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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.
culture rant


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:


Penny Arcade Report:

Leigh Alexander: and 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: and

Kill Screen:

Jason Killingsworth:

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

Games rant roleplaying Xbox 360

What’s wrong with Bioware? (Mass Effect 2)

Mass Effect 2

I used to think that Bioware was the coolest studio out there. They were putting out games I absolutely loved: mainly Baldur’s Gate and its sequel. I always forget that the AD&D game I liked the best, Icewind Dale, was not a Bioware production despite using their Infinity engine in the Forgotten Realms setting – it was Black Isle’s (of Planescape Torment and Fallout 2 fame).

Up to Knights Of The Old Republic – still the best Star Wars entertainment out there apart from the original trilogy – they could do no wrong. I fell in love with Star Wars all over again because of that game.

I skipped Neverwinter Nights due to not having a gaming PC at the time. From what I hear, it suffered from a lack of focus. MDK2 was alright. I was a big enough man to allow them this sidetrack into action.

Then there was Jade Empire, which was good, but not what I was expecting. The mechanics were weird. The fighting worked, but it never felt good. As ever, the world and the characters were very cool and inspired. I did not mind the smaller scale and overall I really enjoyed my time in the kung fu epic.

I am a big fan of Mass Effect, but that’s the point I realized Bioware is not something I can unconditionally trust anymore. The inventory was broken, most of the mechanics were poorly implemented (poower use, Mako driving), inadequately explained (grenades) or just broken (skills) and the fighting was never fun in and of itself.

What they got right was a super cool science fiction world, characters, and dialogue. My FemShep kicks all kinds of ass and I love her for it and Bioware for letting me do that. The story held me all the way, even though it contained only new space opera cliches. I didn’t care about the problems, because the narrative completely seized me.

Considering that Mass Effect 2 got even higher praise than the original game, I was ready to get it on. About ten hours in, I completely lost my interest.

It’s the same world, much of the same characters, same good dialogue, improved combat and somewhat improved mechanics, but they’ve completely dropped the ball with the story.

I have no idea what I’m doing and why (I guess there’s a gate I should jump in), and I don’t care. I’ve been told to go and collect all of my missing friends, gotta catch ’em all style, and then talk to them and talk to them until they offer me a mission to get them to trust me. This is not what I imagined the second chapter of saving the goddamn universe (again) to be like!

It’s like an endless sequence of those pointless fetch-a-thons that comprise the side quests of most RPGs (Bioware’s included). Even though the missions are generally well put together, well framed and well acted, I just don’t give a shit. Getting my crew together should be a side order, not the main course.

Apparently the game ends in a cliffhanger once you’re finally ready to go to the gate and jump in to tackle the actual threat to everything in existence. Sorry, a game of cloned preludes cannot hold my attention. I don’t think I’m going to complete the game, and probably will just skip to Mass Effect 3.

We’ll see how Mass Effect 3 manages to resolve these issues, if at all. At least my damn group should be together already. And based on how much the fans of the original Dragon Age hated the sequel  – which I haven’t played already, but I very much mean to, precisely because of the internet furore – maybe they’ve learned some lessons.

Less is more: Dragon Age has a lot to learn here with its swathes of uninteresting content. Show, don’t tell: Mass Effect’s best stuff is hidden away in a codex. I need a motivation to do stuff: Mass Effect 2, I’m looking at you. These are cliches because they’re true. They’re also simple rules which Bioware used to know. Previously they’ve only struggled with mechanics and game rules – initially helped by using an established ruleset when working on Wizards‘ systems – now they’ve started to stumble on their unique strengths. It worries me.


Videogame websites

From a marketing point of view, I can see why a given videogame’s official website is as useless as it is. (Case in point? Far Cry 2.) They’ve (“they” being the publisher’s marketing/PR department) commissioned a promotional site from a design agency and all they give them is a bunch of art files and placeholder quality copy. They say that it needs to be a digital brochure and that they need an opt-in exclusive section, probably just because they need to match any opt-in quotas related to their annual bonuses. Some of the art files will be reserved for that. The agency picks a Flash template, replaces and repositions some elements and drops everything in. I don’t know, maybe they actually go to more trouble than that, but that’s what it tends to look like.

Alright, all the facts that people may be looking for are going to be in Wikipedia anyway. Any and all screenshots are going to be available from countless videogame portal sites. If you have a technical problem, there’s always the official forums, and if you’re stuck, there’s always GameFAQs. It’s not like we’re helpless customers or fans here.

Far Cry 2 has actually had some thought behind it – the “Far Cry 2 Experience” section is relatively novel and cool and they’ve bothered to update the news post-launch. But what’s the point of the rest of the site? There is a tiny selection of art assets – which can’t be downloaded. There’s a couple of wallpapers prepared for download, but only in so many resolutions. There’s less information about the game’s features than what you’d find in the first section of any preview of the game. Basically, the site is not satisfying any of my needs.

So why would I go to an official website? To get the developer’s and/or publisher’s side of the story. Instead they use this one digital channel which they actually control to tell an abridged version of the same story they’re telling through other media. Give me something on the people behind the game! Give me cool anecdotes! Give me carefuly prepared art assets and let me use them! Let me be a fan! I’m not sure where it’s coming from, but I sort of expect these sites to be like DVD extras on a movie. You know I’m a fan since I came to your site, why don’t you treat me like one?

I’m looking forward to reading this post when the first game with my name on it is out there. There’s bound to be some blushing involved.


Second-hand market, game cost and game longevity

Many outspoken figures in the videogame business have been vocal about their need to get rid of second-hand sales. Many have gone as far as likening gamers buying second-hand games to pirates.

Eurogamer has a pretty good overview of the situation, with a bent on seeing things from the consumer’s point of view.

Let me tell you a story. I used to be a poor student, like most of us. Despite this, I was a heavy gamer – all thanks to the second-hand market. I could afford maybe one (1) brand new game per year, but I bought dozens of games, fueling my passion for the videogame market. When I begun to make some money for work, I spent more and more on new videogames. In the end, my passion took me to working in the field, making games.

Very likely none of this would have happened without the second-hand market. Yes, I could buy some discounted titles and borrow stuff from friends, but we wouldn’t be talking about anywhere near the same magnitude. Then of course there’s piracy. A lot of internet-savvy young people wouldn’t cry about their inability to buy games if they could just turn to Piratebay.

The naysayers do not see that the second-hand market is keeping a lot (a lot!) of financially challenged consumers interested in gaming, very likely buying some brand new games on the side, and eventually making enough money to support their hobby, which they’ve grown attached to.

And it’s not just about being limited in spending. I could afford more brand new games than I’m buying these days. The fact is that despite working in the field, I do not see very many games being worth the entry fee. Games are too expensive – they should be impulse buys! Second-hand games are.

Now, couple the high price with the fact that most gamers never (anywhere near) complete their games and you have a situation where people are paying too much for something they feel leaves them unsatisfied. At the same time, the developers and publishers are spending ever-increasing amounts into making ever bigger games, which a tiny fraction of their buying public ever sees through. Why are we wasting all this effort? Why are we asking the consumers to support this practice, even though it gives them zero value?

I have a feeling the industry is far too interested in a fraction of the actual game playing and buying public, making no moves towards accommodating the actual masses and their wallets. They have no right crying about consumers not giving them money if they’re just not offering something the consumers actually want. The problem with only sure-fire hits with massive marketing being a reliable source of profit is all down to this. Consumers can’t take any risks because they’ve been priced out of their hobby.

rant Xbox 360

I do not rock in German, nor French

More Rock Band woes as the hours spent with it accumulate! While I am European, I’m not sure if it was a good idea to include non-English songs in Rock Band’s Euro version. I am sure that it’s a bad idea to force a singer to sing those songs. While perhaps amusing for one time, “Manu Chao”, “Perfekte Welle” and “Hier Kommt Alex” are just agonizing when they turn up in a mystery tour or otherwise not intentionally to trip up the singer. Alright, a minor issue, but still – in a game all about feel-good, blemishes sting twice as much.


Library, brevity and replayability (Heavenly Sword)

Heavenly Sword is getting criticized for its short length. Many reviewers are being considerate, but the public isn’t quite so understanding, as seen in this Ars Technica comments section. The game’s length has been said to be in the 5-6 hour range, which does sound short. When younger, game length mattered to me, too. These days, I’m mostly interested in whether I can experience the game fully, which usually means completing it.

Let’s take Far Cry for instance. I’ve played it a lot, yet it doesn’t feel like it’s ending anytime soon. The game hasn’t really been giving me new stuff to go through, it’s been more of the same. I like the game and I would like to complete it, but I can’t be bothered to be going through the same things over and over again. Had the game ended by now, I think I would be more satisfied with it. I would get closure. All of the uncompleted games on my shelves (maybe some 90% of them) are dead weight – they feel like something I want to put a lid on, yet I can’t, because I haven’t completed them.

And the goddamn designers keep making the games appear longer by making the endings more difficult. This is just wrong. I loved Dead Rising, all the way up to the final fight, which is just stupidly hard compared to everything that’s gone down before. Now it keeps sitting there, uncompleted.

So when games are criticized for being (say) 10 hours long or shorter, I immediately take note. “This is a game I can complete”, “this is something I can do”, “this won’t leave me frustrated”.

Heavenly Sword’s been class A entertainment up to where I’m currently at. I’ve been playing it for three nights, I think, and I’m about three quarters in. Supposing that it would end with my next gaming session, that would be a good thing. It’s repetitive to the degree that I wouldn’t want it to stretch further, yet right now, I’m in a good place. The story moves on, I care about what’s happening. Now, if the experience leaves me wanting more, I can just go back to it, as it lets me play each scene independently, giving my performance a rank. This is just the way I want my games.

Lengthy games are all fine when the content actually warrants it, but this is very rare indeed. Most long games simply dilute the experience to the point that it destroys itself. Who in their right mind would prefer that? Add to this the fact that playtime is so limited when you’ve got a job, a family, friends and other media to consume. A “five-hour” game will probably last me a week or two, because I rarely have the time to sit down with it.

Another thing I need to bring up is the recommendation of renting Heavenly Sword due to its length. I don’t know about that. The game is beautiful enough to keep around in order to wow your gamer friends with the power of the PS3 and I feel that it has considerable replay value. But even if this wasn’t so, I would definitely buy the title, for the same reason I buy movies: I need to have the quality titles in my library in order to keep the experience intact. They’re not dealt with once the credits roll. The same with books and comics… I never could understand people who sold their books and movies once they’d consumed them.


Seeing the future (Bioshock, Xbox 360, PC)

Eurogamer’s preview of Bioshock hits it home: the extremely promising spiritual successor to System Shock 2 is really on its way and just a couple of months away from release. And yes, it is still sounding good.

What got my attention was the bit on beginning the game. You’re going to make a choice of difficulty – easy, medium or hard. How can I make a judgement on how difficult an experience I want when I haven’t played the thing yet? Is this game’s “medium” way too much for me? Will have to think about restarting the game because it presents no challenge? What about when my playing skills advance throughout the game, will it become too easy? I never want to breeze through a game, yet I will not spend an evening trying to get through a single scene… so what’s it going to be? “Medium”? What’s that, like not entirely for wimps, but not for real gamers, either?

Every game should have an adjustable difficulty, coupled with an adaptive one. Enemies get better as you do, and if you feel that you need to finetune the level of challenge, you can. There haven’t been too many games this smart, though. I know I greet every chance to tweak difficulty mid-game with joy (for instance: thank you, Oblivion).

I’m going to give a grand total of two videogames a clean pass on this, regardless of fixed difficulty: Doom and Halo. Halo has a perfect difficulty curve (for my average FPS skills, that is) and each level of difficulty is just what they promise. Like the original Doom before it, Halo has made the difficulty level part of the game’s overall lure. You want to clear them on higher difficulty levels and once you finally tackle Nightmare or Legendary mode, you know you’re the shit.


This region crap needs to end (Aegis Wing, Xbox Live Arcade)

Microsoft is releasing a SHMUP to Xbox Live Arcade, titled Aegis Wing. It does sound good, although no screens or video to look at yet. It is free, too!

Gripe one: my bloody Xbox 360 is still in Germany being fitted with a new DVD drive or lined up for exchange. The free distribution is for limited time only, which is of course good marketing.

Gripe two: Aegis Wing is only available in the United States. What’s up with this region nonsense? It just doesn’t make any goddamn sense to region lock online material. It’s counter-intuitive. It pisses off a lot of your market. Figure it out and solve it please. I want to like your service, I’m still paying for it, but here you go again, pissing me off.

rant technology

Disability and gaming, part three: Deafness

Deaf people have a hard time playing videogames. This shouldn’t be the case. This time a Kotaku reader is voicing his frustration for being neglected.

Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft really should step up on this issue. Adding mandatory aids for those hard of hearing (for instance) should be a part of the certification process when approving new titles for release. Positive PR up for grabs!

This really isn’t a big deal, developers and publishers should just take it into account. Subtitles are not just for the deaf; almost every non-native English speaker appreciates them.

I’ve written about this before, but the issue bears repeating.