Ebert was right; games aren’t art

NOTES // This article was originally published October 7 2010 on five-players.com. An abridged version was later published in Xbox World and PSM3.

Oh god, not you again.

I’m not really invested in the debate about whether games are or are not art; were my hand forced I’d be more likely take the ‘no’ side, though not for the convincing reasons suggested by Roger Ebert and other critics.

When Roger Ebert says games aren’t art he’s coming at it from a film critic’s perspective and from that perspective he’s probably right. Ebert’s argument breaks down to two very neat halves – quality and authorship – and on both points games come up short. Ebert, you see, is looking for the Mona Lisa and the Kubrick we don’t have.

“To my knowledge” said Ebert back in 2005, “no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.” He’s right, too. And he’s right when he says “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

Auteur theory is complex enough to have entire books written on the subject so let’s not get into it here beyond a very brief and inadequate starting point. A director can be said to be an ‘auteur’ if a film is recognisably his or her vision in spite of the film being made by many other hands. To put it another way, when you can tell a Martin Scorsese movie is a Martin Scorsese movie in spite of all the investors, execs, producers, and Hollywood jackasses trying mess with his shit, it’s because he’s an auteur.

Most games fail the auteur test in just the same way most movies fail the test. Only a very small number of Hollywood movies qualify as art by the critic’s standard.

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Achievements, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades

NOTES // This article was first published January 7 2011 on Five Players.

Among Microsoft’s many documents, technical certification requirements, and double top secret white papers intended exclusively for the eyes of game developers is a paper by Jeff Sullivan on how best to apply Achievements to Xbox games. It touches on gamer psychology, Richard Bartle’s Player Types, and some dastardly business I’ll get to later.

Because nobody wants responsibility for someone else’s bullshit, Microsoft apparently prefer not to interfere with the development of Achievements but instead offer a set of ideas on how best to reward players, identifying who Achievements are for, how to award them, what Achievements should never do, and how to make Achievements fun to the max.

Sullivan suggests that games “include Achievements for every type of player, with the focus on Achievers and Explorers”, referring to two of the four player types identified by MUD developer Richard Bartle back in the late eighties. Written back in 1990 and amended in ’96, Bartle’s Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades paper breaks MUD players – and by extension over time, all online gamers – down into four categories.

Players are typically Achievers who like to succeed in built-in goals, Explorers who map and invest in the world, Socialisers who play for social contact and the pleasure of communication, and Killers who are dicks. Players will often cross between categories but Bartle suggests most players are predisposed to one type. He provides examples of how the four types behave and communicate in game, though the language used by a MUD’s Killers back in the early nineties seems naive in the stark futuristic scarescape of the twenty-first century. Online gaming in 1990 was apparently a comforting fun-for-all-the-family Blankety Blank version of 2011′s Running Man N-Bomb fuckyou murderfest.

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Dreamcast: the land of the free

NOTES // This article was first published October 29 2010 on Five Players.

When a Dreamcast advocate makes their argument a little too well and references too many games you should ask just how many of the discs on their shelf came from Sega and how many came from BigPockets. Certainly, not all Dreamcast owners were pirates, but all pirates were Dreamcast owners.

Boxing fans like to argue over the greatest pound for pound fighter of all time, comparing fighters from different generations regardless of their size and weight class. It’s a game nerds like to play with consoles – the DS beating off stiff competition from the PS2, the SNES taking out the Xbox 360, the Gameboy battering the Saturn, and the Dreamcast wearing out its shoes from the immeasurable amount of ass it goes around kicking.

It’s hard to argue with a Dreamcast advocate. It was a short-lived console with a wealth of quality gamer’s games and import-only titles which was immediately attractive to the kind of gamer prepared to hunt down niche games and debate the Greatest Of All Time until the End Of All Time. What’s more, the PS1, PS2, and Xbox needed internal modification, soldering skills, and a modchip to achieve what could be done to a Dreamcast with a copy of DiscJuggler and a blank CD. Dreamcast piracy was so entrenched in the mainstream it gave rise to legions of educated and vocal advocates who played more games and a more varied selection of games for the Dreamcast than they would ever dare gamble on for any other console. Piracy made Dreamcast owners smart and smart owners made the Dreamcast look good.

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In Hell

In Hell
 looked pretty good on paper. A movie where Jean-Claude Van Damme is sent to jail for the murder of his wife’s killer and finds it’s run by a SICK SON OF A BITCH warden who runs an ILLEGAL FIGHTING TOURNAMENT for HIS OWN AMUSEMENT. I was all “Oh man, I sure hope Van Damme kicks that dude’s ass.”

It turns out In Hell is one of Van Damme’s ‘serious’ roles, and I want to see JCVD in a serious flick about as much as I want to see my gran in a bukkake club.

So, Van Damme shoots the man who killed his wife and gets sent to a Russian prison full of sodomites and murderers, then spends the first forty-five minutes of the movie getting beaten up and threatened with rape while wearing a curly mop of old woman’s hair. At some point around the fifty minute mark he gets told by a moth that he has to survive so he gets a full-on SPORTS TRAINING MONTAGE in his solitary cell and emerges as the JCVD who does the splits above electrified floors and punches the arms off guys who’ve been doused with liquid nitrogen; except now he has the hair and a beard like the guy who used to drink cheap booze around the back of the place I used to work, not far away from where the prostitutes used to bring their “clients” to “service” them.

That was a long sentence. Here’s another: he tears a guy’s throat out, Van Daminates lots of people who don’t deserve it, slicks back his hair and grows a pointy little Satan beard, and then decides he doesn’t want to fight any more after one of his friends gets buttsecksed to death by a seven foot pro wrestler with a hammer and sickle tattooed on one arm and a swastika tattooed on the other.

So the guards chain up tree-huggin’ hippy pacifist Van Damme – “boo hoo I conscientiously object to the warden’s awesome illegal fighting tournament waaaah” – and leave him to die in the yard where he’s visited by the ghost of his dead wife who gets all Pixar on Van Damme. She tells him to stick to what he believes in, which is all well and good until they send an even angrier seven foot pro wrestler in a leather gimp mask after him.

Van Damme still refuses to fight and Abyss from TNA Wrestling is seconds away from squashing JayCeeVeeDee’s guts out his nose like a tube of toothpaste when he realises Van Damme is the guy he’s been banging on the wall with for all the months he’s been in his solitary cell, and he gives Van Damme a hug. It’s just like the end of The Goonies, in fact, except here Sloth gets shot dead. Then there’s a riot, a final fight against the Communist Nazi, an escape, and the prison shuts down three months later.

And all this led to a thread on IMDB’s forums entitled “Is this a true story?


Ten questions with Suda 51

NOTES // This interview was first published August 26 2010 on Five Players.

Last week Suda 51 announced Sinemoratold us it was a side-scrolling shooter, then sat on a toilet for four hours and answered questions about everything but Sinemora. Since queries about the game were getting knocked back, I invited people on my iPhone contacts list to send me the kind of questions you’d ask of a man who does most of his PR on the can. Here are ten of them.

I interviewed him in a conference room, not the toilet. I don’t talk to people in toilets. I wouldn’t even call for the Fire Brigade if the toilet bowl were on fire.

Mike: You’re a very well-dressed man. But who’s the best dressed man in videogames?

Suda: Oh. I wonder who. That’s very difficult… maybe… Shigeru Miyamoto? Anything he wears, it works. He’s a genius. Anything he wears, he makes fashionable.

Mike: What would you do if you were a woman for a day?

Suda: I’d just go to the beauty salon. As a man, I’d never be able to go.

Mike: Who is the greatest Japanese game creator?

Suda: Kojima-san. He really brings a depth to games and every time he creates something it always has to be the best. Every time I meet him and see his games I’m so impressed and I’m so happy that I can play his games.

Mike: What’s the one iPhone App you can’t do without?

Suda: Echofon, maybe. Google..? I don’t really use it that much, but love this one Japanese application which searches for good restaurants within your area. I discovered a ramen restaurant that’s really close to my home. It’s a secret, though.

Mike: You used to work on the Fire Pro games. Do you fancy creating a wrestling game of your own?

Suda: No no no. I’ve done enough. I’ve created two titles and that’s it. I don’t want to make a pro wrestling game, but maybe a game about a pro wrestler; that, I would like to create. The movie, The Wrestler was a vision of a world I’ve always wanted to explore.

Mike: Which pro wrestler do you most respect?

Suda: Akira Maeda.

Mike: And the greatest pro wrestling match you’ve ever seen?

Suda: That’s a hard question again! There are too many. Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Tenryu, maybe. Those two were just great together. (It’s possible Suda is talking about this one.)

Mike: If you could fight any game creator in Japan, who would you fight?

Suda: A real fight!?

Mike: Yeah, but you’ll still be friends afterwards.

Suda: Ah! Oh. I wonder. Maybe Ueda-san? I’m a good friend of his so I don’t think we’ll have any problems afterwards. He’s a tough guy. He rides a Harley, wears a leather jacket, leather boots, sunglasses, a tank top. And he has studs and tattoos everywhere. He’s a scary man.

Mike: What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?

Suda: Hmm. I don’t know. But when Ubi were making a video (for No More Heroes) they actually asked me to take off my pants. That was pretty bad. But I’m used to being filmed in toilets. That’s my home ground.

Mike: Suda! What is best in life?

Suda: A hot bath.


Fatalism in Far Cry 2

NOTES // This was first published September 23 2010 on Five Players.

Everyone in Leboa-Sako and Bowa-Seko wants you dead.

Sure, there’s the guy who drives you into town who seems nice enough and a friendly vicar or two, but not one of them is there to help when your intended assassination target is pointing your own gun at you and a civil war is erupting outside. There are refugees by the thousands, you’re told, but they’re all stuffed into the back rooms of inconspicuous huts and are conveniently absent when you’re delirious with malaria and staggering down a dirt road while everyone in Africa tries to murder you. You have friends too, but they’ve long since betrayed you when you’re five minutes from the final cut scene and you have to choose between a bomb and a bullet.

Yep, Far Cry 2 gets a lot wrong.

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Asymmetric warfare. The making of Splinter Cell: Spy vs. Merc

"NOTES // This article was originally published in Xbox World issue 77, back in March 2010. This is the original, unedited version before the Prod Editor cut it to fit six pages of magazine. I’ve tweaked it a little to reference Annecy’s work on Assassin’s Creed.

If Splinter Cell’s multiplayer Spy vs. Merc mode was the best multiplayer game ever. I played hundreds of hours of Spy vs. Merc on Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory before I joined Xbox World, and this was something of a selfish project my editor was kind enough to let me spend some time on.

Spy vs. Merc is returning for Splinter Cell Blacklist without Annecy’s involvement.

The rules were simple. Splinter Cell’s multiplayer mode is a two versus two asymmetrical game where each side has its own strengths and weaknesses, its own job to do, and its own way of doing it. Mercenaries defend a series of nodes with guns, grenades, remote mines and detection equipment; Spies attempt to hack the nodes using smoke, chaff, a taser and a lethal neck snap. Spies play in third person; Mercenaries play in first. Spies infiltrate; Mercs defend. Spies are lethal at close range; Mercs are lethal from afar. It was, and still is, the smartest, most tightly-designed multiplayer game ever made.

Now Assassin’s Creed’s Lead Designer at Ubisoft Annecy, Arnaud Mametz was then the Design Lead on Splinter Cell’s multiplayer game. Like GRAW, Splinter Cell’s multiplayer component was built at a studio far from the solo game’s developers, and even used a different engine.

“After Splinter Cell’s debut at E3 in 2002, Serge Hascoet - Ubisoft’s CEO - wanted to see what a multiplayer game based on the Splinter Cell universe would look like,” says Mametz. “The task was given to Annecy because of some online prototypes we worked on, and because we were finishing Largo Winch: Empire Under Threat. A very small team was dedicated to it – just two people including myself – and one month later, we had a first rough game design, explaining the game pillars and foundations, and five minutes of gameplay explained in with comic book panels. We received a go to work on what would become Pandora Tomorrow’s Versus mode.

“When we started, people told us ‘it’s not possible; you’re crazy!’” Mametz continues. “Well, they were quite right because we spent six months building the game before Live was even running, and that was crazy. When (Creative Director) Gunther Galipot joined us in January 2003, eighty percent of the elements were designed. We had one acrobatic team of Spies versus one armed team of Mercs, we had the gadgets, the vision modes, the game modes and so on, but we still had a long way to go.”

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Thrill Kill

NOTES // This article was first published September 30 2010 on Five Players.

Somehow, everybody had played Thrill Kill.

In 1998 Virgin Interactive’s management bought out the entire British half of Virgin’s operation while EA picked up the American side for a cool one hundred and twenty-two million pounds. EA promptly axed Virgin’s Thrill Kill, calling it “senselessly violent” and refusing to take responsibility for such ghastly content, but somehow, by 1999 everybody had played Thrill Kill.

Back in the PS1 days everybody knew someone who knew someone who could chip a PS1 but far fewer had the internet connection to download entire PS1 ISOs from Usenet so the usual trick was to rent a game, copy it, return it, and burn your own. That wouldn’t work for Thrill Kill; after a year’s worth of hype from Virgin Interactive and their team at Paradox, EA had buried it.

Thrill Kill was like an Image Comics circa-1992 version of cool, projected into 1998 by way of a time ray directed through the inside of a thirteen year-old Iron Maiden fan’s head. Dig this, yo: It’s about ten SICK FUCKS who are totally IN HELL and have to FIGHT TO THE DEATH to discover their TRUE IDENTITIES. Let the bodies hit the floor let the bodies hit the floor let the bodies hit the floor let the bodies hit the TSS TSS RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH.

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Inexplicable Adventures in Granny’s Garden

NOTES // This article was first published January 26 2011 on Five Players. The article referred to in the first line is an article Emily Gera wrote a few days earlier on The Oregon Trail, no longer available online.

Emily’s look at The Oregon Trail paints a bleak picture of the months pioneering Americans spent on the trail watching friends and loved ones shit themselves to death. More than that, it seems The Oregon Trail was for Americans – and for Canadians like Emily – what Granny’s Garden was for Brits.

Originally made for for the Acorn BBC posh kid’s microcomputer, Granny’s Garden compressed all of The Oregon Trail’s misery into a neat fairytale package running on a machine with all the number-crunching power of a dog. Originally made by Mike Matson in 1983, it’s a full twelve years less ancient than The Oregon Trail but a whole industrial revolution less sophisticated. Granny’s Garden brings to life a world of talking mushrooms, woodcutters who carve secret passwords in ten-foot letters on the side of the buildings they protect, logic-resistant puzzles, interminable guessing games, and dragons who like chips.

Granny’s Garden begins with guesswork. There are twelve trees. One of them is magic. Which one? Well go on then. Have a guess.

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Dog Days

NOTES // This article was originally published February 21 2011 on five-players.com. Kane and Lynch 2 is brilliant for all the reasons listed here and in Tim Rogers’ proper review at Action Button.

Kane and Lynch 2 is better than you think it is.

It’s a pathologically single-minded game – no squad commands, no grenades, no collectable gimmicks, no driving sections – nothing but two days of relentless gunishment captured through the lens of a 2004 Nokia cameraphone. Dog Days is just so cohesive; every part exists for a reason.

The world, for instance. Every space feels cold and ill in shades of morgue green and corpse grey. The camera desaturates Shanghai’s bright neons but lets chilly white fluorescent bulbs bleed all over your screen. Popping the Wank Hat on for a second, Io are masters of mise en scène. They’ve built perfect versions of places you don’t want to be, and populated them with unfriendly thugs and unfriendly innocents alike.

Sooner or later – likely sooner, at some point in level one – a fleeing bystander will catch a bullet. The weapons are ferocious and scattershot, the way they would be in the hands of an unskilled clown. Inaccuracy is built in and compensated for. It was clearly a conscious decision to exclude the traditional ‘tightening’ reticle when you squeeze the left trigger; the guns are supposed to be indiscriminate. You’re supposed to miss; innocent people are supposed to die.

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