Monday, 8 October 2012

Writing about writing about the music in video games, and a nostalgic story

So, Video Game music again. Probably the last for now; I feel this topic ended up being a lot less simple to explore than I had given myself credit for. To put my frustrations simply: cutting through what I’ve felt is a common element of most prose that discusses music has proven troublesome. That is—and I may be mistaken—that conventional discourse on music often seems to end up as either very specific or very general, and that striking a decent balance is enormously difficult. The former approach fits comfortably in a corner of musical theory or in unfolding one of the many musical genres that’s been carved out over the years. To link a point out of specific tones, styles and compositions to the life-span of video games as a whole, though, feels like tenuousness and verbosity combined. On the other hand a more general and perfunctory kind of approach picks up a great deal of rapidity (and so over-all form). Sadly an equal measure of specificity and detail are lost in the process.

This kind of balance between style and substance is not uncommon, and yet the extent to which music can be so scrupulously picked apart and analysed cannot be over-stated. It will be a little while before I can find a satisfying balance, but I will find it eventually. I have a feeling it lies somewhere on the side of detail, but that the actual result is, by necessity, a much slower and more lumbering thing than I thought initially. In any case, it’s something I need to keep an eye on. For now I’ll wrap things up with what I feel is one of the largest hurdles to actually talking about video game music: the narrative of nostalgia-led listening.

I believe strongly in the power of narratives to fundamentally affect the way we view the world. More pertinent here, though, is the effect narratives (the more pervasive and simple the better) have on the language and demeanour we adopt when discussing most anything we have familiarity with. This has all been a long way of saying that different ideas are invariably viewed through prisms that are shaped by experience; we naturally identify shared narratives, drift towards them and then react. Our collective reactions to these narratives, though beginning privately and individually, can coalesce into another shared narrative which we are in turn prompted to react to once again.

The thread I wanted to pick out is the placement of nostalgia in all of this: among a group as attached as the video gaming community is to objective facts and tangible numbers, the impression of bias that a strong nostalgic connection to something represents puts an implicit burden on the individual to address it. We have all read gushing sentiments for games that strike as ultimately empty or clichéd, more often than not prefaced with the admission that the author was very young, care-free or otherwise occupying a generic ‘better times of yesteryear’ position when they first played it. We don’t enjoy them because they often fail to give us something tangible or unique to attach and share with the experience other than ‘it was really fun’ and ‘childhood and friends are nice’. This perception of inadequacy in description gets wrapped up in the all-encompassing ‘nostalgia-led’ narrative: a game that may or may not be good gets played a lot during childhood, resulting in an abundance of admiration that may or may not have ‘actual’ merit; a narrative of much doubt. As a collective reaction to this we pre-emptively check our own language to filter out the same inadequacy we perceive in the descriptions of others, while perhaps ignoring the fact that there is a slender segment of games that could evoke the same kind of general expressions of fond memories without tangible cause in us. This is ultimately why, without properly contextualised hard critical endorsement (or at least the impression of it) of the games we loved from the past, we veer toward nostalgia guiltily.

Just as a seemingly huge number of people would place Final Fantasy VII in that slender segment of gush-worthy games, so, too, would the corresponding reaction of many be to denounce the game as ‘overrated’. I think one could go through the game’s execution and the context into which it was released and find some form of ‘objective’ merit, but that’s not the point here: ‘overrated’ is the explicit challenge we put to ourselves; to explain why something so blissfully adored is deserving of that praise. Turning (finally!) to the music we remember enjoying from the past, though: contextualisation and analysis here is something just as complex as in the full gameplay itself, without the benefit of such wide-spread dedicated discourse as there is toward gameplay. To sever the burden of the nostalgia-led narrative here requires a whole different set of interpretive skills; un-intuitively divergent study of music genres, theory and machine capability. And even after this, articulating ‘why this music is objectively good’ is enormously difficult, and only made harder by the barrier of nostalgia-avoidance in current discourse.

I think the assumption that older celebrated games are only aided by the perception of nostalgia is the most common mistake that needs to be considered. A decent example of playing with a prejudice that subverts the general narrative is that I didn’t play Chrono Trigger until a decade after its release (thanks, in part, to no European publication). The idea of this title being a font of nostalgia-bound over-enthusiasm was well embedded by this point. Newcomers of differing tastes would throw out what a disservice had been done in overrating Chrono Trigger; a lot of ‘rose-tinted glasses’ type stuff. A part of me knows that there is a fragment of truth here, even musically: the tracks are small and oft-repeated, and more than one standard battle theme (used) would have been nice. But this is where expectations are tempered by reality: I knew what the SNES was capable of and was attracted to Chrono Trigger’s reputation of having excellent music; I wasn’t disappointed. I didn’t need the Magical Joy of Childhood to appreciate the constraints it overcame, or its overall strong consistency. The ‘nostalgia-bias’ thread just seems silly to me when applied to my experience with that game.

I guess the point of all this is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea that elements that evoke a happier or more care-free time are irrevocably linked to some kind of childhood-bias. It’s a seductive idea, not least of all because it allows us to look at the games we enjoyed many years ago and just suppose they are magically linked to our empowering memories. This doesn’t hold up as a judgement-impairing force, though. I can’t say I find it terribly difficult to look at older games with celebrated soundtracks, but which I have no experience with, and hear for myself how they work. In the case of the first Castlevania (a game I first played, shamefully, four years ago) I understood the perception of nostalgia around it and the quality of its music. It was that initial attraction that led to me, apparently, wanting to strip myself of my objective position and subject myself to the game. Castlevania didn’t inflict itself on the soundtrack after I had already heard it; it simply remained solid composing with an impressive use of the NES’s capabilities.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Video Game Music and the Independent Identity Issue

Between mountainous peaks of self-analysis I had an idea that was actually conducive to creative output. Hell, it may even lead to some degree of scheduled content in the not too distant future. In any case, bear with me as I lurch into Muddled Video Game Musical Things!

A long while ago it occurred to me that discussion of the music in video games was often pushed to the side in favour of, well, everything else. Video games are capable of many different things; they use the devices of prose, comics and cinema, and their own sets of mechanical conventions, too. Over the last two decades these elements have widened immensely; there are simply more capabilities than ever before in every direction. Music is one element among many that vies for priority, and I can’t help but feel saddened when it's left wanting. I wanted to take some time to look into the position that music holds in video games at the moment, explore how it got there, and share some notable tracks at the same time.

I struggled for a while with how to approach a topic as wide as music in video games, and then it hit me: it’s the huge breadth of possibilities that make the discourse so difficult to frame. There are only light conventions that link games to music style: the disposition of certain dominant developers (and the composers therein) is one thread, but it’s too unhinged, unintuitive and variable. And thematic-genre, too; it seems more likely to affect a soundtrack than gameplay-genre, but there is so little consistency—and such rapid changes and convergences over the years—that even this convention ends up being about as useful as saying ‘cinematic games have cinematic scores’. The conversation of video game music is mired in tenuous threads between genres and conventions that are rarely discussed in a way that encompasses video games as whole. It’s something of a quagmire at the moment. The issue of taste hangs more heavily here than with other elements, too; it is much harder to articulate and defend musical preference than it is to point at pretty graphics and tight controls.

I’ve come to feel that the best place to start might just be a simple question of independence: to what extent can video game music be separated from the whole and enjoyed by itself? I’ve liked many tracks from games I’ve never played, but veering towards what I’ve experienced seems invariable. There is something to be said for the effect on a piece of enjoyable music when it becomes synonymous with a pleasurable experience. That effect amounts to more than just nostalgia, though; some of my fondest memories in gaming featured an occasionally laughable  soundtrack. And there were many sequels—like Tekken Tag and Mario Kart: Double Dash—that were fun and massively accomplished but, I felt, sorely lacked in soundtrack against their predecessors.

The obvious (and simplistic) answer to the independence question would be that an individual track that is good enough should be able to stand on its own. But there are too many pesky tangents and variables to be content with this position. There is the very simple commercial fact that an album like this (some of Blizzard’s music re-arranged by Eminence Symphony Orchestra) isn’t going to generate much outside interest. Even if the music itself reached some non-existent plateau of objective excellence its primary audience would still be the players of Blizzard’s games. Music isn’t consumed in a vacuum, and there is a lot of music out there; people are pushed and pulled by association and platforms, and very rarely is anything plucked from obscurity and listened to without some linking thread. Video games are a legitimate avenue to music but they are also unconventional, especially when the music is so dissimilar to what one might expect to hear on the radio or TV.

It wasn’t until the Playstation that real tones and tracks were even a viable option to console developers. Titles like Grand Theft Auto and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater made great use of mainstream bands and artists. Emulating a city environment with a believable radio was a ridiculously effective idea. Like-wise, loading up a game with artists who are popular among the exact people you want to play your skating game seems so obvious, but these practices had to start somewhere. By the time this new wave of ‘realistic’ games was in vogue, though, there was already a massive convention of simple synth and prominent melodies that formed into a genre of its own. This was originally a necessity of having precious little cartridge space; the composers had to make the best of a very limited set of tools and, in the process, a unique style emerged and many memorable tracks were produced. In more recent titles this convention seems clearest in throw-back indie games like ‘Castle Crashers’ and ‘Super Meat Boy’; stronger tones, way more voices, but still leaning on thick synth and prominent melody.

This style doesn’t just exist independently of games now, though; it flourishes. The fact of this chip-tune genre being created from video games speaks volumes about the significance of music to fans, developers and composers alike; the details, care and innovation does get noticed. A place like OCRemix (a superb site that I would recommend to, er, people who like music) wouldn’t exist without a multitude of folks ready to pull songs out of a gaming context. Musicians take memorable tracks and flesh them out, often into something more conventionally associable with standalone music. After all, what better way to get into music than by attraction to a well-known genre?

To bring things back to the independence issue, though, it can seem like this kind of objectivity isn’t absolute: potential listeners are going to be drawn to the titles they have played or experienced and, though a reinterpretation may be enjoyed, it was still dependent on someone having a reason to give a track a chance. But this is only a tendency I’ve noticed in myself from time to time. I’ve also come to love some fantastic remixes from games I’ve never even heard of, mostly on the strength of the artists’ consistency. I don’t think the link between enjoyed music and its constituent game can be fully ignored, but it can be overcome in the right circumstances; when the musical reputation of a game out-paces (or keeps up with) its other elements, or when dedicated musicians lift up their favourite pieces. All that’s really required—aside from a vague interest in music—is for people in the community to say things like, ‘Hey, I thought this was pretty good.’

 [Next time I'll be writing about nostalgia and the dread pandemic of 'rose-tinted glasses'.]

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

How Diablo 3 is Good-Bad and Western Fantasy is just Bad. (A Clumsy Metaphor-Assisted Review)

Sometimes I feel like if the entire sum of a game’s impact could be quantified it would be done in units of ire. Video game communities just aren’t all that good at projecting coherent positivity; it happens in these tiny pulses of ‘so cool’ and ‘it was fun’, but seldom monuments to satisfaction and appreciation. Finding ways to articulate why a particular game (or an aspect of it) is enjoyable can feel like an unnecessary challenge that ultimately hinges on an implacable sense of personal taste. Relating a perceived short-fall carries the supposition that weight and precision must support it, or else readers think the issue is, again, one of taste. It’s a shame: taste guides appreciation for refined mechanics as much as ‘good story’, but the former is more alluring for someone who wants to be (or, rather, appear) objective. So, as a consequence of being obliged to split games into themes and mechanics (and the disproportionate attention the latter receives due to being seen as more concrete), most corners are far more proficient at constructing nuanced towers of criticism and general discontent. Take Final Fantasy VII for instance, a game loved by many: the only sentiment I seem to see about it these days is that it is overrated; it has a simplistic system, sub-par models,  slow and easy battles, etc. You might get the idea that the game being described is something that should be avoided, but you’d be wrong! It still measures strong on the Ire-o-meter after all these years. Not an easy feat.

So, with that befuddling idea in mind, Diablo 3: it has accrued much negativity to climb through.  The core of this formed around the many perceived holes in the endgame; not enough scenery to support such a grind, grotesque leaps in enemy strength and an awkward homogeneity between characters of the same class and level. To draw attention only to this endgame aspect, though, implies that getting to that point is fine.  And it is! Skills are well-distributed and the growth in enemy power from Normal to Nightmare to Hell (the first three of four difficulties) is satisfying if somewhat constricting toward the end of Hell. Ordinarily I would say this bodes well; the last Dragon Quest game I played (the ninth, I think) suffered from what could be called—though somewhat carelessly, as these games are very different—the same problems: a dull and un-engaging grind-fest awaits you (Inferno difficulty in this case) once the main content is through. Sadly Diablo 3 doesn’t take an eighth of the time to get to that phase. The endgame to DQIX was an after-thought; Diablo 3’s endgame is the game.

If it’s assumed that players of an online RPG are necessarily sticking around because of how it plays (as opposed to things like narrative, themes and music) you get into a weird place where a mechanically tight experience can be fronted by almost anything, so long as it isn’t intrusive or jarring. In Diablo 3’s case this means inheriting much of its predecessors’ elements: randomly-generated maps (that are actually less variable than Diablo 2’s), the ‘going down’ convention of every dungeon, and a level of what I guess you could call ‘ambient goriness’ that is more ridiculous than horrific. Fan-service abounds: re-use of enemies, shameless amounts of namedropping, and outright ret-conning to bring established (though often peripheral) characters closer together.  It became clear after a couple of plays through the acts that reconciling this conservative and nostalgia-seeking approach with a streamlined and linear quest-to-quest formula makes for a very constricted experience that doesn’t even have the benefit of originality. And as I’ve mentioned: the ire-towers already tilt ominously over Diablo 3’s gameplay philosophy.

Most any other form’s critical circles would find the multitude of well-founded spires of frustration an indication that there are at least some issues here. As I said before, though, this is what communities do to games they like; they criticise the hell out of the specific bits they don’t like. But Diablo 3 has to contend with the invariable disappointment of fans of the series, too. Combine this with around a decade of development time and people are well within remit to slate the hell out of the finished product here. Except, technically, this isn’t a finished product: content patches are going to make a strong impact on people’s experiences over time. So much so that, in a year, Diablo 3 won’t really be the same game; its functionality will have been shifted, increased and further refined.

I think many players know to expect this shifting experience, which makes the breadth of negativity at the moment kind of odd. Or, rather, the lack of breadth: it can’t have escaped people’s notice that there is very little discussion around theming, narrative and art design here (beyond WoW comparisons and ‘I wish it was darker’). These are the aspects of the game which aren’t going anywhere unless Blizzard releases some sort of ‘Characterisation/Originality Patch’.  I’m trying to take into account the disproportionate focus that mechanical discussion tends to attract, but even still the disregard is plain. And the reason for this, I think, is also my biggest issue with Diablo 3. Many western Fantasy titles (and the worlds they build and inhabit) have come to suffer from an absurd amount of homogeneity; the over-arching ‘Not Middle Earth’ convention is ubiquitous, and its comfortable familiarity is too often the front for lazy and cliché-ridden story-telling. Diablo 3 distinguishes itself somewhat by way of its ‘Heaven vs. Hell’ slant, but despite this leg up it plays as though it is striving for the crown conservative story-telling. On the whole there is a fantastic inoffensiveness in Blizzard’s simplistic approach and lack of risk-taking. The more any given area is elaborated upon the more hackneyed and unoriginal it seems to become. Whether it was a wilful decision on Blizzard’s part to craft something so generic doesn’t really matter: you would have to pick through this game with a comb to find the slightest modicum of subverted convention.

The comfortableness of a world so much like all the other worlds we’re used to makes it easy to suspend disbelief and just march forwards.  This ultimately impacts the difficulty of critiquing specific aspects. The twist between Acts 3 and 4, for instance, is remarkably heavy-handed, but I would hate to give the impression that the plot was particularly subtle elsewhere. Likewise it is difficult to pick on the dizzying lack of imagination with regards to boss design when the entire world is just another Western Fantasy realm wrapped in clichés. The choice to have every antagonist update the player with periodic rampage-tweets, too, does nothing but underline the ridiculously generic depiction, however it would be careless to imply that characterisation is particularly decent elsewhere. It is very difficult to dive into a particular aspect here without feeling like I’m excusing everything that surrounds it. Suffice to say the expression ‘by-the-numbers’ was made for Diablo 3.

Okay, that all sounds pretty bad. To me the best parts of Sanctuary, as a world, were the parts I barely heard about; exposition through tiny scraps of dialogue about far-away times and places that actually leaves room for imagination. This comes in the form of piecemeal information about the different classes’ homelands, and from the supporting ‘mercenary’ characters: the Enchantress’s lost time, the Scoundrel’s relationship with his brother and the Templar’s dubious ‘Order’; these were all neat details that didn’t have to bear presentation in the game proper. The kind of un-seen minutiae that help Sanctuary not seem like the giant corridor that the gameplay gives the impression of.

The rapidity of the game can’t be denied, either: it is streamlined in such a way as to make misunderstanding almost impossible, and does so without clumsy tooltips or clunky tutorials.  I’d wager this massive disparity between professional critics and users is owed, at least in part, to how critics will necessarily favour games like this. Diablo 3 is engineered to appeal to them: it is simple, narrow and quick; the five classes are extremely distinct and—though very ‘etch-a-sketch’ in customisability— have a decent range of skills. Moreover it’s so compact, and steps away from convention so infrequently, as to push the player towards focussing on the clearly-refined gameplay; the stuff that holds it together is just taken at face-value. There is little to no point in trying to roam free of the main quest, too, so reviewers can guiltlessly push through to the endgame within a couple of days and have done with it.

Maybe this all makes more sense in the context of Blizzard’s conservative stint in recent years: Starcraft 2’s strongest trait was how it streamlined so many conventional aspects of RTS games into something tight and satisfying, but at the same time the degree of variance and the boundaries of skill-cap were both reined in significantly from Brood War. The last thing Blizzard did that could be considered innovative was sand all of the rough edges along conventional MMORPG models with World of Warcraft. I’m beginning to see a pattern. It feels bizarre that this is the company that invented (however inadvertently) the MOBA paradigm. But maybe this is the crux of what Blizzard excels at now: highly streamlined gameplay alongside thematic content so generic as to demean the form’s ability to tell stories.

Everything sounds kind of gloomy at the moment, but it isn’t all terrible: on its own merits Diablo 3 might have been seen as an extraordinarily tight throwback to dungeon-crawlers that falls victim to its own hubris in the endgame. Except ‘on its own merits’ has little meaning with a game that relies so much on being a sequel as Diablo 3. However you look at it, though, the implementation of the Real-Money Auction House was the unprecedented aspect here. Whether it helps the game or hinders it is a matter of much debate. As many angles as there are to the discussion, I simply feel I would prefer to play a game than to feel compelled to also play a market.

To bring the wheel full circle and look out from this folly of frustration; I still feel like I don’t know if Diablo 3 is a Good GameTM. Some will find it immensely fun even as they rattle off their qualms, but I am not one of those people. I don’t think Blizzard has any excuse for making something so reductive when they are in such a remarkably privileged position; this game was going to sell well regardless of how lowest-common-denominator Blizzard made it. It’s not as though they took risks in the gameplay to make up for this short-fall, either; it is significantly more like Diablo 2 than 2 was like 1. A lot of reviewers like to bottom-line their view with ‘Is it worth your money?’ If you are  enticed by the gameplay shots and have the cash to spare then you can probably get your money's worth in terms of play time. But this question conveniently sidesteps all of the far less well-off developers who actually try to innovate and make unique experiences, and also ignores the fact that we shouldn't feel compelled to vote with our money when half the game is sharp and the other half is blunt. I think time’s going to tell on this: will anyone care enough to spread their ire in a decade? I have a hard time imagining Diablo 3 being looked back on as ‘overrated’.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Forgotten Passive Skill of the Video Gaming Scene: Misogyny

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender diversity in the video game community recently or, rather, the lack thereof. The competitive circles—your Halos and your Soul Caliburs—are my biggest concern, but this is an issue that encompasses most aspects of the scene, so it would seem careless to be too specific. Anyway, first I need to apply some foundations.

I’m going to try to pre-empt the invariable negativity here and say that this isn’t about blaming any particular group of people for how male-centric things are; everyone is conservative to a degree. We learn what constitutes ‘normal’ and then adapt and that’s fine, up to a point. But what if the ‘normal’ is deeply flawed? It takes a certain amount of conscious thought and effort to propagate something better. I simply feel like this idea of progress is worth holding onto, even if it feels laughably optimistic at times. 

So, with that said, I’ll be blunt: the vast majority of gaming communities are wrapped in a passively misogynist demeanour (as well as being fairly racist and ableist, but these are distinct issues).   The reinforcements pervade through every active voice: from concept and 3D artists, whose objectifying designs apparently trump any kind of continuity of pragmatism; a user-base that thinks it’s totally fine to just assume ‘everyone is a man by default’; and marketing departments that push ‘AAA’ games like they’re Action Man for Man-Children. If these three things alone were ceased —the most outstanding examples of accepted widespread misogyny in the industry—we would find within a short period that video games really aren’t the ‘Other Man’s World’ they’re so often sold to us as. 

It’s no secret that the attitudes around what gaming is (and what a ‘gamer’ is) result in environments where people feel they have licence to be hostile and derisive. Hell, to this ‘Aris’ guy it is, quite literally, a licence to sexually harass. I’m not talking about what could be called ‘the nonsensical hate-stream’ here; that non-differential and aimless kind of rage is often more absurd than threatening to the average non-gendered player. It can potentially make an irritating experience for anyone, but for all of the lashings of hate-spiel a guy might come to receive while playing a game, he is never going to be made to feel that he shouldn’t be there because of his gender. The real issue is that—thanks in part to the ‘everyone is a man’ imperative—the attention towards female players becomes much more severe, and focussed.  Women are often made to feel compelled to remain silent in online games and not convey their gender, because ‘man’ isn’t just the default: it’s a casually-enforced standard of ‘normality’, and to deviate from it actually justifies harassment to some people. 

This point is largely rhetorical, but if men are the default, what does that make women? The harassment and shit-talk is the ugly forefront (and it is obvious by this point that it is not ‘just children’ who perpetuate it), but the justifications are laughably callous: things like ‘she should expect it if she’s so blatantly a girl’ or, ‘you should just not use your microphone if you can’t deal with it’. So, you can only be treated equally if you go out of your way to keep your gender to yourself? No one would ever say this to a guy because he was using an explicitly male name, so what does this really amount to other than silencing female voices and denying femininity? This line of thought is what happens when people conflate the average bad manner of online communities with what one should expect for having the audacity to be openly female. Put simply, treating everyone equally cannot possibly align with ‘everyone is necessarily a guy until stated otherwise’, but these positions, apparently, settle down together with disturbing ease.
This excellent piece explains eloquently how different kinds of privilege can be hard to perceive. This does not mean that everyone who has never paid thought to fixing things is at fault: societies are steeped in it. Unless you live in a sealed culture-proof box, this is normal. And by ‘normal’ I mean ‘something we are collectively saturated in.’ Still, I feel the need to say flatly this isn’t a zero-sum game of attributable ‘Privilege Points’ being picked at: trying to make the culture around video games more gender-inclusive simply serves the best interests of everyone who enjoys games. Well, maybe it doesn’t serve the interests of people who hate women? I don’t know, fuck those guys.  Explicit boundaries on gender are largely a thing of the past; no one (who gets taken seriously) says that women flat-out shouldn’t play games.  Implicit barriers, though, are very much alive, and out-dated ideas on gender are not unusual. In fact, they are usual: just look at a magazine or a music video and try to reach the conclusion that society offers us a balanced presentation men and women. The threads between different media can’t just be severed, and I feel that the video game sector is far less independent of the toxic mainstream than many of its fans might like to believe.

This position often leaves me feeling that all people can reasonably do is minimise the issues caused to children who grow up with nothing but subtle (and sometimes very un-subtle) codes and messages that mediate their gender expression. This coding is a fundamental presupposition to pretty much any cultural work that involves humans: in representing a fictional world the author invariably draws upon the environment around them (as well as other works) to fill in the holes of an initial concept. The suppositions of ‘useful generalisations’, of generic conventional tropes and out-dated—but simple and effective—narratives and expressions: these things cannot be undermined with little effort. The conventions are so ingrained that even skilled and well-meaning artists are beset by the ease with which their attempt at a subversive concept can fall into clumsiness; opportunely ‘marketable traits’, hackneyed dialogue or setting, or maybe just an end so heavy-handed and fantastic that the audience doesn’t take the ideas seriously.

The point where people will lazily defend the status quo (and so their own apathy) is, generally, where I get dismayed. Calling out a person’s recycled ‘jokes’ is sometimes decried as “feeding the trolls” or “white knighting”, while shameless marketing practices are shrugged off with a cynical “sex sells” mantra. Put simply: if Sonic fans were able to mount a defence for SEGA’s choice to give Shadow a gun and a motor-bike—and, sadly, they were—what can’t people defend?  There is simply no positive end to these positions; it’s conservative acceptance masquerading as cunning aloofness.

There is also that oddly defensive slant that it is ‘equally sexist’ for male protagonists to so often be muscly, chiselled and/or athletic. Well, no, it isn’t. To hold this view is an example of privilege taken to an extreme. I could point to many titles, but I may as well stick to competitive games. So, Starcraft: this is not the same as this. Not even close. Then there’s the fact that—when you step away from just protagonists—male bodies are represented in just about every light imaginable in video games, though they are almost never sexualised to the degree that women are. The conventional approach to design, from narrative to characters, caters implicitly to some theoretical adolescent man who consults their penis before every financial transaction. I have never known anyone to whom the level of sexual content was a contributing factor in their purchase of a game.

I guess what I’m getting at is that any position that doesn’t accept the idea that it’s easier to be accepted at face-value as a ‘male gamer’ than as a ‘female gamer’ (and that there is something inherently wrong with that) is ultimately empty.  It’s obstructive to adopt a demeanour of presumed powerlessness that must cede its judgment to the mighty gods of Commerce & Marketing. It’s untenable to hold that the enforcement of masculinity is an equally pressing issue for men when the function of this trope depends on promoting a kind of superiority in ‘manliness’: any inadequacies in the presentation of men are a triviality against the non-stop objectification and marginalisation of women. I think everyone could benefit from the binary of gender itself being broken down a little, but that's a whole other post. Anyway, that’s my position: it is never beyond communities and individuals to reform or refine their standards.

With all that said I’m going to skip back to where I started: the lack of gender diversity. There’s the sexualisation, the outright misogynist ‘everyone is a man’ mind-set, and the perceived masculinity of coordinating and competing to win; the protagonists are almost always male, while their female counterparts are almost always half-naked. Then there are the conservative marketing elements that carelessly perpetuate all of this mundaneness. Given these facts, the perceived infrequency of women as ‘gamers’ does not seem odd at all, nor down to some sweeping biological disposition: we are just exceptionally conservative. The only way to change it is to actively consider it, and to call people out—from developers to players—on their terrible standards or pitiful demeanours. Gaming has grown to be mechanically and visually fantastic, but the underlying values and sensibilities are too often regressive and lazy by comparison. I think we’re entitled to voice our disapproval of that.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A Dry List: Annoying Community, Rayman Origins Demo & Jumping in Action-RPGs And Why We Should Care

I’ve found it hard to sink my teeth into any big games recently (although I maintain an interest in Starcraft 2). This is in the wake of coming to feel a bit disenfranchised with the general mind-set of most gaming communities. I suppose it’s worth noting that this disposition is also present in the community of Starcraft 2, so I’m half-way there already. The toxicity isn’t really explicit unless you’ve taken a prolonged stay in, hm. I guess the online multiplayer of any game.  The ugliest forefronts don’t come to an explicit point often in the professional realms. When they do, it’s condemned by most. This instance with the promotional Street Fighter x Tekken Stream-Show-Thing produced reasonably large shockwaves. But they subsided so quickly: among the broadest channels output was back to the status quo in less than twenty-four hours. I guess there wasn’t any time for the idea of wide-spread misogyny in all major gaming communities. It was more prescient to most that they distance their particular niche from the terrible Fighting-types, and that they do so in the smuggest most self-congratulatory manner they can manage.

Now, I may be a touch cynical, but I would wager that those who are merely concerned about how such an incident reflects on their corner of gaming—whether by blunt comparison or simply as a function of their own distancing gestures—haven’t put too much thought into the subject. Okay, so that’s the mildest way I could put it. Actually it made me wonder if many of these people were consciously horrible, woefully ignorant or just straight-up self-centred. But no matter! This isn’t the kind of thing I’m equipped to deal with so I’ll just... Focus on the good.

Sasha ‘Scarlett’ Hostyn, a transgender woman from Canada, recently made an unprecedented run at a major Starcraft 2 tournament (IPL4). The reason it’s so unfounded is the sheer distance she made through the open bracket. Simply put, she took out high profile players with long records and all the resources they need; the kind of players whose stability as established professional gamers allows them to focus on the one thing that, arguably, matters most to them: their game. On top of smashing a whole bunch of these people that she perhaps wasn’t ‘supposed’ to, she has no sponsorship and no team and was only able to cover travel expenses by winning an online tournament. And the best part (although what I’ve already described pleases me greatly) is that the general community has reacted… well. I can’t really put it any more succinctly than that; the childish stuff was smaller than I expected and the mawkish dismissal was minimal.

So, maybe I can move on and reclaim a little faith from this whole thing. Excellent, I don’t get to say that very often. In fact that may be the first. In any case, I lurched towards my more nostalgia-seeking instincts and grabbed the demo for Rayman Origins.

I don’t know how to feel about what this demo has told me. I’ll start with the music, though: it veers between lovingly cute, appropriately ambient and annoyingly kitschy. I’m really not sure what else can be said; it just isn’t particularly alluring. The gameplay is clearly designed with a co-op slant in mind, but it seems intended to function solidly enough as a single-player experience.  But I don't know to what extent a platformer can reasonably tailor itself around a varying amount of players. I suppose what I’m concerned about is this nagging idea of mitigating the standard stage-to-stage variables; just how tight can it be if it needs to account for the possibility of one-to-four players?  It’s bound to be a loose fit, no matter how finely-spun.

The animation is in the vein of many modern cel-shaded titles. I don’t think it’s worth me describing that it is very pretty. This video gives a worthy impression of the kind of palette (and tone) you can expect. As visually excellent as Origins is, though, I couldn’t help but get the impression of a mechanical system that gives the player a little too much power. Unless the amount of enemies is quadrupled under four-player I just can’t see there being much difficulty, and if there was four times the enemies it would likely turn into something of a visual cluster-fuck.  But it does look very pretty.

I never really took to the idea that seems inherent in so many modern 2D platformers. That is, titles that are distinctly not Rayman Origins. I didn’t like the idea of playing a game that was designed to kill me repeatedly. I enjoyed the original Castlevania, but I feel that its steep difficulty was simply in lieu of things either taken for granted today or entirely thrown out in favour of concision. Like the limitations of cartridge memory, or the implied value of compelling a player to put more time in than might seem reasonable for the volume of content. I guess what I’m getting at is that I appreciated Castlevania for what it achieved with what its developers had. Modern developers don’t even veil their murderous approach. I Want To Be The Guy is a good example: apart from its gratuitous attempts to wrangle me in with its pastiche of familiar music and level design, it clearly wants to kill the player over and over again. Platformers don’t need to do this, but Rayman Origins—whose vague threats of violence against you are adorably cute in comparison, like a malicious kitten—could stand to learn a thing or two from this murderous (but reflective!) new generation.

For one, the imperative to collect arbitrary golden-floaty-things isn’t particularly fun unless they’re made sparse or difficult to get; preferably both. Making them time-consuming to get is not so compelling. Also, if threats to the player are going to be implemented (environment hazards, enemies, spikes, etc.) it’s generally a good idea to not make them so easy to step over that I momentarily wonder if I’ve been tricked into grinding for experience again. I guess I’m caught on the knife-edge of wanting a game to ruthlessly punish me, but to not be so presumptuous about the whole ordeal.

Speaking of which (both grinding and masochistic self-punishment) Phantasy Star Online 2 was announced a little while ago. Judging by the designs they’re going with it seems nostalgia-appeal has not gone out of fashion. I guess I can’t complain when practically every established developer is in on the act. Is it still abusive if everyone does it? No matter. This pretty trailer coincidentally sets itself in the first area of PSO. I guess it only just occurs to me that naming the first major landscape in your fantasy/sci-fi universe simply ‘Forest’ is slightly underwhelming. They’ve had a lot of time to refine the mechanics down, though, so I’m interested. The original PSO managed to make itself compelling with an extremely simple set of commands: it was like Diablo 2 stripped-down and in space with Japanese designs.

I’m not sure where they’re going to take it, but the trailer is pretty explicit about two things: the music and visual styles from the original are something of a priority (it’s nice to have some music that’s half-way original and unique, likewise with stylised designs), and the action elements may have been pushed forwards to a point where you may overcome the ‘numbers game’ mentality. Excellent. Also they’ve added a jump command which, based on the video here, they’re pretty happy about. It's important enough for a massive highlight in the trailer, apparently. That’s worrying if only because it’s precisely the kind of flair that lets me know the video is designed, almost explicitly, for people like me.

The uninformed potential player doesn’t care about the jump command: they see an avatar jumping and instantly put the pieces together, ‘Oh, I can jump in this game.’ They might think that it’s odd to call attention to such a thing unless Sonic Team had developed a somewhat anachronistic fetish for the jump command. But the people who played and enjoyed PSO for an extended period will dwell just a little longer on this point: ‘Ohh, they’re jumping pretty high… That would have been nice twelve years ago. Jump over the little waist-high electric-fence-things.’ I don’t know for certain that this necessitates calling as much attention as they could to the fact that you can jump. If it was my choice I would have to face the fact that it does represent a significant deviation from the original. PSO was pretty much—mechanically, not visually—a 2-dimensional game.  But is ‘jumping’ obscure enough to necessitate a nod as a gameplay feature? Probably not.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: I don’t know whether to feel sorry for an obvious mistake that would lead many viewers to think Sonic Team were grasping at straws with their gameplay highlights, or to feel pandered to as one of the few people for whom that flair was specifically designed to be seen by. 

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Oh, Game Group: it would be more sad if you hadn't failed so bad.

The Game Group retail failure277 stores closed and 2,000 employees cut, at presentis a real frustration, even in the face of a dominant (and superior) online market. The obsolescence of GAME's high street set-up was obvious to anyone who had ever used a computer to buy anything. Still, it is sad to see this manifestation of the gaming industry's struggle in the recession. Keza MacDonald's article on the subject (whose choice in title-pun, 'Game Over', totally didn't pre-empt me) aptly frames the loss around what the GAME franchise had already undermined. That is, the sense of obscurity and enthusiasm that was washed away as gaming, and Game Group, took to the mainstream in the mid '00s.

Game Group's standardisation removed all traces of individuality when it came to game shops: tangential materials were cut back to a bare minimum in favour of massive pre-owned sections, while over-all  selection was limited to only the current generation of consoles. A business model that leans on second-hand sales as much as GAME's should be able to produce a huge selection of titles. Indeed, trekking to different shops was often a rewarding experience; today it is an exercise in futility. My local independent shop was a place where the latest releases were two metres away from software that was, in some cases, more than a decade old. They were driven out of business when a GAME store opened in the same shopping centre.

My mother once commented that she didn't like the atmosphere of the independent shop in my town, and that she favoured using GAME. This isn't a person with much love for corporations, the dissonance of which I pointed out to her, but that didn't matter: it was too cheap, 'slap-dash'; gaps in the carpet, mind-your-head-as-you-go-up-the-narrow-staircase kind of thing. You know: all the pomp and circumstance of a place that is not backed by much of any money. The icing on the cake here was that the local shop sold practically everything cheaper than GAME in an attempt to win over customers, but that didn't matter: too cheap. Ironically, if we could only see the façade of lending that larger chains like Game Group are privy to we would see a far shabbier affair: an £85m debt pile is an ugly thing to accrue alongside the ousting of the superior independent retailers. The boom-period that Game Group presided over was so much squandered potential in favour of short-sighted business. I can't say I will miss the stores that disappear, although I do feel for those who lost their jobs because of it.

It's crappy for the kids who will never get to experience the enthusiasts' shopping space, though. That possibility was quietly put away a decade ago. To be honest, Game Group's apparent inadequacy makes me feel disturbingly vindicated. It shouldn't, really; the loss of visual presence on high streets can't be good for gaming. That said, the heightened presence didn't seem like a particularly good thing for gaming in the first place, but I can't begrudge the 'casual' market their Angry Birds and Wii Sports.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

REVIEW: Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes

This review is long overdue, but for a time I wasn’t really sure where I came down, but now I am. I’ll be brief.

I guess I should start by expressing my fondness for being able to try things before purchasing them. I don’t think that’s ever going to get old. However, demos can give a faulty perspective: producing a slither of gameplay that perfectly encapsulates the entire experience of a game would be a fantastic thing. But what if a demo could actually do that? Well, said demo would either represent the pinnacle of fine-tuning, or the game itself would turn out to be rather shallow. I hope you can see where I’m going with this. I will give a mild hint: Clash of Heroes is not a long and complex experience.

Now I feel like I’ve lurched into a foregone conclusion. Notice I didn’t say the game was bad, though. Because it isn’t: I would simply like to move the less shiny parts out of the way first. The main issue I have stems from a mild frustration with the formula of the single-player: you go through the campaign one protagonist and realm at a time, shifting through a heavy-handed (but fun!) fantasy story all the while. You begin as a level one (of ten) character, with new units, items and abilities delivered at an enticing rate as you make your way through the stylised scenery to a conclusive, final encounter. Then you do that again, four times. Credits. Okay, that’s not fair: there’s a multiplayer mode, too.

Luckily the major highlights of this game jut forth into some extremely acute points. For one, it is a good price: a kind of ‘I can’t believe this is how much two tickets to the cinema costs’ kind of price. Also, the desire I felt for things to get kicked up a gear was the result of an already-solid system reiterating itself. So what is that system? The demo can show it better than I can explain, as it is practically a microcosm of the entire game. But that is an unsatisfying answer so I will quickly throw-up an explanation. It’s a turn-based strategy game that can easily trick a player into thinking it is a puzzle game. Maybe it is both. Your block of units faces the enemy’s; the player can either move a unit from the back of a given line to another, or use their move in deleting one of their own units. When three units of the same colour (there are three colours) and the same type (three basic types, too) are lined up they either form a permanent wall or an attack column. This is the simple base from which a promising sum of customisation is built, with obligatory RPG-elements thrown in for good measure.

I love that the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. Frankly, it was an enormous relief. Too many titles get sucked into a land where nothing is more important than whatever bland, generic arc has taken the fore. This doesn’t mean that titles can’t or shouldn’t be wholly serious. Fuck no. This title couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be wholly serious. The moments where the game indulges in its gratuitous personality were some of the best for me: the bright and soft art-style fits this path, far more than trying to make me care about some impending demonic invasion. The music, too, felt best at its most mirthful and playful moments. That said there is a consistent vibrancy on this front: I’m pretty easy on music with as much heart as this, though there could be (ahem) more of it. The demo manages—seemingly, anyway—to make most of this manifest.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t find the over-all experience a little simplistic. The items can change the flow of the game substantially, but by the third ‘starting area’ I just craved something sharper. I wanted some new hook to show up and kick my ass to the curb if I didn’t have the decency to comprehend it; I wanted the game itself to expand as far as it could, or else come to an end with deft concision. That was pretty greedy of me. I have no right to more: the sum of content provided for the price was far from inadequate. In this case I would appreciate more liberal use of scissors, by which I mean editing down. I’m sure it is common to feel an obligation to finish what’s been started. In the case of games this can take some time; even as you become painfully aware that the developers have ran out of tricks you push on, hoping there is something new around the next corner. There’s another feeling that accompanies this, though, and it happens as the credits roll. A little-spoken-of sentiment that I like to think finds form in a long, drawn-out sigh: the paradoxical mixture of relief, satisfaction and disappointment.