Been a while, right?

Well, I've been writing for the Wowhead Blog, sadly.

Latest Post:


On the Serious Side

I'll have to grind out my own thought on the subject later, but all interested gamers (who are living in a cave, and therefore haven't heard of this already) should head over to Man Bytes Blog, and check out Corvus's thought on the whole Tim Langdell debacle.

More thoughts to come.


Chutes and Ladders

Fight This T-Rex wrote a blog post a while ago all about the fact that moral choices all kind of turn into economic transactions, which is oddly parallel to a quick comment in a post on Speaking Natalie that points out the same thing regarding the primary moral decision in Bioshock.

At some point later, I added to the pile with a rambling post about Tabula Rasa main characters, and how the unwillingness to assign personal characteristics to characters without the player's input turns “moral choice” into a ridiculous parody of actual choices.

Clearly, at least some people out there agree with me that this is a problem, but I don't see much of this opinion in most of the industry blogs that I read. Maybe it's been so well established that everybody takes it for granted, or there was a two-month flurry of posts on the subject (Like Braid reviews) that I just happened to be in the can for, and am now behind on my collective internet knowledge, but it seems unlikely.

I've already said my piece, so I won't shove it down your throat again, but I think the problem is that the ultimate creatives behind a game need to trust that a well written game will drive home the magnitude of a moral choice that you make. KotOR featured a bunch of items that could only equip if you were good, because they didn't want the game to be harder for someone playing as a light side Jedi, and they needed something to make up for all the extra money and experience you got if you were evil.

I can't tell if that sprung from a misunderstanding about how difficulty interacts with enjoyment, a misunderstanding about the IP of Star Wars in the first place, or a misunderstanding regarding the motivations for ethical behavior in the first place.

Maybe it's just because it intersects with something I already feel strongly about, but I can't help but be suspicious that it's at least partially the last one. Why does a fictional character engage in ethical behavior? (The “What is ethical behavior?” discussion is for another time)

I see three main reasons why characters in the media engage in ethical behavior, and quite frankly, I haven't been satisfied with any of them for a long time.

1. For personal gain: Rarely is this ever particularly overt, but in a game like KotOR or Fallout 3, your character only has the personality that you give him/her. If you make a moral choice because you think the rewards are better if you do the right thing, isn't that just engaging in ethical behavior for personal gain? It's rarely ever addressed as such, and when doing the right thing for personal gain is addressed in games, books, movies, or television, it's usually painted in a negative light, but when it's not explicitly addressed, it just sort of hangs there, and the implicit message is carries varies from just “Don't worry, life is fair, we proimse” to “Why you do something doesn't matter”, neither of which I can make myself endorse.

2. To avoid punishment: This is great for “Dora the Explorer”, but it's also pretty much the only motivating factor in ethical behavior in any sitcom ever. The “Aww...” moment at the end of every sitcom you've ever seen is based on the bumbling husband wanting to do something nice for his wife so she stops being angry at him because of the stupid thing he did at the beginning of the episode. Not to mention the fact that it seems to do a decent job of describing the childish understanding of Christianity that only exists in the heads of nut jobs, its detractors, and the mainstream media, but that's another issue for another post.

3. A commitment to doing the right thing: This is the most amorphous and boggling to me. Maybe it's short sighted of me to think this way, but you know that conversation in a serious movie where somebody is struggling with a difficult moral choice, and the supporting character leans in and says, “You have to do the right thing”? There's always a niggling thing in the back of my head that asks, “Why?” If the “right” thing is the thing that you should do, then saying that you should do the right thing is... unhelpful, to say the least.

Without building any kind of a consensus and establishing an underlying principle to ethical behavior, or at least pointing at the grey areas surrounding most actual ethical issues, that whole avenue of inquiry is narratively bankrupt.

Or maybe I'm just a big jerk.


Asymptotic Advancement

How fast do you think you could run 100 meters?

Now, I don't know much about Track and Field, but I'm pretty sure you could run 100m in a little over 20 seconds. The world record is just under 10 seconds for men and just over 10 seconds for women.

Again, I don't know much regarding track, but I'm willing to bet that someone capable of matching or exceeding the world record trains tens of thousands of hours more than you or I do. All of that time, all of those thousands of hours of training, leads to cutting the time in half, and I bet the first 6 seconds off that time can be achieved within the first thousand hours.

You see, human skill levels are logarithmic. The return on the investment of time training grows smaller the more you train.

Now imagine your WoW character. If the skill level of your WoW character was logarithmic, a level 80 character would be only marginally better than a level 70 character, despite the fact that it probably took most people longer to go from 70 to 80 than 1 to 40. How many level 10 characters do you think it takes to down a single level 80 character? Maybe an infinite number.

The fact is, in almost all RPGs, the advancement is exactly the opposite: exponential. Experience required to level up increases exponentially, but so does experience gained, so your power level increase to time spent ratio goes up the longer you play.

My hunch is that this is done to give games a wider appeal. The bread and butter of RPGs, at least to some degree, has always been repetition. If you can't fight things in at least a somewhat similar fashion, it's difficult to feel like you've advanced at all, and the feeling of advancement is what RPGs bank on to counteract the somewhat repetitive nature of their play.

As I play through a game, and get more and more accustomed to its play style, I need additional reinforcement from other sources to overcome the diminishing returns of the novelty of the system. In RPGs, the main supplanting reinforcement is the feeling of character advancement (combined with the sometimes heavy reinforcement of unfolding narrative).

In fact, mastery plays a large part in many people's enjoyment of games, (don't worry, I won't throw in one of those tacky blog quizzes about “What kind of gamer are you?”) but there's an important distinction, I think, between games in which your advance through skill mastery alone, and games where you advance through a combination of skill mastery and character advancement. Sure, almost every game has some amount of character advancement: your character is more powerful in Doom when you have the chaingun than when you only had the pistol, but for the most part, any advance you make in that game is based on your own skill level increasing.

Not so with RPGs. Truthfully, I'm not sure I was any “better” at Final Fantasy 7 when I beat it than when I started it. It's not exactly a terribly skill intensive game. In fact, the term “RPG”, has come to describe games in which a character's numerical advancement is a large part of progression through the game, despite the fact that there's absolutely no connection between the terms. In Half Life, you play the role of Gordon Freeman, but that doesn't seem to mean anything anymore.

The term RPG, and the idea of critical hits (as I mentioned in the last post), I think, are just more subtle ways in which very specific gaming tropes get generalized to form a gaming subculture, which is a point of great fascination to me. I'll let you know when I get my degree in cultural anthropology so I can sound like I know what I'm talking about.


World of Roguecraft

In Secret of Mana, two of your three characters have magic, up to a maximum of 99 magic points at a time. Your offensive caster has an MP absorb spell, but aside from that, the only way to restore your magic points mid-dungeon is to use a Fairy Walnut, which restores 50 MP, and you can only hold a maximum of four.

By limiting the selection of Mana restoring items to one large chunk, the game has rendered it almost pointless to increase your maximum mana above 50. Since your MP caps at 99, you can never use two in a row without wasting some, and given the real time nature of the game, using an item doesn't cost a turn, or similarly penalize you time wise. Your offensive spell caster has an MP absorb spell, so you only use restorative items on your defensive caster, in which every point of MP gained up until 50 is actually worth 5 MP (the original plus four restores), but past 50, every point of MP gained is worth only a single point, to be used and only restored once you sleep at an Inn.

You have no control over your advancement, so this isn't a balance issue, but you can tell from looking at the game that the designers didn't think much about that. Health restoring items come in 100, 250, and “all” versions (out of a max of 999), so why not magic?

“Video Game Design” as a valid field of inquiry is a fairly new phenomenon, and I think design hiccups like the above one from Secret of Mana suggest that it's taken a while to connect the people who were pioneering this new medium with the people who had been doing the same thing on paper for at least a decade before.

Early RPGs (which I count as everything leading up to the release of the PS1), particularly Japanese ones, provide a fascinating window into a large group of people trying to reinvent the wheel in terms of roleplaying games.

For instance, take the idea of critical hits. (Wikipedia article here) The idea of critical hits, as best as I can tell, arose as a way of somewhat mitigating the horrible inaccuracy of the HP system. There's always a chance you'll stab somebody in the heart, causing much more damage than if you stabbed them in the thigh.

According to the Wikipedia article, 1975 was the birth of critical hits in western civilization, which was drastically before the advent of video roleplaying games. Supposedly, the man behind Dragon Warrior, Yuji Horii, cited Ultima among his influences for the gameplay of Dragon Warrior, but even crafting that sentence indicates how much of the early Japanese RPG experience was informed by Western Culture. The Dragonlord from Enix's first Dragon Warrior is most definitely the kind St. George would have been tasked with slaying.

And yet, take the thief class from Final Fantasy. If I recall correctly, he had an increased chance to critically hit, which makes perfect sense to our current gameplaying sensibilities, but actually has no realistic basis. Why should I be more likely to hit a vital organ because I steal things? I understand that there's an association between stealth and assassination, but I imagine that the original Japanese word for the “Thief” in Final Fantasy provided a smoother segue to the upgraded “Ninja” class.

The original “Rogue” (Wikipedia article here) had no such association between thievery and likelihood of striking an internal organ, and yet it's become such a huge part of our gaming culture that nobody bats an eye at the idea that a primary statistic designed to represent your ability to dodge also increases your chance of striking an internal organ, or that there's an entire class in almost every single MMO created based on the idea of the combination of both being sneaky, and critically hitting someone. I certainly don't object, but I think it's occasionally edifying to trace the history of certain gaming tropes, and learn how potentially artificial these associations are.

Well, at least for you guys, I roll combat with my rogue.

Join me for the entire month of June, as I do a series on the tropes of early console and computer RPGs.


A Crash Course in Fast Food Marketing

I was going to an Arby's for lunch the other day (terrible of me, I know), and I found a sign on the door sternly informing me that the restroom was for customers only, and that this is so they can keep their prices down, by minimizing labor and materials they have to spend on their restroom.

At first glance, this seems like a fine idea. If you're not patronizing the establishment, it seems kind of irresponsible to come in, use their bathroom, then bail entirely.

But at second glance, how much money do you think they spend, on a yearly basis, on people who come in to use the bathroom, but don't buy anything? How many of those people would be deterred by a tersely worded sign on the front door? I would be stunned if they spent more than $20 a year on labor and supplies for a restroom used by people who would be honestly deterred by that sign. Is the $20 they save worth the callous impression that that sign left me with? Probably not. The good will of people who might be put off by that sign is probably worth more than the money they'd spend on the restroom.

But at a third glance, when was the last time you went to a fast food establishment, and honestly took the demeanor of the staff into account? When I go to eat fast food, I go because it'll be quick, and I know exactly what I'll get. Whether or not the cashier is a surly pimply faced teenager doesn't really enter into my mind.

And yet, in my neighborhood, there's a Wendy's that, for one reason or another, constantly attracts interesting and friendly people, from the old lady (now deceased, sadly) who would come by to clean up your table and ask you how your day was, to the dozen or so World War II fighter pilots that get together there on Wednesdays to talk old war stories. That is the only fast food establishment I've ever intentionally chosen to go to for any reason other than convenience or a particular craving, so I can't truthfully say that the callous sign on the front of the Arby's would actually ever deter my business, so maybe it's not a bad idea after all.

Arby's just doesn't have my goodwill. They don't have any ill will on my part, but the Arby's brand is in every way value neutral in my mind. A sign telling me that the restroom is for customers only doesn't really hurt their brand in my head, but a sign saying, “Restrooms open to everyone!” wouldn't exactly engender a meaningful amount of good will either.

The simple fact of the matter is that fast food restaurants don't really make any of their business by having much of a brand. Some people go to Jack in the Box because they have some free floating attachment to the idea of Jack in the Box, but truthfully, most people go because it's either the closest, or they prefer Jack in the Box food to other similar offerings. If you wanted fast food, would you honestly go to another location because your first choice didn't open their bathrooms to people who weren't customers?

Business 101 teaches you that cutting non-essential costs means more revenue, and Marketing 101 teaches you that establishing goodwill towards your brand is worth quite a bit of money, but Marketing 102 teaches you that if you don't have a brand in the first place, half measures probably aren't worth it.


He Loves to Fly

An instructive example:

In The Simpsons episode “He Loves to Fly and He Do'hs”, probably best known for featuring a guest voice by Stephen Colbert, Homer needs to deliver some bad news to Marge, so he decides to do it aboard a private plane.

When he hires the private plane, the exchange goes something like this:

Pilot: Well, anything for a fellow marine.
Homer (nervously): Semper... uh, fudge!
Pilot: Did you just say “Semper fudge”?
Homer: No, I said the right thing.

This is a mildly amusing exchange, but not that important in the long run, other than it reinforces Homer's bumbling doofus persona that features so heavily into most Simpsons episodes, but later on, aboard the plane, Homer finds the pilot passed out, only waking up long enough to inform Homer that he didn't think he'd be flying today, so he did a bunch of heroin.

Another mildly amusing exchange, except that suddenly and without warning, the dynamic has flipped from Homer being the incompetent one to the pilot being the incompetent one. You have an idea of who this pilot is based on is two lines of dialog, and then a later joke that involves him runs entirely counter to who you think this character is. Because they flipped the clearly established character relationship without ever addressing it, something kind of rings false.

You know that high play you were in where you were an extra, and your drama teacher always told you that it was important that you knew exactly who your character was, and where they were going after they left the stage?

Yeah, turns out this is what happens when you don't do that.



This weekend, against my better judgment, I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The movie was mediocre, but more than anything else, it got me thinking about my reaction to the previous movie, the 3rd X-men one.

There were two major problems I had with that film. First of all, Magneto, at least in my head, is distinguished because of his amazing plans. Giving prison guards pills to increase the level of iron in their blood (while medically suspect) is the most basic idea in terms of ridiculously circuitous plans that I imagine he might develop.

My memory is a little hazy, but in the most recent instantiation of the X-Men comic series, he mounts a plan to break out of jail that involves building a machine to fool people into thinking mutant powers had gone wild, so that a particularly impressionable youth would assume the blame, Professor X would reach out to this youth, they would get into a conflict with the government over the youth, and in the ensuing completely unrelated jailbreak that the X-Men mount, Magneto manages to escape.

Yes, it's kind of stupid, but it's also kind of awesome.

What was Magneto's plan in the third X-Men movie? Get a whole bunch of mutants together and... I guess just kind of all run at Alcatraz at once? You're serious? It looked awesome, but Velociraptors in Jurassic Park showed more forethought than that.

Also, the idea of the Phoenix is kind of an issue, I think. I don't know the canon well enough to have any opinion about what the Phoenix should be, so that wasn't problematic, but I couldn't help but feel cheated for all the wasted potential there.

If a team of superheroes has amazing powers, and finally finds a threat which their powers simply cannot oppose, they have only one choice to avoid being defeated: Find a new way in which to be heroic.

There was a little bit of that in the third X-men movie. No one could fight Jean Grey as the Phoenix, and only Wolverine was able to kill her because of their previous relationship, but it was portrayed that he was able to get up to her because of his healing powers. If Wolverine saves the day because he has healing powers... who cares? But if Wolverine saves the day because he understands that being a Superhero is more about being heroic than kicking ass, that's a movie I'd see in a heartbeat.

(Oh, and a fun fact for all you X-Men fans out there: X-Men is successful because it's Superheroes + Degrassi. Think about it.)


The Morality of Cutscenes, or Vice Versa

Having gotten back from GDC, and with a number of new things on my plate, there are a lot of things I should be talking about, and I plan a “Reflections on GDC” post in the near future, but until then, I feel obligated to grind out my thoughts on something that's been quite the topic of discussion amongst people in the industry I associate with.

Today topic is: Cutscenes in Games

It seems to be the general opinion floating around in most circles that cutscenes are generally a negative thing to have in games. Kind of like narration in a screenplay, they're thought to represent something that can be used to great effect, but most of the time when you see them, it just represents laziness on behalf of the writer. The thought is that when you are playing a game, you're engaging in some amount of interactivity, and cutscenes take that away from the player, and so are counter productive to the game experience. If you can't tell the story while still allowing the player some measure of control, you're better off writing for movies instead of games. Everybody with me so far?

Personally, I strongly disagree. The idea that the ultimate goal of games is interactivity confuses me. Yes, I understand that it's the salient characteristic of games, and therefore, could be argued their most important one, but art as a whole has as its goal the phenomenological experience of the person beholding it, nothing else matters.

I agree that cut scenes in games that rob the player of control are frequently just kind of a hack solution, but what about a moment in which the precise feeling that you're looking to foster is a lack of control? An appropriately dramatic cutscene is precisely what you want at the moment.

But virtually everyone can agree with that, what I have a strange time swallowing is the idea that for a story to garner a significant amount of emotional involvement, you don't need cutscenes. Everybody I've talked to has been pointing to games like Portal, Bioshock, Deus Ex, and Half-Life 2 as examples of games that tell an engaging story while not relying heavily on the cutscene format.

I feel like the technology just isn't there yet for that to be true. Yes, I loved all of those games, but I think Natalie said it best while I was up in San Mateo for GDC: “I remember playing through Half Life 2, and someone said something that revealed a facet of Gordan Freeman's personality, and I thought, 'Oh, I'm like that? I didn't know!'”

Thinking about this discussion has kind of revealed my vague dissatisfaction with sandbox style RPGs in general. I think it's time that the game industry faces up to a bitter pill: Tabula Rasa characters don't get people personally involved in stories. Period.

If I'm playing through Fallout 3, and I do a bunch of evil things in the beginning of the game, presumably I'm setting myself up for an evil character. For some reason though, Bethesda is afraid to limit your choices later on in the game too heavily, because the idea of having a lot of options open to you is some kind of holy grail that cannot be interfered with by any mere mortal man. If you force me to be evil late in the game because I was evil early in the game, you're robbing me of choices. In this case it's a partial lack of control, and in cutscenes it's a total lack of control, but the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. Again, I'm a little unclear on why this is so bad. Game developers seem to value interactivity over the general quality of the experience.

Because game developers are desperately concerned that I can choose to be evil or good at every possible intersection, the only story that can be crafted around this kind of game's main character is either two stories, one where you're Mother Teresa, and one where you're Hitler (Bioshock, KotOR), or a story that doesn't actually account for your morality in any way other than a footnote (Arcanum, Fallout 3).

Newsflash: by attempting to make a game that appropriately to the morality of your character dynamically, 99% of the time, you're actually making a game that presents a ridiculous parody of actual ethical behavior and consequences.

There's a place for this kind of game, and I enjoy Fallout 3 a ton, to be sure, but if you want to talk plot, give me a call when the technology is there, I'll be in the other room, playing Chrono Trigger on my DS.

(Oh, and for those who haven't heard, you should check here to see a conversation at GDC between myself, Jeff Ward, Corvus Elrod, Darren Torpey, filmed by Darius Kazemi.)


Check the Blueprint

The mindset in which music is created has always been a large part of what I listen to and what I don't. I don't listen to Hip Hop, but I listen to Kero One. I don't listen to Emo, but I love “I Wish” by Semisonic, and so on. Whether or not the artist has respect for their audience is almost more important, in my mind, than measure of musical ability.

Adjunct to this fact, I think, is that traditional love songs have never appealed to me. I think “Our House”, by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young is a sweeter love song than anything a boy band ever produced:

Our house
Is a very very very fine house
With two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy 'cause of you

This isn't a new sentiment, but it's a slight variations on what you see in the traditional “You're the light of my life”, “I'll give you the moon and the stars”, “We were made for each other” fare that you see, which I've become largely inured to the effect of. Compare the above quote from “Our House” to Rod Stewart's “Have I Told You Lately”:

You fill my heart with gladness
Take away all my sadness
Ease my troubles, that's what you do

They say very similar things, but which one is more effective? I think the comparison is instructive.

Personal opinion varies, as it must, but I think “Our House” feels more genuine. Because it doesn't repeat the same sentiments in the same way, it gives the impression that the songwriter put more thought into its creation, and because it hasn't been repeated endlessly, it remains more enduring. (Rod Stewart, of course, gets a huge amount of credit for being on the first wave of performing his particular brand of love songs, but I think their time has passed for the moment)

Likewise, the version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from the movie is, I think, a more interesting love song (despite being only about two minutes long) than Elton John's commercial release, because it contains the lines:

He's holding back, he's hiding
But what, I can't decide
Why won't he be the king I know he is?
The king I see inside

Obviously this couldn't make for a commercial release, because it's so inextricably tied to the plot of the movie, but this is a sentiment that I simply don't see in commercial love songs. It's implied that Nala loves Simba because she sees the king inside him. As Natalie would no doubt say, it makes any man who stops and thinks about it, say to himself, “Does my significant other see a king inside me?” Am I of regal bearing? Do I command respect? Am I benevolent to those both above and below me? Is the hallmark of my life the grace of the divine?*

All introspection aside, this one simple concept has all of these associations. I've already diatribed about the power of archetypes, and “The Lion King”, being basically a Joseph Campbell cookie cutter story, has no shortage of them, but because it was animated beautifully, and cast with lions rather than a generic medieval kingdom, it remains significantly more enduring.

There are no more new stories. The only thing that remains is to tell them in new ways.

*I use the term “King” to be in direct reference to the song, and because that is the way that Natalie is most apt to talk about it. All of these are unisex concepts, to be sure.


Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

I guess I need this
Special Glyph called Dominus
I just use lasers

Fallout 3

Please disarm this bomb
If you do, you get a house
To store your cola

You can blow up towns
But before you do, make sure
You take all their stuff

Gears of War 2

Kill this giant worm
By sawing its arteries
Before blood drowns you


Tim and the Princess
Maybe she's his mother, but
Maybe just a bomb

Galaxy Fight

Galaxy Fight makes
Me hate the game and myself
Outside, a bird chirps


Calligraphy Dog!
Who's really a sun goddess
Who goes into... space?

Secret of Mana

Go Royal Jelly
But you can only hold four
What the shit is that?

(Don't know Galaxy Fight? Look here)


"Inspirational" Games

So, I've recently noted that iTunes categorizes all music by overtly Christian artists as “Inspirational”, and sheer inaccuracy of that description has gotten me thinking.

There are very few overtly Christian artists that I listen to on my own time, because I've never been particularly taken with that style of music, but even a rudimentary examination of motives will show that most “Inspirational” music is music for a worship service, so of course it's a little repetitive, and musically simple, it's designed to be sung along to from the get-go.

Except, “Inspirational” is very clearly a genre of music. Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band (look up “Banjo Boy”, it's amazing) are an overtly Christian band, but they're folk and bluegrass, not “Inspirational”.

What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that when you (or I, for that matter) hear about “Christian Games”, you probably think of this:

I think the picture says it all.

And yet, what about games that aren't hamfisted? When was the last time you played a game that was about generally Christian worldviews that wasn't awful? Or, even worse, when was the last time you played a game about Christian worldviews at all? The only thing I've ever seen is games that are supposed to represent events of the bible, and make them “fun”. There's a complete gameplay-narrative disconnect.

And yet, a game about the power of forgiveness, the tendency of mankind to drop the ball on their own, and the magnitude of a sacrifice of one person of amazing virtue (all Christian themes, though not exclusively so) could be amazing, as long as whoever is making it realizes it doesn't need to be a first person shooter where David travels through bible stories, and upgrades his sling stones with faith points. It's rather difficult to imbue mechanics with narrative significance (mechanics in this case referring to the most basic building blocks of a game, in the MDA sense, if you don't know what I'm talking about, you can find more information here), but the game world in which you operate in can abide by certain rules consistent with a Christian worldview.

At the moment, the only Christian principle Super 3D Noah's Ark reinforces is that if feed animals, they don't bite you to death. That's... uh, good... I guess?


Playing Columbine

So, just the other day, I saw a documentary called “Playing Columbine”, about Danny Ledonne's “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!”.

Yeah, if you haven't heard of it before, I know what you're thinking. The point of the documentary, also created by Danny Ledonne, is to draw attention to the controversy surrounding the game, most especially its last-minute dump from Slamdance's Guerrilla Gamemaker competition, despite protests from the game competition jury, but more than that, the documentary is about pointing at the role of games as art and the ability (or inability) of violent video games to influence violent behavior.

An important Disclaimer before we get too far:
I have not played this game. It looks like I might need to, but I haven't yet played it, and anything I say about it is gleaned from first hand accounts of people that have, combined with internet research and said documentary. The website for the game can be found at http://www.columbinegame.com/

The point of the game, well, I'll just quote a bit from the “Artist's Statement” found on the website:

“Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, through their furious words and malevolent actions, can be understood as the canaries in the mine—foretelling of an 'apocalypse soon' for those remaining to ponder their deeds. With ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG!,’ I present to you one of the darkest days in modern history and ask, 'Are we willing to look in the mirror?'”

Whether or not the game accomplishes this is unclear (certainly for me, having never played it), but the amount of controversy regarding it certainly proves it struck some kind of a nerve, and virtually all mainstream media outlets that caught a whiff of it didn't help.

The detractors of the project generally fall into two parties: The people who feel that allowing a person to participate in recreating the tragedy is reprehensible (the player does, in fact, take on the role of Harris and Klebold), and people who have latched onto this as evidence of the negative impact of violent video games.

To the argument that violent video games encourage violent behavior, I merely need to point out that violent crime has been on a drastic decline in recent years. Small scale cause-and-effect studies don't do much for your cause when correlational evidence is stacked so high against you. Furthermore, playing violent video games, it's been shown, does encourage violent behavior, but as “Playing Columbine” insists, so does watching violent movies and reading violent books. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, even shows that reading polite words causes polite behavior. No more needs to be said about that topic.

(As much as no more needs to be said, have you ever noticed that Video Games are blasted for desensitizing people to violence, and yet, video games that are more graphic, represent violence in a more physically accurate form, are also attacked? Seems a little disingenuous...)

Regarding the responsibility of creating a game that represents the events of Columbine in excruciating detail, I direct your attention to “Elephant” the 2003 Gus Van Sant film about a school shooting. It, too, weathered a great deal of criticism, but has been almost universally critically acclaimed, particularly for its willingness to tackle generally taboo issues. (The name “Elephant” refers to the fact that no one wants to acknowledge the existence of the real problem) The same goes for “Bowling for Columbine” and “Zero Day”. The idea that a game somehow can't explore these themes, if done with artistic responsibility and respect for those involved, is laughable to me.

This is probably a futile endeavor on my part, because I imagine no one who reads this blog legitimately believes that games simply cannot be agents of social change, but I'm tempted to grind it out anyway.

No one would doubt that movies can be agents for social change, and the one quality that games have different from movies is interactivity. Graphics and sound have since become a non-issue. So, how interactive does something have to be to be called a game? Pressing “Play” on your DVD menu doesn't turn “The Dark Knight” into a game. Having to press “Play” every 44 minutes while watching the first season of 24 on DVD doesn't make it a game. You remember those old arcade games, where it was all animated and you only had one button, but you had to hit it at the right time to avoid dying? That's clearly a game, and it's almost entirely you watching things, and there's only one button.

But that's kind of a glib assessment. When you press the button, it has an effect on the course of the story in arcade games, while once the story starts in a movie, the author has complete control, right?

Well... if I go and see a movie, I decide when I'm gonna see the movie, right? If I buy it on DVD, I have control over when I press the button, I have control over how to interpret things, I have control over whether or not I want to keep watching, I have control over whether or not I have to pause it to go take a whiz. I've certainly heard more than one convincing interpretation of “Mulholland Dr.”, but because the person can only ever have a set experience, it can be “art”?

Well, no, that doesn't work either. The demeanor of the film changes significantly if you don't see the cowboy the second time, which is entirely under the control of the viewer. You can't absorb all of the information in one go, and you have to choose what you pay attention to, but that sounds like choices you make in a game. I haven't heard an argument that doesn't boil down to “Games usually aren't artistic, so they can't be artistic”. Even Roger Ebert's critique of games as art only thinly veils his contempt for the average gamer:

But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”

But nevertheless, most sensible cultured gamers admit that this critique is not undeserved. Most people don't think of games as art because there are virtually no artistic games.

(It's worth noting that that's why I enjoyed Xenogears so much. It was the first game I remember playing that seemed to have a cinematic sensibility about it. The fully rotatable 3d environments allowed the camera to move during even mundane scenes long before graphics in consoles reached the point of allowing for more than rudimentary cinematography)

And more than artistic purpose, political activism and social responsibility have been largely absent from game creation. Edutainment is there, but none of it is that good. What interests me most about this, however, is the cycle that's emerged about older generations being threatened by the newest development in youth culture. I think the parallel is obvious here: Swing, Rock, Movies in the first place, Grunge, and now it looks like videogames. Are cultural/artistic revolutions occurring with just enough time between them that the older generations forget about when they were the edgy revolutionaries being yelled at by their parents about how they were all going to end up drug addicted rapists? Are the people fighting to have video games, even violent ones, treated as a legitimate artistic medium going to learn their lesson, and not rail against their children about how this time, unlike all the other times, the world is really going to hell in a handbasket?

Eh, it's probably more likely that I'll be a 70 year old man, and filmmaking will have turned into nothing but a vehicle to produce additional “Saw” films, and I'll be yelling at my grandkids about how all they ever do is watch hamfistedly moralizing torture pornography.

I can't wait. =/

The website for Ledonne's film can be found at: http://www.playingcolumbine.com/


Buck Rogers in the 20th Century

I've been doing a lot of work on Buck Rogers lately, reading old Canon, talking about what the appeal is, trying to figure out what, if any, Internet presence is commanded by the name “Buck Rogers”.

Did you know that the original Buck Rogers from the 1920's was the first story to run with the “Man from modern day is frozen in time, wakes up X years in the future”? Buck Rogers was from the modern day, but wakes up in the 25th century after various accidents (depending on the instantiation of the story you're looking at) leave him in suspended animation.

Here's a valuable lesson for writers out there that I learned just recently:

If Buck Rogers is supposed to be a hero, and he is, believe you me, it helps to have a quality that makes him exceptional. Well, that's easy, he's from the 20th century (or possibly the 21st century, I suppose) and he's in the future, that makes him exceptional, but it's just not enough. If I got transported into the 25th century, I would flip the fuck out. Barring some sort of huge catastrophe (which the Buck Rogers universe doesn't provide for) human beings in the 25th century should be better at doing just about everything. I don't know about physical fitness, but more advanced transportation, more advanced weaponry, fewer diseases and genetic defects (gennies, genetically engineered humans, are a staple of the universe), and so forth. Why would a 20th century pilot be able to function meaningfully in this world at all, let alone become a hero and save the day?

The answer is that the 25th century world must have lost something that Buck Rogers, being a hotshot pilot from the 20th century, still has. It can be almost anything, but (and I know this sounds so obvious as to be self-evident, but you'd be surprised) Buck needs, in order to be a hero, some quality that no one else has.

It's kind of a pre-req to being a hero at all, really. I harp on thematic consistency too much as it is, but unless you can answer the question of “what is the singular quality that makes this hero special?”, you're not really telling a story about a hero. You don't need to tell a story about a hero, to be sure, but... might as well know what you've got, right?