A letter to Tom Bissell that wouldn’t fit on his Facebook wall.

Tom…

I feel I must quietly berate you on an issue most pressing. Why, oh why, does an artist of such high calibre and of such prolific output such as yourself possess no central place on the internet that I can go to and subscribe via RSS, or follow via twitter just so that I can make sure that I know about all the things you’ve written up to the most recent? Why did I have to find out via a wall post on your Facebook account that you wrote this incredible piece for the Observer?

You need to get a twitter account or a blog or even just a website, something – anything! What does it tell you that my heart started beating faster when I found this twitter account purporting to be by ‘Tom Bissell’ only to have my hopes cruelly dashed?

Why is there no TomBissell.com? The domain is clearly being parked by GoDaddy – did you buy the domain and do nothing with it? If so, let this be a gentle push to get you to make use of it! Because if you don’t do something to rectify this situation in the not-too-distant future I fear someone, perhaps someone like myself but maybe anyone who I have evangelised your work to, might be forced to register the www.TomBissellFans.com domain and make something terribly unofficial. I understand you’re a very busy man, with your book coming out and all these other projects on the side, but really… it’s 2010. That’s a whole decade past the year 2000 and ten years into supposedly having flying cars and personal jetpacks. The least you can do is get a personal website.

Please Tom, pause GTAIV for ten minutes and get yourself a wordpress blog or a twitter account. In the horrible words of marketing-speak it’s time to “connect with your fans” or “reach potential new readers”.

Actually, on second thoughts the marketing speak has put me off the idea. So don’t worry about it. Marketers are full of crap anyway.

Sincerely, A Concerned Reader and Fan.

Why Permadeath is not a great idea for games tabula rasa

One criticism that I see crop up repeatedly in comment threads whenever Permanent Death is mentioned is that I chose to play a game (Far Cry 2) that I had plenty of prior experience with. This is a valid criticism – but only if I were trying to somehow prove how good I am at games. That’s not what Permanent Death was about. I’m really not that great at games.

I recently decided to try and play a new game in the Permadeath style ‘fresh’ and with no prior experience whatsoever – Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Suffice to say, I immediately headed off in the wrong direction; I approached mission targets in completely the wrong order; I ended up skipping all the on-screen tutorials that would have been quite helpful and only returned to them at the very last.

However I stumbled through and managed to survive even a rather serious chest wound by applying some kind of field dressing. But then, at the last objective remaing for the first mission, I got shot in the head. And I died. And that was the end of the Permadeath run. It was long, it was boring, and ultimately it was both extremely unsatisfying and devoid of any kind of personal meaning.

Anthony Burch talked at GDC recently about what Permadeath means for Far Cry 2 in the context of its themes, systems and narrative. In the briefest of summaries, it brings all of the game together and makes it hurt with a brutal clarity that is like a slap in the face – actions like the death of your buddies (even their survival) actually start to mean something to a player.

To criticise the Permanent Death exercise as being “wasted” on a game I was already well versed in is to completely misunderstand the point of the venture. All it tells me is that you didn’t get it, which is fine, but it also limits your ability to engage with the discussion.

This isn’t a personal issue for me – I’m not actually offended when people bring up these and other criticisms of Permanent Death, legitimate or otherwise. Yes, please, feel free to criticise the quality of writing. Please also feel free to critique the narration or my choice of rendering the final act as a strange kind of post-death post-script. If you are doing any of those things it means that you care enough to engage with Permanent Death. It means that you are actually reading the gigantic thing and that is, frankly, both a thrilling prospect to me personally and at the same time all I could ever ask for it.

Last day at GDC, a poem

Bleary eyes

Runny noses

Blinking and coughing

Even the angry people are arguing softly

Suspicious speaker at 3pm

Out of coffee in the press room by midday

Waiting for lunch to open

Need to do vaccuous tourist shopping

I will miss this place,

but it’s the people not the place that makes it.

I’ll be back though, the allure of GDC is too strong

Plus I’m internet famous now, and I know the organisers

Maybe I’ll try and land a speaking role

That would be pretty fun

Then I’d get into the speaker’s party

re: Not much GDC coverage…

If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t really posted anything about my time at GDC yet, you can relax. It’s all part of the bigger, ongoing plan.

I’m not going to add anything by going to the big talks and keynotes and putting my own spin on everything to come out of a session – see Leigh Alexander’s reputedly comprehensive coverage for stuff like that, or any of the other media outlets that have people reporting on the event. Matthew Burns is writing from GDC, but he’s doing it in a very personalised narrated manner. I just so happened to be included in one of these write-ups since I was fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time with Matthew on the first day. See his dispatches from GDC parts 1 and 2 (part 2 kind of acts as a highlight reel for all the things that I did on Tuesday) for a more experience based take on the conference so far.

As to what I’m doing at GDC… suffice to say, I’ve been having my mind blown by the ease of meeting and the accessibility of all the amazing people I look up to in the games writing sphere. And I’m also working on what I hope will become the thing that helps justify the faith placed in me by Michael Abbott, David Carlton and everyone who donated any money towards this trip. I don’t want to say too much at this stage because I don’t want to pin to down just yet as it’s still very much a work in progress, but I will say that I have high hopes.

Tomorrow (Thursday) looks to be a winner also, and if the first two days are anything to go by, it should really be something special.

Noby Notes on Games including Flowers and (un)Charts

So a few quick notes on some games I played recently here stateside:

Noby Noby Boy.

At my lovely and generous host David Carlton’s house I played his PS3. I played – no that’s not really the right word I experienced the Playstation Network downloadable game Noby Noby Boy for all of 15 minutes and loved every second. I dropped into David’s game, so I didn’t get any of the brief tutorials explaining what (if anything) you are expected to do and want to do. I purely enjoyed moving around in the world, controlling both ends of Boy independently with the analogue sticks was enough to keep me enthralled until I realised I hadn’t figured out how to ‘eat’ things, which I had seen people do in videos.

I started wreaking havoc on the populations of the planets, discovered things like flying up into the sky by myself as well as shooting eaten things out my rear. I thought it was remarkable how well Noby Noby Boy catered to my complete inexperience unintentionally, since it thought I was David, for all intents and purposes. It also had the most beautiful fiddle/violin based music in one (or a couple) of it’s levels, so that got extra points from me also.

Flower

I enjoyed the casual method of exploration more than I did performing any of the game’s actions to do with the goals of the game. I kind of liked exploring the world, regardless of its colour.

Also, as David pointed out, Flower exposes a very present ‘grass fetish’ in American culture, and specifically supergreen grass. I remarked to him that the yellow grass was just as pretty as the green parts, and in fact in most of Australia for most of the year, grasses are more yellow than they are green.

Uncharted 2

What’s all the fuss about? It’s early days, but I wasn’t seeing the praise that has been lavished on this game. The voice acting is pretty good (Chloe sounds to my ear like an Australian that’s spent time in the UK, if that counts for anything – I know everyone seems a bit confounded by her accent) but the character models seemed like nothing spectacular. David pointed out to me, however, that his TV doesn’t handle full HD well and that it may have been a result of that, so I’ll reserve my judgement in that respect until I’ve either fiddled with it or played it on a full HDTV.

No one plays Uncharted 2 for the shooting, do they? Because it didn’t seem particularly engaging to me (full disclosure: I played it for maybe an hour). Maybe I’m bringing too many expectations to this game – it’s been hyped by pretty much every person I know on twitter who’s opinion about games I listen to. And knowing myself, hype/expectations are the things that are most likely to kill otherwise good experiences. I just can’t stand something being only ‘OK’ when someone’s told me it’s the second coming of Christ.

Tomorrow I’ve got a fair chunk of time to myself to just hang around, so I’ll probably try and do my first GDC related post then. I’m still not really sure what I’m actually here to do (other than the obligatory attend GDC, of course) so it will pay off in the long run to have a bit of a think about it before it all gets underway the day after.

Notes on Films #2

So I just got off a nearly 13 hour plane flight, so naturally I watched a bunch of movies on the plane. Not entirely unexpectedly I had some thoughts on them.

Up In The Air (Somewhere over the pacific a fair way north of New Zealand)

George Clooney plays a convincingly detached middle aged man who spends all his time flying. So much in fact that he’s accrued 10 million miles, joining an elite cadre of ultra frequent fliers.

Quite a good film, and quite a sad one too, but I’m going to suggest that it should never be shown on planes. Quite simply, the lie that is Ryan Bingham’s ‘enjoyment’ of doing so much commercial flying is shown up most vividly when the plane on the screen and it’s smooth, quiet, and spacious trip is compared to the noisy, cramped situation that is your real and present environs. It kind of ruins the illusion also when an outside shot shows all of Clooney’s upper torso and head, when the window next to your own seat barely accommodates your entire face when it’s squished right up against it.

The Blind Side (Indeterminate location over the pacific)

A film about a black American near-homeless boy and his adoption by a white family when he gets into a private Christian school on something like a football scholarship. Early overtones of a misguided white effort at atoning for wider social ills through personal action would undoubtedly appeal to ‘down to earth’ folksy types. However too much viewing of The Wire has left me extremely critical of any such simple solutions as simply taking the boy into your own home. Why just one boy, why not 2 or 10, and so on.

Also curious is the game’s seeming inattention to the specifics of actual football playing. For a film that starts with a football play, broken down and narrated second by second by Sandra Bullock’s character, the rest of the film really shows very little actual football being played. Just seemed weird, y’know? Clearly aimed at the Republican heartland.

The Invention of Lying (Indeterminate location over the pacific slightly closer to San Francisco)

I heard from one of my best friends that this “wasn’t that good” but I quite enjoyed it. It’s really an allegorical treatment of religion, and not really about lying at all. Ricky Gervais’ character invents lying in a world completely devoid of deception, and eventually resorts to fabricating the comforting lie that there is an afterlife of paradise when faced with his scared, dying mother.

It’s about life, it’s about death and religion and Gervais paints a picture of religion as convenient lying that is meant to reassure us about the great unknown that is death. An interesting film, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it’s overarching thesis.

Notes on films #1

For some reason I’ve been watching an above average number of films this week. I’m no film critic, but here are some brief notes and observations from them in order of appearance:

Zombieland (Sunday night/Monday morning)

Zombieland was great. It was so great, actually, that instead of going to sleep at a reasonable time like I was meant to on Sunday, I stayed up far later than I should have, even as as I needed to get up early the following morning. I got about four and a half hours sleep.

The main character reminded me of a slightly older Michael Cera and it is obvious the film was obviously targeting a young-adult male audience (hey – it is a zombie movie after all). The story is pretty much wish fulfilment for every young boy – when everyone else is dead you can enjoy the best the world has to offer – but there’s also a boy meets girl plot, and Emma Stone becomes the object of male desire. Yeah, little bit of a celebrity crush right there.

A cool visual effect that ran throughout the whole film places bits of text (the protagonists ‘rules’ for surviving Zombieland) inside the world. Only the audience sees it and it serves to underscore the points being made by the continuous narration provided by the main protagonist. How he is speaking to us, or from where, is never really specified, but it gives the film a sort of ‘documentary’ feel and as an abstract layer it helps keeps the film’s tone light. In this capacity, the narration forms an integral part of keeping the audience distracted and not-too-worried about the logical inconsistencies in the world of Zombieland. For instance, why did no one respond to the zombie threat when it became apparent what was happening? Why also is the power still on in so many places apparently bereft of anyone living?

The answer is of course ‘who cares!’ and it maintains this assertion proudly and deliberately. Never is this more evident than in the scenes where Bill Murray makes a cameo. Murray’s accidental death (he was pretending to be a zombie) is visible from miles ahead but it’s easy to accept because we acknowledge that it is just the end of his cameo. Even Murray himself makes light his own death as it’s happening and Emma Stone’s character struggles to keep a straight face at his passing antics.

There Will Be Blood (Monday night/Tuesday night)

I knew I wasn’t going to get through all of TWBB when I put it on late on Monday night, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Falling asleep as I was, I didn’t think I’d get more than five or ten minutes into it before succumbing to sleep. I was quite wrong, however, as very quickly the musical score (by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, no less) and the introduction completely devoid of dialogue captured my attention and brought me a renewed sense of wakefulness.

I stopped a bit shy of the half-way mark, right at the point where the son, HW Plainview, gets a blast full of gas and has his hearing destroyed. It was fitting because so much of the film is about the main character, Daniel Plainview and his relationship with his (adopted) son HW. The movie is deeply unsettling, on many levels, with the oftentimes abusive nature of the father/son relationship becoming truly heartbreaking. Daniel Plainviews dealings with the religious fanatic Eli Sunday was also personally confronting as it brought up memories of certain experiences of my own past that, in the cold clear view of hindsight are just as disturbing. Daniel Plainview often manages to turn the rhetoric of the ecstatic preacher Eli back against him, showing off the persuasive power of passionate fervour and the desperate disillusionment of Plainview himself.

Superbad (Tuesday night)

What compelled me to watch Superbad of all possible films? I think after the heavy There Will Be Blood I needed something of a palette cleanser, and while it certainly wasn’t cleansing in any other sense of the word, it certainly did lighten the tone.

Superbad also featured both Michael Cera (hello, a connection!) and Emma Stone, who played only a small part, but a part nonetheless (hello another connection). She has very sexy eyes – I think that’s what I like about her. It’s funny, when the guys finally read the party I kind of assumed that Cera would end up with Stone’s character and the drunk friend, played by Jonah Hill, would end up with Cera’s initial love interest, who was also horribly drunk and only interested in performing sex acts. But they decided that was not to be and the get together scene was left till the last in the mall. Oh well, you weren’t really expecting complexity were you?

While Superbad was full of questionable jokes of varying vulgarity there was one scene that seemed… well… borderline racist, is about the only way to describe it. I’m not sure whether we were supposed to be laughing at, or with the idiotic white male police as they struggled to ask the black female cashier who had just been robbed whether the assailant was African American or Caucasian. Continual depictions of the ineptitude and corruption of the two police officers also proved mildly surprising – I wondered how they got away with it, until I remembered that this was an unrated version of the film and considered that might have an impact.

I’m finished.

Essay: Unreliable

In the very first issue of the online Game Studies journal back in 2001, Markku Eskelinen noted that [here’s a cached version if game studies is still down],

In narratives and many other kinds of fiction it is acceptable and sometimes even preferable that users are misled by being given wrong instructions. But in games the deliberate frustration of action seems clearly to be an intolerable option. One might think of unreliable maps giving false and incorrect information about the location of the player or of the objects he’s seeking – that’s something almost every writer would like to do, and almost every player and game designer to avoid…

That may have been the situation in 2001 however in 2010 it could be viewed as a sign of maturity that there are now many games that have attempted, some even quite successfully, to trick the player by employing unreliability, and specifically an unreliable narrator.

The first example that comes to mind is Bioshock (2007). David Carlton notes in his piece on the game from December “[when] you meet Tenenbaum for the first time; she makes a case that “rescuing” the little sisters is good for them, but does so in a context that paints her as an unreliable narrator.” A commenter by the name of Julian also notes on Mitch Krpata’s Games of the Decade post on Bioshock that “Atlas is practically the definition of an unreliable narrator.

Ken Levine admitted in an interview with ShackNews that he considered and deliberately employed this technique in Bioshock. Of course, Bioshock wasn’t the first game in the ‘shock series to use an unreliable narrator, System Shock 2 (1999) had a notoriously unreliable narrator in the form of Shodan pretended to be a completely different person for large sections of the game. Kieron Gillen’s ‘The Girl Who Wanted To Be God’ is an excellent treatment and discussion of the routinely untrustworthy Shodan. You may have noticed the fact that System Shock 2’s release predates Eskilenen’s quote from Game Studies. This can be forgiven, however, for the dual reasons of the lengthy process of peer reviewed academic publishing and the fact that SS2 was, according to Giant Bomb, more of a ‘cult hit’ than commercial success.

No such excuse, however, exists for the failure to consider Final Fantasy VII (1997) and its remarkably unreliable and often disjointed narrator Cloud who is also the main player controlled character. Kurt Kalata references FFVII & Cloud’s mental delusion/confusion in the middle of a mammoth 20 page history of the Japanese role-playing game (JRPG). Kalta claims it was as one of the first implementations of an unreliable narrator in a JRPG.

Speaking of the Final Fantasy series, a reading of Final Fantasy VIII (1999) that interprets the vast majority of the game as a delusional dream occurring as the protagonist Squall dies could also be considered an implementation of an unreliable narrator.

Gregory Weir has noted that “Many games have unreliable narrators, especially in survival horror games where the player character is being affected by mental influences.” To preserve the brevity of this essay I’m going to list some of the other recent games and link to where it has been suggested they employ ambiguous or unreliable narrators; Braid (2008) in more than just the one place; The Half-Life 2 (2004) modification ‘Dear Esther (2009); Emily Short posits that it is often used in Interactive Fiction works; Trent Polack has discussed unreliable narrators for Gamasutra and a commenter mentioned Portal (2007) as being another; engaging with almost any ARG ever made also involves some level of player questioning of facts presented to them (See Chris Dahlen’s “They’re here. They’re fake. Get used to it” for a great discussion of ARG’s) and if that seems like a bit of a stretch: when an ARG becomes a videogame blog and people as cluey as Michael Abbott and Simon Carless are fooled I’m willing to say that we’re dealing with some kind of an unreliable narrator.

It would not be entirely wrong to criticise my line of reasoning so far by suggesting that it has not quite addressed the specific issue Eskelinen raises. Judging from the rest of his article, Eskelinen is generally referring to games qua rules & systems and not their interpreted or perceived narrative meaning. With his mentioning of “unreliable maps giving false and incorrect information about the location of the player or of the objects he’s seeking” it’s clear that Eskelinen is talking about the seeming impossibility (or at least that it’s something “almost every player and game designer [would like] to avoid”) that mechanics, even the very geography of the game, could ever be ‘unreliable’.

STALKER: Call of Pipyat (2010) is less the unreliable narrator than it is unreliable geographer. Two key features of the game make it so – the first is the mutable nature of the location of dangerous anomalies in the zone. Whenever an emission happens the dangerous anomalies (predominantly invisible except to a specialised scanner) rearrange themselves in new patterns, theoretically ruining any safe routes previously learned. In practice, however, the anomalies are still confined to specific areas of anomalous activity limiting their potential for geographic ‘unreliability’ and one hardly ever ventures into such an area without a scanner anyway.

The second feature of the game is one particular section of underground geography that literally defies the laws of physics. Entering through a concrete door in the side of a hill, the player enters a bunker connected to a series of traversable ventilation shafts. Successfully navigating these poorly illuminated shafts (often populated with small, fast moving enemies) leads to an eerily deserted room with an open ceiling grate overhead, above which fly the games ever present crows. After exploring the empty room the player can continue on to the next, only to be faced with an identical and similarly empty room. The player continues, finding empty room after empty room, all identical, one after the other. The player consults her map, notices that she hasn’t gone very far from the entry in the side of the hill in spite of having passed through several large empty rooms…

And then the penny drops. The player turns back rather than pressing on and instead of passing through several identical rooms finds herself immediately back at the ventilation shafts. Suspicions confirmed, she tests moving forwards again this time watching the mini-map. It is the only giveaway that the player ever makes a jump through space – back to the entry point of the room she has just left. Otherwise it is visually identical and completely connected but in the games (virtual) reality she is translocated every time she attempts to pass a certain spot.

I can only speak for myself and my own experience of this area but the revelation was certainly not one that I would want “to avoid” but instead wanted to cherish and share with friends. It was an exciting personal discovery and made perfect sense in accordance with the strange paranormal logics of the STALKER universe.

To conclude, there are clearly a myriad of games from before and since Eskilenen’s article that address or deploy unreliable narrators and considering it’s desirability in writing it’s no small wonder that there are so many. However it would seem that it is much rarer to find one that is geographically unreliable, or to find one willing to explore space in such a deliberately and strategically disorienting manner. It’s seems indicative of a highly advanced gaming audience that is able to make and a similarly accomplished developer to create this kind of unreliability, even if it is in such a limited quantity. Regardless of other factors, the fact that such a game even exists is a positive sign.

Okay

For all the things Stalker: Call of Pripyat improves on it’s predecessors, achieving a consistently excellent standard of voice acting is not one of them. That might be a little unfair, actually, as on-balance the quality is satisfactory, there are still the occasional poor performances that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The one I have embedded below left me giggling with it’s sheer inanity.

The incongruity of the acknowledgment “okay” needs to be underscored – the doctor had been missing, presumed dead, in the middle of an extremely hostile part of the already dangerous ‘Zone’, and rather than respond with the appropriate level of gravitas this strangely chipper soldier shrugs it off as if were nothing extraordinary. Quite and amusing juxtaposition.