Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Glib Rejoinder

What's a nine letter word for technically proficient yet bereft of any creativity?

Bioshock 2.

More to come.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Those Who Live in Creatively Bankrupt Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones

The gaming part of the Internet blew up over the weekend over Jim Sterling's Destructoid piece, "Indie Games Don't Have to Act Like Indie Games" (if you want my actual thoughts on the entire matter I think Jenn Frank's piece over at GameSetWatch sums it up nicely).

When discussing anything Indie versus anything Corporate the phrase "creatively bankrupt" gets tossed around loosely and with much glee. And I think, with exceptions, when it comes to video games we really haven't hit the tipping point where a member of the Enthusiast Press can toss "creatively bankrupt" into a conversation and be labelled anything other than an old crank or a wannabe gadfly.

If Game Reviewers (I can't call them "critics" with a straight face) want to see the face of creative bankruptcy they really only need to read their own reviews. Say, reviews of Bioshock 2.

From Joystiq:

I know it, you know it; heck, I'd bet if they were being totally honest, the staff of 2K Marin would tell you they knew it too. BioShock was that rare combination of a perfectly realized world, fresh yet refined action and a narrative that left me with no real burning questions. It didn't need a sequel.

But all that has very little to do with BioShock 2 because whether it needed to be made or not, it's here now. And the surprise isn't that someone other than Irrational had the chutzpah to make a BioShock sequel. The surprise is just how worthwhile it is.

This BUT This...

From Destructoid:

When BioShock launched in 2007, it felt like a breath of fresh air to many gamers. A brand-new IP with a fantastic story and an interesting sandbox-style approach to combat within a linear format, it was a damn fine game. Superb, even. So good, in fact, that many considered a sequel completely unnecessary.

Whether or not BioShock 2 is required isn't for us to decide. We're here to tell you whether or not BioShock 2 is good. With some huge shoes to fill, 2K Marin certainly had its work cut out for it and BioShock 2 is in an unenviable position as the first follow-up to one of 2007's most critically acclaimed games. Does BioShock 2 do BioShock justice? Does 2K Marin manage to fill the shoes passed down to them by Irrational Games, or is there too much space left empty? Read on as we review BioShock 2.

Jim Sterling boldly varies the formula here by asking This But THIS?


To those who've been playing games for years now, it wasn't exactly surprising that Irrational Games made a great title. The studio had been doing just that since System Shock 2. The bigger unknown was how the folks at 2K Marin, founded with members who worked on the original, would handle the sequel. As it turns out, they did a damn fine job. It's a rare thing for games built with this kind of big budget to take seriously a thematic cohesion between setting, story, and gameplay, yet that's exactly what we get here.

Charles Onyett deploys the classical rhetorical device of flipping a question on its head and instead of asking, This But This instead argues This But This.


BioShock 2 has a big reputation to live up to. The critically acclaimed BioShock put together a stylized, provocative world; it wasn't a perfect game, but the story -- a red-herring-filled plot mixed with existentialist (and objectivist) philosophy -- turned the game into much more than a shooter; BioShock was a game that made you think. And while BioShock 2 borrows heavily from its predecessor's aesthetic and solid gameplay, it fails to provide the strong narrative that made the original so compelling.

Justin Haywald bravely shortens the This But This -- BioShock to Bioshock 2 to only a graf and then bravely drops some "solid gameplay" and "strong narrative" on our compelling asses. But so much is left unsaid? How can I go on without knowing if the framerate was solid, if the graphics were polished, if the sound was tight!? Dude, Justin, you are a game reviewer these are the key ontological questions ya' got to answer my boy!

I get it. I write freelance too. When you are on a deadline the lowest hanging fruit is always the easiest to pick and if I were called on to write a review of BioShock 2 I would've went there too. In a first draft. Then I would've said to myself, "What is the central meme every Taco Bell stained game reviewer going to latch onto for their lede. Oh, I know! A variation of 'BioShock was great, but how can Bioshock 2 possibly live up!?' sentiment." And then I would've gone on to write something different, something a bit more creative.

So, game reviewers, before you start throwing the term, "Creative Bankruptcy" around about games you might want to attend to your own house.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Modern Warfare in Dick Cheney's World

*Spoiler Warning: I really hate spoiler warnings. The very concept of internet "SPOILARS!" is a hideous one to me. If you are juvenile enough to live life only for the plot twists and not the plot itself you're no good to anyone. You're officially part of the problem.

Guess what? At the end of Titanic the boat sinks. In the Third Season of Mad Men JFK gets shot. In this blog I'll be discussing plot elements of Modern Warfare 2. Deal with it.

The voice of Ron Perlman frequently cautioned us that War... War Never Changes. While the ubiquitous intro to the Fallout series was never intended as a commentary on the state of War in games it might as well have been. In video games the depiction of war never changes.

War as depicted in the Medal of Honor series, then in Call of Duty series, and then in all the knock-offs of the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series was a remarkably clean and noble activity. The only thing that you killed were history's perfect villain -- the Nazi; a creature that for all appearances was human but we know wasn't human. The towns and villages those Nazis occupied were always an "Us or Them" affair. Lob a grenade through any window in Carentan and the only thing that came out were the rag doll remains of (you guessed it) more Nazis. You never had to concern yourself with accidentally fragging a French family by mistake. World War 2 in video games had hung out the sign: Ambiguity Not Welcome Here.

When Infinity Ward transitioned Call of Duty into the Modern Era of War they scratched out the "Not" in that sign and scribbled in with Sharpie above it, "Kinda". Whatever character you played was still earmarked as, Good Guy, and whatever characters you shot at where still The Bad Guys ("Terrorists" palate swapped for Nazis). The ambiguity came in small drips: a vision of war turned into a video game from a C-130 Gunship camera, death in the shadow of a nuclear detonation, the use of torture to obtain information from a captive.

Call of Duty 4 came out in 2007 towards the tail end of the Bush Administration. I wouldn't argue that Call of Duty 4 was an endorsement of the foreign policy pursued Bush Administration, the game certainly was a reflection of the time and the moment that we all lived in. A morally gray world where Dick Cheney told us all to be afraid and the Department of Homeland Security monkeyed with color codes weekly.

Modern Warfare 2 (the direct sequel to Call of Duty 4) appears to be a meditation on Dick Cheney's World. This time however the moral grays have been swapped for moral blacks. There is no valor here. There is no nobility here. There is precious little heroism here. What Modern Warfare 2 does contain is heavy doses deceit and senseless violence either aided or perpetrated not by terrorists but by forces inside the United States military.

There's been a certain amount of head scratching among parts of the Video Game Enthusiast Press, declaring, "Modern Warfare 2 is Awesome! But I -- I don't understand the story." Well, for those of you who've been locked in a Anime Bunker the last eight years let me explain the story real simply: It's About a General who uses terrorism to manipulate the United States into a war. A war he wants for his own good and no one else's. Clearer still for all those NeoGaf members: General Sherpard = Dick Cheney, Dick Cheney = Bad.

See, was that hard to understand?

I do not wish to engage in fanboy over-praise for the story "Modern Warfare 2" because, both being honest and a fan of this game, parts of Modern Warfare 2's story are stone stupid. But to declare the entire story stone stupid tosses the baby out with the bathwater. Despite being built out of action movie tropes there is something noteworthy going on with Modern Warfare 2. Something more than just action movie tropes.

Take the much criticized "No Russian" mission (yeah, this is the one where you participate in a terrorist act in Moscow Airport and kill hundreds of innocent civilians). Tom Chick declared it unearned. Jeff Green declared it gratuitous on Twitter. And this is the part of this blog where I have to say that I love both those guys otherwise I'll get called out as a Tom Chick / Jeff Green hater. But I also have to disagree with both their interpretations of "No Russian".

I saw "No Russian" through a different set of eyes. I saw the mission through the eyes of a young, strong and naive Army Ranger Private who gets recruited to serve his country by an authority figure he'd instantly respect and trust, General Shepard, and told in classic Dick Cheney fashion, Son this is a dangerous world and sometimes you got to get your hands dirty.

Of course, that Army Ranger Private would buddy up to a Russian Terrorist and, yes, if ordered to by General Shepard, he would participate in mass murder for the good of his country. Just leave it there. Don't even speculate further on a connection between General Shepard and Modern Warfare 2's shadow antagonist, Makarov.

Ordered to commit mass murder for the good of his country.

For a video game that is dark statement and a bold departure from the traditions of war as this glorious, valorous act with endless spawn points. War in the world of Modern Warfare isn't Black Hats against White Hats, instead war is a machine run by the Black Hats with a bunch of pawns dying in the middle.

Unfortunately, how Modern Warfare 2 might change the story of war in games has been lost in the rush by the Enthusiast Press to report the controversy and ignored by Video Game Critics in their never-ending search for compelling gameplay. Hell, I'm under no delusion. Ninety percent of the people that buy this game won't even think about what they're playing beyond the fact its "teh awesome".

Perhaps Modern Warfare 2 will just be an aberration. A game guaranteed to be a hit made by a developer with a blank check. Perhaps, though, Modern Warfare 2 is another step towards video games being more than just games.

And then, again, maybe Infinity Ward's "Modern Warfare 3" will feature giant walking Mecha and Evil Enemies with top hats that invalidate whatever point I had.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On a long enough timeline

... the life expectancy of every Xbox 360 reaches zero. A year and eleven  months after I bought mine I flipped on the power switch one evening for a round of Call of Duty 4 to be greeted by the Red Ring of Death. Called MS, got the shipping label, will be sending it back by Friday.

In the meantime, I've pretty much committed myself to buying an Arcade at the end of the month. Mainly I don't trust MS Repairs and $199 for a supposedly cooler running chipset isn't a a bad deal. 

Friday, December 12, 2008

Going HOME Again

When I first dropped into this newly created digital equivalent of The Undiscovered Country I found myself in a "Create-A-Character" Imelda Marcos sized wardrobe and paper doll factory. There I confronted my preset choices, the default option avatars that ranged from clearly White Homosexual and White Metrosexual to closeted White Homosexual Republican and several strains of White Model Fag Hag. Oh, and two black people Sony obvious included to satisfy some Affirmative Action quota.

The first instinct leans towards Risk Aversion. Play it safe, play it cool, grab one of those pre-fabbed Abercrombie & Fitch dress up dolls off the rack and prance around HOME for fifteen minutes, then tell the world how utterly compelling the whole business turned out to be. But this was no time and no place for risk aversion. There would be no playing it safe, or playing by the rules. This was a moment for bold, hideous action and for the challenging of the preset social norms of this preset social world. This was a time to get weird, to get funky, and to get ugly.

I knew very quickly that achieving my goal of weird ugly Freakdom would not be easy. No, the Sony Overlords that fashioned HOME appear to have set out with the expressed goal of making everyone look as un-freakish as possible. "NO!" I heard Kaz Hirai cry from his Tokyo Spire, "There will be no freaks here. Lock up the real life monsters and put them away! Out of sight I say!" 

In HOME it is impossible to create the 400 pound woman who can barely trundle on fractured cankles. Absent are the midget beggars dressed in Dickensian frock coats and monocles. Verboten are the Transvestites in fishnets and purple afros whigs trolling the virtual boulevards for cyber tricks. The best I could do was a pudgy, wrinkle creased, quietly heroin addled replica of Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers adorned in pink corn rows and a matching mustache.

As I walked outside my Sony subsidized Beachfront Condo and took in my first deep breath of HOME I realized that even though I had not been able to push the Freak Level much past "Sad, Washed Up Burn Out" I had pushed it far enough. Perhaps too far given the pedestrian boundaries laid out before me. 

HOME was the a living definition of White Bread Corporatism. As if the Gays, the Republicans, and the Third Reich had all reached some form of mutual detente and agreed to send their adult male children to be held in a state of suspended animation to ensure the  peace accord was never broken. Until that fateful hour these three disparate groups had found peace here, in HOME, and co-mingled into a race of utterly bland Consumerists.

Vicious packs of lithe white males in virtual off the rack GAP clothes where running this place, and very quickly I was made known that my will to be weird was not welcome here. As I walked around the Central Plaza of HOME most ran from me as I walked up to them and tried to make a gesture of friendship. Others took it upon themselves to type out, "UR UGLY AND FAT" so offended at my inability to conform to their ideal vision of an ideal world for their ideal self.

This was to be expected. No one walks into HOME, or its elder sibling Second Life, wanting to replicate a life approximating their real life. The whole scene reeked with pre-fabricated corporate digital fantasy passed out on a sliver platter. Radical individualism was not to be encouraged, only corporate sanctioned expressions will be tolerated.

And if you lack the necessary pieces of 3D Flair to live out that Sony Endorsed Fantasy life, oh, no worries, Sony will be happy to sell it to you .50 cents at a time. Where? The mall, of course. As "Dawn of the Dead" instructed us, The Mall has it All.

I'll give this to Sony they managed to take an odious dual temple of capitalism and consumerism and completely transform it into a sterile homage to totalitarian fiction and Swedish design aesthetics. 

Two levels of shops: clothes for your digital self, and furniture for your digital playhouse, and even a real estate office no doubt ready to sell you a new digital condo on a balloon mortgage that will no doubt be repackaged as a virtual CDO and traded on the HOME version of Wall Street. All these accoutrements can be yours for a nominal fee of a couple cents here, a couple dollars here. Real world currency, of course. No HOME version of Second Life's infamous LindenDollar ... yet. Give the Sony Overlords time however.

Overlooking the comings and goings inside the Mall is a giant video screen mobbed by video avatars playing an advertisement for something called Qore featuring Sony's Women from Meatspace and canned footage of upcoming video games. Give this time as well. As Sony's economic position in the world of video games worsens I fully expect Kaz Hirai to fill that screen proclaiming the evils Microsoft and its chairman, Emmanuel Goldstein. No doubt HOME Avatars will then spill out into the Central Plaza to engage in their Daily Hate against everything Xbox 360.

Thirty minutes in I was bored and more than a little freaked out by HOME. What horrible, uncreative mind dreamt of this utopia I had to wonder? And who thought this was a good idea?

Then I wandered to the subject of subconscious intent. Was HOME something more? A Corporate Fever Dream; was this the world that the suits and squares who graduated from Harvard Business School and now ran Fortune 500 saw the World as it should be? A Happy Joyless Land filled with Zombie Look-A-Likes who wear the same style, and buy the same things, and spend Friday night in a movie theater playing the trailer for "Twilight" on a loop? I had to wonder then, and I still wonder now, whether HOME is not just a half-assed version of a 3D chatroom, but a peek inside subconscious vision for the Corporate Utopia of Tomorrow. 

As I walked from the Mall to the Movie Theater I caught a glimpse of another freak like me. Some Dude masquerading as a Chick preaching the Center of the Plaza, spreading the Good Word of an Alien Worship Cult. I thought to myself, Right on brother! Fight the power! Be all that Sony doesn't want you to be! Preach your Alien Cult nonsense! Shock the squares! Scare the suits! Fight the Power!

Fear and Loathing in Sony's HOME

I am planning to write about my journey into Sony's OpenBeta of HOME once I actually can log in and stay logged in for more than Fifteen minutes. Right now accomplishing even that task is the equivalent of scaling Everest. Maybe tonight, after I've finished a separate writing project, the Sony Gods and Servers will be kinder to me. In the meantime, here's this: