This Week In Video Game Criticism: Always Kinect, Always Kinect
It’s my own fault. Last week I suggested a summer lethargy may have overtaken the games blogosphere, so naturally this week we’re swamped with cogent posts about all manner of games.
First is Dan Bruno at Cruise Elroy, who has been playing Mass Effect, and who says, “I am not Shepard”, comparing the decision to record dialogue for the player character’s voice in ME to Dragon Age’s mute protagonist.
Matthew Armstrong at SnakeLinkSonic talks about ‘Pissing in your games’. He’s talking figuratively here, of course, but it’s about marking one's territory and owning a particular game. It’s interesting to think about, at any rate. And at the Experience Points blog, Jorge Albor writes about games that present players with a youthful or child-like avatar in ‘To be young’.
Journalism graduate Lauren Orsini was a Kotaku intern, and she’s written a brace of worth-reading posts this week. In the first she discusses how ‘In video games, non-linear does not equal interactive’, and while you’re there, check her story about ‘the day I pissed off 4chan’ which is a timely cautionary tale for anyone on the internet, but writers and bloggers in particular.
Richard Clark at Christ and Popular Culture talks about ‘Red Dead’s particular brand of redemption.’ For Clark, “The ends justify the means,” has been as much the mantra of video games as they have been the mantra of action films. The hero simply must do wrong so that a greater wrong may be avoided. No game developer has exploited this fact more masterfully than Rockstar.”
Elsewhere, visiting a Parisian videogame exhibition, Tracey Lien of the ZeroLightSeeds blog is nonplussed: "It seems as though the curators had trouble consolidating information and gaming, and thus they kept the two completely separate. If you wanted to know more about the exhibition or the games or the consoles or anything to do with the actual history of videogaming, you could find this information in the form of laminated A4 sheets of paper that were placed at the end of the gaming table."
Leigh Alexander wrote a terrifically evocative piece for Kotaku called ‘Who Cheers for War’ in which she questions why it is that games are so fixated on war. The issue hits close to home for Alexander, as she tells us, “The cousin of someone dear to me got all but one of his limbs blown off in Iraq. This is our most popular way to play together? And we are all okay with this?”
I’ve long advocated the position that if games can be art (and the community seems to be in agreement that they can), then, like all art, there is the potential for it to have a real effect on people. And that effect doesn’t have to be positive. I think that’s what Alexander is alluding to here. “What continues to concern me is that we don't think about it and we don't discuss it. We're able to witness grenade-flung bodies, we're able to crush enemies under the treads of our vehicles, we're ourselves able to die in trenches. And get up again, and keep doing it. How far can we push things before video games like these stop being a way to interact with and process the human experience, and instead cross a line to where they're trivializing it?”
Over at Futurismic, Jonathan McCalmont has an excellent entry looking at the social forces at work behind a piece of technology like Microsoft’s newly announced ‘Kinect’. McCalmont argues that, “Products like Kinect are responding to an increasingly universal desire by humans to retreat from the world and back into the womb. A womb provided by technology.”
Andrew Kuhar, writing for community site BitMob, talks about how a certain time and place in the summertime and the attendant heat, always reminds him of a particular game (in this case the original Left 4 Dead). Says Kuhar, “Whenever I think of L4D, my mind always leaps back to that field trip. At the same time, I can’t see myself ever forgetting how hot it became back in our studio/lab, surrounded by 10-foot-tall windows facing the sun any moment it was up.”
Also at BitMob, Andrew Lynes looks at the impact naming your own character has on the game experience, and on the player’s sense of immersion. As he notes, “The key issue this question speaks to is the role of the player in a video game. Is the player actually participating in the game universe? Am I Link? Or am I simply bearing witness to Link's quest?”
Keith Ferguson at the blog Interactive Illuminatus writes about difficulty, suggesting that designers ‘Slow it down – don’t dumb it down’: "Games that are built for adults recognize that the adult will have a difficult time learning a new gameplay mechanic, so they rarely add gameplay mechanics to established patterns of gameplay. This does solve the problem, but it's not the only solution, nor I think, the most ideal."
Looking at narrative arcs and dramatic intensity in other media, Brendan Keogh at Critical Damage seeks to apply those lessons to games by ‘Keeping Pace’. This reminded me of Clint Hocking’s GDC ’09 talk about the unique and cyclical Composition/Execution pacing of Far Cry 2.
This week we have a new blog to watch out for, as Jeffrey L. Jackson, a self-confessed video game scholar from Syracuse University, has started blogging under the heading of Video Game Theory and Language. His post on ‘the human condition’ that looks at Mass Effect 2 and how games can go about making players care about the actors in their stories is well worth a read. “...a single loyalty mission is not quite enough to make me really care about [a] death, if that should happen. Rather what needs to happen, and what developer BioWare is usually good at, is getting different NPCs to interact with each other during the mission.”
Now to look at another academic, this time MIT researcher Matthew Weise of the Outside Your Heaven blog, with a pair of archive posts from April and May. Do we dare include such non-contemporary posts? Yes, we so dare. The first is ‘cold war punk’ and then the more recent post is ‘Letting the World Be - The Inherent Politics of Stealth?’, both about the Metal Gear Solid series of games.
Lastly, a pair of posts to put a knowing smile on your dial from the First Person Observer, which is reporting on a curious case wherein an ‘Assassin Experiences Ancestor’s Memories, Connection Problems’. Also a completely unrelated story, apparently this week a ‘Seminar On Improving Doorway Navigation Skills Delayed By Doorway’.