Categories
blog culture roleplaying

State of play

Dungeon World cover
Dungeon World cover. It looks like what I felt like as a kid playing D&D!

I was asked to write about where roleplaying is, locally, as I see it, in Finland right now. This came at an opportune time as I’ve thought hard about it recently. The objective of the exercise is to really get an idea of the state of Finnish roleplaying by asking bloggers for their perspectives. I don’t have any delusions of being a major component of that, but without any documented practice surely it’s impossible to form any sort of image. If enough people do the same, we actually can form an image.

Any honest – or rather, real – image of roleplaying as a practice or culture must be about the games we play. We can talk a great deal and I’m sure there are a couple of forums with people doing just that, but in the end it does come down to how we actually get on at the table. I can talk about that.

I’ve gone through a number of crises with my roleplaying. I have always been a gamemaster and always a system jumper; I’m leap frogging from game to game, chasing the elusive ultimate experience. Before Dungeons & Dragons, fourth edition (4E), came along, I felt lost. I was just not enjoying my old games like I used to. 4E re-ignited my love for the original game – Red Box D&D was my first love – and indeed it was the rather sketchy but adorable repackaging of the Red Box that got me in all over again. I stumbled on it waiting for a Gameboy concert to start in a comic book shop in Los Angeles. I then played in a 4E campaign and loved the mechanics of it, culminating in getting the then new 4E Essentials products and starting my own game in 2011. I vividly recall the planning sessions and the anxiety of starting a new game. We played that game for coming up on three years over something in the region of forty sessions and more than a dozen players. That campaign folded in a planned fashion in March 2014. We set out to cover levels one through ten, and we did just that.

My regular group was seven players, and most of the time we had the full seven players at the table. We painted miniatures and I pulled out all the classic D&D tricks from rust monsters to dragons. For much of the three years, it was glorious. Only towards the end, perhaps from level eight onwards, the mechanics just broke down, and with seven players and D&D 4E, the mechanics was almost the whole of the game. I didn’t enjoy the last couple of levels.

Around 2010, I think, myself and most of my roleplaying friends played in a mega campaign with some fifty-odd players, covering a hundred games. It was called Century, and I believe it changed most of us, at least the serious, life-sentenced GMs among us. It solidified a lot of ideas I had had kicking around in my head, mostly about narrative driven, meaningful mechanics and a decidedly anti-simulationist bent. Ever since then I’ve been getting seriously into Fate and “Powered By Apocalypse” systems. Last summer we played a short campaign of Heavy Gear to take a break from D&D. Heavy Gear is my all-time favorite game world and system, and now it felt too old school to bear. I just couldn’t function with a clunky system like that anymore. It got in the way. I can’t believe I’m saying this, with the amount of love I have for those books, but time has passed them by. I have outgrown them.

I suspect that’s the case with any of the dozens of books on my shelves. The defining, life altering works for me have been The Mountain Witch, Fiasco, Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, and Fate. The quality of experience you get out of those games is so decidedly, objectively better (yes) than with an old-school system that it seems foolish to go back. Why would you want to go back? Abandoning the simulationist approach doesn’t feel like an alternative, it feels like an evolution. These games deliver the sorts of experiences I was always looking for, and never could reliably reach. It sometimes happened, but more as a fluke or because of ignoring the rules. Now you can get to those places in a reliable, if mysterious, fashion.

It seems weird, then, that we’ve spent so much time with D&D 4E. But the circumstances have been different. Our group is very large, and you couldn’t run these other games with that group. We need the mechanics to carry the game wholesale. I’ve had to go back to my dungeon crawling roots, in a very real fashion back to my childhood and my formative years, and D&D was the only vessel that could carry me there. At the same time, as the campaign progressed, I started integrating more narrative devices and mechanics to get to the same kinds of places these new wave games could take us. Between our second and third season of the game, we played a few games of Dungeonworld, and going back to D&D after that felt like settling for an inferior experience. At that point it was all about spending time with the people, and attaining closure on the long game. My heart was lost to Dungeonworld.

I wonder what my next game is. It’s going to have four players and it’s going to run for perhaps four to five games, I think. My shortlist is my Pacific Rim inspired mecha thing running on Fate, Vampire (circa Revised) without the Storyteller system (again, Fate), more Monsterhearts and Fiasco, Trail Of Cthulhu. I’m thinking I’ll run Monsterhearts and Fiasco just for the narrative and player workout. Those games are great for massaging the storytelling muscles of any player, not just gamemasters.

We are still going back to the regular fantasy campaign thing, though. We ordered the Bones II Kickstarter’s several hundred euros worth of miniatures, so the next winter is going to see either D&D Next (it does sound pretty good) or Dungeonworld.

As a player I’m active in a modern horror campaign running on an extensively designed homebrew system (lots of Apocalypse World inspiration there). That’s unlike anything I’d run, with its thirst for very long form, unedited, uncut player interaction. Our group is comprised of very experienced GMs and we spend a good hour-plus after most games to debrief and discuss the systems, tone and developments on a meta level. Sometimes it feels like we played the session merely to gain topics for the post-game discussion.

Categories
culture

Thank you for the music

M-50_BLKS
ESP LTD M-50. It’s all about the angles. I don’t have the whammy bar installed.

In April 2013 Harmonix Music Systems stopped their weekly song updates to their videogame Rock Band. Up to now they had 281 consecutive weeks of adding tracks to the game, ending up with a catalogue of 4262 songs.

Back in January 2008 when I first encountered Rock Band I was still part-timing as a game journalist. EA Finland had decided to introduce the game by renting an actual rehearsal space in a music hotel, setting it up with very high volume, lighting, projector, mic stand and everything. As a games writer I was invited and proceeded to spend tens of hours in the space – our first session lasted fourteen hours.

During one of those sessions I was singing by myself – I must’ve been the first one to arrive. I had been curious about the singing and everybody was avoiding it. I was surprised by someone walking in while I was singing. While rattled, I kept on singing, and felt really good about it – having an audience, in a sense. Contrary to most others, I was putting the original vocal track’s volume way down and upping the mic. I wanted to hear myself.

So I picked up singing and proceeded to force it unto others. I remember a moment in that space, singing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” – a song that’s difficult for me (still is) – with the full band backing, that you know, being in a real band would be awesome beyond words.

I didn’t much think about it back then as it seemed like a fantasy that could never happen, but the seed was planted then and there.

We proceeded to play really rather a lot of Rock Band, all through to RB3. Singing kept growing on me.

About two years later (2010) I picked up a real electric guitar, totally inspired by Rock Band and totally chosen by my wife, for its looks – she has an identical instrument. I wasn’t that much into the guitar per se as it still seems too technical for me, but I just needed to play music and understand music better. Pretend playing the songs had given me a newfound appreciation for music. But it was always about the band, and the singing. I knew I wanted to front a band on a gig.

Since then I’ve been practicing on and off on the guitar. I can only play shitty rhythm guitar a little bit, but it’s just enough to at times give me the feeling of “holy shit I’m making music!”

Rouhgly at the same time I stumbled on the “52 Weeks” blog series on the Harmonix community site, chaired by Helen “HMXHellion” McWilliams. Her story was the most inspirational thing I’ve read in my life, of getting a guitar because Joan Jett is awesome and of writing a letter to your whole company, explaining how you want to start a band. And then making it happen, their track “Seven” ending up as a personal favorite in Rock Band. These women were not life long musicians, they basically just picked up instruments and went for it, well past teenage years.

Ever since then I’ve had this thought at the back of my mind of actually starting a band one day, for real. But in my mind that one day was perhaps closer to retirement age, when I had run into a group of friends with the same dream. I had talked about this with my friends, but it felt like the stars wouldn’t align any time soon.

So this year Harmonix stopped updating Rock Band. We would still have a couple of Rock Band parties per year, until our plastic finally gives up, but to me it felt like the end of an age. The dream was there, fading ever so slowly, and I couldn’t let it go. There was an anxiety building up, something unanswered. Rock Band being an evolving, living thing was answering some call I had inside me, and now it was going away, I had to answer it myself.

Ubisoft made another cool rock game, Rocksmith. I’ve been practicing with that and a couple of weeks ago I realized that when backed by a proper band (on tape), and run through a good software amp, my simple rendition of “Go With The Flow” by Queens Of The Stone Age on a real guitar sounds okay.

Fully realizing that this is all based on videogames, I hesitated for two full days, before finally posting a message on Facebook, explaining my goal: to start a shitty punk band right now, at the tender age of 34.

To my dismay, in a couple of hours there were enough volunteers for two bands.

We haven’t had our first rehearsal yet, and it could be that it won’t be a shitty punk band after all (I’m the only non-musical guy in the group), but we do have a goal of having a gig in a year, if we get that far. What I do know is that if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to start another band. And eventually, yes, I will front a band on stage.

It is the mission of Harmonix to “share the joy of creating and performing music with everyone, regardless of their musical experience”. It took five years of tireless, constant inspiration by you, but I can finally say: thank you for the music.

PS. More videogame companies should have missions.

PPS. It looks like there’s a lot of people around who really should start bands today.

 

Categories
culture technology

Oculus Rift and virtual reality

Oculus Rift - early development kit hardware
Oculus Rift – early development kit hardware

You’re sure you’ve seen it before. Maybe an ad in a computer magazine in the nineties? Maybe a music video? Surely a movie somewhere – Johnny Mnemonic? Max Headroom? One of those things. The Oculus Rift, its presence reinforced by the foreboding name (”a rift? What’s coming out of the rift? I don’t want to fall into the rift!”), is an artifact that is both from a shared recollection of a future that never was and a herald of a future that is, in fact, right here.

We have thought about “cyberspace” and virtual realities since the late eighties and early nineties, wondering how it would work, what it would be like, and what would be the benefits. Having test-driven the development kit edition of the soon to be launched virtual reality device, I’m both convinced and intrigued.

I am convinced because it works. You put on that helmet and your brain immediately just accepts it: this is how the world now works. When you hear you coworkers talking around you, they are disembodied demon voices, coming from wrong angles. It’s exciting and unsettling and undeniably new.

You may have heard about the low resolution, but it still surprises you how low it really is. In a technical sense, this is the most rudimentary, primitive virtual world you’ve seen since the original Half-Life. It’s also blurry, which may have been due to the set being adjusted for other people’s eyes. But in a minute or so it doesn’t matter. It turns out humans are really good at adapting to a changing sensory input.

The way the virtual world reacts correctly to your head movements is crucial to the immersion – I’m hesitant to call it an illusion, because in all the ways that matter in the moment, it is a reality you’re dealing with, albeit it only exists in your brain. When nothing you can see is in conflict with what you’re observing through your body, it doesn’t take any sort of conscious effort to slip into the experience. You forget about your real body as your mind adapts to the most pressing sensory feedback.

The level of immersion is total. There are issues with HUD graphics and movement – the way your body moves differently to the way you’re used to navigating first-person 3D spaces with a controller throws your inner ear out of whack, resulting in nausea. But once developers figure out best practices, it is very easy to see that this is going to be the preferred way of playing most first-person games, from shooters to simulations.

What I’m intrigued by is how much of an effect is the social aspect of interacting with screens going to have. When you’re immersed in the Oculus Rift experience, especially with headphones on, there is no way to get your attention, and indeed it is very disorienting if you’re interrupted while immersed. People are used to playing games on their TVs and monitors, but still in the company of others. I’m not sure I would feel entirely comfortable being that isolated, even if alone at home. Letting completely go of your awareness of your real-world surroundings can be scary.

Any misgivings aside, there is no doubt a device like this is going to have a profound effect on immersive experiences and achieve wide-spread success. It’s going to be interesting to see if it’s going to find mainstream success, though.

Categories
culture Games PS3

Narrative and context: Thomas Was Alone/Catherine double feature (PS3)

Thomas Was Alone
Thomas Was Alone

THOMAS WAS ALONE (PS3)

Thomas Was Alone is a simple puzzle platformer in which you switch control between different shapes and sizes of moving rectangles to navigate through a side-scrolling maze. It’s one of the most important narrative achievements in games.

The power of abstraction is not to be dismissed. If you pay attention to it, I guarantee that Thomas Was Alone is going to make you care about a square in under five minutes.

It wouldn’t work without the brilliant narration and the leagues above average writing. It wouldn’t work without the music. But most interestingly, Thomas Was Alone wouldn’t work if those rectangles were anything else, or if they represented something else.

It would be exceedingly difficult and expensive to make this exact same story work with a higher fidelity graphical represenation. You could envision that, because the story of these blocks is indeed so universal and human that it’s easy to imagine it in another setting. But actually making that version would be nigh impossible. Because it’s so simple, nothing is contradicting with the way you interpret it.

A big part of why the story is so effective is that it dares to be about simple emotions. Being alone, coveting the girl, wanting to find your own place, looking good in the eyes of others, being useful. These are the things we reflect ourselves in and through. The stories we tell and consume should be about these things. And videogames so very rarely are.

I am not a fan of the puzzle platformer style of gameplay. I think it’s okay, but I couldn’t really tell, because I just don’t care about it. It’s something I go through because I want to hang out with these rectangles, but I wouldn’t do it for any other reason. That said, for this specific game, for these rectangles and the story we’re telling together, it’s perfect.

Thomas Was Alone is a videogame single that makes you think about a time you’ve lost and the people you’ve grown up with.

Catherine
Catherine

CATHERINE (PS3)

Where Thomas Was Alone is about real people, represented by rectangles, Catherine is about a movie rendition of real people, represented by you.

It places a lot of trust in counting on you being able to relate to its protagonist, a software developer in his early 30s, scared to death of having to grow up and take responsibility of his life, and the life of his long-time girlfriend. These are the stories of real people, told through the medium of videogames. You may not have had Vincent’s exact dilemma, but surely if you’re beyond your early 30s, you’ve gone through something like it.

Catherine is brave for making a videogame out of the anxiety to grow up in today’s society. It dresses it in just enough make-up and costumes to not make it too banal, presenting itself as a cheap late-night TV show, something along the lines of Twilight Zone or Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark.

After my first session with the game, I was frustrated by the actual gameplay of surviving Vincent’s nightly nightmares by climbing a crumbling tower made of blocks you move around to scale. It’s surprisingly difficult for me. I grew so frustrated I had to give up, never making it past the second night and thus barely out of the story’s introduction. While thematically there’s some point to what the nightmares are about – Vincent’s anxiety – in purely mechanical terms they have absolutely nothing to do with the narrative’s pull and tension. It feels needless and in the way.

At the same time, the other interaction on offer is replying – or not – to text messages you’re getting while sitting in the bar at night. Writing the text messages line by line from multiple options perfectly captures the feeling of replying to sensitive communiques. This part of the gameplay is utterly captivating.

Categories
culture Games PC

Goodbye, Lucasarts: The things you gave me

I want to say that Lucasarts made me love videogames, but that’s not true. I do think I learned to love them more deeply thanks to Lucasarts. Here’s my most cherished memories with their games.

Maniac Mansion cover art
Maniac Mansion’s awesome cover art

MANIAC MANSION

The Finnish review in MikroBitti was great, recalling slasher flicks and painting it quite a bit more macabre than it really was. Maniac Mansion still feels progressive with its choose your own cast mechanics and dynamic NPCs. Rarely has so much been attained with such a limited playspace.

ZAK MCKRACKEN (AND THE ALIEN MINDBENDERS)

Zak always felt like Lucasarts’ most ambitious game to me. I’m not sure how complicated it actually was, but it felt like a very big game with lots of paths you could go down. Its mix of the mundane with the surreal and the fantastic remains fresh. What a lovely oddball world and cast. From airline pranks to the Sphinx and two-headed squirrels to alien invaders, the cover perfectly covered the atmosphere.

LOOM

I can’t actually recall all that much about LOOM save for realizing that I either have no ear for tone or the friend I was playing with was so much better that it didn’t matter.

INDIANA JONES (AND THE LAST CRUSADE)

For a long time I thought that this is the only way you should do a movie license, honoring the characters and the plot of the original. The accomplishment here is following the original story very closely, yet creating enough new stuff to make the game feel fresh. I still don’t think you could do a straight movie adaptation better than this – generally I’d rather you take the route The Walking Dead did, retelling the same kind of story, but not the same one.

X-WING

TIE Fighter gets all the love, but I was an X-Wing guy. At the time I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to play as the bad guys. With its movie sensibilities and simulation approach, it plunged you deeper into a movie world than any game before or since. (Well, I guess except for TIE Fighter.)

(THE SECRET OF) MONKEY ISLAND (2: LECHUCK’S REVENGE)

I bought so wholesale into the brilliantly realized Monkey Island fantasy, going to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland last year felt like coming home for the very same flavor of Caribbean fantasy world they offer. The games feature some brilliant characters and unforgettable scenes – breaking into the mansion, the coffin ride, the voodoo priestess, the drowning… Monkey Island 2 was a big game for me just for looking so unbelievably good, I had a hard time believing it was real. At least until you got to the disc-swapping.

GRIM FANDANGO

I love Grim Fandango mostly for its esthetic values. Very few early 3D games can stand up to light today, but with its sense of style and adaptation of real-world art, Grim Fandango is a masterclass in art direction. It doesn’t overshadow its qualities in writing and characters at all – this is a dance you should learn, even if the very strange world it depicts may be a little much to get your head around at first brush.

GLADIUS

I don’t actually have that strong memories of this title, but it was one of the best games on the original Xbox and something that’s often overlooked, so I want to bring it up. A turn-based tactical gladiator title, it was never going to be a big seller, no matter how good it was. Without doing the research I can’t be sure, but I believe it was Lucasarts’ last truly good game.

Categories
culture Games PC

Thirty Flights Of Loving (PC)

Thirty Flights Of Loving screenshot
Thirty Flights Of Loving

Small form gaming

In journalism the long-form is making a return. That’s a great development, if somewhat paradoxical with the proliferation of time spent on smartphones and ever smaller chunks at a time on one specific thing. The rise of tablets is certainly a part of it, being more suited to reading than phones or computer screens are. But I attribute a big part of it to people simply wanting content they care about, instead of machinegun news. We used to say that you can’t charge for news or online journalism, but it turns out you can – it’s now just a matter of figuring out how much and for how many consumers. I believe the shift happened once so much of our lives and content was online, the line between a tangible newspaper and an incorporeal news site blurred to something that just doesn’t matter to many people. The tangible isn’t seen as value anymore. On the contrary, young people are proud of how little stuff they have or need.

There is another interesting parallel in TVs and movies. Movies are getting dumber by the year, Hollywood largely settling on the “sure bets” of remakes and reboots and re-imaginings and movies as events (”you gotta see it!” “Why?”), while Youtube and other online video has largely already replaced the TV for younger people. When my ISP asked me if I had used the TV functionality, I had to actually think (I had, once). At the same time the TV show is in full-blown renaissance. We’re getting better TV than ever, and that’s because writers have embraced the form as something that’s very valuable and substantial on its own, not as an offshoot of cinema or something cheap and dumb you do when you don’t have the energy for anything else – be it as a creator or a consumer. The TV show has turned into the long-form moving image. The TV shows of today demand and reward attention and thinking.

Meanwhile, in games

I believe it’s time for games to embrace a shift like this. They need to, to be in line with the changing lives and perspectives of their audience.

The problem is that most modern games are way too long. If you’re a hardcore gamer and especially if you’re in your teens, you’re going to make a face and dismiss this outright. But if you’re not hardcore or in your teens, you’re likely nodding along there.

This is getting better now as production costs are so sky-high that we can’t afford to make more than 6-8 hours of linear content. But that’s not a shift to better get on with the times, that’s something you do because you’re forced to. The audience doesn’t appreciate it, because they feel they’re getting less than they used to for their 50-70 USD/EUR.

What you need to do is accept that your audience wants new experiences. They want games that matter to them and give them things to talk about. They want something they can consume instead of watching some more Youtube – the threshold to jump into a game shouldn’t exist.

Now it does, for a lot of reasons. For one, games are just too big. I haven’t played Skyrim in months and the thought of going back to it is intimidating. It’s like the game is towering before me, and starting again on that path is just too much. This is great is all you do is play one game day-in day-out, but for a lot of gamers it isn’t ideal.

Another problem is that games are so goddamn complex. I’ve started Vanquish and want to go back to it, but the controls are so complex that I have to accept spending at least half an hour of being bad before hopefully, maybe re-acquiring what skills I had. And that’s a very in-your-face action game, supposed to be immediately accessible, jump-in fun.

Third problem is that games demand constant attention. They’re generally very bad in acknowledging that you might have other things to do and can only give them, say, half an hour this week. This is getting better with examples from mobile games and things like the PlayStation 4’s instant suspend and resume, but there’s still ways to go before we’re at the level of TV shows. Not that this is a unique problem to games – books in general require effort to follow all the way through, if you don’t do it in a small enough span of time.

I’m not saying all of these problems even need to be solved or that solving them would be good for all games, but Thirty Flights Of Loving is an example of solving all these problems at once.

A First-Person Shooter

Thirty Flights Of Loving says it’s an FPS without being one. It tells a story that stays with you with very few words, no dialogue and super low “production values”. Instead, it embraces the videogame form and does things with it that you couldn’t do with any other medium. It does this in around 30 minutes, if that. It’s more focused and confident than anything I can think of.

I had no idea what to expect, going in, and what I left with when I turned off the game was memories of an episode of my life I didn’t know I had. You can’t really say anything about the story without spoiling it and whereas for the most part videogame spoilers are something I could not care less about, in this case they really are. Just play it.

You could spend time arguing if it’s even a game as you can’t lose as far as I know and you’re effectively going through a linear story. I don’t particularly care – it looks and feels like a game.

Thirty Flights Of Loving is a videogame short story, a short movie, a single issue comic book, a single. I would like there to be many more games like it.

Categories
blog culture rant

In search of positive, responsible games

Zzap!64 magazine, cover of issue 41
Zzap!64, issue 41. My childhood in a picture.

I spoke at an event (hosted by Pelitaito) yesterday with the above topic. Some of this is stuff I’ve been talking and writing about for years, but it went down well so I decided to just rewrite it in English.

SOCIAL, RESPONSIBLE CULTURE

I reacted negatively to the topic given to me. Yes, you should expect responsibility from any form of publicly distributed media. But positivity? My aggravation tendrils quivered.

Games have a unique relationship with the playing masses – consumers, if you must – in that most of the audience does not think of them as culture, nor give them a status as influencers. When a musician writes lyrics or melodies to affect emotions in their audience, or when a movie director frames a scene in a given manner, it’s understood that it’s done for a reason. The artist has a motivation to evoke a feeling and line of thinking.

With video games it’s different. Many of their creators are not out to make an effect. This is (very) (slowly) changing, but as of 2013, most game makers say they’re making “just entertainment”. Something fun and harmless. The same attitude is evident in the production of many Hollywood movies and chart pop and crappy literature. These works make you question what should still be considered art. Surely when you don’t even think your audience remembers the work the next day, a line has been crossed.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Someone out to make entertainment does not need to sport any higher goals or aspirations. What is wrong is thinking that you can create entertainment in a vacuum where media does not have any sort of effect on its audience and thus no accountability for the message it’s conveying.

LIFE LESSONS FROM THE CHURCH OF CRT AND TAC-2

All media carries a message. The maker cannot control the way the recipient handles the message or how they consume the piece of entertainment. Let’s say you’re making an annual update to a by the numbers military shooter with a dodgy world view. For tens of thousands of kids it’s going to be the first game of its kind they play. They may play it for months, and it’s going to be very powerful, important to them. They’re going to eat up every word you put in that game.

I believe I can recall every game I ever played as a child. It’s both naive and dangerous to think that those games didn’t have an effect on me. (They most certainly did, and in many ways made me who I am today.)

GAMES THAT HAD A POSITIVE INFLUENCE OF SOME KIND ON ME

So the “positivity” in the header rubbed me the wrong way. The reason is that positivity shouldn’t be seen as a goal for game content. Quite the opposite, in fact, as games have huge and largely untapped potential to explore not-fun, difficult situations and contexts in very powerful ways, making players question their world views in a fashion that just doesn’t come easily in any other medium. If you’re wondering, that’s because it’s interactive and creative (self-expression) on the part of the player. I do agree that games need to be a positive, participatory, constructive part of culture. You need to claim your place and stand on it.

Games must not be in a vacuum. A game cannot and must not be forgiven for anything “because it’s a game”. On the contrary: games have a heavy responsibility about what they say and do precisely because they’re games. They’re powerful, and it’s about time we acknowledged that.

NO, SERIOUSLY, GUYS

Talking about this within the game industry – or scene, if you’re a sworn indie developer, I guess – is rather frustrating. There is a large contingent of developers saying blankly, stubbornly and unemotionally “it’s just a game” to any and all forms of accountability, critique and questioning.

It’s all just games growing up. First you spend years claiming how games are grand, important, effective experiences, and then you’re shouting how there’s no way they could have an effect on anything to the extent that the content would matter anything. How no developer is accountible for anything. You’re not responsible. I’m not responsible.

A good example would be last week’s God Of War: Ascension discussion. The game reviewer Adam Sessler took the exemplary measure of bringing up something he found  objectionable in the game content – in this case (and in his opinion), misogynous. The gaming audience’s reaction was not surprising in its stunned rage: you can’t take this as hostile, it’s just a laugh, but there’s stuff like this in some other media somewhere, how come you didn’t notice this in another game with similar content, and my favorite: you can’t lower a game’s subjective score just because you find its message disgusting. (Of course you can. You should.)

As an industry, we need a lot more of this.

At the same time, The Walking Dead game has been talked about. The non-playing audience is saying it’s a game in which you murder children. The Walking Dead is exemplary entertainment: it’s mature, it’s restricted from children as it should be, it’s a huge leap into moral, dramatic stories in game. It’s accomplishments are monumental and flaws very few. Yet it’s crucified by the ignorant masses who don’t bother to find out the first thing about the game or listen to its many fans – who have now cried for the first time with a video game and are moved in a major way by it.

It feels like even when you do everything correctly, you just can’t win.

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

When you’re getting these childish, knee-jerk reactions from both within and outside of your field, it’s very hard to stand proudly next to your chosen medium. Especially when you know that it is in many parts unacceptable to you – yourself, as a person.

Where I see a chance to grow and reach out to an ever wider audience in more meaningful ways, a great many only see a threat and an ugly, merciless, uncovering searchlight.

Standing in that searchlight is not nice. Games have so many problems with their content that nobody wants to publicly take responsibility for them – or even discuss them out of fear of association. But that dialogue must take place if we are to advance as a medium. I am going to make game well past retirement, and I am going to continue to be proud of them, both in dinner tables and in the media.

Appendix 1: SHIT I FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE ABOUT

  • Pretty much all fighting games, much as I love them. Yes, the boobs.
  • Pretty much every modern FPS. We’ve come a long way from Doom, and in a weird direction. I’m not sure how many more digital foreigners I want to kill.
  • The world view of every modern military themed game that’s not Spec Ops: The Line. It’s scary to say the least. Airborne Ranger had nothing on this.

Appendix 2: GAMES I WANT TO SHINE A SEARCHLIGHT ON

  • Spec Ops: The Line. The only game that actually acknowledges the mass murder taking place within, and deals with it in a human way.
  • The Walking Dead. Human drama, conflict, growth and – yes – responsibility over another. (And all the tears.)
  • Hotline Miami. A great example of making a superficially simple game that’s all about its mechanics but doesn’t shy away from owning its message.
Categories
culture rant

Critics

Game critics (Mountain Dew and Doritos)
Game critics/Mountain Dew and Doritos

For the past couple of years there’s been talk about videogame journalism’s lack of integrity. There is a perceived and vocalized need for more worthy journalism. A call to grow up. I agree wholeheartedly.

Edge Online published an article calling to doubt some of the message in the Loot Drop Kickstarter, “Old School RPG”, by Brenda Garno (Brathewaite) and Tom Hall. (Now canceled.) I was really struck by the tone of the Edge article. It felt alien. It took a moment to register, but really it stands out because it’s written as a journalist reporting on something he’s external to.

Most of game media is written as if the journalist is part of the industry he’s supposed to cover. It is rare to see any criticism towards any facet of the industry, going as far as to ridicule all outside forces that may be seen as critical about games. Edge called to question both the message and its motivation, although taking careful care not to undermine the developers they covered. And deservedly so – these are veterans who deserve all the credit.

I am willing to pay money to see this kind of honest, proper reporting. That’s why Edge is the only magazine I have a subscription to. Online, Penny Arcade Report is doing the same sort of thing. They’ve managed a great line between, well, reporting and the kind of content fans are used to seeing. I would like more of that. Polygon is another step in the right direction, plus they’ve really made their online space feel like a thing that has value, and not just words on the internet. It’s not about running after a quick newsbite, it’s valuing my time as a reader and adding to the discussion.

If we extend this more critical way of reporting on games, what would gaming media staples like previews and reviews be like? I find it hard to stomach previews as they’re generally written. Very often previews are essentially re-worded press releases. If a journalist was to cover a game in preview with a little more integrity, they would maybe seek out an angle the audience wasn’t expecting, maybe go over the line of games the new game is going to belong to, ponder whether it’s adding anything new and interesting. And if it isn’t? Why even cover it? Let’s make the game developers and publishers earn that coverage.

The form of the preview is closely tied to the medium it’s featured in: online coverage. In a game of being first and scoring high on Google, quality doesn’t even factor in. Following the coverage of my own games online, it is all too often seen that “news” and, yes, even “previews” don’t even feature screenshots from the correct game, let alone get any of the details right. It’s noise through and through, yet the business of (small) sites is such that it’s the only way to work that makes sense (or seems to, anyway).

While previews are generally throwaway content, at least they’re mostly harmless. Reviews are much, much worse. I have a real problem with (okay, let’s soften this with a “most”) reviews. I’m not sure where it comes from, but for some reason gaming media treats games as technical products being graded on quantifiable, measurable scales. That doesn’t work, because games are a creative medium and in every way closer to a piece of art in a gallery than a Black & Decker appliance. They are not something you use, something you gain a benefit from.

Reviews should tell you what’s interesting about a game. They should tell you what matters in the work. They should set the work against the broader canvas of work that has come before it, and help you place it in the context of its authors and contemporaries. Or maybe the review could give you a unique point of view, a new perspective to value the work. You know, pretty much anything that is not a number.

I kind of lost hope just the other day when discussing the previous year’s best games with an experienced game journalist when we first spent a long while discussing the substantial merits of Spec Ops: The Line, and then he explained how he couldn’t really place it high on game of the year lists or even get it coverage, because it didn’t work that well on the accepted ways you could cover a third person shooter. So it’s made an impression on this long-time games writer, and he can’t cover it? That’s just wrong.

I wonder if the insistence on covering games as products valued as numbers comes from the media’s want to function as sales advisors. I guess that’s a valid approach. But having written quite a few reviews, I’ve found that my recommending or not recommending a game isn’t about whether it looks or plays or sounds better or worse than some of the competition. It comes down to whether there is a new kind of – or in some other way interestingexperience on offer or not. How do you assign a number to that?

In search of more interesting games journalism experiences, my very short list of people and sources you should pay attention to, in no particular order:

Polygon: http://www.polygon.com/

Penny Arcade Report: http://penny-arcade.com/report/

Leigh Alexander: http://sexyvideogameland.blogspot.com/ and https://twitter.com/leighalexander. I first stumbled on Leigh Alexander’s output in the first issue of Kill Screen and was so moved by her piece that had to see what else she had written. Turns out it was plenty and it’s all very good. She’s at Gamasutra now (also good).

Brendan Keogh: http://critdamage.blogspot.com/ and https://twitter.com/BRKeogh

Kill Screen: http://killscreendaily.com/

Jason Killingsworth: https://twitter.com/jasonkill

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of worthy stuff elsewhere, but these consistently deliver.

Categories
culture

Global/Finnish Game Jam 2013

Pod Of Stars pitch
Pod Of Stars pitch

Helsinki, Finland.

Last year in January I was shipping my first game. In the middle of the most intense crunching a wild jam appeared: I was asked to judge the entries and pick a winner at the Finnish Game Jam 2012. Welcoming the chance to get out of the office for a few hours, I travelled to the jam site a couple of times over the weekend to check out the games in progress and then review the final entries. It was weird, the walk to the site from the office and back my only respite from the brutal final push to release my own game.

It’s not unreasonable to say that last year’s Global/Finnish Game Jam was the only positive, living, inspirational thing in my winter. I didn’t see my wife or friends for months. So that may be a part of it, but what I saw was so profound, so energetic that I knew I had to be a part of it. I was jealous to the people working on their games, even as I was getting my own title out of the door.

(Maybe it’s worth mentioning that I’m very happy with the final game we released, super proud of my team, and still working in the same studio. It’s just that those final months were a bit much.)

I had to participate in the Global/Finnish Game Jam 2013.

I was a bit hesitant because I felt I was so much older at 35 than most of the jammers. I knew that I wasn’t up for all-night creative binges anymore. I wanted to sleep in my bed, not a concrete floor. My body couldn’t take a weekend without proper food. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if my collaboration with my best friend wouldn’t work out?

Come end of January, 2013, we were going to make a video game in 48 hours. Actually, make that 24, with sleeping and planning removed.

The night before, I hung out with my collaborator. We had designed games and talked about them for a very long time (closing on two decades), but we had never worked on a video game together. Our backup plan was for me to do everything in Photoshop and Game Maker, so we went over my capabilities, what’s easy and what’s difficult. I showed the kinds of games I can create in a couple of nights. We talked about what would be cool, but didn’t settle on anything.

25.1.2013 FRIDAY

17-19: Opening words, practical information. This year’s theme is revealed: audio of a heartbeat is played. I can see there are more people in their thirties than I recalled from last year. More professionals, too. Way more women.

19-20:30: Forming ideas in groups. I like the idea of finding the dancing partner with a matching heartbeat. We end up putting together a “Finnish retail experience” pitch where you look for groceries to fill out your shopping list while anxiously avoiding eye contact and personal proximity with other shoppers and over-eager clerks.

19:50-20:20: Putting together our “own” game idea with my friend. We were determined to work together and see if we can find any like-minded help. It comes very easily and naturally, we gravitate towards a spaceship we see in our mind’s eye, thinking that the heartbeat could also be an engine. It’s all done in half an hour. Love the poster, the header is bigger than anybody else’s. Also, gigantic picture.

20:30-21:00: Pitching. I’m more nervous than when meeting people in a Hollywood studio to discuss games based on movie properties or visiting the Microsoft campus. Our game “Pod Of Stars” is the first one to be presented and gets a laugh. I also present the “Finnish Retail Experience” and get a big laugh. It feels great. The guy making the “Retail” poster did a great job on the picture, it’s the nicest picture on the wall.

21:00-21:30: Forming the team. People come forward and we don’t have any issue filling out the team. It pays to be first in this sort of situation and be super confident in what you’re proposing, even though you don’t really know what it is, actually. The big lettering and picture probably help, too.

I can step down to a designer role with my friend with two Unity programmers stepping up – I’d planned to do it all in Game Maker, but now I don’t have to. So it’s going to be a 3D game, then… Hmm. I’m elated and a little bit disappointed that a musician volunteers, as I was getting into the idea of making the whole soundtrack with my inept guitar skills. I had discovered the previous night that I can just plug my guitar into my computer with Rocksmith’s USB dongle and record it in Audacity. He doesn’t want to do sound effects, though, so there’s still that. A plan is formed with my comrade in arms to record voiceovers for the game’s AI.

21:30-22:00: Setting up upstairs after a tour of the premises. Computers need power and ethernet cables. Go over initial design so that the artist and coders can get started while we still work on the design. We’re working in the same youth center space I host a game development club in on Mondays. It feels empowering to be on home turf.

22:00-23:00: Paper prototype of game design with my co-designer. Lots of ideas are chucked and hatched and refined at this stage. It works a treat, we basically turn the real-time game into a turn-based game. It’s very straightforward with our extensive board game and pen and paper RPG experience. We came unprepared, though, but one of the coders really saves the day by having packed a number of different dice and excellent wooden counters and stuff. We take notes on Post-Its.

Note: paper prototyping is essential, we would’ve made a lot of bad calls without sanity-checking this way. I’ve always believed in paper prototyping, but this really proved the point for me.

23:00-23:20: Writing down the design as user stories into Google Docs. It was essential  because the actual “design documentation” was a pile of Post-Its taken during the paper prototyping nobody else could’ve made any sense out of. These weren’t really used in the end, but it was essential for myself to make sure I had thought of everything. User stories really work.

23:20-23:40: Go over the design with team to make sure everybody understands it. Get buy-in from everyone. Answer questions. Agree on tasks. Coders have got Unity up and running at this point and we have the first 3D model done (a monkey) (this is surely a good omen).

23:40-02:00: Build a Tumblr for the game as there’s narrative stuff we need an outlet for and realistically it’s not going to fit into the game, register on the Global Game Jam website, arrange coffee, take a break. Write script. Work on logo. Start thinking about menus.

02:00: Head home for the night. Worry about having too few worthwhile decisions/choices in the gameplay. This ended up a baseless worry as I didn’t take into account that just coping with the rapidly devolving situation in realtime is enough for fun. Worry about art styles clashing between in-game and menus. This was a proper problem that required corrective action later on.

02:20: Sitting in the bus, utterly psyched by the progress so far and especially all the off-game stuff (logos, insignia, poetry, Tumblr). The paper prototype fucking rocked. Soundtrack for the voyage home: Swedish House Mafia, Sinead O Connor.

So high I could just scream.

2:30-03:05: Text messaging with co-designer about script. So psyched, trouble going to sleep.

26.1.2013 SATURDAY

08:30: Awake after 5 hours of sleep. Feels like the right amount, I’m alert. Thinking about where to grab breakfast, not that many options available. Think longingly back to last summer in the US with breakfast options on every corner. Stomach demands something warm. It feels like getting up too early to head for the airport for a business trip.

Make mental notes in the bath: think about the “interesting decisions” problem (needlessly), prepare voiceovers (that weren’t used), maybe work on sound effects, make sure everyone’s registered correctly on the GGJ site.

10:15: Back on site. Check on progress. One coder and designer still at home sleeping. Musician has delivered a title track. It’s great to have something to tangible. The game feels like it’s getting a form.

10:30-11:30: Twitter #fgj13 #ggj13. Comment on art and animation. Make main menu, readme (help) graphics. Update official game page and Tumblr. Think about sound effects and script.

11:35: Heartbeat audio integrated into the game. Makes it feel entirely scary and foreboding! Seriously at odds with the chunky cartoon graphics. No idea how it’s going to work out.

11:40: Script for voiceover.

We have fried rice at a nearby Chinese place for lunch at 14:00 and a nice pita bread for late dinner at the place run by the Australian hipsters across the street from the Chinese, around 21:30. I do need to get away from the people from time to time, it gets a bit much as everyone’s so focused and hyper and tired.

Over the day we make animal audio barks, which is a lot of fun, plus some sound effects. We decide to make a Youtube channel for the game and make a teaser using Screenr, Photoshop and voiceover.

My friend’s ability to find and modify the right poetry and lyrics to fit the game astounds me. We keep adding to the Youtube channel through the day as the game starts to come together.

The coming together proves slow. The other coder comes in late and doesn’t have the charger for his laptop. It’s not ideal. We’ve got almost all the mechanics working, but putting it all in one build could happen faster. At around 21:00 it looks like there’s little else for me to do except make sure we drop everything that isn’t critical.

A judge (the guy I was judging with last year) comes by. He loves the look, but is confused and concerned about our lack of feedback. How does the player understand what he’s supposed to do? How do you understand what the animals are going to do – or not? It’s all very concerning to me. We start thinking about it as obviously we won’t have the kind of polish time I was banking on for figuring out all this.

At midnight it’s finally starting to work. We can make builds and test the game. The bugs are so plentiful it’s hard to understand what’s happening even though you’ve designed the mechanics yourself. I am losing faith a bit, but decide to be doggedly fatalistic about it. Come what may.

I love the game over screen I put together. My friend wrote the best content for it. The “you win” screen is almost as good. I really want people to finish the game to see them. (They don’t work so well in the context of the final game’s flow, but they’re still awesome.)

Right after midnight magic starts happening, like it always seems to, right at the end of a game project. Every ten minutes one of the issues plaguing the build is eradicated. Issues with mechanics are discussed and resolved right away. In two hours it becomes something I believe we can finish the next day, only lacking the UI (layout and elements done, just need integrating) and tuning the player experience (instructions screen, improved feedback). Oh, and the game end states…

I wonder if I should’ve done anything differently and can’t really think of anything. Bloc Party takes me home on the same bus as last night, 2:11.

27.1.2013 SUNDAY

Awake at 8:10, unassisted, after just about 5 hours of sleep. Excited as all hell to finish this.

9:40: On-site.

10:40 Have re-done the help/readme/tutorial screen to reflect latest changes and player questions. Hugely improved. (Still managed to miss one of the three key interactions in the final version.) Want to cut even more features that now seem unnecessary. Fortunately they don’t mean any additional work, but I still need coders in to do it.

As with my dayjob as a producer, preparing to ship, I begin writing down a list of critical stuff I can’t live without. General debugging, broken teleports, replace changed menu assets, add the two important UI elements – progress bar and health bar.

This is my main method of getting my job as a producer done: what are the things you can’t live without (or live with, as the case may be)? Fix those and shut the hell up about everything else. That is, if you want to ship.

11:30 Essentially waiting for coders to arrive to get things done. Would be nice if I could have a recent build.

11:31 Hey, wait! There is a new build on the Dropbox, made at 08:00. It’s sweet! It actually plays like a game! A buggy game, but still!

14:00 Still missing the damage counter and credits notifications. Will be done in time. The progress bar I had made needs to be re-made by the artist as it sucks.

15:15 Upload a backup build as we’re fighting with two annoying bugs still. The GGJ site dies under pressure. Backup instructions arrive, also DOA. Build is uploaded the next day.

 

Pod Of Stars screenshot
Pod Of Stars screenshot

MOMENT OF TRUTH

We get to present the game at around 17:30, again going first. It’s a great feeling to show this thing we’ve created out of nothing.

Not even a figment of it existed two days earlier and now it’s a thing with music and animation and everything.

I’m enormously proud, but also relieved that we delivered at all. All the leftover things and less than ideal parts of the project feel inconsequential.

Post-mortem style, we should’ve pushed for an earlier playable prototype, no matter what. I’m very happy that the design weathered the onslaught, suffering only cuts, no added features. I do realize that’s mostly because our two coders were really proficient and didn’t shy down from a challenge. All told, it’s exactly like professional game making, evoking all the same scenes and feelings and moments, condensed down to three days.

I am amazed at the quality of the games made during the jam. Almost all teams made it, a total of twelve games are presented on the stage. The majority of them could be commercial with maybe a week of polish. It’s astounding.

Some of them are so good I feel I should rush out and hug the guys responsible. (Obviously I don’t, I’m Finnish.) Just seeing them there, on stage, makes me… feel better. I can’t believe all these things have been born within these walls just now.

It’s a strangely spiritual experience, sitting there, these creations being presented to you, like creative offerings to whatever it is that makes us breathe and make games. It’s like someone is playing Mogwai’s Auto Rock somewhere off-stage. The congregation is into it.

Redwood forest, California
Redwood forest, California, June 2012.

I’m reminded of walking through the redwood forests in northern California last summer, being awed by nature and time – it’s the same feeling, but awed by human creativity and passion and expression.

Afterwards, there’s a rooftop sauna and after-party. I hang out for a while and could totally stay all night as we finally have some time to talk to each other, not being too busy being creative under pressure, but I’ve got to get home to my neglected wife.

I need to tell her about this wonderful thing that happened this weekend.

MONDAY

Monday-morning, I’m exhausted, but get to work with a newfound clarity.

It’s like I understand games for the first time after having spent decades making them and talking and thinking about and playing them. In a game hides a soul and in a jam you can glimpse it.

The GGJ/FGJ is the best thing I’ve ever done in three days.

It’s helped cement some of the things I’ve been going through lately – namely, I need to be in design and actual, hands-on gamemaking. It’s made me realize that this city is full of incredibly creative, passionate people I now want to work with. It proved that you can get together some 70-80 people to devote an entire weekend in January to creating full games out of nothing but sheer enthusiasm and talent (that’s over 500 people in Finland and 12 000 worldwide!). It’s made me think seriously about how we create games as professionals. It’s made me plunge headfirst into making my own projects, except now with a collaborator. I can now see the value of shipping stuff, even if unfinished.

I don’t know. I’m utterly in love with the jams and all the people making them happen.

POD OF STARS

Global Game Jam page: http://globalgamejam.org/node/1356

Youtube channel with work in progress and marketing videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/PodOfStars

Blog with in-character fiction: http://podofstars.tumblr.com/

Categories
culture PC

Spec Ops: The Line (PC)

Critics have been hard on the game’s graphics, but I found it beautiful. And it’s all set in sand. I expected it would be boring visually.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game that was as defining to videogames last year as The Walking Dead and Hotline Miami. This is a spoiler-free article – I’m not uncovering any major plot points – but if you’re super sensitive to that sort of thing, do yourself a favor and play the game first. It’s only around eight hours.

You’re still a good person.

Spec Ops: The Line is an action game about war. You play as a member of Delta Force, sent into sandstorm-stricken modern Dubai to look for survivors after a failed evacuation attempt. It’s a squad-based, third-person cover shooter.

Unlike most shooters, you spend a lot of time looking at guys you’ve just shot in this game. And generally, you also just come across bodies a lot. After a firefight there’s always a number of guys wounded, crying and screaming. The dead do not look like they’re at peace. They look like they’ve been shot and suffered before dying. At one time I die when a grenade falls nearby. The protagonist’s, Walker’s, face passes close to the camera, mouth open in shock and horror, eyes bulging out of the head. I haven’t seen anything that graphic being done to the hero in a war game before. It feels like the moments after a firefight are as important as the actual fighting.

There’s a pivotal scene in the game in which you use your authority as the commanding officer and have your team commit something that results in an atrocity. Once the totality of what I had done was uncovered, I was horrified by my actions unlike ever before in a game. First the dying guy with the burned, blackened face accusing me (calmly and rightfully), then the piles of the dead, then my comrades losing their shit over what I did. What I had them commit.

I felt really sick aiming down my sights in the next scene. So much so that I actually had to stop playing for the night. I didn’t want to go on. I didn’t want to shoot another guy. In Brandon Keogh’s “Killing Is Harmless”, he notes that the first song in the game proper is Mogwai’s “R U Still In 2 It?”, and if that’s what the game is asking me (it is), this is the point where I was no longer into it. I did not want to pull the trigger anymore.

When you come across another pile of bodies, you can’t help but think if it’s about the same amount you’ve killed during your stay in Dubai.

Not only do you deal with death, you deal with the dying. Frequently by your own hand.

There’s always a choice.

Because it’s a squad shooter, there’s always two guys following you around. Having them around has dramatic weight. Your squad mates are witnesses and a moral compass, you care about how they feel about things. When things start to heat up, it’s your buddies who really give you an idea of how far you’ve fallen. “We must keep moving”, Walker says a number of times when the other hardened Delta operators are struck by the events and their role and need to take a break. They make convincing, natural comments on what’s happened and can’t just take things in stride. They can’t forgive and forget.

It’s a good third person shooter, actually. I don’t remember the reviews saying that. The enemy variety isn’t on the level of a Gears, but it’s really solid and smooth. I do enjoy playing it, there’s none of that Kane & Lynch issue of lack of quality and polish detracting from the game’s other virtues evident here.

I’m struck by how much color and ambience they get out of the setting, starting from the very first shots. They do wonderful things with light. The animation is really good and it’s actually important in bringing across everybody’s humanity and the deteriorating control and composure of the protagonists. As the story progresses, the Delta operators become bleeding, ragged wildmen, half-burnt and disfigured. Their animation and expressions match this gradual change. You likely don’t even realize it’s happening until you have a flashback scene back to the beginning of the game, where the protagonists are all clean-shaven and confident. At the end they’re little more than animals.

2013-01-20_00264
The transformation of the protagonists is thrown into stark contrast with the way they started out as towards the end of the game.

It’s all your fault.

The Line is really well written, not just on the thematic level, but on the micro level. All the chatter and the small cutscenes between the fighting and the reveals flow along and there’s never a feeling of “just let me play the game”. I’m actually interested in what everybody is saying and doing and becoming, because none of it is inconsequential. There’s weight to everything – everything is said and done for a reason. It’s amazing that a military shooter manages to carry tension with just the character drama. You are never worried about or anxious about the “mission parameters”, or actually even the enemy threat. It’s all about the insecurity of what you’re doing.

There is no right or wrong here, save to not come into a situation you don’t understand and try to make everyone do what you want at gunpoint. Everybody involved has committed atrocities and seeing how you’ve done so yourself – out of necessity, or desperation, but surely with the best of intentions? – it’s not hard at all to understand how it all came to pass. What possible good outcome could there be? The Line doesn’t give out answers, but it does require you to ask the questions.

Because the game is so well written, you take it seriously, and you start to view parts of the whole differently. For instance, you have the option to use silencers. There isn’t actually any point to it because every single encounter will result in a loud shoot-out. At most I’ve been able to take out two guys silently before it goes to hell. The only reason I still use silencers after I realized how pointless they are is because the violence makes me queasy and I’d rather not have my gun reporting loudly all the time. That and there’s the thought that maybe, just maybe in this instance we’re actually able to avoid more bloodshed by playing it tidy. That never happens. In any other game I would say it has pointless and broken stealth mechanics, but here it feels deliberate.

Most games pretend they don’t have all the incoherent videogame stuff going on, quietly asking you to shrug to yourself. “It’s just a game.” Spec Ops: The Line acknowledges discord and when things are out of joint. It’s not accidental. It’s there on purpose. The contrast of the the game doing its best to make violence hard to stomach on a thematic level while making it as enjoyable as possible on a tactile, reactive level, is never accidental. The protagonists question the wisdom of the choices they make and try to make sense of a deteriorating situation, try to redeem themselves.

Well, I’ll take any excuse for a shark shot.

Killing for entertainment is harmless.

I am amazed that 2K agreed to publish the game as-is. For instance, there’s a couple of moments when the surrounding world is reacting to what you’ve done. They’re calling you a murderer, aghast and enraged, and with good cause. It feels really bad. You’re the monster. You’ve become the enemy. They’re appalled by your actions, and how do you respond? By killing some more.

You descend into an emotional state that’s really removed from the way you feel in other shooters. The developer, a German studio called Yager, is smart enough to have everything descend with you – the actors start screaming obscenities, firing in anger, using excessive force as you become more desperate. Your buddies fall out with you and start not just questioning you but outright blaming you for what they’ve become. It’s a weird place to be.

The game is full of hallucinatory details you don’t necessarily notice at all, even upon the introduction of overt hallucinatory sequences later in the game. Yager does a good job of playing its cards closely and leaving the details to be discovered. There are moments where I went “wait a minute” over something, but then chalked it up to “a videogame” and shrugged. Case in point: the Hellish view of the dozens of hanged soldiers on the highway. Even if you don’t see anything wrong about what you’re perceiving, it all adds up in the back of your head.

There is an outstanding use of music throughout. It’s not your typical macho military score, either, rather distorted, echoing guitars and selected rock pieces to give emotional weight and depth to scenes. It further skews things into a questioning space. It’s rare that I want to listen to game soundtracks these days, but having completed the game, I had to revisit the important songs to review my emotions and thoughts.

As sun sets on Dubai, there's a strong feeling the darkness is descending on everybody involved.
As sun sets on Dubai, there’s a strong feeling the darkness is descending on everybody involved.

There is not a man righteous. 

The Line has been criticized for not truly allowing choice. Like this military shooter should have an option of… not… shooting everyone in the face. Of course it doesn’t, because it’s a shooter. You know you’re playing one. The choice you have is to not play the game. The Line knows this and reminds you of it all the time. It wants you to take responsibility in what you’re doing, and think about what you’re playing.

Walt Williams, the writer of The Line: “That’s what we were looking to do, particularly in [that one pivotal scene], is give direct proof that this is not a world that you are in control of, this world is directly in opposition to you as a game and a gamer.” (http://www.giantbomb.com/news/this-is-all-your-fault/4291/)

But actually the game is smarter than that. It does give you a number of important choices, although you may not even realize you’re making them at the time. The overt binary choices, by contrast, feel like red herrings to satisfy your gamer instincts.

The way you get into the protagonist’s – Walker’s – head is much more powerful than in most “roleplaying” games. It’s a state you don’t really want to be in, but it’s effective nonetheless. It’s wrong, but you understand it. These may be “just” soldiers shooting people and doing horrible things on the battlefield, but for once, you’re there with them and you live through it. Even with its intentionally fourth wall breaking moments, The Line never stops treating you as a player in the drama. You can’t escape the blame.

Your perspective on the factions at play – the 33rd, the CIA, the insurgents, the refugees, your own squad, yourself as a player – changes all the time, rather deliberately. Now you’re working to save the soldiers, now you’re killing them, now they’re the good guys and you’re the bad guys – but that can’t be right? It not so much asks you to keep up but aims to confuse you, to have you shoved from conflict to conflict, spinning in your head, trying to do the right thing, ending up making things worse for everyone.

The fights in sandstorms are intense.
The fights in sandstorms are intense.

Do you feel like a hero yet?

Crucially, even with a number of big reveals and turnarounds, there is no “right” way to interpret The Line. Nothing quite seems to click with any one explanation. What parts were real? What were not? All that matters is the journey the player took.

Spec Ops: The Line was a financial failure and a mixed critical success. It’s disappointing and frustrating that a game so objectively good (in my subjective opinion, obviously) and so important can’t find a market. How should a game like this be sold? I’m not sure, but you can’t sell it as a Call Of Duty style title, because it isn’t one.

The things I would hope many more games would take from The Line are giving player room to think and reflect, and actually asking them to do so. Obviously you also need content that is worthy of that contemplation. Any decent movie, action or otherwise, does this. There is no reason why a game shouldn’t.

Rock Paper Shotgun’s Alec Meer said it: “Most of all, Spec Ops’ uncompromising gaze into the heart of darkness left me feeling abjectly awful, as though I’d been somewhere intrinsically rotten and done worse things in it. I almost can’t believe this got made, let alone released by a major publisher. That’s exactly why it impressed me so much.” (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/06/29/spec-ops-review-pc/)

Spec Ops: The Line is an important game. Even if you disagree with what it’s doing, you can’t deny that it has a message and it has meaning – so much meaning, in fact, that it’s the game I’ve read the most about… ever. I completed the game last Sunday, then read 50’000 words about it, and then proceeded to read a further dozen in-depth interviews and critiques of it, and then I had trouble going to sleep because I was thinking so hard about the fact that it’s something I want to make.

I’ve said for some years now that I want to make games that matter, but I’ve had trouble showing an example of that. The Line is that game.

Further reading:

Brendan Keogh’s book-length critical reading of the game, scene by scene, “Killing Is Harmless”: http://stolenprojects.com/

Polygon’s in-depth discussion of the narrative with the developer: http://www.polygon.com/2012/11/14/3590430/dont-be-a-hero-the-full-story-behind-spec-ops-the-line “Davis and Williams wanted to create a game that would challenge the player, and bother them a little. They didn’t want it to be necessarily fun. They wanted to say something.”

Lots of insight from The Line’s writer, Walt Williams: http://www.giantbomb.com/news/this-is-all-your-fault/4291/

Tom Bissell’s thoughts on The Line in the context of violent (military) videogames: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8157257/line-explores-reasons-why-play-shooter-games