Impressions: becoming Batman, growing as War

If you haven’t noticed, the Bombers’ Notebook is now on Twitter! Follow here.

Last week, Michael Abbott of Brainy Gamer wrote about his relationship with Sleeping Dogs protagonist Wei Shen. While exploring the player’s implicit responsibility for Shen’s actions, Abbott identifies one of the narrative benefits of occupying a predetermined character:

These games hand me a controller, but not full control. I maneuver constructed characters through game worlds, but never fully command them. I relate to them as avatars who respond to my base choices (walk, run, eat, sleep, fight, flee), but I never fully identify with them. I can’t subordinate them to my will, but I’m with them, and I often feel I am them. Wei Shen may do things I don’t like, but until I press “W” he does nothing at all. He essentially ceases to exist. When I give him life, he springs to action and operates by his own rules. Under such conditions, it’s worth asking who is controlling whom.

Abbott adroitly defines what I have previously called the false positive of interactivity, which is more often than not a system of give and take between player and game. The article largely focuses on the latter argument of the paragraph, as Abbott is faced with the inherent (and, for Sleeping Dogs, pronounced) complicity of performance in violent or ethically questionable games. Here, I want to build on the narrative consequences of identification and hone in on the mechanical side of things; to see how the walking, running, fighting, and fleeing can be just as influential a marker for association as the various motives and aftermaths of a given character.

Let’s start with Batman.

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Unpacking Alan Wake: Episode 1

It is worth remembering that traditions are not the mechanical repetition of an inflexible form but rather a joyful play of variations and rejuvenations.

– Jorge Luis Borges

Reducing the impact of Alan Wake to the game’s predecessors is an injustice I must actively avoid, as Remedy’s immaculate attention to detail constantly spoils the player with intertextual tricks and treats. Anyone who has played the game can identify the references to cultural monoliths such as the Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks, and the spectacular realization of Bright Falls is a subject deserving of discussion on its own. More than a tableau of Americana and some of its unsettling elements, however, Remedy digs deep into their original sources to unearth the postmodern tensions of artifice and identity. These genre-spanning themes give Alan Wake two surprisingly consistent legs to stand upon, and in true horror fashion, Wake uses these legs to run.

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Checking our pulse

First: Within the next week I will be posting a two-part discussion of Remedy’s Alan Wake. I’ve struggled for a long time (let’s say two months) with how to present what has turned out to be somewhat of an essay, and I finally realized that in the blogosphere it is perfectly acceptable to chop your work up and let it loose at random.

I also realized that churning out long pieces every two months is a shoddy way to write a blog, which leads me to my second point:

Because I love video games, and because I love writing/arguing/talking about video games, I want to create something more than a body of work that a few people read here and there. I’m an avid follower of WordPress’ reader feed, and, like many, I’ve come to rely more on individual blogs than popular video game sites for my intellectual cravings. Which is why I’ve come to WordPress to propose a question, one that I’ve admittedly stolen from better writers than myself.

What would your ideal video game publication, blog, or community look like?

I ask this not only because I want to expand the interests of the Bombers’ Notebook, but because I cannot find an answer that satisfies me. I enjoy some video game journalism, but I increasingly think there needs to be a refocusing on criticism (and, to a point, there has been). I also believe that much of this criticism consists of a form of self-affirmation for writers who enjoy video games, as they tend to discuss the effect that video games have had on them rather than the games themselves.* This is an important subject, of course, as it draws personal connections and promotes shared experiences in an otherwise divided and sometimes nasty online culture. I will never argue against self-reflection. I do, however, think that we can do more.

I apologize if you’ve heard this before. More than anything, I want to hear feedback from those of you who have indulged in similar thoughts, so that we might learn more about this wonderful thing we choose to read and write about.

Finally, I want you to add me on Steam. The more I read and interact with the writings of others, the more disconnected I feel when I realize that I’ve never played a game with them. Online gaming has been an important part of my life, and I am always looking for a way to extend that experience. If anyone’s interested, I have been playing the heck out of Tribes: Ascend. Which reminds me, I should write about that game…

*An excellent breakdown here.

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Choose your own adventure(?): Mass Effect and the illusion of choice

Much has been said about the denouement to the Mass Effect series, with a rather vocal segment of players decrying BioWare’s treatment of the franchise. Most fingers are pointed at the third game’s ending, an admittedly dismal affair that confines the entirety of Mass Effect’s history and the player’s own investment in the series into a shoehorned, multicolored box. At the risk of sound like a broken record, I’d posit that the series’ emphasis on choice becomes incompatible with its content during the second game, in which Shepard and company go on a wild goose chase for Collector technology. If Mass Effect 2 indicated a troubling ambivalence towards the events of the first game, it should come as no surprise that Mass Effect 3 demonstrates more of the same.

In the first part of an ongoing series entitled “Choice, multiculturalism, and irrevocability in Mass Effect“, Roger Travis acknowledges the false positive known as interactivity: “From the very beginning of a player’s performance, he or she is trapped between the panoply of available choices for his or her Shepard’s background and the limitation of that panoply…whereas BioShock exposes the illusion of choice, Mass Effect insists, and bases its legibility, upon choice not being an illusion despite (paradox coming) all appearances to the contrary.” I’ve said before that games of this type create dissonance though the (sometimes beneficial) conflict between role-playing and mechanics, though BioWare was apparently able to mask this illusion until the final moments of Mass Effect 3. But while players like Travis could perceive at least the shadow of a panoply of options (rather than the liberating choice), I was not able to get past the impression that Mass Effect adhered to a system more familiar to video games and their treatment of free will–that of Hobson’s choice.

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The first formalists: indie games and the signification of genre

With the Humble Indie Bundle V still at large, it’s difficult to avoid the praises slung at the various games on sale. Names such as Braid and Limbo have become synonymous with the independent scene, and are used to mark a progression towards Artistic (with a capital A) video games. More often than not, the highlighted games are used to indicate a movement towards meaning and symbolism that is formalist in approach and minimalist in design. But are these games engineering an actual progression, or are their mechanics inspired by a careful, purposeful glance towards the past?

Indie games, typified (for better or worse) by the aforementioned Braid and Limbo, do not operate under the delusion that they exist in a vacuum. The mechanics are obvious to anyone who has played a single video game in their life; games such as Super Meat Boy give direct homages to their predecessors, a trick that remains largely ignored within insular games made by higher budgets and larger teams. This acknowledgement of the genre’s history is important to independent games–it allows them to add or subtract certain elements that aid in the progression of the game as well as the creation of meaningful content. Braid’s basic platforming is supplemented by the ability to move back and forth in time; this mechanic is also integral to the backwards-looking structure of the plot. Similarly, Limbo uses the platformer genre’s literal pratfalls to gently indicate larger meaning: the player’s constant and gruesome deaths take a pedagogical role, as noted by G. Williams. I would add to his conclusion that Limbo also uses the game’s underlying need for forward movement as a catalyst for events caused by the protagonist but ultimately beyond his control, intimating a fundamental question of guilt and responsibility on behalf of the player.

While these mechanics are not particularly surprising or new, what is novel about them is their heightened role in the narrative: without them, the games–in both idea and execution–would not exist. In this way, many of the indie games used to espouse artistic development are formalist to the core. The medium (the mechanics, the genre, etc.) is a powerful force in the creation and signification of the message. Instead of relying on media that is not exclusive to video games, our very first formalists are able to use the tenets of genre and form to manufacture plot points and, yes, feelings within the player. Such a feat is especially important to some of the games present in the Humble Bundle, as other artistic means are not necessarily their strong suit.

Whether you enjoy the games or not, this is a strain of thought worth paying attention to.

What prevents me from providing my wholesale support is the following: while the platformer genre is one of my favorites, why cast limits on this newly developed approach? Thus far the games I’ve mentioned are almost wholly minimalist, expounding upon a single element to craft a game that is played over hours. In their present form they try our patience, threatening to expel our continued interest as we undergo the same trials we have in the levels before it.

Fortunately, formalist developers do not need minimalism to survive, as the connection between the two is not indicative of a dearth of imaginative freedom in video games but rather of the limited resources used to create games such as Limbo and Dear Esther. It’s not difficult to imagine a game where the mechanics are both many and meaningful, nor is it impossible that one does not already exist. If I were pressed, I would (prematurely, to be sure) point to one of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, whose paradoxically idyllic setting is made possible only through its underlying mechanics.

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Impressions – an introduction

Or: reviews in miniature.

As of my writing this, I have one hundred and seventy one separate game entries attributed to my Steam account. I’ve played all of them, beaten many, and have spent no more than five minutes on more than I’d like to admit. I also have various consoles to account for, but as of now I will focus briefly on the games collected on my claustrophobic hard drive. These brief impressions will be my personal inventory, as well as a chance to discuss games that haven’t received as much shine as others. I’ll try to go in somewhat of an alphabetical order, but I’m sure I’ll throw that arbitrary distinction out the window as soon as I hit publish.

So, without further ado:

Alpha Protocol

A more realistic (if that’s the word) approach to Deus Ex’s conspiracy theories, Alpha Protocol is a game whose story is little more than a collection of James Bond vignettes populated by Quentin Tarantino characters. If that doesn’t sound like it should work, I would agree–but it does. Rising global tensions influenced by a defense contractor, the overwhelming threat of a third world war, and protagonist “Agent” Michael Thorton has the time for casual misogyny and lofts in various spy movie hotspots around the globe. Apparently we have not tired of Moscow.

But the story doesn’t matter so much as Obsidian’s attention to role playing. Mass Effect’s infamous dialogue wheel takes a central role in the breakneck unraveling of the plot, but the two Paragon and Renegade options are replaced with three approaches to Thorton’s recurring spy problems, each of which can be supplemented by the player’s actions. You can act aggressive in dialogues, and you can play aggressively if you so choose; if you prefer Metal Gear Solid over Gears of War, you can act suave and sneak through beautiful set pieces and well thought out scenarios. What follows is a potent combination of the choice through narrative and choice through action systems of similar games.

Obsidian demonstrates the tried and true fact that, for action narratives, the plot can rest in the background so long as we have character. And there are a surplus of memorable faces in Alpha Protocol, not least of which is the Russian criminal mastermind/cocaine addict Konstantin Brakyo. As fans of Suda51’s games will tell you, few tools are more underutilized than the traditional boss fight: the buildup to Brayko’s fight and the ultimate reveal are too exciting to ruin here. Let it be known that I am a fan of licensed music in not-so-mimetic video games, and I will uphold this transcendent moment as my first example of its potential.

And Yet It Moves

And Yet It Moves is a vague, enigmatic experience. The player controls a cartoon cutout of a man around rocks, trees, and more rocks. Up and down are manipulated to make the man careen through tunnels of, unsurprisingly, rock and trees. Almost all of the sound in the game derives from soft clicking noises and a detached voice creating onomatopoeia–there are many “wooshes” and, my personal favorite, “skooshes” to be heard.

Unfortunately, the creator(s) of the game ran out of ideas after the first level, only to be struck with the realization that there must be more content in order for them to make money. The solution? More rocks and trees.

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But wait! There’s more!

An addendum to the previous discussion, as Foucault has more surprises at hand. 

In concrete terms, starting in the seventeenth century, this power over life evolved in two basic forms…One of these poles–the first to be formed, it seems–centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterizes the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body.

Considering Denton’s creation, can we deem Deus Ex’s America a post-sexual society? It would seem so, as transhumanism would effectively negate the need for procreation. More interesting still is how this fits into the roles of power already discussed: if the protagonist-player is a culmination of Majestic 12’s power, is his merging with Helios a viable option when placed under intense scrutiny? It’s difficult to say, though it’s telling that Eidos removed it from the canon.

Up next:  Surprises! Hopefully.

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