This is an extraordinarily busy time for me, so I am taking a brief hiatus.
I hope to be back, perhaps in a less-daily form, by the end of December, and hopefully back to daily posts by mid-January.
I’ve been obsessed with Spelunky, a free ten megabyte platform game that runs at 320x240, for months. Addicted is the word we normally use, but it doesn’t really apply to Spelunky: the game never tries to hook you with a dripfeed of back-pats or coddle you with a sense of constant progress. In fact, it sometimes seems to be telling you in no uncertain terms to go to hell. The tiniest slip kills you stone dead, there are no extra lives and no saving, ever. Get spiked by a trap you’ve never encountered before on the last level of the last world, and it’s over. Start again from level one. I hate that kind of game. So why have I started again, 1,233 times?
It’s pretty simple: the levels are random. Dangerously random. You might find unthinkable riches in the next chamber of these chunky caverns, or a giant yeti and three UFOs. You might find a damsel in need of rescue - buried in solid rock. You might find instant-death spikes on the only patch of ground you can drop to. Or you might find, as I once did, a crate on the first level that contains a goddamn Jetpack, the best item in the entire game and one that renders all jumping puzzles trivial.
So death might come suddenly, sometimes unfairly, but starting again puts you in a level just as fresh, weird and rich with possibilities as the next. I’ve started again 1,233 times, but that doesn’t mean I’ve played the same first level 1,233 times. I’ve played 1,233 different level ones, and 1,200 level twos, and 1,000 level threes.
On why Spelunky is great. (Contains serious gameplay spoilers for a pretty much plotless game)
KAITLIN TREMBLAY: This is a book about living out our own flaws, and the metaphors we see in video games that help us mediate this sometimes soul-crushingly overwhelming task. In “GDD,” the initial story in the collection, we are told “Don’t take my anecdotes literally.” There’s no attempt at covering up the use of hyperbole and metaphor because there is no need: sometimes the most honest truth comes out when we’re not exactly being strict with the rules of reality.
VALERIE VALDES: “GDD” is also interesting in the way that it discusses gender relations: an overly simplistic approach that is predicated more on an internal reward system and a narrow, predefined perception of women’s roles in both games and the real world. The two female characters are both described in unflattering terms by the main character, both are sexualized, and both are defined more by their relationships with the men in the story than by their own agency and autonomy. These are issues that arise not only in many games, including the one that the main character eventually creates, but also in many real-world situations that women, gamer or otherwise, deal with every day.
KT: The cool thing about Ghosts is the way it confronts usual archetypes and myths that have become canon in video games: what is the “hero,” specifically. In a lot of the stories, the idea of the “hero” as self-made versus being a product of a higher power is discussed. In “All Time Heroes,” it’s about trying to beat the system to become the best there is, and in others, like “Unto Dust,” it’s about adapting within the system. It confronts how we view the hero as this self-willed, self-determined underdog and changes the hero into someone who is merely lost and confused and trying to find their way to exist in a system that is uncaringly cold to their existence. These systems do not care for the hero or the main character, but the main character MUST find a way to exist within them, even if this means following a script or tearing the script apart at the seams.
His parents’ generation views his hobby with some distrust: like Western parents, they worry about shooting games and the possibility that they could encourage violence. But, for the most part, Mohammed’s parents supported the hobby, because it kept him inside and safe. For the same reason, many Iraqi children are encouraged to play as much as they like, because the country remains volatile: last month, the deadliest in Iraq since 2008, more than a thousand people were killed in attacks across the country. Video games have become a way to keep a generation away from the capricious bombings that have made the streets some of the most perilous in the world.
“Video games are the only viable entertainment we have here,” said Mohannad Abdulla, a twenty-five-year-old network administrator for Baghdad’s main Internet service provider. He’s been playing games since he was a teen-ager; a poster of Captain Price, a fictional British Army officer from the video game Call of Duty hangs on his wall. “Other hobbies are just too dangerous because of terrorism. We don’t have clubs, so games are the only way to have some fun with friends and stay safe at home, where there is no risk of being killed by a suicide bomber. For many of us, video games are our only escape from these miseries.”
The rise of video games in Iraq is a relatively recent phenomenon. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, it was difficult to buy them, and only relatively well-off, professional-class families like Mohammed’s could afford to import titles from Europe. Until the advent of disc-based video games in the mid-nineties, it was too difficult to pirate game cartridges. “The industry is still in its infancy in Iraq,” said Omar M. Alanseri, the owner of the Iraqi Games Center, one of only a small number of dedicated video-game retailers in Baghdad, which opened sixteen months ago. “But each year, more people get involved. I’ve seen the audience vastly increase, especially among teen-agers.”
What’s cool about thecatamites’ games is they are Lynchian in the sense that they confuse the surreal and the absurd and the mundane. In Lake of Roaches, your friend wakes you up and takes you downstairs. You’re on a fishing trip, and it’s time to fish. There are a ton of old people sitting in the hotel lobby, and none of them have eyes. “Hotel lobbies are outside all human time,” chimes your friend. You go outside, and the world sounds like static scraping against more static. Less audible is a constant, tiny roar that would sound like lapping water if it didn’t have this digital edge to it that makes it sound like insects crunching on something. The (roach) lake itself looks like static and has a tide that looks real, but sped up, waxing and waning way too fast. The landscape clutching the lake is bare, and NPCs shamble around oblivious, like things almost dead.
I bring up David Lynch because he is an auteur who really takes advantage of the fact that viewers must surrender to the screen in order to experience a film. This is why Lynch’s films are never boring, but it’s also why you have to psyche yourself up before watching one of them. Lake of Roaches exploits a similar sense of confinement.
Last time I talked about ways that care and justice players could come into agenda conflict in games while discussing some personal experiences in White Wolf LARP and MUSH. I’m reaching the end of the care and justice part of the series (at least for now) as it’s only one of the topics I wanted to explore and has gone on longer than I had originally intended! In this last article I’ll be talking about the X-Card, how it relates to care and justice, and how discussing it reveals things about our orientation.
For those unfamiliar with the X Card, it is the brain child of John Stavropoulos. John is the President of NerdNYC, one of the team leads for Games on Demand GenCon, and was part of the team (along with fellow GaWdians Jessica Hammer and Meguey Baker) that went to Ethiopia last year to develop practical social justice development games for Girl Effect. He is anall-around awesome guy and a GM for literally thousands of players a year. The concept of the X card is simple: There’s an index card with an X on it. It sits in the middle of the play table. At any time, if any person involved in the game becomes uncomfortable, they can tap or pick up the X card and the thing in progress will stop – no questions asked, no explanations required.
The X card is a mechanic – one that negotiates social play. But it’s a mechanic that is independent and transferable.
. The vision-impaired gaming community is organized, and eager to help
When we made the decision to make FREEQ accessible, we knew we were in over our heads. We were not vision-impaired, and we didn’t know anyone who was, so we were bound to miss a lot of things. However, we DID have the contact info of a small, passionate group of people who both knew about the game and wanted to make it accessible—the folks who’d complained to us in the first place. We reached out to them, telling them that we were willing but only maybe able, and asked for their help.
The response was immediate, and enthusiastic. Within a day or two of sending out feeler emails, we had assembled a core group of players who were willing to assist in any way they could. They provided feedback on our proposed usability retrofit, helped with bug testing, and got the word out to their friends that the game was coming.
As release day drew near, our testers told us about AppleVis, an online forum dedicated to reviewing iOS and Mac applications’ accessibility. We created an account and started poking around, and sure enough, there was a review of FREEQ, with a big old “NOT EVEN REMOTELY ACCESSIBLE” grade on it. We knew that if we were going to get the word out that FREEQ was accessible and available, this was the place to do it. So we responded in the bad review’s comments, apologizing for our ignorance and promising a fix.
As with our testing inquiries, we got an almost immediate and eager response. Forum members responded with their excitement, their questions, and promises to download the game when it came out. An AppleVis editor came to us, asking if we would mind if he ran a contest to drum up interest, with a handful of FREEQ download codes as the prize. The response to the contest was entirely positive. When the game did go live, members were online within hours to rewrite our poor review into a glowing endorsement.
Lunch is over. I’m walking back to work, and I’m almost out of my apartment when the first one hits.
In Baghdad, you become a connoisseur of bombs, able to tell the type and size by the sound it makes, and the way they feel. This feels like a car bomb - those, especially the really big ones, thump you in the chest.
Then the second. And the third. It isn’t a car bomb - it’s just that close. The rockets make an awful descending moan as they pass overhead, and when the fourth slams home, I can feel it in my teeth. My windows rattle in their frames. Five, six. They’re getting louder. Getting closer.
Seven, eight. Five. Adrenaline disconnects my mental abacus. Sternum to the tile, I start giggling through clenched teeth. The duck and cover alarm sounds, an afterthought.
Then it’s over. My brain reconnects. I scramble to the blast-hardened part of my apartment and wait for the all-clear. I’m cold, though I don’t get the post-rush shakes, like someone said I might.
About a dozen 107 millimeter rockets hit Baghdad’s International Zone that day, including a few on the U.S. Embassy compound. That night, I Skype a friend back home.
"That felt nothing like Call of Duty,” I say.
Like most Americans, I derived my concept of war from entertainment. War was a series of tropes stretched between mediums, assimilated by watching Tom Hanks storm the beach at Normandy, and then storming it myself in Medal of Honor. Grizzled sergeants, nervous lieutenants and faceless, dehumanized enemies filled out the mental portrait. It was brutal and harsh, but also triumphant, heroic, even noble. It was, at least, always a spectacle.
I loved it. My friends, civilian and military alike, loved it. In the States, we played Call of Duty to dabble in inherently unimaginable death and destruction. We died a thousand times, and still, the story sprinted to its gasping conclusion. It was fireworks - all pop and flash, no wumph in the chest.
As a reminder, all Escapist articles have extremely tiny page markers in the lower-right-hand corner of the article. This one is 3 pages.
The Super Mario RPG series is a bit of an odd duck among JRPGs. For one, like all Mario games, they only connect to one another by the presence of the eponymous plumber and their lighthearted, comedic tone. Everything else—the plot, most of the cast and the actual landscape of the Mushroom Kingdom—changes from game to game. As this is the seventh essay I’ve dedicated to connecting JRPGs with collaborative mechanics and collectivist narratives, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the series uses elements of plural protagonism to champion cooperation. However, what’s interesting is that the Mario RPG series gradually becomes less of a JRPG and more of an action-platformer. The later into the Mario RPG series, the less emphasis is put on plural protagonism as focus shifts to the individual’s journey.
The first of the series, 1996′s Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, was one of the last titles for the Super NES and was one of the most technically demanding on the console. It was also the last collaboration between Square and Nintendo untilFinal Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was released for the GameCube in 2003. Seven Stars was ambitious, fresh and the last of anything like it for some time. Though Square’s fingerprints can be seen all over it, Seven Stars is far more lighthearted than even the most whimsical of Final Fantasys and it was one of the most self-aware games before games like Super Meat Boy, Breath of Death and DeathSpank inspired a wave of loving retro parodies in the indie scene over a decade later. Seven Stars‘s bright colours, tight platforming controls and simple battle mechanics make it one of the most accessible JRPGs ever while its steady difficulty curve and plethora of optional content also make it as deep as any from its era. It’s clever, charming and quite funny.
Because of their unique limitations on player choice, games give us an alternate application for Gayle S. Rubin’s “charmed circle”. In her 1984 essay, Rubin uses a model for the sex hierarchy with an inner “charmed circle” of acceptable practices such as monogamy and heterosexuality and, surrounding the charmed circle, the “outer limits” of another circle containing unacceptable practices such as intergenerational sex or BDSM (153). The videogame can seal itself around its particular charmed circle entirely, removing the possibility of performing unacceptable activities. This makes the ‘unacceptable’ activities that we could still choose to practice in our everyday lives not a part of the game narrative at all, hence the compulsive heterosexuality of most games. While Rubin’s societal model can never entirely erase the unacceptable, but only push it to the circle’s periphery, the designed nature of the game can make an unacceptable act impossible. This is why it has never been possible outside of fan-creations for Mario to date and rescue Toad, or his brother Luigi, rather than Princess Peach. Rubin tells us that “consent is a privilege enjoyed only by those who engage in the highest-status sexual behavior” (168). Gaming goes even further: game designers decide player capacity to do things at all, completely prior to being able to consent or not. The privilege of consent is not the player’s to exercise, but the game designer’s to give in carefully selected instances.
Satire is an escape rope games are all too willing to utilize to get out of tricky situations they themselves have created. And you thought dropping a deus ex machina was a cliche.
David Chandler argues that GTA V is not satire, and hey, while we’re at it, neither is Bayonetta nor Far Cry 3. David, take it away:
GTA V’s gameplay lacks both an ironic punch and a didactic end. As often as the game seems to make judgments about a player’s operating in a morally bankrupt world, the gameplay only reinforces the virtues of morally bankrupt activity. We steal cars and shoot people because that’s what people in San Andreas do. If the game were satire, there would be some type of mechanical, formal acknowledgment that the roles the player perform are repugnant and awful, but there’s no mechanical comeuppance for the sins of the player.
So, what games are satire then? Hotline Miami certainly counts.
Abrasive, pixelated visuals and repetitive music accompany hyperactive violence. Braining an unsuspecting guard with a crowbar or shooting up a room sends red and purple pixels across the floor and walls, but the walk back through the building after everyone has been killed slows the gameplay just long enough for you to take stock in your handiwork.
Chandler hedges his bets, noting that his choice of language—in breaking down “satire” — may be “splitting hairs”. We’re using language, though. The words we use makes a difference. If a developer claims their work is satire, then it needs to be satire. Otherwise, they’re making use of that escape rope.
Chandler, David. “Video games and the struggle with satire” (AWESOMEoutof10: September 30th, 2013) <http://www.awesomeoutof10.com/features/video-games-and-the-struggle-with-satire/>.
It was Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, Véra who rescued the manuscript of “Lolita” from a back-yard incinerator at Cornell University. Beset by doubt over the book’s subject matter, Nabokov hoped to burn the novel before it reached the public. Likewise, the American literary critic George Steiner had second thoughts on the publication of his 1981 novella, “The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.,” in which Adolf Hitler survives the Second World War and is given the opportunity to defend his crimes. Steiner had the book recalled and pulped.
The question of whether—or to what extent—literature should allow readers into the minds of terrorists, murderers, and abusers both fictional and historical is one that continues to trouble authors. But if video-game creators share such qualms it hasn’t stopped the production, in the course of the past forty years, of games that ask players to march in the boots of legions of despots and criminals, both petty and major. Long-time video-game players are guilty of innumerable virtual crimes, from minor indiscretions like jaywalking, in Atari’s Frogger, and smoking indoors, in Metal Gear Solid, to more serious outrages like driving under the influence, in Grand Theft Auto; gunning down an airport filled with civilians, in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II; and full-scale genocide in Sid Meier’s Civilization series.