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As I write, Brendan Keogh’s new book has been out for less than a week, and has already been declared a landmark of games criticism. In attempting to quantify precisely how much this book improves games criticism, counting words betrays insecurity about the discipline.
I’m also uncomfortable with attempts to garner prestige for games through association with better-established media.
The danger lies in judging Keogh’s work for its critical aspirations and not its actual accomplishments. But his analysis of The Line leaves something to desired, namely answers amid all the questions he raises. We are probably the better for having this diversity of thought between us, but one result of his highly subjective approach is that it becomes difficult to engage directly with the arguments he does make.
What’s more, his most definitive critical points are colored by the personal—Keogh is talking to the game, so he has concluded that, in an abstracted sense, the game is talking back. Here’s the truth: Killing is Harmless represents the efforts of a very good writer making astute use of the tools afforded to him by the journalistic tradition in which he writes. If I remember myself, if I am aware of my physical self while playing a game, it means something is wrong.
This becoming a tool is the focus of Incredipede, a recently released puzzle game by Colin and Sarah Northway, aka Team Incredipede. Quozzle is the ultimate body-as-tool, capable of becoming any number of possible configurations of being. This dichotomy is reinforced even at the level of the aesthetic design: one could speculate that if this game were made in any of the major 3D engines (Unreal, for instance), then Quozzle’s green skin would glisten like a frog’s, and the muscles would look less like bellows and more like fibrous tissue. What this description implies is a conscious design choice – that the game is meant to exemplify the alien nature of the biological in the game space. As for Colin and Sarah Northway, what they have managed to do is create a game that highlights the ways that games generally remediate the experience of the body, forcing us to adapt ourselves to the demands of the virtual space. In other words, Incredipede is an example of the rare game that actually asks you to stop playing it, to get up and go outside. History is a series of repeating cycles meshing like gears in varying but finite permutations.
1994 was a more carefree era, utterly free of the specters of unpopular Middle Eastern wars. As far as the philistines of the past, wallowing in the excess of meaningful culture they were so gifted, it appeared to be a poor game. While most weaponry at the player’s disposal are more tradition fare like guns and shields and bombs, it is the other collectibles and gameplay mechanisms that further delve into its eerie prescience. After storming the club and recovering two of the five members of Aerosmith, including Steven Tyler, a secret television behind the mirror in Steven Tyler’s catwalk-access dressing room plays you a personal message from Steven Tyler to find their car as the next step in the liberation of the world. Throughout the play-through I had elected enhance my experience through the use of banandine, a psychotropic long since fallen out of vogue for its variable success rate but notorious for ease of access. In the Middle East I freed a labor camp of feminists being forced to break down guitars and televisions and arcade cabinets, then shot at a bus and some roller skaters en route to abduct yet more feminists.
Finally I traveled to Wembley Stadium to confront a dazzling variety of all the past foes and break down a wall of TVs, this time purposed for evil instead of good, and do battle with the poster lady for some reason. Popular gaming culture today swells with generic shooters, unoriginal shtick, franchise building, and overproduced games from big developers that rarely deviate from anything already on the market.
The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther occupy interesting positions as games, however, incorporating a third element along with narration and image: interactivity. In The Stanley Parable, the game’s sharp, reflexive writing reveals the discursive deconstruction of gaming elements going on all throughout the story.
The narrator’s lines are clearly meant to be read as a discourse between the player and the makers of the game itself because the game acknowledges the player, interactivity, and the choices one makes as the sole driving force of the narrative. Thus, The Stanley Parable works as a piece of metafiction to critique the narrative structure of videogames, addressing issues unique to the medium from interactivity to player choice. There are numerous ways to complete the game, but the ending in which the player completely disobeys the narrator at every turn results in the game’s most intricate resolution. The curious implication behind this ending almost seems obvious: the game developers did construct this part of the map as an explorable area meant for the player to find — again, despite what the narrator says. The very first few seconds of Dear Esther reveals how markedly dissimilar the game is to The Stanley Parable, though after a single playthrough, so many facets of the game feel so familiar.
The exaggerated sluggish pacing of Dear Esther heightens atmosphere, especially when considering the genuinely good-looking environments and the somber sound design and score that accompanies the narrative. The unwavering nature of Dear Esther’s ending should draw comparisons to The Stanley Parable in that both games ultimately comment on the medium’s definitive control over the player. The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther diverge and share so much from one another, with both titles exploring player agency and the nature of free will in gaming. The way that we choose to represent ourselves in a digital space can say powerful things about us, and these things can be different for different people.
During avatar creation we have a conceptual choice to make, we can create a ‘self’ or we can create an ‘other’.
On the other hand the player may, much more positively, be using the digital world as a place to explore alternate ways of being, particularly ones that are difficult to slip quickly into and out of in the real world.
In an insightfully written essay Vivienne Chan shows a different reaction to the limitations of female avatar creation, writing that she always chose to play impossibly attractive women. In the most basic sense, the content of this game is two-fold: the library of classic and contemporary video games that it showcases, and the provocative, occasionally quirky prompts it offers to organize debate. Metagame is also notable for what it has to teach us about the dynamic between critical engagement and nostalgia. That said, there is nothing inherent to Metagame that forces this level of conscious argumentation. In the company of non-gamers, the crucial function of the performance is all the more clear. Regardless of the specifics, the necessity of processing a conversation with an opponent through the presence of an other prompts a fruitful kind of self-reflexivity.
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The legendary studio Treasure delivers a high-energy thrill ride gamers recognize as one of the finest Nintendo 64 titles.
Not to be outdone by the action, however, the story line lends the game its soul and draws you even further into the mix. Sin & Punishment, along with its sequel Star Successor, were rated by the ESRB yesterday. Lets be real here, You, Alex9234, Philipsomething and that dude with the squid avatar would prefer even used tampons had Nintendo told you to play with them. Simply right-click on the below image and click the 'Set as Desktop Background' link from the menu that pops up. The book’s primary qualification for this opinion seems to be its length, around 50,000 words, unprecedented among writings on any one game, let alone those written less than six months after the game’s publication. Ben Kuchera’s profile of the project, one of many recent articles that praise the book for its length and method, barely attempts to explain why a long form would contribute. We need not play games except as games, and we undermine our grasp of the medium in mistaking it for another (such as books).
A less diplomatic writer would have an easy time deflecting dissenting opinions with a tart, “Well, that’s your interpretation.” In a way, he has not thrown himself into the fray with this book as he has in the comment sections of the articles cited in his extremely egalitarian critical compilation. He ascribes the game with an intent to engage the player in dialogue by asking questions or sending messages. However, even taking a very broad view of what shapes games criticism may take, he hasn’t supplemented our critical ability to think about games.
What he describes is the cyborg transformation of the body into something specific, and applied.
In the game, players manipulate Quozzle, a small, circular organism who consists of an eye, a body just large enough to contain that eye, and a series of portruding limbs.
Her design is curiously biological, with bones sticking out of the end of joints and exposed muscles drawing on her spindly limbs – an alien “Incredible Visible Man.” When the player clicks on Quozzle to “pull out” a limb, she flinches in discomfort, possibly even pain, but then returns to a placid expression of indifference. He’s an avid photographer whose stunning close-ups of jumping spiders have appeared in National Geographic. The “incredipede” is at the point where the uncanny organicism of a jumping spider meets the (an)aesthetic world of a pastoral dreamscape. Think of the number of games you have played where a character is defined by its grotesque body, and it will almost always be the enemy – biological nightmares of glistening flesh, distended limbs, vague (and sometimes not so vague) metamorphoses of sexual organs distilled into something monstrous and then dissected with guns, chainsaws and swords. Noting these examples, it appears as if McLuhan didn’t push the issue of “auto-amputation” far enough – not only do game players numb themselves to the realities of their living bodies in the game space, it seems that they actively wish to do harm to its representations. Quozzle is both alien and eerily familiar, aesthetic and anesthetized, adaptable to the will of the player and the situations of the game. As I write this, staring at my computer screen and thinking of how to end this article, it’s a lovely fall day in Vancouver. The saving grace of this eternally restless sturm und drang is the return of past works to relevance, and the power to mine new meaning from them in the revealing light of a different sociopolitical configuration. To wit, it was panned unceremoniously, and in the 18 years since then it has been largely resigned to the status of ephemeral trivia. The use of CDs (compact discs), acquired in pack of three and ten and tossed about as weaponry with often hundreds to be wielded, are a forebear to the rise of digital media and the obsolescence they would soon inherit. In a staggeringly progressive espousal of third-wave feminist ideology, massive point bonuses are granted for shooting open the go-go cages of scantily-clad pixel vixens in a stirringly poetic liberation of sex-positivity.
Steven Tyler (the Steven Tyler of the video within the game, not the Steven Tyler you saved) throws you the keys to said car, momentarily working to dissolve the desert of the real and toy with preconceived notions. I sensed that I was beginning to come down, but at this point in the game is a startling demonstration of Acclaim’s trust in player agency. Joe Perry soared with the power of bluesy riffs and a flaming guitar outside a third-story window, and I shot him in the head to rescue him; another wry inversion of the primary gameplay mechanism. As I shot men off catwalks, their identical death wails became an ambient symphony of the common pain of all men, but with each death Steven Tyler’s voice implored me not to give up, and another fifty cents was spent in the hunt for investigative games journalism. It was in this sequence it dawned on me that the young woman clad in a pink halter top and jean skirt was a primal representation of the feminine spirit, and any doubts about Acclaim’s commitment to providing strong female role models to players were abolished.
The release of more and more games with each passing year renders many indie games – despite the vision, originality, and ambition present in many of these – almost unnoticeable in the grand scope of the industry. Both involve a lot of navigating conceptual and narrative space, with the games serving almost as interactive presentations of essays. The element of player choice drives the images and words forward, reflexively working to critique the medium of games itself in a critical discourse.
While moving the titular character forward, bits of narration are triggered with an antagonistic voiceover that breaks the fourth wall to directly engage the player. When given control of Stanley and the player’s eventual encounter of diverging pathways, this sudden opportunity of player choice — despite what the narrator says — lends the game an existential flavor. Breaking the fourth wall and addressing technical aspects of the game itself is an example of narrative intransitivity, altering gaming’s visual and technical language to dissect the very aspects that differentiate gaming as a unique artistic medium. Requiring an intertextual reading of the game, this ending projects the character into another context entirely: a surreal, stripped down version of Half-Life 2’s opening. Defying the narrator at every point in the game is futile in the grand scheme of the game; Wreden concludes that the role of the player is ultimately meaningless because true control always remains with the game. The game rests on a similar essay structure: a protagonist walks through space while voiceover narration plays through key moments of the narrative. The nearly infuriating pacing between narration cues diverts the player from gratification and “fun” into a different state of playing, namely, to experiment with the game’s technical limitations and unravel whatever secrets Dear Esther has to offer beneath the surface. Whereas The Stanley Parable masks its pessimistic stance on free will under the guise of meandering pathways and multiple exits, Dear Esther makes little effort to hide its outlook, offering forked roads that lead to the same place just a few steps later. To deny the significance of either of these works entails a missed experience of gaming culture’s most important titles released these past few years. If any game has even a halfway decent character creation system or any significant way to alter the protagonist’s appearance then it’s probably going to end up in my collection sooner or later. All the avatars I’ve created over the years – whether they’re my rock star in Guitar Hero, my Sim, my Shepard or my warrior of the soul – have born more than a passing resemblance to me.


I’m not suggesting for a minute that everyone who ‘plays themselves’ is completely comfortable in their own skin and that anyone who creates an avatar distinctly different hates who they are. When we create a ‘self’ we are putting a version of ourselves into the game, and when we create an ‘other’ we create a separate character with their own distinct personality. Chan writes that, during her adolescence, the choice of sexually idealised females as her avatars was “driven by envy and vicariousness” and I find her choice of words very interesting.
Looking back on it, I don’t think I had a great deal of concern for the avatars I created during my bout of low-self esteem.
For fun, let’s say you’ve got World of Goo, King’s Quest, Prince of Persia, Silent Hill and Myst. Equal parts rhetoric and nostalgia, the game is basic enough that almost all of the work—and the fun—is left to the players. In a more obscure sense, however, the true content of the game consists in the people who play it. So often, when I have informal discussions about games, and about the canon of gaming, I find my arguments are rooted in little more than fond memories of formative days in my youth. When the debaters cannot make shorthand appeals to the form or content of a game, the need for rhetorical invention—analogy and contrast, for example—ramps up.
Metagame is little more than the imposition of a system onto a basic relationship, but as such—by turning the art of conversation into something that can be scored—it highlights the ways that games condition interpersonal relationships. It lubricates plots, and, in capable hands, can create something of emotional and physical heft to participate in.
As Isa or Kachi, you’ll go on the run and on the defensive, shooting everything in sight as you’re bombarded with foes determined to hunt you down. On a future Earth starved for resources, a new species engineered for consumption has mutated into monsters. Uncover the intriguing mystery of teenagers Saki and Airan as they go head-to-head with rival groups claiming to protect the Earth.
Back on the DS days people were buying piles of Japanese games, sometimes even just for playing it first than the rest of the world. He writes, “you can play the game like a book club, going through each section, and the reading [sic] a deep look into what the game is trying to do, and how well it succeeds.” For all the discussion Killing is Harmless might provoke, Kuchera offers no sense that dialogue with the book’s ideas yields anything but knowledge of its content. Furthermore, just as games don’t need a Citizen Kane, games criticism won’t mature by burdening any one work with “proof-of-concept.” Only the shallowest binary distinctions endure that test, such as whether or not “books have been written about games!” That might be true, but we gain very little from the attempt. His interpretation is valuable, but exclusively his, and in this capacity Killing is Harmless functions better as extended new games journalism, or a meditation, than it does as games criticism.
However, this assumes a relationship between how the player experiences the game and how the game experiences the player that could bear some interrogation. Claiming that Killing is Harmless is anything but a “look,” one finely tuned perspective, severely depreciates the value of the book and its accomplishments. The player pulls these limbs out of Quozzle, attaching muscles to her joints (the game fiction describes Quozzle specifically as female) and using these newly formed body parts to power her through the games environments. As such, Quozzle is an ambiguous body, reminding players of her biological materiality, but also a pure tool, an anaesthetized object who trundles along towards the finish line without much in the way pain, pleasure, or any other affect at all. Consequently, the skin on display is grotesque but contained, made less viscerally unacceptable by appealing to a nostalgic medium whose flat colour disguises the biology on display.
Off the top of my head, I think of Gears of War, Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, Resident Evil (aka “Biohazard”), Dead Space, System Shock, Bioshock… In virtually every one of these games, players take on a role of pure instrumentality, an avatar who moves through space flawlessly and perform the demands of the game without difficulty. Certain developers are trying to change this, by thinking of how to incorporate the body of the player into their designs. Consequently, she implies our own bodies in the act of playing, of submitting ourselves to the demands of the game system we have willingly entered. It is in the spirit of reclaiming and transfiguring the past in the service of our present that we endeavor to redeem works which, at first blush, were perhaps too far ahead of their time to be appropriately evaluated. The music was better, the fashion trends were better; everything was unspoiled and pure for the final known time in Western history. Detritus-like flotsam on the ebbing eddies of our collective consciousness, which has fluid and watery currents like a liquid sea.
In a brilliant inversion of the normalized and hoary tropes of writers, is a direct representation of the Illuminati influence overseeing the decline of the Western world in preparation of transferal of power and our enslavement to the rising East. I highly doubt that their placement inside garbage cans is simply a staging device for hiding power-ups with scenery, at least. The routine drudgery of mowing down impossible swaths of yellow-jacketed NON footmen in mindless bloodshed is a damning critique of the jingoistic military shooters that the game would go on, ironically, to father in its massive wake. You the steal a NON chopper and take to the skies, slaughtering more grunts located (symbolically!) in the windows on the rooftops of buildings like the NON-controlled megaliths like MVN (the Music Video Network), Midway Plaza, Yuk Yuk, MCM Motion Pictures, MUDFLaPs!, Paranoid Pictures, ABS TV, and finally the Los Angeles News.
I could next to go to the Amazon, The Middle East, or the Pacific Rim, and I chose this junction to take a brief pause and have a few more drags of peel. The giant drums of Food Additives were the set stage as mutant soldiers were made out of the same damsel, for ultimately we are all doomed to subservience. Was the buxom chrome robot on the cover of Aerosmith’s 2001 album Just Push Play the precedent for EDI’s pro-transgender-metaphor body acquisition in Mass Effect 3? Notwithstanding such setbacks in breaking into a broader consciousness, two recent titles are among the most significant releases in the steadily growing indie game world. Progressing through space triggers voiceover narration that gradually delivers each game’s thesis on the futility of choice. Both games know the rules and language of gaming; this knowledge leads to rule bending because both games are openly unsatisfied with the cliches and contrivances of mainstream videogaming. This reflexivity destroys suspension of disbelief, making sure that players recognize the diegetic world of The Stanley Parable as a game and not some fabricated narrative world. The Stanley Parable foregrounds the technical aspects of games rather than leaving the mechanics invisible, with the narrator noting the first person view’s inability to show the character’s body and the character’s own role as a silent protagonist.
The intersection with another game prompts even more fourth wall breaking and metafictional philosophizing by the narrator, but the ultimate end of this vignette carries curious implications.
Each ending — despite the player’s defiance of the narrator — represents predetermined routes that the developers have created, thus rendering player choices futile under the untouchable authority of the game. Nevertheless, Dear Esther repurposes the narrative devices into new forms: the narration is completely divorced from the gameplay, the multiple pathways always converge at the end, the instructions are never given, and so on. During one moment of the game, the narrator mentions a way to enter a beached ship through a hole in its bottom, but the game obstructs the player from even getting remotely close to the vessel at all. The game denies any sort of agency from the player from the very beginning, presenting the player with the beckoning aerial lights within the first few seconds. Although The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther ultimately conclude with inelastic, prefabricated endgames to emphasize the questionable role of free will in the medium, both titles are liberating nonetheless.
I have pretty much zero interest in professional wrestling but I sunk an ungodly amount of time into the Smackdown series over four years of my life and in those four years I have never touched a real wrestler.
What I’m saying is, when presented with the choice of how we wish to be represented in the digital world, our decisions may be more deeply motivated than we realize. If we create a version of ourselves it doesn’t necessarily have to look like us, we simply have to conceptualize that avatar as representing us.
A woman who sincerely believes she is attractive would probably not want to experience being unattractive “just to try it out” but a women who does not believe she is attractive might well want to explore the supposed empowerment that being attractive has (this example is complicated slightly by the fact that most avatar creation systems are built in such a way as to make a conventionally unattractive female impossible to create, but that is an issue for another day). It’s strange to talk about envy with regards to a hypothetical version of ourselves, even an idealised one – and vicarious experience is by definition experienced through another. I wasn’t creating an idealized self but I also wasn’t an actor, inhabiting an alternate self during play sessions. I had chosen, however subconsciously, to re-live the experiences from my own life in the digital world.
The judge turns over a card that reads, “Which is more like a comfy pair of slippers?” Is the choice clear to you?
Somewhat in the vein of Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity, Metagame proceeds from the simple mechanic of putting familiar things together in unexpected ways and relishing in heated discussion about the combination.
What this means is that among a crew of people who are eloquent, incisive, clever and knowledgeable about games, Metagame is pure delight. For some audiences, I can refer to grinding in Pokemon and their understanding will not only be immediate, but deep, even visceral. But I am also trying to highlight the critical value of this game, what it reveals about the nature of communication as reflected through a third party. Run, gun, and slash your energy sword through level after level of nonstop destruction to end their reign of terror. A variety of options and a number of different skill levels are all you’ll have to prepare yourself for the full-blown challenge of Turbo Hard mode. There is nothing especially laudable about writing a lot on a narrowly defined topic—there are a lot of dumb overlong books in the world. Longer is better because, somehow, through some accident of evaluation, we came to believe that games writing can never amount to more than the sum of its parts. Keogh relates the plot of the game from his perspective in the present tense, and his discussions of the elements that called forth to him feel natural, such that an agreeable reader can really empathize with his reactions. For example, when he argues that The Line accuses the player of complicity in violence, his affirmative response to the indictment appears couched in an emotional response to the violence, instead of an examination of the premises of the question, such as whether the player is culpable for the actions of their onscreen avatar. The game revolves around the adaptation of this strange body to its environment, planning extensions in order to navigate obstacles towards a goal, ultimately resembling a more evolutionarily advanced version of Bennett Foddy’s QWOP. In fact, “dying” in these games is when the body is exposed as organic, erupting in a shower of blood – otherwise it is the force revenging itself on the other bodies in the game. And, paradoxically, what may be most redeeming about Quozzle is how awkward she becomes, teetering on extensions like a newborn faun. It was in this environment of perfect bliss that Revolution X was released, and it struck as disharmonious with the immaculate perfection of America’s salad days. But armed with the wisdom and time devoted to hundreds of hours spent with this title, I have the authority to conclusively declare the game not only a lost classic, but a chilling warning of the obliteration of Western Society. This of course places it in a canon spanning decades, from Red Dawn (movie) to Revolution X (game) to Homefront (Red Dawn (movie) game) to Red Dawn (movie), but that’s for another time. As I began to rise out of my mortal shell and tap into the energies beyond, my hand must have slipped and I select a level without looking.
Another slime skull guarded a room with a spiky bug thing with the power to jump dozens of feet over walls as we beat our retreat; in yet more irony, the bug was only defeated by shooting out the bridge it was standing on. First comes Davey Wreden’s The Stanley Parable, an unassuming game which in an unprecedented way, consciously challenging conventions of style and gameplay to deconstruct the experience of playing games.
Davey Wreden and the creative heads of thechineseroom (especially Robert Briscoe, Dan Pinchbeck, and Jessica Curry) present essay games, mirroring film essays in the cinematic world. Rather than employing the typical gaming devices to elicit preordained reactions, The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther strive to find something fresh in their experimental principles – intransitivity, estrangement, a lack of “fun,” self-awareness, etc. The ubiquitous voiceover that defines The Stanley Parable is a beautifully executed example of reflexive writing, but don’t mistake this game as the pioneering example of self-awareness in games.
Such estrangement to traditional modes of gaming renders The Stanley Parable one of the most self-critical artistic works of the medium, raising profound philosophical questions and a number of weighty closing monologues depending on which vignette the player undergoes based on prior choices. The entire raison d’etre of The Stanley Parable centers on free will and player choice, the driving forces that make videogames a unique narrative medium. Despite such a seemingly nihilistic conclusion, player choices may be meaningless but it’s also essential to drive the narrative forward, lest one cease to experience the game in the first place.
There’s no inkling of any objective from the start of Dear Esther, leaving the game an exercise in aimless wandering as the voiceover’s prose narrates views of breathtaking vistas (the more credit to Robert Briscoe).
Clearly defined landmarks in an otherwise barren island prove unsatisfying as well, from the unreachable lighthouse to the numerous abandoned buildings that serve absolutely no narrative purpose. Unable to do anything else but walk through space towards a predetermined objective, Dear Esther explores games’ lack of choice — in stark contrast to The Stanley Parable’s exploration of illusory choice. For the gaming world, these two works liberate the medium beyond the typical mainstream market games, moving away from the norm and into experimental forms of artistic expression. I moved away from all my friends and stepped into a world where it seemed like everyone was effortlessly stylish, exceptionally social, funny, ferociously intelligent and destined for great things. This can be in the form of the avatar’s name being our own or its physical appearance resembling ours. Choosing a monster to represent yourself, far from demonstrating low self-esteem, is sending a defiant message both to yourself and to the outside world.


During play Chan was not conceptualising the avatars as being her but rather as her temporarily being them. If we create an ‘other’ then we have a few more choices in how to conceptualize our avatar and our relationship with it.
I could have kept playing as myself in Kingdoms of Amalur, I could have powered through my initial resistance but I made a choice and I didn’t. More importantly, can you convince the judge that you’re right when your opponent just laid down A Link to the Past?
It truly is one of those cases where you get back what you put into it, because frankly if you aren’t in the mood for debate, then there’s no fun to be had here.
It invites a level of historical engagement that is often lacking from critical discussions of games.
Perhaps, then, Meta Game is best approached as a spectator sport – not something I can say about many tabletop games. For others, to whom grinding is merely a part of how one prepares coffee, I will need to drum up a relatable image or anecdote, and fast! The fact that you are performing for a judge, and sometimes also an outside audience, constitutes a formal distinction; this performative component is the game-maker, the facet that imposes a game on what might otherwise be a comic shop conversation.
If the judge values logical reasoning and loathes any attempt to pander, then awareness of those particularities may supersede awareness of generic bias, knowledge of specific games, etc. Take a deep breath, gather your energy, and feast your senses on this unforgettable high-speed roller coaster of Sin and Punishment.
What matters is whether the writing insightful or approaches its subject from a productive angle. Even though a player might have a dramatically different experience with The Line, Keogh takes his reader on an engaging journey. These are important issues in games criticism, but the book isn’t really concerned with hashing them out. When playing a game, it seems as though the ideal body is a forgotten one – one which functions as an interface with the game space, and nothing more.
The techno-hero manifestation of pure will versus the army of naked, slavering mutants, defined by their grotesque materiality.
The loose physics of the game underscore the fact that none of us will ever fully become what a game asks of us, will never quite forget our bodies and become perfect players. Still, for the sake of my journalistic and editorial and critical integrity, I played the game again. Thus the game plants its roots firmly in the history of whistle-blowing on game industry collusion, although the cryptic evidence was never discovered until now. Through a combination of voiceover and accompanying images, film essays participate in a discourse on an abstract topic, typically philosophical or political as in the late Chris Marker’s San Soleil and La Jetee or Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme.
These elements aggressively interrogate videogame mechanics rather than simply demonstrating them, never taking player actions for granted.
There’s the deconstruction of the medium in Spec Ops: The Line, the quasi-meta dialogue of Portal by an antagonistic narrator (with stabs at dark humor), and the widely cited self-referencing within the PS2 Metal Gear Solid installments, for starters. By challenging the narrator’s instructions, the game leads to unfinished corners of the map with the narrator explaining, “No one’s even built this part of the map because you were never supposed to be here in the first place.
This bizarre relationship of the game both dependent and independent of the player treads the realm of Schrodinger’s cat — simultaneously contradictory and true. The game works better as a visual essay than The Stanley Parable, with its somber atmosphere and abstraction of narration, and Dear Esther slowly unfolds as a far more complicated narrative with multiple stories and characters who are merely referenced and never explaiend.
Walking at a snail’s pace through the elaborate cave systems and cliffs of Dear Esther and invariably returning to the same road no matter what route a player takes carries a frustrating atmosphere all throughout the experience.
I very quickly began to feel like a very small fish in a very big pond and my self-esteem hit rock bottom in a way that it had never done before. It can even be expressed in the mechanical decisions we make about how the avatar will play: it’s often noted that playing wizards rather than warriors is a popular choice amongst the less sporty, more academically minded and it’s not too difficult to see that the wizard, who gains his powers through study and mental dedication, is the clearer choice if the academic player wishes the avatar to represent himself. Rather than creating Vivienne Chan but prettier she is creating a distinct character and then inhabiting them. We have two options: as I’ve said we can be actors, taking on the mantle of a different persona. As players we have decisions to make and, for better or for worse, those decisions are powerful. But if you’re itching for an argument, riled up for a round of energetic expostulation, giddy for some gamer-geek gab, then Meta Game offers just enough structure to stoke a rousing verbal rally.
There is room, of course, for an appeal to nostalgia – especially with something like the comfy slippers prompt cited above – but the best arguments recognize that appeal as such, and use it as one piece of evidence in a broader strategy. With a different judge, however, one who doesn’t care about quality debate, but really likes Valve, or ninjas, or food… well, then playing Left 4 Dead, Tenchu or Cooking Mama may be enough to win the round—no need to speak. If you just want to know whether you should purchase Killing is Harmless, I think the pleasure of that adventure alone justifies the low asking price.
We might do well to emulate his strengths, so long as we still acknowledge the limitations of his approach.
Johann Sebastian Joust uses electronic media to contribute to and change playground games, letting the Playstation Move controller act as an infallible referee. This awkward machinery is the point, the source of its fun rather than simply its failure condition. The Mind Floss machines yielded to my torrents of bullets, the cause of feminism was further freed from their lab chairs, and then I shot a guy in flying desk made from an office desk. But then, isn’t my individual journey through this masterpiece really the story here? What differentiates Davey Wreden’s game from other reflexive works lies in the witty absurdism behind it all. That The Stanley Parable — an unassuming, free-to-play mod for the Source engine — can tread such ambitious grounds points to the absolute care of Davey Wreden’s artistry. Dear Esther demands player attention with its fairly minimalist setup, completely closing off its world with vague allusions and an unclear backstory to dislocate and frustrate audiences. Approaching the end of the game, one realizes how straightforward the journey actually unfolds with each playthrough culminating in the same final cutscene jumping off the aerial.
Defiance simply doesn’t exist in the game’s intentional narrative fixity, thus aligning the game’s rigid mechanics to parallel the fundamental theme driving the narrative forward: fate and the inevitability of death. Compared to these people how could I possibly contribute anything of value to the world, either creatively, socially or academically?
All of these properties allow us to ground ourselves in our avatar, they make us feel closer to the digital world our avatar inhabits and makes their journey a personal one. I will be who I am even if you see me as a monster.” It is using the avatar to reclaim control over self-perception and self-representation. In this sense Chan is like an actor-temporarily slipping out of her own persona and into another. We can also be writers, creating an external entity and then taking it on its journey, seeing their rather than our story and helping them get to where they need to go through our actions as players. Was I searching for a state I felt comfortable in when in reality I was living through a constant awkwardness? Whether our avatars represent us or distinct characters that we create they are intimately tied up with who we are. The ideal round of play has as much in common with dramatic performance as it does with the mechanical side of gaming, likely more. Even the humble Wiimote can be considered an attempt to draw the body of the player into the game, except that in most cases that simply means your arm gets tired before hacking the last of the zombified bodies to bits, reinforcing the failure of the body against the ideal of the game. Incredipede highlights not only the need for, but also the joy of movement, celebrating even the most basic act of walking an achievement – and not as a way for us to pat ourselves on the back, reveling in easy victories, but rather as an injunction not to forget where we really are, what we can do, and what we give up in playing the game.
As I refused to bow to my doom, as the pilot implored, I shed a single tear in recognition of a formidable foe and unwilling pawn.
Both games are products of an impassioned indie gaming community powered by accessible technologies — much like the digital video revolution in the cinema — democratizing the medium for creators outside of the centers of power. The game begins by establishing Stanley as a stand-in for the player, portraying the character as pushing buttons all day and waiting for orders on what buttons to push, how long to push them, and what order to do it all in, much like a player lost to the hypnotism of repetition. Dissatisfaction is the endgame with Dear Esther, leaving players powerless and exasperated but also provoked by the game’s fixation on anti-pleasure. Dear Esther’s final moments find the game consciously stealing away the supposedly all-powerful agency of the player and replacing it with a simple cutscene.
Recently I took a look at some of the games I had been playing at that time and I noticed something interesting. Also more interestingly it allows for us to idealize or improve upon our perceptions of ourselves – going back to the wizards and warriors example, a very un-athletic player might still think of their avatar representing them, but then choose to play a very physically powerful warrior. However, while the actor does this as a means to the end of creating a convincing performance – the player changes persona purely for their own sake. In this mode of thinking we reaffirm the character we’ve created through our decisions in the game. Despite these efforts, in most games the presence of the body is simply an obstacle to perfect play. The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther both run on the Source Engine, but rather than aligning with the dominant genres by way of tried-and-true formulas, these two indie innovate by foregoing tired formulas for creative solutions. The narrator’s description of Stanley as a mere drone parallels the player’s own role behind a set of controls, pushing buttons and following orders from an unseen authority – therein lies the crux of the game’s impact. By deliberately leaving plenty of narrative space for audience interpretation, the post-play experience opens up broadly, adding on to the numerous opportunities for contemplation during the game’s stretched moments of under-stimulation and slow pacing. This can potentially reveal insecurities that were previously unknown – if our un-athletic player chooses to turn himself into a warrior he could be in some way acknowledging that he would prefer to be that way in real life. We also task ourselves with making decisions that allow them to survive – we want our characters to be consistent and we also want them to do well. What I was doing was observing people that weren’t me doing the things that I wanted to be doing, that I wished I had the confidence to do myself (which not-so-coincidentally was what I’d also been doing with my self-assured seeming peers at university at the time).
It allows us to claw back at least some degree control over the way we are represented in our media. I don’t want to suggest that idealizing a representation of yourself is inherently unhealthy but it does raise interesting questions.
I didn’t care about the fate of my avatars because I wasn’t personally connected to them at all. In a film or in a novel the hero is whatever he or she is and we have no say in whether or not we can empathize with them or see any of ourselves in them. Bizarrely we can end up caring more about the fates of these ‘others’ than we do when playing ourselves. Nothing is more frustrating than watching a film in which the protagonist is obviously presented as an ‘everyman’ and yet personally finding very little common ground with him (because of mismatched gender, ethnicity, religion, world view etc.) By creating our own avatars not only can we decide if the heroes are similar to us but we can decide to what specific degree they represent who we are.
I remembered playing Kingdoms of Amalur and creating an avatar that resembled me, but then playing for a few hours, scrapping my save and starting over with a new, distinctly different face because playing as me “just felt weird.” I felt strange conceptualizing myself as the hero.
If, however, I’ve created a distinct character – Larry the benevolent mad scientist with a laser rifle and a dog – I care much more about his fate.
It doesn’t matter because they will always be ours – whatever our reasons, we will always have chosen them.
It felt odd to perceive myself as being resourceful, strong and capable in the game world when I didn’t feel that way about myself in the real one. The decisions I make as Larry’s guide are weightier because I am legitimately concerned for his future. In Kingdoms of Amalur you play literally the only being with any direct control of their life in an otherwise totally pre-destined universe.



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