Video Games Criticism…

Don’t panic, this is short.

A lot of folks on Twitter and across the Internet today are talking about a video posted by popular YouTuber Videogamedunkey that supposedly calls out the video games journalism industry for its various follies, weaknesses and inequities.

It’s rather bad, really. His main complaint at the outset is that large websites such as IGN do not have cohesive voices that unite all of their coverage, as, for example, certain YouTube critics do. Conveniently enough.

I am completely bored with this entire conversation, and I have tried to write about issues in video game coverage before, and failed to do particularly well. This particular critique has a lot of weaknesses in its central assumptions; honestly, if you’re upset that IGN’s coverage of video games is not very good, I’m not sure what to tell you. It’s not exactly news. Beyond that, this video completely misses the central fissure between video game writing’s origins as consumer focused trade writing and attempts by some in more recent years to write about the medium more critically. When is video games writing Kelley’s Blue Book and when is it New York Review of Books?

There is room for both and there always will be both. This particular set of complaints, and many of the comments on the video, is uninspired and misses a lot of points, which rather undermines some of his points that have some validity (which Philip Kollar clearly identifies). I should write about this some more when I have more energy and a little distance, but in short: I’m much more interested in meaningful and interesting evolutions of video games writing than I am in taking down the enshrined hierarchies of corrupted or otherwise negligent video game writing, a concept both naive and obvious.

History of Games in Public Conversation

I had the pleasure this past week of sitting in as a guest on the Starting Point podcast with Brian Bentley And Corey Dockendorf. We had a great time (go and have a listen!) and in the midst of my unplanned advocation for a gaming lifestyle more or less entirely based on playing games by Blizzard, Brian asked me a great question on the history of video games. When we were young (Brian and I are both either at the tail end of Gen X or old and crusty millennials; I pick the former), video game consoles were toys, products clearly aimed at children; today they are sleek beautiful multimedia devices aimed either at the entire family or specifically at adults. When, Brian asked me, did I think the change that facilitated video games’ move as a medium from one to the other take place?

My answer, in short, was the early to mid 1990s. Specifically, I raised the issue of major sports games becoming extremely popular in public discourse and the subsequent normalization, publicly, of men in their 20s playing video games. Now the reality went both beyond sports games and beyond men in their 20s, of course; I do think, however, that the celebration of sports games in particular played a key role in broader public acceptance of video games as something on which adults spent their leisure time. This is… an idea I have discovered I want to spend a lot more time on. I have been saying for a while now I wanted to write something for a journal on sports and eSports, and this seems like a nice connection project into that, even as a longer blog post, possibly for History Respawned, with a bit more research and work behind it.

So look out for that.

This is the Dark Souls of a short post about a YouTube video

Oh my word. I am pretty sure that all human development to this point has led to this moment.

I genuinely appreciate being able to get jokes like this. My belated discovery of the wonder of Dark Souls last year, in addition to fostering an addiction to complex games essentially focused on esoteric storytelling and exploration, finally granted me entrance to a fascinating subculture of Dark Souls adoration that tends to be a lot more fun than such a description makes it sound. See  above.

Admittedly, the above video probably seems insane to someone who has not played a lot of Dark Souls, thought about Dark Souls, read about Dark Souls, and then played more Dark Souls. Yet it brings me joy on a busy Monday.

Deus Vult

I found this article in Polygon fascinating, discussing the odd conflation between an alt-right adoption of the term “Deus Vult” and the growing online community around the game For Honor. I find it fascinating in no small part because I gave my students Robert the Monk’s version of the famous Pope Urban II speech that gave life to this particular term, and did so with no knowledge about the online alt-right connotations.

Allegra Frank describes the historical nature of the phrase as “obvious and inextricable”, which is not a bad way of putting it in terms of its use in the game. I cannot help but find it all a bit disturbing, frankly. I had read previously of the alt-right community’s interest in monarchy and medieval standards of governance and (supposed) moral justifications for autocratic rule. Their approach, needless to say, is ahistorical and embarrassing. I’m not sure how you could come away from reading a version of Urban II’s speech in the early twenty-first century and come away thinking he was on to something exciting or that in any way gives us a useful blueprint for the future. The source is inseparable from its context, and it takes remarkably willful rejection of that context to draw parallels with challenges the world faces today.

As for For Honor, it seems the fans of the game use the term as part of their own celebration of their community online. Go for it, I say. There is something to be said for relationships between terms and I am grateful that even in the savage land of wild untamed memes there is genuine competition between representations.

Apocalypse Now, Again

A lot of information is hitting me at the same time right now. People are making an Apocalypse Now game, Francis Ford Coppola is involved, and there is a lot of talk about how video games are ready as a medium to add something of genuine meaning to Coppola’s initial artistic offering.

Says the auteur genius behind Apocalypse Now, The Godfather (Parts I and II) and Jack:

Forty years ago, I set out to make a personal art picture that could hopefully influence generations of viewers for years to come. Today, I’m joined by new daredevils, a team who want to make an interactive version of Apocalypse Now, where you are Captain Benjamin Willard amidst the harsh backdrop of the Vietnam War. I’ve been watching videogames grow into a meaningful way to tell stories, and I’m excited to explore the possibilities for Apocalypse Now for a new platform and a new generation.

As I said, a lot there.

First off: it’s great they have a roster of talented people who have worked on good games before, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

Secondly, I’m not really sure how making a game with Willard as a protagonist really adds to the original vision. I’m also not much of a fan of the phrase “interactive recreation of Willard’s journey” being used on the Kickstarter page. It doesn’t really mean anything of course, and doesn’t commit people to much, but it does reek of another video game existing mostly as a prematurely vestigial appendage of an existing work of art.

In fairness, what a work of art. My Vietnam class this past fall (which I will write up soon, I promise) watched Apocalypse Now and it remains stunning. If anything, I recommend that people who have seen the film at a young age watch it again after a decade or two. It was an entirely new experience, akin to the one I had reading Brave New World in my 30s, a testament to the film’s enduring artistic merit.

It means something, something tangible, that Coppola would make such a show of his investment and confidence in the project. There is no reason not to take him at his word. The game has the potential to be a genuine crossover as well, and if there is a medium best suited to mixing together established classics and something new, I think the video game is right up there with the novel. It is of course very difficult to do.

It also begs the question of what the game is setting out to do artistically. Apocalypse Now, in addition to being a tour de force from a young director in his prime, is a film seeking to explore the American misadventure in Vietnam in ways both explicit and indistinct. The film is soaked in the symbolism of American failure and confusion, but Willard’s journey enters the metaphysical. Apocalypse Now is as much about the limits and arrogance of modernity as it is the morality of the American war in Vietnam.

So, what to expect from a game produced in the early twenty-first century amidst the swings of populism in the West and a democratic consensus seemingly enshrined forever in the postwar twentieth century under siege? I’m not sure I know, really. I want it to work out, but it is not clear just yet what this game is going to be. I am far from won over from comments like this one:

“It’s like Fallout: New Vegas on acid in the middle of the Vietnam War.”

In fairness, they are trying to sell a game they are not able to start making yet. They deserve a lot of leeway. I am pulling for them, but I hope this proves to be a lot of pre-sale guff that makes something interesting possible.

Game of the Year (Not this year, last year)

‘Tis the season of GOTYs, or rather it ’twas before I spent Christmas having fun and not writing and then dove into an intensive January of teaching (more of that soon) and I come to share my own. As has been the case in recent years, my enjoyment of video games is nowhere near as closely tied to the annual release calendar as it once was. I have no regrets from not being up to date, but it does make my deliberations on what my favourite game of the year was more complicated. I suppose I could just give up on such deliberations, but why would I do that? It’s fun.

So yes, I often pick two or three games that came out the year before, or earlier. Rather than get too far into the weeds of what should and should not qualify as a Game of the Year, I will instead just go ahead and share my game(s) of the year, using my complete failure to match the latest and greatest releases as an excuse for categories, a cheap move that lets me write more and have more fun. Starting this evening, let me talk about my game of the year for a little while.

Game of the Year: Dark Souls

Yes, Dark Souls. Yes, the same Dark Souls that came out in 2011. This is probably my most egregiously anachronistic game of the year pick yet. My love affair with Dark Souls, though I had no idea that is what it would become, started earlier still when I tried my hand at Demon’s Souls in 2009. It didn’t go well. I subsequently tried Dark Souls, which also did not go well, and then bought Dark Souls for PC so that I could reinstall it every six months, play for an hour and get annoyed, and give up on it again.

This went on for a few years, and during that time I read, listened to and watched countless tributes to the game and its sequels. I assumed that the game just was not for me after all, that I looked for something different in games, that perhaps, as this problem gradually became worse, I just did not have the time to spend committing myself to the game. I did not have in me to be miserable for hours just to get to the next boss. Then it clicked.

Dark Souls is not about bosses at all. At least, not for me. I play the game somewhat atypically perhaps; I shamelessly dig into wikis, and the single moment that led to my finally understanding what makes these games so special came from a decidedly skeevy suicide rush to grab an armor set that my character in theory would not need for hours but that basically gave me just enough room to finally figure out how this whole thing works.

So… that’s the secret about Dark Souls. It’s not about the difficulty at all. I mean, the difficulty adds something special for people who are into that sort of thing, but it’s not the difficulty of the game that makes the game itself special. It’s the discovery, and the disarming intricacy with which the world you explore has been built. The Dark Souls environment makes sense in a way that compounds over one’s experience of the game. Lengthy, frustrating sections of the game come in retrospect to provide nostalgic recollections of one’s pathway through the story, a story that is nebulous by design and reflexive and adaptive as a result. You can take the Dark Souls story or leave it, you can read a lot into it or move on. It sits there and doesn’t really care if you are interested or not. In a video game world where your hand is held, gripped solidly by the AI as part of an extended tutorial that might last for hours, Dark Souls is refreshing. Invigorating. It’s the best kept secret in the medium, despite everyone shouting about it. If you read this and haven’t played Dark Souls yet, give it a shot, and keep trying until it sticks. You’ll thank me.

The Curious Expedition and plans to come…

I missed this on Tuesday, but Rock Paper Shotgun named The Curious Expedition as best “roguelike” game of 2016 as part of their consistently excellent annual Advent Calendar.

Congratulations to The Curious Expedition and its developers, Riad Djemili and Johannes Kristmann!

I’m quite taken with the game myself and must write about it soon. I am planning to give it to my world history students this coming spring as the assigned text for a short assignment. I’m not sure just yet what form that will take, and but I have to figure it out soon and look forward to sharing. For now I will point out what attracts me to the game for the purposes of discussing world history.

You choose a historical figure, such as Marie Curie or Johan Huizinga, and depart for a corner of the “unexplored” world (in eighteenth and nineteenth century parlance) to uncover a map full of jungles and wild beasts, hidden temples and “natives” who will trade with you. Essentially, The Curious Expedition will give my students the chance to simulate the act of discovery within a specific discourse of western identity and the modern. This is something Bob Whitaker and I discussed once on the History Respawned podcast when talking about the ways that No Man’s Sky chooses to present information to the player and simulate the act of discovery.

There’s a long way to go in figure out how this will work, and I have no choice but to play the game some more as I conduct my research.

I have a couple of posts to write, really: what I hope to get out of The Curious Expedition and how it is becoming easier to assign games anyway. It is easier and easier to find interesting games available on PC and Mac (and sometimes on iOS/Android, too), and the indie games revolution means there are plenty of games available.

It also makes for a more controllable student reading experience. See here for Graham Smith’s take on this particular game’s accessibility:

It’s a game you can pick up and play immediately. You don’t need to play a tutorial, it has crisp graphics and a simple UI, and a single session can be brought to a satisfying conclusion in 15 minutes.

Perfect. As much as I would like to give my students No Man’s Sky, have them play it for twenty hours and then come back to talk about how the game, despite being set in space in a vaguely defined future, essentially recreates extremely old-fashioned modes of creating ownership of the world through discovery and subsequent orientalism, that’s a big commitment to assume from my students. It is also a major assumption about the hardware they have available and what they are willing and able to spend money on.

So, The Curious Expedition it is! I look forward to writing more about it… soon…

Death Stranding teases more historical allusions

He has, as they say, gone full Kojima.

That can mean a lot of things, of course. Hideo Kojima’s status in the video game community has only improved since his recent falling out with Konami, giving strength to an running online in-joke/slogan/act of defiance. Even Kojima’s famous new friends like to get in on it.

That status was vaunted already; as the mastermind of the Metal Gear Solid series Kojima can do no wrong in the eyes of many, a walking talking Exhibit A in the video games as art debate. His “cinematic” style and deliberate invocations of philosophical exploration into genre-defining stealth games have made him a legend. Subsequently, if you like video games and enjoy reading about them you can in theory have no reaction to or opinion about Hideo Kojima. But you probably do.

I have my own of course, but I find it difficult to pin them down. Most recently, I find myself more excited about his new project Death Stranding than I ever have been about a Metal Gear Solid game, including Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, about which I got rather excited indeed. Kojima’s latest has come to us in a duo of thoughtfully crafted trailers as likely to be leading viewers astray as advertising any clear elements of the upcoming game. The casting of Norman Reedus, (the apparently extremely nice) Mads Mikkelsen and Guillermo del Toro is attention grabbing, but something in this latest trailer caught me more than the intriguing hints at a plot exploring the divide between life and death, or the star turns.

The World War II iconography here is unmistakeable. Undead soldiers march behind a Lovecraftian tank with an almost cavalier allusion to Nazis trooping through Europe. The skies belong to the enemy, del Toro’s character trapped, hiding on low ground and looking to the sewers beneath.

Kojima could have a lot of fun with this. Like many people my age who like video games I failed miserably to avoid being snatched up by the Metal Gear Solid games early on; far and away the element in the series that appeals to me most is Kojima’s fascination with the present and future of international relations. More specifically, the Metal Gear Solid series very clearly rests on the product of a Japanese mind, with Kojima’s homeland occupying an intriguing place in late twentieth century geopolitics. During the Cold War, Japan rose from an American-sponsored workhouse of Asia to a superpower sitting on the Pacific Rim, all power and influence derived directly from economic influence and power. Japan had no army to hold back from direct conflict, and sits alone in the nuclear age as the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack. All of this seeps through the Metal Gear games: Solid Snake’s famous declaration that “war has changed” in Metal Gear Solid 4 represents the game’s central premise neatly, with the character’s narrative and the broader geopolitics of Kojima’s near-future dovetailing with one another, but Snake’s sense of loss and discombobulation essentially mimics a postwar Japanese state in a world dominated by the possibility of conflict. The post-2001 world brings as much doubt to Tokyo and Nagoya as it does to New York and Chicago, compounding the complications of forming a coherent Japanese worldview that includes a clear sense of national self.

Seeing Kojima take these influences and throw World War II into the mix is promising. In the years since MGS4 Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has pushed harder for a more formal reconstitution of a Japanese military, a decision that does not reflect a shift in Japanese popular opinion but rather reflects the realities of his own political debts and somewhat concerning historical interpretations. The series that made Kojima a legend centers itself entirely around the creation and resistance to enormous weapons of war, the Metal Gears of the title. It seems, perhaps, Death Stranding is more interested in what makes human life valuable. By evoking the imagery of Nazi stormtroopers and the use of  flying machines in the sky to represent totalitarianism of pervasive observation and control, Kojima borrows from well-worn territory, but it is a well that seems slow to run dry. Time will tell how much of this comes from the man’s showmanship, but personally I look forward to more clearly historically inflected world building with much greater enthusiasm than I do the roles laid out for the famous faces we have seen so far.

NPCs and little bits of history in Mafia III

Bob Whitaker has a nice piece on Zam today on NPCs in Mafia III and how their unexpected role in sharing the fruit of historical research that went into the game affected the way he played it. To quote Bob:

I’m not campaigning to turn open world games into history textbooks, but there’s something special about a game in this genre that can cause me to reconsider my open world mayhem and enjoy the experience more without random violence.

Little bits and pieces of personality delivered through detail, in short, actually detracted (somewhat) from the rather bloodthirsty norms of your average open world game. It’s an intriguing idea, perhaps an unforeseen benefit of the “bottom-up” approach to historical study bleeding into historical research beyond the academy.

From top to bottom Mafia III is a fascinating and flawed game: the game’s developers took an interesting and potentially risky (albeit purely by not taking the most expected route) choice in framing their story around an African-American Vietnam veteran in 1960s New Orleans, but the game ultimately appears to sit in somewhat of a middle ground between an urge to deconstruct and defy historical and other stereotypes and the continued broad brush of terrorist-supporting Irish hoodlums and Haitian refugee drug runners.

Still, the steps in good and bad directions both perhaps fit the willingness to drift away from standard historical retellings. In a genre where the player has the option to follow a central narrative or do whatever s/he feels like doing within the sandbox created for the game, perhaps it fits that there are two broad options between a singular, directed historical tale and the unstructured aggregations of lots of little fictional testimonies. The overlap between the two is inevitably messy. Feels somewhat familiar to this historian.

Nintendo Switch – I Welcome and Accept My Beautiful Hipster Overlords

Nintendo have announced their new console: Nintendo Switch. The public declaration of the device’s existence comes to us via a snazzy trailer full of hip, young attractive people having fun. They choose to play video games when they could easily be doing something adventurous or exciting… so that must mean Nintendo video games and products are adventurous and exciting! We should all buy Nintendo video games and products.

I very much want to buy this Nintendo product. Not because I aspire to be a doe-eyed beauty on a clean urban rooftop taking a party full of eager young people to the next level by playing some Mario, though. The Switch, at least in the way it is being presented this morning, is the culmination of a lot of things Nintendo has done well in the last decade, while reminding me of a core truth I had forgotten: I really, really like Nintendo.

Whether the console will actually live up to such expectations is a whole other discussion, but for now I find myself reassured and impressed by a device that apparently takes the core strengths of the Nintendo Wii (an unmitigated success) and the more positive elements from the Wii U. I am also happy we are leaving that Wii branding behind.

Of course, everything about the console fits into a sterile, workshopped and focus grouped concept of young and vibrant lifestyles that include gaming as part of a healthy diet of playing basketball, having sex (come on Nintendo, we all know that’s what’s really going on here) and ignoring your dog. The mobile/console hybrid that basically makes this a tablet you might actually want to own in the wasteland of life after the iPad boom. Still, having two mini-controllers that make it possible to challenge someone to some Mario Kart more or less on the spot? Very Nintendo.

So yes, the branding is on message but more broadly the Switch seems to be the product of a company that has gotten its act together and is clearly focused on what is trying to do. That has hopefully produced a console every bit as exciting as advertised, and it also means advertising on message to the point of inducing nausea but we must take the rough with the smooth. Just think how irritating the “Switch” name would be if it wasn’t the least revolting name for a Nintendo console in decades.

It makes me wonder, too… is Nintendo basically a handheld device company now? For some time, portable Nintendo consoles have driven the company’s main share in the video game world. This new device feels like an embrace of that identity attempted with the Wii U but now more fully executed. Smartphones are genuinely infringing on Nintendo handheld territory at this point. The Switch seems a clear decision by the company to lean in and take the challenge head on.

One more thing that certainly deserves a mention: the video ends with a significant amount of time spent on two teams preparing to take the stage to compete against each other in professional Splatoon. I’m not entirely sure when we crossed this particular Rubicon but it seems that you can no longer make a major hardware announcement without mentioning (if not celebrating) the ways in which your new device fits into and expands the world of esports. For years, esports enthusiasts talked either directly or indirectly about a time when the pursuit would be taken seriously. Just like that, it’s happened.