Easy Allies, Tense Affinity

Generally, I’m pretty pro the former GT gentlemen, now known as the Easy Allies guys (EZA). Game review scores seemed fair but tough, without the pandering you sometimes see around the interwebs. The Final Bosman peppered absurdity into my general gaming news along with provoking some new perspectives. Brandon Jones’ voice made the reviews even better, and I enjoyed much of PopFiction. Our reactions to the announcement of the Final Fantasy 7 remake solidified the connection I felt to this team. The podcast was regular listening material in my office job and my co-workers would give me weird looks as the men shouting at one another got too loud for my headphones and I laughed to myself. I was heartbroken over the final stream announcement but tuned in and tried to show support for this group of guys I had never met, but somehow felt significantly connected to.

And yet, I’m a mid-twenties bisexual white woman. I am not the target market for most AAA games, and potentially not even for most indie games. Can I actually justify, to myself or to others, that this group of guys is doing right by the games industry with their continued brand of reporting? Besides my love of games, I share an interest in women and my race with these guys, but I’m still almost entirely unrecognized by the games industry.
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Image from Easy Allies – Community Facebook Account

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Bourdieu and Video Game Journalism

One argument made by Pierre Bourdieu in his “On Television” is the role provided by television journalists as opposed to print journalists (I used an excerpt of the complete work from this anthology). Specifically, television journalists have become focused on the personal representations of societal issues, resulting in a distinct lack of discussion on structural issues found within society. This has created a distinct gap between the two types of journalists, leaving print journalists to strive for recognition from the televised media, which would only result in a disparaging view of the original, more societally-driven text oriented works that are actually capable of providing structural criticism.

And now, we find ourselves in a weird relationship with all types of journalism, from print to radio to televised and this is largely due to the Internet—an phenomenon that Bourdieu didn’t have to contend with because this piece was published in 1996, around the Internet’s infancy. However, with the rise of the Internet that could so greatly threaten established news and media sources, so too have risen the amateur journalists, the citizen journalists, who only needs access and some sort of social media website to post their opinions, stories, experiences, photos, videos, etc. While Bourdieu may have had issues with the focus on presenting personal narratives as news rather than society in 1996, the Internet has taken this to new levels as every news story becomes personal, as objectivity becomes even more convoluted, as these “journalists” lack knowledge about journalistic ethics and morals and as anyone can post anything, report anything—regardless of the truth (although Google is trying to combat this).

Which brings us to video game journalism. Doubtless, if you’re interested in gaming culture, you’ve heard of GamerGate and their crusade against corruption in the gaming industry that eventually came to be seen as a crusade against women in the gaming industry. Partially due to the rise of GamerGate and partially due to the constant shifts in the journalism industry, gaming news media centers are in constant flux: many print magazines have gone completely out of business or transitioned to online-only editions, a little less than a year ago Polygon cut their staff, as did GameTrailers; Kotaku is still in the midst of redeveloping their particular brand of game coverage.

And as much as other bloggers and myself make fun of Kotaku for their tendencies to post non-video game related sort-of news, as well as Kotaku’s parent company Gawker for their links to other news story with sensationalist titles, they’re making perhaps the most productive move in the gaming news industry. Even though Kotaku tends to stray from their designated topic in the Gawker-verse of video games, their efforts to re-center video game news on the games rather than advertisements for upcoming games is a remarkable decision that should not only bring them a more dedicated following amongst readers but also give them more credit within the game journalism sphere.

Although older news journalism seemed to have a several tiered system of reporting on games, modern gaming news sources seem to be focused on one aspect: advertisements. I can vaguely recall a certain formula I saw in magazines from my childhood, where games would travel from bite-sized announcements to random snippets of news each month, followed by a large spread complete with screenshots and concept art on the game’s development, narrative, game play, etc., before finally settling into final reviews of the finished product. Usually after the game’s release I’d see a few smaller stories, cheat codes and information peppered throughout later issues until eventually the game worked itself into media obscurity and could only be found in those old editions and (sometimes) a year in review edition.

Unlike the magazines of my youth, from the first announcement of a game I’m bombarded with news, advertisements, requests, recommendations and free up-grades for my early pre-order—often even long before a game’s release date has been decided. This has become the primary function of game journalism: advertisement, pre-sales, hype. And all of this is just for a single game, not the industry, developer, or (usually) console, but merely one game. By the time a game is released, the audience will have a slew of reviews to read. These reviewers, often the same people who have been building the excitement and essentially leading the marketing campaign, spend little time with the game. Some as little as 48 hours, others may have about a week if they’re lucky or receive an early copy. As a result, once these reviews are out, media outlets have no reason to continue covering a game, thereby pushing readers onto the uphill trek for the next big game’s release. As Erik Kain states, hype sells. But don’t we need more than just the game’s release? Don’t we want the game itself, in some way, to exist as more than just this hype machine, more than just the idea that it’s going to happen at some point? This, in my mind, is one of the benefits of YouTube let’s play videos, Twitch, uStream, and of course blogs—games get to exist after they’ve been released. No longer are games pushed entirely aside thanks to the amateur journalists of the game industry, even as they’re effectively shoved aside by the large, official media outlets.

But now, with Kotaku’s new intentions to continue coverage following the game’s release, more attention can be paid to the industry, as it exists, not merely where it’s going. And this is one solution away from the individual game and into the industry’s structure. Staying with games over time will not only give reviewers more time for the nuanced narrative and ludic details of games, but it will also result in a complete chronicle of contemporary games, society and media interrelations. Just as Bourdieu criticized the televised news for championing the sympathetic individual story rather than critique the societal structure, gaming audiences should be critiquing the media for providing biased, sales-oriented news coverage. This lack of structural criticism and focus on pre-order sale, reviews and rankings is what led to the confusion and anger that spawned GamerGate—in all its iterations, from journalism to misogyny. The games are what the players love, and the games should be the focus as they exist, not as they may exist. Perhaps a little extra time with games will lead to more in-depth analysis, more meaningful reviews, and more awareness of the many faults in societal representation inherent within the gaming industry.

Plights of Game Overs

Tons of scholars (that I can’t link to because of licensing issues with academic libraries) have argued that survival horror video games are the quintessential video game genre.  I’ve gotten into more than a few debates on this point.  While, yes, survival horror video games are a great genre, they aren’t necessarily the quintessential genre.  The biggest reason for this?  All video games are inherently survivalist. 

Now, this probably sounds like a bold claim, and your first instinct is probably going to be to rally against it. It’s not that I have anything against survival horror video games—I’m defending my master’s thesis tomorrow on the Silent Hill franchise. Survival horror video games only seem quintessentially video game-y because they consistently have a distinct lack of ludonarrative dissonance that other genres seem to dabble in a bit more. Perhaps that’s not really fair since Resident Evil gives you control of a special tactical force officer and he/she seems like quite the novice because of the game’s clunky tank controls. But disregarding this issue, the gameplay and mechanics of survival horror games are often consistent with another thematically. Players want to survive just as the characters want to survive and both are willing to do what’s necessary to continue surviving. This often relegates players and characters to running or killing monsters, but rarely humans (without good narrative cause, like for continued survival in The Last of Us).

But returning to the core concept that all games are inherently survivalist. Virtually all games require the player and protagonist’s survival for continued play until the end-state. While there are a few games that toy with this concept (I can only come up with the flash game Five Minutes to Kill Yourself and its sequels, but I’m sure there are more), almost all video games require survival up-to and through the narrative in order to initiate the game’s final end-state. Which may result in death itself, as with Journey, or may not. What matters though is not so much being chased by monsters or the protagonist’s realization that their survival is threatened. Instead, it’s the progression to that end state and the player’s desire to survive and avoid game overs as much as possible.

To prove this point, I’ll look at a few different games from various eras and genres: Pac-Man, Final Fantasy VII, and Grand Theft Auto V to show the supposed differences in these games, and how they actually function similarly.

Pac-Man is one of the greats, and it truly has a very simple formula: eat the pac-dots, avoid the ghosts, eat the fruit, eat the super pac-dots to eat the ghosts.  As the many game overs I got as a kid shows, the game pushes players into an end-state before forcing the player to begin again.  In a less narrative game, like Pac-Man, this isn’t the most terrible thing because it allows players to re-experience the game’s agenda of eating dots and running from ghosts.  Instead, the game over end-state renews the game.  For this classic arcade game, the lack of narrative doesn’t really punish players because it simply re-starts the procedure.  The player often doesn’t realize their goal is survival for two main reasons: one, it isn’t blatantly explained to players that they’re expected to survive, it instead becomes apparent through the game’s mechanics and continued play; and two, the (original) game does not have a successful end-state, but rather a kill screen that results in Pac-Man’s death and end of the player’s game.  They player guides Pac-Man around, helping him survive the ghosts to ultimately kill him anyway.  However, because of the skill required to hit a kill screen as the end of the programmable game, gamers find it

The second game I’ll look at is also very popular and well-known: Final Fantasy VII.  Unlike Pac-Man, FF7 has a very strong narrative that sets several goals throughout the game’s progression.  While the over-arching goal is to find and kill Sephiroth, there are more minor goals along the way that keep distracting the player from their mission, even as they feed into that same goal like collecting better weapons, more powerful materia, and many additional side quests as well.  The game does punish players with game overs if they fail in various fights, and forces players to pick up the plot at their last save point.  This could mean hours of game play for the less-responsible player, or sometimes just several frustrating minutes that are relived over and over as the player struggles to beat a boss (like me and the Demon Wall on my first play through).  With the exception of Aeris (who dies anyway), the entire game is centered upon the player’s ability to survive through the battles and complete the narrative tasks and events to finally make it to the final boss area and defeat JENOVA and Sephiroth.  Again, the game highlights the narrative quest’s goals rather than the mechanically functional goal of survival, but Final Fantasy VII is, at it’s core, a game about continued survival.

Contrary to these two older games is Grand Theft Auto V, which doesn’t punish player for dying and makes very little fanfare over death by simply dropping the protagonist (any one of three) outside the hospital with slightly less money in their pocket.  Also unlike the other two games, GTAV can be played with a narrative focus or simply goofing around and committing crimes for fun rather than following a specific goal.  With such a unique selection of options for game play, the player can do basically whatever, including cause as much mayhem to raise their wanted level to the maximum before the police finally kill them.  This is probably the most well-known stereotype of the GTA games, but even while playing in this way, players are expected to survive as long as possible—even if the end result is, much like Pac-Man, death.

Despite the thematic and narrative differences between these games, each game requires basic survival to continue progression, thus hughlighting one of the games’ true–but hidden–themes of survival. Most games don’t actively promote survival as the key component to making the game, but it is virtually always present as an expectation and pre-requisite for successful game play.

Playing the Message

When I first started reading Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message,” I had a hard time equating his article to more than strict formalism. He clearly states, “Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium,” and much like his statement, his article left me blind to the relationship between form and content that I’m often much more concerned with (though you’d probably never guess it from this blog). My first thoughts for this post focused on the relationship between McLuhan’s concepts and those provided by Clint Hocking’s definition of ludonarrative dissonance in Bioshock. While I’m less interested in Bioshock (it’s a great game, but not something I feel like writing about currently), Hocking and McLuhan together pose the great debate of video game theorists—ludology or narratology.

Admittedly, I’m somewhat a novice in this area. Like many media forms, there exists a rigid boundary between how to look at games. Ludologists find themselves concerned with how the game functions and its playability while narratologists focus on the content of the game itself, such as the characterization, themes and narrative. There is much heated debate between the two camps, and while some argue that both should function in tandem, games have difficulty successfully bringing the two together to create an effective, meaningful and fun experience—hence the overwhelming existence of ludonarrative dissonance.

While some games successfully navigate this relationship (Klankstatic suggests Journey as an option by using mechanics as metaphor), others just can’t quite seem to get it. By no means does this mean a game is unsuccessful, bad or simply not fun, it just means that McLuhan would likely argue that the message has failed the medium’s presentation of it. He claims, “Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message,” and many games, like Hocking’s Bioshock example, can’t reconcile this; neither the game’s mechanics nor narrative is really affected by how you play it. Sure, you get a different ending—but that ending is merely one part of the narrative and not the point of the narrative.

Take Spec Ops: The Line, which rather effectively uses its mechanics as metaphor by creating internal panic within the player through both the game’s ludology and narratology. Captain Walker and his partners are on a mission to locate survivors in Dubai following a devastating series of sandstorms that completely destroys the city. However, as they travel farther into the city they are bombarding with soldiers as they press deeper into the city in search of survivors—killing hundreds in the process.

This game’s greatness rests in more than its ability to illicit emotions through the narrative. Instead, its such a perfect game because it makes the player feel guilty for the act of playing by accepting and participating in its method of hailing you (Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” but that’s a much longer blog post) by doing exactly what it tells you to do. No actions change the overall outcome of the game, Captain Walker is basically always going to have irreparable psychological damage, when you’re given an option of what civilian to save they all inevitably die. Often, it’s Walker—and therefore you as the player—ordering and causing their deaths anyway.

The most memorable game sequence for me, and many others I’m sure, is the white phosphorous scene. In order to pass an area full of “insurgents,” Walker and his men locate the deadly chemical weapon.

The following moments involve tense conversation between the three men before exiting the cut-scene and returning to gameplay. Players are rewarded for accurately raining the incendiary upon what you moments later discover are civilians. While it sounds as though these events—the player intentionally acting upon such violence as opposed to the personal enjoyment at succeeding the mission—are at odds, they work so effectively together to combine the ludology and narratology. In this instance, the player’s guilt is built entirely upon the action of playing, of causing the horrific pain and suffering that splashes all over the screen a mere seconds after successfully completing the mission. Spec Ops: The Line’s place as a member of the video game medium is the message, just as much as the narrative itself creates meaning in Walker’s actions.   Watching this as a film or cut-scene would easily instill fear or disgust, but guilt can only occur as a result of causing it.

Benjamin and Beginning the Blog

For our first session, my professor and I discussed Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” While I’m still struggling to find a voice for this blog, please humor me with five thoughts that crossed my mind as I re-visited this text. First, do video games have an aura?

For Benjamin, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (38). The authenticity of a work is entirely dependent upon its origination; this makes perfect sense. Original works, the true originals at least, have a distinct uniqueness to them that Benjamin refers to as the “aura” of the work. However, modern video games ostensibly have no “original” form—as in, there is no one true copy of the video game itself.

What we players get instead is a copy of the work for our own enjoyment, to play at our leisure. Although new historicists and many others can obviously argue the game does have its own place in time (just look at any modern shoot’em-up), there is no modern concept of the “original” in video games anymore—but there used to be.

Take the classic arcade cabinets of the Golden Age: Space Invaders (1978), Pac-Man (1980), Centipede (1981), Donkey Kong (1981), and that’s naming only a few. Each of these games had hundreds of game cabinets produced and probably nearly as many refurbished at this point. However, did these classic games emit an aura in the way Benjamin suggests a work of art should? Do they still?

It’s hard to say. I know, that’s a cop-out answer. Historically, video games, like film, began as a social and communal act. Friends would gather at an arcade and consume the games just like the machines were consuming their pocket change—quickly, with an insatiable hunger. The cabinets themselves were viewed as entertainment, much like modern video games. But these cabinets offered the unique experience of interactively creating individual entertainment within a community. Each game had its own aura; players developed preferences between dodging barrels and shooting centipedes (or that damn spider, I hate that spider). Players and non-players enjoyed the games in multitudes of venues and were regularly enthralled with the technology in front of them.

Contrary to Benjamin’s claim that “by making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence,” mechanically reproducing more cabinets only enhanced the game’s experience because it opened it up to a larger audience. Although this is typically regarded as a positive aspect of mechanical reproduction, it does seem to infringe upon the aura of the original in some regards. But here’s the beautiful thing about video games—the originals are never truly available for the public, so it is never threatened by reproduction; rather, mechanical reproduction enhances it because more people can experience it.

The aura of the game, unlike other media, exists in the idea of the individual game, rather than the game itself. This is unlike the artworks Benjamin considered, but if the aura rested with the original game itself, it’d be a buggy mess that no one could make sense of. Instead, the aura rests within the player’s experience of the game and interactively making the events unfold in the final, finished version that is immediately distributed to the public. As a twenty-something that was born after the Golden Age of arcade games, I still feel giddy and excited when I walk into my local arcade and stand in front of that Centipede machine, which is nestled between both Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. This is exactly why each of the big game companies offers a backlog of the classics for digital download (another form of mechanical reproduction, somewhat unique to video games, that we’ll discuss in part two). This is exactly why used game stores can still exist. Players love the experience of these classics, of actually playing them.

Face-Stabbing; Or, why Nidhogg is so brilliant

To imagine an old technology as something that was once new means, therefore, to try to recapture a quality it has lost.
Tom Gunning, “Re-Newing Old Technologies: Astonishment, Second Nature, and the Uncanny in Technology from the Previous Turn-of-the-Century”

Anyone looking at my PlayStation library may be confused as to what types of games I actually enjoy.  There a few first person shooters (Spec Ops: The Line, Far Cry 2 and 3), several puzzle-type games (Super Puzzle Fighter 2: Turbo, Fez, Ibb and Obb), many triple-A games (The Last of Us, Uncharted 2 and 3, Grand Theft Auto V, Bioshock: Infinite) and more indie games than I could probably play in a year (Thomas Was Alone, Braid, The Unfinished Swan).  Okay, so many of those indie games are also puzzle games, but I really like puzzle games!  And indie games seem like they gravitate towards the logic aspects of puzzle games, which is why there are simply so many, not only for consoles or Steam but for handheld devices, too.

But this isn’t an attempt to defend the relationship between puzzle games and indie developers.  Instead, this is about my fascination with one particular, non-puzzle indie game: Nidhogg.  This action-oriented fighting game has quick pacing with great back and forth across the horizontal map.  Bold, boxy yellow and orange avatars stand out against the simple but beautiful backgrounds of the game.  Players can face-off against one another or the computer, stabbing and running and throwing swords to kill their opponent in splatters of bright yellow and orange blood.  They battle and run across three screens in each direction to the victory screen where a cheering audience waves their approval and a giant worm devours the victor.

Part of what makes this game so great isn’t just the absurdity of being eaten by a worm at the end, it’s the decades-long journey it took to get here.  Although this game was officially released in early 2014 on Steam and late 2014 on Sony consoles, it has a uniquely 1980s game feel due to the simple mechanics, pixelated avatars and environments, and limited color palette.  The most modern component of this game—besides its release—is easily the music.

Nidhogg’s success isn’t based solely on the fun gameplay, but also these classic components.  At this point, gamers have traversed a process of familiarity with the industry.  Very little surprises us about the medium because we’ve become so keenly aware of its conventions (which is probably one reason many of us are anxiously awaiting the Oculus Rift and similar devices).  Video games are a familiar medium, that regularly go through technological updates that result in a temporary amazement from audiences while the consoles or computer upgrades are still new, still “fresh.”  Plenty of gamers shared their excitement over the original graphics for The Last of Us when it was initially released on PS3; those same players (myself included) expressed more than giddiness at the announcement of the same game’s re-release on the PS4, which led to higher quality graphics, brighter colors, a higher frame rate, and faster loading times.  Audiences express similar excitement for HD remakes of older games on a regularly basis.  Players simply love experiencing their old favorites with upgraded technology; the old classics are made new again through technological upgrade.  The games, while familiar, can astonish the audience solely through the new technology and how such technology can change their experience.

Tom Gunning uses astonishment as part of his framework for understanding developing technologies; noting “One finds it difficult to be continually astonished by the same thing.  Astonishment gives way to familiarity,” which perfectly describes one problem with the AAA game industry: familiarity (41).  The works, the technology is generally familiar enough that audiences neglect the general astonishment of a single game.  According to Gunning, “Astonishment acts as a sort of threshold experience…  But once within, once past the threshold, astonishment gives way to curiosity and investigation and eventually to familiarity” (41).  Gamers may be struck with amazement at the first several games on a console, or even those favorites that are remade for quality on new consoles, but that quickly gives way as they investigate more games, and eventually knock themselves out with how familiar, how consistent, the process has become from game to game.

However, Nidhogg works directly against the trend of updating classic games by mimicking the conventions of those same classic games; it is immediately unfamiliar to modern gamers. Your only motivation: defeat your opponent, travelling across to the victory circle (where you’ll be eaten alive, but that is neither here nor there–it’s on the right, in fact). The controls are simple: walk, run, jump; adjust sword height from low, medium, high; punch, stab. Avatars are single colored, boxy, pixelated human figures (probably men, based on their low scream when they’re killed, but I won’t touch on that right now). All four levels (at the time of this post, at least) have slight obstacles like hills, platforms, tall grass, pits—all conventions common to classic games, going as far back as Pitfall on Atari or Mario Bros. on NES. Nidhogg is unique because it captures the quality and charm of an old medium and disregards the modern technologies available in order to do so. Nidhogg’s ability to astonish grows entirely out of its ability to recapture lost gaming qualities amongst new technologies.

(additional links to come…)