Non-Linear Art

9 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/kevinsteele/24771587/

Margaret Robertson is on fire in this post. There are lots of stupid quibbles and assumptions in the games industry, things that function as shorthand for mainstream legitimacy among developers and games journalists, which in fact are trivial and potentially very damaging. I hadn’t noticed this one much until Margaret pointed it out:

Tears shouldn’t be our goal. Stories don’t need to be our tools. The majority of art forms don’t rely on narrative for their emotional impact. Stop and think about that for a second. The games industry tends to draw on such an amazingly limited roster of inspirations that it’s easy to forget it. But our obsession with linear, story-based – word-based, even – non-participatory art at the expense of all the other forms makes life so much harder for games, and it makes me crazy. I swear, next GDC I’m going to set myself up behind a table in the lobby with a huge pile of rubber bands and a huge pile of Jelly Tots, and each delegate, as they come in, is going to get a band on their left wrist and a handful of sweets in their right pocket. And then, all week, every time they hear the word ‘film’, ‘book’ or ‘TV show’, they have to give themselves a snap. And everytime they hear the world ‘painting’, ‘theatre’, ’sculpture’, ‘opera’, ‘architecture’, ‘comics’*, ‘dance’, ‘music’ or ‘poetry’, they get a sweetie. Two, if they say it rather than hear it. But goddamit, we’re not the only people trying to create emotionally resonant experiences in environments that aren’t kind to linear narratives.

Emphasis mine.

(CC image by Kevin Steele)

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LRB: Good, Cultural Games Commentary

8 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/marfis75/2459534903/

This week, the London Review of Books have an excellent article by John Lanchester about games. It’s intelligent analysis of games for non-gamers, full of assumptions about the LRB audience but none whatsoever that they understand what games are. It’s full of considered analysis of what games are and what they mean, using examples like Bioshock, Resident Evil 4, The Movies and LittleBigPlanet to make a case for the cultural significance of games.

Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all

The “Is It Art?” title is a bit cringe worthy for developers who’ve perpetually lived through that debate in the industry, but it’s the exact kind of coverage games need outside the industry. I had some issues with the author 18 months ago when he claimed that the moral outcry over Bully was justified in a piece about the banning of Manhunt 2, but even back then he came across as very much on the side of games.

Millions of Wii owners do widen the audience of games, but they alone do not make them into a well cemented, rounded part of the cultural landscape. They help, but John is the kind of writer they need in order to progress in more than just an economic sense.

(via Infovore)

(CC image by marfis75)





Games Criticism

8 12 2008

Beyond Good and Evil

As I mentioned last week, the relationship of the games press to game developers and gamers is something that has been bothering me a great deal for the past few months. I don’t want to write a lengthy analytical missive pointing out what’s wrong and offering solutions. Opinions on it are two a penny, and mine is that the solution is yet another cultural process that is going to happen automatically.

For decades, games journalism has largely consisted of a small group of dedicated enthusiasts speaking to fellow enthusiasts. This eventually seems to terminate in large scale dedicated news outlets with a high turnover of news; often copy pasted from press releases and refed through truncated RSS feeds designed to drive ad impressions. The sum total of all that effort is to create a news source which is only worth skimming over, much as the writers seem to have skimmed over their own sources.

There are scant examples of people digging beyond press releases. Hit Self Destruct did a little digging here on recent events at NCsoft (as well as saying a whole lot about games journalism), and Wonderland mentioned the launch of Sony’s new credit card, which in itself is an horrific non-story, other than the fact not a single other place mentioned the very high APR. In the case of all those other sites, that’s not news reporting, it’s publicity.

When Leigh Alexander recently wrote about possible salary fixing in Montreal, Steve Gaynor jokingly tweeted at her: “What’s this shit, actual journalism? Come on Alexander write a preview or something”.

That’s the thing. Very few people involved are unaware of the dynamic between publisher, developer, and player, and the resulting flaws in games journalism. The games industry is kind of stuck with the culture it built, and cultural change is glacial. The uncomfortable gulf between good reporters and critics who don’t understand games and people with highly specialised knowledge of games who are stuck in the industry is closing, but slowly and naturally rather than in any revolutionary sense.

I already highlighted Tom Armitage and Offworld in the past week, and I’d like to add Duncan Fyfe and Iroquois Pliskin. Both of those posts are specifically about the industry press and criticism, and both are also excellent bloggers.

All media, no matter how long established, still has some tawdry, shallow attendant journalism and reviewing, as well as elitist circles that chatter about the necessity of audience education (Which is sometimes worthy, and sometimes nothing more than an attempt at memetic reproduction). The presence of such extremes and everything inbetween is simply an indicator of a healthy culture. Exactly the same stratification is going to occur with coverage and discussion of games. Just as with every previous form of media, it’ll take a long time. The good news is that it’s inevitable.

(Image from Beyond Good and Evil)





Offworld, Left 4 Dead Intro

4 12 2008

Left 4 Dead

Offworld was also recently launched by Boing Boing, and along with Rock Paper Shotgun appears to be a stalwart and interesting games blog that updates a lot yet is above the standard of typical games blogs like Kotaku and Joystiq.

One of the posts that caught my attention the other day was this one about Left 4 Dead’s intro video. I’d picked up on the approach it took to the game, but not that it was a tutorial. I think that’s an excellent bit of insight.

Tutorials don’t necessarily have to be interactive: give people the right information and space to play together and they’ll generally figure things out. Nonetheless, many games take the patronising approach of “This is the button to jump. Press the button to jump! Well done! you just jumped! Now creep. This is the button to creep. No, don’t jump on that. Go back and creep. I’m not letting you do anything else until you do as you’re told.”

The “shopping list” approach to the Left 4 Dead video in terms of introducing the enemies and game mechanics is the kind of thing that make s a TV show or film look lazy and unfocussed, but I think it works exceptionally well for expressing a videogame through passive media.





Infovore: Momentum

3 12 2008

Mirror's Edge

I’m going to be talking a little bit about the games press and criticism here for the rest of this week, as the relationship between the games press and game developers/publishers is something that’s been bothering me a lot over the past month or two.

Good criticism of games is also something that’s been very rare in the past, and I’ll be highlighting standout work on this as and when I find it. This week, Tom Armitage posted an excellent critique of Mirror’s Edge at his blog Infovore, which was a really refreshing change from reading the usual “me too” reviews and previews.





Reduction in Reviews to Hit Indies?

13 10 2008

From the Introversion forums comes disturbing news that online game review sites may be cutting back on reviews. Money quote:

We’ve heard disturbing rumours from more than one source that major games websites are now cutting back on the number of games they review – and it’s games like Multiwinia that are getting dropped because there will always be hundreds of bigger games. If this is true and is widespread (as we are starting to believe), it has grave repercussions for all indie developers who rely on press reviews as their primary form of publicity.

Rock Paper Shotgun has a good overview of it all, including why games like Multiwinia struggle for exposure in print too, including flat out refusal from one magazine to review Multiwinia now or ever.

Both trends are extremely troubling, because while the long tail and digital tools may have ended certain forms of scarcity, much of the long tail is still pinned down to it. Development costs, even on small games, necessitate that sales migrate up the long tail to cover them. To do this requires a decent sized and intelligently applied marketing budget, and even the best marketers can’t successfully sell a game on the back of nothing. Business, even in virtual goods, is still pegged to a great many kinds of scarcity, and cutbacks at review sites threaten to recentralise a lot of trends and cultural mindshare.

For my part, as well as Rock Paper Shotgun I’d like to link to both Multiwinia and TIGsource. On the basis of things I’ve witnessed firsthand in comics, I strongly suspect that review sites are missing a trick by not highlighting the best indie games. The typical fodder of games over the past 25 years only became mainstream by the neglect of other markets. As shown at the links above, there’s a culture of people looking outside of that, and it could well become the real mainstream rather than a niche.





Dan Houser: “Fuck all this stuff about casual gaming”

6 05 2008

Boom Blox

Rockstar North have always been very culturally switched on, but now not only are they expressing that in their games, but in the people they talk to publicly as well. Manhunt 2 seemed to signal a big change in the way Rockstar dealt with PR and controversy. They’re out in force to support GTA IV and are doing really well at hitting it home as a cultural event.

It’s easy to take Houser’s words out of context with everyone in the games press using those ones as the headline, but here’s the full quote:

Yeah, fuck all this stuff about casual gaming. I think people still want games that are groundbreaking. The Wii is doing something totally different, which is fantastic. We’re hopefully going to prove that there’s also a very big audience for people who want entertainment in another form, who think of games as being a narrative device that can challenge movies. We always said: We’re not going release a large number of games. They’re going to have the production values of movies. They’re gonna be about themes that interest us whatever the medium, instead of the weird, special video game–only themes that too many people make — orcs and elves, or monsters, or space. We felt you could make a good game and have it be about something we could actually relate to. Or aspire to.

Naturally, a lot of games are staying well away from release dates in the week after GTA IV landed, but interestingly, not Wii title Boom Blox, which is released on May the 9th in Europe. GTA IV will probably have little impact on it, given that the Wii is such a different market.

Together, Houser’s words and Boom Blox are quite a challenge to the shovelware that’s been inundating it (I like the idea of the Wii, but nothing has convinced me to get one yet. I live in hope).

The limits on the craft of games are mainly technical and financial. While it can be difficult and risky to push cultural limits outward by trying new things, the Wii and casual markets seem to have been catastrophically conservative so far.