A Gaming Education: Tomb Raider: Anniversary

Come close, let me tell you a secret. No, not the one about what I did with the carrot and the hand cream. Or the one about what I did with the toothbrush and the hand cream. Or the one about what I did with the fully-poseable Incredible Hulk action-figure and the hand cream. How do you know so much about my undergraduate Chemistry thesis exploring the effects of hand cream on household objects anyway?

This secret is darker, more shameful, than such nonsense. Before last week, I had never played a Tomb Raider game. GASP and/or SHOCK, with appropriate measures of HORROR. I know.

Actually, there’s two caveats to this: in 1996 I did watch my neighbour play the first game for half an hour or so — hazy memories of underground pits and Lara Croft being eaten by wolves; then a few years ago I beat a boss-fight my friend was stuck on in a Tomb Raider she had for her Wii. Apart from those toe-dips though, nothing.

I should have dived in earlier. If Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a Crystal-Dynamics-developed reimagining of the original adventure, is anything to go by, tomb raiding is a blast. Slow, thoughtful puzzling is the order of the day here, with that ungainly “combat” malarkey relegated to brief staccatos of action that enliven play without *cough Uncharted* bogging down the *cough Uncharted* flow. See how I bogged down the flow of that sentence by referencing a game whose primary failing was its reliance on repetitive combat that bogged down its flow? That’s what they pay me the big bucks for.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary, then, mostly has the self-assurance to present you with its buried temples and lost cities, then sit back and let you scuttle all over them at your leisure. If Uncharted is the young seductress, sleek and sexy and eager to please, Tomb Raider is the middle-aged divorcee down the street, well aware of her talents, lying there patiently as you build the confidence to … ransack her catacombs. Then, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you have to fight a T-Rex. Ain’t that always the way?

The drawback to this veteran’s approach, however, is a move-set that feels clunky and counter-intuitive when contrasted with the context-sensitive fluidity of today’s videogame sirens. We’ve moved away from games designed with pre-determined, inflexible animations that layer over level geometry; watching Lara have to jump to her full height, with arms outstretched, before she can grab the ledge just above her on her descent is antiquated and laughable.

Lara’s famous bouncy bazoombas look silly these days as well, though to be fair to the old gal there is something iconic about her appearance. She’s more archetype than stereotype, really, and she doesn’t make me cringe with embarrassment as so many female games protagonists do. Perhaps because she stays mercifully silent during much of the game. (Oh Christ. Not that I’m implying my idea of a good woman is one who shuts the hell up. No. She should also be good at cooking, and … like … tapestry, and … long multiplication, and getting DVDs off those central rings in their cases, and stuff. Banter LOL.)

I like Tomb Raider: Anniversary. I like how lonely and even wistful it often is. Put it down to the age of the underlying template, but it reminds me of the emptiness videogames embodied when they first made the transition to three dimensions. There were no crowd scenes back then, no waves of voice-acted enemies or chatty cohorts. Your experience came down to wandering wondrous yet abandoned worlds, solving puzzles left by — whom? –, marvelling at the bittersweet, yugen-like emotions these solitary adventures conjured within you.

Yes, Indiana Jones rip-off starring big-titted bimbo as Zen satori instigator. I really can do that with anything. It’s a talent.

Leave a comment

Filed under Game Ponderings

A Gaming Education: Bulletstorm

Stuffy intellectual types periodically point to the naming systems employed by popular videogames as being evidence of their lack of artistic worth — asserting that no cultural artifact of any value would refer to itself by a moniker as gauche and tawdry as “Assassinatortron Reckoning: The Juxtaposition“, “Corpse-Humper 4: Tea Bags at Dawn“, or “World of Tanks”.

Well, ladies and ladies-with-penises, as a counter-argument to such blanket dismissals of our beloved industry, I present you with Bulletstorm. How could a name of such lithe, velvety texture, of such evocativacity (yeah it’s a word) represent anything other than a work of pure, transcendent splendour?

I mean, look at it. Bulletstorm. A storm of bullets. While playing this paean to the destructive capabilities of man, bullets will literally hail down upon you. Other bullets will zigzag across the sky in bullet-shaped lightning forks. Bullets will clog up your gutter and start leaking through that weak point in your ceiling that you always meant to get a man out to look at but never did. The bottoms of your jeans will soak up bullets as you walk, and your ankles will be all bullety for the rest of the day. Your cat will dart in through the cat flap, shaking bullets from her whiskers, and spend the next two hours treading bullet-prints across your quilt and that hand-penned letter to your childhood sweetheart you were writing.

Then, one morning, in a Kafka-esque twist, you will awaken to find you have become a bullet. Your family will disown you. The world will be repulsed by you. Your father will load you into a giant rifle and fire you into the sky, for you to fall back, in some distant land, as an unnoticed fragment in another player’s bulletstorm, thus illuminating the circulatory and melancholic nature of existence.

Videogames, man. Videogames!

1 Comment

Filed under Game Ponderings

A Gaming Education: Batman: Arkham City

"Shit, I left the hob on."

I’ve noticed videogame articles containing bullet points are a lot more likely to get commissioned on big sites these days, perhaps because the editors of places like GamesRadar recognise that the repetition of stark black holes boring through the fabric of reality draws the attention of readers towards the inescapable futility of our existence, reminds us that nothingness rests at the base of our experience, and that, far from fearing it, we should embrace this Taoistic interpretation of zero as the root of our creativity and love.

As such, I’m going to adopt the approach for this Gaming Education about Batman: Arkham City, and maybe GamesRadar will pay me the £15 and loss of all journalistic dignity that they bestow upon their other writers. Huzzah!

Here are some memento moris explaining why Arkham City is a game to keep you playing through many a Dark Knight. Which is a pun, which Gamesradar will enjoy, perhaps because they’re cunts. To the bullet-point cave! (that one wasn’t as good):

  • Batman: Arkham City provides a searing and heartfelt glimpse into the life of an average goon. They don’t have it easy, those goons. For they must stand on very dirty street corners, warming their hands against tragically clichéd trash-can fires, muttering the same string of oddly informative explanations of the evil plans of their super-criminal masters. And then, just when they’re tiring of the exposition, and wondering if they could maybe start talking about something useful, like where to find a good greengrocer’s in a city that is literally a prison, some caped bastard swoops down from the shadows and uppercuts them in the goolies. The poor lambs.
  • Arkham City is loved by girls, such as my friend Grace. She says she likes “flying around the city and whatnot” — which is endearing, because as every comic book geek knows, Batman doesn’t actually possess the power of flight, but rather employs squadrons of tiny RC helicopters hidden in his boots to give him the illusion of flight. Girls, huh? Trying to muscle in on our hobbies but always getting it wrong. Though maybe I’m just cross because Grace completed the game and I keep getting killed by goons while searching for the remote for my helicopter-boots.
  • Most importantly, Arkham City is a good game because it lets you punch people really hard in the face. Punching people in the face is what videogames are for. You always want to punch people in the face in real life, but you’re not allowed. Like the time in a maths lesson when the teacher hadn’t turned up yet and Josh McMuscles (I changed his name) got me in a headlock because his parents hadn’t bought him a car yet, and my cheeks turned beetroot, and my spots became even more visible than usual, and all the girls stared at me with this mixture of pity and revulsion, which is a look I’ve become so familiar with in the years since. If that maths lesson had been set inside Arkham City, I could have punched Josh right in his stupid, classically-attractive face, maybe breaking a couple of those perfect teeth, before grappling up to a gargoyle on the ceiling and brooding darkly as I watched as pandemonium ensued below. That wasn’t the best way to end that sentence, but try saying “pandemonium” without saying “ensued” right afterwards. An impossibility.

Well, then. If GamesRadar has taught me anything (it hasn’t), it’s that videogame articles shouldn’t outstay their welcome. The audience-surveys conducted by GamesRadar suggest readers tire of bullet points after the third bullet point, returning to their usual pursuits of homophobia and banging their heads repeatedly against walls, trees, sparrows and babies’ prams, looking to comprehend the world through the only method of interaction they understand. So on that note, I’m outtie. Fingers crossed for the call-up from GamesRadar, eh?

8 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings

A Gaming Education: Year Zero

By Chris Phillips

I considered renaming it. I was going to call the column “Educating Rita”, until I remembered my name isn’t Rita. Then I got excited that I could call it “Educating Peter”, before I remembered my name isn’t Peter, either. I get no breaks in this life!

Anyway, a change of name would mess up my post-tagging, and you know how seriously I take my search engine optimisation. Everything else, though, is evolving.

I started my Gaming Education series out of a sense of embarrassment for not having played enough games. I’ve long identified myself as a gamer, but for many years I wasn’t actually playing much. And looking back, even in my youth I tended to stick with a few favourite titles, loving the Mario 64s and Half Lifes, rarely venturing into the more obscure esoterica. This is like trying to be a film critic because you enjoyed watching The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Embarrassing.

So the idea behind the Gaming Education was that I would start investigating all those games I should have known about, but didn’t. I’d post articles detailing my adventures, discussing a certain game-system here, telling a story there, basically having fun. But two years later, the reality is that this hasn’t really happened.

The problem is I don’t like just diving in. I’m a perfectionist, unable to send my work out into the world until I’ve drafted and redrafted and edited and polished, and it represents the best possible version of myself. This has its advantages, of course, but beneath it all sits a terrible fear. I fear not being respected, being “found out” as a bad writer. My sense of self is entwined within my work — I want articles I write to be seen as perfect because I want to be seen as perfect.

The energy needed to create such polished articles has meant that relatively few have been completed. Spending months on posts, I’ve had to choose my subjects carefully, discussing only issues I feel strongly about, usually picking games that will illustrate my arguments, rather than classics that will broaden my awareness.

And always, the fear is there. It is beginning to stifle me, choking the spontaneity and joy from my writing. I love creating the longer pieces, thinking through complex problems affecting the industry, telling meaningful stories — but it’s so tiring having no other outlets for my thoughts. I’ve become used to the deep depression I feel upon hitting that “Publish” button, aware of the myriad ways the article I’ve finished hasn’t achieved what I wanted it to, realising all that awaits me is another climb up that lonely mountain, amassing my thoughts, building yet one more tower from the sludge and slippery eels of my thoughts. It’s hard work, and too much of that gets boring.

The answer, then, is another style of writing — not replacing, but running parallel to the larger posts; writing where I just do, and learn through doing. Sketches, if you will, that don’t have to be perfect, that I can use to mess around with, to experiment with, to play. That’s what this blog is about, after all.

The polished pieces will still be coming. But now the long gaps between them will (hopefully) be filled with shorter, bite-sized posts that I’m going to have fun with. That’s the plan, any rate — but as this whole endeavour is supposed to pull me back from obsessive over-planning, I’d rather just start, and see what happens.

Publishing stuff on here always reminds me of diving into the sea as a kid. And I’m the boy on the pier going, “Yeah, gimme a minute! I just need to check the straps on my goggles again, and re-read the diving manual, and go over my arm and leg movements in my head.” That pretty much symbolises my whole life, in fact.

But sometimes you’ve just got to leap, inexperienced and ungainly, and not worry about getting a bit of water up your nose. Anyway, in that limbs-splayed belly-flop is contained all the elation of why kids jump into water in the first place. It’s about learning to love life, innit?

[Image courtesy of Chris Phillips. Used with permission.]

Leave a comment

Filed under Ramblings

Crysis 2: A Supposedly Fun Game You’ll Never Play Again

Videogames, despite the wishes of many who make and play them, are plodding out of their Dark Ages. Fast becoming the dominant entertainment medium of the century, with strange specimens at their antipodes hinting they could one day become a powerful — whisper it — artistic medium, they can no longer afford to wallow in quagmires of accumulated pigswill and faeces. So to speak.

The role of the games critic (and, okay, amateur blogger) today feels akin to that of the Victorian physician, moving away from guesswork and superstition, struggling assiduously towards a scientific understanding of the form. No more the medieval critic-priests trudging behind their gods, espousing arcane edicts about “gameplay” and “graphics”, burning unbelievers who dare to question dogmatic axioms such as “games must be fun”. These days, we can truly employ critical thinking, build new lexicons, favour empirical evidence, as we dissect our subjects, delicately prod the flaps and tubes…. All in pursuit of an answer to the question of what this creature called the “videogame” actually is.

And just as Sir Frederick Treves had his Elephant Man, we too may look towards the abominations and the monstrosities within the field to help put our study into perspective. But, unlike Treves, our monsters are sleek and charming to behold. It is beneath, at their cores, where the gnarled tumours lie….

***

Poor old Crysis 2. It didn’t deserve an introduction like that. It tried sshhow hard to be ghoodsh. Hell, my praise was close to effusive when I wrote about it last. But … Man, something about it has been irking me more and more of late. I’ve been returning to it, on and off, in the year since finishing its Hollywood-blockbuster campaign, playing a level here, a fire-fight there, scribbling frenzied notes late into the night … unsure why a dumb shooting game was fascinating me so, but prepared to follow my nose to the malodorous truths my subconscious was sniffing out. So to speak.

Here’s why Crysis 2 is a fun game that nonetheless harms the industry, an emblem that speaks so strongly of why gaming is fucked right now: You see, Crysis 2 confuses the skin with the soul.

But first, history.

Crytek is a German-Turkish developer based in Frankfurt, a relatively young studio. They first came to prominence with Far Cry in 2004, a technically-dazzling shooter playing out on a lavish tropical-island setting. It is perhaps telling, though, that before the game’s release Crytek had already garnered attention for demonstrations of the engine Far Cry would run on.

The game really was stunning to look at. Its lush vegetation, lapping waters and long draw-distance set a new standard for real-time visuals. But it was also a mechanistically-rich game, with large levels and plenty of wriggle-room for completing objectives. Flora wasn’t just for admiring, it also concealed you from enemies, who would call for reinforcements if they spotted you, and work together to take you down. The muscular power of the CryEngine chugging away beneath its hood was utilised to create a more resonant experience for players.

Crytek’s next game, and spiritual successor to Far Cry, was Crysis, released in 2007. Selling the rights to Far Cry to Ubisoft, who went on to make the intriguing but flawed Far Cry 2 (hope you’re not getting confused), allowed Crytek to focus on a new IP, one that took the strengths of their first game and turned everything up to eleven.

Crysis was a beast. A PC-only title that barely ran on machines players owned at the time, it was the last great weapon in the graphical arms-race of those years. These days the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are old and creaking, and most developers will release cross-platform titles whose PC ports can be played with decidedly modest rigs — but five years ago Crysis was a badge of honour for hardcore PC gamers. You’d invite friends round to prove the PC was the true format to rule them all, and your friends would sit slack-jawed as trees splintered and fell from hails of bullets, buildings were reduced to rubble with grenade blasts, and ferns yielded and swayed from your passing figure.

Again, though, this graphical cock-brandishing worked to engender a deep and enthralling experience. Crysis‘s story of nanosuited warriors battling alien invaders may have been dumb, the characters stereotypes, but the sub-surface systems these narrative non-starters were draped over were complex, and rewarding to explore.

And here we arrive at the point. Gaming isn’t a storytelling medium, though it encompasses aspects of storytelling. It isn’t a spectator medium, like listening to music or admiring art, though it may contain beautiful music and artwork. The videogame is rather a model, a simulated world to play with, and play within.

Sometimes we play to be relaxed, sometimes to be entertained; other times we want intellectual stimulation, or emotional enlightenment — but play is always the key. You would think that as the games industry matures it would be looking for more effective ways to evoke these sensations, richer models to provide more nuance to the play.

Crytek would disagree. Their goal when designing the sequel to Crysis was accessibility; a product not just for the PC elite, but one that would run on the Xbox, with its meagre 512 MB of memory. Sacrifices in vision were necessary. This is understandable, even laudable, but the aspects of their vision Crytek deemed inconsequential enough to drop speak volumes of their changing priorities.

Crysis 2 is bombastic. There’s a bit in the first Crysis when, right in the middle of a pitched tank battle across a serene valley, the screen begins to shake, and the mountain in the distance crumbles apart, revealing an alien structure buried beneath it. Narratively, it’s standard sci-fi pulp, but experiencing it is quite the thing.

Crysis 2 makes a game out of that moment. Aliens have invaded New York, and  … no, that’s it. Crysis 2 is Michael Bay if Michael Bay was a videogame and not quite so much of a cock. Shit hits the fan, the fan blows up, the shit blows up, reality itself blows up, and you’re wading through the middle, haemorrhaging bullets and making solipsistic statements about the self. So to speak.

And it still looks incredible. The latest version of the CryEngine has gorgeous lighting and particle effects, all that neat stuff that gets tech-heads hot under the collar. Comparing static screenshots, this console-optimised sequel more than holds its own against its predecessor. The sacrifices, then, have been made elsewhere.

The most obvious casualty is scope. Where Far Cry and Crysis offered wide sandboxes to frolic within, Crysis 2 presents linear levels that sweep you between set-pieces that are dazzling yet unrewarding. When multiple options for progression are presented, they are signposted loud and clear. YOU CAN SNIPE ON THIS ROOFTOP, OR TRY SNEAKING THROUGH THE SEWERS HERE. Level design forces you ever-onwards, impatient for the next opportunity to blow its cinematic-load (so to speak), worried of losing your attention if it lets you stop to think.

The intelligence of the enemies is woeful as well. They flank you less, harry you less, and often become bugged and simply pivot on the spot, safe for you to pick off at your leisure. And the environments are less interactive, with the destructible buildings and trees and pots and fences of the first game replaced with an inert world that, after the initial sensory-thrills have abated, feels decidedly restrictive.

What Crysis 2 attempts — namely a deafening, smothering firework-display — it achieves. It is an assault on the senses. But Crytek can do more than this — have done more than this — and it is a shame to see the nuance of their earlier games abandoned in pursuit of loud theatrics.

And it isn’t just Crytek. Although the fringes of the industry are awash right now with developers experimenting with the form, producing rich and complex models, mainstream gaming is in a state of atrophy. The market is saturated with the same dumb corridor shooters, only with better wallpaper on the walls, more lumpy gravel under foot. Top tier studios who repeatedly confuse the skin with the soul.

And yet ultimate blame shouldn’t rest with the studios. Lobotomised publishers who have no sense of the worth of a thing beyond its financial value will always exist. But it is us, as gamers and critics, who feed them.

We demand parallax occlusion mapping, and realistic shadows with variable penumbra, and full DirectX 11 support. (This was, interestingly, many gamers’ issue with Crysis 2. At release, the PC version didn’t support the latest DirectX library, which in layman’s terms means some of the brick-walls didn’t look as weather-eroded as they could have done. Everything wrong with the game was because of an over-focus on visual splendour, and gamers complained because it wasn’t visually-splendid enough. Figures.)

We send the message that, above all else, we want our games to sparkle — and we are rewarded in kind. But that apparent need for sparkle, it doesn’t define us. The voice within that is desirous of more polygons, more filters, more power (the voice that persuaded me to download the DX11 patch when it later arrived) is the same loud voice that wants the ice cream factory at the pizza restaurant, the spending spree, the drugs, the excitement. The childish voice that wants, wants, wants — wants for the sake of wanting, wants, I don’t know, death, maybe … an end to the dread and despair that sits at the base of our spines.

Artists shouldn’t kowtow to this voice. That’s the job of pimps and pornographers and marketing executives. Because the childish voice cannot be satiated, its primary essence is in fact insatiability. The role of the artist should be to lead us back from this brink.

There is another voice, you see. One quieter, less pressing, but purer, more pellucid. It is not older than the childish voice, but younger, reaching back to before birth. It is inquisitive but not desperate. It doesn’t shout “Give me that”, but asks “What is this?”, and it waits for an answer. It is the voice that questions what we’re doing here, where we’ve been, where we’re going — the voice that sees us not as separate but together, a people who would be better helping rather than hurting one another.

This is the voice that art addresses.

***

Crytek are not a highbrow developer; their aims were never those of high art. But within the field of the atavistic predator-prey simulator (and, hell, the enduring popularity of these games, and literature like Call of the Wild, proves our bourgeois society has not shaken off its animalistic roots) they were always innovative. It is sad to see them reigning in this ambition in an attempt to emulate the lurid and insipid beasts choking the lifeblood from the form. I’d like to see Crytek shout less, to forget the plastic surgery and focus on working out where their soul lies. That’s the future of the industry.

8 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings, Ramblings

A Gaming Education: Mass Effect

“Erm,” I text to my friend, eruditely. “I think I have the hots for that blue alien who got pooed out of the sentient plant in Mass Effect.”

How embarrassing. And not just because I got mixed up with characters, and actually meant the blue alien I found down the mine, not the one excreted by the killer triffid. It’s embarrassing because falling in love with an imaginary alien creature from a roleplaying videogame set in a sci-fi universe … Well, does that sentence even need completing? It’s self-evident: falling in love with imaginary aliens is axiomatically Not Cool.

But I’m totally cool! I’ve got a cool hat, I’ve got yellow boxer-shorts with red robots on. I’ve got Dolly Parton on my Spotify playlist. Hats and robot undies and Dolly Parton are axiomatically more cool than loving blue aliens is not cool.

And besides, Liara isn’t just some blue alien. She’s different. Come, let me take you on a journey through love, loss and upgradeable ammo types…

Mass Effect is a series of sci-fi action roleplaying games featuring squad-based combat, developed by BioWare. Sheesh, genre definitions, eh? Us gamers can be boring at times. Basically the series aims to combine games where you chat to people and fiddle with your inventory with games where you shoot dudes in the face. The first game was a bit dull but occasionally thrilling. The second was tighter, but dropped some of the roleplaying complexity for more streamlined shooting-of-dudes-faces. The third is out ANY TIME NOW OH GOD HYPE HYPE.

No, this is not an article of hype, but of measured criticism. For Mass Effect has some deep flaws, the most fascinating of which for me concern the way it presents its narrative. I find these flaws emblematic not just of storytelling issues in BioWare games, but within Western RPGs in general. My experience with Liara is interesting because it is, conversely, one of the few examples I can cite of the genre truly arousing my emotions.

Here’s the issue, as I see it. The designers of Western RPGs confuse narrative density with narrative depth. All the writing time is spent amassing lore — piling up mountains of data on myriad invented species, on byzantine wars and political shifts and treaties, on companies, alliances, councils and organisations. Then the act of turning the data into emotion — of telling the story — seems almost an afterthought. The data gets vomited right into your face, through codex entries and utterly flat dialogue, and you’re expected to wipe it off, pick through the chunks, then assemble it into something meaningful yourself.

RPG fans, inevitably, will disagree with me. But they’re the sorts of people who read videogame tie-in novels and write Babylon 5 fan fiction on the internet. As the ever-insightful Tom Bissell notes:

“Asking an expository-lore-loving gamer whether there should be expository lore in a game … is like asking an alcoholic if he’d like a drink. (He would.)”

To be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the sorts of people who write Babylon 5 fan fiction. I am a man sitting in robot-festooned underwear about to explain how he fell in love with an imaginary blue alien. I judge no one.

What I am saying is that satiating a very niche market’s desire for reams of invented data is not the same thing as telling a story. That background lore is important, of course. But only to the designers. It’s the leg-work the designers should be doing to ensure they know their world inside out. And then their job is to go away and decide what to tell the player, what to hint at, what to leave mysterious.

Because the truth is that a game — or a novel or a film — is not the story. It is the source document. The story comes alive in the audience’s mind. The source document is the magical spell that can conjure up the story. As such it needs to be crafted with care.

Or to use another metaphor, it is like composing a song. A musician isn’t judged on their ability to cram as many varied notes as possible into a piece, they’re judged on how they discriminate — on choosing the right notes at the right times, in order to evoke an emotional response from the listener.

The lore of an RPG is like the scale a musician plays within. It is the sum total of the raw material to work with, but it is not the song itself.

So it was that in Mass Effect I didn’t much care that Liara was an asari, or that she was Matriarch Benezia’s daughter — who was sort of a baddie but was being mind-controlled by the other baddie so it wasn’t really her fault. The fact I found Liara in the Artemis Tau cluster, researching a long-extinct species on a mining site on Therum, was neither here nor there. I didn’t even remember that, I used the Mass Effect wiki to read up on it just now. My brain has this weird thing where it instantly forgets information that isn’t beautiful or meaningful.

What I cared about with Liara was that she was socially awkward.

After she joined my crew I found her in the medical bay of my ship when I was exploring between missions. I started talking to her. She told me how her previous job had been solitary, how she liked that because sometimes she just needed to get away from other people.

You and me both, I thought.

Then she accidentally let slip that she found me (I’m Commander Shepard by the way, humanity’s last hope for … rescuing the Smurfs from Skeletor or some shit) fascinating. She got all flustered trying to explain what she’d meant. She made it worse. Her eyes went big, she stammered, looked away.

And she had me. What can I say? I find embarrassment sexy. Probably because it means we’ll have plenty of common ground.

Over the remainder of the game Liara and I grew closer, became intimate. I’d trudge through repetitive missions, force myself to engage with a fiction that didn’t interest me, learn which type of ammo to slot into my combat rifle, solely so that when I got back to my ship there would be new dialogue options available with my blue alien in the medical bay.

I’d grow frustrated when she had nothing new to say, get worried something might happen to her when she was part of my squad for missions, find myself excited by words from her that sounded loaded with double-meaning.

One time she told me about the mating rituals of her species. Love-making for the asari was a deep and spiritual event, forming a “connection that transcends the physical universe.” I wondered what our wedding song would be. Into the Mystic, probably. I wanted to rock her gypsy soul.

Then, the night before the game’s climactic battle, Liara came to visit me in my quarters. I chose dialogue options in the affirmative, and she and Shepard had sex. It was a tasteful cut-scene. The kind of thing you wouldn’t mind your kids watching in a PG film.

So why do I feel awkward writing this? Why would I have squirmed if someone had walked in at any of the times I was pursuing Liara?

We’re drawn to romance in fiction. Scriptwriters may learn to ensure love scenes reveal more about the characters, are integral to the plot (something BioWare should work on), but that’s not the reason Hollywood producers will rarely green-light a script without a romantic sub-plot.

Human beings are lonely animals looking for a way home. We spend our days as solitary ships tossed on a violent sea. But forming a connection with another — or watching a film about it happening to someone else, or playing a game simulating it — momentarily reminds us that we’re not little ships at all, that at the root of our consciousness we are the waves themselves, and the shared ocean stretching ceaselessly below.

Maybe it’s the interaction involved in a videogame that unnerves us. Isn’t wooing a pretend woman who responds to my input a little like … well … owning a robotic sex-doll or something?

Except the romance in Mass Effect has nothing to do with sexual gratification. I wasn’t flirting with Liara so I could see her polygonal breasts. I was thrilled by the feeling of a connection. Liara may have been pretend, but the people who created her are real. The voice-actor, the designers, writers, animators … The magical spell they used may have been in the shape of a blue alien, but the emotion they conjured was entirely real.

I’m playing Mass Effect 2 at the moment. The early events of its narrative force Shepard apart from his old crew. I have a new ship now, a new mission. Mass Effect 2 found save files from the first Mass Effect on my hard drive, so it remembers the decisions I made in that game. When I enter my quarters now, nestled among the model spaceships, data terminals and mission-critical dossiers, sits a framed photograph of Liara. Looking at it I feel a sense of loss, as, I believe, does Shepard.

We’re cool with games that simulate the orgiastic joy of combat, the satisfaction of silent take-downs, the horror of mutilated corpses. Why do we still feel so uncomfortable enacting a simulation of two people connecting with one another?

19 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings

A Gaming Education: Dungeons of Dredmor

The problem with writing about videogames is that sometimes you meet people to whom you have to explain that you write about videogames. Visiting my sister recently in London — a bizarre fantasy realm of rooftop-terrace bars and bohemian homes, where you’re never more than two metres from a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and everyone has their own personal assistant, even personal assistants, which leads down an infinite regression that’s best not to think too hard about — I encountered just such an issue.

We were in my cousin’s underground bohemian kitchen, marble work surfaces awash with Latin American travel guides and bowls of rare Picholine olives, and a party began to happen. Not like the parties we have Up North, brimming with recreational drugs and regret, but one with home-made salsa and chit-chat.

After a glass of wine or two, the conversation turned to careers. One girl was a personal assistant at an influential banking firm. Another worked for a major publishing house, as a personal assistant. A third helped fundraise for a charity, though she confessed her personal assistant did most of the real work.

Heads turned towards me. Now I know you should never be ashamed of who you are, as Willem Dafoe tells the Oscar-nominated actor, sex-symbol and Yale PhD student James Franco in the film Spider-Man … but this was one tricky predicament I found myself in. Because the truth I wanted these Oyster-Card-toting, Sauvignon-swilling fashionistas to comprehend, was that when I went home I would be working on an article about Dungeons of Dredmor, a videogame literally about creating an axe-wielding fire mage and leading him down into catacombs to battle monsters in turn-based combat.

I shifted my feet around, and coughed. “I work in a pub,” I said.

Videogame designers worry about many things. How budding games journalists will validate their chosen profession to girls at sophisticated London parties does not, sadly, appear to be one of them. Fire mages are about as suitable a topic for light party conversation as DIY enemas. Probably worse actually, as you can’t make ice-breaking jokes about the time you had a fire mage.

I don’t blame the fashionistas. Everyone who writes about games, if they’re even remotely self-reflective, will have had nights when they’ve lain awake questioning their basic sanity. I could be spending my twenties pitching articles to the Guardian about links between Eastern philosophy and current theories on hemisphere-competition in the brain, or blogging about Terrence Malick films, or penning short stories about sophisticated personal assistants who leave their native London and fall in love with bearded northern writers. But instead I’m working on an article about Dungeons of Dredmor, a game, as I’ve said, literally about creating a fire mage and leading him down into catacombs to battle monsters in turn-based combat.

Identity plays a part in it. Gaming has contributed to my sense of self since childhood, and I owe it a lot. And critiquing something I enjoy, among like-minded individuals, is always pleasurable.

Yet there’s more to it than this. I may currently write within the milieu of videogames, but ultimately I don’t think it matters where you plant your flag. What matters is what you do on the terrain you’ve claimed.

Any subject can be fascinating, can yield truth, if explored deeply. It is as if all facts exist on the surface of a great sphere. Like … a grapefruit. And whichever point you choose to dig in, so long as you burrow down far enough, will eventually lead to a delicious core of truth, which is shared and constant.

Take Dungeons of Dredmor, for example. There’s lots I could say about it to my gaming friends — that it’s a colourful, exuberant dungeon-crawler; that the visual style pays homage to classic LucasArts adventures; that a rich vein of parody runs through the game, with motivation posters for the monsters “brought to you by Lord Dredmor”, and a recent patch that has given the little bats you fight the ability to occasionally shout the battlecry from Skyrim at you as they attack.

But keep digging, and you get to analysis that is, I think, more universal. Dungeons of Dredmor is a “roguelike” — a member of a sub-set of roleplaying game both ancient and staunchly uncommercial, focusing on the two key mechanics of procedural level generation, and permanent death.

Here’s what that means. In a roguelike you custom-build a unique character and set off to explore a unique environment, partially constructed by the computer to ensure its individuality. On your travels you encounter many obstacles, and when one finally gets the better of you — and it will — your character dies. Not dies like “goes back to the last checkpoint”. Not dies like “forces you to reload your save game”. Dies like oblivion.

And okay, these roguelikes are the product of inarguably nerdy minds. The characters you build will be fire mages, or hobbit archers, or cyber-punk ninjas. The environments will be medieval dungeons or ninja lairs. But the bodywork isn’t important. It’s what’s happening under the hood that matters.

You’re deep inside a dungeon, right? Creeping down a torch-lit corridor. You come to a door. No idea what’s on the other side. Could be piles of gold. Could be that enchanted breastplate you’ve heard about. Could be a fucking menagerie of mutant beasties, ready to jam their tentacles down your throat and rip your pantaloons off through your colon. And if it’s that last one — well it’s goodbye to brave Bertie the Barbarian, and goodbye to this funny world that’s become your home, your existence, for the last three hours. All vanishes into the black-lacquered mystery that is not ours to comprehend.

Yet what you feel, poised by this door, not knowing what’s coming next, is the thrill of living. The liberation of the present moment. You feel the conflicting tug of two of our most fundamental, primeval emotions — shared memories passed down to us from ancestors who huddled by dying fires and looked out into worlds wild and hostile and free. The very fabric of your DNA vibrates in recognition. You feel fear, and you feel curiosity.

This is a valuable experience. We’re a society that has lost its roots to the earth that grows us. We feel ourselves to be these mighty, immutable beings — protected from the brutalities of life by our central heating and our Sky+ boxes and the number of Likes on our Facebook status updates. We’re saturated with knowledge — what time the 97 bus arrives, how long Tesco ready-meals take in the microwave, the reasons Rihanna is so lusted-over (because her bland-yet-overt sexuality appeals to the aspirational model of symmetrical perfection shoved down our throats by companies who want us to buy more magazines and hygiene products, thanks for asking!)

But this sense of dominion over chaos, over nature, is misguided. We will all still die. Worms will pick out our eyeballs. And as our bodies decompose and our bones fall to dust, it’s going to matter not one jot whether the iPhones still clasped in our skeletal hands, their screens flickering out a backlit display to the rocks and lonely winds, broadcast the final message: “7 billion people like this status.”

And I lied before. Dungeons of Dredmor isn’t really a game about fire mages. It’s a game about facing the great unknown, and measuring yourself against it. It allows you to reconnect with the sense of wonder and terror felt from an existence where you don’t know what will happen next. And that’s pretty cool, I reckon.

Though if you meet any sophisticated personal assistants, just tell them it’s about Javier Bardem or something. It’ll be easier.

3 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings