Monday, December 22, 2014

Spring Cleaning

Hey everyone, I'm going to be cleaning the site up a bit for readability's sake. While the "main format" will be unaffected, the "articles sorted by theme" page is going to get an overhaul so you can actually find things. Also some of the "chaff" articles are going to get deleted.

Please use the aforementioned "sorted by theme" page to navigate around this webzone.


EDIT: The overhaul is complete.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Analysis: Wing Commander

First released in September of 1990, Chris Robert's Wing Commander series was both traditional and novel, combining a classic "space ace" concept with innovations in storytelling and worldbuilding. Drawing influence from the Pacific Theater of World War 2 as well as more contemporary works like Top Gun, this memorable and influential series certainly has a lot of concepts to explore.

Set in the distant future, Wing Commander takes place during a war between the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi, a race of imperialistic, militant cat-people. The player takes the role of Christopher "Maverick" Blair; in the first game, he is fresh out of the academy, assigned to the carrier Tiger's Claw. The series follows Maverick's actions through the war and beyond. The earlier games generally follow a more militarized pattern, focusing on missions and patrols assigned by your commanding officer. In later games, as the war changes, your objectives are more based on pursuing individual goals, uncovering plots, and so on.

The Terran Confederation as depicted in most of the games is a relatively progressive society; pilots from all over the world are represented on the Tiger's Claw, and female pilots are common as well. While the statistics still skew towards white men (6 of 9 pilots in WC1 are white, and 7 of 9 are male), there's at least a clear attempt at inclusion (which makes sense for the setting). The uniforms worn by pilots are the same for men and women - a sensible WW2-inspired look for dress uniforms, and a relatively goofier-looking flight suit. Combat is taken seriously and combatants are treated with respect; the occasional exception, like Todd "Maniac" Marshall, is done intentionally, to contrast with the more serious standard of the rest of the cast. In terms of design, Wing Commander is basically what I want out of games: I want combat to be taken seriously, and "the way characters are designed" should be part of that seriousness.

Wing Commander is not a realistic simulation of spaceflight, but it is a relatively consistent one. Space combat happens in a certain way, at certain ranges, and everything about the game's setting is designed around that. As such, it is believable, but not realistic. Of course, it was designed this way for a reason, and that reason is "you can't have exciting dogfights in a realistic space game". Wing Commander was designed to be WW2 in space, just like Star Wars was, and that manifests itself in the fact that dogfighting in WC is heavily reliant on guns as opposed to long-range missile exchanges. The depths of space serve as a stand-in for the Pacific Ocean, with planets serving as its "islands".

By its nature, Wing Commander is a "space ace" narrative. You are playing a single pilot. You are going to get the most kills. You are going to be the biggest contributor to the war effort. You are going to make or break every mission. In that sense, Wing Commander is a classic PvE setup: your enemies are numerous and incompetent. The player's ability to "beat the odds" is artificially inflated because the odds in question are meaningless; it doesn't matter if they outnumber you ten to one if they can barely fly in a straight line. And of course that incompetence isn't limited to your enemies; your allies are also pretty bad at flying, so that you can feel awesome for flying a thousand times better than them. In the land of blind men, the one-eyed player-character is king. This sort of forced imbalance compromises the setting itself, and it also makes the player's victories feel weird if they stop and think about it. A smaller number of more-skilled pilots would have been just as challenging without making the player feel like they're picking on pilots far inferior to themselves.

However, there are certain levels of "consistency" that still exist in the series. For example, you're "legitimately" flying the same fighters as everyone else; you don't have advantages in terms of your statistics, number of missiles, or anything like that. You've got shields and armor on your ship, and it's the same level as everyone else who flies that ship. The only difference between you and everyone else is your flying ability. This is a marked difference to something like Call of Duty, where your superhuman ability to absorb bullets is (a) never mentioned and (b) completely vital to your ability to complete missions.

WC1 even included "failure" as a gameplay concept, with a webbed sequence of missions that would change based on your success or failure in a given area. This was abandoned in WC2, when it was discovered that players were generally more likely to reload and try again than to accept a bad result. Another important failure-related gameplay feature was the ability to eject from your craft, thus living to fight another day (unless something bad happened to you post-ejection). These mechanics helped "defeat" to feel like a more natural part of the setting, instead of a thing that should be ignored and erased ("not canon", as it were).

In the first game, morality is simple; the Kilrathi are the enemy. They are not just an enemy, they are the enemy: an implacable, non-negotiating race of super-warriors who have the darkest possible plans for Earth. There is zero reason to feel remorse for killing a Kilrathi, and many reasons to feel good about it. Like orcs in most fantasy, the Kilrathi is a remorseless aggressor who can only be stopped with violence, thus justifying a gameplay scheme based entirely around killing.

In WC2 the idea is introduced that not all Kilrathi are like that; a defector Kilrathi, nicknamed "Hobbes", joins your crew and flies alongside you. In addition, there is a revolt in one of the Kilrathi colonies, suggesting that not all the Kilrathi support their totalitarian government. These simple additions transformed the Kilrathi from "100% merciless killers" to "99% merciless killers", a change that warranted some introspection. The game certainly addresses the issue, as Blair begins to question his own attitude towards the Kilrathi and the potential that peace could be reached.


One of the more troubling twists in the game is the fact that Hobbes turns out to be a traitor. While this is not by itself a bad plot twist, in context Hobbes is the only friendly Kilrathi that exists. Obviously a few other ones exist, but Hobbes is the only one that the player ever sees or talks to. As such, the ratio shifts from the Kilrathi being "99% merciless killers" back to "100% merciless killers, and also 1% duplicitous backstabbers".

Wing Commander is a game where you never actually command any wings and that legitimately bothers me. It bothers me because if you strip away the "space ace" stuff you have a pretty solid premise: a roster of well-characterized pilots fighting a serious war against an aggressor. The setting is compromised by the need to make the player feel better than everyone else, and if you took that element away and turned it into something more like X-COM, you'd have a better product overall.

Okay, done? Great. I just explained everything I feel about video games in one accessibly-written article.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

KISS: "Gamer Culture"

Keep ISimple, Stupid:

A concise analysis of Gamer Culture

Gamer Identity is a concept built in opposition; which is to say, without societal distaste for gaming, "gamers" would not exist. People enjoy movies casually, and while there are people who are dedicated to the art of filmography, "film buff" and "gamer" do not have the same connotations. Gamer Identity exists because gamers were treated like outcasts and weirdos, and as a result were forced to socialize primarily with other outcasts and weirdos.

However, it is the year 2014, and for the most part things are different now. If a gamer is treated like an outcast and a weirdo now, it's probably because the are an outcast and a weirdo, not because they're a gamer. Yet you can still see a great deal of bitterness at the old wounds; one of the most notable ways this manifests itself is in hatred for "fake geeks". "Who do they think they are", the argument goes, "to try to get in on gaming as an identity without having to endure that outcast status?"

Well, I grew up in the 90s, and I was part of that "original caste" of gamers. I was a person who played games and was treated like an outsider, although not necessarily in that order. And the thing about it is, I got past it. I came out the other side. I watch people who are what I used to be, and all I can wait for them to do is either wake up or destroy themselves.

The thing is, ultimately, there is only one concept that "gamerdom" stands for: the right to not be made fun of for fucking around in an electronic toy.

Take everything you know about GamerGate and run it through that filter.

Gamers think SJWs are "too sensitive". In reality, the gamer wants to preserve their right to not be made fun of for fucking around in an electronic toy. This issue is, to them, a core concept of who they are, and yet somehow they believe that other people are too sensitive. Not them. Other people.

You know, I'd love to go on about this, but there's really nothing else to it. It doesn't matter if gamers invoke "journalistic freedom" or "artistic integrity", ultimately every discussion is going to turn back to the right to not be made fun of for fucking around in an electronic toy. And hey, "gamergaters" aren't the only ones who really care about that right! Lots of people do. Lots of people get upset if you make fun of them for fucking around in an electronic toy. It's basically a prerequisite for being the kind of person who spends their life fucking around with an electronic toy.

Well, personally, I'd argue that maybe you should grow the fuck up, you huge stupid baby, but a more constructive alternative is to try to understand what you have in common with your SJW opponents so you can see that you're actually not that different. Both of you care about "artistic freedom", to an extent. Both of you participate in a hobby where you do immoral, stupid things and justify it because it's "just a game". Both of you are basically idiots trying to pretend like you know what big people are talking about.


but no seriously grow the fuck up 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Semper Games


Imagine an empty universe. Imagine nothingness. This is a universe without God, without a creator, without a guiding hand. It was not *made*. It simply *is*.

Populate this universe with the celestial objects - stars and planets and all cosmic entities in between.

Now add to one planet the element of water - and from water, emerge life.

Now we wait.

Life mutates. The drive to live is mutation - a beneficial one, at least for purposes of survival. The beings that do not have these instincts die. The ones that do live. This does not mean that those biological instincts are the way life should be. Rather, they are self-justifying: they exist because they helped life survive. This, and only this, is their purpose. Such is the way of "biological truths".

Many animals exist that failed to breed. They died. But in truth, so does every other animal. Death is the common curse. Why, then, is breeding important? It isn't. It's simply a trait that is passed on. The reason it is passed on is because it is a trait that supports being passed on. Breeding does not save you from death. Failing to breed does not damn you. You are, and then you aren't. You are not graded. You are not scored. It is not objectively possible to waste your life.

At any moment, you could be killed. This would not be an event with purpose or greater cause. It would simply be what happened.

There is no purpose but that which we give ourselves, or which we allow others to give us.


A problem I have with a lot of philosophers is that they're essentially working under the assumption that "something important" exists. For many, this is the existence of the divine - that they firmly believe God exists, and their philosophies are founded in working around or with God's plan for them. René Descartes famously examined every possible assumption he had, down to his own existence - but concluded ultimately that he must not be deceived, because a Just God would not allow it. He could not bring himself to truly doubt the existence of God, even when he was intent on questioning everything else.

For others, the concern is more material. Ayn Rand labored under the idea that it was objectively valuable to pursue prosperity. Now I could certainly trot out quotes about her views on the rich (they're great and deserve everything they have and they got it all themselves) or the poor (they're parasitic idiots who couldn't sustain themselves for a week). But I think this one sums it up a lot better:

"They (Native Americans) didn't have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their 'right' to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent."

Ayn Rand's belief is that it is an Important Truth that progress is good and anti-progress is bad. Progress is more important than the autonomy, and lives, of the native peoples, and she holds then in contempt for failing to recognize that. She can't prove that value, of course, because it is a subjective belief. It is an opinion. But it is an opinion that she regards as unassailable and objective. She does not consider an alternative, because the criteria she uses to make decisions is founded in the intrinsic idea that progress is good.

If you were interested in defending civilization by its merits, you could mention things like medicine and plumbing and industry. Theoretically, you could make the argument that "civilization" as a concept includes many things that improve the life of the citizens within it. However, to do so, you would have to weigh that against the human beings killed in its name. This is not something Ayn Rand does because she does not care about those things - she cares about Progress itself. And if "progress" includes her living in luxury as the rightful inheritor of profit, then all the better for it. Naturally, Rand's philosophy was a big hit with people who want to be rich, selfish, elitist, and morally justified.

Most of the "great philosophers" operate in this way. They have an idea of the way the world should work, and they try to come up with reasons why it's the way the world has to work. Reading classical philosophy is a lot like reading the works of Freud - it's useful in a historical sense, but in an objective sense it's people without training trying to stumble across the truth. Freud is the "father of psychology", but he was also biased and arrogant, leading into his preferred conclusions without real concern for methodology or the well-being of his patients. In much the same way most of the great classical philosophers are essentially setting out "the way they think the world works" and then trying to justify it after the fact with their own theoretical anecdotes.

A philosopher believes that their beliefs are correct because they believe they must.

The counter-question is always "and what if we don't?"


Now, me, I'm a bit of a philosopher myself. I believe in the sanctity and primacy of reality. I believe that stories should aspire to something beyond pure entertainment - to truly connect with the real world, with real people and real stories. Reality comes first, real people and real stories, and fiction should - at best - try to skim off of the beauty of reality. It disgusts me - disgusts me - when people cry over fictional characters more than they cry over real people. It sickens me when people give more attention to a fictional story about war atrocities and "game narrative theory" than they do to real wars. It shows me, over and over, that people are more concerned about stroking their own egos (in one way or another) than actually learning about the world around them.

Recently, some of that kind of stuff has been in the limelight. Battlefield: Hardline brought out the idea that dehumanizing a group of people in order to justify violence being "fun" is distasteful and disrespectful. Hey, guess what, that's exactly how I feel about most video game violence. The idea of using something like that as entertainment is abhorrent to me. But most gamers are still basically okay with it, because that's the reality they grew up in.

Once, I wrote an article about the depiction of "easy violence". In this article I didn't even bring up the idea that it's wrong to pantomime murder - instead, I challenged the way we view escapism. "Killing" is generally a self-indulgent act in gaming, but it's also usually a pointlessly easy one. Is there a reason to get a thrill from pretending to kill an enemy who was barely capable of fighting back? Is there a reason to think it's cool and exciting to put a reticle over a guy and launch a yellow blob at him that bursts into jelly? Is this why we game?

Another time, I wrote an article about the way people use "realism". In that article I pointed out that many people (on all sides of the political spectrum) will use "realism" as a good thing and "non-realism" as a bad thing, but they will do so in very select instances. Some people will say that women shouldn't be allowed to fight or be stronger than a man, because that's "unrealistic". Other people will say that it's wrong for armor to have breast-shaped indentations, because that's "unrealistic". However, these kinds of complaints tend to float in a sea of abstract, disjointed design decisions. There is no true adherence to realism - it is simply invoked as a self-justified concept, with its own intrinsic moral value. And, of course, it's difficult to be so certain about what is "realistic" when we ourselves don't know all the facts about reality.

Almost all of my early articles had the same basic concept even when they were talking about wildly different topics: they were trying to teach people that realism itself is good, not just the concepts behind it. Inevitably fiction must differ from reality (that's why this is Exploring Believability and not Exploring Realism), but the more coherent realism you can put into a work, the better it'll be. And by "better" I mean in terms of things like visceral reactions, logical coherence, and real-world engagement. In fact, I told everyone this in the very first article I wrote on this site.

But now here comes the question: "and what if we don't?"


The answer is "nothing". Nothing happens if you don't adhere to realism. There is no objective purpose to life. It is impossible to "waste" life objectively. Life may be spent however the living being wishes (physical constraints aside).

FACT: A walking simulator is objectively not a waste of time.

FACT: A dating simulator is not objectively a waste of time.

FACT: A depression simulator is objectively not a waste of time.

FACT: A murder simulator is not objectively a waste of time.

The worst thing I can promise you, objectively, is that you will be hated by someone, somewhere. This is inevitable. But still, you don't want it.

How many of you are familiar with Christian Weston Chandler? Yeah, he's kind of a weird guy. Got a lot of problems. Easy to make fun of. Except, the problem is, a lot of the people making fun of him were basically just as weird and degenerate and societally-outcast as he was. What grounds did they have to mock him, apart from the safety of not being on display? What right did these shitbag nerds have to point and laugh at another shitbag nerd?

There's a really wonderful and enlightening event from Chris' life called Father Call. It's a complete dressing-down of Chris' inflated ego and sense of self-worth, where a societally revered individual (a veteran, a father, a provider) tears apart a societally hated individual (a failure, a blowhard, a guy who makes jokes about 9/11). Lots of people laughed at it. How many of them, I wonder, were nervous on the inside? How many of them compared their lives to Chris' and realized, oh, right, maybe I'm not as different as I'd like to think? Maybe, just maybe, I'm also a person that society despises?

"You are all bronies to me." - @ExpBelieve, twitter dot com

Of course the objective answer to this is that being hated is only bad if you care about the opinion of the people who hate you. Christian Weston Chandler could bundle himself up in his delusions and live totally happy on the taxpayer's dollar for the rest of his life. He can't get a girlfriend, sure, because that would require someone else thinking well of him - but he can at least get an anime bodypillow.

Why do we game? Because gaming is that blanket. Gaming is that bodypillow. Gaming is an institution founded on two things: self-indulgence and self-delusion. Games are about escapism - about pretending you're cool and important and likeable even when you're not. Games are about being better than everyone else. Games are about being stronger than everyone else. Games are about "romances" that are easy and reliable because there's no human being on the other end with opinions and values of their own.

And if you tell nerds how pathetic they are, they get so upset, my droogs. If you could harvest outrage, you would have no greater source than telling nerds they're pathetic. As much as they mock SJWs for daring to care about issues (and also "not doing real activism"), they themselves are the most sensitive demographic in the world. Because despite their "detached exteriors", they know what they are. Despite their "thick skins", they know how people feel about them. Despite the masks they wear, they know what's coming.

Hey, everyone, who wants to laugh at the nerd?

Despite everything they do - because of everything they do - gamers are losing right now. You know why? They're attacking the only people who could give their vapid medium an image improvement - the only people who could polish that turd up enough to make it respectable. They're organizing as one entity to do the kind of stupid shit that Jack Thompson could only dream of. For years, anti-game people had to make do with loosely connecting games to shootings. But now, here it is: an entire subculture organizing to do overt, repulsive activities. People who lived their lives not giving a shit about what other people thought of their body pillows and their murder simulators are now forced into answering the ringing phone. They hope, vainly, that an anime character will somehow turn it all around for them and make society ignore them again. Ring. Ring. Ring.

It's the Father Call.

Pick up the phone.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Quick Primer / Update

Hey guys I know I said I was done writing about games, and really, believe me, I'd like to be. But, you know, there's been a lot of stuff going on recently and I think people could use a quick primer on the way games work and why things are wrong with them. Ready? Here we go:

1) Battlefield Hardline Is The End Result Of A Logical Chain Of Events

People are generally pretty surprised and shocked at the timing of a game wherein you kill lots of people who are forcibly dehumanized in order to justify a binary moral narrative.

But this is what games have done forever. Every game where you kill living human beings does this.

The thing is that, in order to justify a format where the protagonist is better than everyone, someone has to be the "everyone". In B:H's case, the "everyone" is people you might know, people who are your friends, people you would sympathize with. They have names and faces and value and worth. They're human beings, goddammit.

Every game about killing human beings is about killing human beings. Repetitive, I know, but games love to take that thought away from you. The people you fight look and sound like human beings, but they don't behave like them. They don't cry or beg or run. They just fight and die. In such circumstances you're completely obligated to kill them - if you don't, they'll just try to kill you later.

And of course it's only fair that you should have advantages - there's so many of them, and just one of you! It makes sense that you can regenerate health. It makes sense that you can slow down time. You have to kill everyone. It wouldn't be fair for the act of murder to be scary or consequential. You have to make it fun.

At this point you might be thinking about games like Call of Duty. Fine. Do what you have to do. But when you're done thinking about that, don't forget to think about the snarky nerd-bait games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Don't forget to think about literally every game where the act of killing is cheered and praised. Because they're all part of the same problem. Don't make excuses. Don't go "well it's okay in this situation". Wake up. Confront the real world like a goddamned adult.

Is it necessary to kill people? Inevitably, yes. Sometimes people have to die. Should we celebrate it? Should we cheer it? Should we draw pleasure from it? That depends. Look around you. Look at the people cheering on the murderers. Ask yourself if you want to stand with them.

2) Gamers Harassing People Is The End Result Of A Logical Chain Of Events

Gamers have been told all their lives that they're better than everyone, and if they're not better than everyone they're garbage. That's power fantasy.

If a gamer tried to shoot someone, the police would stop them. They know this. Their fear of death is more important than any possible desire to harm others.

If a gamer got in a fight, they could be overpowered physically. Failing that, they could be sued. Their fear of consequence is is more important than any possible desire to harm others.

But there are no police on the internet. There's no "being overpowered" on the internet. There's not even really any "being sued" on the internet.

Now they have a format where they can do as they please without being stopped.

This is what power fantasy does. This is what dehumanization does. This is the monster it bred.

Some of those monsters are reading this and they're nodding their heads. He's right. I can do whatever I want.

3) Polygon Headlines Are The End Result Of A Logical Chain Of Events

Gamers being ignorant and uneducated is nothing new.

"When I see MGS transcending the medium, pushing the envelope... When I hear [people complain that there are] 'too many cutscenes,' I think, 'you're a peasant.' MGS 4 made me think about PMCs -- which, in a way, I hadn't before. The fact that [Kojima] brings up these real issues and brings them to light for people who don't really think about them...." - Shane Bettenhausen

Do you understand now why I hate Spec Ops: The Line? Not for what it is, but for the reception it had. The idea that something so shallow and weak could be so enlightening to so many was a revelation about how ignorant and terrible the average gamer is.

But it's not surprising.

Gaming is an exercise in "not thinking". Gaming is an exercise in finding reasons to not think about things. Gaming is an exercise in being shocked when a game provokes the slightest thought.

Gaming is about a population who will only accept new information in an exciting or thrilling form, like a child who must be tricked into taking vitamins.

Maybe pick up a book. I recommended a few the other day.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reading List

The one thing I miss about Twitter is the ability to signal-boost for a book or movie that I liked.

Luckily, I still have a blog.

The Forgotten Soldier, Guy Sajer
- Autobiography of a German (French-German, really) soldier on the Eastern Front.

Ivan's War, Catherine Merridale
- Collected accounts and historical overview of the common Soviet soldier in WW2.

A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo
- Autobiography of an American officer in Vietnam.

A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
- Autobiography of a former child soldier in Sierra Leone.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
- Illustrated autobiography of a girl during the Iranian Revolution.

Ayn Rand, Darryl Cunningham
- Illustrated biography of a girl during the Russian Revolution.

An Image of Africa, Chinua Achebe
- A critical essay regarding Heart of Darkness, available here. Criticisms are also applicable to stories that followed the HoD model, such as Apocalypse Now and that one other thing.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
- The Stoic Emperor's observations on life and existence, which are surprisingly secular in nature.

The Cartoon Histories, Larry Gonick
- Some people don't like reading books with just words in them. Gonick's an alright alternative.

Women In The Military Speak Out About Their Portrayals (Or Lack Thereof) In Video Games, Jacqueline Cottrell
- This is a great article primarily because the two servicewomen bulldoze the interviewer's attempts to make excuses about "well, FEMSHEP,". The last paragraph lines up almost perfectly with the things I believe about games.

Unmanned, MolleIndustria
- This is a weird book.

Jet Set Radio Future
- I have two joys in life: I love to go fast, and I love to build cities.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Semper Invictus

Before I start this, I'd like to dedicate this article to S.R. Holliwell, the author of a well-researched and well-written set of analyses on the works of Hideo Kojima with regards to depictions of misogyny and transphobia. These articles have been stricken from the internet, I assume because she got tired of being harassed about them. If there is one person in games who should have been writing, whose works should have been getting recognition, it's her, and not people who are writing about how games need to be More Fun And Less Serious, or about how games journalism is Totally Corrupt (for the ten thousandth time).

Anyways, on to the article.

The second most-read article I've written was "How To Write Empowering Female Characters". In that article, there was an examination of the concept of "agency", as well as the greater concept of portraying characters as though they are people and not just cardboard cutouts. Pretty simple stuff. At the end I mentioned WWE wrestler "Kharma", who differed from other women in the WWE because she was presented first and foremost as an aggressive, powerful figure instead of eye candy. I mentioned that the WWE should consider hiring some female MMA fighters to add that sort of credibility and power to their women's competitions.

But I never wrote an article about female MMA fighters, and that's basically a huge oversight on my part, because essentially Women's MMA is 90% of the things that I wanted out of videogames before I gave up on them as a medium. Here's the checklist for depicting combat well:

1) Combat is realistic and meaningful.
2) Combatants dress and behave in ways that indicate they are taking things seriously.
3) Combat, and its participants, are treated with respect.

These are pretty simple rules, I think. I'm not going crazy here (at least, not with this specific set of rules). And there's games that fulfill those standards - well, a few at least. Tom Clancy's stuff was pretty consistently good about that sort of thing. Rainbow Six 3 was a respectful, realistic, intelligent shooter that easily included female characters with no major overhauls necessary. GRAW2 has the best "tough lady" faces in video games. But most of the time, games are pretty dumb about this, because games make combat to be "fun", and by being "fun" they also end up being "stupid".

Whereas, conversely, MMA in real life is a sport where people are getting punched in the head. As a result, competitors and spectators tend to take it pretty seriously. They wear practical clothing. They do their hair up so it can't get yanked around - and if they don't, they at least know there'll be repercussions. They're not there to "look good", they're there to fight. It's simple stuff. And it's basically all I wanted out of games, at least in terms of depicting characters.

So here's the funny thing about women's MMA, right: I don't have a lot to talk about. It's basically fine. Women are competing seriously. The commentators are treating them respectfully as athletes and fighters. You get cool natural moments because this is an actual fight instead of a staged event. Everything is right where it should be. I mean, the thing is, everything that happens around it is more balanced because there's that strong core of serious respect. There's women in MMA who flaunt their sex appeal, and the difference between that happening in MMA and that happening in a video game is pretty obvious too: it's a real woman doing it, under her own agency. She's not being disrespected for it. It's simple stuff. That's the thing about MMA, though - it's real. It treats fights like they're real because they are. It treats women like they're real combatants because they are.

It'd be silly to say that there are no problems in the MMA world, but compared to gaming it feels like there's a more real chance of actually undoing those problems. Yeah, Dana White is a misogynist asshole, and the entire Invicta company was founded as a way to get away from him, but hey. Martial arts is founded on principles of respect. You know what isn't? Gaming. There is no underlying expectation of respect in gaming. The only principles in gaming are "if people will buy it, make it". Anyone can throw out a "market research" explanation for depicting women in a certain way, or, failing that, they can go for the equally eye-rolling "artistic license". You don't get that shit with MMA. Fights are fights.

Of course there's still assholes who follow MMA - it's a bloodsport, after all. Of course there's still people making derogatory comments about WEAKER WOMEN. Of course there are MMA fighters who are pieces of shit. It's an inevitability. It's still an event that takes place on Planet Earth, after all. On the other hand, you have companies run by and for women - the kind of thing that would get overwhelmingly swarmed and harassed in the gaming world. You have a backbone of "this is real combat" that adds a level of objectivity to the proceedings. There's a strong core foundation of "hey, this is a serious sport" that helps solidify the community in the face of shitty human beings. Gaming would be fucking blessed if it had a single woman - fictional or non - as intense as AnnMaria De Mars. Fighting is serious fucking shit.

When people ask why Assassin's Creed won't treat women with respect, ask yourself: when did AC ever treat anything with respect? When did games ever treat anything with respect? Why are we surprised that a medium based on shallow, petty self-indulgence keeps fucking up when it comes to actual serious topics? How can they stay when they're sixty million miles away? How can they fly when they're free?

Sometimes I wish I'd started taking heroin instead of getting into videogames. It'd probably have been healthier overall.

Support Invicta FC.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


it finally happened

it's pretty funny that, like mrbtongue*, wong ultimately has a soft spot for mass effect despite it being all the things he's listing off as shitty

also i probably would have added an entry for "things looking stupid as shit" but you can't have everything

*for the record mrbtongue is undoubtedly the most respectable games theorist on youtube; the fact that he has only two attributes that i dislike should make it pretty clear that he's heads and shoulders above the rest of the video game world

as for me,

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ludonarrative Dissonance: A Primer

In conventional terms, there are two parts of a "game", or "interactive experience". There is the mechanical aspect ("the game") and the narrative aspect ("the story"). Some people are confused about the relation between these two things and I have a lot of time on my hands after writing literally every possible thing about believability that I could, so here we are again, doing this old song and dance one last time before I do it again next week. To start with, let's identify the two major parts of an "interactive experience", or "game". The first part, the mechanical game aspect, is what we'll call "the sport". The second part, the narrative story aspect, is what we'll call "the story".

Sport is a term I am using not only because of its structural connotations (sports have rules and regulations that exist on their own terms) but also because of the implications of its etymology. While today we associate "sports" with a highly structured team experience connected to physical exertion and capabilities, the origins of the word are actually much simpler. The word comes from the French desporter, meaning diversion or amusement. No seriously, look it up. This definition dates back to the 1400s, and as "play" became more structured it took on the modern meaning. The point here is that "sport" is a term I am using because sports are done for fun or for enjoyment. This relates in turn to the role of "sport" in a game. Sport is the rules for playing a game. Sometimes these rules intersect with the greater rules of the game slash joke that we call "reality". Sometimes they don't.

Story is the simulation of actions in a usually-consistent universe. Characters, events and settings make up the foundation of a "story", which is reinforced with dialogue, graphics, sound, etc. Story serves as the horrific, misshapen skinsuit crudely fashioned to cover the Sport Experience. It is a tattered and baggy object that nonetheless adds appeal to the Sport Experience despite clearly not fitting on it and ultimately being a terrifying funhouse mirror of real life. An example of Story is a reflexive point-and-click experience being converted into a murder simulator where players pretend to kill other human beings while gun companies make actual real-life profits from their guns being represented in the game as largely unrelated numbers and objects. If the story was not there, the players would simply be launching projectiles at each other, and players hit by the projectiles would be briefly removed from play for several seconds. Without the facade of shooting human beings until they die it's impossible to see this sport as being appealing.

Hey, do you remember that time that a fictional movie was made and it was so convincing that it drove up membership for the Ku Klux Klan to the degree that it was more influential and dangerous than it had been at the height of Reconstruction? No, forget about it, I'm just thinking out loud.

Some games that are all sport and no story include all sports that have no story, such as rugby, hockey, jai alai, and badminton. These experiences do not offer justifications for their mechanics, or even context - the rules are the rules and that's all that they are. A Ping-Pong player is simply a player of Ping-Pong; they are not representative of, for example, a mighty hero vanquishing an ancient evil. They are not recreating the battle of Stalingrad via paddle and ball. They are not pretending to explode civilians with every swing. They are not learning valuable lessons about the cruel nature of war when the ball hits the tiny net. They may have existential crises about why they are playing Ping-Pong, re: the pointlessness of learning to become extremely skilled at hitting a small ball back and forth, but this is within the realm of real life not the simulated reality of a Ping-Pong Narrative.

Some interactive experiences (or "games") that are all story and no sport include Bell Park, Youth Detective, Oren Moverman's Rampart, John Gardner's Grendel, and Eduardo Galeano's Days and Nights of Love and War. In these events there is no "skill" or "rules" that determine forward progress apart from the act of pressing play or turning pages or clicking one of several choice options. However, despite this simple setup, these stories are comparable in choice-levels to more advanced Sportgames such as Uncharted or Bioshock. Despite the more intensive sport setup, the narrative advancement is basically the same for these games as it is for the sport-free games. Also, the writing is worse. Like, Jesus, seriously, have you actually played an Uncharted game? Are they kidding us with that dialogue?

You might ask yourself at this point: what makes a game a game, objectively speaking? The answer is nothing. Classifications like that are entirely a human invention and the universe really doesn't give a shit about whether something is a game or is art or whatever. Their definitions come from the notoriously shoddy English language, which some people think is a near-infallible source of categorization when in reality it was cobbled together from like five different languages over the course of a millenium or so, and that's not including all the loanwords. Fuck Art. Fuck Games. Who gives a shit. Uncharted is a movie where you have to pretend to shoot people with shitty guns to unlock new sections of the movie. Who gives a shit. Fuck it. Another important part of games is level design.

What is the "endgame" of a game? What is the innate purpose that games should strive towards? Once again we must look towards the gaping abyss of existential purposelessness to give us our answer. A great eye opens in the swirling, incomprehensible vortex, and as you stare into it you realize that in 100 years you will be dead, and your role in this universe will be negligible. The only beings who will mourn you are just as fragile as you are. You were born into this universe to die and the insubstantial things that you do during your cosmically brief time here are of no concern to anyone other than beings as flawed and pointless as you are. As you take pleasure from breaking society's taboos, as you drive on the sidewalk in Grand Theft Auto or molest a 14 year old in SNATCHER or improperly stack crates in Shenmue, remember that the fleeting pleasure you derive from these experiences are in essence acknowledging the worthlessness not only of the simulation but also of the real thing. Without the firm hand of the law most of you wouldn't have enough empathy to even consider not doing it in real life because people like you aren't motivated by things like human kindness, are you? Bonus Question: What would Jean Calvin think of video games?

1) Why?
2) Why bother?
3) Objectively explain why murder is wrong. Do not use the human definition of "wrong".
4) If it feels good, should you do it?

6) Explain ludonarrative dissonance.
7) Do you think racists and sexists are allowed to post on the internet? Do you think that if someone commits a rape or abuses their spouse, their internet rights are revoked? Do you think that when you laugh at off-color humor, that every single person who laughs along with you is doing so ironically? Do you think that violence is real? Do you think that all this is just a game? Do you think you're winning? Explain why, objectively.
8) The Office was only funny in the first season. Explain why I'm right.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hideo Kojima Wishes He Had Thought Of Breaking Bad

I can't even laugh about this anymore.

"The kind of topics they're handling in Breaking Bad, the way they express them and put them on screen, let's say I tried to create a game with similar topics and similar expressions, it would be hard to get approval in the company. The way these guys are putting the planning for this project and making it a commercial success - that's somewhere I feel very jealous as a creator."

I'll make one admission: it is possible - possible, but not likely - that I overestimate Kojima's creative control over his product. It is certainly feasible that he didn't want to include a sexy sniper babe to boost figure sales - that without the interference of the rest of Konami, he would have made a completely straightfaced story about child soldiers and CIA torture and sewing bombs into peoples' abdomens. It is possible that the goofy things throughout the rest of Metal Gear Solid were foisted upon him by the company.

But we still have to judge MGS; we still have to see it as the result of ideas, some of which are problematic, that leads to a completed video game product. This gives me the unenviable task of separating Kojima's "real thoughts" from the company lines he is contractually obligated to support. Was it Kojima's idea, or the company's idea, to have the bosses of MGS4 be played by supermodels? Was it his idea to sexualize women with horrific backstories of abuse and murder, or was that the company? Was it Kojima's idea to make the poopy guy fall in love with Meryl and then turn into an action movie badass? I know for a fact that he wanted Metal Gear Rising to be about Grey Fox and not about Raiden, so I can't blame him for anything in that. Was anything related to Peace Walker Kojima's idea? Is Kojima even a real human being, or is he a marionette assembled by the Konami corporation to have a relatable goofball behind their coldly calculated corporate products? In short, is Kojima a piece of shit, or does he just make games for pieces of shit? This might seem like a simple issue, but it kind of calls to question the whole "art" angle of  video games. If you literally cannot tell if a game is designed for the artist's preferences or "just to sell", is it really worth anything? Also, why is it that the people who want games to be considered art will also go out of their way to defend pandering, stupid decisions even when they're explicitly stated as such?

Anyways, if you want the Breaking Bad of videogames, play Liberal Crime Squad or Swat 4 or, hell, maybe even try out Floor 13 if you're okay with going a bit afield. All of those are games that exist, made by small, dedicated studios without grandiose ideas of billion-dollar profit margins, more concerned with delivering a small-but-tight experience with meaningful decision-making. So maybe Hideo Kojima should just fucking quit and start his own studio, is what I'm saying. It worked for Peter Molyne-oh wait no

During development of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Hideo Kojima wanted the Beauty and the Beast Unit to be naked during cutscenes, though this would have severely affected the game's censorship rating.

i forgot that hideo kojima is just a piece of shit and there's no question about it

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Men climb the mountain to reach the top.

There's a paradigm in our culture. It's called "I can tell fiction from reality". It's a statement used in reference to escapism that contains elements and actions that are considered immoral or wrong "in real life" but are okay in scenarios where no real people are hurt. For example, material that involves the protagonist committing murder, torture, rape or acts of pedophilia are all defended under this argument. The core of the argument is that while it's acknowledged that a character's behavior is disgusting, it's okay to draw pleasure from it because it's happening in a caged, unreal environment. As long as nobody is really hurt, you can do whatever you want.

I won't say that there aren't truisms found in this argument. I'm certainly not going to argue that people who play violent video games should be locked up, as much as I'd probably enjoy a world free of them. But it's an oversimplification of one major element, which is this: the things we draw pleasure from have reasons behind them. You're not gardening, you're not driving a bus, you're not mowing the lawn, you're not painting your house. Your escapism - your alternate world, constructed purely to give you pleasure - involves murder. Specifically, it involves power. Escapism, 95% of the time, is about having power, and often about having power in such a way that you don't feel bad about using (or abusing) it.

That image at the top shows why there's a gaping weakness in this argument - a massive, uncovered, festering wound that people like me can jam their fingers into and then start pulling apart. The fact of the matter is that words like "badass" and "awesome" don't exist in a vacuum - they're appealing to concepts that people have been trained to value and enjoy and consider important. For men, appealing traits generally exist with a few core concepts.

"Badass" men are powerful. They are strong, rich, fast, etc because these characteristics allow them to influence others without being influenced themselves, which is the basic goal of the pursuit of strength. "Badass" men are composed, detached and stoic. They are not affected emotionally unless it is appealing for them to be, which is to say they do not show fear or weakness, but will exhibit grief when it can be turned into righteous anger. This ties into power; a real man does not allow himself to be affected by others even in an emotional sense. It is okay to show anger, because anger is a prelude to violence, and violence is the man asserting power and dominance over others. Fear, on the other hand, is a prelude to having power asserted over one's self, and as such is unappealing for a male character.

In short, characters like James Bond - who represents "the top of the mountain" in the opening post - exist in such a way that they are able to influence others without themselves being hindered or weakened or trod upon. Even when they are tortured and beaten and stabbed and shot, they grit their teeth and bear it, knowing that their chance will come to exact revenge, and that revenge will be all the sweeter for the grievances inflicted. Similarly, it's okay for such characters to have character flaws like alcoholism or drug addiction, as long as the manner in which they deal with such things is stoic and detached and not pleading or pathetic. They needn't be a braggart, either - think of characters like Solid Snake who are constantly asserting that "they're no hero", and how every insistent repetition of this fact just makes them seem humble and, ergo, more awesome. Every trait comes down to power, a perpetual need to be on top of situations even when those situations are specifically centered around being weak or downtrodden.

I'd like to talk to you about James Blake Miller briefly. You may remember him better from this picture:

When this picture was taken during the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, it was held up as one of the best pictures taken from the war. The New York Post splattered it across their front page as an icon of success, of tough American soldiers kicking ass in the face of fierce (yet cowardly and conniving) resistance. The thousand-yard stare of a man who had just emerged from a hellish warzone and was taking a brief reprieve before re-entering it was interpreted as the cool glare of a detached and stoic warrior who was able to kill his enemies without emotion or regret or remorse.

On his return home, James Miller suffered from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course he did. He was involved in the most intense urban theater of the Iraq War, during which time he was constantly in fear of death coming from any direction. He watched friends die, and knew that at any time he could be next. It didn't matter if it felt like he was safe - RPGs and mortars don't care about walls. He knew these things. Even when he returned to the United States, his body and mind were trained to live in fear, to be paranoid about every whistle and sound and sudden motion and loud noise.

In 2005, while preparing for disaster recovery efforts for Hurricane Rita, Miller was involved in an incident where he attacked a Navy seaman. This came after the seaman had whistled in a way that mimicked an RPG's signature trail, which Miller believed was done intentionally to upset the marines present. In 2006 he got married, which was made possible thanks to the donations of people affected by his story and his trauma. Less than a month later he was divorced, unable to live in normal conditions due to his PTSD.

James Miller is a warrior, a stone-cold killer whose icy glare and drooping cigarette are iconic images that will endure for centuries to come. He is a model for children to follow, like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne or Max Payne or Adam "Kane" Marcus or who the fuck ever else you want to name. James Miller is a human being who has difficulty functioning in our society. He is a man who lives in fear because he somehow survived an event that could have killed him at any moment it damn well pleased and his body and mind are so tensed up that resuming normal life is almost impossible. He is a traumatized individual whose sacrifices seem hollow and meaningless in retrospect, who has survived while watching friends die, who endures and can't really explain why he does.

"I mean, He must think I deserve to fuckin' be punished baaad. And the only reason why I can figure that I'm still alive is that this is God's way of letting me feel the guilt for all the bad shit I did. Because there's not a morning when I don't fuckin' wake up and the first thing I think is, 'Another day I'm here.' What did I do to make me deserve another day? What have I done in my life that my buddies didn't do to make me deserve so many days?"

You want to know how I can tell people can't tell fiction from reality? Because if they understood reality, they wouldn't idolize the image of a badass murderer in the first place. It wouldn't give them pleasure to pretend to be those people, and it wouldn't make sense for them to think of such people as being worthy of emulation. There wouldn't be people who look at Rorschach and think "yeah, that guy makes a lot of sense".

But they do. They think of people like that as "the top of the mountain". They think of war and killing as baptismal waters that transforms untested boys into hardened men. They think that it's the goal of the male animal to become sharpened, focused, stoic, detached. They think that men are killers, even if they have to obey laws. They wait, primed and ready, for a moment when some thug tries to mug them, some shithead breaks into their house, some little old lady gets attacked on the street. They wait for a chance to commit murder in such a way that it's societally condoned and justified and even heroic, like a firefighter hoping for an arsonist or a doctor hoping for a plague.

The mountain isn't real. And if you think you're at the top of it, you're fucking deluding yourself.

I just need someone to talk to.