Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thomas Was Alone



These days, it's no longer revolutionary for a game to use its gameplay systems as narrative devices.  But doing something really well is always rare, and while Thomas Was Alone is pretty visibly influenced by Portal and Braid, it's influenced by their smartest aspects.  Like those games, it uses the foundation of the puzzle-platformer genre as a place to build a cleverly cohesive fusion of gameplay and narrative.

From Portal, TWA gets the idea of making a story out of its own construction.  Most puzzle games are set in stylized, often deliberately "computery" worlds, so the player just accepts their conventions without too many questions; no one's going to ask whose engagement ring these three matching gems are for.  But Portal was set in a realistic 3D environment, so it needed some explanation for why the universe was a series of just-barely-transcendable barriers.   The game's story of a person who had to make her way through computer-operated tests was a series of gentle pokes at the fourth wall, jokingly putting the player in the same position as the character, though with a bit less risk of falling into a fire pit.

Thomas Was Alone is visually nearer to Tetris than Portal, which makes it a touching act of gratuitous creativity that that designer Matt Bithell gave it one of the better game narratives this year.  We would have just accepted that the little dots have to get to the outline because the outline is the right size for a little dot, but TWA turns the progression through levels into drama.  TWA's tale of computer-generated dots getting to the end of a program raises the bar on Portal's metafiction by openly acknowledging that all its characters are not just in a computer-generated environment but are themselves computer-generated.  There's a thrillingly modernist, even Marxist materialism in such frankness.

It helps that the story is told with a narrative compression that a lot of big-budget games could learn from; there's just enough information to spark the player's imagination without drowning us in irrelevant detail.  And despite the deliberately crude visuals, Bithell cleverly built character traits around each dot's abilities--- the jump-assist character is too eager to please, the low-jumper is jealous, and so on---so that I found myself somehow feeling like each dot looked exactly like that character would look.  Which is a neat trick when they're all a bunch of colored pixels arranged in an inexpressive line!

Better still is TWA's use of game mechanics as vital narrative elements.  As the verb tense suggests, Thomas Was Alone is a game about the shift from solitude to society, with all the attendant risks and rewards: companionship, mutual aid, obligation, betrayal, and the simple irritation of having to deal with people who aren't like you.  You start the game controlling a single character, and you're gradually joined by more as the game shifts from heroic quest to ensemble drama.  Initially, as I had to switch between multiple characters in the quest for the goal, I found myself instinctively trying to play like I did in the early levels---get a dot to its goal, go back and get the next dot to its goal, and so on.  But it quickly becomes obvious that the dots can only get to the end by working together, and the act of discovering that the characters must work as a team nicely forces identification with the characters learning the very same lesson.

As gamers, we're used to investing personality into what are really just a bunch of lights.  Usually, designers work to obscure that from us, lest we become ashamed of our anthropomorphizing sentimentality; Thomas Was Alone makes that the point of the game.  Even more striking, it does so while making a bold attack on the thematic foundations of typical video games.   Most single-player gaming is inadvertently, and perhaps inescapably, driven by a sort of sociopathy.  Everything you meet in the world must answer only one question: "How can you benefit me?"  With gentle, sweet-natured good humor, Thomas Was Alone nudges the player to a much more human question: "How can we help each other?"

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Thirty Flights of Loving

ThirtyFlights

I wouldn't want every game– or even most games– to be like Thirty Flights of Loving.  But I'm really glad that Thirty Flights of Loving is.

Brendon Chung is sort of the Marcel Duchamp of video games; he's less about providing the pleasures in which his chosen medium specializes and more about creating artifacts that force the viewer to question the medium's definition.  Like Duchamp (and unlike most of his imitators), Chung's art is saved from sterility by his seemingly instinctive aesthetic talent.

TFoL is pretty willingly an interactive short story rather than a game.  You run from place to place absorbing narrative information, with nothing to really test your ability.  Even in the one area where you get to shoot stuff, it quickly becomes obvious that the bang-bang is just there to propitiate gamer reflexes, with no real impact on how the story progresses.

So it's exactly the kind of thing that inspires Steam reviewers to grumble about "hipsters".  Previous interactive narrative experiments, like Dear Esther and The Path, were frustrating even to my artfaggy self, as their eschewing of combat or puzzles seemed to be part and parcel of a generally dour dislike of kicks, joy, entertainment value... In short, they seemed to have a sneering contempt for fun, which games should be!

Like those games, TFoL wants to tell you a story rather than challenge you to a battle, but unlike them, Chung understands that a story is fundamentally a machine for creating delight.  You'll only be playing it for about 15 minutes, but those 15 minutes are full of color, music, groovy sights, funny jokes, never-seen-that-before techniques, and charmingly irrelevant tangents.

The immersiveness of the experience is cemented by the sturdy reliability of  its stories: a heist gone wrong and a love triangle, two templates guaranteed to rope in just about anyone who's ever wanted to be rich or have sex. Because those stories are so familiar, the viewer can't help but try to guess at much of the information that Chung revels in not providing.  And if you're the sort of pervert who likes having their brain coochie-coo'ed, coy narrative elision is a potent fan dance.

Trying to figure out what happened in between the game's smash cuts is far more engaging than navigating any of the game's spaces.  Which suggests that TFoL is not so much eliminating challenge as shifting where it happens.  In most games, getting from one end of the level to the other is difficult while following the story is (insultingly) easy, and in TFoL it's just the opposite.   Games are defined by their most challenging aspect, so while most video games are about figuring out fighting patterns with some story as background, TFoL is really a game about figuring out the shape of a tale with some running around corridors as background.

In this brave new era of theory-informed, progressive game design, even a number of big-budget titles have experimented with allusive storytelling.  Though Bioshock conveyed plenty of narrative through bog-standard voice-overs, many of the most interesting subplots, like Fontaine's bible-smuggling operation, were suggested by environmental details and other small aspects of the game. The faint whispers of story were the most interesting thing about Dark Souls, imbuing its battles with faint suggestions of tragedy like a utopian monument fallen into ruins.

But in every case, the suggestive storytelling never quite becomes gameplay, because it lacks the pass/fail mechanical demands that more or less define what's important to a player.  What's needed now is a game where figuring out the story has in-game consequences, making the act of figuring out a story inherent to the game.  Perhaps a role-playing game where you interact with NPC's differently based on conclusions you've made about their background, with consequences for different guesses?  Of course, such a mechanic means a developer has to commit to a right interpretation of story hints, which risks undoing exactly what's so interesting about these subtle fragments.  Is there a way to make the act of figuring out a story as open, compelling, and challenging as running through a combat zone?

Friday, October 12, 2012

How to create custom teams in Worms Revolution for the Xbox 360

News you can use!  I just reviewed Worms Revolution for Slant, and for the most part, I loved it.  But!  But!  But the game has a terrible system for making and playing with custom teams.  So that others may profit from my example, I hereby give you step-by-step instructions for playing with custom teams in Worms Revolution on the Xbox 360:

1) In the Xbox dashboard, sign out all controllers.
2) Sign in a controller with a secondary profile.  Use that profile to start Worms Revolution
3) In the game's main menu, go to Customization, and create a team with your noms de guerre of choice.  
4) Exit the game.  If you want multiple teams, repeat steps 1-3.  Remember, every profile can only have one custom team.
5) Now sign into Dashboard with the main controller.  
6) Start Worms, and go into deathmatch.  
7) Using the main controller, "Add profile" for each player.
8) Using the main controller, click on the first secondary profile.
9) Using the controller for that profile, select each worm, and replace them with a custom worm.
10) Repeat steps 7-9 for each player.

That is how you play deathmatch with custom teams in Worms Revolution on the Xbox 360.  And good Christ is that stupid!!!!!  I loved Worms Revolution, but did no one at Team 17 even test in-room multiplayer with custom teams?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Projection

I still can't get used to the idea that Charles Johnson, of Little Green Footballs, is now one of the good (or at least decent) guys. But ever since his "break from the right", he's been relentless in reminding people why he broke, cataloging right-wing bigotry and ugliness with a thoroughness you can only do from the inside.

Going through comments looking for nuts is unfair, of course, and a lot of internet commenting is people deliberately saying the worst thing they can imagine because they're in a no-consequence environment. It doesn't even mean they believe it, just that they're getting off on breaking the taboo---any old punk who recalls Sid Vicious' and Siouxsie Sioux's Nazi armbands can understand the thrill. But all those caveats aside, jesus, this is ugly stuff---it's good to be reminded sometimes that there are thousands of people in the country, people sufficiently integrated into society that they have internet connections and time to leave comments, who write and maybe believe the kind of knuckle-dragging racist craziness that would seem over-the-top if it was dialogue in a Spike Lee movie.

A lot of the right's rage at liberals is basically textbook projection: taking one's worst attributes, and insisting they are the defining attributes of your enemy, so as to cleanse your own self-image. This kind of thing suggests that one of the many acts of projection is the constant complaint of "If Islam isn't evil, why won't moderate Muslims condemn terrorism?" Anyone who's paying attention knows that every time there's a terrorist incident, or even an act of censorship from the Islamic world, organizations like CAIR rush to issue press releases condemning it, mosques have "teach-ins" explaining to kids why this is wrong, and Muslim scholars go on television to explain to anyone listening why this is not okay.

But when the right erupts in bigotry and madness, moderate conservatives don't dare to condemn it publicly, and those who do (like Johnson) are immediately thrown out of the movement. I begin to suspect that the bleats about moderate Muslims not condemning hatred aren't just excuses to maintain anti-Muslim bigotry in the face of evidence, but are in fact desperate attempts, by conservatives who know how wrong their movement has gone, to assuage their guilty conscience.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sonic Memento Mori

Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are breaking up, and I am sad, sad, sad.

As all good people with minimally-acceptable taste agree, Sonic Youth made a great deal of the best, most original, most interesting rock music of the 80s. I first came on board with Confusion Is Sex---tracks like Freezer Burn and Protect Me From You suggested a world much darker and weirder than the Misfits albums that had previously been my black standard. The Misfits aren't actually the worst comparison point---just like Glenn Danzig was a great vocalist because he always implied vocal energy beyond what he was expending, Thurston Moore could somehow hit a single unchorded string in a way that implied a whole range of counter-harmonics of the sort that would drive a Lovecraft character mad.

But as with any major rock band, the image was as much part of the story as the music. The most punk thing about Sonic Youth was their contempt for the bad-boy mythos of rock ideology: a conviction that being a hard-drinkin' wild boy was exactly what the industry wanted, but being crazy artists with a stable marriage was the biggest bird you could flip to the system.

As The Clash quoted, the overclass always wants to turn a conflict between rulers and ruled into a generational conflict, because generational conflicts fade away. Like protégé Kurt Cobain, Thurston and Kim wanted to prove that you could be in a healthy grown-up relationship without turning into James fucking Taylor, that anger at the world didn't have to be directed at the person you're having sex with, that living well was the best revenge. Sonic Youth rarely sloganeered in their music, but their commitment to each other was inherently political, and the feminist subtext of their songwriting duties, where Thurston tended towards the introspective and Kim towards the aggressive, was unmistakable.

Mainstream rock ideology is enamored of doomed, self-destructive rebellion, because mainstream rock exists to take youthful energy and countercultural anger and render them harmless, and nothing is more harmless than a corpse. That sense of rock ideology as a co-opting was at the base of the punk rebellion, and Sonic Youth was always gleefully snarky about punk bands they saw as dragging out all the old Jim Morrison bullshit. Many a hippie has criticized punk for its nihilism, but the truth is that punk built more infrastructure for sustainable countercultural life---'zines, indie labels, even communes---than the 60s generation ever conceived of. The hippies, raised in wholesome, stable families, always imagined that if they just looked at the powerful with big enough doe eyes, they'd be given what they wanted. The punks, children of a divorced generation, knew that you would only get as much life as you could build yourself.

A marriage is the ultimate collaboration, and the ultimate counterculture---two people forming their own nation, and learning every day the most basic and most important lesson: How to treat another person as though they're as important as you are. Thurston and Kim's commitment to being collaborators, equals, and partners while making angular, smart, deadly, pissed-off noise, was an inspiration to everyone who thought mutual love could be the fulfillment of one's individualism, not the end. The end of this particular marriage doesn't mean that's wrong---what ended this marriage is ultimately none of my damn business, not least because all the fantasies I've spun based on their image has very little to do with these two actual people---but the failure of these two people to keep their partnership together makes me even sadder than all the dashed hopes that will soon be shuffling away from Zucotti Park.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

"The New Yorker: Tabloid of Record"

http://bit.ly/ro5vnL

This is honestly the most visually interesting thing I've seen all week. It's the Church of Scientology's response to the exposé of the Church that recently ran in The New Yorker, and it's like a perfectly concise catalog of contemporary propaganda visuals.

In the first few seconds, you get an artificial aged film effect, a smug and angry voice-over that sounds like the South Park parody of a smug and angry voice over, harshly lit and hastily assembled 3-D animation. Then it suddenly takes a turn into 1950s newsreel style actors mugging disinterest and a Zhdanovite spiel insisting that the multi-Oscar winner is an unknown nobody.

The fact that it's incredibly clumsy just makes it all the more interesting. As Stephen King noted in Danse Macabre, less artful productions are often more useful as historical documents than good films. The hackish filmmakes lack an artist's individual voice, which means you get a much clearer sense of what was considered proper visual technique at the moment. This clumsy thing is unlikely to convince anyone---it's not a creative visual masterpiece of innovative propaganda techniques, like Triumph of the Will. It's more like an evening watching Fox: defamiliarize for a second, and you'll see all kinds of genuinely odd and obvious visual tropes that the blinkered filmmakers and audience regard as perfectly normal. And how weird is that?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gaijin Games, Death Wish, Taxi Driver, stuff

My adoration for Gaijin Games has been made clear before. Out of that last post grew a rapturous---and I hope interesting---review of Bit.Trip Flux, over at Slant Magazine.


"Like Dziga Vertov's films, Mondrian's paintings, or Balanchine's choreography, BIT.TRIP FLUX presents the spectacle of a medium reveling in its essential properties, offering an aesthetic experience that wasn't possible until the form was created to engender it."

And then that led to an interview with Gaijin Games CEO Alex Neuse, which is chock-full of interesting practical tidbits and the occasional matzoh ball of conceptualism.


"Usually games teach the player how the game world works and stick to it; like when I'm playing Halo, I know a Grunt isn't going to suddenly split into four slower moving Grunts. But BIT.TRIP is all about simple visual elements that could do anything, and a lot of the humor of the BIT.TRIP games comes from that kind of surprise attack."




Meantime, my tradition of arguing with Glenn Kenny (all in good fun!) continues, as we argue about Death Wish, argue about Scorsese, and occasionally argue about criticism and Lester Bangs.


"I'm quite happy to say that social responsibility is more a negative than a positive virtue. That is, no artist is obliged to deliver "a positive message", but you are indeed obliged not to be actively evil. Y'know as if you were a person---you don't actually have to do missionary work, but you should refrain from yelling "ching-chong-Chinaman" every time you see a Vietnamese person on the subway. "

And finally... I've been writing regular game reviews over at Slant, which has been great---writing something that feels lower-stakes than my usual creative output is incredibly effective as a confidence booster. And occasionally, I get to write something as fun as my review of Pokemon White.

"So how does someone old enough to have voted for Paul Tsongas end up playing the new Pokemon game?"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Red Riding Hood

I really wanted Red Riding Hood to be great, largely because the idea that Catherine Hardwicke would take her anger over being fired from Twilight and channel it into making the American equivalent of a Catherine Brellait film was a hugely appealing meta-narrative. My hopes were raised when I saw that she'd cast Amanda Seyfriend, arguably the greatest and most underrated actress of her generation. Ever since Veronica Mars, I've been eager to see Seyfried get a role that lets her show off her tremendous actorly intelligence; like Robert DeNiro, she makes very smart choices even when playing dumb characters, and can convey inner life with great economy of gesture. In Mean Girls, Seyfried's every slack-jawed stare was active and compelling, and the lines she did have were bring-down-the-house funny with wittily faux-earnest chirpiness. And in Veronica Mars (the first season, the good one) she took a cliched L.A. party-girl character and made her specific and individual through one layered line reading after another.

So I ignored the bad reviews Red Riding Hood got, especially since most of them seemed like more lame boynerd Twilight-bashing. The tendency of male critics to gleefully embrace power/revenge fantasies and scream in indignation when confronted with fantasies of romance is just embarrassing, almost as embarassing as the Dungeons & Dragons-rulebook grumblings that the McCullen clan aren't "real vampires", whatever the fuck that means. I kept hoping that Red Riding Hood was going to be the movie that turned Catherine Hardwicke into Kathryn Bigelow, a female director who can make Hollywood genres seem new again via sharp intelligence and a unique perspective.

No such luck. Red Riding Hood is unforgivably dull, routine, and worse yet, appallingly professional. The problem isn't the panting romanticism, but rather the lack of same. An early flashback scene mixing bunny-slaughter and pre-teen lust takes place in vast beds of studio-built, brightly artificial flowers, and the first ten minutes had me looking forward to more Guy-Maddin-for-girls production design and unhinged, Almodovar-esque melodrama. But that visionary quality is lost the instant the movie proper starts. From then on it's all tediously "good" shots, in which every pan begins with a vertical movement, ends with a horizontal movement, and focus-shifts from foreground to background on an important beat. It's all quite proper and utterly numbing, and there's no way for wooly, hairy, slavering romance to break out when every beat is so carefully manicured.



And the orange-and-teal! Oy, the orange-and-teal! You don't get a sense of timelessness when your movie looks exactly like every other goddamn piece of digital color correction in the last ten years. Shot after shot is built around an orange thing in the foreground, teal in the background and then---OMG!!!!---rack focus to an orange thing in the background! Red and white are perfectly good colors to use in this story, and the occasional cameo appearance by purple suggests that someone in the production design department wants to make the movie look a little more interesting, but ultimately the color choices, like the camera setups, are indistinguishable from any other Hollywood action movie, part of the appalling homogenization that computerized industrial filmmaking has wrought.

Even Seyfried is reduced to typical young-actress mummery, wandering around with big eyes and a half-open mouth instead of making her character into a convincing human being. But then, nearly everyone in the movie suffers from the same lack of individuality, which I largely attribute to Hardwicke's refusal to let any of the actors decide clearly whether they're inhabitants of a medieval world completely different from our own, or basically modern people who just happen to be in the middle of nowhere. It doesn't help that the scriptwriter seems to think that the villagers are living before the invention of subtext; every line expresses exactly what it says, leaving the actors with no choices worth making. Only Gary Oldman gets to do anything other than be tediously sincere, perhaps thanks to English actors' inimitable knack for ignoring bad direction and breaking off bits of scenery to nibble when given nothing better to do.

Worst of all, although the movie early and often hammers on the theme that Valerie is set apart from the others by an inner darkness which gives her a unique connection to the Wolf, the script never, ever lets that be expressed through action. In some misguided attempt, perhaps, to make her "relatable", the first scene's intriguing hints of sadism are immediately dropped, and she's never allowed to have so much as an uncharitable thought. The movie seems to want to rebuke the fairy-tale division of victimized girl and threatening male by locating the Wolf's darkness within Valerie, but her only moments of violence are harmless (and ineffectual) gestures of self-defense. So while the movie is built around the Wolf's desire to make Valerie his consort, his temptations never seem very tempting to this Good Girl, and the suspense becomes purely external---WHO is the werewolf? WHAT was her wanna-be boyfriend doing when the attack happened? WHICH herring is the red one?---rather than character-driven. Suspense built around character choices deepens the audience's involvement in the story; suspense built around narrative conditions is merely screenwriter preening.

I had hoped that getting booted from Twilight would inspire Hardwicke to make something loopier, more intense, and more personal, but instead, she's trying to be Chris Weitz, making movies as polished, professional, and of-no-possible-interest-to-anyone as The Golden Compass. Every shot is nicely composed, Hollywood-busy (that is, full of background activity that never threatens to catch the viewer's interest), and perfectly un-striking. A fairy-tale movie needs to seize the viewer, either through unexpected grungy realism or wildly expressionist eccentricity, and force them into the kind of childlike credulity that movies and fairy tales can conjure. They need love, sex, blood, and profound weirdness. Red Riding Hood's clock-punching won't give anyone nightmares, fantasies, or even something to think about on the drive home. What a waste.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bit.Trip.Beat

The new Bit.Trip.Flux trailer is up, promising more of the Rez-meets-Pong gameplay that made Bit.Trip.Beat such a brainwashing gem. While I've enjoyed the other Bit.Trip games, none have had the unholy power of Beat---Core was marred by the Wiimote's unsatisfying thumbpad (has the art of making thumbpads just been lost, like medieval stoneworking techniques?), while Void and Fate had to accommodate a greater range of player action, which made Beat's musical precision impossible. And Runner, though fun, never sounded quite right to me---only after I turned my stereo's treble way down did the gold-grabbing sound stop cutting through the music.



It's only Beat that perfectly melded music and gameplay, producing a powerfully immersive experience that's surprisingly accessible. I've proffered Beat to a number of casual or non-gamers, and they've all been equally taken in by it, enjoying the experience from the start with none of the reluctance to waste their time on this nonsense that non-gamers typically have to overcome. A lot of that is due to its immediately accessible gameplay---pretty much anyone technologically savvy enough to use a telephone has seen Pong, so the how-do-I-do-it? barrier is low. Equally important is how the musical gameplay works on the player like a physical seduction, starting with gentle touches and building to a point where you couldn't walk away if you wanted to, and you've forgotten what it would feel like to want to walk away.

Okay, maybe I'm overstating some, but not by much. The basis for video games' power to compel is interaction: There's something incredibly appealing about "I can make the puppet do things!" The Bit.Trip games merge that with the physical dynamism of music, an art form with tremendous power to subliminally influence and control people in no small part because it's the art form that inflicts itself on the viewer's body (I always remind actors that to make an audible sound is to have a physical effect on your scene partner). Unlike more direct music games, Bit.Trip titles make the link between music and gameplay subliminal, and thus even more powerful---you don't quite realize your hands and ears are being enlisted in a technofrenzy crusade until your eyeballs have crusted over from not blinking.

Of course, the above also describes Rez, arguably the most successful of all the music-games-that-aren't-music-games. What Gaijin brings to the table is something rare among current developers: an unabashed willingness to fuck with the player. There's been a backlash against easy games lately, leading to the surprise triumph of a willfully difficult game like Demon's Souls. These hard games make a point of being tough but fair---critics praised Demon's Souls for always making clear what you had to do to beat a monster, so when you died, you had no one to blame but yourself.

Bit.Trip.Beat isn't like that at all; on the contrary, its most charming characteristic is the developer's gleeful sadism. Physics change in the middle of a level, dots will suddenly disappear, even your controls will abruptly change with little warning. The effect is surprisingly charming---the simplicity and consistency of Gaijin's games already make them feel more like an individual artwork than many made-by-committee titles, and the willful sadism paradoxically makes the game feel even more personal, even weirdly friendly. As designer Douglas Wilson notes, deliberate game designer sadism creates a dialogic relationship between the player and the designer, and it makes the latter much more real to the player, and therefore more human. You don't feel tormented by the world so much as specifically targeted by a human designer, who's cast himself in the role of your mean-but-loving older brother.

It's the simplicity of the Gaijin aesthetic that makes this enthusiastic messing-with-you so congenial. Look at a screenshot of almost any major-release game, and count how many elements on the screen have nothing to do with gameplay. If the designers started changing the rules on you, the player would soon find themselves completely lost, indignant, and frustrated. But when the player only has to look at a few on-screen elements, the designer can demand that they look much closer.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Some Came Fighting

Another link-to-comments post... I'm criminally unable to resist baiting Glenn Kenny, the erudite proprietor of Some Came Running. With the result that I sometimes end up putting more time into comments on his posts than anything written here! Here's a highlight or two:

-Arguing about Howard Hawks and John Hughes

-Arguing about Eastwood, and dialogue

-Arguing about Lester Bangs, and Matt Zoller Seitz

-Arguing about Carol Reed and auteur theory

-Arguing about Godard

There's nothing at that Read more link! It's just a default!