When I lived in Athens, Georgia (as an undergrad, then as a townie for two years), I listened to a lot more music than I do today. Athens is a “music town,” which means that people move there to make music together and, hopefully, find a nice job bartending that lets them periodically skip town to go on tour. It’s a simultaneously fruitful and tragic existence for these people, who make the air around them beautiful—they always have someone to call when a work-in-progress is just screaming for (say) a bass clarinet, but the local market is so ridiculously saturated that, on any given night, you’ve got to choose between four (or more) equally decent shows to catch.
It’s hard to break even, break out, or break away. This is, I think, something that we’ll come to see more and more as independent game development expands, condensing in specific cities that we’ll identify as “game towns.” Already, even though I spend a significant portion of my days scouring the Internet for new game designers, really brilliant stuff is flying under my radar all the time. We’re going to see a lot more game design with a local consciousness and flavor, more people designing games who don’t even entertain the idea that it will be their primary source of income, and more people who design games while they’re still young before moving on to other pursuits.
When I lived in Athens, Georgia, one of my favorite acts was Madeline. Mostly because she’s got the goddamn cleanest, heartbreakingest voice that I’ve ever heard. But partially, also, for laughably personal reasons: The first time I saw her play was the first time somebody had invited me out to the Fólkvangr-esque Orange Twin farm. And the night her White Flag Band opened for Earth at the Caledonia was the night that my friends Rob and Allie went on their first date. Those kinds of embarrassing, saccharine memories.
Madeline’s been making music for ten years now (if you thought you were doing well in your late teens, listen upon Kissing & Dancing, ye mighty, and despair), and she’s about to release a new LP called Black Velvet that I’ve been listening to on repeat for two months now. But the music I first heard her play was off of White Flag, so I paid my boss’s nine year-old daughter to write a review of the album, which she suggested would be appropriate for blogging:
Seriously, who does the White Flag Band think is gonna listen to this garbage?! All the songs have horrible names. I mean, one of them is called “This Train”—which reminds me the whole time in that song she says 8 words 2 times over and then thinks up new ones and on and on and on.
Also, in all songs the lyrics make no sense. I mean, in “Lit Elephants” she’s saying something about a black and white moth in a coffee cup and then suddenly about someone staying somewhere for “a while.” What does that even mean? All Madeline cares about is the words rhyming. She doesn’t care if they make sense or not.
I mean, if you like singers that sound like a drowning wasp, then this is perfect for you. But I say if they’re dumb enough to not know now to make clear what the CD name and the band name is, then they can’t sing or play the guitar or any other instrument in existence.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go barf from listening to it. (F.B.)
I also commissioned my friend Theron Jacobs (aka TPHD aka Darklord Tapehead) to make a digital painting on the eve of Madeline’s 10-year anniversary concert. Enjoy!
My first review for Kill Screen is going up soon; it’s about Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy. I play it a lot these days. There are also these two older columns that I never got around to linking:
1) why Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a better western game than Red Dead Redemption – “When a Bell Tolls”
2) why Call of Duty games need the infinite enemy spawn – “Popping Smoke”
I just read this late-90s text on contemporary art, and it actually used the term “Internet web.”
If you hadn’t already noticed, I’m not making any attempt to recoup this blog as a space for original writing. I’ve got an upcoming regular gig at another games crit site, so, no harm.
Two exciting things today.
The Flourish is my ultra-short conversation piece for the In Media Res digital curation project’s “Gaming” week. It’s about Tokido and the rhetoric of fairness in sport. Special thank to Brandon Amato of Georgia State for the invitation and the editing.
Over at Game Design Advance, there’s an Another Castle podcast with me kicking off the second season. I talk about how I got into game studies, how we wrote the newsgames book, and why I want to study competitive gaming.
(a minimally parodic “interpretive note” on Lunenfeld’s “Unfinished Business,” for media theory class)
I’m always depressed when I read old essays valorizing MUDs (or MOOs). It’s almost as depressing as reading about the unfulfilled future of hypertext, but I didn’t have a stake in hypertext. I spent six years of my life playing a MUD called Achaea. To this day, it remains the most martially and socially complex game I’ve ever played. It was essentially a MOO, but the “orbs of creation” were only held by players who’d ascended to divinity (and thus had become paid administrators and creators).
I got my hands on an OOC once, when I was Guildmaster of the Druids. We druids were custodians of the forests, and we were always having problems with arsonists, infernals, and occultists. The latter two could eat the hearts of their fallen enemies to fuel their demonic “essence,” but it was easier for them just to kill plants. Rogue druids, overcome by greed to control the market for salves and potions, would often overharvest plants and kill them. It was our greatest concern that some of the more rare plants of the world, the ones that couldn’t be easily purchased from NPC merchants, might at some point become extinct.
I used the orb of creation to build a garden in our guildhouse, locked by a key without any copies. In the event of a catastrophic over-harvesting, I’d be able to re-plant an endangered plant from my secret crop. This never happened, so even I didn’t visit the place. Soon after I stopped playing, the guildhouse was destroyed. I can’t even remember if I handed off the key to the guy who replaced me. I don’t know if anyone else ever saw my elaborate room descriptions or floorplan.
For Peter Lunenfeld, MOOs represented the hope for a future aesthetic of unfinish. In his essay, “Unfinished Business,” Lunenfeld described how the Internet would cause great changes in how we think of space, narrative, and time. We’d come to embrace a kind of digital derive, exploring cyberspace without end or direction, bringing back stories to tell. And creators would replace product with process. Works of art and information would be in a never-ending flux of possibility. Some of them, like MOOs, would be configurable (Aarseth’s term) by any and all users.
One species of unfinish that Lunenfeld derided was the cross-media release of Johnny Mnemonic. For him, it typified a bad breed of unfinished narrative that had replaced story with character. The goal of these synergistic media packages was nothing more than continued economic gain. Today, Johnny Mnemonic is par for the course. It’s what we call a “transmedia strategy,” and it’s super hot right now. People get paid to talk about how it’s the future, even though what they really mean is that it’s the present. And it’s an exciting present.
Process has also replaced product in journalism. When people say things like, “journalism is dead,” they really mean that product journalism is dead. Product journalism is what newspapers made. Millions of years ago, product journalism gave rise to a profession called “journalism,” which had a set of values including, but not limited to: verification, objectivity, and transparency. Now that profession is dead, because it turned out that citizens can do journalism. And many of them will do it for free, which means that we don’t need to pay people who pretend to belong to a dead profession.
Process journalism is what the blogs do. It’s when you take a bit of information from an email one of your friends sent you and publish it as the news. If you’re a “tech blogger,” you spend a lot of your time deciding what product press releases to publish on the hour. Your readership expects you to say something funny about these press releases, because the Internet is for humor and the news. News is about what you should spend your money on and how many “troops” died today in a country we know nothing about.
The idea behind process journalism is that the news is always unfinished. Product journalists were always putting all this work into their articles, pretending that they knew what was actually going on. They treated the news like it was something static. But we know now that everything is dynamic. Super dynamic. So if we publish something that’s wrong, we can just edit it later. Sometimes our readers know more than we do, so we take the information they give us, insert it into our articles, and then delete their comments without so much as a thank you. Unlike journalism, blogging doesn’t pretend to be a profession; it’s an intermediate step between unemployment and working in the videogame industry.
Videogames are also unfinished business now. If you spend four years of your life making a videogame on a disc, it’s just going to get ripped by a twelve-year old in Eastern Europe and distributed for free on the Internet. To counteract this, we now typically spend a little less than a month to make a videogame. Videogames are now primarily referred to as “social games.” We hire a bunch of business school dropout kids to design the things, because they’re the experts on how to “gamify” things that are boring. Gamification is when you add experience levels to everything. Gamifying something doesn’t make it less boring; it just makes it into a game.
These social games, because we only spent a month or so to make them, are pretty damn unfinished. Once a game doesn’t break as soon as we turn it on, we release something called a “minimum viable product.” Then we get bored house-wives, -husbands, and office drones to test the game for us for free. After another month of MVP, games enter a perpetual state of “open beta.” Beta means “unfinished business.” The goal of a game in open beta is to pull as much money from stupid, desperate human beings as possible. Some of these people will leave other unfinished business, like taking care of their children, to focus on our unfinished business.
Peter Lunenfeld also thought that virtual worlds would redefine architecture, but we now know that virtual worlds are “so yesterday.” He also hoped that the aesthetic of unfinish would somehow elongate time, helping us to one day escape our own mortality. But, really, all we’re doing is helping people ignore it. The final frontier of humankind is a -ville.
September is here, so I’m back at school with plenty of exciting goings-on to share.
In mid-August I left my internship at area/code. The project I worked on most of the summer as a designer should be going into open beta soon, so I’ll post a link to it and share my postmortem when that happens. As it was a social game, I’ve spent most of my summer playing and thinking about social games. I attended the seminar at NYU where my academic mentor announced his critique of the form with Cow Clicker, and I listened to my game design mentor discuss his problems with and hopes for the genre on NPR. But I don’t know if I’m any closer to having a concrete opinion of them other than that I really don’t want to think about them anymore.
I now consider living and working in New York for a summer to be an absolute requirement for any aspiring game designer or academic. Frank Lantz and area/code act as a kind of magnet for game developers in the area. I spent most of my summer drinking, arguing, and playing Super Street Fighter IV with Mark Heggen and Kevin Cancienne of area/code, Charles Pratt, Rachel Morris, and Noah Sasso, C.J. Kershner of Kaos Studios, Ramiro Corbetta of Powerhead Games, and Andy Nealen of Hemisphere Games. New York is also filled with design teachers, like Eric Zimmerman and Colleen Macklin, who bring an unfettered exuberance to the study of games that you don’t see from many academics.
A few great folks left the city while I was there, but, according to Frank, “they’ll be back”: Mark Essen is building a game design program at UCLA, Scott Anderson moved to the Phoenix indie cluster to finish Shadow Physics, and Jesper Juul went back to Scandinavia to have a baby or something. The amount of learning and friendship I developed over this short period of time is unmatched by any other experience I’ve had since the beginning of my game studies.
With the impending confirmation of the NYU Game Center as a degree-granting body, and with the recent (totally deserved) attention lavished on the efforts of Babycastles to create a DIY arcade for the city, New York will likely be the Mecca for indie game development in the near future. I have mixed feelings about this, because I’m not entirely sure that I want the same LA/NY divide observed in the film industry to occur in the game industry. To that end, I’ll be writing a lot of nonsense this year about the need for Southern indie development along the Atlanta-Austin axis.
This semester I’m officially beginning as a digital media PhD student in the LCC department at Georgia Tech. I only have to take two classes, Media Theory and Culture & Cognition seminars, but I’ll be posting my writing assignments from those for anybody who’s interested. My personal research will likely revolve around the literacy, philosophy, and society of competitive gaming. To that end, I’ll be joining a competitive Halo Reach clan and hopefully attending e-sports tournaments (holler at me if you know anybody decent who’d like the idea of recruiting a soldier-ethnographer).
This semester also marks the beginning of a new phase of newsgames research. Ian Bogost’s studio here at Tech has partnered with the expressive intelligence studio at UC Santa Cruz (run by Michael Mateas of Façade fame) to work on an AI designed to convert local news stories into editorial games. We’ll be starting the News Games blog up again with the new crop of Master’s students here, focusing on our usual newsgame critique, deep readings of the graphical logics of arcade games, and local media issues. I’ll also be writing bi-monthly updates on the project at the PBS Idea Lab blog.
I haven’t scheduled all my conferences for the year, but at the moment I know of a few that I’ll be attending. At IndieCade I’ll be part of the artgames seminar along with Charles Pratt, Naomi Clark, and John Sharp. IndieCade also coincides with Brandon Boyer’s birthday, so you should probably be there. Ian, Bobby, and I will be at SEIGE, the Grace Hopper conference, and FutureMedia Fest to talk about our research and the Newsgames book (which releases in a month or so). I’m also planning on attending GDC for my first time this year, but I don’t yet know how I’m going to fund it.
I’ll be rebooting Rules of the Game in the coming weeks with less of an emphasis on reviews, and I’m going to try posting the notes I write while playing the games I play on this blog before developing them into full articles. When the Another Castle podcast comes back from its summer vacation, the first two interviews of the new season will be with me and Andy Nealen. I’ve also got a piece in the next issue of Kill Screen, my first attempt at pure games journalism. So much writing to do, and so much time do it: this is a nice place to be in. Thanks for reading!
Hey friends. Before you vomit: this isn’t one of those “sorry I’ve been away but I promise I’m back now and I’ll try really hard to write each week” things.
Haven’t written here in awhile, because I’ve been writing exclusively for Rules of the Game, editing all the work there, and sending out hundreds of emails to PR companies to get review copies for people. Eventually the writers there will be able to write more efficiently, and I’ll be able to let the other editors take over some of the heavy lifting, and I’ll be able to write here again. Currently I’m wrapping up the second part of my MUD memoir, an analysis of progression and weapon design in God of War III, and an analysis of the first week of a 12-player Neptune’s Pride session.
I’ve also been crunching on my research assistantship, which, this semester, mostly involved archiving all of our departmental thesis and dissertation bibliographies in Zotero, making a research blog for a partnership between the ACM and our department, and making a template for faculty blogs. I’ve become slightly better at PHP and a lot better at graphic design, though I doubt I’ll be using those skills in the near future.
This summer I’m doing two neat things: writing book chapters and working as a game design intern at Area/Code, the company founded by Frank Lantz. It’s in Chelsea (in Manhattan), and I’ll probably be living in Washington Heights near where my parents met in the late 70s. I’m excited to go up there, as I haven’t lived in New York since I was six. There are a lot of family members and childhood friends that I haven’t seen in a long while, and it will be good to reconnect with them and guilt them into buying me dinner. It will also be fun to finally test whether my Master’s education has taught me any skills necessary to actually design economically-viable games.
Frank doesn’t think simulations are arguments, or he doesn’t think games are simulations (I’m not sure which, maybe both), so it’ll be fun to split hairs with him and Charles all summer. I also want to get my initials on some of the arcade cabinets at NYU—mostly the ones that Jesper Juul and Frank have high scores on.
Toward the end of my stay, in August, it’s possible that I’ll be able to get copies of Newsgames to do a bit of an author lecture at a bookstore (my friend Ryan works at one somewhere in the city). The book chapters I’m working on are both for Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press, a kind of experiment in electronic peer review. One is an expansion of my article on Final Fantasy XIII (by the way, thank you again to everyone who’s been linking it around the web, and to those who’ve criticized it and helped make the next draft a lot tighter). The second is an article about Train, expanding my discussion of it toward the beginning of my thesis. It’s been a pleasure to email Brathwaite with questions and ideas for the piece.
I’m not bringing any of my game consoles up to New York, so I hope to finally catch up on every single indie game I downloaded on my Windows partition and never got around to playing.
Hey friends. So the other day my blog hit its highest single-day traffic of all time. Thanks to everyone who has RSS’d me in the past few months and those who linked my AC2 piece for making that happen. I have about 50 regular readers now, which is 25 times what I had at the beginning of the year. My blogroll has ballooned in size, each with a mutual link between another blogger who I’ve made the acquaintance of over course of the past year. It’s kind of hard to remember what life was like without 130 friends on Twitter ready to indulge my every desire to nerd out about one game or another.
I’ve finished my lists for my top ten films and videogames of the past decade, but I’m still polishing up the explanations on those. I would like to note a few things about 2009 in particular first.
GOTY 2009: Shatter
Charles Pratt posted this cute quote a few months ago; one of his friends (maybe his girlfriend?) said of him that, “he’s so hardcore that he only plays casual games now.” In a way, I feel like that sort of describes me as well. This year, I played in excess of fifty “small” games on top of the sixty or so AAA games that I completed. I had, by far, a much more enjoyable time with the smaller titles. They’re singular in their expressive goals, and they tend to represent the efforts of a small group of designers hoping to break into the industry. Of course, I wouldn’t describe my experience with them as “casual”—most I ravenously devoured within a sitting or two. Up there on the list would have to be Panzer General, PixelJunk Shooter, Critter Crunch, and Trine, all of which I had the great honor to review (for free) at my newish gig as associate editor and go-to-guy for downloadable games at Sleeper Hit.
But my game of the year, by a long shot, is Shatter. This game was quietly released one night on PSN at a bargain price, something like seven or eight dollars. It’s an Arkanoid or Brick-Break or Breakout clone, whichever you like to recognize as your first of the kind. Shatter is different. It’s a game about breathing.
Supplementing the somewhat rote action of knocking a Pong-like ball into a wall of individually-breakable blocks is a mechanic for blowing air out and sucking it back in. By calculating your inhalation or exhalation, you can arc the ball in any direction you wish. It’s highly user-friendly, with a little arrow showing you where the ball is currently headed. You don’t even have to use the paddle most of the time if you don’t want to, choosing instead to constantly exhale. On top of this novel mechanic are the added benefits of a shield, special ball-types, and an overpower assault. Each of the ten levels has a unique boss that remind me of R-Type in many ways. I completed the game in the course of three hours, using only one continue, that first night it came out, and I haven’t picked it up since. Yet, it’s stuck with me—one of the only games this year that was perfect from start to finish.
My favorite consumer reviewer of the year: Simon Parkin of Eurogamer.
My favorite unsung videogame blogger of the year: Gatmog of Tales of a Scorched Earth.
My videogame review archnemesis: Brad Gallaway of GameCritics.
Links to my other recent work around the Internets:
The Humble Crickler – Excerpt by Ian from our upcoming book on newsgames, supplemented with some added analysis by me, about the crickler—a form of interactive online crossword puzzle (News Games).
Gotham Gazette’s NYC Election Games – Analysis of a suite of editorial games produced by the Gotham Gazette, funded by the Knight Foundation, to critique the 2004 NYC electoral process. An example of lightly-skinning classic games to great effect. Also, heavy use of the rhetoric of a “broken” game representing a broken real-word system (News Games).
QIXX++ – This Taito remake has nothing to do with Jeff Minter, despite the somewhat neon visuals and “++” epithet. Stay the hell away from it (Sleeper Hit).
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising – I have no idea how this made its way into my hands. I think our staff is pretty down on the tactical shooter genre, and I was the only person willing to make an honest go at it. In contrast to many games in the genre, this one doesn’t take place in the dusty city streets of Somewhere, The Middle East… so that’s a plus (Sleeper Hit).
LostWinds 2: Winter of the Melodias – Awesome short-form narrative, family game for the WiiWare. My only complaint was that my hand hurt from how jumping works (hold A and swipe the controller). Beautiful art style, cool contrasts between elemental energies that I considered really incredible until I played PJ Shooter the very next week (Sleeper Hit).
Rainbow Islands: Towering Advenure – Another half-assed Taito remake that was actually the first bad game I had to review. I don’t really know what else to say, except that I’m still waiting for someone to tell me whether or not it’s redeemable as camp (Sleeper Hit).
Dragon Age: Origins – My editor made me write this consumer review after I’d already written my NGJ-style post about the relationships in the game. Mostly I complain about how bad the combat system is (Sleeper Hit).
Panzer General XBLA - Chronicling my attempt to learn how tabletop wargaming works and my thrilling online victory over Owen420Canada (Sleeper Hit).
I finished Dragon Age: Origins last night. I’d told somebody that I would finish it by Sunday, but playing it on Hard led me to waste about eight hours on reloads. I also knew that I wouldn’t have the time to play through it ever again, so I spent a lot of time reloading saves to see what happened on both sides of every decision point. I thought about writing a proper review of the game for Sleeper Hit; instead, I’ll again share an anecdote about the analysis of multilinear RPGs.
Sipping Victory Prima Pilsner at a miserable, empty bar in Savannah, Kirk Battle and I discussed how to best write about something like a BioWare game. We were talking about Mass Effect, which he’d been afraid to touch (later he wrote this). A breakdown of basic mechanics and storytelling techniques, the staples of consumer reviewing, don’t do justice to a branching game. You could cull together a bunch of links to what other people said about their play experiences, but what the hell does that mean to you and those reading? “Ah yes, so many insights in such a small space.” You might even say the word “interesting” aloud; and, as J. Murray says, “‘interesting’ means ‘fuck you.’” You could take the extra time to play through the thing in every way possible, but then you’d simply have a chart to show for your work. Charts, wonderful for showing how something complex has been put together, don’t do any work toward explaining why a BioWare game is compelling. Why?
Because it’s your first playthrough that matters–the choices, friends, and enemies you make in that one pure ludic experience. You don’t need to see what else was possible; it’s the potential for missed opportunity that matters. You play through it again not to see what else happens (nothing ever surprises you or changes much), but because you’re chasing that dragon.
My answer to the question Kirk posed is, admittedly, overtly academic: construct a thesis, cut a chunk out of the game, and make it make sense to you. A while ago I briefly spoke with Michael Abbott about academics and our proclivity toward traditional thesis structures. Maybe it hurt my ability to write a compelling, regularly-updated blog? I’ve certainly failed at maintaining this quiet corner of the web. That said, there were a few months where I was calling it in on keeping up with Michael’s writing: too many games I didn’t want to play, too many disagreements on games we’d both played, too many generalities and what I’d call “NPR style” thoughtful commentary. I read it all, but I didn’t put the extra work into replying or thinking further.
Recently he wrote an extended suite of articles about why Uncharted 2 matters, and it snapped me back into caring. He had a point to prove, and that’s what he did. The only disagreement I might have with the endeavor is that I can’t believe he didn’t save it for proper academic publishing. I suppose the web is changing academia quickly, and I’m too busy learning the ropes to think about the future (I save all my good ideas for papers).
This was meant to be the opening paragraph to a counterpoint article, a reply to the design skewer Michael wrote today about Dragon Age. Instead it became something ungainly and far too general for my own tastes. I hope you didn’t read it. Tomorrow I’m going to post an article about DA:O. Take a look at Michael’s complaints, noting the tension between a desire for realism and the inhuman absurdity created by the bones of old and dead design necessities. Did anything about Dragon Age strike you as particularly true, despite its faults? I’m going to write about something that made sense to me. It’s going to spoilerific.