Big releases continue to drive the discussion this week, with Modern Warfare 2
's virtual terrorism, raising questions of social responsibility in simulation, the narrative efficacy of bombast, and the role of games in society. On the other hand, Dragon Age
raises questions of which genre and gameplay conventions have become the forgotten banana at the bottom of the backpack, carried forward on accident, unknowing of the mess you're causing with every step and bounce.
Mark Brown at Resolution Magazine looks into the difficulties of comedy in games
. I'm getting that out of the way now, because things are going to get serious from here on. Buckle up.
Worst Layover Ever: (Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian")
US cable news channels
have gotten wind of the "No Russian" airport terrorism mission
in Modern Warfare 2
, and the internet certainly had more to add to the conversation. Add to this that November 11 this week marked Veterans' Day in the US and Armistice Day elsewhere, and there's plenty of chatter on the ol' interbox.
Keith Boesky (A Tree Falling In The Forest) cites Reagan's "informed patriotism"
speech in rejecting the game for encouraging players to commit heinous acts. Among the many posts reflecting on or recounting personal experiences with the level, Gerard Delaney (Binary Swan) reads the level
as saying, "You must uncover this experience differently because it is different, accounting for the violence of the world in the game is not just about being a walking empowered gun."
But the more interesting thoughts were those that looked more closely at how well the level achieved what seems to be the goals in terms of establishing a strong pathos for the next levels of the game. It does not seem to fare well in this regard, as Phill Cameron (Resolution Magazine) considers how the level may have been less successful than intended
While Winda Benedetti (MSNBC's "Citizen Gamer") makes a fair point in focusing on how the FPS perspective heightens the emotions
of the game, the vast majority of response seems to be that the "No Russian" level fails to reach its own goals.
Rob Zachny reposted a previous post in honor of the holiday, complaining that historical FPS titles are less about war than about war movies
, and thus deliver all the double-stuffed Hollywood sentimentality that such entails.
Adam Sessler (G4TV) supports the idea of games dealing with these sorts of issues, but realizes this isn't a new argument, and so moves on to examine how effective the scene was
, citing (well, mis-quoting) Oscar Wilde's statement that "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written." (Historical fact: It's worth noting that Wilde wrote at a time when novels were still often viewed as less than worthy of labels such as "art" or "literature," and that Wilde was a main actor in breaking away from a popular conception of novels that insisted on moralist didacticism.) A good reference, nonetheless.
Trent Polack (Polycat) doesn't like the forced narrative of the level, seeing the lack of in-game choice
as a failing in the game's design, and prompting us to wonder if there may have been a batter way of presenting this story. "Meho" (Tap X Repeatedly) doesn't believe the game merits the scene
, since the choice to skip the level dampens any narrative or gameplay consequence of participating in the level's slaughter.
Tom Chick at Fidgit goes further
, saying that the game not only doesn't deserve the level, but that the overall atmosphere of Michael Bay-cum-James Bond action in the game (and the marketing's previous demonstration of crassness with the "F.A.G.S." video) discourages the player from seriously considering the level, thus turning tragedy into a sick joke. Tom Bissel at Crispy Gamer put it in no uncertain terms
About the best one can say about "No Russian" is that it is morally confused and dramatically lazy. Yes, of course, it is affecting and provocative -- but so is purposefully stomping on someone's big toe. This is essentially what "No Russian" does when it desperately needs to do much, much more.
Rocket-Propelled Grenades? Regularized, Perpetual Grinding? Racist Pig Game?
I'm still a little grossed out thinking about that banana metaphor. It's been a couple months since the last time I made that mistake, but I still smell it if I try.
is very much an RPG, built on RPG conventions for storytelling and gameplay. While this alone was enough to stymie
Mitch Krpata (Insult Swordfighting), Michael Abbott (Brainy Gamer) realizes that many complaints about the sameness or impenetrable nature of Dragon Age
may fall under a heading of "RPG tropes" or "genre conventions." But Michael calls out some longstanding RPG gameplay and design conventions for the dissonance they cause in light of the increased realism of the game's environments and more narrative elements. Some classic RPG tropes are beyond mere obsolescence
and may be a hindrance to the game and genre.
Michael is not alone in these frustrations. Shawn "Certis" Andrich (Gamers With Jobs) is frustrated with the linear HP model
that has persisted since Dungeons & Dragons
's multiple troops per figure into a 1:1 figure-to-character ratio. Luke Bergeron (Gamasutra blogs) calls out kill 10 "mobs"
and other assembly-line quests in particular, though Luke blames cross-pollination with MMOs.
Also on Gmaasutra's blogs, Brian Bush takes a different tack, asking if there may be useful narrative benefits to time-based
dynamics, such as results of spending time with characters rather than from dialog choices with that character.
Dynamic Characters, Character Dynamics
But I would be remiss if I skipped over the very real and continuing problems with the state of character design in RPGs and other games. Gerald Voorhees at Game Studies gets down, dirty and academic with a look at culture and race in Final Fantasy
, and Denis Farr (Vorpal Bunny Ranch) points out depressingly familiar ethnic privilege
issues in the design of Dragon Age
Side note: I also wanted to thank Denis for linking to Seeking Avalon
, which wasn't yet in my regular reading
. I love adding new RSS feeds!
Anthony Burch (Destructoid) previously called for better representation of sexual orientation beyond the heteronormal, and now returns after being challenged on whether games should mention sexual orientation
at all, instead of viewing them as purely ludological
, the way Evizaer (That's A Terrible Idea) presents them. Short version: Sexual orientation is an important part of human identity, and are thus important in establishing a character.
Narrative Structures, Possibility Spaces & Context
All the talk of MW2's
story makes me want to sing old railroad blues, but I'm going to forgo that in order to segue us into discussion that involves both challenging interactive cut-scenes and the multiple options with few final outcomes of Dragon Age
, namely a discussion of various levels of railroading and sandboxing in game design.
This week, everyone was passing around links to these visualizations
of Choose Your Own Adventure novels. I sort of wish we had these for every game, as a tool for analysis and critique.
Scott Juster at Experience Points maps out
the leeway of choice offered in Halo
and Professor Layton
games, finding that Halo
is not, in fact, the most linear game "evar."
For those of you who may still think that all this story nonsense is window dressing at best, and that mechanics and dynamics should stand on their own to create meaning, Jeff Tidball explains his recent talk on the psychological importance of narrative context
. Do take a look at the numbers Jeff cites: Objects given narrative context can be worth more than ten times as much in hard currency. Meanwhile, Wai Yen Tang brings into the discussion a recent study on non-digital immersion's
effects on our human reactions and choices; the right setting can steer players to being more outgoing for the sake of others.
Hypertextual Immersion, Paratext & Ethics
Then again, there is another side to context. Andrew at Tales Of A Scorched Earth looks at ethics in the nihilist nihilist playground of Prototype
. Marcus Schulzke has a an article up at Game Studies on ethical decisions in Fallout
, and Jason Tocci at Geek Studies has a similar piece, looking at permadeath and emergent ethics
in Far Cry 2
. But, as you may have guessed in reading all the discussion on the ethics of "No Russian," game ethics are growing.
This week's Escapist issue on health and games
points to games growing beyond the dynamics of their explicit programming, and that's not the only way games are growing. Clint Hocking's speaking tour stop at MIT
is online, wherein he alludes to the possibility (in perhaps different ways than before) that games are moving away from the immersive model of Generation X and into a sprawling, hypertextual immersion characteristic of the broad spans of identity of Gen Y via social networks and the like. Take that and combine it with talk about community management for games, or with Adam Ruch's new Game Studies article on whether World of Warcraft
really is a service as the game's end-user license states, or is more a virtual space
. Combined, we can build on current considerations and enhance discussions like another Game Studies article on multiplayer ethics
Shane Liesgang's talk on disruptive construction
indicates Shane's belief that procedural rendering of large and complex environments will be a driving factor in this next phase in the evolution of games. Michael Abbot's Brainy Gamer podcast with Brenda Brathwaite and John Sharp goes one further, talking about a major cultural shift from an age of visual information into a new ludic age
The Brainy Gamer podcast also revolves around discussion of art games, which Joshuah Bearman at the New York Times think may be poised to steal the limelight from AAA titles
News & Events
Some of you have probably heard of this (and shame on you for not passing it along to me!), but SCAD, GA Tech and other Georgia institutions are hosting a symposium titled The Art History Of Games
4-6 Feb 2010 in Atlanta, Ga. Developing a better understanding of the context of games isn't so far from the Context Clues mission, and I heartily endorse the idea. (I heard about this via Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer podcast
Nick Montfort reports back
from the Network as a Space and Medium for Collaborative Interdisciplinary A...
workshop in Norway, which seems to be full of neat stuff.
Joe Rheaume at Games Can Teach reports on entries to TIG's Adult/Education Competition
The Montreal International Game Summit
is going on right now
Jesper Juul will be speaking in Mainz on Thursday (possibly to honor my birthday?) on the subject of "Stories That Games Tell: The Future of Time and Narratives in Video Games
The Critical Gaming Network's Critical Glossary
has been updated.
As always, feel free to contact me (here via note or comment, or @erik_a_hanson on Twitter) if you would like to point out something you think I missed, or if you'd like me to check out a site to add to my weekly review. You can also find me in Google's vast virtual empire as Erik Alan Hanson. And be sure to check the VGHVI events section, both as a reference and to add any events you think are worth including.