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December 31, 2012

The Obamas

by Jodi Kantor

It's tough for me to read and write about politics -- my natural inclination is to attempt to see both sides and not to offend, and politics is just one of those spheres where it's difficult to do either. So it's with a bit of trepidation that I report back on Jodi Kantor's portrait of the First Couple, The Obamas¹. Mainly, I'm reminded why I largely prefer to view politics through a long-reporting lens rather than the day-to-day nonsense, picking up much of my news about what's going on in the world through the New York Times Magazine.

I made a few notes to myself as I read this book about things that really irritated me -- in particular, one passage stood out where Michelle Obama was assailed for her clothing choices generally and in one specific instance, where she wore relatively expensive designer French sneakers to a charity event where she worked for a day in a soup kitchen or something similar. And I thought, "Really? Are we at a point in our politics where someone can do something nice for people in need, and people who weren't out there doing something nice for people in need can snipe from the sidelines?" The fact that a First Lady chooses to spend her own money on nice clothes should not be an object of derision. I felt this way many, many times in the reading of this book. Our partisan politics are poisonous in this country, and all I feel on those occasions where I'm confronted by it a mixture of rage and sorrow, largely on behalf of my children, who will bear the brunt tomorrow of the ineffectiveness of our governing bodies today.

Largely this book speaks to the relationship between Michelle and Barack Obama and how it has changed in response to the political pressures of Washington over the course of the last four years, touching briefly on his earlier history as a Senator and a campaigning contender. We get a sense of the couple learning how to live in the White House, and I was particularly struck by how uniquely strange that building is, as a combination of residence, office/seat of the executive, and museum complete with guided tours daily. I literally can't fathom the real experience of being a President or in the First Family but Kantor goes a long way to making it real to me. It feels like a complete portrait of both the First Couple and by extension the unique position of all First Families.

There's been a lot in film criticism this year remarking on the grit and push-and-pull of politics as represented in Stephen Spielberg's latest, Lincoln, which I had encountered in Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent Team of Rivals a few years back. It seems to me that there has always been a certain amount of bombast and viciousness to our political process. But there seems to be more spillover into the general populace these days, and I think that's largely down to the media -- not because of any bias² but because of the continuous news cycle which gives any and every bullshit remark an outlet, and generally an unconsidered one.

In times past, when news wasn't immediate, there was time for a more measured response, and indeed reporters would have time to research comments before issuing them in the press. Recently my sons and I watched All the President's Men and I was struck by the high standards of journalism required by (Jason Robards's) Ben Bradlee and (Jack Warden's) Harry Rosenfeld -- and how that bled down into the reporters themselves, who had to constantly ask themselves whether they "had" the story, whether it held up to scrutiny. Today, whenever someone says something outrageous, the story seems only to be whether that person said it, and not whether it's in fact true, because keeping on top of all the outrageous things said can be a full-time job, and keeping on top of the actual facts may require reading hundreds of pages of dryly written bills and such. When the bombast and the viciousness are themselves the news³, and not merely the tactics that only the politicos themselves see, we all suffer from the resulting partisan paralysis. When news was not always "of the moment," politicians had to be measured on their real results for the folks back home to stand on re-election, and not just the rhetoric they espoused for cameras.

For that reason, I'll continue sticking with the longer view presented in outlets like the New York Times Magazine, and perhaps with the occasional deep reporting by authors like Kantor. This is a well-reported and reflective look at the past four years, through the prism of the President and First Lady.

This entry is part of my Notable series -- an attempt to read, over the next year, all 100 of the Notable Books from the New York Times from 2012. Previous discussions have been of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and briefly of Olen Steinhauser's An American Spy as part of the introductory post to the project. Next up I'll discuss Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary, followed by Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and then David Abrams's Fobbit. Feel free to follow along!

¹There are two other books about the Obamas on the list, as well as at least a couple of other books about Democrats (Joseph P. Kennedy and a volume in Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography)... so I will have to tread carefully at least a few more times this year. I don't recall seeing any on the list about Republicans but I haven't looked closely.
²Though no doubt there are outlets which are biased towards either side of the aisle...
³In the interests of fairness, I note that President Obama wasn't particularly above this fray himself in the first half of his first term, either. He clearly attempted to maintain an outsider status towards Washington and had no trouble voicing his frustration with the ineffectiveness of the Legislative branch as a governing body, which helped no one.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:11 AM | Comments (0)

December 30, 2012

I Should Have Finished... Metal Gear Solid 2

Part 2

A few months ago I finished playing Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty on my PS2, and I wrote about it a bit and said that I would come back to it. I know there's been a lot of digital ink on the Internet about this game and this series, but part of playing these old games is writing up what I learn about game design from them, and so here we are.

My experience playing the Raiden section of the second one was a bit different from the first. At the beginning of the game you play as Snake, and for the culmination of that experience the penalty for failing to sneak through areas is "game over," as you're surrounded by ranks and ranks of marines. Returning to the location of the incident as Raiden is like slipping into a comfortable suit.

The early stealth game was wonderful, that terrific Metal Gear experience of moving through an area out of sight of your enemy, occasionally taking out a particularly pernicious guard with your silenced pistol or sleep darts. There was even a nice addition of guards who would report in at particular places in their patrol routes, which meant that eliminating these by any means would result in calling in reinforcements, which could be extremely difficult to evade.

But I found as I played this second installment I was less focused on making the stealth work one hundred percent all the time; Kojima changed a little bit in his thinking about the stealth mechanics as it interacted with mission failure this time around, and this changes the feel of the play somewhat significantly, at least as regards the moment-to-moment sneaking¹.

This time out, Kojima drops the need to load from a save game at every failure, instead allowing players to continue from their previous location, with health restored. It becomes possible to run through areas alerting enemies and making it through a door, only to have them chase you down and kill you -- but starting you from the other side of the door, past the sneaking challenge, after your death. When I discovered this, perhaps midway through the game, my experience of these stealth areas changed significantly.

I can remember one room in particular which early on was the site of much careful sneaking, a sort of two-level warehouse room where guards patrolled upstairs and down, with a clever pattern of sight lines that made sneaking a real exercise in patience, with one of the guards additionally being the sort who would radio in at a particular stop in his patrol.

Towards the beginning of the game, this was a hugely tense experience, though the lower floor had affordances for attempting to take out guards in different ways and hiding bodies and all that fun Metal Gear stuff, with tense moments of waiting out the alarm in a safe hidey-hole if you failed. But in the later game, once I stumbled onto the effects of the change in the mission fail/start from last location mechanic, getting through these rooms to the other side only needed to be a mad dash. Sure, I'd probably get spotted, but just as surely I'd get to the other side of the room and through a door. Guards would chase me down and probably kill me, but I'd have the opportunity to continue from the other side of the door. I found myself gaming these sections in this way more and more as time went on.

That said, perhaps that's as it should be -- though I lost some of the experience of being the superspy bad-ass, I gained a little bit of my time back in navigating these spaces, some of which you need to traverse several times over the course of the game, going back and forth to achieve different objectives or to rendezvous with various bosses. But there's clearly a trade-off here and I'm not convinced that this is the best resolution for it.

There are competing pressures here: you want to streamline the player experience so that they aren't losing lots of progress at every little mistake, but you still want to allow for the player to experience the wish-fulfillment fantasy of being a stealthy super-soldier. The other options to achieve the former aren't all that terrific: for example, reducing the difficulty of the stealth sections with looser patrol and sight line patterns would also reduce the thrill of successfully navigating the stealth experience. It's a tricky and fine line to navigate; the choice Kojima made here is clearly of its time and I don't have a better solution, though I do tend to favor loosening the rules surrounding player failure after the player has demonstrated that he's having difficulty with a section². That's somewhat tricky to do here, but not impossible.

I think I'll come back one last time to talk about Metal Gear Solid 2 with respect to the macro story and boss battle framework, as well as my particular favorites. Cheers!

¹The boss battles are much the same, though arranged slightly differently, which ties into part of the story, and which will likely be the subject of the third and final post about MGS2.
²The example here is the suggestion I gave to Jamie Fristrom about difficulty surrounding the Spider-Man 2 game -- in the various "chase character X" sections, if you failed them a couple of times, the game would slow down the character you were chasing to make it easier on the player. The illusion that you are getting better at the challenge is preserved as long as you don't recognize the trick.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:22 AM | Comments (0)

December 29, 2012

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

I recently finished Ben Fountain's excellent Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a striking novel which really captures through its highly specific narrative both the sense of what it is to be a soldier, and what it is to be a nineteen-year-old kid. It's a stark reminder, particularly at this time of year, that we have young people fighting on our behalf around the world.

It's such a beautifully realized portrait of this young man -- after reading it, you feel you know both Billy Lynn and by extension and generalization, the real soldiers with boots on the ground in less hospitable locations than the comfortable chair I occupied while reading the book. And yet at the same time it actively fights us making those generalizations by how it treats the many civilians in the novel who want to get to know Billy Lynn and the rest of Bravo Squad, unidentified by name and usually only sketched in appearance, speaking in what Fountain renders as clouds of words with only the ones a soldier hears again and again from civilians included (honor, duty, sacrifice, terrorist, hero).

The novel captures primarily the events of one day in the life of Billy Lynn, spent on a hero's tour through the United States after a battle by his unit, Bravo Squad, was captured on video by an embedded news reporter. It's Thanksgiving, and the Bravos are spending it at the Dallas Cowboys game in Texas Stadium, led around at times by the owner of the team and being a part of the halftime show. I'm not going to go into the many events that happened over the course of the day, because I think everyone should read this novel, particularly people who'd like to publish a novel of their own one day. It greatly affected me, taking me back to what it was like to be nineteen years old, when chance encounters can mean so much, and making me wonder at what we put some of our nineteen-year-olds through.

This is one of those things that the various modern war video games hasn't done for me¹. The first-person war shooters I've played generally shy away from being specific about the character the player inhabits, choosing instead the bland, generic protagonist, expecting that the player will thus achieve greater immersion². I think it's worthwhile recalling that in making that choice, we lose the opportunity to allow the player to empathically identify with a more realistic person, like Billy Lynn³.

I'll be back soon to discuss Jodi Kantor's The Obamas, and after that, Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary and Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character for any who are thinking of joining me in this ride through the past year's New York Times Notable Books.

¹Though I admit I've played relatively few of them because they don't appeal to me; the strangeness of occupying the shoes of a soldier fighting with weapons akin to those being used by real American soldiers in conflicts similar to real-world ones always bothers me to a degree.
²One exception is the flashback missions I recall from the first Modern Warfare, in which the player goes back in time and plays as Soap McTavish. These missions connected with me better both because they were remote from real-world conflict of today and because there was a stronger sense of McTavish as a "real" person -- he was still every gruff superior officer you've seen portrayed by a character actor, but that's far more than the named protagonist you mostly inhabit through the game, and whose name I've tellingly forgotten.
³To be fair, Billy Lynn is mostly described through a really close third-person narration, and indeed characters in third-person games tend to be more interesting, though only just.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:26 AM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2012


So, I've decided on my project for the next year; I'll be attempting to read all 100 of the New York Times' 100 Notable Books from 2012. If you want to follow along on the blog, I'll talk about them here in the blog under the "Notable" tag. I can't promise long articles about any of them, but I'll at least give you a paragraph or two about every book.

I'm giving myself a bit of a head start -- I listened to one of the books via audiobook this year on a long drive (Olen Steinhauser's An American Spy, discussed briefly below¹) and have started the second book, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.

It's going to be quite a challenge, particularly given that the list is equally divided into fiction and non-fiction, and I am almost entirely a fiction reader, with probably fewer than 10% of my reading time devoted to non-fiction². So I'm going to likely attempt to read one of each a week, because a year from now if I have two dozen books to go, I'm sunk. One hundred-ish books in 52 weeks. I often read around 80 or so a year, so this is a slight stretch, and it also involves books which are all at a high degree of difficulty, relatively speaking, which usually means few genre books and of course, in the case of the non-fiction, some deep and difficult topics. There will be some light-hearted fare as well³. I'll mostly read on the Kindle, since that means I can take all the books, and procure new ones, wherever I go. I'll also try to keep up with the Father-Son Reading Challenges that come up. Eesh, it's going to be quite a year.

I'll try to indicate what's up next in my reading when I write one of the posts. Feel free to comment on any of them as we go, happy to engage in discussion!

An American Spy

I listened to An American Spy by Olen Steinhauser on my iPhone earlier this year; I can't recall where I was driving. I don't listen to many audiobooks because my commute is short enough that podcasts are a far more sensible option, but I do enjoy them on occasion if I have an extended drive.

I had read a prior Steinhauser novel featuring Milo Weaver, part of the CIA's Department of Tourism, a shady black-ops division which Weaver has come to question over time. Apparently, I came to the series somewhat in the middle, because I missed out on the very first book, The Tourist, but I quickly picked it up.

I particularly like the world-weariness of these books; like most great spy fiction, it concerns itself with dense plotting and the all-too-human foibles of the membership of these organizations. Even the literary James Bond is a more interesting character than the films make him out to be, but I've also always enjoyed darker books in the genre which focus on the pettiness of the bureaucracy surrounding the great game, such as John Le Carré's great novels or Len Deighton's Hook, Line, Sinker and Game, Set, Match trilogies. Bourne is good, if the action is what you go for, but for my money, there's a lot more interest to be had in the kind of person who is involved in a more realistic form of espionage. And even though I find the sort of events that occur in any spy novel to be somewhat unlikely, Steinhauser's Department of Tourism is a wonderful invention.

Sadly I can't go into much more detail without giving up good chunks of the plot -- what I remember six months later is almost entirely plot details and the sense of weariness and a cynical wariness that pervades Milo's dealings with the Department. It reminds me quite a good deal of George Smiley; if you enjoyed the subtlety of last year's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this series might be for you.

¹I had no idea I might embark on this project when I listened to it; it's not firmly placed in my memory.

²This is not even to mention that there are some serious behemoths in the non-fiction section of the list, particularly Caro's latest volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, something that I consider embarking upon every year.

³Such as Chris Ware's Building Stories, and I'm sure some others.

Posted by Brett Douville at 12:16 PM | Comments (2)

December 10, 2012

The Question

I knew I was going to get it some day, though I didn't figure on it from the perspective of a school assignment. But tonight my son¹ asked me the question.

"What do you think of violent video games? You know, as a game developer."

Eesh. I had always expected to get this question in the form of "Why can't I play Call of Honor: The Deadening 3"? And to that I do have an answer, and it goes something like this:

In the grand scheme of your life, you're going to be innocent only for a little while, and you're going to be not innocent for a lot longer. I'm not in a hurry to give up your innocence for a few hours of fun with a video game, and you shouldn't be either.

This is my answer as a parent, and I discussed that with my girlfriend a couple of years ago when she was getting the same sort of questions from her own son, who is the same age as my son asking the question. It's something I really believe -- I do think that certain things, once experienced, can't be un-experienced, and you're stuck with those choices for a long time². And as a parent, I'd like to hold out on my kids experiencing the content in violent video games for as long as I can, because well, what's the hurry?

As an aside, I think I understand now the earlier and earlier ages at which young people consume content prior generations would have considered only appropriate for adults³. We want to share the things that we enjoyed when we were kids with our own kids, and so we do, we take them to movies that we enjoyed or share with them books that we liked, or what-have-you. But our own memories are a bit faulty; we can't really remember clearly what we enjoyed when we were five or six. So we share what we remember, which probably came along a little bit later, perhaps when we were nine or ten. We expose kids earlier and earlier to things that we remember from our own youth, not really keeping track of the fact that we were a little older than they are now. When those kids grow up, they are sharing things with their kids that two generations prior would have been later still.

But that's not what he asked me. He asked me what I thought of them as a game developer. And there are lots of answers. (I realize that these answers mostly pertain to the violent video games we see in the AAA space, but these are the various things I said and that came to mind.)

  • I think violent video games are often misrepresented by the press, and I wish that they got the same treatment as other violent elements of our culture. This was a pretty standard answer for me as early as ten years ago, when events like Columbine and the day trader in Atlanta were pretty fresh. We all remember how DOOM was trotted out as the reason for the violence by Harris and Klebold, and while I have no proof that Barton was a fan of football, I suspect that he might have been, just statistically speaking.

    I have a hard time believing that the only cause of real world violence is what some have called murder simulators -- and clearly it's not. (I'm not going to cite papers which suggest the correlation of reduced violent crime with the rise of video games, because they don't draw causative relationships.) But clearly we had mass murderers before, and if violent video games disappeared from the face of the Earth tomorrow, we'd have them again in the future.

  • Violence is part of humanity. True, as far as it goes, but certainly not the whole story, and not even remotely the whole story when you consider the balance of the scale in favor of violent video games compared with games that attempt to plumb other aspects of the human equation.

  • I find them problematic because they are easy, and so we pursue better and more realistic violence rather than something truly difficult, like the rest of the palette of human interaction. It's relatively easy to dial up the violence simulation, and so often we do. We understand the underlying mechanism of cathartic release through violence, and it touches lizard parts of our brain.

    In some ways, I think that you can make an argument here that we're doing what science does, to a degree -- we are filling out all the blanks in our understanding before we experience what Thomas Kuhn calls a paradigm shift. We're working out lots of mechanics that refine games in different directions, including their representation of realism. The ways in which we provide a huge amount of variation and art (yes, art) in our presentation of violence will help some day when we're looking to generate other sorts of human responses.

  • One doesn't start watching films with Bergman nor novels with Tolstoy, and I wouldn't expect one to start gaming with the equivalent4. Violent, cathartic video games are an entry for many young people into the world of video games -- without popcorn games like these, we wouldn't have the audiences and install base that could support a Journey nor a Braid.

    That said, the Journeys and Braids are pretty far between -- it's not like there are dozens of great AAA level games on any kind of annual basis that show us something beyond violence. I've often lamented that fact here in the blog, and so I'm not going to revisit the paucity of polished non-violent experience here again.

    Truth be told, I'd love to see more attention paid to areas other than violence at the AAA level. I think it's going to get worse before it gets better. I believe we are a long way from our full expressivity as a medium.

  • I don't think it's been conclusively proven that violent video games do anything more than give a short burst to aggression. I do try to keep up with such things, because this is a troubling area for me, and always has been5. I worry about the effects of the things I produce, and I try to keep current with research. I've not yet seen a definitive link between violent video games and real-world violence at a troubling level.

Those are just a few of the things I mentioned, and indeed it's such a rich subject I can't imagine covering all of my thoughts here, because they're constantly evolving.

Since he asked me a couple of hours ago, I've tried to think about what games I've played that are violent (at an M-rated level) that I'd consider allowing him to play. Here are a few, in no particular order6:

  • Far Cry 2: Although I'd want to be watching him as he played and talking about the real-world issues that this game explores to a degree, I think it's sufficiently steeped in those issues as to have real value.
  • Left 4 Dead: Equally well its sequel, for what it's worth. I'd want to play this one with him cooperatively, because it's perhaps one of the best zombie experiences I've ever had in any medium whatsoever, and I think it's something he can handle (if not get the most out of, having not seen all the source material). And it works not because it exposes the horrors of zombies, but because it exposes the mistakes and humanity of the people you play it with.

That's a pretty short list (and there may well be one or two I'm not thinking of), and that's a real concern for me. (I admit, I'd have put Heavy Rain on there, but I've not played enough of it to be able to stand behind it.)

Here's the follow-up question I'm glad he didn't ask: Given that there's a lot of rich territory out there still to explore and that you think needs exploring, why aren't you off doing that?

I don't have a good answer for that one yet.

¹Aged 14, and in his first year of high school; has played games in the past, though between baseball and other activities, we don't have as much time to do so lately. M-rated games are not permitted to him. He plays quite a bit on an iPad. He once described himself as "almost a professional GameCube player".
²I did take both he and his brother, who's 12 now, to a showing of Jaws on the big screen when they were 9 and 7.
³Though I will never understand the people who will take a four-year-old into a showing of Skyfall or The Dark Knight Rises.
4I'm sidestepping the issue of the violence which is sometimes in these works themselves. Take Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment... some chilling stuff in there, and I wouldn't let my son read it for a couple of years yet, even though it is fantastic and one of my very favorite novels. Kurosawa is one of my absolute favorite directors, and any number of his films have quite literal geysers of blood.
5A few days after Columbine, I wrote a sort of defense or exploration of my profession to my immediate family to let them know where I stood on the issues of violence and video games. I kind of wish I still had that, but it's long, long gone by now.
6Note I'm not including any games I've worked on. I think they have value, but I'm too close to them to make a sound judgment.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:30 PM | Comments (2)

I Should Have Finished... Metal Gear Solid 2

Part 1

A few months ago I finished the second of the Metal Gear Solid series, and the first for the PlayStation 2, Sons of Liberty. I played the first earlier this year and wrote a couple of posts about it back then, focusing on the interaction between stealth, combat, boss battle, and team communications and exposition that really drove me on.

It's hard to know where to begin with Metal Gear Solid 2; the game splits between two major narrative element sections, one as Snake and one as Raiden, and since this was a big deal at the time, perhaps I should start with that first. For the most part, you play this game as Raiden, a VR-trained operative that is only now getting his first work out in the field, supported by others in much the same way Solid Snake was in the first game. However, the game begins with a memorable section of Snake infiltrating an oil tanker in New York's harbor. This establishes the storyline -- Snake has gone after other Metal Gears to expose them and the danger they pose to the world, and a major new model is being moved on this boat. (It also serves as a showpiece for the sorts of technical improvements that the PS2 can provide; I can remember watching these early cutscenes from the E3 footage earlier that year, and watching someone play a bit of the game when it came out here in the States. Between the weather effects and the camouflage suit effects, the whole thing was pretty damned impressive.) The section also introduces us to the controls, teaching us all the tools we'll need to tackle the game as a whole.

And then it does the unthinkable -- it kills off Solid Snake. Fades to black and introduces a new character trained entirely in VR¹ brought up to speed on what's going on at the same location a few years later, where an enormous pair of "shells" has been built to contain the environmental disaster caused by the original oil tanker going down. It's quite a big choice by Kojima, and it didn't sit well with fans. What's more, he has a whiny voice and it's his first mission in the field. You can sort of see why fans were annoyed.

I'll get back to Raiden and the rest of the game and its structures in a second post, probably in the next week or two, but I wanted to talk about the response I had to this moment, which was somewhat bittersweet.

I have no special attachment to Snake himself -- to me, he seems like a fairly generic wish-fulfillment vehicle, intentionally like so many we've seen before. But I had finished the first game approximately six months before, and as I blogged about, I found the interaction between Snake and the support team members particularly compelling, and in this new title, I had already seen a bit of the interaction between Otacon and Snake in the Codec and really responded to it. I especially liked the interactions surrounding the save game system, where Otacon would talk inanely about the meaning of various Chinese proverbs and Snake would be kind of bewildered, a nice bit of self-mockery regarding the Mei Ling character from the first game by Kojima. While it had that tone of Kojima having a bit of fun at his and his characters' expense, it also established these as two men who had had a friendship that had been going on for some time between the first game and the second.

Besides, what kind of threat is so big that it can take out Solid Snake? This ramps up the stakes considerably, and even though I think Kojima is making a statement through this game about the similarity of the player experience across all these titles, it's still a nuanced one which puts that same experience front and center and as the most important thing. It's almost as if Kojima is scratching his head and saying, "Boy, videogames, they sure are strange, aren't they? Everyone having this same experience, which would seem to trivialize it, but at the same time that experience doesn't exist at all without the player there to guide it, so the player is hugely important." The threat that's so big that it can appear to take out even the super-soldier requires something superior, a player, to take it on.

That's my read, anyway. Solid Snake will, of course, return later in the game as Lieutenant Junior Grade Iroquois Pliskin, but the player will control a new character, Raiden, through the rest of the game's challenges and bosses. The story will basically retell that of the original, and in typical Kojima form, that'll be part of the story as well. I'll get back to talk about that part of the story and about the gameplay later on.

¹The idea that every soldier is as interchangeable as are the millions of players sharing the same experience was not lost on me.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:03 AM | Comments (0)