Thursday, September 06, 2007

I've moved

Well, I haven't, but my blog has. Even though you, and it, are still here, I promise you it has. is what you'll need from now on. It's much the same, only greener, and you'll find everything there that you used to find here, and a little more besides. Blogger's been a great home, but I thought it was time to take the training wheels off. See you there.

Monday, September 03, 2007

I hope you feel bad

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We all know games are evil. They twist the minds of our youths with glamorised, consequence-free violence. They cause RSI and whitefinger. They're racist, sexist and homophobic. They're ruining the environment. But now we've sunk to a new low. We're extincting stag beetles. Yahoo Asia reports that:

A rare subspecies of stag beetle found only in the Amanos Mountains of southern Turkey is now threatened with extinction as it is being exploited for sale to beetle enthusiasts in countries like Japan, a local conservationist has warned. Nazim Sonmez, of the Amanos Environmental Protection Association, said the beetle is being over-harvested owing in part to the popularity among Japanese children of "Mushiking: The King of Beetles," an arcade game in which players engage in virtual battles between beetles from all over the world. Sonmez said some Japanese passing themselves off as researchers have come to the Amanos area of Hatay Province to catch or otherwise acquire the rare and distinct beetle, which goes by the scientific name Lucanus cervus akbesianus. Locals are also involved in exploiting them to sell to foreigners, especially Japanese, at exorbitant prices amounting to as much as 1,450 lira (some 13,000 yen). They sell for as much as 40,000 yen on Japanese Internet auction sites.

Now, while I defy anyone - particularly Sega shareholders - to resist Mushiking's gladiatorial charm, it's a sobering thought that overkeen beetle-otaku could be responsible for the downfall of an entire species. And what if Mushiking is only the beginning? What if Activision licenses snail-racing? Or squirrel-fishing? What if Rogue Galaxy's Insectron Tournament has already bred a new generation jonsing for real world arthropod face-offs? We live in troubling times.

If your conscience is pricking you, say in the manner of an understandably agitated Lucanus cervus aubesians working its way into your undies, you may wish to salve it in the following ways:

- Back One Big Game, the not-for-profit game publisher looking for specifically developed games to raise charity funds.

- Do a little early Christmas shopping, for Child's Play.

- Get a solar charger for your DS/PSP. Or a hand-crank if you're feeling energetic.

- Plant a (real) tree in Second Life.

- Make sure you're signed up for Folding@Home.

And with that, you can return to pitilessly slaying Little Sisters with a wrinkle-free forehead and a song-filled heart.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Balancing Act

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The conversation I most dread is the one that starts: 'I hope you don't mind me saying, but it's quite...unusual that you're a woman.' My smartypants answer is that is perfectly usual for me, thank you very much, but I'm sympathetic to the point being made. Women are still a minority amongst conventional gamers, and it's rarer still for those women to make gaming their job. But while I agree it's a fair point that I'm in an unusual position, I still dread the questions that follow it. I have no good explanation for what it is that drew me to gaming. I still don't know if I saw something in gaming that most women don't notice but would like if they did, or if games found something in me that most women don't have and wouldn't want if they could. I'm profoundly uncomfortable being asked to be a spokesman for 51% of the world's population, especially since the only thing we know about me for sure is that I'm an oddity.

But the commercial necessity behind better exploiting that 51% remains, so the question is going to keep coming up. And from now on, I'm going to answer it by referring people to 'Is There Anything Good About Men?', a paper given at the American Psychological Association's annual conference by Dr Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University. In it, he suggests that most cultures are equally, but differently, exploitative of men and women, leading to a situation where men are more attuned to wide, distributed networks that reward competition and specialisation, and women prize small, intimate social networks which thrive on co-operation and generalisation. You're bound to disagree with some or all of his points, but it's well worth a read - it's long, but light - and got me thinking in some new ways about game design.

What's particularly interesting to me is that the gender imbalance he describes is evident even in the way that very conversation tends to go: women who ask me about how I got started in games follow up with small-scale social questions - how have I been treated, do I encounter prejudice, am I self-conscious when playing in front of a male audience. The men get very rapidly side-tracked on to specialist, general-scale questions. If I mention Dungeon Master as being the first moment when games took over my life, women ask me how my parents felt about my new hobby, or if it brought me greater acceptance among male friends. Men, on hearing this news, are more likely to move on to wondering whatever happened to FTL, or whether or not I'd ever tried completing it with only one character.

So allowing that I find the root of Baumeister's argument plausible, what does it mean for the great Girls In Games debate? In asking why more women don't play games, we worried a lot, initially, about surface things - boy-games were too violent, too lasers-and-robots. What we needed was girl-games about shopping, horses and make-up! Now, thankfully, we've moved a little past that (despite the fact that games about shopping, horses and make-up do seem to be proving particularly successful with young female consumers, particularly on the DS), and are looking at important external factors. So we've noted that for games to be attractive to women they need to be available on hardware they feel comfortable with, and offer play-patterns that are compatible with busy, often fragmented lives.

But what Baumeister's paper makes me think about is whether or not we're neglecting an examination of more basic gameplay issues. Does his thesis suggest that women would be more comfortable with a game which had a small cast of characters than either none or many? Does his theory that women see less advantage in specialisation mean that they'll be alienated by the common RPG mechanic where levelling-up in one field disables your potential in another? Should risk-reward ratios be normalised - smaller risks for smaller rewards - for games aimed at girls rather than boys? By which I mean, could you produce a functionally identical game - same visuals, same interface, same goals, same structures - but tune it to appeal more to one gender or another?

And, actually, Dungeon Master might not be a bad place to start. Would women prefer it if the initial character choice was smaller? Would they enjoy exploring more if the mazes were more compact, but contained more hidden detail? Would they warm more to a levelling-up system that was fuelled by the characters' interactions (rather like Disgaea 2's spell-learning system, where characters can learn magic by osmosis, simply by standing near their spell-casting father-figures). Would they (oh, the hate-mail) like it better if it was easier?

Actually, in a transparent attempt to divert you from your poison pen, I'm going to point you to Return To Chaos, a Windows port of Dungeon Master, for those too impatient to find it for Steem, or those too lazy to unearth their ST from the attic. Don't hesitiate to play it if you haven't before, and if you have, don't worry about whether your fond memories of it will survive having their rose-tinted spectacles ripped off. It hasn't aged a button.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Vibri is the magic number

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Having done the find-purge-sort process that is moving house twice so far this year, I'm discovering all sort of odd traits amongst my remaining game collection. What I noticed today was that the only complete series I own is Vib Ribbon. You'll probably remember Vibri - the angular rabbit that did rhythm gymnastics to your CD collection. You probably won't remember Mojibri - the big-trousered gent who did rapping calligraphy in Mojib Ribbon, or Vibri's elastic return when she bounced all over your digital photos in Vip Ripple.

It's not really what I expected, but the more I think about it, the more I think that Vibri might be the perfect game trilogy. Making sequels is a thankless task, always open to accusations of being too similar or too different. 'More an expansion pack' sneer the reviews, or, alternatively whine that things have been needlessly changed. But NanaOn-Sha, under the direction of Masaya Matsuura, broke all the rules. The three games look completely different - from the brutalist monochrome of the first, to the ink-painting organics of the second, to the day-glo sticker-kitsch of the third. And they play completely differently, from Vib Ribbon's taxing button combos, to Mojib's hypnotic stick flicks, to the trampoline-powered platforming vibe of Vib Ripple.

So are they a trilogy at all? Or just three unrelated games from someone too lazy to think up a new naming convention? Absolutely. What Matsuura does is use the familiar to make the unfamiliar more palatable. The common mechanics - the ability of the main character to evolve up or down, rather than having lives - and the common interface design - the circling characters that denote how close you are to evolving upwards - help give you your bearings in an experience which would otherwise be a bit too close to baffling. The same guiding principle underpins all three - that games should interconnect with the rest of your cultural life (so Vib Ribbon can make levels out of your CD collection, Mojib out of the words you write, and Ribbon out of the photos you take). And they each complement the others: Ribbon is by far the most convincing game, Mojib the greatest visual achievement, and Ripple the best implementation of user-generated content.

Imagine if more series were allowed the same latitude. Imagine if Namco had said to Takahashi, 'We don't want Katamari 2, we want something that complements it'. Imagine if the follow-up to The Sands Of Time hadn't been based on the feedback-loop of focus-group complaints (more blood! more rock!), but on the idea that maybe this team which had just done something fresh and wonderful might be capable of, y'know, doing something fresh and wonderful. Because, as the manual scans of Mojib Ribbon below show, when you do that, beautiful things can happen.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Killing time

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I've had a bumper - well, maybe bumpy rather than bumper - postbag in response to my BBC column earlier in the week about the impact violent games have on our minds. The letters raised some interesting points, so I thought I'd give an airing to them here. One questioned whether we were concerning ourselves with the right kind of violence, asking if the dangerous driving rewarded in so many racing games wasn't having a more pernicious influence than the gun games that are normally in the firing line. It's an issue which came to the fore with the BSM research released earlier in the year, and neatly summarises the problems facing a games industry which claims that violent games have no adverse impact, but that educational games are uniquely potent teaching tools.

Another took the firm line that gamers and parents need to exercise more control over extreme playing habits, which raises the interesting question of how much responsibility the games industry should be taking for its customers. Are the play time controls available in Windows XP and World Of WarCraft standard bearers in a new era of developer responsibility? Or are they the needless interference of nannying companies ever sensitive to the risk of lawsuits? Another correspondent quite rightly took me to task for being so quick to claim that all attacks on violent games were unfounded, and then raised the ongoing question of whether the interactive nature of games means their standards for violence should be tighter than for media like film or TV.

Thinking about these issues has made me want to post a couple of the points I didn't want to try to shoehorn in to the column, but which I do find troubling and interesting. The first is to wonder why, when we talk about games causing violent behaviour, we always seem to automatically be talking about copycat violence. The great spectre than hangs over gaming always seems to be the idea that beating prostitutes to death with a giant dildo in a game will make you more likely to do it in real life. And so the debate gets bogged down in questions of whether or not games are murder simulators, teaching firearms skills and advanced thuggery to a nation of eager students. That theory may be self-evident nonsense, but what about the games that do make you violent or abusive? Games can be overwhelmingly, infuriatingly, unbearably frustrating, and I know that they've caused me in the past to be (at best) sulky and petulant, and (at worst) prone to very uncharacteristic bouts of shoe-throwing and swear-word screaming. It is for these reasons that multiplayer Puzzle Bobble was once banned in my house and that I came to the conclusion that I might part from Jet Force Gemini on better terms if I didn't continue my final battles with Mizar. The latest, and most tragic, story along these lines is this one, of a man who stands accused of shaking a 4-month old baby to death after becoming enraged after playing a game. Is the Manhunt hysteria distracting us from a much lower-key, but more worrying issue? Here's the key question: has gaming frustration ever driven you to a more extreme form of behaviour than other annoyances in your life? And what are the implications if it has?

The other issue is that we might have the shoe on the wrong foot. Most of the violence-in-games debate is concerned with the worry that gamers may transpose the morals and activities of the game world into the real world. There's a growing body of research that shows that they won't - that people of all ages have a pretty robust grasp of what's real and what isn't. But what if the gap starts to close from the other direction? What if the real world starts to look and behave more and more like a videogame? It's not easy to read about weapons platforms like SWORD - which provides joystick-and-screen remote control over a machine-gun emplacement, and has recently been deployed by the US Army in Iraq - and not recall with unease the opening of something like Climax's Black Hawk Down, which had you merrily slicing through hordes of anonymous enemies courtesy of a thumbstick-and-screen remote control machine-gun emplacement. It's a sinister enough thought before you add in the findings of something like Stanley Milgram's controversial electric shock experiments, which found that subjects were more willing to inflict pain on innocent victims the more remote they were from them. So do I worry about an epidemic of prostitute dildocides? No. But do I worry about what happens when you add videogame controls to a weapon of mass-murder and put it in the hands of a generation raised on Counter-Strike? Sure I do. Don't you?

Saturday, August 11, 2007


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He is in a maze of twisty passageways, all alike. No, he really is. In the new issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly (a new peer-review, open access journal clear-headed enough to admit that it doesn't yet know what Digital Humanities actually are), Dennis G. Jerz goes spelunking for the origin of adventure games.

It's over thirty years ago now, that the idea that a game could be an adventure was invented. Before that time, we'd been used to parlour games, combat games, sports games, racing games - tasks that required fast reactions and not much more. Nothing atmospheric, certainly. Nothing that required lateral thinking. And then along came Adventure. Released almost by accident by its original author William Crowther, it soon developed a life of its own, leading directly to the creation of Warren Robinett's 2600 Adventure as well as the Zork games, and establishing a bloodline that today brings us Zeldas and Bioshocks and Fables.

And so Jerz digs deep, going back to the original caves which inspired Crowther, and the original source code which establishes his status as the father of the genre. The whole article is a wonderful read, even if you skim the academic bits, just to remind yourself of a time when an innovative game was something which introduced something as radical as the idea that objects could be picked up and dropped, rather than one which introduces a new kind of gun. But it's the photos that are the real draw. Proponents of the text adventure have always said that words could do more than a thousand polys, and here's the proof, in true, photo-realistic techicolour. If you love games because they make you feel that you've been places, done stuff, and seen things no-one else has, you owe yourself a visit to where it all started.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What if it isn't Sony's fault?

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Bear with me.

So, we know where we are. Sony have done everything they could wrong, with their enemy-crab-infested, triple-delayed, masturbation-sanctioning, Spider-Man-branded, over-priced, loss-generating, truth-economising, cathedral-desecrating super-console.

And Microsoft have done everything right. They launched first, with a well-priced, good-looking machine, a top-notch online service, a steady stream of decent games, smart branding, likable PR, and a nice clutch of exclusives to look forward to. So, apart from the tiny matter of every single console so far sold being fundamentally unreliable, they could hardly have handled it better.

And so we have a situation where the 360 is selling double the PS3 in the US, the Wii is outselling it five to ten times over most weeks in Japan, and around the world the PS2 remains many times over the more popular of Sony's home consoles. Stupid, stupid Sony.

And for Microsoft, there must be a double dose of schadenfreude, because it wasn't too long ago that they were the ones doing everything wrong. Their initial arrival into the games industry was treated with hostility and skepticism. Their console was amazingly ugly. Their print adverts were close-up pictures of pubic hair, and their TV adverts were banned. Their controllers were too big for normal people's hands (are you saying I'm not normal?). They arrived late into a battle which Sony had already won. And so this time, having done everything right and watched their competitors do everything wrong, they must be reaping their rewards.

In the 19 months after its launch, Microsoft sold 9.4 million Xboxes.
In the 19 months after its launch, Microsoft shipped 11.6 million 360s.

That's an increase of 23%. Not a bad uplift. But, as ever, the trick is in that little word shipped. Microsoft also announced that it cut shipments from 1.8 million in the last quarter of last year, to 700,000 in the first quarter of this year. What that means is that retail channels are already well-stocked with 360s, which means that it's certain the number of 360s sold is considerably lower than 11.6 million. And considerably lower than 11.6 million is in the region of 10 million, which is in the region of what they managed to sell last time.

I am the only one perplexed by this? The first Xbox was all about establishing the brand and learning the ropes. It's a policy that seemed to have worked, and yet here Microsoft are, reaching no more people now than they were first time out.

Who could explain that? Well, Satoru Iwata could. He's been telling everyone who'll listen for the past two years that the stagnant, collapsing conditions which hit the Japanese market a few years ago would wash out across the world before long. And maybe, distracted as we all are by Sony's continued foot-swallowing, we're allowing ourselves to overlook the fact that the Western mainstream games market also seems to be at saturation point. So while Sony still has a lot of explaining to do (rough figures: it's taken PS3 eight months to sell around four million. It took PS2 twelve months to sell ten million), they could well be facing tougher market conditions than we've yet realised. Think about it: is there really anyone left in the developed world that wants to play videogames who isn't already?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Me Me Eff Cee

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Re-reading this old post (it's not vanity, it's self-improvement) reminded me that the researchers from the BBFC were also on the receiving end of my Syriana rant, which made it in to their report on why gamers like games. If you want to see just how much more rambling and garbled I am in speech rather than on paper, you can compare and contrast on p83. The rest of it is much more worthy of a read.

Re-reading its conclusions (summarised here) makes an interesting backdrop for the more recent Manhunt 2 fuss, which the board refused classification, effectively preventing its sale in the UK.

Here's BBFC's director David Cooke's response to the research:

People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed. This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television. The adversaries which players have to eliminate have no personality and so are not real and their destruction is therefore not real, regardless of how violent that destruction might be. This firm grasp on reality seems to extend to younger players, but this is no reason to allow them access to adult rated games, as they themselves often admit that they find the violence in games like Manhunt very upsetting.

And here's his response, two month later, to Manhunt 2:

Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing... There is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged, in the game... Although the difference should not be exaggerated the fact of the game’s unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying and the sheer lack of alternative pleasures on offer to the gamer, together with the different overall narrative context, contribute towards differentiating this submission from the original Manhunt game.
Against this background, the Board’s carefully considered view is that to issue a certificate to Manhunt 2, on either platform, would involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors, within the terms of the Video Recordings Act, and accordingly that its availability, even if statutorily confined to adults, would be unacceptable to the public.

The disparity between those two stances makes me angry, but thinking about why it makes me angry has made me happy. I'm angry because the reasoning for the rejection is the kind of paternalistic, interventionalist patter which always gets me hot under the collar. But that means what makes me frustrated about this decision is not videogames being scapegoated, misunderstood or persecuted, but the usual, unresolvable objections to censorship in general. Cooke isn't saying that Manhunt is especially dangerous because it's a game, he's just saying - as he is called upon to do with all the material the BBFC examines - that he thinks we'd all be better off without it. And he could well be right. From what I've seen of Manhunt 2 (which isn't much, but might be more than the BBFC's 34mins 43s), it's lost the sharp moral focus that made the original so compellingly uncomfortable, and that means that all you're left with is the shlock.

But does rejecting it on those terms mean we're still left with a double standard between what's judged acceptable for game violence and film violence? Absolutely. But for all my free speech posturing, I can't help but wish we'd drawn the line for film somewhere before we hit Hostel II, on whose relentlessly nasty 8462 feet (and 12 frames) the BBFC didn't inflict a single cut. How much will we really lose by calling a halt to gaming's love affair with mindless (rather than mindful, a distinction the BBFC has shown itself well able to make) violence here?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Ex Corde Gravitas

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I've moved house five times in the last five years. The thing I seem most prone to losing, which you may consider more carelessness than misfortune, is washing machines. But alongside the more major traumas of slipped discs, dropped vases and abandoned trampettes, it's the little things that cause the most hassle.

And tonight, as I try to reconstruct once again my gaming kit, that hassle is the discovery that I no longer own a single figure-of-eight power cord. How is it possible for any modern human being not to own a single figure-of-eight power cord? You get one free with every single thing you buy - consoles, battery chargers, printers, shoes, lottery tickets. If you're me, you hoard them, and label the plugs with white insulating tape and black marker pen, so your plug-boards read like shouty manifestos: CHARGE PS2 SPEAK TV PRINT CUBE! Words to live by, indeed.

But now I have none, which means buying one, which is an amazingly odd proposition. They're not products in their own right, surely. They're things that only come as adjuncts, like those white paper ties that come with sandwich bags. And isn't it immoral to be producing extra, retail cables when everyone (or everyone who hasn't moved five times in five years) has an abundance of them? They should have amnesty drop-boxes on street corners, where you can take them or leave them as your needs ebb and flow, like those smart new Parisian bikes. But they don't, and I don't, and so several thousand pounds worth of kit, hundreds of bits of processing power, and a few square feet of screen are currently nothing more than junk.

And as I sit here, with sweaty armpits and dusty knees, I swear to myself - as I have before, five times in five years - that I'll never do this again. That surely one day, eventually, I'll escape the Sisyphean tyranny of poking cables up the back of desks so that they can fall back down with a neat clunk as I emerge from under to try to catch them. I'll outgrow the anti-yoga of propping the bookcase up with one foot while hooking a crucial wire round the airborne corner with the other. I'll finally sleep the sound sleep of someone who doesn't have an eight-way plugged into a six way plugged into a splitter that doesn't have the right fuse now that I think about it.

And then I remember what a figure-of-eight cable looks like when you turn it on its side, and realise there is no end to this. Not ever.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Stone dead

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I met my hero the other night. My excitement was bowed a bit by the fact that he was dead, and turned out to be a bit of a moaner, but only a bit. Even odder was the fact that until I'd met him, I'd never even heard of him. But, after one rambling, ghostly conversation, I realised I was his biggest fan.

Franclorn Forgewright is the greatest architect in all of Azeroth, responsible for the immense doors of Blackrock Depths and who knows how many other pieces of monumental masonry across the world of WarCraft. It was all I could do not to ask for his autograph. My bovine roots may mean I spend a lot of my time in elaborate yurts and bone-stitched tepees, but not even my hatred of the Alliance can dent my admiration of Ironforge and Stormwind. To meet the man who devised these stone-wrought colossi was something I never though a humble druid from Mulgore would get to do. His cities are as much machines as homes, as much statues as settlements, radiating history, hostility and grandeur. And so what was I ever going to say to his request for help but 'yes'? Allowing that 'For the Horde!' didn't really seem appropriate.

And that means it's the first quest in who knows how long I've given a damn about in WoW. I don't read the preambles, only the instructions. I still don't really know why we're at war, especially since Mulgore seems a haven of peace and plenty and not much troubled by scourges. I feel no sense of allegiance to Thrall, and I only hate the Alliance because they fanny around so hopelessly in Warsong Gulch. My commitment to the game has always been about the setting, not the story, until all of a sudden the setting became the story and I felt I owed this man - this grumpy ghost of my enemy - a debt of honour as real as I've owed to any human player. At a time when there's so much talk of story in games, it properly baffles me that the debate remains fixated on dialogue and character design when good games have known for years that architecture is the best narrator you could ever hope for, reading from a script that never tires.

So while I know it's really Chris Metzen or Bill Petras or Justin Thavirat I should be chasing with my autograph book, I'm going to stick with directing my gratitude to Franclorn Forgewright. Not least because he's a lot more likely to give me rare epix! in return. Thanks, Franc. Thancs.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Monkey see not monkey do

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Last night there was a fight in my house. Well, not so much a fight as a pretty brutal piece of abuse. One guy decided to show his chops by terrorising this girl. He got his cronies to pin her down and started taunting her that he was going to cut her tongue out. Someone had even found some tongs, and they were grabbing her head, forcing their fingers into her mouth, trying to grab at her tongue so they could get a grip on it. He was laughing and miming like he had a pair of scissors. She was screaming, trying to not scream, trying to keep her mouth closed as the men pried and pulled at her jaw. It was horrifying.

It wasn’t real, of course, but it was in my house. It was a trailer for BBC1’s new feelgood Robin Hood drama. The man was everyone’s favourite lovable rogue Keith Allen, and tongs were quickly knocked out of his thug’s hand by an arrow from our hero in Lincoln green. The trailer didn’t give the ending away, but I’m pretty sure the rescued girl, now flush with desire rather than terror, will have offered rakish Robin a kiss for his trouble. Probably not French, under the circumstances.

I’ve spent the week booting people in the nuts in God Hand, causing mass extinctions in Un Goro crater and executing armies of goons in Scarface, and this was still by far the most violent thing I’d seen. And that’s fairly common. Flick on the telly mid-evening and it’s very likely that you’ll be thrown straight in to some voyeuristic rape courtesy of Robson Green’s dismal Wire In The Blood, or some cockle-warming domestic violence round Albert Square. But that colossal discrepancy is appropriate, right? Because TV is passive, and games are participatory, so it’s only reasonable that we have standards with such a gulf between them that calling them ‘double’ is a joke in itself.

I’m not so sure. What changed my mind was the scene in Syriana where George Clooney has his fingernail ripped out by a horrified torturer. Watching it in the safety of my bedroom, the appalling violence of it physically propelled me to my feet. I instinctively hit the mute button, stepping away from the screen to distance myself from his pain and terror. Even in hindsight – and it’s months ago now – it makes my throat close. In fact, in hindsight it’s even worse because I now know he chipped his spine when filming the scene, so his spasms of pain were genuine. It made the idea that this was supposed to have less of an effect on me because I wasn’t an active participant seem bizarre.

It’s bizarre because, watching Syriana, there’s nothing to tell me this isn’t really happening, no physical cues to prove it’s fictional. The camera-work is intrusive and intimate. Your point of view is trapped in the room, watching everything. In the film, your role is that of an observer; and in reality you’re an observer too, shifting in your seat as uneasily as the camera shifts round the scene. There is nothing physical to tell you this square of light in front of you isn’t a window – a weird periscope which starts in your house and finishes in an air-duct in the wall of a real room where real people are torn open with pliers. I may intellectually know that George Clooney isn’t really a CIA agent, and that this square of light means something different from the square of light in the wall through which I can see rowdy students get kicked in the stomach by angry taxi drivers in the early hours of the morning, but you have to agree it’s a fairly esoteric distinction.

But in a game, you have a constant feedback that this it isn’t real. In order for someone to get booted in the nuts, you have to press the boot-in-nuts button, and the very act of doing that proves that this isn’t real. The screen may show you that’s what happening, but you know as a matter of physical, verifiable fact that it isn’t. You’re wearing slippers and drinking some coffee that’s gone a bit cold, not killing a man with your fists.

The real answer for the double standards, of course, is that after 50 years of TV we’ve accepted, as a society, that screen-violence doesn’t have a direct or decided effect on people’s behaviour. Whether that’s true or not, and whether or not the question of its insidious influence isn’t taken seriously enough is up for grabs, of course. But the collective decision was taken some years ago that that time I came home and found myself, unannounced, trapped in an MRI scanner inches away from the bursting, bleeding eye of a man being cooked alive by a psychotic lab technician who’d turned the whole thing up to 11 has done me no harm at all. Wouldn’t it be funny if, in another 50 years, we realised it was game violence that was the safe stuff?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Story Of Oh

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I was showing a friend the opening of Final Fantasy XII today (having forgotten what an amazingly pretty downer that is - ten minutes in and he's dead, she's dead, he's killed him and him, and the evil empire that killed your parents has actually stamped on your flowers) and it made me realise why stories in games will always be rubbish.

It's not the old interactivity-vs-narrative problem - although I'm still convinced that they remain the opposite ends of an increasingly threadbare piece of string - it's this: game stories have to rationalise the fact that every single thing in the world revolves around you. You are the person the shops were built for, the crates stacked for, the mines laid for. You're who the girls wait for, the enemies spawn for and the NPCs patrol for. Sure, games like Oblivion work pretty hard to convince you that it all goes on even when you're not around, but at best it feels like Westworld - an eerie bonhomie that only fools you if you want it to.

Any story in which only one person can be the agent of change is always likely to feel trite. It's a fairytale pattern, whether that person is fairly fairyish (Link) or not at all (Doomguy). It's why saving the world is still the main occupation in any game where you don't have a football or an Enzo. How could anything less be possibly be expected of you if you're the person the world revolves around? It would be churlish not to. The stories in films and books uusually revolve around a powerless person scraping together enough potency to make a big dramatic change - whether it's dying gracefully, or usurping a vicious drill sergeant, or organising a really good batchelor party. And if the heroes are presidents, superheroes or single-mothers-with-unstoppable-guts-and-integrity, then the story is the recognition and defeat of their *actual* weakness, which usually turns out to be Gerald Depardieu or hydrophobia or something equally lame. But in games, even if you start with a weedy pistol, or 10HP, you're still the most powerful - often the only powerful - person in the world. And that gives you two big problems: first, it means that it's very hard for game stories not to be hyperbolic, and second, it makes it very hard for them not all to be the same. The set-dressing may change from sci-fi to fantasy to WWII (although not much further) and the telling may change from the perfunctory to the inept to the elegant, but can you name three games that tell a story which isn't about someone who saves the world by doing the same few things over and over?

Actually - I can. GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas. How about that?

Saturday, September 30, 2006

How To Be Good At Games

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I'm not very good at Halo. Decent, but not good. Watching really, really good people play always leaves me a bit green and so, while trying to make the whole thing as un-Karate Kid as possible, I always ask them what their secret is. Here's the best answer I've ever had:

Go to where the people are, and kill them.

That, right there, is the only strategy you need to unlock about 80% of your Halo potential, and it holds for pretty much any other game where there are people and killings. It doesn't matter how well you know a level, how often you can snag the best spawn, how sneakily you can tag on a plasma grenade, if you don't have people on your screen, you're not going to get kills.

And then I noticed another thing. Despite the fact that my scores are woeful in comparison, my accuracy is much higher than his - but my shots fired is much lower. It made me realise that because I think I'm not very good at Halo, I make myself worse at it by trying to be better (I guess the Karate Kid thing is unavoidable). I faff around trying to manufacture a competitive advantage by finding a good ambush spot or trekking off for the best weapon. And when I do face off with someone, I'm so determined to try to be a better shot that I shoot far less.

It's all part of a phenomenon which I saw Saurian - a UK gamer with a reputation of general brilliance - sum up very succinctly with respect to God Hand:

I ain't a legend! The only difference with me is this;

Game pwns average gamer on a forum "FUCK THIS GAME!!! It'S SO RUBBISH!!1" *throws game out of the pushchair*

Game pwns Saur "Oh man - I'M so rubbish!!" *obsessively plays to get better*

And that's it, right there. When I play a game and do badly, it pisses me off, so I stop having fun, start getting crampy and end up playing it less. When the people I think of as seriously good at games do badly - they settle in, and enjoy the process of taming it. Which means, horribly, that Peter Moore was right: there is a zen of gaming, and Bungie are my bodhisattvas.

Friday, September 29, 2006

I'm assuming strawberry

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You've got a "smart yoghurt" by about 2025, and we did the calculations, and we reckon that it's possible to make a yoghurt with roughly the same processing power as the entire European population.

And he's entirely serious. I particularly like how he says 'a yoghurt', as though he's thinking of a little pot of St Ivel Shape, with an info box showing calories, carbs, protein and IQ.

Other than being worryingly full of low-fat sci-fi and low-rent analogies, Ian Pearson's view of what will happen next, formed as part of his work as a futurologist for BT, hits on one interesting note: what happens if the power of PlayStation is used not for finding a cure for cancer, but for finding the password to your bank account?

It is getting to the point now where the next generation of games consoles have one percent of the processing power that your head's got. If you connect those together, and they are designed to be connected together from the ground up, then you have the capability to link millions of consoles together, and since people don't care about security very much on those sorts of platforms, they are absolutely ideal networks to be made into zombie machines. If that happens, you can leverage all that computing power to try and decrypt messages to try and hack into bank accounts, and use all of that power to launch enormously powerful denial of service attacks, which can't happen today because they don't have enough computing power.

When the Xbox launched, the air was full of dire prognostications about how wrong it would all go when your drive needed defragmentation, yet I've seen very little about what might go wrong when you plug your Wii or PS3 into the unrestricted internet. I'm not the right kind of geek to know how resilient the PS3's Linux-based OS will be to viruses, or how much proprietory protection Nintendo's systems give the Wii, but you don't need the brains of a yoghurt to see that both must be big, fat tempting targets for those who amuse themselves by spoiling other people's fun.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Google folds

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I've just noticed that Google has embraced The ESP Game, which you may remember from prehistoric days. You can play Google's version here, but if you can't be bothered, the long and short of it is that it's an extremely rudimentary game which gets pairs of players to co-operate to agree on tags which describe images they're shown at random.

I don't know how long the Google version has been running, but the highest scorer, currently jessicapierce, is sitting on a cool 20389900 points, which, through some highly spurious voodoo-arithmetic, I estimate to represent just over 15 days continuous play. That means she (or he) has spent 45 working days plugging away at this thing. Which nine working weeks, which is two and a bit months, which is enough to make you cry sand. All just to improve Google's image search results and therefore increase its competitive advantage. I hope she's got shares.

It's interesting for about a thousand reasons. One is that it's more evidence for the fact that Google as a company is beginning to get its head around the potential of games (an idea we covered in a recent issue of Edge). Another is my consistent amazement at how even the crappiest of games are capable of exerting a hypnotic pull on their players. World Of WarCraft is taking all the flack at the moment for being addictive, but it's amazing how rarely people talk about games like Bejewelled and Weboggle (on which, at least, Tracie-Greacie's 24-7 reign of vocabulorational terror seems to be over) and the frightening number of hours players can rack up on them. The games industry doesn't seem to have quite got its head around the problem it's facing from the addiction scaremongers: whether or not games can properly be described as addictive, we're about the only vice that tracks, and then publicises, the total amount of time people spend indulging. Can you imagine the flack TV would have attracted if it had published the WatcherTags of the people who clocked in the most hours? If bars had internationally tabulated high-score tables? If Cadbury gave out S-Ranks for fastest consumption?

Like it or not, games make the mundane, the repetitive, and the joyless into narcotic, irresistible pleasures. When I'm grinding my healers in Disgaea 2, I know that what's going on is no different, computationally, than what our accounts department does every day. There's a spreadsheet underneath all those buxom valkyries and accident-prone Prinnies. I work my way through a stack of invoices (or enemies), alloting enough money (damage) to pay them off (death!). I pile up all my resources (characters) into one account (tower) in order to maximise the interest (EXP) I receive. Games, all in all, are just maths made palatable. Once employers realise this, there's no reason why all repetitive work couldn't be played for points.

But here's the thing. What if they've already realised? What if you're already doing their work by playing your games? Sony's made a big song and dance about taking serious advantage of the 'super-computer' they hope to put in your living-room. But what if, for PS4, the super-computer they really want to exploit is the one sitting on the sofa, not the one under the telly?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Six Things I Like About You

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Last night, a friend challeged me to sum up videogames in as few words as possible. 'As few words as possible' is not one of my strengths, so it was going to take a while, but it turned out to be moot, since he was only issuing the challenge as an opportunity to show off his own little epigram:
Japan does swords, America does guns
Turns out six words is exactly hard enough to be challenging, and easy enough to entertain the lazy:
Better than books; worse than telly
Miyamoto is god; Molyneux dreams it
Played too late, eyes feel scoured
Blocks, lasers, bullets, cars, balls, fists
From their brains, to our thumbs
On, think, press, tense, yell, off
Avoid Missing Ball For High Score (of course)
Fair warning, though: do it for too long and it infects your thinking.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Who do you wish did, who doesn't? (Pt 2)

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Finishing what I started below, here's the rest of my list of people I wish would take a side-step into game development.

Colin St John Wilson

He's not a man I know much about, but he designed a building I know very well: the British Library at St Pancras, in London. A lot of people loathe it - it's a bit too square and a bit too red, but as this book cover shows, the inside is a very different proposition. Wilson designed the interior with a lot of thought for the people who would use it - people who would come to the building every day, perhaps for years, and always with heads full of abstract information. Consequently, there are no obvious routes through its sun-bright atrium. Rather than forcing its visitors into a daily, identical trudge, Wilson wanted them to wander, to find short-cuts and distractions. And it works. Even when I was going there every day, I would find that my feet downright refused to settle into a pattern. Which meant that a man who I'd never met was using 400,000 tons worth of brick and glass to control my movements. Games are only just beginning to understand how they can use their architecture to tell their stories and manipulate their players, but I suspect it will take the input of people like Wilson to fully exploit it. Other things to like about the British Library include the five-story, inside-out, library-within-a-library, the thing that looks a bit like a sniper tower, and the fact that it's as useful for impressing your mother as it is for meeting girls.


This one's a bit of a cheat, because the musician known as Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada) already makes games – or at least the sountracks for them, as anyone who's had the chance to chime hypnotically with Coloris can testify. But what makes it less of a cheat is that he's probably the only person on this list who'd stand a chance of actually making something you could play. His credentials, other than Coloris, are impeccable, in that his son is actually called Mario, and his (brilliant) videos make it pretty clear that he could give Minter, Mizuguchi and Iwai a run for their money. Especially since he doesn't have a weakness for yaks, The Black-Eyed Peas or improbably impratical musical instruments, and would be be guaranteed to involve monkeys somewhere along the line. He might need a bit of help on the character design front, though.

Men Of Science

This is definitely a cheat, but right now it's the one I'm most excited about. I would like (take note, any passing VC-samaritans looking to sink millions into a vanity project with a prospective market of one) these guys to make me a shmup. Look at that stuff! It's astonishing, and ten times as extraordinary as anything I've seen in a game all year. I want to streak over the surface of two m-plane sapphire substrates at 200 miles an hour, never mind 200x magnification. I want to bury quad-rocket charges into the spaghetti-genitalia of a Copepod lophoura - surely standing by to take the 'most phallic enemy since Xenon 2's foreskin plants' prize - and blast it to mush. I want to slice through the sky as cleanly as a microchannel for flow-stretching DNA. Who's with me? All we need is Treasure, a million dollars, and the phone-number for the guy who's got the Fantastic Voyage licence.

Who do you wish did, who doesn't?

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Gamers are all chronic wishaholics - the inevitable side-effect of having a hobby which is mostly about making the impossible possible. But, for some reason, they tend to be wishes of improvement or alteration: 'I wish Capcom would release Okami before Christmas', 'I wish there was more stuff to do in Just Cause', 'I wish Nintendo would sort out its Stars catalogue worldwide so I can stop feeling like a stamped-on snail every time I think of it.' What we don't do a lot of is blue-sky wishing. So, here's my list, on a blue-sky day, of who I wish made games, but doesn't.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka

He's a professor at the department of psychology at Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University, and world leader in the design and study of optical illusions. Those of you who aren't already on the brink of a migraine may want to spend some time tickling the inside of their brains with the hundreds of examples posted at his site. And why do I wish he'd make games? Aesthetics, partly. I'm tired of the real, in a big way. For years the real was brown and grey - sludgy roads, porridgey buildings, pasty people. And I'm even tiring of the new real, which is mostly green (Far Cry, Just Cause, Test Drive etc.) I want the impossible, and unimagined and I want it to be packed with colour - and it seems Kitaoka is qualified on all three counts. And I'm sick of verb/object puzzles - doors that need keys, people that need information, switches that need pressing. How about some persistence of vision puzzles? How about enemies who use visual anomalies as camouflage?

Mark Dunn

He's a writer and playwright (not long, I guess, before that gets bastardised down to 'playwrite'), best known for Ella Minnow Pea, initially introduced as a A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, but itself bastardised down to A Novel Without Letters. It's set on the island where the phrase 'the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog' was first discovered, and documents what happens as successive letters of the alphabet are banned by a totalitarian and fusspot government. It's a puzzle book, partly for Mark Dunn who has fewer and fewer letters to work with in each successive chapter, and partly for the readers, who are co-opted into the islander's desperate hunt for a replacement phrase for the rapidly disappearing brown fox. It's an enormouly playful book, as well as a cracking read (the climax is so satisfying it made me accidentally holler in triumph on a flight to the US, back in the balmy days when such behaviour didn't get you arrested), and it shows there's a different way to make games out of words than the narrative-led, conversation-driven techniques of things like Facade.

Continues above.