The Birth of the Player

monkey-typingAs I sit here, drinking coffee and listening to Nobel Price winner Bob Dylan, I’m thinking way to hard about video games. Please note, this isn’t abnormal. Ninety percent of my life is spent thinking way too hard about video games. If I ever revisit my alma mater, and my old adviser asks what I’ve been doing with my Master’s degree, I hope the disappointment on their face won’t be too evident when I tell him that I write about the class struggles evident in Super Mario Bros. Anyway, I’m thinking way too hard about video games right now, but not just about video games: I’m thinking way too hard about video game journalism, and how much I’m enjoying where the industry is going right now. Before I begin, please go and read Terrance Wiggins’s brilliant review of Mafia III.

I had intended to write something vastly different today, some review of some random game I bought on Steam about a month ago, but instead, since reading this review, I can’t stop thinking about it. I love it so much. It’s not just how well-written it is — and it is well written — and it’s not just how raw it is — and it is raw — I love it because the review works so incredibly well.

1.

I’ve been noticing a trend in video game journalism which excites me to no end. Back when I started reading video game reviews as a kid, they largely followed the same formula: The reviewer writes about the story, graphics, sound, gameplay, and control, and he or she is going to use this info to tell you whether or not the game is any good. Something happened about ten years ago, though, around the time video game journalism started to shift to more of a blog-type format and voice. Reviews started to grow more subjective. Rather than rating the “Big 5 Categories,” the reviewers started to offer more of a personal take on the game. Rather than determining the quality of the game purely on technical aspects, more weight was given to the experience, and how well that experience resonated with the reviewer.

I love this, because it is so true. A bad game can be good simply on the merits of the impression it leaves on and with the player. The reviewer does have a responsibility to address any issues with the game he or she finds, but these issues are no longer the be-all, end-all determination of quality. It’s just one more thing to consider as you, the reader, determine whether or not to buy the game. I think this is one reason Wiggins’s review is so good. He addresses the flaws in the game. He talks about the ways the game fails. But, these observations seem much less important than this experience playing the game, and for him, that made the game good. And that perspective should not be discounted, because it’s the most honest a review can possibly get.

2.

I want to play Mafia III. This surprises me because I have nothing invested in this series. I think I played the first game. I seem to remember playing it in college, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you anything about the game. I want to say that I didn’t play the second game, but again, I’m not sure. If I did, it left even less of an impression on me than the first game did. I want to play Mafia III, though, and that’s in no small part thanks to Wiggins’s review.

To be fair, if I did play Mafia III, I wouldn’t have the same experience Wiggins did. I’m a 34-year-old white guy from Nebraska. I’ve never felt out of place based on the color of my skin. I’ve never felt like I don’t belong in any given situation. But, I know that exists in this world for people every day, and I need to acknowledge it and attempt to understand it if I ever want to be a good ally to those marginalized groups of people. While playing a video game won’t ever be the same as experiencing this ugliness every hour of every day, like any piece of art, a video game can serve as a tool to increase understanding for those of us who don’t. Should it take the place of listening to those in the middle of this struggle? Of course not, but like reading a book, or listening to a song, or watching a movie, we can leave the experience of a video game with a better understanding of the world as viewed through eyes other than our own.

And that is so damn important.

3.

I know there are people who have issues with this type of video game journalism. There are many people who feel that video game journalism should be objective, unaware that remaining objective is impossible. Other people have a hard time believing that someone’s truth might not match their own. This causes them to lash out, telling the reviewer how wrong they are. You can see this anytime someone does something silly like express enjoyment of a movie like the 2016 Ghostbusters. If you throw on a healthy heaping of a social justice issue in the mix, you’ll bring down an apocalyptic level of “well, actually” telling you how wrong you are with the self-restraint of an addict.

I haven’t checked Wiggins’s @mentions, but I hope he’s not receiving any backlash for his review. If he is, I hope he’s strong enough to handle it. His voice is so damn refreshing, it needs to exist in this world. As gamers, we want video games to be considered “art,” and we scream at anyone who says otherwise. But, to consider a medium as art carries with it a certain set of expectations. First, the medium must be open to cultural criticism, both good and bad. What does it say about the surrounding culture in which it’s created? What does it say about those of us who enjoy it?

Second, and arguably as important, the medium must be open to reader interpretation.

In 1967, Roland Barthes published an essay called “Death of the Author.” Considered to be a catalyst of modern literary analysis, Barthes’s essay argues that with good literature, the author’s intent matters little in creating meaning. Ultimately, good literature requires the reader to be an active participant in creating meaning. The death of the author inevitably creates the birth of the reader. To put this idea into the context of this discussion here, the designers of Mafia III may have intended to create a story that resonates with modern black gamers, and they may not have. Their intent doesn’t really matter. As a consumer of the medium, Wiggins created meaning through his review.

The death of the designer inevitably creates the birth of the player.

4.

When reading this post, you might get the impression that I’m a little pretentious in my view of video game reviews. I assure you, I’m not. I tend to adopt a postmodern view of art, which refuses to see a distinction between arbitrary definitions of “high” and “low” art. Even what most people would consider low art — video games, even, in some circles — can have cultural value simply because it speaks to some people. And those who enjoy what others consider “high” art are in no way more cultured than those who do not.

These subjective reviews are not better or worse than the objective reviews. Those of us who enjoy the subjective reviews are not better than those of us who enjoy the objective reviews. Both of these types of reviews serve different functions for different people, and there IS room for both types of reviews in this world.

I just know what type of reviews speak to me, and I am so excited to see the growth of these reviews as they become more prevalent. It tells me that players are starting to view video games as items that reflect culture. In a way, this is an example of video games growing up a bit. All types of media that we consider art have gone through this transition at some point. Video games are starting to say something different to different people, and those differences are creating logical discourse, as these differences are spawning conversation solely for the purpose of increasing knowledge about the subject and ourselves.

And, really, that might be all that matters.

You may agree with Wiggins’s reading of Mafia III, and you may not. If you don’t, I would encourage you to develop your own reading of the game. And if someone disagrees with your reading, I would encourage them to develop their own reading. Like a movie or book, video games can have multiple interpretations, and analyzing those interpretations can be as fun as playing the games themselves.

Well, maybe just for me.

 

King’s Quest Chapter 4: Maybe You Can Return Home Again?

kq2I’ve written in the past about the importance of King’s Quest in my own video game journey, so it should come as no surprise that I have consumed each chapter of the new King’s Quest as I can, as time allows, devouring their individual fleshes and treasuring each morsel. Despite my immense enjoyment, however, I can’t help but feel like these new games, as good as they are — and they are good — have felt disconnected from the original series I grew up with. The experience is familiar, but decidedly different. I’ve always chalked this up to the effects of nostalgia, how those feelings of childhoods spent in front of a screen can never be re-experienced, no matter how hard we try. With the release of Chapter 4: Snow Place Like Home, however, I’m starting to rethink my perspective on the new series. For the first time since the first chapter was released last year, with Chapter 4 I feel like the two series are coming together, and it makes me so happy. Read the rest of this entry »

System Shock — the REMAKE!

I feel Sysshockfifteen again. No, not because of raging hormones, face acne, and squeaky voice. No, I feel fifteen again, because I just got done reliving a piece of my youth. A couple of days ago, Nightdive Studios launched a kickstarter to remake System Shock, a classic horror first-person shooter, one of the first to blend a deep narrative with solid gameplay and atmosphere. Of course, a Kickstarter to remake something classic is nothing new. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and nostalgia fuels Kickstarter. So, why then even mention it? Two reasons: First, 1995 Chris is really, really happy about this. He had heard about System Shock when it came out, but he was a console gamer, and his PCs were never powerful enough to play it. Later, when he did have a newer PC that could play these games, and he tracked down a CD copy of the game, it wouldn’t work. The game was notorious for crashing on newer systems, requiring the user to edit files and whatnot. Despite everything I tried, I could never get past the first level, without the game kicking me out, and reminding me to “salt the fries,” an injoke among the developers at Looking Glass Studios. Read the rest of this entry »

E3 2016 Rundown

OasisE3 has come and gone, and with it, much of the excitement most of us feel when we get a glimpse of the games we’re most excited about in the coming years. While games will be announced, shown off and canceled in the other months (sometimes, all within the same week), E3 is one of a handful of times each year that we get such a massive concentrated amount of video game news, all packed within five or six days of neon lights, “gameplay” trailers, and overly-excited video game press people telling us how these games will change our lives. And while the show is not quite the spectacle it used to be, it’s still an event in its own right, and every year, we always get more than a few surprise nuggets of news, and we get to hear more about the games on our radars.

This year, I continued my 21-year-streak of not attending the conference in person, but rather watching all of the big conferences and trailers online. That said, while this year was not as big as last year (Shenmue 3 will forever hold the crown for biggest announcements at an E3 ever), there were still some interesting games on display, and quite a few of them have given me some pretty good hope for the following twelve months. Specifically, I’m super excited about the following:

  • ABZU – Oh, hell yes. Underwater exploration featuring a massive and stylized ocean? I’ve never known how much I have wanted that in a game until right now.

  • Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – I know I threw a bit of shade at this game earlier this week, and my opinions on that issue have not changed. I still think they missed a massive opportunity with this game to increase diversity in the video game industry. That said, it’s hard to deny that they’ve worked hard to create something truly unique in a Zelda game and injected some much-needed life into the franchise. Despite my issues, I am still way excited for this game.

  • Horizons: Zero Dawn – Hot damn, this game looks tight. Last year, I was definitely interested, but getting a chance to see some of the gameplay — a cross between Monster Hunter and Skyrim — has increased my interest considerably. I am so interested to see this world.

  • Pyre – I can’t think of many indie games I have loved as much as Bastion and Transistor. Through these two games, we have seen some of the best world building and storytelling in modern video games. I am a little unsure of the weird competition style of the gameplay, but SuperGiant has done more than enough with their past two games to buy my enthusiasm for this new title.

  • The Last Guardian – What can be said about this game that hasn’t been said a million times over the past 8 years the game has been in development. We finally have a release date though, and in that, my excitement is renewed again. I am concerned, however, if the game can live up to its own hype. Additionally, games were different in 2008. Has the core concept of the game aged well? We’ll have to wait until October to see.

Outside of these games, I did have a few other thoughts. A lot of these are the games I’ve had on my radar before, and the showing at E3 this year has shifted them in some way.

  • Ever Oasis – A new RPG IP from the Mushroom Kingdom? Awesome. Yes, please. We didn’t get to see too much in the announcement trailer, but I’m definitely ready to see where this one goes.
  • Death Stranding – Come on, it’s Hideo Kojima. For all of its faults, it will provide one of the most moving and interesting stories in whatever year it’s finally released.
  • Final Fantasy XV – Woof, this game had an interesting showing this year. That is rough for the game’s last E3 before release. Between the horrible X-Box demo and the less than stellar response to the PS VR experience, I was starting to get a little uneasy about this game, especially with The Last Guardian now releasing within weeks. But, the late announcement of the “Wait” mode, allowing the player to pause combat and strategically plan their next move does interest me, especially since the fast-paced, frantic combat of Final Fantasy XIII was one of the weaker parts of the game for me.
  • God of War – Confession time. I am not a fan of the God of War series. I tried to play the first one, and I just got bored. I wasn’t super impressed with the trailer for this new entry, but I later read an interview with one of the developers who said this was going to be a story about regret, with Kratos trying to balance raising a son with coming to grips with all of the sins of his past. This is a remarkably deep concept, and I’m kind of intrigued.
  • Star Wars VR and Batman VR – Sony knows their audience, that’s for sure. It’s not yet enough to get me to buy into VR, but it’s close.

And with this, my rundown is done. Again, I didn’t attend the show, so much of my exposure to the different games are from the little bit of news I picked up here and there during my work day. I’m sure I missed some great games, which I’m actually okay with. It means when they pop up on my radar later this year, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. And that’s okay. We need a little mystery in our video games.

All right, E3, it’s been fun.  Goodbye, and we’ll see you in 2017!

Nintendo and Wasted Opportunity

zelda-breath-of-the-wildLike most Nintendo fans, I watched the live Treehouse stream yesterday with equal parts joy and excitement to finally see some of the gameworld in the upcoming Legend of Zelda, awesomely named “Breath of the Wild.” I love me some Zelda, and I got goosebumps as I watched the stream and saw Link interacting with his world in new and fresh ways. Needless to say, I am a Legend of Zelda fan from way back, and “Breath of the Wild” looks to be something radical and unique, the breath (of the wild) of fresh air the series has needed for so long.

I am excited to play this game, is what I’m trying to say.

But that excitement was tempered quite quickly, however, when producer Eiji Aonuma spoke with Kotaku about why the game would not feature a gender-swapped Link, something that was rumored in the months leading up to this year’s E3. I’m not going to take Nintendo to task for not including the female-option for Link, though I probably should. It’s not just a wasted opportunity, it’s a defiance of an inclusive culture that all video game companies should strive for. Nintendo has no excuse for this now since they already gave us “Linkle,” a female Link counterpart, in Hyrule Warriors. I’m not going to take Nintendo to task for making the game they wanted to make, because ultimately, they are free to make their game however they wish.

I will, however, take Nintendo to task for the God-awful reason they left the option out of the game. Read the rest of this entry »