Replay

So recently I’ve been spending a lot of time “relaying” games, and even the husband, who does not understand my penchant for rewatching movies, rereading books, and (especially) replaying games, has been replaying Bioshock Infinite, so a post on the theme of replaying seems appropriate.

I’ve been replaying Mass Effect (the whole trilogy), in part to catch myself up on some DLC from ME3 that I haven’t gotten to play yet, and in part because I love the series. But here’s the thing. Games like ME are designed to be “replayable” because the player can customize the gender, appearance, and class of their avatar. The player can also play as a Paragon, Renegade, or mix of both styles, and make any number of gameplay choices that alter the narrative of the game. In essence, the player can replay the same game and find new conversations, new gameplay content, and so on, even with the same master narrative.

But here’s the thing – having played the ME series three times (this is my fourth go-through), only once have I opted to create a character who was different from my first run-through in any substantial way, and then only for a playthrough of ME3 (not ME1 or ME2). I have swapped out classes (Soldier, Adept, Sentinel), but not the gender, rough appearance, or Paragon-ness of my Shepard. I keep replaying essentially the same narrative over and over, because it’s the narrative that I like.

The same is true of my third replay of Dragon Age II, which I’m replaying for work, rather than play, this third time… which means that I’m forcing myself to play a different kind of Hawke. And she’s not my Hawke, but, rather, an experimental Hawke I’m enduring for the sake of the book chapter I’m writing. My Hawke is a different class, a different gender, and has a different ethos. I am enjoying the possibility of exploring some of the different gameplay and narrative elements introduced by this new Hawke, but it just isn’t the same.

I have a friend – Todd – who often refers to his playthroughs (especially of Bioware games) as One True Canon, and I have to say that is one of the most accurate descriptors of my feelings about my “original” characters. They are the way the game is “supposed to be,” even though I’m fully aware that other people don’t make the same choices I do.

I have also played through other games more than once – Bioshock, for instance, I have played eight times (some by choice, some because I teach it) – that don’t have the replayability factor of a customizable avatar or multiple narrative threads. Certainly, I’m not bothered by the repetition of a good story, even though I do lose the “surprise” elements of the game, but I have to confess that the ability to “tweak” even the same narrative by making slightly different choices does make a game more fun to replay.

Because, here’s the thing. My Shepard makes mistakes that I discover much, much later. I do something in the wrong order, or don’t have a specific companion, or whatever, and I want to replay those missions the way I think “Shepard” (the one I’ve created and imagined) would want them to play out. I want to reconstruct her as a specific person, and sometimes that means wanting to go back and alter things, major or minor, to reflect that person. As a player, I want to create a “master narrative” for this character that I’ve imagined using the tools that Bioware has provided for me.

I can’t do that in Bioshock or Arkham Asylum, even if I can take on the challenge of new achievements (which does add “newness” to a replay). And I think that actually says more about me as a player than it does about the games. I love narrative, character development, the ideological questions that are intrinsic to complex narrative structures. I like rediscovering (and, even better, discovering something new the second time through) the arguments and allusions contained in these narratives, even small things, like the commercial in the elevator in ME1 for an Elcor Hamlet. I like the mental challenge of considering what a production of Hamlet would be like spoken by aliens with no tonal inflection, relying instead on a pronouncement of emotion before every sentence.

I care far less about achievements. About getting 100 kills with a specific weapon or finding all the little boxes in a level (although I do try to do them when I’m playing, an achievement or two will never motivate me to replay a game I didn’t already want to replay). The allure of playing the same level as a Renegade isn’t enough – I have to want to replay the story. But I know that there are gamers out there who are far more interested in replayable mechanics than story elements – they want the challenge of new weapons, a harder difficulty, a different style of play (non-lethal vs. lethal, as in Dishonored).

So why write about replaying games? Because I think it’s important to note that games, like good novels and good movies, have the capacity (when they’re well-made) to be just as important to us as those other forms of art… and they are art. And it’s important for us to recognize that games, like films or books, are complex and carefully crafted – that the backgrounds, the posters, the placement of loot drops, etc., are important, not only to our “play experience,” but to the possibilities of meaning contained within the games.

We’re still developing a full understanding of what that really means – we still have games that give us health for eating food off the floor or out of trashcans, for instance, things that “break” the narrative fourth wall because they aren’t realistic. But we’re starting as players and as developers to understand that the devil, as it were, is in the details, because that’s where we find the difference between a game with something nuanced to say about race and inclusivity, and a game whose Chinese gunsmith is actually yellow in the Crayola sense (yes, I’m looking at you, Infinite). We’re getting there, but we shouldn’t throw up our hands and say that things are “good enough.” Films and novels still aren’t “good enough” and we’ve been working on the latter for about 500 years or so. The development of games as a genre isn’t an achievement that we can say “Hey, games are now art! 50 points!” and be done with it. We need to keep going, keep innovating, and keep striving to create the kinds of games that people want to replay because they feel like they just couldn’t absorb it all the first time (mechanically or narratively or both), and not just to get those few extra achievement points.

Games with Real Guns

Today a friend of mine linked on Facebook to this video, entitled “Is Buying Call of Duty a Moral Choice?” from the Idea Channel. I have to confess that initially I was surprised at this, not expecting this particular individual to be in the “videogames are bad” side of the debate. But I watched the video anyway.

And it actually made some very good points, and I found myself firmly nodding in agreement throughout. Not because Mike Rugnetta says that violent games cause violent behaviors, since he explicitly says the opposite: “Now am I saying that videogames are going to teach you to do something stupid and dangerous with firearms? No, I am not. And furthermore, that line of reason is infuriating.”

The point of the video is that some videogames are not only depicting firearms and having players shoot things/zombies/monsters/people, but some games are actually replicating real guns. But that isn’t really the problem, either.  The problem is that not only are they replicating real guns, but many of them are paying license fees to real gun manufacturers in order to accurately replicate not only the appearance, but also the functionality of actual weapons. And Rugnetta – who is himself a shooter player – takes issue with the fact that gamers are (knowingly or unknowingly) funding arms manufacturers.

First, it seems deeply and upsettingly hypocritical that the NRA is attacking the games industry as the source of violence when their supporting industry (gun makers) are in fact profiting off of certain parts of that industry. If there is any truth (and I’m dubious about that outside of the simulations built for the military for just that purpose) to the assertion that violent games are “training” for the killing of actual people, then using “real” guns instead of hypothetical fantasy or even just generic guns would exacerbate that problem. If not, the use of real weapons is still supporting the gun manufacturing industry, who do make the actual weapons that people do actually use to kill one another.

This isn’t to say that I’m anti-second amendment. I’m not. But I am against being able to make an informed decision about whether or not I need to be providing money to the people who make AK47s and rocket launchers. Other entertainment industries – films, tv, books – aren’t paying licensing fees to use guns (often because they’re using generic weapons or prop weapons or because they’re BOOKS), so why are games? In essence, while I don’t have an inherent problem with absolute verisimilitude, I do have an issue with games that would choose to fund the gun industry and not say so publicly (whether the developers’ or the publishers’ choice, I’m not sure) just for the sake of modeling a real gun instead of one they’ve invented themselves.

Second, there’s the idea that many FPS (first person shooter) players aren’t aware that they’re funding the arms industry. And maybe some of them think that’s great, some of them don’t care, but some of them might be upset by that (since gamers as a unit tend to politicize more on the left side of center), and they don’t realize that their money isn’t just going to Treyarch, but to the makers of actual firearms. So what I see as the most important point is that developers should be more transparent about the fact that they’re paying money to the gun industry (if they are).

As a consumer and a player of FPS games, I will likely now make the choice to buy games that aren’t as realistic in order to avoid giving money to the gun industry (which I’m pretty sure makes enough money all by itself without having to license digital replicas of its products). Not because I think such games are inherently more dangerous (because I don’t), but because I want to be able to make the choice not to support an industry that I do think makes the world more dangerous, because ultimately, its bullets are real.

Games are art now!

So I was going to wait until TLF put up my two-parter commentary on Bioshock Infinite (sometime in the next week or two) to post most of this, but today Gamasutra just posted a piece that essentially forced my typing hand. Adrian Chmielarz writes about “How Bioshock Infinite Revolutionized Video Games,” but the piece should have added “…and Game Criticism” to the end of its title. Because, really, it has.

First, I have seen more complex and thoughtful reviews and criticisms of this game than I have pretty much anything else to come out in the last few years (I’m not including the explosion surrounding the ending to Mass Effect 3, because, quite frankly, most of that wasn’t terribly thoughtful). Infinite has been garnering attention (and not all of it positive) even before its cover art debacle, but much of that attention has raised serious, critical questions about both the game industry and the gaming community, and has also gone a long way to decisively make the point that games are now art.

Chmielarz says that

I’ve played the game and felt the urge to write about its issues even when I was just five minutes in. Then I’ve played it to the end. The breathtaking finale helped a bit, but the game suffered from so many issues that the ending wasn’t able to wash away the bitter taste in my mouth. Let’s just say that instead of feeling like writing another blog post, I felt like writing a book.

But that’s the key here.

And he’s right. People are writing about Infinite because it is art. It’s complex, and flawed, and beautiful, and messy, and ART. Most good art garners both praise and rage. Most good art forces people to ask difficult questions and consider what it is about the piece that either makes them love it or hate it or feel (as in my case here) a mixture of awe and disappointment.

And there have been a lot of people who felt, like Chmielarz, compelled to write about the game. Patricia Hernandez wrote that “An Effin’ AI in Bioshock Infinite is More of a Human Than I Am”; Leigh Alexander wrote “‘Now is the Best Time’: A Critique of Bioshock Infinite; Kevin Wong wrote “Bioshock Infinite is a Metacommentary on Game Narrative”; and Todd Harper, a friend of mine in industry academia, wrote “Infinite Regress,” which responds to some of these.

Chmielarz has a longer list than I do, but his focuses mostly on the problems that people see with Infinite, many of which I happen to think are on to something:

But it wasn’t a question of finding some obscure, random nerd rage posts. Critical articles and posts were popping up in all kinds of high profile places: from NeoGAF through Kotaku to to Gamasutra. Hell, it was not longer just about the gaming scene: even the infamous Hulk Critic stepped in.

It was no longer a child crying out, “But the emperor isn’t wearing anything at all!”. It was a crowd.

Thomas Grip, the lead designer behind Amnesia performed an autopsy. Brainy Gamer has realized it’s the end of an era. Daniel Goldin disagreed with the message. There are three paragraph reviews, heck, even one paragraph ones that expose the core problems with the game. There’s even a short Interactive Fiction game that can teach us more game design than many books. And no, Elizabeth is not the best sidekick ever.

Chmielarz says that “Infinite has revolutionized games” because of this response, but it’s also revolutionized the way people are willing and able to talk about games. It’s a leader in the industry, along with the entire development team at Irrational games, because it refuses to be limited by things like time, space, or expectations. And all the criticism of the game is actually more of a testament to what it has done well than what it has failed to do, since if it really were a terrible game, no one would care about its flaws.

Because, when you get down to it, Infinite has done well. It received a 95 on Metacritic. It’s visually gorgeous. People love it, and people love to hate it. And all this is happening because Infinite very quietly but very firmly has just demonstrated, beyond anyone’s ability to doubt it, that videogames are art. No one can watch or play Infinite, love it or hate it, and think that it isn’t art.

TLF: PAX Bostonia

At the end of March, I got lucky enough to have a presentation at the New England Modern Language Association annual conference in Boston at the exact same time as PAX East 2013. PAX – Penny Arcade eXpo – was started years ago by the guys that run Penny Arcade, and has since expanded to include PAX East (Boston instead of Seattle), PAX Dev (for developers), and PAX Aus (Australia). In other words, it’s enormously popular. The passes sell out every year.

So when I noticed that I was going to be in Boston anyway, you can bet your britches that I was going to go. And this was my experience. It was, in a word, awesome. Sure, there were a couple of minor downs, but overall, PAX was full of ups, and gives me hope that with the right leaders in terms of attitude, the gaming community will join the rest of the Western civilized world in recognizing equality as something open to everyone, not just straight white men.

Player Agent

So apparently, this week is Mass Effect Week over at Kotaku. If there is a game series with which I could be considered “obsessed,” it’s Mass Effect, so I feel as though I have some sort of obligation to post about it. However, this week has been spent playing Bioshock Infinite, so my thoughts are going to come across as a muddled mess of both.

This morning, Gamasutra posted a piece about Infinite as a metacriticism of game narrative (spoiler alert, for those of you who haven’t played through Infinite yet). The premise of the piece is that Infinite’s thematic messing around with time is designed as a critique or commentary on the increasing complexity of game narratives… which I can understand, but honestly don’t really buy, if only because Infinite doesn’t participate in the kind of narrative complexity that we find in Bioware games.

Now I don’t think that all games should have the kind of branching, complexly interwoven decision tree narratives that Bioware games have. Sometimes as a player you just want a story to be told to you, rather than to participate in the telling of the story yourself. Sometimes you want a game that just puts you inside a character and lets you experience a story as that character. But – and this is especially true for Bioware fans – sometimes you want to have a lot more control over the narrative. Sure, I can see how the (SPOILER) tears in Infinite seem to symbolically represent the decision tree kinds of choices that appear in Mass Effect, but, ultimately, they aren’t. Booker doesn’t have the choice to enter the tear or not (unless the player chooses to stop playing the game). In fact, Booker has very few choices at all that can be made or influenced by the player.

And, honestly, some of that lack of control was bothersome to me, probably because I’ve been spoiled by Shepard, Hawke, and the Warden. I want to be able to be my own character, design my character’s personality, and have control over whether or not I choose – as Booker does not – to accept baptism, to enter a tear, or to comfort Elizabeth. That said, I don’t think Infinite should have been a Bioware game with a complex set of conversation trees and branching ludonarrative choices. That wasn’t what Infinite set out to do. It wasn’t designed to give the player agency – it was designed to take it away (although to a lesser extent than the original Bioshock).

And that’s really what I’m getting at here: Bioware games like Mass Effect are about player agency (at least until the ending of ME3, which I think is why so many people were upset by it), Bioshock games like the original and Infinite are about taking away that agency. And that’s fine. We need both kinds of narrative in a maturing industry so that we can 1) make the choice as players about what we prefer, and 2) because the industry is developing into a complex and rich artform, and art has different genres and styles. As a player, I like agency, but I can also appreciate that sometimes a story needs to take away that agency to be told.

First Impressions

I’m starting this post now, before I’ve finished Bioshock Infinite, because I just want to address the stark difference between it and Assassin’s Creed III. I posted on both when they were still trailers, looking at the seeming thematic similarities between them, particularly in terms of anti-American Exceptionalism over at TLF. I haven’t finished either, yet, but I feel like it’s nevertheless a good time to talk about them in comparison. Mostly because I’m not sure I’m ever going to finish both of them.

I started AC3 several months back, and was really excited. As someone who lived in Boston, worked on the Freedom Trail, and spent far too many years of my life dedicated to Bostonian colonial history and the British, who are always “coming.” I tolerated the game’s opening, not really understanding or caring why I was controlling a character in a hoodie, because it promised a future in colonial Boston. And – eventually – I did get there.

And at first it seemed to fulfill all its promise. As someone who has frequently navigated downtown Boston both by car (don’t do it) and by foot, I was pleased to discover that I could do so in the digital colonial version, as well. I went and found King’s Chapel and climbed it (where I used to work). I climbed the Beacon on Beacon Hill, ran down to the harbor, visited Faneuil Hall, and leapt across rooftops until the really annoying Redcoats started yelling at me. Why do they care if I want to break my own neck, anyway?

Confession? I never even made it far enough to switch characters to the actual main character of AC3, Connor. I got bored. I, who spent seven consecutive summers as a Tory in colonial garb, got bored shooting, strangling, neck-snapping, and drowning Redcoats. Bored. I feel bad that I haven’t finished the game, or even managed to get any further to the main story. But I’m just bored and annoyed, its ethos of anti-Exceptionalism notwithstanding.

Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, sends me into fits of giggles on a fairly regular basis, and not because it has sunshine (it does) and birdies (it has those, too) and cotton candy (yup). Because I can strangle an enemy with a skyhook, shoot flocks of crows out of my hands, and go flying through the sky on rails. It’s FUN.

Now this isn’t to say that BI has foregone thematic importance for fun – on the contrary. While I do think that the game is rather, uh, heavy handed (think “elephant sitting on a Hummer while waiving a spiked club about with its trunk”) with its commentary on white supremacy and Exeptionalism (they aren’t actually the same thing, although in this game you might think so), it most definitely retains the firm insistence on the power of the Vox Populi (in the literal and metaphoric sense).

And here’s where I get to my point. I will finish BI. I will finish it probably at the sacrifice of both food and sleep (to minor degrees) because it’s both pretty (as is AC3, in a different way) and fun. I will appreciate its message of inclusivity and interconnectedness (and whatever else I haven’t encountered yet). But – and here’s the part that makes my not-so-inner academic a little sad – I won’t appreciate it as a powerful work of subtlety and nuance. Because BI isn’t.

AC3 has a lot of potential in that department, it really does. I can imagine a narrative line leading from where I left off in that game to something complex and rich. BI isn’t complex or rich in narrative terms. It’s about as subtle as the shotgun that makes it so much fun. And I’m struggling with the fact that I wish the two games had been combined (at least so far). I want the subtlety, the verisimilitude to reality that I feel like AC3 has and BI lacks.

But as a gamer, I’m not going to struggle through boredom to get there, and that’s why, ultimately, BI is a better game. It may still be immature in its narrative and symbolic complexity, but I’m having so much fun that I can forgive it for waving a glittering symbolism stick in my face while jumping up and down on a trampoline of metaphors.