On cultivating a hierarchy of taste in video game writing.

I’m out of the country at the moment and between that, the baby and some personal stuff I have approximately zero opportunity most days to play any video games. However I’m still thinking about them and reading about them and, now, writing about them. It’s a funny thing.

I often wonder about where the writers’ ecosystem developing around video games is going to end up. There’s a lot of debate (and complaint) about what good games writing should be, with a selection of talented writers somewhat (justifiably) exasperated by the decades of trade cheer-leading that refuses to die in the face of new genres and expectations in video games writing. Comments often fall under the general category of “video games criticism” but the best writing on video games often falls under this umbrella definition only partially or via technicality. It’s actually quite rare that we see reviews of games that touch on some of the finer reviews of other media such as literature and film.

That’s not a bad thing; in fact, many of us are far too concerned with how video games writing compares to critical writing in other cultural forms.[ref]Keep in mind that insisting forcefully that you are very much not doing this more or less includes you in that very conversation.[/ref] However, the reaction to and concomitant influence of writing in other cultural forms significantly and negatively affects the evolution of games writing. Take, for example, differing reactions to THE LAST OF US and GONE HOME. Both games earned considerable critical success, but a certain subset of writer took issue with the former game’s mechanics as being rote and lacking in originality while celebrating the latter for advancing significantly the direct use of game mechanics in storytelling. Such analysis is reasonable but tends to gloss over the fact that THE LAST OF US is one of the most successful video games of all time in terms of complex and morally nuanced storytelling whereas GONE HOME’s strengths do much to obscure the fact its central story is rather limited. The difference here is in the definition of “storytelling,” a bifurcation that highlights the strengths of video games as a cultural form. GONE HOME immerses the player in its story by way of basic game mechanics and by encouraging exploration,[ref]Such exploration remains directed, of course. Much of GONE HOME’s success derives from the game’s ability to allow the player to convince himself or herself this is not so.[/ref] offering a clear way forward for video games as a storytelling medium. THE LAST OF US suffers for not being so daring. However, THE LAST OF US does something special; the game has enough conventional action to be classified (either approvingly or with disdain) as a “Triple A title,” while moving storytelling in video games forward significantly. Much like the considerably more flawed BIOSHOCK INFINITE, THE LAST OF US seeks to implicate the player in the moral weaknesses of the story’s central character and protagonist.

Thus, to fully appreciate THE LAST OF US one must accept that the game is not inherently undermined by checkpoints and the need to kill a certain amount of enemies to proceed. Similarly, one can argue that GONE HOME should be appreciated despite the relative shallowness of its story. This is, in fact, what I argue. If we truly want a sophisticated critical environment in video game writing, we must accept such weaknesses. The major mistake that we are making as a community, I fear, is in the construction of a higher standard, the embrace of a “high brow” form of video game appreciation. This is a backwards step, to take a cultural form that has benefitted precisely because of its accessibility and to introduce a hierarchy of enjoyment. It is also the reverse of what has happened in other cultural forms, as broader audiences and more daring tastes have benefitted the development of popular music, film and literature. It also raises the question of who should assume the mantle of gatekeeper, which leads us into further questions of where power lies in the community which leads to further dispute. I am not against such dispute arising (and in fact, I agree that it is necessary) but I worry further that it distracts us from writing about the games themselves.

The two strongest arguments, in my view, in favour of a hierarchy of taste (i.e. the counter to my argument here) are that a) the hierarchy already exists and b) introducing a hierarchy is necessary in order to cultivate and expand audiences for daring, intelligent and adventurous games.

First things first, the “not a game!” accusation levelled at GONE HOME is both indicative of broad generalizations held by video game enthusiasts and the defensiveness of those of us that feel such a claim is absurd. Yes, there were many complaints that GONE HOME should be considered “bad,” the need to describe a game as simply good or bad the legacy of both a trade-style review scoring system and the confluence of video game enthusiast communities with the less discerning and more abrasive avenues of the Internet. However, like many aspects of social interaction on the Internet, a lot of this can be filtered out. Although such accusations should not be ignored, it is possible to pay too much attention to the ill-informed. I must admit a hierarchy does exist, ranging from people that buy a console in order to purchase two sports games a year to video game enthusiasts that almost exclusively play indie games on PC rigs worth over a thousand dollars.[ref]I myself, um, would be much closer to the latter group.[/ref] However, those of us that wish to write on the cultural impact of games, the history of games, the form and structure and aesthetic of games and the storytelling and art therein… We should work to maintain the boundaries between the various levels of the hierarchy remain fluid, not to erect prerequisites for advancement.

This ties into my response to the second argument: the audience for the games that thrill us, challenge us and amaze us is growing. The PC gaming market, at one point a moribund leviathan doomed to unending supplication at the feet of consoles, now hosts a vibrant game development environment. PC games lead the medium forward as consoles thrash in the waters of corporate greed.[ref]Unfortunately, the greed appears to be in position to be rewarded for some time to come.[/ref] Such games do not require our cheer-leading or our activism. Such games do require that we continue to write intelligently, to critique and not to advocate.

The challenges are steep. The video game community remains frequently offensive and, none too rarely, vile. To write about such issues is natural, as is to champion games that directly challenge the preconceptions, bias and bigotry of oafs and cowards. Activism is welcome and necessary. However, we must not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by the racism and bigotry that inhabits the deepest (but not that faraway) corners of this community. When we conflate those who complain GONE HOME is “not a game” with those clearly uncomfortable with that game’s progressive social content, we identify an ignorance bloc that holds the medium back. This bloc exists, but we should not let it define our critique. Moreover, we must be careful not to (unwittingly or otherwise) create our own little clubs and quasi-elites. In an age when politics in most of the Western world is maimed by the surety of the willfully ignorant, we must be mindful of defining our standards rather than elucidating and presenting them.

To return to the original point, I often wonder about where the writers’ ecosystem developing around video games is going to end up because I have no idea where it will end up. Overall I’m rather optimistic. I dearly want our rigour and critique to march in tune with our passion and our politics.

A certain type of nineties guy

The 1990s spawned many clichés, but there’s a certain kind of nineties guy that resides deep within my heart despite the clear intent that he be seen by audiences as an irritating, if relatively harmless antagonist. The 1990s spawned a lot of different views of men: men in parachute pants, men that listened to (kind of) hard rock but had feelings, Ethan Hawke. Most of these clichés don’t interest me much. The one that does, though…

Blonde(ish). Physically fit but skinny, nowhere near the enraged buffness of 1980s Arnie and Sly. Resolutely new age but unflinchingly commercial, cornerstone of the market for energy drinks before Gatorade felt the confidence to discard all shame in advertising remarkably calorie-heavy drinks to people that don’t burn four thousand of the damn things before breakfast.[ref]This commercialism was not always out in the open; for this nineties guy, as with any clichés, you find crossovers, shades of grey. Still, although there were those that place their individually centred almost-Buddhist spiritualism to the fore, you had the sense the writers were egging you on: “come on, we know this guy gets a McMuffin every now and again.”[/ref] Sensitive to women and equally adored by them. A man’s man that rejected being a man’s man, thus being a new and superior iteration of the concept. When presented semi-seriously, as this nineties guy was during the actual 1990s and shortly after, it was the audience’s job to find him distasteful, and if at all possible to hate him. More recently we’ve been asked to have a bit of fun with it. I love to. I love the nineties guy, and two examples spring to mind.

The first one comes from 1996’s DAYLIGHT. Ah, DAYLIGHT. There’s a certain type of film that’s been pushed aside by massive robots and blockbusters written by accountants and statisticians. We often bemoan the ubiquity of the sequel in our film culture, but (understandably) we focus on all the interesting original films that fail to emerge on to our screens, particularly in the summer when the industry makes all its money, saving nuts for the long hard winter. What about the bad films? There was a time, a glorious time, when huge stars acted in terrible one-shot film that went nowhere and said nothing. It brought us classics like DAYLIGHT, where Sly Stallone plays the wonderfully named Kit Latura, looking to lead to safety a group of actors that inexplicably included Viggo Mortensen, Amy Brenneman and Dan Hedaya.[ref]Dan Hedaya! Sure, it’s not really all that surprising that Hedaya is in a rote mid-1990s action film in a supporting role, but I love Hedaya.[/ref] Nowadays we have to wait for Will Smith to decide enough time has passed that he can push his son on the English speaking public again to get an original film that completely misfires.[ref]The great thing of course, is that it’s likely to be science fiction. What a glorious age to be alive for those of us with certain nerdy proclivities.[/ref]

Mortensen plays the nineties guy, bewildered by the imposing inconvenience of a tunnel collapsing, simultaneously dashing in a way that only makes sense to people that were adolescents in the 1990s[ref]To be fair, the fact he’s played by Viggo Mortensen probably doesn’t hurt the “dashing” part[/ref] and strong in the belief that he, a man that just approved a Super Bowl commercial, cannot be contained. His character, thrillingly named Nord, takes off on an adventurous plan to save them all despite the sober advice of the world weary Stallone. He dies immediately. This is remarkably entertaining and, in addition to reassuring me subliminally that exercise is overrated and rock climbing is for communists, helps establish that our hero Sly is the man to sort things out. This was 1990s Sly, a man trying to fuse together the improbable potency of his franchise roles with individual pieces many years before he gave up and assumed the persona of a tattooed biker hanging out with Mickey Rourke. DAYLIGHT is rather interesting in that regard really. Was Nord’s swift fate a nuanced rebuttal of the machismo that made Stallone famous or a pointed statement that this machismo was strictly defined by and confined to a narrow range of ideals and characteristics? Well, it was clearly the latter. You can’t be a real man if you have nice hair. That’s what Nord was all about, or what he thought he was all about. A certain type of nineties guy was like that. It’s not enough for men to want to be you, women must want to be with you as well. It’s a tough balance, and nineties guys were trying too hard.

The second example is much more recent and thus benefits both from a little bit of distance from the decade in question and assumptions among an audience old enough to laugh at the decade that defined them. COMMUNITY’s Vaughn mocks improbably sincere moral hubris more broadly, but he’s a wonderful distillation of this type of nineties guy. He’d pass for Nord’s son (or more likely Nord’s much younger brother) adrift in a society where his sincerity is repeatedly bounced back at him. It doesn’t help that his sincerity is under significant question, and for good reason. He takes Britta’s break-up with him rather badly and happily[ref]Sure, he’s upset that he’s been rejected, but this gives him further added depth, no?[/ref] humiliates her publicly. Vaughn is a character beautifully written to trigger a specific response in the audience. Eyes roll and groans are uttered. Yet he seems resolute in his love of Hackey Sack and his disdain for wearing t-shirts in sunlight. He is the nineties guy, and so we dislike him. COMMUNITY was far from perfect but Dan Harmon knew how to write for his generation.

Ah, the nineties guy. There are other nineties guys as well, of course. The sensitive type, for one. These tropes survive, though then again, it’s not like they were born of the 1990s alone. John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler was about the hazards of dating across social (and socio-economic) borders more than about the nice guy winning, but nice guys (self-appointed or otherwise) could certainly look to SAY ANYTHING for some inspiration. Girls seemed to like it. Then again, that film came out in 1989, the gateway drug to 1990s culture. Cusack later returned to (partly) pastiche his totemic boom box moment in 2000s HIGH FIDELITY. The sensitive guy developed into someone always locked into the “friend zone” and that has morphed into rather unpleasant entitlements among certain young men in regard to the women they find attractive. HIGH FIDELITY’s Rob Gordon drowned in the rejection of women that simply led their lives without him.[ref]This conflict is perhaps better fleshed out in the book, but the book of course lacks that special imagery of John Cusack standing in the rain crying helplessly, furious at a woman’s decision to move on. It’s a nice contrast with the SAY ANYTHING moment[/ref] More recently we have a subculture focused on Men’s Rights, but let’s not blame that on the 1990s. We can blame it on idiots.

The blonde(ish) fitness focused sensitive bro survives today. He jogs in the daytime with no shirt on and he sends women that haven’t dated one yet all weak at the knees. He singlehandedly ensures those same women will find Vaughn hilarious in a way I’ll never quite match. Perhaps he’s out there, too, stalking Stallone as the drugs Sly used to inject into his body don’t bring the aura of machismo he used to take for granted. He’s mortal, he’s getting old. Perhaps that’s why we have Rocky remakes and Rambo remakes and a series of films so focused on celebrating action film careers from the 1980s they don’t have room for plot; perhaps the nineties guy haunts him still.

Kickstarter Problems: The future of video games?

News is coming out that Yogventures, an adventure game in development by Winterkewl Games and with the imprimatur of popular web outfit Yogscast, has been cancelled. Another cancelled game. It’s sad, assuming that it will cost some people their jobs, but these things happen. What’s interesting about this is that the game was funded by Kickstarter funds. Not only that, but the game raised double the amount initially posted on the crowd-funding site. Now, it’s cancelled and backers are receiving Steam keys to an entirely different game, TUG. As Lewis Brindley, co-founder of Yogscast, chose to put it:

“In many ways TUG is the game we were hoping Winterkewl would create,” Brindley continued. “It has huge potential for the future. We’ve been playing the Early Access version on Steam and you’ll soon be able to see us playing the game on Yogscast channels.”

Oh good. Well that’s okay then.

Oddly, Brindley is claiming that Yogscast are under no obligation to do anything. That’s not true. In the autumn of last year Kickstarter posted a blog post specifically to address issues raised by a report on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” One of these issues was what happens when a project fails or peters out. Kickstarter, it seems to me, are fairly unequivocal: the creators are legally obliged to deliver on the project.

So what do we have now? A huge mess, essentially. Winterkewl is going out of business and Yogscast appears to think giving backers a key to another crowd-funded game none of them asked for (and some of them have already backed) is an adequate response. It clearly isn’t, and this is exactly the kind of thing that people in the various communities that comprise the broad audience of video game fandom should be worried about. The idea seems to be that once you’ve put your money into a Kickstarter project it’s gone and you have no protection. Why should we assume this?

There are a number of factors at play here, not least of which is the fact that Yogscast are probably quite confident that they’re not going to be sued. The nature of crowd-funding at this level means that the majority of the backers provided small amounts, usually around twenty US dollars at a time. If you put twenty dollars into a project and got screwed, would you really take on the stress, time commitment and financial commitment of a lawsuit? How would you go about convincing other backers to join you? It’s a logistical nightmare. Essentially, there is no referee. You’re completely reliant on the creator. In this case, Yogscast wants you to take a code to some other game and go away. This new game, by the way, more clearly reflects the game they wanted to make anyway. They want a do-over.

The problem for video games at large is that the (sometimes phenomenal) expense involved in video game development has made crowd-funding a popular option. This has resulted in a choppy sea for both creators and the audience, with a multitude of projects aligned to ever changing release schedules. Early access games on Steam are becoming ever more common. At what point are these games being finished? So far we’ve been fortunate and crowd-funding has made possible the creation of some absolutely fantastic games, but the potential for more and more of these scenarios emerging in the next few years is high.

Game development, however, despite being heavily reliant on engineering is ultimately a creative project. Creative projects cannot always guarantee results. This is the crux of the issue, as it’s very difficult to guarantee the game will be finished, particularly if the development studio in question is inexperienced. For the last couple of years I’ve wondered what would happen when we get the first spate of crowd-funded games that just aren’t that good. Many video game fans are a little too sensitive when it comes to review scores for games they’re invested in emotionally; how will they react when Gamespot gives a 65 to a game they have literally financially invested in? This raises another issue: what are we going to do when the game never shows up?

Giving backers a code for a different game misses the whole point, and feeding them a line that this new game is actually closer to Yogscast’s vision anyway is insulting. It’s clear that the video game community as a whole hasn’t resolved itself to what this new era of video game development really means. Enthusiasts and potential backers have to be careful. Backing a game doesn’t entitle you to demand a refund if the game is terrible, but surely there has to be some kind of recourse if the game is never completed, or even released in a “broken” state?[ref]This third scenario would of course cause problems; I’m inclined to consider a “broken” game in the same category as a terrible game, so the creators would have fulfilled their obligation.[/ref] On the other hand, the whole benefit of crowd-funding is the freedom it affords developers, which in turn could have a negative effect on various developers’ creative processes.

This isn’t going to be all love and rainbows, unfortunately. People are going to get screwed and the fact they’re being screwed out of twenty dollars and not twenty thousand dollars does not mitigate the ethical problems involved.




The Last of Us and World War Z

Note: This was originally posted on the blog in November of 2013, but got lost in the shuffle with a transfer from one hosting service to another.

This past weekend I consumed two major pieces of popular culture: the video game The Last of Us and the film World War Z. A couple of days later, I’m still significantly affected by The Last of Us and am thinking (and re-thinking) key points in the narrative. I’m not sure how long I remembered much about World War Z after we left the cinema.

Now, this post isn’t setting out to argue for the triumph of video games over cinema. For one thing, that would be silly; for another, it would be yet another sign of video game fans’ obsession with the film industry when talking up their own chosen medium. I’m not convinced that comparing major video game releases and major film releases is necessarily all that helpful. We’re several years past a time when Halo and Grand Theft Auto grosses were compared to opening blockbuster cinema releases as some kind of sign of the medium “arriving.” In any case, comparing The Last of Us to World War Z would be tilting the scales a little bit too far in one direction, considering the triumph that is the PS3 release and the salvaged train wrack that is the Brad Pitt vehicle. The playing field is a tad uneven. But, these were the things I watched and played and better or for worse I ended up comparing the two in my own head and I decided to come along here and write about it for a bit.

First of all, and I’ll write more on this game over the next few days I suspect, The Last of Us is an undeniable triumph. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a video game with such a fantastic narrative that both expressed various complex themes and successfully included those themes in its gameplay. It’s magnificent. The voice acting is magnificent, the artwork is magnificent, the gameplay is magnificent. It is, simply, a great game. One of the most surprising aspects of the game is how much it does with so little. Yet again I found myself holding controlling a character living in an apocalyptic wasteland fighting off zombie(like) figures and of course the only thing worse than the monsters that hunt us: ourselves. The Last of Us was set up to be hackneyed from the start, and yet it never was. This was partly thanks to the game’s brutality. The violence with which you combat various antagonists is extreme. The positions in which the central characters are placed is extreme. The player is not given an easy way out. Far from it: the protagonist’s failings are placed before you and there is no option to ignore them. Sure, you can cheer on your character’s remarkable ability to mete out violence with a fist pump but if that’s what’s happening I can’t help but feel you’re missing the point. The Last of Us demands that you accept that in this universe Naughty Dog has created there truly are no individuals exempt from the compromised morality created and sustained by twenty years of living with human and subhuman brutality. Your character(s) are not exempt. When playing the game, you have to accept the price of completing the narrative. As the game goes on, the limitations of your ability to choose, so often a weakness in story-driven games, becomes an important part of the experience.

This holds true in the gameplay itself. The third person mixture of gunplay and melee combat is itself not revolutionary. However, he strength of the narrative continues into the combat. The use of pistols, axes, iron pipes, baseball bats with nails driven into them… the stomping on the head of one’s enemy to “finish them off”… it all becomes difficult to ignore. The more invested you become in the story the more difficult it becomes to simply detach oneself from the violence central to the gameplay. This unity of theme in the overarching narrative, both in cut scenes and in-game conversations, and in the gameplay itself is a wonderful achievement. The corruption of the young co-protagonist, in her language and her actions and her increasing proclivity to murder those in the way of the group’s advancement, is a theme in and of itself as well as a central component of the relationship between the two central protagonists. More than anything, The Last of Us demands that the player think and periods of gameplay that in many ways conform to basic concepts of fighting off waves of enemies in an enclosed space don’t allow the player a break. So here I am, a few days later still thinking over key points in the game. Conversations between characters. Decisions in which I had no input but responsibility for which I was attributed. The game intends to create complex reactions and it succeeds.

World War Z is another matter entirely. I should probably be clear that I don’t intend to set up shop and take shots at the film. It was a troubled production. The connection between the film and Max Brooks’ book is rather tenuous. The film ended up as little more than a vehicle for Brad Pitt. In that respect however, World War Z delivered. I was quite impressed by how successfully the film came together. Ultimately however, one of the prices paid for acquiring this basic competence in adverse circumstances was a lack of any real thematic impact. The film puts Pitt’s characters immediate family front and center as a rather craven attempt at emotional manipulation without ever really threatening to raise the stakes. The most memorable moment of the film outside of the action pieces is a remarkably accurate portrayal of the danger of guns in inexperienced hands early on, though it is used mostly to move the plot along in a specific direction. World War Z is full of nice little touches: small nods to the book for people that have actually read it, using bicycles to travel without antagonizing the zombies, David Morse.[ref]David Morse should be in everything. Fact.[/ref] When it all comes together, well… it’s an underwhelming zombie film with some interesting set pieces that rather oddly sets its third act in rural Wales. It was fine. It was an enjoyable film. It wasn’t great, but it was fine. It did nothing interesting from a narrative point of view.

That’s a tad harsh. As I’ve intimated already, World War Z’s major success is that it’s watchable. That’s not intended as faint praise. This is a film that has gone through considerable problems during its production. In the end though, the film wasn’t particularly underwhelming, and certainly wasn’t overwhelming. I left the cinema more or less whelmed. That’s fine too. It just paled in comparison with my experience playing The Last of Us. It’s not a major turning point for video games. Not while Call of Duty games continue to exist. It was a nice point of comparison though. Are video games more suited to genre-based narratives? I don’t think so. But perhaps The Last of Us is tapping into something video games can do that film can’t. I’d love to see more video games pose that question.

Adrift on a pixellated sea with Pixel Piracy

I’ve been playing Pixel Piracy recently. For a number of reasons, though not least because you can play the game relatively capably with a five month old child on your shoulder. I’m not recommending this, per se. Don’t go and borrow an infant to put on your shoulder while you play video games. That would be odd. If, like me, you happen to have one in the house and he likes sleeping on his father’s shoulder, I’m here to tell you that Pixel Piracy works reasonably well.[ref]Also Hearthstone, incidentally.[/ref] In any event, this finds me at the computer tapping away at the mouse and occasionally leaning forward with mixed degrees of care depending on just how asleep the little guy is to scroll the camera left or right.

That’s it. That’s the control mechanism for Pixel Piracy. I rather like it, really; despite the clearly broad potential for control schemes when using a PC to play games, I’m a sucker for simplicity like this. Click on this, click on that, and move the camera. Left or right, in this case. Done. The clicking in question summons and dispatches my minions, and let’s be honest: every game needs a minion here and there. The game tempts me with space for many minions indeed, though I have but two. I’ve assigned one to cook and the other to clean up all the poop. My virtual pirates are apparently not clever enough to at least lean over the side. The three of us (the chef, the custodian and my gallant hero) sail the high seas, benefitting from some rather aggressive levelling by yours truly. As a result, combat is not as aggressive as I’d hoped. Rather than seeing my screen explode into frantic pixel murder, I observe my pirates (under my instructions) sail up to an enemy and then wait in the galley for rabid pirates to come aboard only to be chopped up into little pieces by my battle-axe wielding sprites. I plunder the opponents’ ship and move on.[ref]Though it should be said that the act of plundering the ship is a bit odd. The game won’t let me do it until I’ve sent my main character over to break every urn and chest on the ship. Why this affects the ability to scupper the ship and take its goods is not explained. Perhaps the urns and chests are architecturally significant?[/ref]

Rinse and repeat. The baby sleeps, my pirates level up, I discover new islands and an hour has passed. I end up with that strange feeling that I’ve wasted time more than I’ve enjoyed the game. Though that’s not fair. I’ve enjoyed almost every minute I’ve ever played a Civilization game, and some of those sessions amount to little more than eight hour long forays into a fugue state. It’s just not quite what I’d been expecting from an open world pirate roguelike-like game. I get a little frustrated. I could recruit more men, but why would I? It puts me under more pressure to earn more money more quickly, which as far as I can tell involves me doing what I’m doing now but at an increased pace. The game allows for the capture and domestication of animals found on the various islands and hints at complex ship designs that include cannon and other types of ranged weapons. There appears to be a mechanism within the game to assign my pirates to various tasks. I’ve tried none of this, partly because I’m not entirely sure how it works.

Such are the pitfalls of an early access game I suppose, though I’m less inclined to blame the developers and far more inclined to point to a potential flaw in open world design: it makes it more likely that a game fails to overcome my laziness.[ref]A long standing flaw in video game design.[/ref] Pixel Piracy promises much, and I’m unsure as to how much these promises are truly unfulfilled; I was largely attracted to the game thanks to its connections to the excellent Terraria, a game that took my latent repetitive compulsion and turned it loose on a subterranean world of minerals and dirt with treasure laden throughout. I’m not seeing that with Pixel Piracy, but I’m not convinced it isn’t there… The game’s depth is mostly hidden but lays around the fringes of what I’ve played so far. How exactly can I get my pirates to enslave an enemy, and what will that slave do? Are there more islands out there? More sea creatures? Can I equip one of my men with a fishing pole, order him to channel his inner Robert Shaw and take out that huge shark that’s following me everywhere?

Pixel Piracy fascinates me really, because it makes me think about difficulty in games. Players being able to minimize threats to their character and maximize the benefits in order to progress through a game in as sanitized and “safe” a manner as possible generally hints at faulty or unimaginative design, but I don’t believe that to be the case here.[ref]Not only does Pixel Piracy have pirates and pixels, it has lovely (and lovingly written) descriptions of each pirate. Characters break out into song regularly. The game is full of really nice little touches.[/ref]Nor do I think that I have uncovered a fatal flaw. No, I believe the game is allowing me play it in a very simple and rather one-dimensional manner. That’s on me. It interests me because it makes me think of difficulty in a video game in different ways. We’re used to discussing it in such simple terms. Dark Souls is hard. Mega Man is hard. Difficulty implies depth in this medium, an increased commitment from the player. It also alienates. It doesn’t have a monopoly on that of course: Call of Duty games are easy to the point of alienation, for example.

There’s an additional form of alienation in playing games as well, long before we get to critiques of modern popular culture or discussions of individual morality in games of make-believe: that relentless clicking, the grinding, the levelling up. Spelunky, Terraria, these are games I’ve uninstalled and reinstalled repeatedly, a futile effort to save myself from myself. Maybe, just maybe I’ll play an RPG or I’ll play the shooter I bought five months ago because I heard the story was good… Maybe I’ll do something constructive. Pixel Piracy is in serious danger of joining this band of games. It’s good company, don’t get me wrong, but it’s an odd category. Am I denying myself all that this game has to offer?[ref]Yes. Yes, I am.[/ref] Does it matter if I am?

Is my reluctance to push myself further in the game an indicator of a new trend in video game difficulty emerging? We have books that are considered difficult to read, films that demand your full concentration to watch.[ref]Of course, this in itself is heresy. Surely every film deserves our full concentration regardless of its artful (or other) aspirations?[/ref] Are we now finding games that need you to put the work in to reap the full rewards? Pixel Piracy brings an interesting dimension to the argument because perhaps it is hinting at a kind of difficulty that is not enforced on the player but is simply laid out as part of the game. I have tried and failed to play DOTA 2 and it’s likely I never will. Then again, games have been this way for years, with plenty of trinkets and the detritus of design awaiting discovery by completionists. And ultimately, my experiences with the game are a result of the mixing together of so many factors including the fact that the game is not (quite) finished and I am currently inclined towards a certain play style. It is to the game’s credit that it caters to varying play styles. Indeed, it may be this that I find most exciting about the game. You can recruit an army of pixellated pirates, you can collect a menagerie of animals, you can visit every island generated by the game. You can do all these things. You don’t have to.

Episode Forty Four: More of the same?

So, just after we finished recording the podcast Gus had a fantastic idea for a July fourth topic. Look out for that in the future. For now, listen to us discuss THE ROOM and other timely cinematic ventures. Bonus: John and Bob get topical with video game news!