A Legitimate Strategy

I very nearly forgot to mention this, but on the same day as I went bowling and was conned into a $2.75 slushy I didn’t really want I also played Laser Skirmish.

In the first of the two games played I started well before losing my momentum. Getting shot frequently in the latter stages sent my peak score of 800-and-something back down to a boring 700-ish, a very mediocre score considering some were getting well over 1,000. I’m pretty good at laser tag games. I’m supposed to be pretty good at games. (I blame the previous night’s intoxication and attendant dehydration, as right after the first game I started getting cramping in my legs and had trouble walking.)

Given my condition, for the second game I obviously had to change up my tactic and I decided to draw upon the skills untold hours of videogame play had brought me. I decided to camp.

I happened upon possibly the perfect spot for it too; at a small corner before a relatively open space there was a box placed on a corner wall to further extend it out a slight way. But there was a gap underneath, and from a prone position on the ground I had both excellent cover (the box and being flat obscured both my front and back targets) and a great field of view.

I camped for about half the second game and took unsuspecting people out in quick succession, often the same people coming back to try again. Some people were ‘dead’ before they even noticed me, I was in such an unorthodox and unexpected position. My camping spot was too good. It took a guy bigger than me to physically walk up, playfully push me into a corner and fire his gun straight into one of my target point blank until he got a shot off before I gave up my position.

I rocketed to the top of my team’s score with a little more than 1,900 points. I beat all but three members of the other team, but best of all I, beat the limitations of my own body.

And people say videogames don’t teach kids anything useful.

$5.50

$5.50 sounds like a lot for approximately 600ml’s of coke flavoured slushy, or at least it does where I live. But how about $5.50 for the same coke flavoured slushy with unlimited refills? Suddenly, the psychological price of the slushy becomes hyperbolic and the cost rapidly approaches zero.

That is, only as long as you intend to actually consume an unlimited number of the chilly ice and cola mix. Which in reality is a difficult proposition – I only had two of them while I was at the bowling alley tonight, and I don’t think I even finished my second one. A friend had 4, and by the end of it he was on a dead-set screaming sugar high. I kid you not; the dude was practically drunk on the sugar and caffeine.

As a result of my own more modest consumption, in effect I paid $2.75 for two slushies, the second of which I struggled to finish and didn’t even enjoy all that much. A regular, non-icy 600ml coke at the same place would realistically cost between $2.50 and $3. If I were buying a non-frozen, non-slushied coke I would never have bought a second one – I am certain that given the limit of a single bottle and the familiar, standardised portion sizing of a bottle I would never have felt the need to approximately consume 1.2 litres of coke in the equivalent time that I tried to consume the same amount of (practically free!) slushies.

Put most simply, I fell victim to the real-world equivalent of a Steam sale; except the latter is never going to give me type-2 diabetes.

Pax Britannica

Good news everyone! A game called PAX BRITANNICA has just been released on the TigSource forums. It’s a game by the No Fun Games team, who through Matthew Gallant, graciously asked me to score their game for them.

Pax Britannica was created for the GammaIV competition which exhibits every year at GDC (and who were seeking donations to cover the costs this year – but they’ve reached their target)(Edit: Michel Mcbride informs me that GammaIV actually exhibited at Montreal rather than GDC previously). Unfortunately my entry won’t be there for me to see and play when I get to GDC in March, but that’s okay because now everyone gets to benefit from playing the game right now.

The theme that the No Fun team were going for with their game was ’20K leagues under the sea’ and so I, in my infinite wisdom, decided to create a soundscape piece that intimated the noises of an underwater, steam-driven submarine. The visuals and the music work really well to create a fun and atmospheric game, but don’t just take it from me – TigSource forum-goer ‘Newton64′ said,

“the sfx and soundtrack are great. Very good mood-setting to match the pace of the motherships.”

That’s a boxquote right there! A boxquote about my own music. How exciting.

In Print


click for full size

Around mid-December of last year I was approached independetly by two magazines that wanted to do a couple of short interview/features in their publications about Permanent Death. I have now very kindly recieved a copy of each and I’ve scanned in the relevant pages for your perusal.

The first comes from German games magazine GEE Mag, and my answers to the interviewers questions have, naturally, been translated into German. I guess if you really need to know what I have to say about why I chose Far Cry 2 for permadeath, etc, you could ask either of Denis Farr or Sebastian Wuepper to translate for you (I’m sure there are others).

The second is part of a longer piece about Permanent Death as well as Robin Burkinshaw’s exceptional ‘Alice and Kev‘ blog-form machinima tale. It’s from the UK publication GamesTM, and it’s quite a cool feature.

Justin Keverne told me that also in the March issues of GamesTM is a big interview with CLINT HOCKING, which, as Justin pointed out, is very fitting.

Thanks to Oliver Klatt and Chris McMahon for the interest in Permanent Death and for being such nice interviewers. (Read more for the English mag pages…)

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The Holy Trinity

So I just got finished writing my final post for SLRC, it’ll be up by the time anybody reads this.

And here’s the thing, I wanted to say something about videogame journalism after Michael Walbridge’s recent post “So You Want To be A Games Writer: Don’t”. But I don’t really have anything to add except a resigned sort of agreement with Walbridge.

It’s a tough gig, this we know, but until very recently (think, since Crispy Gamer went down) the prevailing narrative has generally been along the lines of “If you’re good enough, try hard enough, for long enough, you’ll make it into something eventually”. This prevailing narrative is now highly suspect at best, an outright fabrication at worst. After reading Walbridge’s post and linking it on Twitter, N’Gai Croal noticed it and spread it around a bit more before linking to this post by a guy in pretty much the same position as Walbridge, but who has been at it for a lot longer – waiting ten years to ‘make it’ as a games journalist is a long, long time.

Then in the Sunday Papers I think someone (or perhaps Gillen himself) linked to a World of Stuart blog post looking at videogame magazine numbers and their meteoric plummet into obscurity and irrelevance. As I said in my final post at SLRC – blogs are to blame! No really, think about it – if we’re giving it away for free (and there are so many people that are) why is anyone going to pay? It’s an economic reality acknowledged by so many of the professional journalists that come out of the woodwork to comment on Walbridge’s piece.

But we’re not going to stop blogging are we? And even if ‘we’ did, no one else would, so other economic or social or technological model needs to be devised. Enter, Rock Paper Shotgun.

On his personal site, Jim Rossignol writes about how the four horsemen of RPS have worked to create the RPS community and how it really has payed dividends. Heck, I love what the site is doing so much that even I’m a subscriber. It’s interesting to me, however, that even as a community site RPS has to police its comment threads. Again, that decision has payed dividends by elevating the community and the quality of discussion. RPS comment threads can be counted on to be some of the best out there on the net (as long as neither piracy nor DRM gets a mention – which is itself such a well known fact amongst readers that it’s become a running gag and another testament to the sense of community the site has engendered).

One last cool thought by Mister Rossignol, “Online readers begin to regard certain sites as bases from which to head out onto the web from.” Facebook, Twitter, and (for PC game enthusiasts) Rock Paper Shotgun. The holy trinity.

This is not a hardcore game

The following is an edited conversation I had via instant message with one of my oldest friends, two days after christmas ’09.

Guy-mitchell: X’s family does this thing where everyone buy s $20 present then they all get wrapped up and put in the center, one person’s name is drawn, and they choose and unwrap a present.

Ben: Isn’t it amazing what everyone else does for Christmas?

Guy-mitchell: The next person to have their name drawn can either unwrap another one or ‘steal’ one that’s been opened.

Ben: That’s awesome!

Guy-mitchell: If yours gets ‘stolen’ you can steal someone elses, or unwrap a new one. It’s fricken’ awesome.

Ben: haha

Guy-mitchell: One of the key rules is that if something’s been stolen from you, you can’t steal that item again thus being in a couple becomes a strategic advantage.

Guy-mitchell: At one point, I stole the gift my wife’s Grandma had and then it was stolen another 5 times after that… hectic.

Ben: Must have been a really good item!

Guy-mitchell: The key is to find something to bring that lots of people will want, thus causing the most chaos. This year it was a sham wow kit and a set of golf balls.

Film-o-narrative Dissonance?

I watched the film 500 Days of Summer tonight and I want to talk about that ending – that stupid, trite, Hollywood ending. More relevant than the disappointing nature of the denouement, however, is the fact that it managed to mechanically contradict the movie’s message content. And you thought only games could do that.

For those  who haven’t seen the film, it’s about that kid in 10 things I hate about you who falls in love with Claire Danes. It’s aboutthe 500 days he spends with a girl named Summer, whom he believes is ‘The One’. It’s a movie about memory, perception and reality-versus-imagination. I’d recommend it.

The lesson of the film is that nothing is fated, that there is no predestination, and the lead character eventually realises this fact, having read too much into coincidences and subtext.

Similarly, I seem to recall once reading an article in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine about people who read meaning in the iPod’s shuffle ability. The piece was framed in a discussion about why we have this inability to accept and recognise true randomness. A similar story on America’s NPR talks about this difficulty we have saying,

People have an enormous difficulty recognizing randomness because one of the features of a genuinely random selection is you get lots of repetitions. What people usually think of as random is what we call uni-distributed. But in fact, randomness is full of patterns.

Coming back to 500 Days of Summer, towards the conclusion the main dude learns that Summer (his ‘soulmate’) has gone and gotten married to some other dude. He moves on with his life having lost faith in the idea of having ‘soulmates’ and being ‘destined’ for a certain person. I thought this was a remarkably complex and mature message, and one incredibly unlikely to ever come out of a mainstream Hollywood film. Naturally, it doesn’t end there.

So he’s moving on with his life, and in the final scene he’s applying for a job as an architect. In the waiting room he meets a woman, who recognises his face having seen him around where he lives. A coincidence, and that’s all it is. He accepts it, and goes off to the interview and the narrator explicates his interior thought world, as he considers the coincidence. He then changes his mind, entertaining a small possibility that this chance meeting may have ‘meant to be’, ad decides to go back and ask her out for a drink. At this point, they could have just let it be another coincidence, he could still have asked her out having learnt a valuable lesson and the film would have been the better for it.

But just as she agrees to meet him after for coffee, he tells her his name and then she tells him, “My name’s Autumn.” As in, Autumn that comes after Summer (who he’s just gotten over). The main character has his newfound resolve tested – maybe this is just a coincidence, but we’re still going to go out.

The mechanics of being a film however – and most importantly a piece of fictional film – contradict, or at best water down this message about predestination. It’s interfered with because I cannot suspend my disbelief in the deliberateness of the choice of name for his new interest (basically I can’t forget that I’m watching a movie, not a documentary or real life) so I know that this ‘coincidental meeting’ between the main dude and ‘Autumn’ really is not a coincidence at all, because it is some Author’s idea.

I feel like the film did want to keep the film on message with regard to ‘soulmates’ and ‘destiny’ and ‘fate’, but the mechanics get in the way of the story’s message. And that’s an all too familiar position to be in, isn’t it?

I went out and bought his book

While cruising the Rock, Paper, Shogtun ‘Writers Hive’ sub-forum out of a general curiosity with what was being written there I stumbled upon this response to a Tom Bissell piece about spoilers.  Somehow at the time it was published I missed reading the original, owing to a dislike of the crispy gamer website layout, further compounded by a feeling that Crispy Gamer ignored/patronised the critical games blogging community while being nearly identical to us (see previous entry ‘Crispy Bacon’ for a bit more about this).

Anyway, the thread began as a (negative) response to Bissell’s piece in defence of. . . I’m not really sure what. The right to get emotional when having games spoilt for you? I don’t really know – but the important thing was that it got me reading the original Bissell piece and upon finishing I felt like shouting and jumping for joy. Finally! Someone else who feels the obsession with avoiding spoilers is “a pox that must be eradicated”.

Now I’m not one to proscribe how others should or should-not behave, so I’m fine if others want to worry about them on their own web places. Just don’t ever, ever expect me to – certainly not here. If I refrain from them on Twitter or elsewhere, it is only ever out of courtesy for those who do care. Among game critic types I feel it’s generally well acknowledged that spoilers come with the territory.

I  wrote a piece for SLRC about the same time last year, in response to a conversation between Michael Abbott and Clint Hocking on a Brainy Gamer post. What Hocking was getting at with his comment was quite similar to what Barnett and Bissell are saying here – that no-once can spoil the self-authored aspect of gaming with a description. In his post, Abbott’s scope was initially only to argue the case that spoilers were detrimental to games criticism in general, not going so far as to claim as Hocking did that spoilers never really spoilt the experience. For Abbott, who I would label as someone very invested in the presented textual story in games, spoilers probably would be relevant, as he seems to have an interest in keeping his knowledge of a game’s story unspoilt. For Hocking, Bissell and myself the pre-written story is the least interesting part of a game.

Returning to the forum post, half-way down the thread Jeep Barnett (of Valve software; one of the original Portal developers) pops in to add some comments and aligns himself with Tom (and myself) in a strong dislike of spoilers. Barnett highlights the following salient point about why worrying about spoilers is only ever going to diminish what Bissell calls the ‘the lizard-brain surprise’ aspect of any game;

…the most interesting thing about gaming is that its interactive experience is partially your own creation. Knowing how a game can play out contains none of your authorship and so it’s very little like playing it yourself.

And I really, truly agree with Barnett & Bissell – it’s probably a personal preference. I also think it’s telling that a couple of the people doing what I find to be the most interesting stuff with videogames right now – Hocking with Far Cry 2 & Barnett with Portal – are the ones to agree about the unimportance of spoilers. But that probably says more about our shared taste than anything else. Perhaps Abbott’s own tastes and opinions are changing.

Twitter, Scratch and Class

Thinking about how technologies can and do organise online space socially; I was looking at a twitter topic that was trending this evening. It was simply the word ‘Haters’ and it consisted of hundreds of people retweeting a quotation attributed to one ‘DJ scratch’: “Most haters don’t even know they’re haters because they’re surrounded by Haters”.

From their avatar pictures, the tweeters appeared to be predominantly African American and many had names like Joe7821 (not a real user) and it made me think about how early adoption, and mass popularisation and uptake can create social stratification – that is, the latecomers have to append numbers in their username because the vanilla ‘Joe’ username was already  taken (and ironically, usually by some tech-savvy white middle class person). Appending a number to your username means you weren’t first to the twitter-party and that means you’re outside of the early adopter social group. That’s reason enough to be looked down upon by some. I’ve felt the pressure from this in the past, and the pressure to do similarly to others.

This is all anecdotal, of course, but it reminded me of Danah Boyd’s write up of her research into how certain social/cultural/racial strata of Teens in the US gravitate towards one or the other of Facebook and MySpace. It was an illuminating read when I first came across it a few months back and it opened my mind to the idea that technology is not a neutral force on society – not least of all internet technology. Boyd’s post ‘Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace’ can be read online here. Her response to criticisms levelled at the original blog post/essay is also interesting as it deals with the difference between blogging and academic writing, and how her essay was mistaken for the latter while meant as the former. The essay apparently ‘took on a life of its own’ and was misread and critiqued. Here are her answers to some of those criticisms.

I take quite a bit of pride in being an early adopter, but is that really a good thing? In what circumstances could my taking pride in belonging to an early-adopter crowd be to the detriment of someone else?

Crispy Bacon

So I just got done reading an article on the now-defunct website Crispy Gamer, and it read to me like another affirmation of the idea put forward by Geert Lovink that blogging is a creatively nihilistic endeavour. It’s an idea from his book ‘Zero Comments’, which deals with internet culture and blogging. It’s too unwieldy a concept to go into great detail here, but suffice to say, Lovink believes the medium of the blog does some things intrinsically that destroy old institutions and cultural paradigms like old school authoritative, one-to-many mass media.

The Crispy Gamer piece also reminded me of my one brief appearance on ABC TV’s Good Game, in which I talked about blogging and tried to play the apologist for the critical videogame blogosphere. That part of the interview got seriously cut down, the sense that I’m pretty keen for blogs remains. And so Crispy Gamer’s John Keefer – who also appeared in the segment pooh-poohing blogs for their lack of journalistic standards/integrity/ethics, etc – isn’t really around anymore in the sense that the site has now folded, most of those videogame blogs that lack standards are still going strong. Keefer advocated old-media standards for the internet, and sadly, it hasn’t done him and his team much good. I blame the blogs.

While writing the TWIVGB series for Critical Distance I have seen a virtual land-rush of new (videogame) blogs, but it doesn’t take any special insight to know that blogs of all kinds are not going away any time soon. Which indicates to me that there’s now even more bloggers out there, bringing down old-media with a million tiny cuts. Whether they’re trying to or not is irrelevant, if Lovink is right, and I think he is. They may love their newspapers and their radio stations (I certainly love my Sydney Morning Herald) but it doesn’t change the fact that the exercise we are engaged in with blogging “zeroes out” old media and fails to replace it with a new ideology… unless you count the right for everyone and everyone to be heard. But as Lovink notes, in a culture where every voice believes it has a right to be heard, the result is that no one is heard.

You can re-watch the Good Game video on their website here. Or you can watch the YouTube rip uploaded by Daniel Primed just so he could rail against the injustices and failings of the segment on his own blog.

For the record, I think journalistic ethics is terrifically important. But then, blogs are almost certainly changing that too which means I’m also clinging to an outdated ideal. In reality, to try and steer the ship of journalistic integrity at this late hour would be a bit like steering the Titanic right after it hit the iceberg.