Monthly Archives: April 2010

A Gaming Education: Fessing Up

Confession time. Since starting this blog I’ve been harbouring a secret. A dirty, shameful secret. Deep breath: I’ve hardly played any video games. I’m a fraud, a charlatan, a games journalism Frank Abegnale Jr. — feigning the walk, bluffing the talk, living in constant fear I’ll be unmasked for what I really am: a crude, amateur hack. But the weight of my secret has become too much to bear. I must come clean. Have mercy upon me, friends …

Okay, it’s not that bad. I’ve played a whole bunch of games. I’ve grown up with games, they’re my thing. But I haven’t played enough — not for someone who wants to write about them for a living, that’s fo’ sho’. Ahem. “For sure”.

I was nestled down recently, guzzling coffee and reading the excellent “Games Journalism: What Not To Say” post from wunderkind games freelancer Quintin Smith’s blog. It was going down well. Good solid advice, a little superior in tone perhaps, but hell, he’s one of the best writers in the field, he’s probably earned it. If he says “gameplay” is a god-awful, redundant term, I should listen to him.

Then I get to a bit about playing everything.

Play fan translations, but also untranslated games. Play games you know you wouldn’t like, and play them on Hard. Play German WW2 hex-based strategy games. Play Japanese visual novels. Play existential Russian games where you control a kidney who believes he is a man.

Shit. I get that lurching, sicky feeling in my stomach. I read a few more of his posts. Looks like games journos sacking off exhaustive research is one of Quinn’s personal bugbears — his point being that without eating, sleeping and shitting games — gaining that “guru-level knowledge” — you’re going to lack the breadth of experience that makes for a great writer. You can dress up your words in sparkly frocks and slippers all you want, but without knowing the right steps you’ll never be dancing.

My nausea coalesces into a thought: he’s talking about me. I’m what Quinns reckons is wrong with games journalism. I’m the enemy.

Feelings of worthlessness begin to swirl. The familiar, vinegary taste of inadequacy. Except I’m not going to let that happen today. This is Spaceyear TwentyTen: the year I officially stop fucking up. Whatever it takes. And that’s when it hits me: the Plan …

* * *

I’d always known my dearth of video game experience would be a problem. I was a late convert to the church of gaming. There were no consoles or PCs in my house when I was a kid. My family weren’t exactly technophobes — a more accurate description might be broke. I’d admired games from a distance, sitting transfixed at friends’ houses watching Mario Bros. or Duck Hunt, but the extravagance of my own machine could never be justified. I remember looking longingly upon the SNES package deals in Argos catalogues and formulating plans — “£1.50 a week pocket money, plus £2 per car washed, 50p for doing Mum’s ironing …” — but whichever way I worked out the maths, it never added up.

I did eventually get a Gameboy with Tetris and Wario Land, then a second hand Mega Drive, but my identity as a game groupie had already been forged. I was on the sidelines, cheering my team along. I was a fan.

To redeem myself, I offered up my early teens as a sacrifice to Nintendo; I got an N64 for Christmas and started buying N64 Magazine every month. Finally I had a sense of belonging. I swapped games with friends, poured over reviews in back issues of the mag and stayed up at sleepovers playing Snowboard Kids. I found Yoshi on the roof in Mario 64, got all gold medals on Rogue Leader, memorised cheats for Turok (NTHGTHDGDCRTDTRK). At school I became known as That Guy Who Games. I was on my way.

Except I totally wasn’t. Early teens gave way to awkward mid teens, and I became painfully uncomfortable in my own skin. I didn’t want to be Guy Who Gamed; no one liked him, they made fun of his goofy haircut and his spots and the geeky magazines in his schoolbag. So I started skating. I bought Dookie and Smash and Punk in Drublic. I tried my first joint. I had a lung and puked everywhere and thought I’d died and gone to hell. I put away childish things.

Not that I ever explicitly gave up gaming; rather I drifted away from it, only returning to nibble on the likes of Wind Waker and GTA 3. Games were still special, but they were a hidden special, not to be talked about with the crowd I borrowed Punk-O-Ramas off and practiced kickflips with. Playing a little Tony Hawk’s or Jet Set Radio was acceptable; being interested in text-based adventures or NES emulators was not.

Then, in 2004, with no clear plan or reasoning, I found myself enrolling on a BSc Games Computing degree at the University of Lincoln. The decision was partly down to a vague sense that making games for a living would be, like, pretty cool, but mostly because I already had the UCAS points to get in with my AS Levels alone. My late teens had given me what I would call a terrifying, all encompassing ennui. Others would say I was flat-fucking lazy.

The course was a disaster. I’d pictured a utopia, hundreds of kids bursting with enthusiasm, ready to discuss, play and make the shit-hottest of shit-hot games. There’d be electricity in the air. For the first time in my life I was going to be somewhere I would fit in.

The reality was a lecture theater packed full of evil nerds. No showers on that Games Computing course. Memories of replica axes, smug jokes about Microsoft … a universal lack of talent … utter hopelessness. A vital group meeting wasted listening, in disbelief, as group members argued for an hour about the exact pitch and timbre of explosions in CoD2.

Nerd1: PINAAOOOW!

Nerd2: No, no. BASHAAOOOW!

Nerd3: PAAASHOOOSH!

Nerd2: Umm. BAAASHOOOOM!

And the guns. Jesus, the guns. Personally, the idea of high caliber metal slugs tearing through flesh and viscera leaves me a little cold, but discussing military hardware definitely got these guys wet. They were losers, the downtrodden ones — woeful gimps abused by society one too many times, spitting ugly bile at the outside world now they had strength in numbers. Leetspeak was the lingua franca during classes; perceived weakness was always met with howls of STFU NOOB — the viciousness of attacks mirroring the humiliation tormentors had been subjected to in earlier life. They didn’t read, except for bad steam punk novels; they were calloused about the environment, bragging over how many days they’d left their PCs on for; they hated all games that didn’t allow you to shoot limbs off your victims — the course was a festering, piss-ridden cesspool of gun nuts wallowing in elitist resentment.

… And bearing in mind so far here I’ve only been talking about the lecturers.

I slumped into black depression. If this was the future of the games industry, I wanted no part of it. I washed my hands of the thing.

The next three years were spent loading up bongs, drinking rum and listening to the Velvet Underground. I read Hunter Thompson journalism, watched Richard Linklater films, made great friends and got high with them. The games themselves were still there — endless Mario Kart, endless Goldeneye (Stack/Pistols/License to Kill, natch), Half Life 2, Counter Strike and Battlefield 2 to satiate my meager blood lust, World of Warcraft … well, best if we don’t talk about World of Warcraft.

The games were still there, but the solidarity with the industry was gone. Once through Double Dash’s Special Cup was pre night out ritual (no speed limit on those nights, no cooling it on the curves of Wario Colosseum … Howling through turns on Dino Dino Jungle — Zaaapppp — past Toad in second; listening for the strange music to start on Rainbow Road), but that was for fun. I had none of the fevered passion demanded — and exemplified — by real games writers like Quinns or Kieron Gillen or Leigh Alexander. I was a drifter, along for the ride. And I was going nowhere.

… Fast forward to the present day. We’re not skipping much of interest. It is TwentyTen, and things are changing. I see now how much of my anger at the Games Computing nerds was really anger at myself. I hated them for being different because people had hated me for being different. My desire to rebel against teachers, lecturers and society at large was only a rebelling against myself. The world is a mirror of the self and the self is a mirror of the world.

Meaning: I’m finally okay being who I am. My anger did a disservice to the games industry; in drawing battle lines — as always with anger — I bled a world of wonderful shades out into a deathly tomb of black and white. Of course one of the lowest ranked universities in the country was unlikely to attract many pioneers of the digital age — though there were a few, and I can only apologise to them for not appreciating them sufficiently at the time. The industry is as fresh and bursting with possibility now as it has ever been. For every IGN there is a Rock, Paper Shotgun; for every Cliff Bleszinski there is a Daniel Benmergui.

I’ve had enough of anger. I send the question forth: what do I want to do? The answer returns: this. Here, now, struggling to hold this awkward blog post together, I am content. I’d like to carry on doing this, please — whatever it takes.

My gaming knowledge is weak. I know this. I’ve never played System Shock — or BioShock for that matter. I’ve never played Chrono Trigger or Grim Fandango or Elite. I’ve never completed Super Mario World, or Ico, or any Final Fantasy. I know nothing of the Atari 2600 (or 7800), the 3DO, the Neo Geo, the Atari …

This blog has made me aware of my handicap. Previous posts have seen me casting around, scrambling for intelligent points to make without the experience to inform my opinions. Truth matters to me; jumping to wrong conclusions is a crime. Play everything, Quinns says. But I’m lazy, unmotivated, outside of any community that might enthuse me and spur me on. These are the facts on the table. So how to move forward from here?

… Which is when the Plan hits me. A series of pieces for this blog on classic games: reviews, commentaries, virtual travel writing; experimenting with styles, paying my dues … A Gaming Education — weaving new thread through the frayed patches in the tapestry of my mind, creating examples of my writing, and, most importantly, having fun. That’s what this is about, after all.

To hell with BSc Games Computing — my education starts here. Watch this space.

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Today I Die: Ponderings

GURGLE GURGLE KASPOOOSH!

That’s me rinsing the nasty taste of Edmund from my mouth. And what better mouthwash than the tender, poignant indie game Today I Die? You should go play it. Right now, if you please. It’ll only take a minute or two (hint: move everything, especially the words).

I’m a little late to the party with this one. It’s close to a year old, and was selected as a finalist at the IGF (Independent Games Festival) at the start of this year. But if there’s anyone yet to sample this little novelty I feel it’s my duty to say to you: do it. DOOO IT.

I don’t want to spend long on this; I’ve got other work to do and it’s Friday night and I’m half a glass of wine shy of being pished. But in short, Today I Die is one of the reasons I still feel enthusiastic about the games industry. It is small and breathtaking and ego-less. In the week that the Gears of War 3 trailer (no link for you) has got gruff dudes who like calling their friends “bro” all hot and bothered, it’s nice to remember that, while most AAA titles cost bazillions of yankee dollars and my only response to them is “meh”, or occasionally “huh?”, something as fresh and pared down as Today I Die can come along and move me so much.

It made my nose ache. You know, like when Littlefoot’s mum dies in The Land Before Time. Your nose aches and your eyes water and there’s this repressed sobbing noise back of your throat. But you’re not crying, because you’re too gruff and macho for that. Hells yeah, bro!

Today I Die made my nose ache a lot.

The game was created by Daniel Benmergui, author of a number of other experimental oddities such as I Wish I Were The Moon and Storyteller (all available on his website). His willingness to break rules and scout out new gameplay terrain in the name of Emotion is invigorating. His aim: “to make other realities in which you can find yourself.” The results of his efforts are much less pretentious than I’m making them sound. The central poem manipulation dynamic of Today I Die is strong, clear and touching. The music (by Hernan Rozenwasser) is elegant and luminous. The character design is affecting. Considering the brevity and abstraction of the game, the narrative is surprisingly powerful. Metaphors are rich and captivating; the theme of inner strength providing a light that shines in the darkest of moments is breathtaking in its gradual unveiling.

There will be many people who get nothing from this game. That’s cool. But if you’re like me — someone who finds the homoerotic bloodshed of Gears of War (still no link!) and its manly brothers boring in the extreme (and not that there’s anything wrong with guys loving guys, obviously, but it’d be better if they dropped the act and had a hug, rather than shooting the crap out of each other all the time) … and my sentence structure has broken down entirely here, but I’m over half a glass of wine heavier since last count, so it’s all good. If you’re tired of galactic shooty-fests, and comfortable enough with yourself to know it’s okay to get an achey nose now and again, I suggest you have a look at Today I Die. It’s really rather lovely.

(P.S. The Gears of War 3 trailer was released this week. Just thought you should know.)

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Edmund: Ponderings

I move between worlds. This is a story…

The woman looks nervous. She keeps checking her watch. She is huddled under a bus stop, sheltered from the rain falling around her. There are no buses coming tonight. Alone in the dark in a dangerous part of town, I can see why she might be worried. But I am here. I am Edmund.

We make small talk; it turns out the woman’s name is Emily. It is a nice name. She has a pretty face.

I know what must come next, though I do not want it to. I have stood by this bus stop before, on this same rainy night, and I know there is only one way through. It is inevitable. I don’t want to do it. I am free but I am being controlled. I can feel it.

Lightning strikes, and in the moment that the thunder rolls, I hit Emily with the full force of my body. A powerful blow that has downed Nazi guards and Russian wrestlers and hellish demons on previous trips, now unleashed upon a fragile girl waiting at a bus stop. There is a crunch, as of  fist connecting with bone, and the bottom drops out of  my world. The earth freezes in its orbit and there is only shock — empty and cavernous, spreading from the point of contact between knuckles and flesh, threatening to engulf all of existence. In that suspended instant of no-time neither of us can believe what has just happened.

Then we are back, and Emily is on the ground, crawling away from me, whimpering. I move in close and strike again — a flurry of punches, my technique honed to perfection over the years, familiar, Powered Up. I know these moves, but the situation has never been like this before. I’m going faster and faster, aware of nothing now except Emily’s screams, and my desire for those screams to stop, for silence to fall again, for it all to be over.

But it is not over yet. Emily is unconscious, I think. I’m exhausted, yet more is required of me. I cannot. I must. I am not free. I crouch over her crumpled body and — in a sickened daze — begin to rape her. She cries out, a cry that burns along every synapse in my skull, and I know now she isn’t dead. The rain is falling. I am raping her. The world fades out, I am falling, there is only blackness, falling … nothing.

***

Another moment, years earlier. The same journey. I am in a military helicopter, flying above rice fields. My hands grip the side mounted M60 flexible machine gun; I know how to use this. “Lighting their crops should send a clear message,” I say to no one in particular. A squeeze of the M60’s trigger sends a hail of bullets spraying out indiscriminately: most flatten grass, some hit villagers with sallow skin and vacant expressions — their bodies drop quietly to the ground as though they were dolls. So easy.

The helicopter drops me off, and I am on foot. Other worlds, parallel lives, give me an intuition as to my situation. Left to Right. It is an axiom, among the oldest of tenets embedded in the fabric of our journeying. Run. Jump. Save the Princess.

Yet here everything is wrong. Threads of existence have become crossed, evil has been born. And the evil isn’t out there where I can fight it, but inside. The evil is me.

BAMBAMBAMBAM. The rifle I am carrying sparks some primeval instinct within me, the heaviness of the sound stirring a beast in the depths of my soul. I fire the gun and the beast purrs. This, again, is familiar. Other journeys have roused the animal within, other adventures have inflamed the hunger to rip and to tear. Yet it always felt honest and right. The beast had been sanctioned: to save the world, to get the girl. Those in its path were Bad Men and they Deserved what they got. For God, the President and homemade apple pie.

But in this dank rice field there are no medals, and no honour. No calls of duty. The world is fucked, and I am fucking it. The corpses of villagers litter my path. Icy tendrils grip at my heart. This is a cruel and malicious place, and my fear is that it is more true than the glossy forays into orgiastic destruction that usually serve as our playgrounds.

I think of previous journeys and I do not feel so good. It had always been a joke, a lark, a game. We were just having fun. The screams as guards were crushed beneath tank tracks on the runway made us laugh. Circling the petrol station in the chopper, minigun blazing, got us pumped. The people we mowed down were nonentities, automatons, targets. But in this rice field it was becoming real.

I shoot a villager. He is trying to kill me, but I don’t blame him for that. I have no sense of right or wrong anymore; I am running on autopilot. He shoots at me and I shoot at him, and he dies. A girl, probably his daughter, runs to his body, distraught. She is defenseless. I rape her. It is as shocking as before, though perhaps easier. I can see how children can be stripped of their humanity in terrorist training camps, desensitised to violence until aiming an AK-47 at a human being and pulling the trigger means no more than shooting bottles off a wall.

In the real world we talk of rape in hushed voices. Panic. Push it away; words like “sick” and “monster” and “evil“. The fear; it is not us, it is something other. My Lai, I say to that. My Lai. No demons ran amok, no devils in Vietnam. Only humans. My Lai was us. For God, the President and homemade apple pie. Bodies piled up, arms and legs poking out of a ditch. Carve Charlie with a bayonet; blade punctures skin soft as butter. Homemade apple pie. Just following orders. Babies are targets; get them out with a hand grenade. For God, bayonets and apple pie. For hand grenades, babies and God. For the President and skin like butter and arms in ditches. We raped them. We dumped the women in a ditch and shot them. We did it. It was us.

Get some.

Raping a pretend woman is Wrong. Running over pretend soldiers with a tank is Funny. Squish. Ha ha ha. He deserved it because They Said So. Watch when I use the flamethrower. Ha ha ha.

These worlds we move through, these video games, provide us with arenas to indulge in taboo activities without fear of consequences. Blow off steam; blow off heads. But there are always consequences. What do these games say about us? The beast is real and capable of anything, but it is only nature. We are only nature. It is down to us. Nothing more.

For my part, I am tired of this particular journey. There is a choice. There is always a choice. The beast is real, but so is the compassionate man. They are both me. The beast is a blunt tool, powerful and aggressive, useful when backs are to the wall. But now isn’t that time. The man sees further, sees the warmth and love of the world. I turn the game off. I shut down my computer. I go outside, where the sun is shining, and things are growing.

[Edmund is a 2D indie platform game exploring rape from an interactive viewpoint. Medal of Honor and Call of Duty are multi million selling franchises exploring the enjoyment of shooting people in the face.]

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