« September 2008 | Main | February 2009 »

January 27, 2009

Suppose Death is a Woman, What Then?¹

My thinking on this issue has come together over the course of a few items which happened to come into my life at the same time. The first two of these were two terrific books, both given to me by the same wonderful woman², The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and Death, With Interruptions by José Saramago.

Graveyard Book Death, W.I.

In both works, the figure of Death is identified as a woman, and in one of them takes a rather central role. A female incarnation of Death is not, of course, new -- Gaiman's most famous creation, Dream, has a sister in Death. But for me, the character had always been masculine, whether due to the early influences of A Christmas Carol (where the ghosts appear all to be male, and the ghost of Christmas Future is closely associated with death) or of On A Pale Horse³, or even the Twilight Zone episode with Robert Redford called Nothing in the Dark. I'm not really certain where I got this idea of death as a masculine presence, but it's certainly always been there.

I read these two books within the last few weeks, finishing them within a couple of days of one another. I remarked to myself on the coincidence, two female characters embodying death, bringing female qualities to the character. In the Gaiman book in particular, the mothering traits of the feminine are emphasized... death is an empathetic, caring, figure, and that side comes out in the Saramago as well.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

This is, of course, where Buffy the Vampire Slayer enters our story, though not because of any representations of death in the show. Instead, it's because my enjoyment of the first season of the show caused me to hunt down a copy of the original Xbox game which bears the license. I remembered playing a small amount of it at the time it came out because the developer was working on an Indiana Jones title for LucasArts at the time, and also because we were looking at fighting systems for the Full Throttle sequel (later canceled). I mentioned in this blog that I picked up that as my first licensed title that I bought because of my interest in the license4.

While I'll take up some other points with Buffy's gameplay later, the relevant bit here is how often Buffy, and games in general, treats death in a less welcoming way -- it's a huge obstacle. Not only do the vampires or whatever it is that killed you taunt you and trash talk you as your crumpled Buffy avatar falls to the ground, but you end up repeating everything in the level up until that point. This is a fairly common approach to dealing with death in games, though perhaps more common last generation than this. But it's an intensely rough and I would even say masculine approach to failure: toughen up and get through this!

I'd like to see a more humane approach to death, a more feminine approach to failure in games -- treat me more kindly as you kill me off. Don't make me repeat more than is necessary for me to learn my mistake. Don't tell me how much I suck as I die, an experience which gets its fullest expression in the Unreal Tournament series, where to add personality to the 'bots, they have all sorts of voice lines that imitate the sorts of things you'd hear from a deathmatch with human players on the Internet, which is precisely why I have no interest in playing competitive shooters like Halo on the Internet. Treat me with empathy, say "Gosh, you died. You might not have realized that such-and-such creature is more dangerous, and you should focus your fire there first" or "If Buffy doesn't crouch to go down a ladder, it's not a ladder." (Granted, better art often solves that problem entirely.)

The last bit that brought it all together was Shamus Young's "video project," where he discusses what he feels to be the most revolutionary game in 2008: Prince of Persia. He finds it revolutionary because the player is simply not allowed to die. I've embedded it below for your viewing pleasure -- he makes a cogent argument that I'll not repeat in its entirety here.

Now, I'm not arguing for games that make failure impossible. I'm enough of a hardcore gamer that the mere whiff of failure isn't enough for me -- I want the actual opportunity to fail, so long as that failure feels fair to me, although I would certainly enjoy a more empathetic solution. I'd like to know why I died and get some strategy pointers, and I'd like the opportunity to attempt that same challenge again as quickly as possible.

At the same time, I can see a great deal of value in providing difficulty settings that move away from "Easy" "Normal" "Hard(core)" to something more useful. More like, "Navigation Difficulty -- Your sidekick will rescue you, Your sidekick will rescue you n times, You will learn by constant failure" and "Puzzle Difficulty -- Puzzles will nearly solve themselves, You will be given clear hints whenever you spend more than 3 minutes on a puzzle, You will need your Internet connection to check GameFAQs when stuck." Give me knobs and dials to customize the level of challenge I want, and stop treating me in demeaning ways when I inevitably fail. I'm not looking for challenges that take me hours to overcome -- I'm looking for new experiences that hopefully teach me a little something along the way. Treat me with a little empathy... and Death as if she's a woman.

I'll be back to this space in a week or so with another post... I've no idea yet what about. :)

¹Normally I would apologize to an author for appropriating his line, but given Nietzsche's misogyny, I'll pass. (back)

²In fact, this same woman has helped contribute to me blogging again, so, all my readers should be glad that I have made her acquaintance. All three of you! (back)

³Wow, who knew that Piers Anthony returned to this series a little over a year ago. I'm rather too old to read Piers Anthony anymore, but perhaps at some point I can entice my sons into the series and sneak their copy of the eighth book when they check it out of the library. :) (back)

4 While I certainly own other licensed titles, those are almost entirely due to my former employer. I also have a 007 title because it featured a co-op campaign, which Andrew and I played a bit of, and some stuff I bought for the kids. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 12:43 AM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2009

Analysis Paralysis

Persona 3 FES

I always keep my eyes open for something a little different, especially on the consoles and handhelds. I'm particularly interested in the weird stuff that turns up on consoles because they seem to have the greatest mass market reach in some ways, while also being clearly intended for gaming use¹. This is why I have copies of things like Rez, or Killer 7, or Okami; they're different, and different sometimes goes a long way.

It's also why I picked up a copy of Persona 3: FES, which came in its extended edition last summer or so. I was enticed by the mix of traditional JRPG fare with some weird slants. First, and probably most visible to non-gamers, was the decidedly quirky method of summoning critters to do battle for you -- the protagonist and his party cast their various magics by, well, shooting themselves in the head and heart with some sort of pistol-looking thing². This was enough to provoke mild curiosity, but not really enough to draw me into the game -- it's really just a different animation for summoning and except for what it says about culture, has no bearing on the gameplay whatsoever. What really drew me in, and what garnered it critical acclaim, was the non-traditional play whereby you gained in power by strengthening relationships between the hero and various other characters in the high school which he attends.

That seemed really cool. I liked the idea of having more powerful magic in the areas in which I was investing the character's time. So I started off, getting a few social ranks with the "mage", a geeky character who wanted to pursue a romance with his teacher. And then I found myself in which the "Chariot", a jock who was pushing himself tremendously hard on the swim team, to the point of passing out in practice. There was also the "Hermit", a character I met in the game's MMO. And the "Lovers". And the "Emperor". And. And. And.

Soon I had at least half a dozen storylines that had hooked me enough that I wanted to know how they turned out. I began to devise strategies and jot them down in a text file on my laptop (open while I played, so I could remember which spells were "ice" and which were "fire" etc, since the names didn't map to my Final Fantasy knowledge). "OK," I'd tell myself, "I can go to the student council meeting on Tuesday, but then I need to go to swim practice on Wednesday and make sure I get down to the art room on Thursday. Oh, but wait, what about the mage?" After a while, I started to feel exhausted at the thought of playing, and would turn to other things.

It's analysis paralysis. I didn't actually care much at all for the actual use of the magic I was getting, which was typical RPG repetitiveness. I just wanted to know how the stories would play out, and I had this anxiety about whether I was spending enough time with each character to bring those stories to their conclusions. Would I end up finishing the game but only partway through half a dozen storylines? That wouldn't do at all. Could I add more to my schedule?

In the end, I feel like the game gave me lots of interesting decisions to make, but unfortunately, I'd need to go elsewhere to understand the longer-term ramifications of those decisions. This hasn't been a problem in other RPGs, in my experience; I've always known more or less where a particular road would take me, even if in general terms. Or I knew, as with Fallout 3, that I'd have time to explore all the options in which I was interested, so long as I didn't finish the main quest.

It's not as if the stories were necessarily all that interesting, even. It's just the thought that I would start a story and maybe not get to finish it. There was just enough mystery there to hook me.

In the time since I've stopped playing, I've several times thought of going over to GameFAQs and tracking down some sort of story document. Something always stops me, maybe some vague sense that I'll get back to the game some day or feeling like it's just not right to do it. I'm still wondering how I would resolve this in the game, and some day maybe I'll find out. I'll let you know.Maybe I just need to find the right frame of mind.

Anyone else have this feeling with a game? Also, join me again in the next several days or so for a discussion of Death... as a Woman.

¹Despite Sony's protestations to the contrary. (back)

²I'm convinced that this is a Japanese thing, along the lines of drawing power by being totally committed to a plan of action. I remember reading in James Clavell's Shogun a scene in which the hero gains new life after deciding to commit seppuku when commanded to by the titular character. Although he fails in the attempt (a faster, samurai-guided hand intervenes and plucks the dagger from his grasp at the last moment), he nonetheless feels suddenly, completely, vibrantly alive having decided to pursue death in that manner. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:20 PM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2009

Making Golems

One of the books I read as last year drew to a close was Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, a collection of essays about his influences, his thoughts on genre, and of particular interest to this specific entry, his thoughts on writing. The pieces cover all manner of influences, interests, and beliefs regarding writing (both his own, and others'), and he reveals much of himself; many of the short pieces appeared previously, and in advance or concurrently with the novels they prefigure or discuss. It's clear that Chabon deeply inhabits his interests as he writes, that he's passionate about his influences and that he shares much of himself in his writing.

"Golems I Have Known¹", the last piece, is of particular interest to creators of all kinds and to me particularly. As the title might indicate, the essay deals a bit with the creature of Jewish folklore that has crossed over to various other locations -- I met my own first golem in Dungeons and Dragons², and you can see them all over the place, including World of Warcraft and any number of our electronic entertainments. The famous Golem of Prague featured prominently in my favorite Chabon novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and the essay touches on this golem and others that supposedly the author has personally encountered, as well as other literary golems such as Frankenstein's Monster. The essay is adapted from a speech that Chabon gave several times earlier in the decade, often for book-signings and the like, and I can't help but think that I would really have liked to hear him give this speech.

Although he spends some time describing the construction of a golem, and the dangers which lie within the process (especially at its termination), the folkloric creature is of less interest to Chabon (and to me) than the metaphor he weaves from it. The folkloric golem is a product of devotion and ritual, a constant outpouring of oneself that presents great dangers to its creator, who at all times is at risk of being destroyed by his creation. The golem thereby is a metaphor for all worthwhile creative endeavor; the artist puts more than simple effort and craft into the making of a work of interest, he puts a great deal of himself, perhaps all of himself. When the creation is completed, it is animate, a living thing that can destroy its very creator, if it has been made properly, that is, if the creator has risked everything. Coming at the end of a collection in which Chabon makes clear some of the direct events in his life which are reflected in his work, the discussion is a powerful one.

And of course, here's where games come in. Of any creators, we game-makers arguably make the most living simulacra out there. Other media seem dead by comparison; we make systems that live and breathe if we choose them to, though in many cases we simply follow closely the frameworks of other media we're interested in emulating, or which have informed our own growth. Yet so many of our creations strike me as curiously lifeless, as if no one has given anything of themselves in making it. Not all, for certain, and I'll talk about some that I've played and read about that seem to me to have a bit of life to them, but many -- most -- of what we put out on the shelves or the web or what-have-you seem to barely skim the surface of actual individual lives. At least in the triple-A space, we bring dozens of unique life perspectives to the table, if we're lucky and yet, as anyone who has played them for years and years can attest, this year's games aren't really all that different from last year's, in terms of actually carrying real emotional content. I'm not even asking about whether they can make you cry, or whatever, I'll take as read that at the very least we can make some cutscenes tied to gameplay about characters we can manufacture some feeling for (through tricks we steal from film, primarily) -- I'm talking about lasting emotional impact, characters or events that educate us. As I've mentioned in other ways in this blog, I think this shallowness is a real problem for us.

There are counterexamples, and they give me hope. I think there were a number of games over the last year or so that bore the mark of the people that made them. Some I think show promise that more of interest is coming³, some that are already quite interesting (Jason Rohrer's work, or Rod Humble's The Marriage), some that I need to play (here's looking at you, Braid), and then the occasional Tim Schafer game. I've always felt that you can learn a lot about Tim Schafer from playing his games -- he creates characters from aspects of people he has known, his subject matter is always fresh and interesting and clearly of personal interest; clearly, business decisions did not drive LucasArts into Grim Fandango. His games remain some of the few story-based games I've played more than once, if not the only ones.

So, I'm calling on those game developers who stop by this blog to invest something of themselves in what they make. You can create animation that contains quirks from that third-grade gym coach, you know, the one with the bushy mustache and what seemed like the longest arms in the world -- perhaps something in the way he held his arms out when he was frustrated can make it into a bellow. You can model based on the outsize oddities you've encountered in your life. You can write from stuff in your life -- in the thousands of little datalogs and books and whatever that is "background material" in many of our games these days, you can craft a story that is touched with just enough of your personality to elevate it beyond the trite, rehashed bits we see in so many stories. You can say, as I've heard it said, that we're in a business, that we make "games not art", that we are hit-driven and product-driven and our audience doesn't want that, and it's all about the money. To that I say, echoing the title of the other book I received along with Chabon's: Shakespeare Wrote for Money.

¹Subtitled, "Or, Why My Elder Son's Middle Name Is Napoleon," which I like for many reasons, not least of which is that it properly indicates that Chabon has exactly two sons. :) Yes, I am also a geek about language, but of course, you knew that already. (back)

²Of stone, as I recall. (back)

³Everyday Shooter, while it feels personally influenced, also feels like the product of someone who hasn't lived a lot yet, and I don't even a little bit mean this as a slam. I honestly look forward to great things coming from Jonathan Mak, when he learns a little bit more about the human condition or at the very least, if he already knows more than he's saying, when he can put it into gameplay. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:05 PM | Comments (3)

January 04, 2009

Where the Time Goes

Over the last year, I've tried to keep reasonable records of what I've read, watched, and played, trying to get a feel for how I spend my leisure time. I didn't do it as a specific sort of experiment, nor did I use it to drive what I consumed; I mean, I didn't specifically keep tabs on how many movies I had watched, nor how many books, and didn't decide with what to entertain myself next based on how much I had done. I took stock mid-year, just before I started working in an office again, just out of curiosity, but continued on as I had. Yes, I am completely aware that such categorization and records make me a complete geek. This should not be news to anyone.

Here are the numbers and a little explanation of what each of these meant or entailed. This only includes films, books, or games that I finished this past year, and was regardless of whether I started them this year (though you can safely assume all films were started this year ;)

  • 192 films: More accurately, 192 film or video experiences. I saw 36 movies on the big screen, but also 16 seasons of television (I consider each season a single unit, rather than by DVD disc), and a large handful of Dr Who episodes from the '70s that I watched with the kids. So call it 150 movies, and nearly 50 'other'.
  • 62 books: This is pretty accurate; I 'read' 3 audiobooks (I feel sure this is under by a couple), 9 were non-fiction, and a few of these were graphic novels or comics compilations¹.
  • 8 games. Yeah, let me repeat that: 8 games. This number climbs to 9 if you count Fallout 3 which I played through twice at work. It's probably fair to count it. These are videogames only, not the boardgames I played at the couple of Game Nights I attended this year or the multitude of games I played with my sons, nor any of the time I spent at their baseball games or anything like that.

There are a few ways to interpret this data or to blog about this information. I'll talk about the game-related stuff primarily, since this is mostly a game blog, but there's overlap for sure.

The Resolutionary: I could, of course, look at that list and say, "Hey, I need to resolve here in the New Year to spend more time playing games over the next year." It's fair to say that this just isn't going to happen. I have to say, I've found myself less and less interested in spending my time playing them. I enjoy them socially -- I recently started up World of Warcraft again to be able to play with friends in California once a week. I try to play co-op once a week (and it's more like once a month, if I'm lucky, given the time difference), and I enjoy that when I play. I love sitting down and playing co-op Gears of War or competitive Guitar Hero with a friend. But sitting playing a single-player game hasn't grabbed me all that much lately.

The Accountant: That bit about playing a single-player game not grabbing me isn't entirely true. I played Fallout 3 in its entirety twice through, clocking around 350 hours with the game, though I was being paid for this time. Perhaps a better title to look at would be Ratchet & Clank 3: Up Your Arsenal, which I played probably for nearly 100 hours, since I managed to max out every weapon, get every bit of armor, and find every secret whozit or whatzit. If I look at the hours I spend at each of these activities, they are roughly the same: if you discount audiobooks and consider books to be three or four times as long as movies, and consider movies at about two hours, and games to be an average of about 50 hours or so, this all seems to come out in the wash.

The Biorhythmicist²: I could say that these things go in cycles. I do know that I spent a significant amount of time last year playing games, having finished 5 games in the last 3 months of 2007. And I know that towards the end of 2006 I had a bunch of time to play as well, and did so. This has a little bit of weight, because there are times when I definitely feel the itch to play games. But I haven't spent any significant amount of time on a game since August, which is when I started playing Persona 3: FES.

The Apologist: Hey, maybe I'm just not playing the right games, the games that will really grab me and not let go. This may be true -- I did not yet buy Braid, although I definitely intend to when a PC version is available, or when I buy a 360. [I admit, I am rather dying to play that game, but I'm not going to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars (I don't yet have an HD TV) to play it. I'm sure it's good, and I will play it.] Also, games tend to be less and less about finishing them, and more and more about the experiences of playing them with friends, for example, and certainly if you have a Wii, which doesn't have lots of traditional single-player games. Both of these arguments have some force, for sure. I have spent several hours on Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Mario Kart Wii with the kids, though I haven't been too interested in "finishing" them. I am unable to finish any of the Guitar Hero games on Expert because I tire of playing the same songs over and over in practice mode to be able to beat them and move to the last tier or two of songs.

In the end, all I can really say is that I didn't play a lot of games this year, although there are a few that have caught my eye that I'd like to play in the next year or two. I'm going to keep track of this stuff through the next year as well, and see where we are a year from now.

One thing I can say is that I'd like to blog more about games in the next year. I didn't blog much over the past year, less because I didn't have things to say than that I fell out of the habit. In the end, maybe that's all that's happened with games this year. Maybe I've just fallen out of the habit? I don't feel like reading and film are habits, but games, games definitely might be. And that may say a lot about my relationship with videogames.

Okay folks, my laundry is out of the dryer and awaiting folding, so I'm going to leave you with this and come back soon with some talk about making golems.

¹The graphic novels were generally compilations of comics, and I counted these as a single item per title. So, for example, I read all 9 of the extant Y: The Last Man collections and counted them as one, and similarly the first six 100 Bullets collections. I think I may have read a few others (Invincible, for one) but didn't record them. I did also read a couple of years of Best American Comics and counted each separately. (back)
²Warning: I entirely made that word up. Do not attempt to float this word by William Safire at a party, as he is likely to laugh directly in your face, perhaps spraying you with a fine gin and tonic. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:24 PM | Comments (2)