Monthly Archives: September 2012

Videogames Suck

This is a piece I wrote for the Fellowship of Australian Writers Queensland Soapbox competition. That means it has an impassioned and, yes, biased slant. It’s also the unedited version (whoops) because I left the final version at uni. But you’ll get the gist.

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Videogames suck. I don’t mean the games themselves—as a medium I think they’re capable of fantastic and exciting things. I mean the people involved with videogames give me intellectual rigor mortis. It’s the critics and their ineffectual languishing over Why Games Are Great. It’s the development teams, whether big or small, who continue to churn out monumental bytes of crap, all the while working like doomed souls in the pit of Hell. And it’s the players, the people who should be telling it like it is, but instead roll over and take it in the proverbial as they spout endless “memes”. I digress; there are glimpses of hope. But for the most part it’s human beings that make videogames suck.

Let’s start with the supposed gatekeepers of knowledge and quality: the critics and journalists. Videogame journalism is mostly an online arena, with a lot of freelance work liberally spreading the ignorance. Some sites naturally don’t gather much in the way of revenue, and so young, budding players write for free. I won’t call them writers because frankly there isn’t much talent in that department. These hard-working, naive fools dream of hitting the big time and getting paid. The majority are barely noticed, while a few stand out from the masses–mostly for the wrong reasons.

There are some game critics who Don’t Get It (called DGIs). Some to watch for include Ben Kuchera, Brendan Keogh, and the infamous John Walker. All are successful in their own ways, but quite simply they just don’tgetit. They ramble on about Emotions and Games Can Be Anything. We should be perfectly satisfied with the current state of the medium! Well, no. When you dismiss choice in videogames as illusory, or don’t even understand the meaning of the phrases “interactivity” and “player agency” then something is clearly wrong. Sure, go and argue about the rampant sexism in videogames, but please come back and actually definite what a game is. Recently there has been a crusade of sorts among these DGIs to thwart attempts to define games. “Nobody puts Mario in a corner,” they cry. Apparently if we let games be whatever they desire we can finally achieve Art. This is not a Goomba! But the problem with that is that mediums need rules. Regulations don’t inhibit artistic forms, but instead help them flourish, much like a trellis for plants. If we don’t know what constitutes a game (there are plenty of good definitions out there) then we have institutions like PC Powerplay giving a “game” like To The Moon a perfect score–for shame, Mr. Wildgoose. This all said there are GIs out there, and good writers too. Daniel Hindes is at least one Australian journalist who Gets It. Tracey Lien and Ben Abraham are also examples of good, intelligent writers. But when critics start praising games of the too-smart-for-you variety, it’s either time to take a stand, or get the Hell out of there.

At the other end of the spectrum, the journalism cycle is bent way out of shape. I was one of those unpaid, wide-eyed chumps writing for a reasonably well-known website. Earlier this year I was given the opportunity to write the review for an upcoming blockbuster–let’s call it Diablo3. I played it, I wrote a lengthy review, and gave it 6/10. Honestly, it was a slightly above average game. My opinion was that behind the glitzy overlay, there was nothing to it. My editors, however, were dismayed. Possible publisher relations would become tenuous and, God forbid, the Metacritic score would be affected. I was asked to change my score, and perhaps re-word the review itself. I was outraged. Looking at the Metacritic scores they are almost universally 80 or above. That is to say, near perfection. Some respectable websites went the whole way; if you’re going to suck up why hold back? This highlights a massive issue with the news cycle. Big releases see massive scores despite them being re-hashes and sequels. The true score range lies somewhere between seven and ten. The level of writing in the reviews is no better. Just search through Kotaku for a glimpse of the quality inherent among game journalists. The whole system is a shambles of preview code, endless hyping, over-enthusiastic reviews, and eventual acceptance that, yes, Oblivion sucked. Between the DGIs praising non-games for the wrong reason, and the absurd pandering attitude of Big News Sites, what hope do videogames have? Who who will critique our critics?

Perhaps the developers, those who make videogames, have a better idea of what is required for a good game. Alas, this is not necessarily the case. If the critics don’t know what games are, then the creators don’t know what games can be. As with everything there are exceptions, but the majority churn out derivative crap like it’s going out of fashion. And I do hope that it is.

Videogames are in a state of Decline. When the focus was not hardware, not the graphics, and not the amount of voice-acting, games were better. Perhaps as far back as ten years ago saw the last hopes of solidly built games made by big companies. Looking Glass and Obsidian were big studios that really knew how to shape and build a very specific game. Now days we have Bioware and Activision. As the perfect example of the Decline videogames face, look at DeusEx. The original game is still considered to be one of the greatest games of all time. You cannot play DeusEx and then say that choice is illusory. You cannot play the original DeusEx and not marvel at the superb simulation that was essentially authored by Warren Spector. Compare it to the recent DeusEx: HumanRevolution. It gathers it’s inspiration from anime, includes boss fights and takedown scenes, and is a pale shadow of its in-depth and superior precursor. The merging of cinema and games has been a stain on the medium since it began. Cutscenes are abhorrent, and despite best attempts to justify their inclusion, they will never fit. Valve are a great example of never taking control away from the player. Despite their doggedly linear fashion, Valve games manage to merge narrative and gameplay better than most. The struggle to draw emotions from the players will never be achieved true romance options. It’s about creating a world and letting the player experience it.

Indie designers are faring better. Minecraft is a shining example of simulated play. Dean “Rocket” Hall turned an already fantastic military simulator into the greatest survival game of all time, evoking true emotions through nothing more than a world. And all of this by small groups with clear visions. At times it feels that money has gone to the heads of executives and clouded their vision. Downloadable content packages are rife, with publishers pumping out an endless stream of extras and must-have bonuses. Free-to-play games are the New Thing. Farmville and AngryBirds rule our lives, endless microtransactions eating into out savings accounts. It’s grim, and I have thankfully managed to pull away. For a long time I bought games for the sake of buying them. Digital downloads and Steam (the gaming portal made by the insidious yet harmless looking Valve) have stripped me of thousands of dollars. I admit it, I was a compulsive game buyer, not even playing half the games I own. And I’m not alone. Game developers and publishers realised that players are loose with their cash and have seized upon numerous ways to suck them dry. Steam Greenlight, a democratic system of game publishing, is about to give rise to a new wave of crap. It’s easy enough to publish a good indie game, and now everyone wants to be the next Mojang, only with a horribly inflated sense of worth. Self-publishing is bad for books, and perhaps doubly so for games. But players seem to love dross, so why blame companies for wanting to make money.

In the end, there is no one to blame for the disease that infects videogames other than the players themselves. It’s the consumers buying yet another iteration of Hardcore Man Shooter or Gay Elf Sex Simulator that cause these games to come out each and every year. Big companies are scared of new intellectual property because the players don’t buy it, and yet there they are camping out to get the Extreme Special Edition of whatever trite is cool right now. If you’re feeling disinclined with videogames, it’s your own damn fault.

Gaming is mainstream now, and we’re worse for it. Rather than being a hidden past time of the socially inept, it’s become a symbol of pride. “I’m a GAMER, I play GAMES and stuff; what are you going to do about it,” they sneer as normal citizens walk by, noses pinched shut in an attempt to rid their senses of body odour. Hip gamers wear even cooler t-shirts, with hilarious puns and “memes”, too obtuse for the plebeian suits of the world. Groups of gamers (the type seen outside conventions or Scientology headquarters) are like galaxies. The more socially awkward gravitate towards the centre, bunching together. Those unaware of their lack of social skills spiral around this focal point, chatting amongst themselves, loud and brash. Unfortunately this wave of nu-gamerdom has brought even more worrying, ahem, interests to the fore. Just because most people are “gamers” (let’s be honest, this is an absurd term, and I use it grudgingly) does not mean we want to know that you’re a burgeoning Brony or Furry. There are few groups more obnoxious than recently self-aware yet societally unclimatised nerds.

On the web everyone can hear you scream. Most ignore these screams, but if they’re loud enough they affect change. The recent Mass Effect 3 kerfuffle is a case in point. Bioware actually went back and changed the ending to their game because of mass outcry. Look, the first game sucked and only went downhill from there, what did people expect? These are the people, the Emotionmen, who applaud the calls to arms of the John Walkers of the world, who truly believe the writers who think it’s all about the narrative. These are the people, the holier than thou, who sign-up for game design courses and then argue whether FinalFantasyVII is better or worse than The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Answer: they’re both terrible. There are very few people out there who actually understand what games are capable off. Those that want story and plots and the chance to weep into their controllers miss the point completely. They give power to terrible franchises and the rapidly increasing monestisation of the industry. If you know a friend in this situation, reach out to them. Tell them to read books on game theory. Instead of listening to the ever-weeping John Walker, point them towards venerable Raph Koster. Instead of letting them agonise over which romance option to take, buy them a Paradox Interactive game and lock them to their chair. If videogames are to reverse from terminal decline, the source needs to be cured.

It’s quite clear that for all intents and purposes, videogames suck. And yet the majority of those involved are blind to this. Critics laud the power of games to be everything and anything. Conversely designers are stuck in a rut churning out the same thing year in, year out. And the players seethe on tides of newly realised power, and yet are in the end slaves to ignorance. Yet there is hope. Videogames are capable of so much more, and we’ve seen glimpses of it in the past, even the present. Games need to be games again. Let’s stop the suck.

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Is Western Civilisation in Terminal Decline?

I went to a debate tonight that posed this very question. Honestly, I went in leaning towards the affirmative, along with a great many of my fellow audience members. However, the end results ended up with nearly 80% of the assembled thinkers voting Against (as in, no it is not in terminal decline)—me included.

There were a bunch of facts thrown out. Some speakers were better than others, mostly the persuasive ones. Some used humour and an over-abundance of egg-related puns and analogies (you had to be there). But in the end there were some solid points made, and a lot of mind-expanding ripostes.

In the end I decided that it’s not about economy or power—no one doubts that America and company are flailing—but as a culture, the ideals of “Western” civilisation will continue to surge forward. They will certianly merge with other cultures, but the notions of modernity and democracy are a beacon for the entire world. And perhaps when all the world embraces “Westernisation” we can move outward. We’ll never reach the stars if we can’t cross borders.

Actually, one of the most interesting points was at question time when a lady (classic New Zealander) said that our time “had been wasted” and that a debate was a terrible way of covering the topic. Well, aside from the fact that she signed up to a classic yes/no debate so can go suck eggs, she does have a point. The adjudicator put it nicely, stating that hopefully from the debate more meaningful discussion could then go out into the world.

So I put it to you: is Western civilisation is terminal decline, and if so what can be done about it?

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Somebody Stop Me

I am falling back in love with physical books. All this publishing course is doing is a) teaching me that the future is basically a nebulous mystery, but b) that a good old wholesome pBook will never be far away.

And to top it off I found the book store of my dreams today. Embiggen Books in Little Lonsdale Street. Packed with the exact fiction and nonfiction I love, I fear I’ll be back more often than I would like. Here’s what I bought today:

It’s inspiration for a book I have in mind.

I wonder what the book will be about!

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MUP Internship Day One: Boxes and Booze

My first day of the three-month long internship at Melbourne University Publishing was surprisingly rewarding. I received two bottles of clearskin sparkling wine for one thing. Oh, and I learnt a bunch about the book publishing business.

I got there as close to 09:00 as possible, all geared up in suit. Naturally the first task at hand was moving 100+ boxes full of books from the basement into a truck. Apparently MUP is moving offices in the next month, just around the corner. Somehow I managed not to get my shirt too dusty, and a few boxes of wine were hidden among the books. Score!

Moving upstairs I was given a quick tour of the office. I assume that it’s you typical office (though I wouldn’t know) with open planning and meeting rooms, but the amount of books on display was pretty neat. With that done I was given a bunch of tasks: data entry for review copies, plugging in credit card details, researching upcoming literary awards, and, probably the most interesting, writing up a list of books to be sold the rights to punters at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I got to read all the media releases and notes for the upcoming books, which ties directly into one of my current units. Each publishing house has its own templates for such releases, and I tried to absorb how MUP did theirs. Hopefully I’ll see a bit of cross-pollination between the real world publishing and what I learn in the classroom, thereby helping me in both areas.  It may seem like boring work, but the day disappeared, and I relished it.

The coolest part of it all was listening in on all the face to face and phone conversations that took place. Chat about non-existent ebook sales, how best to get an author around the country, and various other marketing chat bounced around, and I tried to keep an ear on it all. The amount of budgetary arguments and discussion was quite heated too—it made me fully realise how thin margins are in the publishing world. I felt like I should have taken notes on how to pose tricky marketing questions over the phone, but of course I was busy doing the lowly jobs.  However, at one stage somebody asked me for my opinion on a cover design, which not only got me involved with the others, but let me see how you have to juggle publisher, author and designer expectations. When I got to uni that night, the lecture was on precisely that. None of the designs they showed for the true crime novel really grabbed me, and the only one interesting cover was rejected by the author (it had made her burst into tears; too many bloodstains). But it all ended well, with the author eventually caving. Trust your designer!

So that was my first day, and honestly it bodes well for the rest of them.

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Not an ebook in Sight

First up, my haul from the MWF. Couple of nice freebies; I may have to subscribe to Cosmos.

Sweet loot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then two books arrived in the mail today: Green and Blue Mars. The question is, can I resist them to finish what I’m already reading (UnLunDun)?

Temptation incarnate.

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