular of Video Games

Kill Screen Magazine, a fantastic video game journal (I’m elevating it to journal status, despite it’s name), has, on its website, provided the text of Jarmin Warren’ss “micro talk” from 2011’s Game Developer’s Conference. Warren is co-creator of Kill Screen and the talk is an interesting one. The meat of it, frankly, (or at least the meat of what I want to talk about here)  is:

The cultural divide that videogames face has less to do with the content itself, as Chris Hecker suggested. It comes from a simple inability to discuss with others what is happening when we inhabit a game world of any kind. The stony silence or disinterest we might face from those we love has driven us inward and only into the arms of one another. As proudly as the “games are art” banner is flown, we are people of glass jaws, easily shattered when someone says simply and honestly, “I’m not a gamer.”

What videogames lack is a vernacular. A native tongue that all who play games can converse in openly. The lack of this common narrative culture frightens me as we are moving out of a world where people ask, “Are you a gamer?” and moving into a world where we ask, “What games do you play?” We are finally crossing that precipice, but when we finally find our voice, we will have nothing to say.

To that I say no more. Chuck Klosterman had this to say about videogame critics, but ultimately about dialogue about games: “Videogames provide an opportunity to write about the cultural consequence of free will, a concept that has as much to do with the audience as it does with the art form. However, I can’t see how such an evolution could happen, mostly because there’s no one to develop into these ‘potentiality critics.’ Videogame criticism can’t evolve, because videogame criticism can’t get started.”

Klosterman was talking about writers and their inability to relate what happens in game worlds to the public. What I am asking for is something both simple and more difficult. But it is certainly more bold. We need to overcome the dinner-table problem. We need to embrace our stories.

The tales that athletes spin about their glory days on court and on field are their medals of honor—proof that the moments they lived were something real. They pull you into those moments, make you live them as well. As gamers we have those moments. The time I, as Nathan Drake, kicked a soldier out of the blown-out window of a falling building. The time I cried at the sight of flower petals reclaiming a lost city. When I watched a child, a little sister, turn into a grown woman. The many times I saved a princess.

There seem to be two theses here: the first is that gamers lack a means of properly conveying a “game experience” to those who aren’t gamers; the second is that gamers lack a common vernacular when discussing games amongst eachother. This, according to Warren, is a bad thing. I’d posit instead that these two suggested scenarios are largely a natural thing and a sign of games growing into a true artistic, popular and socially relevant medium.

Theses 1.1 (Bunker Mentality and Guilt)

Any gamer who is older than about 25, a frequent practitioner of our shared hobby and open about their particular digital (or tabletop!) proclivity has no doubt encountered the notion that flits about the common cultural consciousness about the “grown up gamer:” to invest more than a little bit of time in a game, much less the emotional and mental investment necessary to complete many modern AAA titles, is to more or less announce one’s condition as a reluctant half-adult, fleeing responsibility, desperately clinging to banal entertainment and nostalgia.  The grown up gamer is the slacker generation’s answer to the basement-bound social recluse and a stereotype bandied about by American polemicists of all stripes.

It’s easy to see how we go from the basement to a lack of ambition to the suggestion that gamers can’t talk about their hobby to others. That is to say, if we buy into the grown up gamer stereotype, then we gamers should be embarrassed to talk about games, much less own up that we play them. After all, we pursue our hobby to the detriment of our friends, loved ones, and ourselves. We are retarding the progress our generation might make by refusing to grow up and shoulder our burdens.

Certainly, there are people for whom video games (or alcohol, or books or comic books, or people magazine) are an unhealthy obsession, and a means of avoidance or deferring of adulthood. But I do not believe that my friends and co-workers who manage both considerable amount of time in front of a console as well as maintaining successful careers and raising children are the exception to the rule. That simply is statistically too strange to be believed. I suggest instead, that we gamers let ourselves be stereotyped because we have at least in part bought into the man-child proposition. If I were to pull a co-worker aside and energetically extol the many virtues of Roberto Bolano’s last book, 2666, I might be seen as annoying or, in the worst-case-scenario, a culture snob, but I wouldn’t be seen as morally or socially suspect. I think for many gamers (and at times, for myself), I have let the presupposition of the “man-child” gamer stereotype  dictate my discourse.


Theses 1.2 (What we talk about when we talk about video games)

Spend some time at a college library, looking through the various scholarly commentaries on hand for any given major literary work (let’s say, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick). You will find journal articles, papers and even books on the feminist reading, the psychoanalytical (both Jungian and Freudian) reading, the Marxist reading, the structuralist reading, the New Criticism reading, the post-structuralist reading, the gay theory reading, the post-colonialist reading, the post-modernist reading, and the modernist reading of Moby Dick (this is just to name the major movements in literary theory in the past century). Unless you’ve got at least a college degree in English, it’s unlikely that most of these scholarly texts will mean anything to you (in a way, they’re not meant to mean anything to you, the un-elect). The variety and specificity of terminology is that great, the ghettoization of philosophy that profound. What’s worth emphasizing here is that each of these “approaches” have been adopted by a number of very well educated, very intelligent people and even within their own particular clique, two Marxists cannot degree as to whether or not Moby Dick is good or bad, socially, morally or as a work of literature; meanwhile a professor with a “gay theory” bent makes much of a bed shared between Queequeg and Ishmael and nobody understands the postmodern theorist’s take on Stubbs’s dream of Ahab as a pyramid.

The literary world was not always so, and back when we were still arguing about whether or not the novel would ruin young women for any socially-useful good (does this sound familiar?), there wasn’t a single agreed-upon language by which to describe a novel. The distinction between style and content, much less between narrative and plot was an alien one. We couldn’t talk about books because we didn’t know how to think (or even what to think) about books.

I’d suggest that while the mainstream mouthpieces still wring their hands about video games, we gamers have done an admirable job as a (sub) culture to soldier onwards without them and create a great deal of respectable commentary. There is plenty of academic output that, frankly, has luckily been able to sidestep the usual Babel of university publications so far. There is even more great stuff being published in print and online. Here are some of the bigger hitters in the online world of games commentary that will be relevent to a western gamer: 1up, Joystiq, Eurogamer, Kotaku, Giant Bomb, MTV Multiplayer, and the online iteration of GameLife. There are big, well-written gaming monthly gaming publications as well, some of which have online presences, but not all. In some respects, if we can’t find a way of thinking and talking about games founded on these publications alone, then we are in deep trouble.

Maybe the problem is the suggestion that there should be a common vernacular. That, to me, sounds like an impossible proscription. After all, we certainly couldn’t manage the same with the novel and we’ve been at that business long before Spacewar! ever existed.

Furthermore, I’d argue that Warren’s use of an analogy to sports is useful here: find someone you know who not only doesn’t follow football, but even has a vague dislike of the sport and then give a NY Giants fan 30 minutes to fully describe the experience of watching Super Bowl XLII to the football atheist. Dollars to donuts, the Giants fan will come away frustrated and the football atheist will come away further convinced of the inferiority of the sport. The sports fan and a gamer, when totally immersed in their respective hobbies, will experience two important things: that what they enjoy has a noetic quality and that it is overwhelmingly complex. I will never be able to fully encapsulate and describe how stupendous Left 4 Dead is to other gamers, much less non-gamers. The best I can do is sit them in front of the game and try to help them get what was so enjoyable. Similarly, I can never truly explain why Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Liberty City feels so authentic, not because an explanation escapes me, but because I am bombarded by explanations.

Theses 2 (Among many, few)

I’ve already touched on my last point above, namely, that as gamers we are immersed in a broad stream of options and our tribalism in respect to those options is a good thing. Tabletop gamers will often eschew electronic alternatives and vice versa, the racing sim adherent may well eschew the fighter pilot simulator and vice versa. These distinctions describe what we gamers already know: that we, as a group of meta-nomads, are notoriously clique prone, we are of a frequent niche mentality. This is, in fact, a strength and not a weakness. The reason there are a sickening multitude of literary criticisms all squabbling about Moby Dick is because literary fiction, as an enterprise and as a medium is strong, rich and complex enough to bear it. Similarly, the few that eschew the Dragon Age franchise for the more pen-n-paper experience of the Drakensang games aren’t a sign of woeful fractiousness, but of a healthy variety. The fact that a fan of Drakensang may not have much to talk about with a fan of, say, a nominally similar game like Torchlight much less a wildly different game, like Fez, doesn’t indicate a paucity in our vocabulary but a mature richness.

images: Cave Story cap, Deathjack from WarMachines by FLorian Stitz, and Demon(‘)s Souls cap.