Videogame visions of a post-climate change future

I wrote an essay on the way games have depicted climate change for Memory Insufficient. I was pretty happy with how this turned out, and the plan is to whip it up into a more fleshed out paper later in the year. I haven’t had a chance to read the other essays but if prior issues of Memory Insufficient are any guide, they’ll be worth checking out too.

Memory Insufficient’s Ecology and Games History issue is here. [PDF]

Clint Hocking on sense of place and the effect on violence in Far Cry 2

Steve Gaynor has a new Idle Thumbs offshoot podcast called Tone Control, and in this episode he talks to Clint Hocking, and they spend about the last 50 minutes talking about Far Cry 2. I wanted to excerpt this one great little quote that I think is really important. It’s from about an 1hr 10mins in, I think:

‘…a sense of place, even for a place that is really mundane in a lot of ways, is really, really powerful… …having the sense of place and the sense of the environment be so strong, I feel, makes the counter-position of the kind of violence that happens in it, much more shocking.

You don’t blow people up in any more shocking way than you do in any other game, it’s just when you have these long periods of silence where you might have stopped on the side of a rock and listened to water trickling, and as the sun was setting behind a tree for a few minutes, you get this strange sense of peace and like ‘ah the world is beautiful and things aren’t all that bad’. And seven seconds later you’re burning a guy alive with a Molotov cocktail while he’s screaming and flailing around in a brushfire. It’s the juxtaposition of these things, and without being authored or without being scripted, it can mess with your emotions.’

Later on in the talk, they get onto discussing the systemic nature of the game a bit, and talking about it reminded me of State of Decay which I’ve been playing this week, which takes a lot of the same systemic premises and runs with them to a really fantastic degree. Which made me think, we tend to think that the most ‘Far Cry 2‘-game has already been made, but really I think that might not be the case. The most ‘Far Cry 2’ like game is probably yet to be made. Which is exciting to me.

Addendum: if nothing else, listen to the very final question that Steve asks Clint at about 1hr 47mins. Long story short, the way that they solved the problem of playtesters taking pleasure in killing wild animals, their solution was minimal, elegant, and absolutely effective. Just a fantastic solution.

Hello December

‘Narratively Important Fern’ The Stanley Parable (2013)

Hello internet, just wanted to direct your attention to this great new tumblr, ‘Video game foliage’ a blog for criticism and commentary on plants and other foliage in games. This is really, super great. This is a project I am really interested in and I hope I can contribute in some way.

It’s also December now and I’m on the final run up to thesis submission… sorta. Gotta write this final content chapter (or perhaps its two? we’ll see) over the next, lets say, three weeks before christmas. Wish me luck.

On the review

I put down Metal Gear Solid 4 and barely thought about it at all after.

There’s something perverse about the expected duties of a reviewer. They are expected to play enough of the game to make an assessment about it, but they aren’t allowed to be normal and “give up in disgust”. Consequently, there’s something perverse, something dark, and sinister about the black charge of being A Reviewer. Pushing through to the other side of resentment, into amazement and awe at what you, you, are bodily capable of enduring as part of the sacred duty of The Videogame Reviewer – all for the sake of being able to be taken seriously as One Who Reviews Games, not just any game but this game perhaps the most important game of all time…

I bet I could go to Metacritic right now and MGS4 would have a score of about 86. That feels about right for this game I never, ever need to see again. No, I’m not going to go look.

Videogame journalism and the values we hold

A couple weeks ago I gave a lecture on the history of videogame journalism, which I’ve now uploaded to YouTube for anyone interested in getting my understanding of the trajectory of the practise, mainly from an institutional or structural perspective.

The talk lays out some of the basic history of videogame journalism (in a very broad-strokes way) and attempts to explain some of the reasons why I think videogame culture is the way it is today – and how we’ve ended up with a culture that is so exclusionary. In this respect, I was touching on similar themes to what Steve Swift and Marigold Bartlett would talk about a couple weeks later at Freeplay 2013 (which should be no surprise, since they quote some of my more well known work arguing against these near-meaningless, exclusionary terms like “immersion” and “replayability”).

The first half explores many of the historic forces that shaped videogame magazines, from their roots in tech journalism to argue that videogame journalists have held an incredible amount of influence over the language and framing of how we engage with games. The second half looks at how these forces were shaken up by the internet, talks a bit about the faustian compact between the Press and the Publishers that got worse during this period, and concludes with the New Games Journalism (NGJ) movement which arrived alongside this shift to blogging and the alternative spaces and voices the internet afforded.

I didn’t get into making a really good case in the video for why NGJ is such a good approach, but in the tutorials I taught after giving the lecture, I did a really interesting exercise with my students that I think gets to the heart of why NGJ is so fantastic. I had my students attempt to explain to me what the terms “immersion”, “visceral”, “replayability” and “gameplay” meant as if I were their grandmother, or someone who has never played games before at all. In most cases, students began by trying to nail down an explanation that treated their term as some particular quality the game itself possessed. In my discussion with them, however, we almost invariable ended up concluding that each of the four terms was actually something relational – and a phenomenon created by the confluence of a player and the game.

If there is one thing that NGJ is still vastly better at than the mainstream ‘analytical’ approach (which I still take to be the dominant mode games journalism operates in, though the coordinates of acceptability around this are definitely changing) it is in the recognition that all these words are relational terms. Immersion happens for a player; Replayability is only ever calculable for a particular player; and so on and so forth.

What I didn’t get to mention in the lecture (mostly because I hadn’t quite figured it out myself) was that these terms expose the very values that hold, and establish hierarchies of “more and less replayable games” with (typically) multiplayer and twitch type games at the pinnacle of the “more replayable” (think of the corollary term: “replay value”  – it’s right there in the title). Here’s what Kieron Gillen said years ago in his chronically misread and misunderstood manifesto:

New Games Journalism rejects this, and argues that the worth of a videogame lies not in the game, but in the gamer. What a gamer feels and thinks as this alien construct takes over all their sensory inputs is what’s interesting here, not just the mechanics of how it got there.

The typical reader infers from that that confected emotion and experience is the goal, rather than a clear elucidation of the relational experience between player and game. That’s how I wish I ended the talk.

Gone Home: Jump Scares and Ludonarative Harmony

So there’s a new game out called Gone Home and I don’t have the superlatives to describe it adequately so just take my word for it and go play. It’s some trifling amount of money on steam. If you haven’t finished playing it, I advise you to stop reading this essay now and just spend the two or three hours it takes to finish because it is about one of a half-dozen games that actually can be spoiled by reading too much about it.

With that out of the way, I want to talk about one particular moment – the one, single, solitary ‘jump scare’ in this whole spooky house game. It’s the when the lightbulb pops on the staircase down in the first ‘secret passage’. I jumped so hard that I literally threw away the little crucifix I had just picked up to inspect. I probably even made some kind of noise as I spun around looking for some ghost or monster inevitably bearing down upon me to eat my soul or something. God punishing me.

So that moment, and really it’s true for the rest of the game, is a really nice example of ludonarrative harmony – an example of when I am experiencing exactly what the games mechanics (popping lightbulb) and the story (scared 20 year old in the ‘psycho house’ at midnight alone) am supposed to be feeling. It’s just really nice and I think it begins to answer some of Robert Yang’s question that he posed earlier this week, which was ‘Why should we care about ludonarrative dissonance since most players don’t seem to either?’

Yang takes, I think, slightly the wrong lesson from mainstream ‘core gamer’ audience’s failure to care about any major ludonarrative dissonance in a game (his example is Bioshock Infinite but take your pick). His point is that the “dissonance” component of ludonarrative dissonance isn’t really all that dissonant at all, which is sort-of true because heaps of people barely even register it. But my contention is that it never was an obvious form of dissonance, since even the prototypical Bioshock little sister example of ludonarrative dissonance went unnoticed until you did the kind of analysis that Hocking undertook. The concept never specified an overt dissonance to begin with. We put up with (even enjoy!) all kinds of learned dissonances everyday – just listen to jazz.

But getting back to the game, I raved about Gone Home on Facebook last night to a friend of mine James Dalmau – who is not a ‘core’ gamer, just a smart guy with a masters in law who like most people also plays games – and we chatted this morning about his experience, which differed considerably from mine. James told me via FB chat that,

…to be honest I never really thought it was spooky ghosts

I thought that was just silly kid stuff put in as a red herring

But every ‘core gamer’ journalist/critic friend of mine seemed to expecte horror. We’ve all played Amnesia: The Dark Descent (or watched hilarious Let’s Play reactions). Brendan Keogh even wrote on his blog about this point exactly:

I love the way Gone Home plays on Horror tropes to build that sense of trepidation and forewarning. The stormy night in the woods, the eerie old mansion, the missing family, those (at first) messed up answering machine messages. I was terrified for most of the game, just waiting for the inevitable ghost. When the lightbulb burst as I picked up the crucifix, I almost had to stop playing. When I found a room in the basement where the light wouldn’t turn on, I refused to enter. My mind turned the shapes of curtains and shadows into people staring at me. The tropes of the Horror genre reverted me back to being a terrified teenager who should probably know better but really doesn’t. Like the time I freaked out when I was 15 because there was a guy getting out of a car in front of the house and it was just dad’s friend dropping by. Something about being a teenager means you always expect the worst. Because being a teenager is dramatic, right? It’s a time of constant change and impermanence and everything new that you discover you want to hold onto but it’s going to be lost the moment you finish high school or move to a new town or enter puberty or whatever. Until the closing moments of Gone Home, I expected the worst.

Likewise, Dan Bruno responding to Brendan’s piece in a Facebook comment said that he played the game in the style of a scared teen, rushing for the light switch in every room:

…that is literally exactly how I played. Open door, peek around corner looking for switch, then make a beeline for it before looking at anything in the room

At one point in the game I thought I spotted an actual ghost, but it turns out it was just black jagged veil that indicated the limits of the engine’s render distance, the contents of a hallway on the other side of the house appearing and disappearing as I stepped back and forth. But I was still expecting ghosts.

So what’s going on here? A non-core gamer isn’t scared by the game’s red herrings, but we seasoned veterans expect the worst. I’m going to suggest that what Gone Home does is actually exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes, even the expectation of ludonarrative dissonance to resolve into a weird, and almost ironic, situation of ludonarrative harmony. Because we expect the worst, we get the best possible synchronicity with the player character.

If you expect monsters because you have played horror videogames, your expectations are set up by the history of the medium, by the hundreds of spooky-house games that have come before (no slight on them). But until now there has never, or almost never, been a game this real before. Gone Home is almost shockingly quotidian, in an ordinary rational sense, and it’s the confounding of our gamic (ludic?) expectations (built up through years of expectation of ludonarrative dissonance since ghosts don’t actually exist but okay sure I’ll fight one in a game) which places us, the player, into the subject position of exactly who and where Katie is and what she is feeling.

That is supremely weird, and a triumph of a sort that I haven’t seen anyone comment on yet. Of course, there is so much more to say about this game – and so much great stuff has already been written. Check out Cameron’s piece, and Brendan’s is also great linked above. Leigh Alexander obliquely addresses the game’s setting of the 90s in a piece for Gamasutra. Claire Hoskings has a piece that I’ve read a draft of too which should be coming soon. And this post addresses an element of the relationship between two characters that I totally missed myself.

But I wanted to highlight this strangely harmonious aspect of Gone Home and maybe set up for another post that I have in mind that is a bit more ambitious, aiming to unite the political ideas of ‘accelerationism’ that Mark Fisher applies to the realm of cultural production with the idea of ludonarrative dissonance/harmony. It’s an exciting time.