Monday, July 27, 2009

Editorial Rant: This is a Spectacularly Stupid Article.

Okay so the vidyagame press is not expected to be on the same level as the Wall Street Journal (and honestly I wouldn't want it to be) but reading this article makes me wonder if some in the profession are even capable of understanding the basic argument they're talking about.

So yeah, it's a "What's the Citizen Kane of gaming?" article. As the author points out it's a dumb question, clearly you're not going to find any game that's perfectly analogous to Citizen Kane. And Citizen Kane largely doesn't represent what a lot of people think it represents. But if you break the debate into the implied questions you can actually make some headway into proving games as a culturally important medium.

The implied questions are

1.) Can games achieve a thematic complexity (or in game terms Narrative complexity) similar to Citizen Kane?

The answer to this is yes, as long as whoever is writing the thing is good enough games can be as thematically complex as any other medium. There is an argument that because games allow interactivity they are thematically alterable and therefore can not be as complex as older immutable media. This is of course 90% rubbish. Try as hard as I can Mario will never be about the experience of war in the same way as Call of Duty. I concede that it's possible that in some rare cases the player's interaction can alter the thematic content but I think it's important to remember that emergent gameplay is the exception not the norm (in that the majority of videogames contain none). Now are there any examples of existing games with the thematic complexity of Citizen Kane? Well I'd argue Planescape: Torment takes a good stab at it, in fact it's even remarkably thematically similar, both are about uncovering the identity of a man, a man who changes constantly, who wears and discards masks at will and more importantly they're both also concerned about what makes someone, well, someone. Or to put it like Planescape: Torment "What can change the nature of a man?" Of course Roger Ebert is going to argue that Citizen Kane deals with the subject matter much better, but honestly I preferred Planescape: Torment's meditation on the matter more. It's worth noting that literally none of the games on the list come close to featuring Kane's thematic complexity.

2.) Can games achieve a formal complexity (or in game terms Ludic complexity) similar to Citizen Kane?

Of course they can, in fact most videogames already have. You want to know what's so formally complex about Citizen Kane? Simple deep space photography and the way Orson Wells used it to create Realism. Oh and I don't mean realism in the sense that it looked real or that it was about realistic subject matter. No I mean Realism in the cinematic sense to say that it attempts to capture a time and place honestly, without the use of flashy techniques to artificially heighten the drama (Actually it does this too but considerably less than say Einsenstien or even the other Hollywood pictures of the day). Deep space photography is not important because it allows you to keep everything in focus it's important because keeping everything in focus allows for staging techniques that are much more naturalistic (and give the viewer more freedom in what they watch) than constant editing. All the other stuff people go on about Kane innovating was widley used before Citizen Kane hit the scene. Anyway, what would I use as an example of a game with the formal complexity of Kane? Well if you wanted, like, mathematical complexity then a first edition dungeons and dragons book should do it but that feels like cheating. I'd say Half Life 2 would be the better bet. It's streamlined level design is easily as sophisticated as anything in Kane and perhaps more importantly it's all done for a reason, it's all deliberate. To me that sounds like a grown up art form (though not necessarily an art form for grown ups).

3.) Can games achieve a level of mainstream acceptance and influence similar to Citizen Kane?

Oh god this one is hilarious and to fair the author of the article in question does get this right. See the beauty of this question is that it goes to show that the people who ask it know literally jack shit about Citizen Kane. To set the record straight, Citizen Kane was a massive commercial failure. The studio RKO almost went out of business the thing was so unsuccessful. It wasn't even particularly loved by the industry. It only won the academy award for best screenplay. What's worse is it isn't even a particularly influencial film. The building blocks of today's Hollywood were already in place before Citizen Kane, it's dark character driven drama is hardly the standard, and even it's stylistic techniques are rarely used outside of the art house. PacMan has more mainstream influence than Citizen Kane. So why do people even talk about Citizen Kane? That brings us to final and perhaps most important question.

4.) Can games achieve a level of academic acceptance and influence similar to Citizen Kane?

This is the real stumbling block. See the reason Citizen Kane became the official Greatest Movie Ever is because Andre Bazin became the world's most respected film critic (mainly for that Realism stuff I talked about earlier) and he loved Citizen Kane. I know that sort of paints film critics as a bunch of group thinking sycophants, and well they sort of are. Most academics sort of are. You've heard "great minds think alike?" Well so have they. And if you want to be taken seriously you need to familiarise yourself with the important theorists. Now videogames are gaining acceptance in academic circles, game studies topics are sprouting up all around the place, which is a good sign. So the thing is, for anything to gain the kind of zeitgeist cultural legitimacy Citizen Kane enjoys it's going to need champions. Importantly, champions who know what they're talking about. Which is why it pains me so much to read about Tomb Raider

Pioneered: Three-dimensional exploration, climbing puzzles, breasts.

Really that's how you want to roll Gamesradar? You're going to put Citizen Kane against Tomb Raider and say Tomb Raider is as important because it has breasts in it? I may be over simplifying the dude's argument here but you know what? Fuck you. Look I have no beef with this list as some sort of general "Here's a bunch of games that we think are really important to the medium's history and culture." But you want to play with the big boys of discourse and compare these things to Citizen Kane? Well that means grow up and read some real theory.

Try starting here.

Man and I don't even like Citizen Kane.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines

Year: 2004
Rating: ***
Bloodlines is not a particularly old game but it feels like a throwback. Unsurprisingly I like that. Also this is a long one so buckle in.

My first exposure to pen and paper RPGs was Vampire the Masquerade. I'm not sure why I'm bothering to tell you that I mean it's not like I was ever really into it. Some friends and I played a couple of sessions but we never finished a campaign. Hell our sessions didn't even bother with half the rules and usually just degenerated into frenzied desperate battles. But I do distinctly remember the moment I killed a SWAT officer by drowning him in a toilet. You see a simple bank robbery had gone south and turned into a hostage situation. The DM had sent in the SWAT officers in an attempt to keep things lively. I was guarding the toilet when one of them busted through the window. There was a struggle, I may have been a vampire but as one of the wussy artfag (Toreador I think they were called) vampires I wasn't exactly a warrior. However I did manage to wrestle him into a toilet cubical, push his head in the toilet bowl and hold him till he drowned (Why didn't I just shoot him? He was wearing body armour silly). I remember thinking "Well you can't do that in a videogame."

And I was right, to this day I've never played a cRPG that let me drown a dude in a toilet bowl. Really when you think about it it's something sorely lacking in the genre.

Anyway Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines understands it's limitations as a videogame but like the best cRPGs it manages to capture some of the magic of those silly pen and paper sessions. Namely by giving you a large skill set to pick and choose from and then letting you improvise.

For example let's talk about a quest called Hot Stripper Assassin Action.

The quest begins when a sexy burlesque vampire named Vesuvius tells you about a Vampire Hunter working Hollywood Boulevard undercover as a 2 dollar stripper in a shady porn store. She wants you to kill her but she also wants you to keep it quiet, don't kill any innocents and don't let anyone witness it.

Your options are
1.) You can either kill every thing that moves, leaving no witnesses, Vesuvius super pissed and you'd lose some Masquerade points and Humanity (we'll get to that later (that stuff needs getting to later should tell you something about the complexity of this game's choices and consequences))

2.) Solve the quest in the best possible way, leaving no innocents dead, no witnesses, Vesuvius super happy (oh and if your seduction is good enough she might in throw in an extra "reward") and the biggest xp reward. But doing so is much harder and not even possible for all character builds.

3.) Kill an innocent because either you had to or it was just easier, Vesuvius won't be happy but you might be able to talk her round. You'll lose some humanity but your Masquerade points will be fine.

4.) Leave a witness because you couldn't get rid of them but didn't want to kill anyone, Vesuvius won't be happy but you might be able to talk her round. You won't lose humanity but you might lose Masquerade points (Don't quote me I haven't tried this option yet and if you don't you should.)

That's not a bad amount of complexity there, it still can't match the near infinite possibilities of a pen and paper game but for a cRPG we're moving in the right direction. Also a really important point I want to stress is your options are always open to you, if something isn't working you can change strategies on the fly. You could describe this quest as containing a moral choice but it's handled in a way that is totally different than 90% of moral choices in games in that it's a choice you make as you play rather than a choice you make purely in the dialogue or worse quick time event. For some perspective this is how I think Bioware would handle the same situation.

Vesuvius now has no moral qualms about the death of innocents she just orders you to leave no witnesses. You go to the porn store, to begin with there are no witnesses you are aware of. You kill the stripper-assassin. Then out of nowhere a witness pops out of hiding. She promises to never tell a soul if you let her live.

1.) Tell the witness "Prepare to die bitch" then sit back and watch a short cinematic of your character killing the witness. Vesuvius will be happy and give you a big reward but you'll lose light side points (or whatever they're calling it these days.)

2.) Tell the witness "Okay I believe you, stay safe" then sit back and watch a short cinematic of the witness running away. Vesuvius will be pissed and might half your reward but you'll gain light side points (or whatever they're calling it these days)

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on Bioware, I mean I've really enjoyed every game they've ever made but it seems to me they rely on binary in dialogue choices far too often. These are situations where you know I'm making a choice now and really your choice will boil down to whether you're playing as a Sith or a Jedi (Or whatever they're calling it these days) this time round. Even when they give the two factions some interesting philosophical flavour (like Mass Effect's Utilitarianism versus Moral Law dynamic) the (for serious lack of a better word) mathematics are the same. In Bloodlines you kill the innocent not because you're presented with a single moment where the game comes to a screeching halt and asks "quick pick a side".You kill an innocent because you decide that it's easier that way, and you do it when you want to do it and you do it how you want to do it, and more importantly you do it. Which means it's not a damn cinematic in the middle of dialogue it's something you actually do in game.

So about that Humanity Masquerade thing eh? Basically Humanity represents how in touch with your humanity you are and Masquerade keeps track of how low key you're being. So kill an innocent where everyone can see you? That'll lose you both son. Do it in a quiet alleyway where no one will know? Well that'll just lose you some humanity. It gets a little spicy when you run across quests that involve murdering innocents to protect the Masquerade. Two ways of measuring a character's morality... interesting, two ways that occasionally come into conflict with each now we're getting somewhere (remember conflict equals drama). Oh yeah and rather than being some meaningless stat these have in game effects. Lower your Masquerade too much and vampire hunters will start tracking you down. Even better lower your humanity too much and you might start to frenzy meaning when low on blood you might lose control of your character and he'll suck some poor civilian dry (possibly threatening his standing with the Masquerade). Oh yeah and frenzy isn't actually totally a bad thing because while it sucks when you're walking around peacefully it's handy in combat basically enabling some vicious insta kills that also top up your blood supply (which we'll get to later). If you reduce either Humanity or Masquerade to zero you lose. "Wait so I can't even be a bad guy in this game" I hear you ask. Well yes you can it's important to remember that Humanity and Masquerade do not equal good and evil. At no point does the game tell you if you're good or evil. That's up to you.

So as a system it all works but what about it's soul, any good RPG stands or dies on the merits of it's world and characters. Bloodlines is fantastic at portraying a dark and sexy combination of goth decadence and urban heat. It's interesting that much of goth fashion is influenced by German expressionist cinema, while Film Noir mixed the urban crime drama of serial noir pulp fiction with cinematic techniques borrowed from the same movement. Bloodlines grabs these two distant cousins, throws them in a blender and seasons liberally with other bizarre and arcane references. A reference to obscure art house zombie movie Dellamore Dellamorte? Okay. A Tarentino like budding script writer working in a shitty motel? Sure. Under-age Japanese demon hunter? Fuck yeah. Plus the writing is top notch with some fantastic little flourishes. You know I used to dig a lot of goth stuff and over the years I'd started to forget why, Bloodlines reminded me. It's sexy. It's dark and sensual because it hints at taboos while not necessarily spelling them out. Every fishnet stocking, or spiked arm band hints at tantalizing unspeakable perversions but they only hint. Everyone likes to walk on the wild side even just a little. Which brings me to what holds together this entire game. Blood.

Blood is the most important part of the vampire mythos and as one of the characters of Bloodlines tells you.
"It's your new fucking heroin."
Blood let's you use spells which range from simple buffs through to bullet time, invisibility, and more traditional magic missile stuff. Every character needs to use spells, so even combat monsters are going to want a steady supply of blood and you ain't going to get more blood from potions. Before any major mission you're going to want to top up your blood supplies. If you don't like harming innocents you can buy from the blood bank or hunt sewer rats. But store bought blood is expensive and finding enough sewer rats is time consuming. If your seduction is high enough you can seduce a few mortals into giving up the crimson liquid for free. Or you can pay hookers. Or if you have no moral qualms feed off the homeless in dark alleys but homeless don't give as much blood as rich folk. For that you might need to stalk some blue blood into the toilets and feed on him while he's at the urinal. Or if your a good enough warrior (and fighting humans) you can just feed mid-combat. No matter which way you choose to get your fix you're always presented with the same choice. Stop feeding early, keeping your pray alive, or drain them dry. Draining they dry would of course lose you some humanity. Here's the thing no matter how much you tell yourself you're going to play the "nice" way the temptation is always there to just let the victim die. You might resist, but every time you feed that thought will still be there "If I wanted to I could kill them". Apparently in most games that allow moral choices the overwhelming majority of players decide to play good. That's because in most games evil is just simply not seductive enough. In Bloodlines murder is a constant temptation.

Of course all that is great but this game has to come with a huge caveat, I almost don't really want to mention it. It's not the bugs. At launch this thing was buggier than an anthill but the community has done a wonderful job patching it. It's not the mediocre combat, I don't expect much from RPG combat and if it wasn't for the real problem the bad combat would be totally ignorable. The problem is level design, specifically the level design of most of the big plot line quests. In short they are overly long, repetitive and confusing to navigate. Not all of them are, there's a hunted house near the beginning that's excellent. But from about the sewer crawl on the large set pieces become exercises in frustration. Really there's no point singling any of them out for extra attention they're just all horrible, it kills the game dead.

But I have a suggestion (not that anyone will listen). You know how this thing was really buggy but the community fixed it? I'm just throwing this out there but why doesn't the community fix the level design. Anyone in their right mind can see it's broken, so why doesn't someone do something about it. I know this would set a dangerous precedent for any game that sucks needing to be fixed by the community (although to be fair the precedent was set when the community needed to fix Oblivion's terrible level scaling) but the thing is Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines deserves to be fixed I wish I could go out and recommend it to everyone I know but at the moment I can't. If they solved the issues then maybe this diamond in the rough could start getting the recognition it deserves.

(And sorry for the parentheses)

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Plug

Sorry for the lack of updates. But I have got a sexy new project I'm working on. It's a machinma soap opera using the Sims 3. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and like I said before it is sexy.

I'll post another review once I've played something that isn't the Sims 3.

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