Archive for the ‘Issues’ Category

The Ghost of Gaming Past

Posted on: July 9th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Insofar as I can recall, my first console was a surprise gift from a visiting relative, an unexpected and (at the time) incomprehensible boon. Gaming was still very new to the Russian mainstream, and while I understood enough to be excited, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. There were no commercials on the television. There were no video game magazines that I was aware of. Nobody I knew owned anything more advanced than a Game and Watch trinket, more mechanical marvel than digital art. The console came in a colorful (in that early 90’s way), tape encrusted box bearing a photograph of a black, plastic thingamabob. Both the lettering on the package and the instructions were printed in pictograms, mysterious and inscrutable foreign symbols. I’ll never know for sure what language the text was in. I’ll never find the box, even if, by some miracle, it still exists.

I don’t remember much of what transpired between our receiving the enigmatic treasure and those first moments of play. The system, which was, in fact, black and plastic, came with a single cartridge, which was yellow and plastic. When we turned it on, the television began to play a melancholy chip tune. There was a pixellated sky, a pixellated ocean, and a line of pixellated beach, complete with pixellated palm trees. On opposing sides of the screen stood two pixellated figures, presumably a man and a woman.

In the space between them stood a wall of more incomprehensible pictograms, each line marked by the much more familiar Arabic numerals. I quickly discovered that I could cycle from line to line using the directional buttons on the controller (which, at the time, appeared to be delightfully alien and thrillingly advanced, like some artifact out of a science fiction movie), and that moving past the bottom of the list would bring up a whole new page, make the man and the woman take a step toward one another, and move the big, pixellated sun down closer to the horizon. In the end, it was nighttime on the beach. The man and the woman sat together around a bonfire…I think. Or maybe they kissed? Google hasn’t been especially helpful (maybe I’m not searching for the right terms), so all I have to go on is my memory. How many copies of that bootleg cartridge were ever assembled, I wonder – a few thousand, a few hundred, just the one? How many are still intact?

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Summer Madness; The Lingering Effect

Posted on: July 3rd, 2014 by Arie Salih

It’s late out. I’m dressed in an old rustic brown striped coat, and I’m quietly staring at the Chicago skyline glittering from the abandoned rooftop of an old warehouse. I went up here to hack a ctOS server in order to get the power grid back on, and numerous activities have now surfaced on my map of the city. Most of these activities involve “Fixer” contracts to take down a criminal on a designated set path before they arrive to their destination, or “Gang” missions to clear out a large number of faceless goons, to help stabilize the city.

But none of the modes of engagement in Watch_Dogs feel more fascinating than taking a stroll around the city and enjoying the ambiance. I’ve been following BLANK, a fellow insomniac that’s drifting about in the late hours. Observing the pedestrian behavior of the random inhabitants in the city is a marvel in itself. On our walk around the block, I stop and am transfixed by the sight of a freestyle battle, complete with a boombox. Two rappers are flowing back and forth about guns and cars, while a group of onlookers move robotically in rhythm to the verses dropped in succession. Across the yard, I catch sight of a man juggling a soccer ball with great skill – awestruck by his endless energy in popping the ball up without letting it hit the ground.

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I must’ve watched BLANK kick the ball for nearly five minutes, before realizing that the freestyle battle has been looping. The character behavior that can appear so wonderful, and completely immersive, is broken if you stick around too long. It’s the lingering effect – a rule in open world titles; it breaks credibility if you stare hard enough, or wait around to see if something dynamic will occur. Often times, following a unique individual halfway across Chicago results in nothing more than a beautiful walk as the day/night cycle marches on outside of scripted missions. I carefully nudge the soccer aficionado enough to stop the juggling, only to be met with an angry remark (“HEY WATCH OUT!”). I watch the man enter a walking animation as the ball drifts into the street, as if he and I both were pretending that he wasn’t Franck Ribéry’s spiritual successor in the World Cup.

The dynamic behavior of NPCs, and a player’s interaction with the world, can vary dramatically. And that’s a piece of the open world genre that is evolving, but very slowly. As I ambled about in Chicago, trailing the insomniac, I paused and witnessed two drivers get into a fender bender. The tires screeched as a car went slamming into the back of another. I stopped trailing to watch the drivers get out of their vehicles – each muttering some expression of their own disappointment. Neither seemed to acknowledge the other’s presence, and each were trapped in their own thoughts about being upset with the situation. After nearly a minute of yelling out loudly (not at each other, but to themselves), they both calmly walked away from the scene, carefree as their smashed cars lay deserted and smoking in the street.

And it’s precisely this – that even in the best roleplaying scenario, I’m invisible. Utterly, and completely. Outside of prescribed crimes to intervene in, or mini-map objective markers placed to engage in a chase or assassination, I’m Aiden Pearce – a blank slate of a man, willing to destroy and kill thousands to protect his sister and nephew. I can be a vigilante when the notification pops up, signaling that a crime is about to occur. I can hack into other’s phones, read text conversations or listen in on phone calls, but I can’t speak to anyone. I get yelled at occasionally for disrupting another person from incessantly continuing their animated activity – usually by mistakenly bumping into them. I start to forget that my character has a voice, until I fall from great heights to hear his howling, or him grunting from pain. I don’t utter words, or have meaningful interactions with anyone in the city. I’ve got a phone – a phone to be endlessly entertained by: live vicariously through the funny little messages of other people, or hear terse phone calls that occasionally end in a bit of surprise. I can use this phone to spy on the people walking around, or playing soccer for hours, or to go on scary digital trips. In one, aptly titled “Alone,” I’m being hunted by city dwellers (transformed into monstrous robots) in the darkness, and I’ve got to creep about in order to liberate sections of the city without getting attacked. It’s a silent nightmare.

It reminds me of Leigh Alexander’s critical piece concerning power fantasies and the lack of interaction in Grand Theft Auto V (Link !). She writes: “I drive my shiny car around Los Santos and I kind of wish I had a turn signal. Stranded in traffic, I honk the horn over and over again, and nobody moves. I am triangulated by some missions, none of which I really want to do, stuck in the city’s web of repetition.” It’s a similar situation – we’ve got guns, batons to beat down the bad guys, and this time around, a phone to manipulate the environment to kill more bad guys. At least in this iteration, there’s a new emphasis on stealth-killing all the “red ones,” in closed areas, if you so choose, even as the plot remains mired in family melodrama and superficial hacking psychosis. But there’s the rub – the story mission markers directly force you into closed areas to take out enemies. The more open, expansive backdrop of Chicago is there for you to peacefully enjoy how you see fit, silently. Just don’t linger too long.

Quiet Moments in Los Santos

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Arie Salih

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I often find myself defending Grand Theft Auto V- despite it’s heavy-handed misogyny and restrictive narrative structure – as a grand wandering simulator. As the appeal of the “gangster” shtick slowly devolves into movie-inspired tropes, it’s the vastness of Los Santos, in both environmental variety and technical details, that makes it feel sentient.

Much of the critique of the GTA series as a whole revolves around it being an absurdist male power fantasy. As the years have gone by, however, I have heartily enjoyed the peaceful exploration of the meticulously crafted digitized cities Rockstar presents in stark contrast to the stories that are utilized to give the game world purpose. It’s been nearly seven months since the game came out. And after blazing through a typical tale of criminal male empowerment for 40 or so hours, I’ve spent all of my time in the game observing the smaller technical details of Los Santos.

In a third person open world game, there seems to be an increasing divide between how a player interacts with the game environment and how he or she plays through the confines of typical mission progression. The genre can’t seem to escape the trappings of minimap objective markers that initiate linear shoot-out setpieces or basic fetch quests in order to tell an overarching story. The introductory missions of every GTA game excite me the most- it’s here where my imagination runs wild with the unique possibilities of how to be immersed in the new environment. Slowly getting adjusted to the evolution of the Euphoria engine, the introduction to Franklin’s dog Chop, and a return to arcade-inspired driving controls felt both comforting and novel. The more responsive character movement, the shifting of weight from one foot to the other when walking, and the quicker turning radius is what I noticed immediately, especially after having spent so much time with GTA IV. Although movement is still slightly sluggish, the improvements allow for easier navigation when exploring.

And oh, it’s the places you’ll go in GTA! And it’s the little bits that mirror reality in unexpected ways that continue to surprise me. Pedestrians take shelter and cover their heads when it rains, the character you’re controlling looks in the rear view mirror as you press the button to look behind you in traffic, puddles are left over after a storm and campfire dance parties litter the beach at night. It’s the attention to detail that is absolutely astounding to me, and also slightly bewildering. Why do I take comfort in a videogame emulating reality in unexpected ways? The shattering of glass from stolen car windows left on the street, the heavy kickback of a pistol, enemies dragging one another into cover or writhing in pain when shot but not killed. I revel in the fact that the game attempts to recreate the most mundane aspects of city life along with the nasty realism of gun violence, but it’s not with the intention of playing the character roles Houser and Humphries have written.

This is precisely the reason Grand Theft Auto still entrances me. My version of Trevor is wearing a polka dot dress and has a lumberjack beard. We go hunting for animals occasionally, and spend most of our time flying in a Luxor mesmerized by the glimmering neon city lights reflected on the water. The importance of grand heists and sociopathic behavior seems utterly muted, and there’s a sweeping sense of isolation in my own interactions with both the character and the environment. Slowly ambling in the Chilliad Moutain State wilderness, pacing back and forth between the trees, feels completely serene. Each player’s interaction with Los Santos is inherently different- whether her or she plays a psychopathic serial killer with an affinity for assault rifles, or a reclusive mountain biker looking for a new trail away from the skyscrapers. The linear narrative presents completely different characterizations for these men I’m moonlighting as. But it’s of no bother to me in my peaceful wanderings of the Los Santos urban sprawl. Between intermittent sessions of tennis and psychological appointments, there’s a strange disconnect between my interaction and that which has been prescribed.

As the series continues to evolve, it’d be nice to see more complexity in both mission design structure and written character motivations. If anything, the creation of Los Santos is a stunning achievement and the willingness to explore and appreciate the quieter moments of the digitized world can be absolutely blissful. Although I’ve been clamoring for a new female protagonist in an “Episodes from Los Santos” chapter, perhaps we’ll save that for another discussion. I’m off to meander by Nowhere Road, among the wolves and the orange hues of dusk.

Adolescent Male Power Fantasies Indeed!

Posted on: March 30th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

I liked the original Infamous (despite the wonky character animations and the campy story), and I really, really liked Infamous 2. It addressed all of its predecessor’s visual problems full-heartedly, and its story, while still campy, felt endearingly so. Frankly, I’m a sucker for tales of genuine bromance.

The most recent installment in the series didn’t exactly disappoint me. Yes, the side activities could have been a bit more engaging (I’m all for Banksy style stencil art, but pretending that my controller is a spray can and waggling it about for a few seconds doesn’t really a mission make). Also, I personally would have liked more challenge and did sort of miss the cover system. Still, Infamous : Second Son essentially delivered exactly what I had expected it to.

It is a solid Infamous sequel with absolutely astounding graphics: a comfortable, if not especially innovative, experience for the fans, and an excellent demonstration of next generation capabilities for the world at large. I mean, you really have to see it to believe it. At points, it felt as though the Patron Deity of Video was repeatedly punching me in the face with the full and awesome force of her magnificence. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Second Son’s story is decently written and, more importantly, extremely well acted. That Troy Baker has serious range. The game itself is a bundle of superhero fun, and I absolutely love the fact that you can, almost from the very beginning, take the baddies down without killing them, and that this proves to be a fun and challenging alternative to the standard slaughter-everybody playstyle.

In short, I really, really, really like Second Son. There is one thing, however, that bugs me, and just won’t stop bugging me. The karma system I’ve made my peace with. It is what it is. The uninspired side missions, and the fact that I am no longer being swarmed by baddies from every direction (something that I rather enjoyed about the earlier installments), only bother me enough for a quick grumble. The one thing in the game that really makes me uncomfortable (warning: feminist soapbox ready to deploy), the one thing that I truly found to be disappointing (in that it neither met nor exceeded my expectations), is the dialog spoken, in passing, by the randomly generated female denizens of Second Son’s virtual Seattle. Do bear with me here.

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The Curious Case of Anita Sarkeesian, Part Two (Wherein We Actually Get to Talk About Sexism in Games)

Posted on: January 21st, 2013 by Aleks Samoylov

If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you probably should go ahead and do so. To sum up, this latest rant of mine was inspired partly by the controversy surrounding Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project, and, to be more specific, both the treatment she received at the hands of a  vocal and active (hopefully) minority of male misogynist gamers, and the broader issue of sexism in Games and gaming that this case illuminates. To reiterate, some of the common, harmful responses to sexism in gaming that I will be addressing today are as follows:

– Big Developers cater to their target audience that, let’s face it, loves skimpy outfits and boobs, and, as such, sexism in games is unavoidable and a discussion of sexism in games is not worth the wasted breath. That’s just the way it is and always will be. Let’s just play and have fun and kill things. All this critical thinking is harshing my buzz.

– If you don’t like sexist games, just vote with your wallet and go Indie.

– Games are “Art” so don’t try to censor them!

– Games are just games. Who cares? You are being way too sensitive about that sort of thing.(Amazingly, this one was spoken in the same breath as the “games are art and thus shouldn’t be censored” argument).

So, let’s dig in and really talk about the meat of the issue, now that we’ve dismantled the straw man argument that deals with Sarkeesian herself having bailed on or failed at her project already (if you recall, we’ve established, using a few simple facts, that she’s done no such thing at the time of my writing this article).

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The Curious Case of Anita Sarkeesian, Part One (Wherein We Establish That She Hasn’t Missed a Single Deadline Yet)

Posted on: December 17th, 2012 by Aleks Samoylov

If you’ve been following Games during the last year or so, you’re probably aware of the strange but sadly not unexpected controversy surrounding Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project. If you haven’t, here’s a simple breakdown. Anita Sarkeesian is a female feminist blogger and vlogger who shares her ideas with the world on FeministFrequency.com. Like many ambitious young people do these days, Sarkeesian decided to try and crowd-fund a relatively simple project of hers via the very popular crowd-funding web service named above. If you aren’t familiar with Kickstarter yet, you should go check it out; it’s pretty cool. Anyway, said project would be an extension of her “Tropes v. Women” series, a relatively user friendly discussion of popular culture through a (of course) feminist lens. This series has already had six episodes, dealing largely with tropes in Film, Television, and Comics, and has touched lightly on Games as well. This new extension was to be a similarly modest series of videos, and would focus primarily on a feminist analysis of harmful tropes in Games specifically.

Just to clarify, for those of you who are peripherally familiar with the story, and may thus be, through no fault of your own, misinformed, she wasn’t initially asking for a huge amount of money (6000 USD), and the project was neither particularly ambitious in scope, nor revolutionary, unusual, or different in it’s basic nature/format. Many artists do use Kickstarter and Indiegogo to garner patronage for specific projects that do not have an inherent commercial component (that is, they do not produce a “product” that can then be sold and resold). Not too long ago, for example, a theater troupe from my beloved Baltimore (the Copycat Theater)  raised money to produce the second iteration of their experimental interactive live production (The Rooms Play), which, by the way was awesome. This is just one example. Not only was there no “tangible product” produced, but the intangible product was time limited, and directly localized. If you couldn’t come to Baltimore to experience it, well, you’d have to settle for a second hand version. Shows, performances, installations, and etc. show up on crowd-funding sites all the time, have since their earliest days, and will continue to in the future. These sites generally do not allow people to raise money for personal reasons (i.e. “I want a vacation/need to pay my rent/need to pay for medical bills”), but projects of all varieties tend to be fair game.

This is why I personally found the controversy that ensued (and still persists, alas) to be “strange,” to put it mildly. Apparently, an embarrassingly large contingent of male “gamers” felt so threatened by Sarkeesian’s fairly humble video blog that they took it upon themselves to conduct a large and systematic attack campaign (a war of sorts) against her as a person, instead of…you know, using their brains or acting like grown ups. What followed is a pretty disgusting example of cyber-bullying with a central, and very shameful, misogynistic component. You can view one of her talks on the matter for a glimpse of how egregious it really was. For our purposes, let’s just say that threats of physical and sexual violence were thrown around liberally, and Sarkeesian’s private accounts were hacked and vandalized. We aren’t in the objectivity business here, so I will go ahead and say that I personally cannot see any rational justification for that kind of behavior in any sphere of society by anyone ever. But I also happen to think that sexism and rape are very, very bad things, so…I suppose you can take my statements with a grain of salt. Maybe I’m too much of a “bleeding heart,” for thinking this way (sarcasm).

Anyway, that happened. As trolls often do, however, these charming gentlemen ended up sabotaging their own misguided “cause.” Trolls are, believe it or not, just a very vocal and active minority of internet users. If it is properly riled up, the less vocal majority of decent people does occasionally step up. As a result, Sarkeesian’s project wasn’t just funded. It was over-funded by a ginormous (yes, that’s a word) margin. Basically, enough to pay for the full time yearly salary of several skilled individuals (almost 159,000 USD).

So. Happy ending, right? Well…almost. If not for that almost, we wouldn’t have much to talk about. Every time I brought this story up, hoping to have a frank discussion of unfortunate sexist trends in one of my favorite media, or of issues of gender ex/inclusivity in said medium, and every time I saw it brought up elsewhere, some very interesting and troubling answers came out, often out of very intelligent, generally respectful people. Some of these answers were, of course, more troubling than others. The most common are, as follows:

– Anita Sarkeesian is a con-artist that never produced the intended product, or, if not a con-artist, a failure. She, in the words of a good friend of mine, “bailed.” Where are the videos we were promised?

– Big Developers cater to their target audience that, let’s face it, loves skimpy outfits and boobs, and, as such, sexism in games is unavoidable and a discussion of sexism in games is not worth the wasted breath. That’s just the way it is and always will be. Let’s just play and have fun and kill things. All this critical thinking is harshing my buzz.

– If you don’t like sexist games, just vote with your wallet and go Indie.

– Games are “Art” so don’t try to censor them!

– Games are just games. Who cares? You are being way too sensitive about that sort of thing.(Amazingly, this one was spoken in the same breath as the “games are art and thus shouldn’t be censored” argument).

Unfortunately, while it’s by far the least important or interesting of these claims, the first one should probably be addressed first. The rest will be covered in part two of this article, which, for the purposes of sanity, will be posted separately. So:

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