Archive for the ‘ Editorial ’ Category

This is the end… my only friend, the end

2001 (1)Everything most eventually come to an end. Sometimes, it’s an excruciatingly long winding one, as is the case with Metagame. Between my PhD and classes, my newspaper reviews and occasional talks, the book I can never seem to finish writing, and wanting to continue playing these darned horrible videogames, time just slips by. But the past, as they say, is history. The college paper is gone and with it my column, blogs are out-of-fashion, too wordy for the twit generation to read through, and soon I’ll have to find a proper job to make ends meet, which inevitably means an even lesser disposition to write here. And now, on top of all this, I’ve been invited to write for a column in the Portuguese IGN website, which will likely drain all my videogame writing desires. This is not final, I’ll still be around, just don’t expect anything more than the recent paucity.

Ever since I started writing here, I did my best to try and convey my feelings and thoughts towards this new medium. In the many years spent writing reviews, I grew up as a person and critic, and learned considerably about videogames and games and art. A great part of that maturing experience results directly from all the delightful interactions I had with everyone who read and discussed these themes in the blog and outside it. A big thank you is naturally in order. Even though all were important to me, some will live on in my heart and deserve special recognition: CruzifixioCes, my number one fan and fellow J-RPG lover, José (or is it sir Joseph now?) for showing me that impeccable film taste does not always translate to videogames, Jorge S. for the best and most relentless of though-provoking discussions, Jaggie on account of his ever insightful perspectives on art, manga, anime and all things Japanese (and for being the most ingenuous of my critics), and last but not least, dieubussy for being the best mentor I could hope to find, a true reference in every respect. To all these friends, I send my love.

To those rare unnamed few who enjoy my writings, I can only bid a hearty farewell, and shamelessly publicize my current ventures, inviting you to befriend my facebook page (if you haven’t already) which features (but is not limited to) English posts on Metagame topics, and to those who are fluent in Portuguese follow my new bimonthly column in pt.ign.com/behindmedia, where hopefully I’ll continue my writing in true Metagame spirit.

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.”

Hope to see you soon,
Rui Craveirinha

A Reflection on “Indie Game: The Movie”

It appears to have become moderately consensual that the game industry is in a creative strut. Big companies are so obsessed with accessible, risk-free game design for the masses that even some mainstream audiences are starting to gain mild aversion to the formulaic nature of these titles. Whenever such a problem is posed however, the solution is always at hand: the independent developers are here to save the day. It is a seductive argument, since independent creators lack high stakes industrial production budgets, and as such can risk innovation, creativity, and can go as far as ignore large segments of the market. Thus, here is “Indie Game the Movie”, a documentary intent on supporting a movement that is bound to change the video-game landscape forever… or maybe not.

“The Movie” follows four people, “Super Meat Boy’s” Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, “Fez’s” Phil Fish and “Braid’s” own Jonathan Blow. Strange world is this where a movement is characterized by four individuals, all from the same country (more or less) and all from the same generation. It’d be fine if we were discussing say, Pre-Raphaelites or the French New Wave (and God pardon me for this offensive citation of such admirable gents), and not independent games, a category which is transversal to an entire medium, has had representatives from all around the world and ever since its inception, something like 50 years ago. To properly discuss the cultural relevance and creative value of independent game development, one would have to do a historical overview of several different moments and movements which can fit inside this adjective of “independent”. Many authors from Japan, Europe, Central and South America would need to be cited, on mere account of historical and cultural relevance to the medium. Really, even a simple Wikipedia page view reveals the obvious – indies have neither age nor country, they are a heterogeneous group rich in diversity. But let us be kind, and assume such a scope is too vast and extensive to tackle in a feature documentary; even thus, if we would simply stick to post-2008 North-America, we would find a large group of independent game designers who should have a say in this documentary and are only surreptitiously quoted. Where are Jenova Chen, Robin Hunicke and Kellee Santiago from thatGameCompany? Where is Jason Rohrer or Rod Humble? Kyle Gambler and Ron Carmel from 2D Boy or Alex Neuse from Gaijin Games? Where is so-called game design genius Markus “Minecraft” Persson? They are nowhere to be seen, as are major faces involved in promoting and awarding praise to indie games, either relegated to the background with the odd soundbyte, or not even a part of the film. The context for the entire indie game movement is a 10 minute show-reel filled with half-truths, random images of games from aforementioned designers, and some very personal observations from the four authors who the directors actually bothered following and interviewing. What the documentary seems to be validating is a misconceived, manipulative and provincial view of what goes for indie gaming – Nintendo game clones with quirky pixel art, entirely developed by North-American engineers and designers… for Xbox live. That’s the alpha and omega of the documentary.

A pondered selection would be key in getting a film to even come close to have some sort of meaningful debate on the past, present and future of independent videogame production. One would need to accurately characterize independent games context so as to approach its acquired meaning in a medium striving for change, and that would involve citing many authors, teams and games which the film doesn’t even seem to recognize. I won’t even get to the point of addressing the taste issues regarding “Team Meat” games, or the tone in which these newfound heroes are glorified as they are extracted from their real lives and shoved into narrative archetypes for the sheer sake of drawing a clean little Freytag triangle. No, that would be questioning the whole voyeuristic TV documentary style, its ethical and social implications, and would take too much effort. The greatest fault of the documentary is that it simply has no pretense of historical, pedagogical, or academic goals, let alone any mild artistic aspirations. It is purely commercial: it aims at entertaining, making some money, and maybe selling the image (and games) of a number of game designers. That’s “the Movie” to a T.

From the unfantastic four, only Jonathan Blow has something meaningful to observe, and he’s the least interviewed of the four. He’s portrayed as a mystical guru, an egomaniacal genius that sits in the dark as videogame Buddha, programming while standing, and calmly spreading pearls of enlightenment with each pondered phrase. He’s an indie scene God, and Fish and Team Meat are his devout acolytes. Blow speaks with an ease and thoughtfulness that clearly make him the odd man out. For instance, Team Meat becomes overjoyed with commercial and critical success of their title, filmed while intellectually masturbating at the sight of e-mails with sales numbers, flashing review numbers in the 90% and up Metacritic, all quotes of “awesome” and “fun” being trashed about, and even delighting in silly YouTube videos that show the fans doing what they do best. All the while, Tommy and Edmund glow as if they were watching Mona Lisa in the Louvre: they made it, they even outsold “Braid”, their reviews have the word masterpiece in the lead, and suddenly Team Meat is the reference. All hail the new prophets of the new art-form, the film implies. Blow, on the other hand, reacted differently to his acclaim: he says he enjoyed the success but went into depression. The reason? Nobody understood Blow’s authorial point. Nobody interpreted his videogame in a way that made sense to him. Nobody connected with Blow on the level he was aiming at. His expressive discourse was a one way soliloquy and no one was listening. After discussing these matters in comment pages with reviewers and commentators all over the web, he was shunned and became the laughing stock of internet town. Apparently, he then retreated into the superior plane of existence where he now rests while conjuring his forthcoming misunderstood masterpiece. The point is that unlike Team Meat, Jonathan Blow cared more about his artistic view than his commercial success – and that is a mark of someone who the medium would do well to listen to. The film never returns to probe deeper into these issues; Team Meat’s breakfast is more important, evidently.

Personally, I don’t think “Braid” ever stood a chance. It is a sophisticated, nuanced work that does not lent itself to oversimplification. Its theme, of course, concerns Time, and how Time shapes a fundamental archetype of human life – men’s relationship with women. Mother, friend, girlfriend, wife, daughter… Princess. If “Super Mario Bros.” was a plumber’s dream of saving a beautiful princess made surrealist, joyful adventure, “Braid” is an oniric poem on the variations of that same basic theme. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s work, it is a tale of infinite arrangements, kaleidoscopically interconnected through a weave of unconscious thought and memory, a search for a figure both illusive and ever present, a feminine voice that draws you in with its allure till you’re close enough to feel it, and yet remains out of touch. This hyper-fiction does not fit the excel columns of Graphics, Narrative, Value, Design, Fun, Longevity, ‘bang for buck’ and whatever else Gamespot and IGN can add up to a neat number or statistic. Superficially, “Braid” shines in these hollow nouns, for its visuals, soundtrack, story and gameplay are immediately accessible, and its technical proficiency (in terms of budget segment) is unquestionable. Its basic references are recognizable by an autophagic medium that knows Mario and Donkey Kong and little else. In this sense, it is indistinguishable from “Super Meat Boy” – but everything else that lies dug deep in its essence, remaining hidden from uncouth sight, is precisely what elevates “Braid” to a distinguished category inside the confines of the North-American indie scene. Superficially, and only superficially, “Braid” garners success in the dark avenues of videogames, because it can lend itself to a positive evaluation from a commercial understanding of what a videogame is – a product. It is sellable, and as thus, reviews and sales were positive, irrespective of any writ whatsoever that can take into account the (aest)ethic, symbolic, cultural and interpretative aspects which Blow yearned to explore. It just doesn’t equate, relate or resonate. To Blow, mechanics and story were a means of expression; to the industry at large, they were means for having fun.

Scholars are also to blame, for despite being free of short term commercial goals and similar considerations, failed in realizing what Blow intended with his game. They present their academic discourse with passion and insight, but naively base their analytical prose on references and axioms that are as ill-suited to the proper analysis of an artwork as Gametrailers valuation categories. Their point of view is highly influenced by a short-lived Media Communication field that wishes to come of age by ignoring and even re-writing millennia of Humanities knowledge with half-concocted theses and theories. When probed deep enough, popular academics reveal an unconscious subscription to many ideological perversities: the mercantilization and mass industrialization of the arts, a hedonic and consumerist view of life, and a total disdain for intellectual criticism and education, understood as forms of presumptuous elitism and therefore, antithetical to the universal values of free, democratic, opinionated access to the arts by the people. What scholars tend to reveal is, basically, a lack of adequate education for the study of the cultural phenomenon of the digital arts. Those few who bear the right tools for a proper discourse either fall into two traps. The first is that with time, the persuasiveness and ubiquitous nature of the dominating videogame discourse gets to them and their reference point is corrupted beyond repair. Long standing axioms on what constitutes art and good art get rewritten by pressure of the all-powerful zeitgeist. Those who do not fall in such a trap end up cast-way, rejected from the videogame society, insulted by everyone, misunderstood by all, relegated to the interstices of the internet, as obscure beacons whom only the most lucky, illuminated audiences know where to find. The finest example of this is Bruno de Figueiredo, an intellectual (in every sense of the word) whom I consider to be, without a shadow of the doubt, the leading world authority in videogame aesthetics, criticism and history, now writing in some obscure blog which is not divulged by fear of visit by unwanted eyes. Other exiles are sure to roam in the vast ocean of the internet, hidden from search engines, writing that which needs to be written by videogames. Vanguardist authors suffer similar fates. Either they leave the industry, or survive in ghettoes. Take the notgames movement, the most recent of these processes of social exclusion; when “Tale of Tales” was attempting their breakout work with “The Path”, no critical praise ever gave them a chance to succeed in the limelight. They were called pretentious and pseudo-intellectuals. Their opus was carefully deconstructed in terms of value: you could say it is good, but only with a trailing series of if’s, like ‘if you’re into art-games’, ‘if you are not looking for fun’ or ‘if you value pursuit of the mind’. “The Path” was great… if and only if you didn’t expect it to be like videogames. Their oeuvre was deemed as not even deserving to belong in the same medium… on hindsight, thank God for that.

The medium we have is the one we want. When players buy “Call of Duty” or “Super Meat Boy”, they embrace the same ideals. They may think “Super Meat Boy” is different, and in a sense, it may very well be, being developed by two instead of two hundred, but budgets and developing teams are details when it comes to creative pursuits. The audience is the same, and the values pursued by creators who engage with that audience, whether they are two or two hundred, are thus the same. Take a look at “Team Meat’s” bedroom walls and at the games they claim to want to buy. Is it chance that their games are carbon copies of “Super Mario Bros” (”Super Meat Boy”) and “The Legend of Zelda” (“The Binding of Isaac”)? That their game design value is as discardable and hollow and conservative as that of the latest “Fallout”? That their aesthetic is as crude, insulting and prepubescent as that of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” or their narrative as immature and hedonistic as that of a “Transformers” cartoon? No: authors honor their cultural environment, and Team Meat only knows retro games and shallow mainstream entertainment. Their cultural heritage is not different from the latest AAA game, because they play AAA games from past and present. Team Meat games are hedonist pursuits, devoid of cultural taste and lacking any form of moderately adult expression… and the same can be said of any “Call of Duty”. They may not like the industry’s alienation of workers, and thus, symbolically reject big-budget titles, but from an aesthetic point of view they see eye to eye. They cannot offer anything that is not already polluted and disiminated in the cesspool of popular videogames and media, for a simple reason: they don’t know anything beyond that world. They can only reiterate, recombine and regurgitate, ad-infinitum, that which they know, which is all we already know and are fed-up with. They have nothing new to tell and so they cannot challenge their audiences to grow as human beings. Now, don’t get me wrong, Team Meat is not the issue here. Their commercial and critical success is, at best, a symptom of a larger disease. A film that elevates them to mythological status, as sacrificial knights in shining armor that are trying to save the game industry, is only adding to the insult. How Jonathan Blow even acquiesced to be placed in the same film as them is puzzling.

Not that Phil Fish is any better. His angsty ambition may seem the appropriate act for a visionary, but what I saw was an arrogant perfectionist looking for approval everywhere he found. His game is as derivative and thematically inept as any by “Team Meat” and perhaps even more so – or am I the only one who sees “Fez” as an inflation of “Paper Mario” mechanics? Visually, “Fez” is delightful and pretty, with superbly detailed pixel art and a cool gimmicky 2D/3D engine. But, as Fish himself states, his notion of aesthetics is that design is knowing when green looks good with blue (I’m paraphrasing). He forfeits any mention of expressive desires, meaningful communication, thematic exploration, movement citations, etc. Even Edmund gets that part, whilst rudely trying to communicate his troubled childhood! At some point, Fish claims his game is a cubist painting made interactive. I’m guessing he has never looked at a Picasso, or he’d realize the foolishness of his affirmation; if anything, his game is anti-cubist. Phil only did “Fez” to look good to an audience who praises fan-art, pixel-art and retro-styled games, but has never looked at a painting in their life. Of course, like Team Meat, he catered to an adolescent audience and succeeded. But what does “Fez” seek to achieve in terms of author intent? Fish admits to everything, really: he wanted to recapture how players felt in the age before the internet, when secrets in a videogame were… secret, mysterious and illusive. The theme, again, is that of an adult (or a seemingly adult) that wishes to recapture his infancy. He makes games for kids and adults who behave as kids. His grand ideal of design is doing that which “Zelda” did in the 1980s… that’s almost 30 years ago in case you didn’t notice. Like Team Meat, Fish imagines himself doing art for the sake of homage to Nintendo-Power… now that’s one quote for the Taschen covers. Phil doesn’t even wish to recapture that sense of awe with added spectacle, beauty or a new-found reflection. There is no reinterpretation of the oft referenced theme, there is no subversive discourse, no subtle reverential play. While Blow reimagined an entire genre, by conveying his own emotions and thoughts, Fish, like Team Meat, is happy to just copy and paste, adding nothing. No, such musings are far and beyond Phil Fish. He’s the author who clones Japanese videogames so he can say they just suck.

“Indie Game the Movie” is a manipulative documentary intent on vindicating an aura of triumph for a group of people who have little in common, who do not represent the best that videogames have to offer, and who are proof of everything that is wrong with videogame creation. The directors are dumbfounded, arrogant, naive youngsters who got mixed in a movement they knew little about, and they didn’t even care about it enough to improve on their and their viewers lack of knowledge. Their film, of course, teaches you nothing. You’ll only learn of a contemporary world where authors value ‘art’ through numbers – sales, review classifications, metacritic scores, facebook likes, youtube views–, and you’ll come to witness the same emptiness, rudeness and lack of growth present in mainstream media in a different garment. Thankfully, independent videogame development exists beyond this farce, and there are authors who can help us dream of a brighter day for this medium. You‘ll just have to look elsewhere to find out something about them.

State of the Art – “A Play of Reason”

Erwartung" (Expectation) by Richard Oelze - 1935

Erwartung" (Expectation) by Richard Oelze - 1935

The years pass, and I keep hearing the same tiresome things – “videogames need to be fun and good videogames are fun”. Such blabber is repeated ad nauseam, as if each and every repetition would grant increased strength to such arguments. When it comes to reason, there is no strength in numbers, I’m afraid. Refined versions of this dogma are constantly discovered and implicitly subscribed by all (for example, the absurd idea that fun would actually be a synonym of a wide breadth of emotion) with very few dissenters shunning this perverse logic of mindless hedonism. The other ubiquitous dogma is that “videogames are art”, and that there is nothing to stop them from being so, since they are the product of human creativity, have aesthetic value, exist in a medium, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc, etc. These two beliefs are usually feverously defended by the same people, though they are rarely discussed in tandem. With this article, I decided to elucidate on why these two are incompatible, using a very simple rhetorical discourse. I am consciously avoiding, as much as possible, the discussion of “what is art” given that it is a hugely complex question which I am more than incapable of addressing without sitting on the shoulders of far greater men than me. And please take this exercise with a grain of salt.

So, let’s have fun with some logical play and see where it leads us, shall we? Let’s start with some axioms!

Axiom 1a. Music need not be fun. Axiom 1b. Great Music isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 2a. Dance need not be fun. Axiom 2b. Great Dance isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 3a. Painting need not be fun. Axiom 3b. Great Painting isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 4a. Sculpture need not be fun. Axiom 4b. Great Sculpture isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 5a. Architecture need not be fun. Axiom 5b. Great Architecture isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 6a. Literature need not be fun. Axiom 6b. Great Literature isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 7a. Theatre need not be fun. Axiom 7b. Great Theatre isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 8a. Photography need not be fun. Axiom 8b. Great Photography isn’t so because it is fun.
Axiom 9a. Film need not be fun. Axiom 9b. Great Film isn’t so because it is fun.

If these axioms are accepted, then by the simple power of deduction, we can establish the following:
Traditional artistic mediums, also named Art or fine art, have been established as sharing a number of defining and qualitative properties which do not intrinsically possess any relationship whatsoever to the word fun, its semantics or any popular understanding of the word.

Ergo, regarding the following popular propositions:
1a. Videogames need to be fun. 1b. Great Videogames are so because they are fun.
2. Videogames belong in the realm of the arts, to be placed alongside Music, Dance, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Literature, Theatre, Photography and Film.

The first clause, part a, establishes that “fun” is a sine qua non quality of videogames, needed for their definition. Part b proposes that “fun” is also a quality that should necessarily be pursued, as it establishes not only form, but value, and as consequence, function. The second is merely a statement that Videogames should be seen as a new object whose categorization falls in line with the same properties as those of the Art mediums. This assumes that, while not entirely the same, there must be a sufficient amount of similar properties between them, both in form and quality, that allow for the establishment of a pattern that is common to all these elements.

Thus, we can say that either

  1. Videogames do not belong, substantially, to the group definable as Art, and thus Proposition 2 is revoked, on account of different classification and valuable criteria pertaining to Videogames, namely the “fun” criterion. Videogames should therefore be inscribed in either a previously established category, say ‘play’ or ‘game’, or be presented with a previously inexistent category of artifact, for example, ‘game-art’.
  2. Videogames, to be Art, are defined and valued according to other criteria that have aught to do with fun, therefore allowing for a transposition of similar properties from previous artistic mediums, in the process revoking Proposition 1. As corollary, much of what has been written in academia and journalism about Videogames would be wrong and should instead have complied to different standards of definition and qualitative assessment, mostly as adaptations and expansions of similar criteria present in Art, completely outside the realm of “fun”. This means that “fun” can be present but its presence or lack thereof is besides any point that can be made about the videogame medium.
  3. Both proposition 1 and 2 are correct, which therefore must entail a complete overhaul of thinking regarding what is traditionally considered Art, including canonically held properties. Given the stark contrast between those of Videogames and the aforementioned mediums, then the very concept of Art which was explicitly or implicitly contained in the acceptance of such mediums as Art must be revoked. And so, we enter a Paradox, since we established these as axioms in the first place. This does not mean that Propositions 1 and 2 are false, merely that, if they are true, we must re-define Art from the ground up, looking to our past in the light of a new conception for the word and its semantics.

Now, simply take your pick. As anyone who reads this blog might have guessed, my position on the matter is that the second option is my personal answer, though 1 and 3 are equally as defendable.

  1. is a skeptical and otherwise very wise conclusion, which I feel is typically made by traditional art scholars (among them, if I accurately understand his position, my friend dieubussy), who do not accept that something so enrooted in ‘games’ and ‘play’ could ever be conceived as art proper. There is much to backup this idea, including a lot of ideas from previous articles of mine (some being available in this blog).
  2. basically revolves around the idea that we must refund all the knowledge on what defines and constitutes value in the Videogame medium, with the consequence of the term videogame itself being obsolete (for a wide number of reasons again previously discussed). Known proponents of this current are the ‘notgame’ movement and probably even some rogue narratologists and simulationists (these are extremely reductionist terms, they merely serve to illustrate what they defend, in abstract).
  3. as I see it, is the contemporary consensual answer from inside the medium. It is the way almost all scholars (from all areas) and journalists and players perceive the problem. The idea is, to put it in simplistic terms, that the many elites that defined the Arts in the past were wrong, and what we now need is a more open, free, popular and accessible interpretation of what constitutes Art, one which validates Videogames and their ‘fun’ (and most likely, many other mediums).

P.S. I’m sure many of you will find a number of fallacies in this reasoning. Please, point them out.

Wave Foam – “NeoGAF Reply”

Apparently, someone liked my “Xenoblade” review so much they placed in in a NeoGAF forum [you can read it here]. Thank God someone still reads this wretched, god-forsaken blog! And thank you for your good taste user SomeDude.

I decided to reply here to some of the comments. I would gladly do it in their forum, but activation of my account still hasn’t been possible. This text was not written to be interpreted as a defensive counter-argument – I do not feel, in any way, offended or insulted by these remarks. Many have I heard before which speak the same ideas and of the same ideals, and many have I refuted… many times before. Rather, my objective in this article is to merely discuss such ideas for they seem useful as starting points for an in-depth analysis over the nature of my criticism and its relation to the videogame medium.

As a sidenote, I will be more than glad to have anyone who wishes to discuss such matters to comment below. Finally, this is an open article which I may extend or review in the future. Have fun.

BorkBork “I’m sorry if you like her opinions, but GOOD LORD that review was pretentious.”

Indeed it was. If by pretentious one understands I tried as hard as I could to write a piece of deep critical analysis. If you mean it is pretentious in the way it seeks to see videogames as pretentious – as in “pretentious art” – I will also agree that yes, I see games as a high art-form, one which can and should be discussed in as complicated ways as possible. If anything, what videogames lack is pretentiousness itself, as authors and critics are too sympathetic with players and readers, treating videogames as toys for little children, engaging in paternalistic conversation. I say videogames and criticism need to start speaking a new language, one which challenges your preconceptions with new ideas and modes of thinking, something which is hard because in the end, hardship enriches you. We need to stop pandering to readers as amorphous masses that only want to hear what they already know, only because that is the way to get higher sales and readership numbers. I would like for us to start communicating on a basis of eudemonic growth, fostering critical thinking in readers, even if that means not all will continue reading. We should strive for a medium where players’ erroneous notions on art and videogames are elevated and educated and not reinforced and perpetuated and where radical new forms of aesthetic value are praised for their progressive and unconventional and unpopular character. For far too long we have found the discardable and redundant and consensual as worthy only on account of the masses liking and enjoying such trifle things. Cultural fast-food judged superior to cuisine. Now is the time to push for the innovative and exciting and uncomfortable and bizarre and virtuous and complicated and forward-thinking and niche and highbrow. So if this is what you would call “pretention”, yes, I am pretentious.

Feep: “This is awful, awful writing. It’s like the author just reached for a thesaurus and went to town.”

I am perfectly aware that my English is far from perfect, though I would expect that to be understandable given it is not my native language. As to the thesaurus – I actually rarely use one, but if it sounds as if I have a wide vocabulary, the better!, it only means my language skills are a bit richer than I thought. Some of the more unorthodox terms may sound strange, but that is only because their use is rare in informal texts, not really because they are not appropriate to convey the notions which I am aiming at. Every choice of phrasing is filled with intent. If you dislike it, in form or content, there is nothing I can do other than acknowledge you probably dislike me and what I think, my writing being a mere reflex of such things. Some operational terms I employ are admittedly imperfect (for example, “naturalism”), for they simplify and reduce the complexity of what is being described, but these are unavoidable when the object of description is so vast and multi-dimensional. The only moderately adequate way of describing them I guess would be to create art as far-reaching as the original, and of that I am surely not capable.

Feep: “Does he/she even know what a ludomaniac is? It doesn’t make any sense in context.”

Well, I am saddened to say that is perhaps you who do not know what ludomaniac stands for. A ludomaniac is someone who is addicted to a game, playing it compulsively even as such brings about great harm to him/her. What else would you call someone who plays to clock hours and hours and hours and hours of endless grinding, quest solving, trophy collecting and customization, only to build up stats in virtual worlds, whilst getting nothing in return? Videogames like the ones I cite were built from the ground up to engage such people, to deceive and manipulate them with psychological hacks that are also used (surprise!) in marketing. Mechanisms such as experience and action points, gold coins, affinity bars, and all that are nothing but red herring skinner boxes, elements which were not idealized in some naive, genuine way of enriching an interactive experience, by expressing emotion or thought, but indeed were conceived as elaborate ways to deceive people into thinking they are being rewarded and fulfilled for their time. Newsflash: they aren’t. It’s just meaningless hedonism.

mclem: “In other words: How *DARE* they put a *GAME* in there!?!”

It’s not a question of there being a game, but more of a game about what. What is Xenoblade , as an interactive artifact, about? When it is a game of building relationships, helping strangers, understanding new cultures, exploring beautiful new worlds, I think it is a game about something worth knowing and feeling (though others have done it far, far better). When it is a game about tactical combat for hunting game and killing monsters, or a videogame about building stats, collecting trinkets or buying better armory, it is a pointless experience with little semantic depth or emotional breadth. Not only that, but it is, above all, completely redundant in videogame history. Do we really need another game about fighting and grinding? I say we don’t. Given this is the major focus of the game, it is a point of vehement criticism.

mclem: “I mock, but, to be fair, it seems to be a very accurate review – by someone who cares about story above all.“

It’s not about story. It’s about what the whole experience is about, what it expresses and conveys to us players. This is through a story and art and interaction gestalt. Naturally in my opinion, Xenoblade whilst not having a great narrative, is still much more competent in expressing something through it, than on the gameplay end. Which is why my review may sound “narrative-art-biased”, because it reflects the strengths of the author and its work. Games with minimalist narrative and aesthetic would receive a different treatment, as other examples in my blog attest to.

mclem: “I would argue that what it did to the gameplay is new, technically marvellous, and *by no means safe*.”

A game about killing monsters, leveling up, with overbearing HUD, thousands of gamification carrots to keep you addicted, complying to practically every genre trope known and even taking various successful elements from popular games of the past  – how is that not safe? How many times must we see the same things over and over again?

SecretMoblin: “And much of it reflects matters of personal taste”

Of course it is personal. Critique is always subjective and always reflects one point of view. You have yours. I’m fine with that. I question why should I express others opinions when they are probably much better at it than I am. We need to embrace diversity in criticism. The notion that a critic has to be objective is what in the end amounts to his complete redundancy, for he is forced to comply with people’s own perverted expectations. I am here to question those with a new outlook, not repeat what others already do, and never to give you what you already know. If you like game A, fine. But don’t ask me to agree with that. On the contrary, grow from knowing different opinions which though opposite may enrich your knowledge of the medium, and of the games in question.

SecretMoblin: “Also, it’s filled with questionable statements: “still sole 3D ‘Zelda’ masterpiece, Koizumi’s ‘Majora’s Mask’, “…exorbitant, opulent ambition in terms of set design (also a whim which Takahashi seems to revel in)”, “…inherited from such ludic antichrists as “Monster Hunter”, “World of Warcraft” or “Dragon Quest IX”, etc.”

Indeed, and such bold statements are meant to be just that: bold. They were meant to question status quo and show my unique point of view. Also, how Xenoblade interacts with videogame history, which games it refers to, what does it properly reinterpret of the past, which currents it abides with, etc. That is what I call criticism.

SecretMoblin: “Also, as much as I adore Ueda, not every post-Ico game that uses soft lighting is necessarily inspired by him.”

I think there are plenty of reasons to see Ueda in Xenoblade. Not in the sense of a “carbon-copy”, but in terms of influence. The presence of two gigantic colossi is usually a big tell-tell.

mclem: “Amusingly, I’m also a proponent of the ‘games as art’ idea – but unlike the blog’s author, I don’t believe the artistry is limited to the ‘traditional’ forms of artistry: the storytelling, the art style, the audio.”

I don’t believe that and I don’t see how one review could have lead you to jump to that hasty conclusion.

mclem: “I believe that there’s an artistry of game design, too; It’s quite possible to have a visually superb game that has no *soul* (By reputation, I’d say perhaps FF13, but I’m not qualified to talk about it directly). It’s also quite possible to have an utterly visually bland game that nevertheless has an inspired design (Tetris).”

Tetris is, to me, one of the finest pieces of videogames ever made. And it is so because it is unique and immensely expressive (perhaps one day I will write a piece on that). Which is more than I can say about a great deal of Xenoblade’s gameplay. And that’s my point.

SomeDude: “Yes, but even then most game reviewers still review games like they’re refrigerators (or like consumer report). She’s a breath of fresh air.”

Indeed they do. And all I’ve been saying and writing, which some might not like is precisely because I care about videogames as more than just consumption items.

Feep: “Also, yes they are, all the fucking time.”

Not in European critique, but I must admit the blame in forgetting that US reviewing is so different (and in my view, much worse, precisely because of mantras such as “must be fun”, “must have bang for buck”). Is that what art is? “Fun”? Something to be quantatized by the hour?  To be valued face its market price?

exhume: “What I’m finding ironic is that the review is assigning a numbered score to a game they’ve tried to criticise as art…”

Critics judge value. A number is just a more violent, provocative way of getting a point across, and it has been, for many years, a mainstay in all sorts of art criticism. Of course, the text is by far and large the most important part.

Gvaz: “Also that review: “Lost Odyssey is better””

Opinions. Have a problem with that?

Gvaz: “Also she gave FO:NV a 1/5, AC2 a 2/5, dead space a 2/5 calling it derivative LOLLL, and batman a 2/5. I simply can’t agree with her.”

And I still think the same of those 4 games. Is my view different from the mainstream? Difficult to understand given mainstream values? Yes, it is. Read the reviews and you’ll understand why.

Gvaz: “I’m not going to disagree on that. She also gave LO a 5/5 which I feel is good”

Today, I might not give it such a high mark to Lost Odyssey; my opinions do change with time and that review harks back quite some years. But I still think it is more interesting, on many levels, than Xenoblade (read my review for the why’s).

Remember, the value I attach to a game, symbolized in the numeral, is not a measure of how entertaining it is, how much “fun” it is, how long it lasts, how technologically adept it may be, how economically feasible it is to buy it, nor how probable it is for you to like it. My valuation attempts to describe my judgment of each work’s cultural value, its newness, uniqueness and coherence, its genuine personality, its expression, its capacity to speak to the human condition, to arouse subtle emotions and to provoke us with exciting questions. My valuation is an aesthetic judgment, pure and simple.

Gvaz: “I just feel her other reviews put into question about the validity of her complaints with this, as it tells more about what she expected/wanted out of xenoblade rather than what it delivers. It’s not really fair to judge a game based on that.”

How come? We all judge based on a number of ideals we have composed out of our own experiences and knowledge of the field. We all judge games based on what we feel a game should be like. Imagine if a game would be crappy on purpose. Should I give it high marks for sucking, only because its authors thought that sucking was good? Or would you judge it anyway for basically sucking? In the end, you and I just happen to have different conceptions of what a valuable game archetype is. And it’s healthy to have such different opinions, as it enriches medium discourse. Imagine if everyone liked the same games and wanted them all to be alike. Oh wait…

Well, that’s it. Hope you enjoy reading this and feel free to comment. Would love to hear everyone’s opinion on these issues. Big hug to the NeoGAF forum!

Wave Foam – “Dispelling a Myth: LA Noire is not a Rockstar Game!”

Yes. It is not a Rockstar game. And I haven’t even played it, mind you. I’m not denying the obvious influence “GTA” and the Rockstar logo must surely have in the end-experience. But it is not by chance that so many find a tonal dissonance between “GTA IV“, “Red Dead Redemption” and this new Rockstar production. Whereas the Houser brothers have always embraced a cartoonish satire that never took its worlds seriously, “LA Noire” is bold, crisp realism, aspiring (perhaps somewhat foolishly – only the game can tell) to adult seriousness. This is perfectly in line with McNamara and Team Bondi’s previous output, the now infamous “The Getaway”. It’s their show all the way. Rockstar never housed similar formal and aesthetic considerations as McNamara; they take their genre lightly, focusing it on hyperbolic violence and unconstrained player freedom, giving little care to strict authorial considerations. McNamara, however, cares for his characters, avoiding stereotyping them as cardboard jokes with the expressiveness of… right, cardboard, both in terms of design and animation. This was true for “The Getaway” and is true for “LA Noire”. It’s for this reason that he chose to use state of the art motion capture, a realistic aesthetic into which to frame it, and focused gameplay on the investigative side. Only through these decisions could players truly fill in the role of the detective and seek deeper relationships with the fictional scenario and characters. Rockstar never, despite their multi-million dollar budgets, chose this path. They kept their formula witty, absurdist and comedic, structurally founded on driving and shooting sequences in physics playgrounds. Naturally, Team Bondi and Rockstar games share superficial qualities – both take inspiration from film-genres, play out in open-world scenarios, have the city as their main character, and employ driving and shooting gameplay – but they couldn’t be more apart in terms of vision. McNamara aspires, like David Cage and others, to tell stories for grown-ups, to challenge them with moral ambiguity and real-life considerations, whilst the Houser Brothers are content with sandbox dough-playing for young adults. And that, my dear friends, is an open-world of difference.

2010 – “A Year in Review” pt. 3

Since download services became mainstream, every year has lead to the rise of a new poster child for indie development; and so, after the likes of “Braid” and “flower” came July’s “LIMBO”. Arnt Jensen’s platformer hangs at that unstable line halfway between art and game – an aesthetically rich experience that still wears a polished game design. The tragic tale of a little boy trapped at the edge of hell, endlessly roaming in search of an elusive spark of hope that is always out of reach, condemned to die innumerable deaths in a menacing environment with no escape. The metaphysical considerations of its fictional background mirror game logic, with trial and error cycles symbolizing  trapped souls’ endless torment. Meaning is imbued in gameplay but also in the minimalist details and narrative sketches, heralding the legacy of Chahi’s superlative “Another World”. Its aesthetic corpus is stunning: computer generated visuals reference profusely German expressionist and noir’s chiaroscuro, embodying its mysterious aura and mellowing it with fantastical elements, in a stark dance of light and shade which finds natural solace in the haunting score, as elusive and eerie as the otherworldly scenery. “LIMBO” stands on the verge of greatness, and misses it by little – its drive towards the indie cliché of physics and environmental puzzles ends up transmigrating the experience from artful consideration on the afterlife to elegant game with an enticing background narrative –  too little, given how much potential there is to find here. Nonetheless, pay no heed, for how often can one mention a game worthy of an “Another World” citation?

October’s “Deadly Premonition” is no masterpiece. Had it appeared five years prior and it would be a most welcome title, but hardly worth of such notice (just as “Spy Fiction” was). Let’s be frank: it isn’t even that great a videogame. But its relevance for this generation cannot be overstated, for it bears a standard of creative quality that is becoming ever rarer. Middle sized ventures are those that end up driving medium’s forward – free from the commercial pressures of big budget titles and with financial  leeway for some technical progressivism, they can harbor creativity without cramping it with marketing stances or lack of money. “Deadly Premonition” is one such work, a mirror of an author that needed not compromise, a hark back to the days of oddball Japanese titles that still came West. Whether one deems it moronic or genial is, in all fairness, irrelevant, for it touches us with its absurdity and surrealist bizarrerie in more ways than any mainstream game could ever hope to achieve. That SWERY cares so much for his little Greenvale town – its inhabitants, back-story and procedural rules – to the point of blowing such life and personality into it, is proof that he is an author proper. And that, these days, is really hard to come by.

And, to end the year, what better than another art title? “Dinner Date” is what Tale of Tales would (for the lack of a better word) call a not-game. And truthfully, one cannot argue with such an attribution, for Jeroen Stout’s intimist revel on life has as much in common with games as a film, a play or a poem. And poems are indeed “Dinner Date’s” next of kin – browsing the subconscious thoughts of one Julian Luxembourg (Jeroen’s alter-ego), one finds a literary poise that enchants us with its melody and rhythm, and strikes us with its intensity of declamation. Beneath the lyrical prose are the musings of a bitter young man of significant intellectual character, a lover of Byron faced with life’s excruciating demands: a boring job, an idiot boss, a pushy friend and a seductive femme who he sexually craves for, but is nothing other than a thin shadow of a concocted poetic fantasy.  We learn of these as he eats and drinks and eats and drinks and drinks yet again, layers and layers of event rationalization peeling away with his intoxication, his primal personality and instincts slowly becoming ever clearer, as he finds himself pondering on his fate with growing ire and contempt for its stupidity… and his own. This romantic sensibility is clearly meant as homage to the poet he so loves, and which now finds such perfect embodiment in an interactive experience. The single scenery where action takes place – a small kitchen – is crafted with a striking atmosphere and sprouts superb attention to detail, so much so that we comfortably indulge in its worldly sights and sounds, lulling away whilst simply listening to Julian’s cooking and eating and ranting, delightfully conjuring mental images of the smells and tastes of this sensory play. To find such delicate strokes of technical finesse with such depth of discourse in this one-man interactive poem is a joy, one which warrants continual exploration of this grand little piece in the future, shining brightly as this year’s greatest revelation.

2010 – “A Year in Review” pt. 2

In March, there was “Yakuza 3“, and if the year had ended thus, all would be well. Being the only direct sequel in this list, it is tempting to simply dismiss “Yakuza” as another structurally formulaic piece; truth be told, it is a J-RPG at heart and it is indeed the third title in a series that has advanced practically nil since its inception. But to reduce it to its archetypal game design is a huge misconception of its nature, overlooking the nuances that drive its riveting character. For behind its brawler combat and roleplay mechanics, lies a stunning cultural representation of Japanese society. Toshihiro Nagoshi learned invaluable lessons with his contribution to Suzuki’s “Shenmue” and applied them by crafting a vivid spatial rendering of real-life Japanese streets, one which takes full advantage of PS3’s graphical prowess. Every detail and minutiae is treated with artful respect, from the glorious neon landscapes to the seedy underbelly of the urban sprawl, building a rich virtual landscape that is a wonder to simply behold, but also to explore and play with. To those who minimize the aesthetic power of videogames and insist on refusing three-dimensional spaces as art in of themselves, “Yakuza” will definitely force you to question those assumptions. Not that it does not fully use the procedural power of videogames, quite on the contrary, it employs it accurately but with naturalist poise, subjugating everything from game rules to mini-games and NPC behavior to a specific perspective on how Japanese society should be decoded. Last but not least, it cares for its characters almost as much as “Heavy Rain“, for despite its anachronistic narrative structure and interfaces (deeply rooted in J-RPG precepts), it focuses most of its story on Kazuma’s relationships with orphanage children and local townspeople, while still managing to tackle crucial themes like political corruption. And it does it masterfully one might add, with this year’s greatest technical achievement in animation, characterization and voice acting… by far. Masterpiece? Yes, that title will just about do.

The heat of June graced us with the obligatory reference of “Demon’s Souls” (in Europe at least). The reason Hidetaka Miyazaki’s spiritual follower to “King’s Field” should be remembered in days to come is that it is one of the few videogames of the past year that was created as if outside our time. While sprouting some impressive technology (beautifully harnessed by its gothic atmosphere), it refuses modern game design dogmas and upholds some of the finer lessons from classic game design that, unfortunately, now lie forgotten. Its roleplaying roots hark back to early dungeon crawlers such as “Rogue” or “Wizardry”, but what truly makes the experience click is the total absence of intrusive, non-diegetic, text-heavy narrative and gameplay devices. Its mostly minimalist interface and free-exploration actually evoke some of the finest ideals from classic titles like the original “Legend of Zelda” and “Metroid”. As in those, players are free to roam the landscape, with very little guidance on how to play or interpret the game world, its denizens and locations speaking for themselves as if digital artifacts in an archeological site. Players thus become engrossed in the fantasy, as each part of the conceptual framework that supports it has to be filled by their imagination, gaining the power to enchant them with its eerie qualities. The extreme difficulty and lack of hand-holding further potentiate this involvement, letting the player suffer for himself all the hardships of becoming a true hero – the frustration and failure that come with each death – so as to only reap rewards when merit is due, resulting in a climatic release of true ‘fiero’. The cycle of tension and release drives the experience with glorious emotional payback, in a game that never forgets it is a game, never aspiring to be anything but a game, and because of it, is one of the finest videogames proper in this generation.

[To be concluded in part 3…]