The Road Not Taken

Inside screenshot
Inside is easily one of the best games of 2016, and it deserves a place in any list of the best games of the decade. It’s relentlessly intriguing, almost always preferring subtle, disturbing imagery to spectacle, but still finding a way to top itself over and over again with an even more surprising or evocative scene.

Like Limbo, it’s unapologetically brutal, but unlike Limbo, it seems dispassionately so. That game had the tone of a dark, corrupted fairy tale, and so there was still a trace of sentimentality about the young boy protagonist even as it showed him getting gored by a giant spider or crushed in a bear trap. There’s no sign of sympathy for the young boy the player controls in Inside. He’ll be pursued by faceless men in suits, shot, strangled, have his throat torn out by wild dogs, stabbed by strange cables that drop from the sky and kill him instantly, disintegrated by a concussion blast, crushed, drowned, or pulverized, dozens upon dozens of times. The game simply observes all of this silently, showing the death with hardly a shrug before starting you back at the last checkpoint.

After a couple of hours playing Inside, I started to find the dispassionate silence after the boy’s death to be even more unsettling than the death animation. There’s no one freaking out, screaming “Snaaaake!” over this kid’s body. Part of the game’s oppressive tone is the idea that your protagonist isn’t just alone, but is completely disposable.

It’s part of how Inside manages to be simultaneously beautiful and horrible. Or maybe, like The Road, it mires the audience in a world that’s so relentlessly gray and cruel and bleak that it makes us able to appreciate the profound beauty in simpler things. Or maybe it’s just got really fantastic lighting. In any case, it’s a platformer that rejects — almost violently rejects — the reward structure typical of platformers. For instance, here’s a game that has you repeatedly watch your avatar drown because a section is just a little too far to swim without solving some puzzle first. And then: it grants you a cool submersible that lets you explore freely with no time pressure, and which even lets you start smashing through walls!

Except of course Inside can’t just give you something to make your life easier. Instead, it has to raise the “what in the hell is that thing?!” factor with horrible sea-children who want nothing more than to smash your submersible, drown you, and drag your corpse to the bottom of the ocean. And yet: the sight of their freakishly long hair flowing in the water as you cast your light on them is undeniably, almost hypnotically beautiful.

And it can’t be emphasized enough: Inside does everything it does elegantly and wordlessly. There’s no dialogue conveying the mood of your character or his pursuers. There are no signs telling you where to go. There are no hint systems pointing you to the solutions to puzzles. It just takes your innate desire to keep moving your character to the right to find out what happens next, and then relies on brilliant level design, animation, sound design, and the subtle use of color and lighting, to guide you through to the end. That means that you process everything in the game on a more visual and visceral level than on a verbal one. You find the solutions to puzzles by experimentation. You pick up on the mood and tone of the game by feeling it instead of by having it described or explained. There’s so much in the game that’s still unexplained, open for the player’s own interpretation and projection.

That impresses me so much, after having worked in places where there’s been so much pressure to compromise, over-simplify, and over-explain. Studio heads shitting themselves over the prospect of a player feeling even a moment’s frustration or confusion, and trying to justify it as some kind of artistic accessibility instead of just fear of a lost sale. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a game that simply refuses to explain itself, trusting that players worth pursuing aren’t the drooling simpletons that marketing departments make them out to be. And even better: a game that rejects the notion of the player as center of the universe.

Spoilers

All that would be true even if the game ended about 20-30 minutes earlier, and it had been “about” nothing more than a young boy trying to escape a horrible and beautiful nightmare world. But of course, it doesn’t. It has a young boy escaping into an observation tank in the center of that nightmare world, at which point the game goes absolutely apeshit bonkers.

Even though I started Inside around the time it was released in June of 2016, I didn’t finish it until a couple of days ago. It does such a good job of driving home its bleak mood that playing it made me anxious, and I kept procrastinating getting back into it until it started being mentioned again in terms of game-of-the-year lists. So I’m genuinely impressed that I went so long without having the internet spoil the ending of the game for me.

Usually, even the best-intentioned reviews manage to spoil an experience a little: simply knowing that something is “spoil-able” is enough to make me spend the whole time watching for the twist. Inside manages to sidestep that as well, by virtue of its own stubborn, uncompromising integrity. I’d heard that the end of the game was weird, so after playing through multiple scenes involving mind control helmets, I’d been expecting yet another tedious reveal that broke the fourth wall and confronted the player with the question: who’s really in control here? I’m sorry, did I just blow your mind?!

As it turns out, the ending can be interpreted as a commentary on control and free will. But it’s so, so much better, grosser, and more disturbing than anything I ever would’ve imagined. Any respect that I had for the developers for being uncompromising on the base game is multiplied by 100 after seeing the ending. I can’t even imagine trying to pitch that concept to some of the chicken-shit marketing teams — sorry, “risk averse” marketing teams — at studios I’ve worked at.

I’d be fine with giving a Danish game studio infinite high-fives for having the integrity to make an uncompromising game with an uncompromisingly bizarre and gross finale. But the finale isn’t just bold; it’s really smart as well.

At least, if you buy my interpretation of the ending: the player’s avatar throughout the entire game has been the monstrosity in the tank at the end. The little boy was actually just another of the zombies/golems you encounter throughout the world, being controlled by the monstrosity in an effort to free itself and escape the facility.

It’s not a particularly out-there interpretation. I’ve heard that there’s a “secret cutscene” in the game (that I’ll never see, since it depends on collectibles) that reinforces it, and it’s the same interpretation (more or less) than JJ Sutherland explained on the Shall We Play a Game? podcast. I’m confident that it’s reasonable and makes sense, but I don’t want to be so reductive as to say this is what the game means.

But while I was playing Inside, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated that the game seemed to be running into the wall of what’s possible for a platformer to express — if not in fact for any video game to express. The game was trying all kinds of new bold, mature, and tonally perfect stuff, but there was a dissonance between that immersive and disturbing experience, and all the gamey-ness of a platformer. The limitations of what the player can interact with in the environment. The puzzles that would’ve been almost impossible to solve without having my character die at least once. The repetitive format of entering a new environment and solving a puzzle in order to progress to the next environment. When the game is working so well artistically, the cracks in suspension of disbelief become more and more jarring and grating.

If that interpretation is correct, and the entire game is spent controlling a creature in a tank attached to remote-mind-control devices, then that at least gives my annoyances with Inside a purpose in the fiction, even if they don’t exonerate the genre completely:

Trial and error by dying and repeating

I can’t recall any instance where Inside mechanically requires your character to die before you can solve a puzzle. I wouldn’t be surprised to see speed-runners able to make it through the entire game without dying once. But realistically and practically, there’s no way a player would be able to make it through the game without dying. For the majority of puzzles, seeing the character’s death is what defines the obstacle you’re trying to get past in the first place.

As the puzzles get more difficult, that aspect of the game gets more annoying. It robs the game of any sense of accomplishment, or the player of any sense of real cleverness, when you’re reduced to clumsily trying the same thing over and over until you stumble onto the solution that doesn’t have a small child violently murdered. And of course, each death chips away at the suspension of disbelief, since you’re starting again with information you couldn’t possibly have had otherwise.

Which makes sense if “you” aren’t a little boy, but in fact a gross blob of body parts that is running an endless parade of disposable little boys through a gauntlet of death traps all so you can sit in sunlight for once. That would add a disturbing layer to everything else disturbing about the game: knowing that each new “life” was actually a cut in time. The blob had had to start over with a new little boy golem and re-run through the entire course of the game up to that exact moment.

No motivation except moving to the right

The setup of Inside is incredibly intriguing, and there are still so many richly detailed set pieces left unexplained — for instance, what’s the deal with the concussion blasts that will disintegrate your body instantly if you’re not protected by a metal object? But the game’s refusal to tell you what’s going on — which would be respectable on its own — creates an ever-widening gap between the character’s motivation and the player’s motivation. There were several moments where my forward momentum stopped, and I no longer had any clue what I was even trying to do apart from “reach the end.”

You keep seeing interesting environments, but you’ve got no idea of what you’re trying to accomplish in those environments apart from no longer being in them. So you just keep moving to the right. And as a result, the richness of the game world starts to fade as the game itself becomes more and more abstract. It becomes something like the gap between the art on an Atari 2600 game box and the art in the game itself: it’s no longer evocative or intriguing, but purely mechanical.

Which again, makes sense if the character you’re controlling directly has no motivation, but is simply being pulled through a series environments by some force off screen. You realize there is actually no dissonance there, because the boy has no identity, no sense of purpose of his own, and no interest in anything other than the specific objects that will help him get to the observation tank.

Everything has a solution

This one’s bugged me ever since I played Half-Life 2. In that game, you’re playing as Gordon Freeman, lone savior of humanity against an impossibly huge and powerful alien force. You’re out alone in the wilderness, riding a sweet sweet motorboat that’s jumping over ramps and blowing up tanker trucks and helicopters and plowing through Combine soldiers like extras in a Michael Bay movie. Then you land in a secluded area in which you have to build a makeshift ramp for your boat in order to proceed.

There’s a kind of mode switch here, where you go from purely mechanical or visceral to more intellectual. And if you get stuck on the puzzle, there’s a pacing switch as well. With that switch comes an opportunity to get knocked out of your suspension of disbelief and reminded that you’re no longer a post-apocalyptic action scientist, but you’re a guy at a computer solving a puzzle.

Half-Life 2 has an in-world fictional explanation for a lot of this; in puzzle sequences, you’ll usually find a lambda symbol graffitied onto the wall somewhere. It’s to indicate that the whole scene was set up for you by the Resistance, and not set up for you by somebody at Valve Software. It helps somewhat, spackling over the cracks in the suspension of disbelief.

Inside has a similar strange dissonance, where the game world is bleak and oppressive but the player’s experience is, ultimately, somewhat optimistic. You always know that there’s a solution to every puzzle. Considering the elegance of the game design, the solution’s likely as simple as finding a single object, or simply moving to the left or right at the correct time.

The game has its own narrative justification for that, but it’s retroactive only: you can look back through the story and reason that the blob had a similar sense of detachment as you did while playing, and the same confidence that trial and error would eventually give the right answers. You never had to be in the exact mindset of the boy because like you the player, the blob was never in the same risk of physical danger as the boy.

Which is all fine and clever, but doesn’t change the fact that as the puzzles got more complicated, I felt more disconnected from the atmosphere and mood that the game had done such a spectacular job of building. I was no longer exploring an intriguing world, but pushing a joystick around looking for clues of what the puzzle even was, not mention how to solve it. In adventure games, this was the point players complained that you had to “read the designer’s mind.”

So how much of that is a limitation inherent to interactive entertainment? How do you make an experience that’s driven by the player but relies on an unreliable narrator, or a powerless and desperate protagonist, without its feeling like a trick or a gimmicky twist? How much can the mindset of a player’s avatar differ from the mindset of the player before it breaks the fiction and draws attention to itself?

Shadow of the Colossus took advantage of the weird dissonance created when the player is willingly making his avatar do things that he knows are morally or ethically questionable. Thirty Flights of Loving experimented with the idea of a first-person game that doesn’t play out entirely in real-time, but instead uses cuts and flashbacks — maybe not 100% successfully, but still more successfully than I would’ve expected.

So how much of that disparity or dramatic irony between the protagonist’s experience and the player’s experience is an inescapable limitation of the medium, and how much is an opportunity that game developers just haven’t fully taken advantage of yet?

It’s not a make-or-break distinction; it’d be more like the difference between an outstanding game and a genre-defining one. I love how much time and talent Playdead devoted to making Inside a unique experience, and I hate the thought that it’s brilliantly creepy mood was interrupted even for a minute by the knowledge that it’s just some video game.

Have you heard the good news?

I’ve been hearing people evangelizing about VR for years. I always put it in roughly the same category as new parents: they say “it’s changed the way I think about everything!” and “you can’t really understand until you experience it yourself!” I figured okay, fine, that’s genuinely great for you but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.

But I finally got a very gracious offer to try out the Oculus and Vive headsets. And now I’m going to have to be one of Those People.

From hearing the descriptions, I’d expected it to be the case where I put on the headset and am instantly transported to a fantastic, vividly-realized world. It wasn’t. I put on the headset (Oculus Rift first) and found myself in a nice, slightly stylized version of a modern living room where I could look around what was clearly a 3D space. I’d expected it to be like the people who saw the first movie footage of an oncoming train and (according to legend) dove for safety. Instead, it was more like the first time I saw a 3D movie. Clearly a neat effect, and genuinely more immersive, but nothing transcendent.

I played the first two levels of Lucky’s Tale, which is completely charming and a perfect packaged game for the Rift. I’d never thought a 3rd person VR game could possibly work, but it does: it feels like being inside the level along with the character you’re controlling. Essentially, you’re one of the Lakitu. I only wished that they did a bit more with the VR right off the bat; I got to a section that did depend on looking at targets, but apart from that it was just a more immersive presentation of a 3D platformer.

The other issue is that I was standing up, and the camera’s constant gentle drifting was starting to throw off my balance. It wasn’t outright nauseating for me, but it did feel like I was on a slowly rocking boat and felt unsteady on my feet. I tried a few minutes of Adrift — the game I’d most been looking forward to — but after being unsteady already, it was way too disorienting for me to tolerate for long.

Then I put on the HTC Vive, and started up Valve’s The Lab. And it was, without exaggeration, possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever seen on a computer.

I’d already seen the “Robot Repair” demo on YouTube in its entirety, so I was kind of spoiled for it. In a way, though, it’s the least spectacular part of The Lab, since it’s the least interactive even though it’s the most “produced.” It’s hilarious and a fantastic experience in its own right as well as being a perfect teaser as to the potential of a VR version of Portal. The tone of humor combined with menace that the Portal games get so perfect is made 1000 times better when you’re convinced that you’re trapped inside a space with GlaDOS, and that GlaDOS is enormous.

But the rest of the demos take that tone and let you interact with a space that feels less scripted. The “Slingshot” demo is my favorite, but they’re all fantastic. Bending down to pet a robot dog, flying a drone around a huge warehouse, launching an endless stream of balloons: it all cements the idea that I’m in a fantastic place better than anything else. I was sold within a minute.

The technology is astounding, but if The Lab proves anything, it’s that technology is only part of it.

It’s easy to see why so many people have become fascinated by it, and more importantly, why it doesn’t feel like just another gimmick. It’s also easier to understand why there’s such a “new frontier” aura around VR: it feels that there’s still a ton of experimentation and innovation to be done. How can you move people through an environment without its being nauseating? What are the different ways you can immerse the player in the experience without drawing attention to the fact that none of the objects can touch them or be touched? How do you keep the experience from feeling completely isolating?

Whatever the case, I’m a convert. And since I’m relatively late to the party, I have to catch up on all that lost time by being extra insufferable about it.

Why I’m Excited About Firewatch

Firewatch comes out for PCs and PS4 next week, and you can already preorder it on Steam. There are a couple of obvious reasons I’m happy to see it:

  1. My friends made it.
  2. I mean, just look at it.

But I also can’t help but see it as a victory for independent game development. Not to mention evidence that occasionally, we do actually live in a meritocracy, and you can actually be rewarded for being good at what you do.

It’s likely because I’ve spent the last year being disillusioned by the state of professional game development, but I keep thinking about how much the environment has changed since I started working in games [REDACTED] years ago.

Lately, I’ve been focused on all the ways it’s changed for the worse, because that was all I had to work with. I’d forgotten how much it’s changed for the better. I used to imagine a far-off future where game development finally had more in common with film production than toy manufacturing, and it’s happened without my noticing.

I used to take it as a given that making games meant getting a full-time job at a studio. It was such a huge investment that it was all but impossible to try and make anything of consequence otherwise. The popular game engines like Unity and… well, okay, just Unity weren’t available, so in most cases, making a game meant making an engine. Even if you had the chops to write your own game engine, just getting a license for Visual Studio was a not-insignificant investment, something that’s easy to forget now that free compilers and IDEs are ubiquitous.

While I was bitching about Steam as an unnecessary hurdle to jump through so I could play Half-Life 2, I didn’t realize what a gigantic shift it would bring. Once manufacturing and distribution became more accessible, it all but wiped out the necessity of having a publisher. Of course, it didn’t wipe out the need for a marketing budget, not to mention funding for game production itself (especially since art tools are still a huge investment), but it did finally turn the big publishers from gatekeepers into business partners.

This is all pretty obvious stuff, and most of us would just take it as a given that democratizing game development is a good thing. But the implications are a lot more significant than I’d appreciated: making game development more accessible hasn’t just made it possible for more people to make games. It’s allowed for the existence of better games. When a game isn’t having to depend on risk-averse investors or clueless marketing departments in order to exist, then smarter and riskier games get made.

I used to despair at the proliferation of space marines and dwarves and stripper-killing-simulators as a sign that maybe games were as infantile as the “grown-ups” suggested. The people making games just didn’t have any original ideas. While that was no doubt true in a lot of cases, it’s more likely that the original ideas were there, but were getting ignored by publishers and marketing teams still pandering to an outdated and very narrow audience that didn’t even exist until they created them.

I first got interested in games because the Monkey Islands and Full Throttle demonstrated that they were capable of an entirely new kind of storytelling, and Sam and Max Hit the Road demonstrated that there was room for weird stuff that seemed to exist only for its own sake, because it was something that the people making it wanted to see. Unfortunately, that was around the same time that the “gamer” stereotype was becoming fully entrenched. Everyone who had any power in the industry seemed to be devoting all their attention to pandering to that very narrow and specific demographic of asshole.

But there was still this idea that they could be more than that. That it’d be possible to have games that made good use of dialogue. Dialogue that wasn’t just treated as an afterthought, but actually given as much care and attention as screenwriting.

One day, you’d see as much variety in video game art direction as you did in animation. You didn’t always have to strive for photo-realism or try desperately to recreate Aliens or Blade Runner; you could make stylized art that was stylized for a reason instead of attempting to cover up a limitation in rendering fidelity.

Games could be quiet. They could have you as deeply invested in relationships as you are in checkpoints or puzzles. They could be more personal stories than epic adventures. They could be mature.

Firewatch isn’t the first indie game, obviously. But so many indie projects (with rare exceptions) can come across — no doubt unfairly, but still — as ego-driven and self-important, or crass and commercial. This is one that I can say for sure is driven entirely by people who are completely passionate (occasionally, infuriatingly passionate) about making games as good as they possibly can be.

I’ve spent the last several months thinking about how the slot machine mentality has so thoroughly taken over game development that they no longer even pretend to separate creative from marketing; “monetization” is now considered a part of “game design.” Or how game studios treat increasingly specialized employees as interchangeable resources instead of as talent, and how some studios subtly “gaslight” their employees into thinking they have no option but to keep working for them. How the unreasonable and unsustainable hours are now so firmly entrenched that they’re treated as expected instead of exceptional. How the atmosphere has gotten so hostile and opportunistic that people can be as duplicitous as the worst stereotype of the Hollywood movie industry.

And then, I see that a bunch of my friends made a 1980s period piece about a divorcé who spends most of his time walking through absolutely stunning environments that look like fully-animated versions of National Park Services posters, using a walkie-talkie to have conversations that build a relationship. And that makes me really, really happy.

Until Done

untildawnsam
Until Dawn is a horror game about a bunch of dead-eyed teenagers in their mid-20s, none of whom have full control of their necks. The game is set in a dark, secluded ski lodge in the mountains in the dead of winter, where they’ve all gathered to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a cruel prank that resulted in the disappearance and/or death of two of their friends because why not.

Even though it’s emulating the style of horror movies, it’s inexplicably split into “episodes,” each with its own “Previously on Until Dawn” sequence to recap the stuff you just did 30 minutes ago. According to the episode count at least, I’m still only about halfway through the game.

Normally you’d experience an artistic work to its conclusion before you’d be arrogant enough to start critiquing it, but I’m not going to do that for two reasons:

  1. Even B-grade horror movies scare the hell out of me, so I can only play the game in short, tense bursts where my heart’s racing and I’m not particularly enjoying it. By the time I actually finish the game, it’s probably not even going to be relevant anymore and I might as well be writing a navel-gazing analysis of the ludonarrative complexities of Night Trap.
  2. I feel like I’ve already seen everything that interests me about the game.

What interests me is the way games are developing a unique language of storytelling. I particularly like trying to pick apart horror movies, because they have a built-in tension between active and passive storytelling that they share with narrative-driven games. (It probably helps that horror movies are usually so easy to pick apart, because they’re usually so direct in what they’re trying to do and trying to say).

So this is, if anything, a “first impressions” instead of a review of the game. So far, the game hasn’t blown me away with its originality or any particularly brilliant achievement, but what it does have going for it is that it’s completely accessible and surprisingly compelling.

Uncanny Peaks

It’s weird to be An Old Person (in video game terms) whose first exposure to horror games was Uninvited‘s black-and-white, MacPaint-drawn rooms, but still be dismissive of Until Dawn as an artistic achievement. Just look at it! It’s got recognizable actors like Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare painstakingly motion captured and rendered down to their pores, walking around extremely detailed environments with dramatic lighting. Plus each of the eight characters is controllable at some point in the game, which would be a ton of animation work even before all the narrative branching were taken into account.

So it’s frustrating to think of all that work being undone by dozens of small, seemingly insignificant details. Like how the characters seem stiff and overly fidgety unless they’re in a canned cutscene, at which point they’re clearly walking around on a sound stage. Or the eyes that never focus quite right, or the necks that don’t move quite naturally. As well done as it all is, it still ends up feeling like a bunch of robots wearing rubber masks of the actors.

That feels to me like a problem of technology, though. (I can already hear the groans and see the eye-rolling of character animators and modelers reading my dismissive “Press button to make character look human” take on it). The environments don’t get off as easy, because that seems like a problem of design. And one that hasn’t been solved by any narrative-driven game I can think of.

The first iteration of Until Dawn was apparently focused on directing a light source with a Playstation Move controller, and that’s very evident in the final game. There’s dramatic and atmospheric lighting throughout, with a flashlight or lantern cutting through the darkness, and it all makes for a very distinctive look. (One criticism I will make is that for every distinctive environment like the ski lodge or cable car station, there’s another generic one that’s lifted directly from the book of Early 21st Century Horror Movie Locations).

But the environments are detailed while by necessity having few objects that you can actually interact with. So important items are marked with a glint of blue light. Which means that a stray reflection off snow, or a strong specular highlight on a doorknob or vase or something, looks like an object of interest, and you keep getting taken out of the moment trying to figure out how to get to it and activate it.

On top of that are all the problems of level design that aren’t at all unique to Until Dawn: areas that feel like narrow corridors from point A to point B, rooms where it’s not obvious how far you can travel until you run into an invisible wall, spaces that give the illusion of being freely explorable but actually only have one or two areas of interest.

All of these problems are common, because they’re all fundamentally the result of having multiple design goals that are completely at odds with each other. Everything you do to encourage exploration and decision-making are going to kill your game’s pacing, and vice versa. Too few objects to interact with, and the environment feels barren and video game-like; too many, and you’re wasting time looking at incidental things that have no bearing on the plot, draining all the urgency out of the moment. The more you make a level “intuitive,” where the “right” way to go is the one that just feels right with no obvious clues, the less the player feels as if he’s actively exploring a space and making decisions.

It works the same way that the uncanny valley does for characters, since counter-intuitively, making things more realistic or more subtle just makes the problem worse. Playing Until Dawn has frequently reminded me of Gone Home, since they both have you wandering around dark spaces looking for things to pick up and turn over in your hands to get the next bit of environmental storytelling. Gone Home‘s objects and environments are obviously much less detailed and realistic than Until Dawn’s — whether out of intentional design or simply the fact that it’s a much smaller team and smaller budget — but it still has a better sense of place. It’s entirely likely that I’ve already spent more time in Until Dawn‘s ski lodge than the entire running time of Gone Home, but the latter’s house is the one that feels like a real place. I can still remember the layout of that house and where stuff happened, while I have no clear picture of how the ski lodge’s rooms even fit together.

It occurs to me now that “uncanny valley” is inherently optimistic; it just assumes that the problem will go away if we keep pushing forward. I’m starting to become skeptical. I’m sure that there’ll come a point in the future where it’s feasible and even practical to motion-capture an entire performance. Production on that type of game will become just like it is currently for linear media, and the software will be advanced enough to seamlessly blend between pre-recorded and procedurally generated movement in real time. In fact, after seeing how far “intelligent assistants” have come on cell phones in the past few years, I no longer think it’s unrealistic to expect CG actors to be able to understand natural language and respond intelligently.

But all that assumes that making things more realistic will solve all the problems, when we’ve seen time and again that interactive entertainment is a medium that rewards artifice and punishes realism. It’s Understanding Comics material: our brains are constantly looking for tiny, nitpicking details that will make something realistic seem “off,” while at the same time eagerly filling in the blanks on less detailed things to make them seem more recognizable and human.

To bring it down out of the clouds and back to a specific example from Until Dawn: most of the “teenage” characters are going for a completely naturalistic performance in both their voice delivery and motion capture, which ends up with lots of “ums” and “ahs” and overly-casual poses that just seem weird in comparison to everything else. It inevitably feels like a mannequin playing a recording of a real person instead of a real person.

Peter Stormare’s character, on the other hand, is played completely batshit crazy. He’s chewing the scenery so hard that he tears right through the fourth wall. It doesn’t feel at all real, but his character is still somehow the most compelling. Even though the lines he’s given and the questions he asks aren’t all that interesting, in my opinion. Most of the teenagers feel like disposable ciphers in comparison.

Warning: Explicit Language

So I think the “problem” with going for something hyper-realistic isn’t actually in rendering or art direction, but in game design and narrative design. When I said that Gone Home does a better job of establishing a sense of place, I don’t think it’s because of its relative low fidelity, or even due its careful and thoughtful level design (although both contributed to it). I think the main reason is that the game’s pacing allowed you to explore the space at your own leisure. You aren’t just dumped into a space and left on your own — it’s clear that a good bit of thought went into gating the sections of the house in a believable way and making sure that the revelations of the story could play out non-linearly and still make sense — but there’s nothing pressuring you towards the next story development except for your own interest and curiosity.

My biggest criticism of Gone Home is still the same as it was when I first played it: there’s absolutely no sense of player agency in the entire narrative. Everything interesting has already happened by the time the player’s game starts. And by the end of the game, it even seems to be mocking the player for wanting to participate in the experience.

Until Dawn is basically at the other end of the spectrum, desperate to remind the player how much they’re shaping the entire experience around player choices. I was going to say that it fetishizes player choice, and it does so almost literally: instead of fetishes, there are vaguely native American-ish totems lying around everywhere that dispense prophetic visions. (When each one gets discovered, the camera zooms inside, which makes for a hilarious image of a teenager picking up this weird totem and immediately slamming her face into it).

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of branching narratives, the game helpfully talks about the butterfly effect, then drives the metaphor home with an elaborate sequence where you fly over the veins in a butterfly wing. Each crucial junction point in the game is punctuated with an animation of butterflies. There’s a screen listing each of the story threads, which lets you page through your choices and see how they build on top of each other.

When I played Telltale’s Walking Dead series, I said that that game’s notifications of branching points (“So-and-so will remember that”) were a pleasant surprise. They seemed jarring, artificial, and clumsy at first, but in practice turned out to work like musical stingers. If we accept non-diegetic music in movies and don’t freak out that there’s suddenly a full orchestra in the shower with Janet Leigh, why dismiss non-diegetic notifications of in-story developments as being too “gamey?”

There are plenty of aspects of cinematic “language” that would be weird if we hadn’t spent a century being trained to accept them without a second thought. Cuts and montages are the most apparent, but even the way filmmakers compose shots is so deliberately unnatural that when we’re shown a scene framed the way a person would actually see it, it’s unsettling. In games, though, the tendency has been to reject all the game-like elements almost as if we should be ashamed of something so clumsy and primitive. Health meters have to be explained in-world as displays generated by your hazard suit, assuming they’re not eliminated altogether. Even Mario games have to explain that there’s a Lakitu following you around with a camera. Instead of developing a new language for games, it seems as if there’s a desire to hide the fact that they’re games as much as possible.

The obvious problem with Telltale’s approach is that they haven’t done anything with it. It was promising at first as an intriguing warning of story developments to come; after so much of it, it feels as empty as a jump scare. It’s just “a thing that these games do,” as if they’re not as interested in actual innovation in storytelling as they are in branding.

Until Dawn‘s notifications make Telltale’s seem restrained by comparison, but I think they work better as a result. When a story branch occurs or a clue is found, you’re shown exactly what happened, given a good idea of what it means, and you’re explicitly shown the junction points that led up to it.

That’s not to say that the choices are particularly interesting. So far, they’ve been all over the place — actual considered decisions are extremely rare. Most take the form of split second binary choices that don’t give enough information to judge against each other, e.g. “take the quickest route or the safest one?” Others let you slightly steer a conversation in one direction or another, which supposedly affects your relationships with the other characters. Others just go the Saw route and have you deciding between one horrible thing or another.

(When I bought the game, I’d forgotten that modern horror movies have been overtaken by stuff that don’t interest me at all or actively repels me, like all the torture porn franchises or the found-footage craze. I’d been expecting something more like 80s slasher movies or the Scream series. I’d still like to see more done with the Final Destination movies, because I think they’re relentlessly clever and it’d be interesting to see if it worked at all when made interactive).

As often as the game reminds me that characters can die as a result of my choices, I rarely feel like I’m making informed choices. But I’m not sure that that’s a failure of the game, because I don’t believe the game is trying to present a narrative built off of your player’s informed choices. I believe its ambitions are a lot more modest and straightforward. I believe it just wants to be a pastiche of horror movies, but with a simple layer of interactivity: instead of yelling at the screen “don’t go into that room!” you get to decide whether the character goes into that room or keeps going down the hallway.

In other words: it aspires to be a movie with some moments of interactivity, instead of a story-driven game that’s presented cinematically. The reason I believe that’s the case is because it uses the language of horror movies throughout, even at the expense of the game.

Secret Agents

Sometimes, it works fine: the sequence in which Sam is exploring the lodge alone seems to be what the game was designed for, the standard scene from any slasher movie translated shot-by-shot into a video game.

Occasionally, it works so well that it seems too ingenious to be completely intentional: having multiple controllable characters is nothing new, but it turns out to be a perfect way to re-introduce cinematic edits into a video game narrative. Usually, games have to take place in some version of real time, and you’re either relinquishing complete control of the pacing to the player, or making the player feel like everything’s on rails and she’s in a shooting gallery. Thirty Flights of Loving is all about using cinematic cuts, flashbacks, and flash forwards in a first-person game, but it’s frankly tough to tell how much of the experiment could be translated to feature length. Until Dawn has no reservations about cutting away right as something interesting happens, but it doesn’t feel like missing time, or like the player’s had control ripped away from her, because she’s immediately given another part of the story to work on.

Most of the time, it just seems to be doing its own thing with the player input as something of an afterthought. You’re occasionally given something to open or push or flip over to read the back, but it doesn’t do much for engagement or immersion since you’re just following prompts. Same with several of the arbitrary binary choices: I can’t reliably predict what’ll happen if I choose hide instead of run, but I’m going to try it anyway. A lot of the quick-time button-press sequences, on the other hand, work surprisingly well. I despise QTE sequences on a philosophical level, but in this case, they add tension throughout — the usual “something is going to jump out and kill these fools,” but with the added stress of knowing that you could be asked to participate at any moment. Of course, these are even more random, unpredictable, and have no regard for agency: there are several sequences where Mike does a whole sequence of acrobatics in a cutscene. Or decides to shoot something, and even though I think it’d be a big mistake, I’ve got no option except to pull the trigger.

(To be fair: there are a few moments where the player’s choice not to do something is used for dramatic effect, and those are pretty well done).

But Until Dawn also insists on using some horror movie tricks that just definitively do not work in a video game, and it’s infuriating. The worst offender so far is the painfully long sequence of Mike and Jessica making their way through wooded paths up to a cabin. The game cuts away — over and over again — to show that there’s a strange person in the woods stalking them. We get just about every possible variation that’s been used in movies before: the Predator style POV shot. The shot where the characters walk off-frame but the camera stays behind to show the stalker waiting in the woods. There’s a particularly asinine jump scare one where the stalker is suddenly visible in a set of binoculars right as Mike stops using them. They’re infuriatingly tone-deaf, because they act as if what works in a movie will work in a video game with absolutely no thought given to player agency.

It’s entirely possible for a player to know more than a character, and to get tension out of that. In fact, Until Dawn does an adequate job of it later on, starting off the sequence I mentioned earlier where Sam is walking through the house alone. The player knows for a fact that there’s a killer in the house, but really, that’s something the player’s known since scene one. In that case, having the audience know more than the characters works exactly the same way it would in a horror movie.

The sequence of Mike and Jessica walking through the woods cuts away so often and so clumsily that it goes past “frustrating” all the way to “insulting.” If you show me a POV shot where a weird dude is looking directly at the characters I’m controlling, and then immediately turn the joystick back over to me, of course my first inclination is going to be to walk directly to where the guy is standing and ask him what’s going on. If you show me a flash of a bad guy in a set of binoculars, of course I’m going to immediately try and use the binoculars again.

The fact that I think it works with Sam’s sequence but completely fails with Mike and Jessica’s may seem like a contradiction until you consider what role the player has in Until Dawn. For me, at least, I’m never playing as Mike or as Sam. I’m floating in limbo somewhere between the director of a horror movie and the movie’s audience. Maybe I’m a production assistant?

During Sam’s sequence, the character’s goal and the player’s goal are aligned: we both want to find out what’s going on. So even though I know more than she does, following the trail is the best course of action because I know something interesting will happen when I get there. During Mike & Jessica’s sequence, their goal is to get to some absurdly distant cabin to have sex. I have absolutely nothing to gain from their having sex. I’m more interested in when this story is going to finally commit to being a horror movie and make something happen, already. So introducing the threat and then repeatedly showing it and pulling it away isn’t cleverly manipulating the tension between what the audience knows and what the character knows. It’s just showing me the thing I want to do — bring on the confrontation! — and then yanking it away from me for no discernible reason.

The Tingler

“Partipulation: Participate in your own manipulation.”

The other day I caught the tail end of a conversation/skillfully-defused argument where a bunch of people were trying to call out Patrick Klepek of Kotaku for writing “Emily, Who Is The Worst, Deserves to Die in Until Dawn. As far as I can tell (Twitter makes it difficult to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations these days), people were accusing the article, if not Klepek himself, for being somehow complicit in the horror genre’s long history of misogyny. Or maybe it was because Emily and her boyfriend are the only characters who aren’t 100% white in the game? Like I said: tough to tell exactly what the complaint was.

Regardless, objecting to lack of empathy for a character in a horror movie doesn’t just miss the point; I believe it’s even more ghoulish than the alternative. Obviously, there are volumes of material looking at the “problematic” aspects of the horror genre, and its treatment — both intentional and subconscious — of women, ethnic minorities, and gay and transgender people. But to suggest that the audience is expected to feel genuine empathy for any of the characters in a slasher movie is either a pointlessly broad rejection of the entire genre, or is seriously messed up.

Knowing more than the characters do is an implicit part of watching a horror movie, since from the start of the film, you know they’re probably going to die horribly. If you’re feeling sympathetic towards the characters and getting attached to them, I’ve got to wonder why you started watching the movie in the first place. “I love seeing three-dimensional, fully realized humans be murdered and/or horribly traumatized!” The distance and lack of empathy is what makes the movies work at all.

The stakes in a horror movie (no vampire puns intended) aren’t something horrible happening to the characters, but something happening to you. You’re going to get startled by the jump scare or the face suddenly appearing in the bathroom mirror. You’re the one who has to feel tense knowing the character’s walking into danger. You’re the one who’s going to have to see something gross and disgusting. Until Dawn isn’t subtle about manipulating this: it explicitly asks you what bothers you, then shows you exactly that a few scenes later. Consider it “enthusiastic listening.”

Manipulating the audience as much as the characters is something that translates particularly well to video games, because the audience is even more invested in what’s happening. Not in the characters, necessarily, but in their story and in the things they’ll have to see. And as much as I hate QTEs, they add that layer of being invested in what I’ll be expected to do.

So far, even with its faults, Until Dawn pulls it off better than any game I can remember since the first Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness. It doesn’t require breaking the fourth wall, but it does require being aware of the fourth wall and how to use it. It may be as simple as the fact that the game is structured not so that you feel in control of what happens, but that you feel responsible for it.

Whatever the case, what’s increasingly clear to me is how much of the experience of interactive narratives depends on artifice. It rewards explicitly exposing the mechanics instead of subtlety. It benefits from deliberate design instead of hyper-realism. So much of the marketing of games — which has inevitably taken over the design, at least outside of indie games — is focused on selling the idea of player empowerment. You’re in control! You’re making all the decisions! This fantastic world has been built entirely for you! That should’ve been setting off all our bullshit alarms, even before GamerGate happened and made it explicitly obvious what a shitty goal that was for a medium that’s striving to be artistic expression.

It’s definitely true for horror games, but I think it’s true for all story-driven games: players aren’t giving you their money so that they can be in control; they’re giving you their money so that they can have fun being artfully manipulated.

Splatoon for Graybeards

splatoonturfbattle
Splatoon is:

  • a console-based shooter
  • with online multiplayer
  • against strangers
  • aimed directly (and aggressively) at pre-teens and teenagers
  • with an overwhelming late-1990s Nickelodeon network aesthetic.

All of which is code speak for “Chuck should hate this game.”

As it turns out, it’s completely accessible and a hell of a lot of fun. Not to mention that it’s packed full of design decisions that are so elegantly effective it’s annoying. So this post is part deconstruction of why the game works, and part reminder that even if you think you’re too old/too smart/too uncoordinated to enjoy Splatoon, you might end up liking it.

You can jump right into turf wars

After a fairly brief intro and setup (protip: disable motion control camera tilting for the game pad as soon as you possibly can), you’re immediately encouraged to jump into a “turf war” against other players online.

Plenty of multiplayer-focused games do this, always with the implicit promise that this time will be better. Whether it’s because of some ingenious game-balancing feature, or because of their excellent community support, or because of blind optimism, they insist that all players will want to jump immediately into heated battle with strangers despite years of experience saying this is one of the most frustrating and least fun things that humans can do on the internet.

With Splatoon, it actually works. I jumped right into a game without going through a lengthy single-player tutorial. And I actually had fun. And tried it again, several more times. That never happens.

Turf war battles are short

One of the main reasons the multiplayer skirmishes are so accessible is that they’re so short. Matches are limited to three minutes, after which a cat shows you the map and tells you whether the good guys won.

This has the obvious advantage of avoiding matches that drag on interminably because one guy’s off somewhere camping, or the teams are so “balanced” that control just shifts sides over and over. But it has the added advantage of keeping less-than-stellar players (like me) from getting too invested in how the match turns out.

I can imagine this would offend both players and developers who see themselves as “hardcore.” You’re making a game you don’t want players to care about?! But in practice it’s at least as satisfying as the games that take themselves more seriously, because short skirmishes build up to a longer-term feeling of progress.

Even if you lose a match, you still make progress towards leveling up. It’s a nice, steady progression and a constant incentive to “do better next time.” And it makes it almost impossible to get overly frustrated, even if your team is losing badly.

Turf war battles are anonymous

At least in the “regular battle” mode, you can’t choose your team, or even your server or region. (There is a way to play online against friends, but I haven’t checked to see whether you get the same experience/money benefits from those matches).

I would’ve thought this would fail horribly, but again, it’s different in practice. As it turns out, it’s a great equalizer. Everybody’s incentivized to play the same regular battle modes in order to level up, so you’ll usually see a wide range of levels in each match. That means you start playing the “real thing” immediately, instead of being cloistered to some newbie area for the first few hours of the game.

Because there’s no voice chat or much of a sense of persistent “identity,” it’s almost impossible to get harassed or worse, get stuck with a player who tries to tell you how you should be playing. Even if there were voice chat, the time limit would keep it from being practical to say much of anything, anyway. Instead, the game is simple and frenetic enough that “strategies” develop naturally as you go along.

Shooting is incidental

When making a Nintendo Shooting Game For Kids, the most obvious temptation would be to downplay the “shooting” part, or remove it altogether. Splatoon wisely goes the other route. There’s a dedicated Weapons store where you’re buying variations on shotguns and bazookas and machine guns and sniper rifles, and you can try each of them out in a shooting range, and you’re given ample chance to covet the more expensive ones. They just lean in to the fact that they’re all paint guns.

I happen to think that a lot of the pearl-clutching about video games’ obsession with gun violence is overblown. People understand how fiction works, the shooting is an abstraction for game mechanics instead of actual violence, and almost all players quickly start to think in terms of strategy and tactics instead of going on killing sprees. (Add a thousand other defenses of first-person shooters that have been trotted out over the years).

But, even those of us in the Video Game Violence Apologist camp tend to overlook the fact that while shooting in games may not be technically violent, it is absolutely aggressive. While you may not be wishing physical violence on your opponent (I’d hope), you are eager to take her out of the game so that you can win.

It’s obvious in Deathmatch, but even objective-based multiplayer game modes in shooters suffer from the fact that the game itself doesn’t let you do anything other than shoot a guy. To capture the flag, you shoot the guy who’s carrying it. To take over a control point, you shoot the guy that’s guarding it. To win the game, you’re going to have to shoot a guy.

In Splatoon, you win the game by covering the most ground in ink. A lot of the time it helps to take out opponents, but it’s at best secondary to the main objective.

It’s nearly impossible to be a bully or to hold grudges

And because your objective is covering ground, playing the game as if it were a deathmatch would be the surest way to lose. You’re not penalized for attacking other players — it gives you an acknowledgement and, as far as I can tell, is encouraged. But there’s no advantage to attacking players over and over again. There’s no shortage of long-range weapons and high points on the map to play the sniper, but it’s the least efficient way to help cover the map.

It seems straightforward enough, but it really makes it seem silly how we’ve built this elaborate framework of anti-griefing, anti-exploit, game-balancing, and community-policing around games whose entire premise is “You win by killing your opponents.” It’s as if we’re saying, “Sure, you can fire a bazooka into your opponent’s face and then teabag the corpse, but play fair, kids.”

Splatoon sidesteps the whole issue simply by making it impractical to bully other players. It’s not just that there’s no incentive to do it, it’s that you’ll actually hurt your own chances of winning. In fact, games of Mario Kart 8 often end up feeling a lot more aggressive and frustrating.

Another nice touch is that you’re given the standard “you’ve been splatted” screen while you’re waiting for your character to respawn, but it doesn’t draw attention to the name of the player who killed you. Instead, it shows the weapon that did it. That’s a weapon that you could aspire to buy, as soon as this match is over!

Super-jump is brilliant

In a clever use of the Game Pad’s screen, you always see an overhead view of the map during a match, to get a high-level indication of your progress and how much ground you’ve covered.

In a genius use of the Game Pad’s screen, you can see the location of all your teammates and press a button to jump quickly to their position. Most obviously, it makes sure that you’re never out of the action for too long. More subtly, it encourages teamwork and basic tactics. You’re encouraged to work together to hold ground, or leap-frog each other through the map, because it’s just easier to do.

“Squid mode” has all kinds of clever side effects

When I first heard about the game, I thought that the whole “turn into a squid” gimmick was a clever spin on several now-standard mechanics in shooters: when you’re refilling your ammo, you’re defenseless, but you move faster and are much harder to see. So it seemed like part Halo‘s shield recharging — duck out of combat briefly to get back up to full power — and part Team Fortress 2 Spy — sneak up invisibly behind an opponent to shoot them unawares.

In practice, there are so many different clever off-shoots of the way the two “modes” are balanced that I can’t even tell how much were explicitly intentional. You can silently drop through a gated floor to land behind an opponent. Since squids can swim up vertical surfaces, you can paint a path up a wall to get to a high point for sniping, and other players have to go into defenseless mode to get near you. If you turn into a squid, an opponent may not be able to see you well enough to shoot you, but just firing where they think you are is still effective since it limits your ability to swim.

And my favorite so far: two players can make quick ground across a map by leap-frogging each other, one player shooting a line of ink, the other swimming along behind to refill, then trading roles. Back when I first got interested in Team Fortress 2, I said that I wished the game had allowed for me to discover clever combinations on my own instead of making it explicit which classes work well together. Splatoon makes me feel clever for figuring out stuff myself.

Boss fights are surprisingly clever

I’d thought that if I played the game at all, I’d go through the single player mode and occasionally dip into a multiplayer match or two. As it turns out, I’ve done just the opposite: the single player mode is fine, but the multiplayer is so completely accessible that most of the time, I’d rather play that.

But the single player does let Nintendo designers show off what they’re best at doing, with clever design mechanics and a perfect difficulty ramp. Because it’s an all-new property from Nintendo — a rarity in itself — they get to show off what they can do when not beholden to everything that goes into making a Mario or Pokemon or even Smash Brothers game. It’s all clever and cute world-building — I especially liked the Octarians’ version of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, with a squid taking the place of the serpent — that ends up feeling more like a Rare game than anything else.

The boss fights, though, are pure Nintendo (do the same thing three times to win) but with some interesting and bizarre twist in the character design and fight mechanics. You’ve got to find some way to climb up to the top of the monster itself, as in Shadow of the Colossus, to defeat it. And they’ve got tentacles and bug eyes and weird spindly legs or robotic armatures with sneakers at the end, and they pop open to reveal steam pipes or electric wires and shifting plates.

It is completely accessible

Super Mario 3D World hit this weird spot of being almost too good for me to enjoy. It was so clever and so well produced that it seemed fragile, for lack of a better word. I felt as if I could admire it — and I did, over and over again, as each level is just jam-packed with brilliant ideas — but couldn’t just let loose and play around in it.

Splatoon is abundantly clever and has all kinds of ideas that elegantly fit together and complement each other. But it also feels like a game that wants you, first and foremost, to play. The entire premise of the game is to jump in and start making a mess. It does such a good job of it that your age and your competence at shooting games seems entirely irrelevant.

Camp Grizzly

CampGrizzly_Otis
At KublaCon this weekend, I got to play through a demo and then a full game of Camp Grizzly by Ameritrash Games. I wanted to spread the word about it here, partly because the designer Jason Topolski is a former co-worker and a super-nice guy, but mostly because I really love the game.

The premise sells itself: it’s a semi-cooperative game in which you’re playing a camp counselor (in 1979, easily the most dangerous era for camp counselors) being stalked by a homicidal maniac named “Otis,” who wears a bear mask and wields a bloody gardening claw. You and the other players are trying to evade Otis while gathering the items you need to trigger one of the game’s four finales. As you play, you encounter campers, side characters in “cameo” roles, and special events that cover just about every single trope from early 80s slasher movies.

I’ve been wanting to try it for at least a year, but not without a little bit of trepidation. No matter how solid the idea, and no matter how talented the people involved, what if it ends up feeling flat in the execution? As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s already become my favorite cooperative game.

CampGrizzly_Lunchbox

Ameritrash

The Kickstarter for Camp Grizzly was hugely successful, tripling the amount of money they were asking for and spawning all kinds of expansions for stretch goals. If you missed the Kickstarter like I did, and you don’t see it at a convention, you can get a copy directly from their site. I picked up a copy right after the demo, and I immediately sprung for the miniatures. I never do that. Now all I have to do is wait for the expansions.

The art by Austin Madison (and others) is phenomenal, as you can see here used completely without permission. Not surprising considering the pedigrees of the people involved, but each card looks like polished storyboard/character concept/pitch art for a project from The Studio That Makes the Best 3D Animated Movies. And even better — and more difficult — it nails the tone exactly right between horror and black comedy, from a time when slasher movies were as interested in being exhilarating and fun as they were in going for the biggest gross-out.

Choosing “Ameritrash Games” as their name wasn’t just a self-deprecating gag, either; Camp Grizzly nails that part, too. The board is designed — from the fairly simple layout to the big red “Camp Grizzly” logo just above the “Body Count” tracker — to remind players of board games of the 70s and 80s. Without any context, you could assume it was a marketing tie-in game to some obscure 80s slasher movie.

Once you get into the game, though, it quickly becomes apparent that it could only exist in the “post-BoardGameGeek” era. It includes a lot of familiar elements from games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and the dungeon-crawl Dungeons and Dragons-themed board games. Then it streamlines them and combines them with fantastic artwork to throw all the emphasis back on storytelling.

CampGrizzly_SplitUp

“Let’s Split Up”

I’m a fan of “pure” cooperative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert, even though I always take it as a given from the start that I’m probably not going to win. (I still have never won a game of Forbidden Desert). But they tend to suffer from the same three problems:

  • One or two players can take over, becoming so fixated on a particular strategy that everyone else is basically squeezed out and left just moving pieces around a board.
  • Getting the right balance means making it feel like you’re always on the brink of disaster, which can result in spending two hours on a game and then everyone loses.
  • No matter how strong the theme is, or how well the theme is integrated into the mechanics, it usually ends up feeling like a purely mechanical abstraction.

Cooperative games have been popular enough for long enough that there’s already a sub-genre dedicated to fixing those problems: games with a traitor mechanic, like Battlestar Galactica and now Dead of Winter. The traitor mechanic not only guarantees a winner, but builds in an incentive to keep any one player from running away with the game: you’re never exactly sure if she’s just being bossy, or if she’s deliberately working against everyone else. (From what I’ve read, one of the expansions for Camp Grizzly introduces a traitor mechanic, too, with the intriguingly-named card “So It Was You All Along!”).

As it turns out, there’s another way to fix those problems: go all in on theme.

The tone of a slasher movie is a perfect fit for a modern cooperative game: it’s supposed to feel like the odds are overwhelmingly against you, and there is a “force of nature” appearing completely unexpectedly out of nowhere to make things worse.

One of the many decisions in Camp Grizzly that seems straightforward on the surface, but is actually an elegantly perfect solution to a ton of problems: making the antagonist a character. A forum post on the BoardGameGeek page for Camp Grizzly points out that Otis has a lot more personality than some generic slasher movie villain. He’s obviously a pastiche of Jason Voorhies and Michael Meyers, but he’s still a distinct creation. And it doesn’t just help the theme; it helps the game. You’re not fighting some abstraction like “disease” or “time” or “flood waters” or “zombies” or even “Sauron,” but another character.

The Tabletop episode of Forbidden Desert, for instance, demonstrates one of the aspects of “pure” cooperative games that I hate: the inevitable point when players start counting cards to figure out what’s left in the deck. It breaks whatever minimal theme has been established and makes it completely obvious your antagonist is a deck of cards. When you draw an “Otis Attacks!” card in Camp Grizzly, it feels more like a story moment than the result of a card draw.

CampGrizzly_SkinnyDipping

“Foolin’ Around”

One of the reasons I’ve been over-thinking Camp Grizzly is that I think slasher movies are fascinating to pick apart. They started becoming self-referential while they were still popular, and they somehow continue to work even when you’re completely aware of all their tricks. When Scream came out and explicitly made a list of all the standard slasher movie tropes, it wasn’t a last death rattle of irony; it actually revitalized the entire genre.

When you have a genre of movie that comes with a built-in set of rules, it obviously lends itself to adapting that to a game. Camp Grizzly isn’t the first to do it; one of the most popular is Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. It’s very similar in structure and theme to Camp Grizzly: you move characters around a board to fight zombies, drawing event and character cards based on the familiar cinematic cliches.

I like the ideas behind Last Night on Earth a lot, but I just didn’t enjoy the game. It felt self-aware about its theme, but didn’t really do anything with that self-awareness. To make a tortured analogy: if Last Night on Earth is like Shaun of the Dead, then Camp Grizzly is like The Cabin in the Woods.

In Scream and Shaun of the Dead, the central gag is that they telegraph what they’re going to do, and then do it anyway. And it still works: they have great moments, even though you know exactly what’s going to happen. In some cases, because you know what’s going to happen. (And a big part of why they work, when so many other attempts at self-aware horror movies just collapse into an insufferable mess, is because they’re self-aware out of affection. It’s not just we all know how these things work by now, but also …and that’s why we love them).

Not to pick on TableTop, but their playthrough of Last Night on Earth demonstrates why the game never really worked for me. For one thing, having some players as zombies introduces a disconnect before the game even starts. Zombies with agency is just weird. Only some of the players are controlling characters, while the rest are controlling game mechanics whose entire purpose in fiction is to be without any agenda except killing and eating. And obviously those episodes are exaggerated for the sake of making an entertaining video, but you can see the problem with Felicia Day’s repeated attempts to create a backstory for one of her zombies. It’s a struggle to impose a story onto the game mechanics.

One of the clever ideas that first attracted me to Last Night on Earth was a card called “This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth.” Two hero characters (they have to male and female, which I’ve got to point out is a minor disappointment) in the same space lose a turn. On the surface, it seems like a really clever way to incorporate theme into the game. In practice, though, it’s just a “lose turn” card with a picture and text.

A bunch of other mechanics subtly throw off the balance as well. Combat isn’t hugely complex, but it’s still more complicated than it needs to be. Certain locations have specific benefits, which seems like it’d reinforce the storytelling but in practice just becomes another mechanic to remember. All the elements combine to keep the focus on the game and leave the story lurking in the background.

It’s not “about” zombie movies and B-movies. It’s ultimately a game “about” fighting zombies — and a solid one, by most accounts! — that’s aware that zombie movies and B-movies exist.

CampGrizzly_Dont

“Don’t”

If the gag in Scream and Shaun of the Dead was to acknowledge the cliches and then execute on them, the gag in The Cabin in the Woods is to come up with imaginative ways to explain why the cliches exist. (And then in the third act, why they need to exist).

I’m not saying that Camp Grizzly is some arch or cerebral deconstruction of the slasher genre — all the stuff I’m over-explaining here, it says with artwork, a few lines of text, and some game mechanics. But I do think it works the same way. The reason you need characters opening doors that are clearly hiding a monster, or sneaking into the woods to have sex when there’s obviously a killer on the loose, is because smart characters making good decisions makes for lousy storytelling.

Camp Grizzly isn’t a game about careful coordination and planning four moves ahead. Whether it was intentional or not, it feels as if they took a “pure” co-op game mechanic and streamlined or removed outright anything that made for a bad story.

One example: Otis. I already said that he’s a more interesting character than some abstraction. Even more important, though, is the fact that no player controls him. He’s got a simple agenda: stalk everyone and kill them, one by one. If he ever goes off the board, he reappears unexpectedly on a random wooded path. And after every player has taken a turn, Otis moves according to a simple set of rules:

  1. Go after whoever’s closest.
  2. If there’s a tie, go after the solitary characters, the ones who have nobody else in the same cabin.
  3. If there’s a tie, go after the character who’s most horrified.
  4. If there’s a tie, go after the one with the most wounds.
  5. If there’s still a tie, choose randomly.

All the standard slasher movie rules are covered except for “go after the black characters first.”

That impresses me as much as a movie nerd as a board game nerd: it’s not just an elegant deconstruction of slasher movie “rules,” it’s an elegant incorporation of them into an easily-understandable game mechanic.

All the other rules surrounding Otis are just complicated enough to make the decisions interesting. As the body count goes up, Otis gets stronger. “Combat” is a simple dice roll, with stronger weapons getting better dice. Characters can even “panic” thoughtfully: if you’re attacked, you can panic and run away from Otis a set number of spaces.

Another example: the cabin cards. Players start the game with a clear and simple objective: find a set of items. In a lot of similar games, you’d have to spend an action to “search” a location for something useful. In Camp Grizzly, you just move your character, and then do one of two things:

  1. Turn over a visible item token in your space, to see if it’s one of the things necessary to start the finale; or
  2. Draw a card from the cabin deck.

It splits the difference between all the move-and-explore games I’ve ever played, where you have a clear goal in mind and are deliberately looking for something; and all the cooperative games I’ve ever played, where at the end of every turn there’s the chance of something unexpected horrible happening. But what’s key for a story is that something interesting happens every turn. What’s key for a story game is that it’s not the player’s fault.

In the full game I played, we’d found all the necessary items, and we were all limping injured towards the barn to trigger the game finale. On his way there, one of the characters turned up the “Skinny Dipping” card shown above. He had to choose another character to take to the boat house and “tempt fate.”

This was a very stupid thing for him to do. Not only did it take two characters completely out of the way of our agreed-upon meeting place, but it invited Otis to attack and kill both of them. It’s exactly the kind of thing that has movie audiences shouting at the screen, “What are you doing? Don’t do that! Don’t open that door! Get out of the water! Put your clothes back on!” These moments are necessary to drive the story forward, but they’d be frustrating if they invalidated or supplanted the player’s decisions. Players still make decisions in Camp Grizzly, but they’re almost always reactionary.

There’s a lot of value in forcing the player’s hand. Another game we played this weekend was Cosmic Encounter. After years of seeing it top lists of “best board game ever made,” I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My conclusion was that it’s apparent how well-designed it is, and it may very well be the best possible implementation of a bluffing/negotiation/character interaction game. I just don’t enjoy that type of game.

But as a game that is striving for negotiation, bluffing, and interaction above all else, it’s crucial that Cosmic Encounter forces an interaction every turn. Encounters aren’t optional, you often don’t get to choose which player you attack, and you often don’t get to choose whether you’re going to be hostile or try to negotiate. It doesn’t just guarantee that something is going to happen every turn, but it ensures that there’s a very good chance it won’t be what you expect. It may violate every carefully-planned strategy and intensely-negotiated alliance up to that point.

In Camp Grizzly, “Tempt fate” is a simple mechanic that encompasses 90% of the plot development of a slasher movie: those moments when a supposedly sympathetic character does something unforgivably stupid. You follow the setup on the card, and then draw some number of cards from the top of the cabin deck. If any of the cards is a red “Otis Attacks!” card, then surprise: Otis attacks. It’s an annoyingly elegant distillation of the cliche. You get the complication, the suspense, and then either the “Whew! It must’ve just been the cat” resolution, or another slasher movie moment.

And most importantly: you can’t avoid it. (Unless you happen to have a card like “Don’t,” pictured above). Camp Grizzly has the appearance of a standard co-op game, but it will happily throw out all of your careful planning and coordination for the sake of making a better slasher movie.

CampGrizzly_Desensitized

“Desensitized”

That’s exactly the kind of thing that infuriates some players. There are players who love the type of game where they can plan for three moves in advance, carefully counting up points and considering available moves and calculating card frequency to figure out which of their options will result in 5 victory points as opposed to 4.

For me, the only thing that sounds less fun is doing my taxes while having dental work done. I tend to be on the more “reactionary” end of the spectrum, where I can just try stuff out and see what happens. Even with that mindset, though, it took me a while to wrap my head around the interesting disconnect that’s inherent to Camp Grizzly.

Even as someone who hates having to plan too far ahead, and as someone who’s gotten so comfortable with losing games that I barely even consider it an objective anymore, I still approached Camp Grizzly as if it were a standard co-op game with a horror movie theme baked into it. Our objective was to pick up three items, go to this location, and then win the finale.

But after a few turns, I started to realize that I’d made the wrong assumption. The objective of the game isn’t to find three items and have my character survive the final showdown. The objective of the game is to make a slasher movie.

That’s when I realized we’d spent the bulk of the last hour doing exactly that. Because the art is so vivid, I could picture every scene as if it’d been animated. And because the mechanics themselves are relatively simple, I was remembering them as scenes instead of turns. It had the opposite effect of the flavor text in most board games: I wasn’t thinking “cancel an attack card” and then trying to impose some kind of story moment on top of that. Instead, I remembered lighting a flare in the middle of a dark cabin, or Mike’s character escaping into a crawlspace, and I couldn’t remember exactly what the description of the rule was.

And then I realized that a larger “plot” had pieced itself together. A couple, one of them badly wounded, had snuck into the barn to set a trap for Otis. But she slipped out to the boat house with another guy, and they were both punished for it when Otis attacked! After they narrowly escaped, the other counselors changed plans and decided to regroup at the boat house, with a last-minute and completely unhelpful appearance from Donald Pleasance’s character from Halloween. All the teenagers were panicking on the dock, screaming for the art teacher Karen to hurry up and make it to the boat.

Then we all got on the boat and things got wacky.

As soon as I saw what the setup for the finale was, I laughed out loud. I still think it’s brilliant, even though the character I was controlling was one of the first to die. The finale we got was unapologetically goofy way to end the game and the story. And it seemed like the game was finally explicitly asserting itself as a storytelling engine instead of a co-op game. (I’ve looked through most of the game cards by this point, but I’m carefully avoiding seeing any of the finale cards until they come up in game. I want to be surprised each time).

It seemed to present the same question that The Cabin in the Woods did, although in a less accusatory way: why are you pretending to be so emotionally invested in this cartoon teenager? I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not actually a sexually promiscuous teenage girl, any more than I’m a pirate or a merchant or a Lord of Waterdeep or a kaiju attacking Manhattan. My goal isn’t to gather a bunch of items and escape a homicidal maniac; my goal is to take an interesting situation and see what happens as a result.

After getting burned out on euro games, it was nice to be reminded of a game that’s not super light but still just wants to be fun. And after spending so much time thinking about agency and the various ways that interactive media tell stories, it was nice to see a successful example of favoring storytelling over control that didn’t feel too abstract or too passive.

So much of the talk about player agency, especially in video game storytelling, makes the implicit assumption that the ideal is a “perfect avatar.” The player’s goals and the character’s goals are perfectly aligned. Story moments only happen as a direct result of the player’s actions. But again, horror and suspense movies have been chugging along for decades with the obvious “dissonance” of an audience aware of a monster lurking around every corner, and a bunch of characters doing frustratingly stupid things because of their own obliviousness. Why can’t a game do the same thing? Acknowledge that the player isn’t her character, and it’s not as important to control the experience as it is to enjoy it?

If you spend an hour playing a game and then “lose” at the end, what’s more important? That you didn’t win, or that you spent an hour having fun?

Firewatch

firewatch-tower
There’s a phenomenon both charming and insufferable (depending on how inspired or intimidated you happen to be feeling at the time) in which people who are really good at what they do start to take it for granted. (I think a term more sophisticated than “the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect” has been floated out there, but I don’t need to do any research to find it because I am awesome at psychology). So they tend to downplay the results, assuming that everyone is starting from the same baseline level of competence and that anyone could achieve the same results by putting in the same amount of effort.

Which can result in Campo Santo, a small-ish start-up studio of absurdly talented people, fairly quietly making Firewatch, which may be the best-looking game I’ve ever seen from any studio of any size.

Granted, it’s kind of a no-brainer, since they managed to assemble the closest you’re probably ever going to see to a “supergroup” in something as ego-driven as video games. By the time they’d assembled the guys who’d brought the first real innovation to narrative-driven adventure games in years; a ridiculously talented graphic designer; and artists and programmers quietly talented enough to turn graphic design into a real place you could walk around in; the best sound designers, composers, and voice directors; then adding backing from Panic — a company with its own reputation for combining solid software with outstanding design and its own sensibility for making weird, innovative stuff — it all just seemed like overkill.

But even knowing that, the game looks better than I’d anticipated. I’ve been deliberately avoiding seeing too much of it apart from the screenshots and promotional material, but seeing it in motion is even better. It’s as if they took Olly Moss’s prints (which I really wish I’d bought when I had the chance, now) and turned them into 3D spaces. It’s graphic design sensibility and all the obsessive detail that goes into a static image, now spread across an entire section of wilderness.

When The Orange Box came out, I said that with Half-Life 2 and especially Team Fortress 2, Valve was working harder on visuals than they really needed to. They could get away with a lot less effort. There’s doubtless going to be plenty of comparisons of the look of Firewatch to Team Fortress 2 — which I believe is high praise — but I think it’s a good lesson to all of us non-artists about how much thought goes into art direction and world creation. TF2 had to emphasize playability, which means readability of the characters and environment and maneuverability around the space. Firewatch is no doubt concerned with much of that, but also focused on mood, narrative, and time. The brief bit I saw had the main character finding a group of unruly teens, then heading towards a cave as a storm was approaching. Even in that short segment, you could see all kinds of subtle storytelling going on. While TF2 is going for slapstick, bombastic action, and fast pace, Firewatch seems like a slow burn (sorry) towards an emotional climax: the tension between tedium and danger, a beautiful natural environment taken for granted, isolation vs. human connection.

Which leads to something I hope doesn’t get lost while everyone is talking about the confident art direction: the level of engagement you get from the premise of a first-person narrator having a running conversation with an unseen voice on the radio. It’s a brilliant case of an entire narrative being built on a single, easily-definable character relationship. (Like, for instance, that of a convicted murderer having to become surrogate parent to a little girl). At the risk of hyperbole: it reveals an innate understanding of how interactive entertainment works and how it’s unique, more than any number of hypothetical discussions about “ludonarrative dissonance” and the tension between “developer’s story” and “player’s story.”

The reason is that it understands that engagement is more necessary than any bullshit goal of “player empowerment.” The conversational options in Firewatch aren’t just joke dispenser voice menus, nor are they Critical Action Time Choice Junctures® in which you’re arbitrarily deciding what role you’re going to play for the next 1-5 minutes of developer-provided content. Instead, my friend Jared articulated it a lot better than I could: more often than not, you get to a moment in Firewatch, and you think, “I want to say this thing,” and then that thing pops up on the screen as a dialogue option. Get that balance right, and all the years spent thinking of how to fix the problem of “players wanting to break the game” just vanish. It’s not about empowering the player to do what she wants, because that keeps the player at a level of role-playing or gaming the system instead of genuine engagement and inhabiting the character.

It seems like a subtle, almost indefinable skill. But then, there are a lot of aspects of The Walking Dead that I’d thought would have a subtle impact, but instead ended up pushing forward the experience in ways that years of emulating traditional SCUMM games weren’t able to.

So yeah, I admit that I’m biased when I say I really want Campo Santo and Firewatch to get the success they deserve. But I also sincerely think they’re doing something capital-I Important (even if they’d never describe it as such). If there’s one thing that game developers are good at (including myself), it’s aping other games. If we get enough people pointing at a beautiful, engaging, and mature experience and saying, “This. We want to make more of this,” then the entire medium will be better off.

Showtime, Synergy!


I totally bought into the first iteration of Disney Infinity, both financially and philosophically. The toys themselves are well made, and even more significant than that, well designed. They had to create an art direction that would be suitable for a century’s worth of disparate characters — not to mention an indefinitely expanding group of characters as Disney grows to encompass the entirety of human creative output — across multiple media including 2D animation, 3D animation, CG-created characters, and live action actors; and make it look internally consistent.

And on top of that, they had to make the designs suitable for real-world sculpts and reasonable-poly 3D models for games on every platform including tablets. When you see how easily Violet Parr’s head comes loose from her body, since all of her limbs are ridiculously narrow; or how Phineas from Phineas and Ferb was clearly only ever intended to be seen in profile; it makes it clear how daunting a task that must’ve been. And how the complexity of the design doesn’t draw attention to itself.

Plus, the game itself emphasized a “philosophy” that superseded its existence as a platform for selling movie tie-in toys. Infinity is most obviously Disney’s attempt to capitalize on the business model established by Skylanders. But if you play for a while, it becomes clear that it owes just as much to the Lego video games by TT Games. (No relation to Telltale Games). The most cynical take on the Lego franchise is that they’re capitalizing on whatever license that Lego and Warner Bros are able to acquire, with a competent-but-not-groundbreaking platform game. But the cynical take completely misses the appeal of those games: they’re most memorable not for their licenses but for their sense of humor and their charm.

Disney Infinity took the opening scene from Toy Story 3 and turned it into an enormous, all-encompassing platform. Each of the playsets has its own emphasis — racing for Cars, ship battles for Pirates of the Caribbean, pranks for Monsters University — which is impressive, considering how the game mechanics had to be as simple as general-purpose as possible out of necessity. But throughout the story-based playsets and the open-ended Toybox mode, the one constant is that these are unapologetically toys. You’ve grabbed a bunch of figures from your toy box and slammed them together on the living room floor for your own epic story.

There are plenty of products that promise to be about play and creativity — and, especially where Disney is concerned, imagination — but Infinity is one of the few that feels completely sincere.

These Toys Are for My Nephew in Canada

Still, I quickly hit a wall in how much I could enjoy it. The problem wasn’t, surprisingly, having to rationalize being a 42-year-old man and still buying action figures. At some point along the way, I crossed a significant milestone of not caring too much what people think or worrying too much whether something I like is age-appropriate. The problem was that it became impossible to disguise the fact that the game just wasn’t made for me.

The playsets are engaging enough, but they’re always going to be limited. The engine has to favor breadth over depth, so it can’t go too far in tailoring the gameplay around any one specific license. Instead, you get characters that all have a primary attack, a secondary attack, and can ride things. It’s genuinely impressive that they got as much variety out of it as they did, but the games are inevitably going to end up being simple and repetitive, and the characters are all inevitably going to feel mostly the same.

And the infinite expandability of the Toybox mode is clearly intended for someone much younger with more free time and patience than I have. If there’s a single image that sold me on Disney Infinity, it was Stitch driving an Autopia car on a racetrack past Spaceship Earth and the Haunted Mansion. And you can absolutely do that in the Toybox mode. But then what? A pre-teen — or even 20-year-old — might have a million different things in mind. I just want to sit back and watch TV or level up in an MMO.

So I ended up putting the toys in a plastic bin and leaving them under the entertainment center. Where, presumably, Jesse would lead the group in a mournful Sarah MacLachlan song about how no one ever plays with them anymore.

Version 2.0

But Disney continued its relentless assault on my wallet by releasing version 2.0 of the game, coming out swinging with a Marvel Super Heroes set and at least a dozen associated characters. Even if it weren’t inevitable that I’d keep getting Infinity stuff for as long as they put it out, they started with sets based on Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, two movies that I absolutely loved. (Along with hundreds of millions of other right-thinking people).

The game engine feels like a modest iteration on the last version instead of an entirely new version of the game. There are more bloom effects, and it now allows for interior environments, but there’s also a surprising amount of stuttering and generally poor performance on the Xbox One.

In terms of content, the playsets (at least based on what I’ve seen so far) seems to be aimed for a slightly older audience. (As you’d expect with a Marvel Super Heroes theme). There’s less platforming and more combat, and leveling up a character brings an RPG-like skill tree where you can spend points on different abilities.

One tremendous improvement is that they eliminated the random chance element from “buying” toys for the Toybox mode of the game. Now you unlock them from a tree similar to the skill trees. That means there’s still some since of accomplishment and progression as you unlock more and more stuff, but it’s not frustratingly random. And even better, everything that was unlockable in version 1.0 of the game comes already unlocked in 2.0.

I haven’t actually played with the Toybox mode yet, but it certainly looks like they’ve made plenty of improvements. The possibility of interiors, combined with more stuff to track player progress, and ways to generate text, means it’d be possible to create mini-adventure games. Again, 16-year-old me would be ecstatic at the prospect; 43-year-old asks “who has that kind of time?”

There’s something a little self-defeating about the Toybox mode, though, and it’s the game’s granularity. There’s plenty of stuff that seems as if it were made specifically for me — for just one example, if you have a character drive the Autopia car, it plays the audio from the original Disneyland incarnation of the ride. Like I said, I can plop down a Spaceship Earth or Haunted Mansion and realize that this is as close as I’m probably ever going to get to a real Walt Disney World Tycoon game.

But once you plop down the pieces, they’re mostly inert. I’m skeptical it’ll ever really match the appeal of something like Minecraft, because it emphasizes fidelity over granularity. Nothing in Minecraft ever looks quite like what it’s supposed to, because it’s made out of blocks. But that’s not the point or the appeal; the appeal is being able to build anything you want. All that said: if Infinity ever gave me a complete set of parts to make my own version of the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, I’d be all over that. Make a “Dark Ride Playset,” please.

When I first popped in the game, and it took me directly to a menu, I was a little disappointed that they’d omitted the charming (if over-long) introduction that came with the first version of the game. It taught you the basic game mechanics while running around chasing a spark through all kinds of different Disney environments, with a voice-over talking about creativity and imagination. And by the end of it, you believed that they were absolutely sincere about creativity and imagination.

As it turns out, there’s a similar semi-interactive introduction in 2.0, but it’s at the bottom of a text menu in the Marvel Super-Heroes edition. Which is fair enough, since there’s a good chance the kids who buy the game to play as Iron Man and the Hulk will have a little patience for running through a semi-interactive movie as Aladdin, Tinkerbell, and Merida. But the whole thing is still charming. It ends up feeling something like a playable version of Mickey’s Philharmagic at the Magic Kingdom, which in my opinion is still one of the best things Disney’s ever made.

Make Theirs Marvel

I was always a fan of DC Comics growing up, so Marvel characters just don’t have the same type of appeal for me. Several of them I just don’t recognize — why is Spider-Man sold with a character called “Nova?” Who’s the woman in the white catsuit? Why are Captain Marvel and The Wasp so prominently featured in the Avengers set? What’s the deal with the “Iron Fist” apart from looking cool? Why do the Guardians of the Galaxy get all their missions from a dog in a spacesuit with a Russian accent? (Actually, the story behind that is super-cool, if you weren’t already familiar with the comics. He just made a brief non-speaking cameo in the movie).

But even though I can tell there’s a level of fandom and love for the characters that’s simply lost on me, it’s absolutely clear that it wasn’t lost on the people making the game. Whether it’s true or not, the game certainly feels as if it’s made by people who love these characters, grew up reading the comics, and have wanted for decades to make a video game featuring the Avengers and Spider-Man.

It’s clear a lot of effort was put into making the characters feel right. A game with super-heroes means flying, so the game tries to convey the feeling of speed and scale that goes along with it. And I’d say they nailed it: when you hover as Iron Man, then press the left trigger to shoot off with a sudden burst of speed, it’s tremendously satisfying. When Thor swings his hammer in a circle before flinging it at an enemy, it’s satisfying. When Captain America flings his shield and it clangs against an enemy before circling back into his hands, it’s satisfying.

Best of all, by far, is Spider-Man. I’ve never had any real investment in the character, never read the comics, only watched the cartoon series because nothing else was on. So I’d planned to skip the Spider-Man playset, until curiosity overtook me. And swinging around Disney Infinity‘s smaller version of Manhattan is crazy fun. He picks up speed until he’s covering entire city blocks in seconds, spinning around the tops of skyscrapers to land on a corner, clinging to walls before flinging himself off and catching himself with a web at just the right moment — it’s straight-up delightful. The only other game that I’ve played that comes even close to getting it right is Neversoft’s Spider-Man game from 2000, and this feels bigger.

There’s such an enthusiasm for the characters and what makes them cool, that it overwhelms any reservations you might have about this being a revenue-generating machine. It just feels as if the developers are getting to make the super-hero games they’ve wanted to make.

Shadows of the Empire

Back when Disney bought Lucasfilm, I insisted on putting a positive spin on it. (In retrospect, I was doing that as several people I knew were losing their jobs or seeing their projects get canceled, so my timing could’ve been better). I’d said it would be ultimately better for all of us to open up the properties to more development teams. Instead of seeing developers cranking out one title after another, to the point where Star Wars becomes just another license to them, you could see different groups of fans give their take on the license, because they loved it.

I feel like the Marvel stuff in Disney Infinity is the first evidence of that. One of the reasons Marvel’s had so much success with their movies is that they’ve opened up their properties to creators to give their own take. So even if they’re not lifelong fans, they still have something different to bring to the property: Sam Raimi on Spider-Man, Jon Favreau on Iron Man, Joe Johnston on Captain America, Kenneth Brannagh on Thor, and Joss Whedon on The Avengers. So even if I don’t have any particular attachment to the characters, the filmmaker’s own excitement is infectious.(Even for Thor, which works well as bombastic semi-Shakesperean semi-sci-fi opera).

Hollywood’s been so overwhelmed with re-interprations and “re-imaginings” for so long, that it’s easy to forget that they don’t all have to be soulless, creatively bankrupt cash grabs. That’s the central assumption of this essay in The Atlantic which dismisses the new Star Wars movies as just a crass attempt to capitalize on nostalgia. But not only is that needlessly, pre-emptively cynical, it ignores all the evidence to the contrary. JJ Abrams made an unabashed love letter to Steven Spielberg with Super 8, but we’re still supposed to believe that he’s not genuinely excited to be working on Star Wars? Or that the teaser videos from the sets, showing off life-sized spaceships and practical effects, is nothing more than viral marketing?

I’ve long had the opinion that licenses and sequels and adaptations and remakes were inherently inferior to “original IP,” even as I’ve spent my entire career working on licenses and sequels. But I’m gradually starting to think that that’s simple-minded. It misses a crucial component that’s unique to working on a license — the energy and love that goes into unabashed fandom.

Which is a good thing, because it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Disney Infinity 2.0 comes with a poster that shows all the figures and “power discs” that are going to be available, and it’s an overwhelming reminder of just how much stuff Disney owns now. These go from the Infinity Gauntlet to Doctor Strange to The Muppet Show to Gravity Falls, “it’s a small world,” Darkwing Duck, The Rescuers, and Gus, the field-goal kicking mule.

I pretty much gave up on the “power discs” with the last version, since it really does feel more like a shameless money-grab than anything else. But I see now that they have one for Mr. Toad’s car, and a Main Street Electrical Parade float. So those bastards know they have me at their mercy.

And if it’s an overwhelmingly compelling force for consumerism now, it’s only going to get worse. If I can get hooked on Marvel characters I don’t even care about, the inevitable Star Wars expansion is going to be devastating.

It’s a Good Life


Good morning, internet! Boy, it’s a good day today. Real good.

We had a little bit of “drama” over the past few weeks, but that’s all over with now, and we can go back to normal. We can go back to talking about progress, and inclusivity, and making sure that everybody’s voice gets heard.

Some people, like Elizabeth Sampat, get sad and angry about the whole thing, and that’s not good at all. Getting angry isn’t objective. Getting angry just helps the bad people, and we don’t want to be like the bad people.

Sampat can remind us all that it’s been seven years since people tried to wish Jade Raymond into the cornfield, and we could get all gloomy about how the situation hasn’t gotten any better. But isn’t it more constructive to think about all the good things we’ve done? For my part: I’ve said multiple times — out loud, even — that I don’t believe anyone should be harassed, and I’ve also bravely retweeted at least two messages from other people on the topic, even though I knew it was risky because some people might consider them “feminist.”

Devin Faraci said a real bad thing when he was talking about the people regularly gathering together to harass and threaten physical violence on other people and he actually compared them to terrorists! But things are good now, because he did what he should’ve been doing all along, which is being sympathetic and trying to understand the people perpetuating the harassment.

Leigh Alexander got so hostile and dismissive, and we don’t like it when women condescend to us. She actually said that people who identify as “gamers” are irrelevant. She said that the “obtuse shitslingers” and “wailing hyper-consumers” aren’t her audience, and they didn’t have to be ours. And oh boy did a lot of real smart people have a lot to say in response to the issues she raised! This is a really complicated issue with a lot of “facets,” so they made sure to flood the comments with criticism of her tone.

We don’t need to fight when there’s plenty of good stuff being done, too! There are lots of people working on games sites who took the completely non-misogynistic concerns of journalist integrity seriously. They said of course they condemn intrusive, demeaning, sexist harassment of women in gaming, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask questions about who it is and isn’t appropriate for a woman game developer to have sex with. That resulted in real change in the industry: a prominent site about video games will still run the steady stream of press releases from corporate video game publishers, but writers can no longer contribute to smaller independent projects and developers they want to support, because that would be collusion. It’s like what David Auerbach on Slate tells the angry young male gamers to help them get through this tough time: “people are listening, and your concerns are legitimate.”

And also a bunch of 4channers contributed to a charity promoting women in game development! That’s a real, real good thing, and there’s been no shortage of writers and bloggers giving them credit for it. Even if it started with the goal of spiting a woman developer, how could anyone say these guys have a problem with women? They created an imaginary woman who fit the image they all agreed to, who shared their interests and ideals, and who they could use as an avatar to represent them and speak through! If you’re going to be so uptight as to have a problem with that, I suppose next you’re going to say that Weird Science wasn’t an empowering work of new-wave feminism.

This is just a huge, complicated issue and it’s not going to change. If we want everyone to have an equal voice, we just have to accept that occasionally, someone’s going to get wished into the cornfield for using her voice to say something that’s not nice.

Everything in games is fine. Don’t listen to the very bad, bad woman spreading lies about video games. She says “it’s possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while being critical of its more problematic aspects” but then goes on to take completely out of context a scene in which the player character literally uses a woman as a doorstop and

Fuck it, I can’t even be sarcastic anymore. This is bullshit.

Justice in Moderation

I’ve always liked to see myself as progressive, moderate, and skeptical. Of course I believe that women should have equality in voice, representation, and depiction. And of course I absolutely condemn attempts to harass, threaten, or even demean women. That all goes without saying.

But I also never wanted to be so wrapped up in self-righteousness that I lost any sense of objectivity. Whenever I read anything that seems too didactic, too simple-minded, too black-and-white, I start asking, “what’s the catch?” Of course I condemn those sexist assholes, and they don’t speak for me. But I’ve always believed it’s important to rise above the trolls and circular arguments, and talk about things like rational adults.

As it turns out, that was pretty much bullshit, since by letting it “go without saying,” by keeping silent and calling it “moderation,” I was by definition letting the sexist assholes speak for me.

Earlier it sounded like I was just giving Devin Faraci shit for his essay, but I absolutely can’t fault his sincerity or his intent. After all, a few days ago I was trying to do the same thing. I’d been seeing all the reports of harassment, and I started wondering out loud what kind of mentality causes socially awkward nerds to become such violent bullies. I was saying that obviously, there are some irredeemable assholes motivated entirely by misogyny. But what about the non-trolls who feel so powerless they’ve convinced themselves that they’re the ones who are under attack?

A friend pointed out, simply: “I wouldn’t call them non-trolls.” And it was as if a lightning bolt finally struck through all the layers of rationalization and self-assurance I’d built up, and all the pieces started to fall into place. I realized that I was giving all of my sympathy to the people who deserved it the least, and all my skepticism and criticism to the people who deserved it least. Any second spent trying to figure out what makes these assholes tick is a second that’d be better spent trying to actually help the people who are being targeted by them.

It simply doesn’t matter what motivates these assholes — whether they’re seriously damaged psychologically, or they’re self-important “free-thinkers,” or they’re doing it “for the lulz.” You’ll see a lot of dismissals along the lines of “it’s not personal,” or “it’s just a game to them,” or “misogyny isn’t really the problem; it’s rooted in power/bullying/anonymity/whatever.” As if it’s somehow better if a person says, “Sure, I was part of the crowd targeting this person and her friends and family with rape threats, death threats, hacking attempts, a deluge of demeaning and critical messages on every social network, and YouTube videos, but I was doing it ironically.” The reality is that they are, demonstrably, provably, causing serious problems for people who don’t deserve it. And no one deserves it.

Looking through the harassing tweets that some women (and occasionally men) get, you see the same pattern over and over again: blatantly fake sock puppet accounts and compromised accounts, all repeating the same shit over and over again, most making sure to mention that it’s a huge, orchestrated groundswell. Unlike Sand People, but just like the One Million Moms, these people have to keep inflating their numbers, saying “We Are Legion.” Obviously, on some level it’s to help them justify it to themselves. But it’s also intended to isolate their targets. To make their targets feel alone and think there’s nothing any of us can do to stop the horde.

The least that we can do is put that shit to rest. Don’t just assume that everybody understands these assholes are a vocal minority; prove it. I know I’ve seen the lists of “Social Justice Warriors to Avoid,” and I’ve pointed and laughed, and I’ve said “Ha ha this just tells me who I should support you silly misogynists lol!” What we all should have been doing is seeing it as a condemnation. Not just “why aren’t I on that list?” but “how did we ever give these clowns the impression that they could fit us all on one page?”

Privilege Check and Mate

In my case, it’s because I’m really, really smart. I don’t want to brag, you guys, but I can see complexities and angles and hidden agendas that no one else on the internet can. Show me two extremes, and I can find problems with each of them. I don’t want to identify with either extreme; I want to see through all the angles and champion the truth. I’m like Yojimbo.

Here’s an example of how smart I am: for months I’ve been thinking about a blog post that’s going to drop a truth bomb smack in the middle of the internet and convince everybody to get along. The elevator pitch: I think “white male privilege” is bullshit. The concept behind it is absolutely, totally, 100% real; you’d have to be an idiot not to recognize that. But the things that people are calling “privileges” are actually injustices; they’re not special advantages but things that all people should have. The term “privilege” is outdated. It’s deliberately provocative, intended to make people feel uncomfortable to shock them into awareness. When the concept of civil rights was unfamiliar enough to be a “movement,” it made sense. Now, though, people spend so much time explaining what “privilege” means that the connotations of the word have outweighed its usefulness. It’s become counter-productive and divisive.

A few times, I’ve tested the waters for my groundbreaking theory by going online and saying “‘White male privilege’ is bullshit.” Here are the responses I’ve gotten:

  1. On Facebook, a young woman said “oh no when I use the word ‘privilege’ I mean this…” and linked to an essay about the subject. One of the key lines in that essay was, “Inclusivity can make some people feel uncomfortable.”
  2. Another young woman on Facebook said “I don’t know why guys just can’t get the f over ‘privilege.’ Nobody’s saying that you didn’t have to work hard for what you have.”
  3. On Twitter, some asshole looking to pick a fight said I was “whining” about how bad I had it and said “oh you poor baby” before calling me a c-word. (Obviously, she didn’t actually say “c-word.” I know it makes me sound like the villain from Misery, but no matter what I can’t say that word).

Can you see the breakdown there, the decades-long chain of misunderstanding? I’d guess at least 51% of you can see the problem right away.

The problem is that I can go online and say something deliberately provocative, and I can count the amount of push-back I got on one hand. And two of those were even people trying to help!

You could make a solidly convincing case that I’m just not famous or popular enough for anybody to notice or care. Except even on the occasions where I’ve gotten a “signal boost” from somebody famous, I still haven’t gotten any significant harassment. Once a blog post I wrote started a brief conversation on Twitter with Rhianna Pratchett. I got a few responses, some critical, some just “THIS!” followed by a link. I checked out her Twitter replies, though, and she was getting tons of criticism. Over something that I wrote.

The nature of the “criticism” is different, too. When a guy gets attacked, they almost always attack his ideas. When a woman gets attacked, they attack her.

Even when I thought “I get it,” I still didn’t quite get it. Even while acknowledging that I don’t have to suffer the same type of bullshit that a lot of other people have to go through, I still wanted to argue that the problem that needed to be addressed was that we were being made to feel uncomfortable.

Not All Mean

But white men get harassment, too. And suffer through the same injustices and tragedies and hardships that every human being has to go through. It genuinely is petty to use the phrase “winning the genetic lottery,” and it genuinely is unproductive to sling that a guy who doesn’t feel as if he’s been giving the magic bullet that will solve all of his problems.

Which is why it can seem like the whole backlash and meme-ification of “Not All Men!” is petty and vindictive. Sure, when someone drops “Not all men” into a conversation, or says “Men get it too!”, it can seem like an attempt to derail an argument with a pedantic counter-example, as if the whole argument were invalid. But I’ve often thought, instead of making fun of it and turning it into a hashtag, wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge the intent behind it? To see that it’s an attempt at empathy, and not condescension? Instead of just saying, “You don’t understand how bad I have it, and you’ll never understand,” wouldn’t it be better to say, “No, I don’t understand that, but I can relate in this way, because I’ve had a similar problem?”

I believe the main problem there — and it’s not necessarily a fair one — is false equivalence. Even if it’s intended to be empathetic, it’s still floated out there as if it were a counter-argument, a correction. It will never not come across as, “What you’re saying is bad, but my having to feel defensive is every bit as a bad!” It puts all the weight on “Well, I’m not like that!” and leaves all the work for the other person to decipher the intent.

Again, it assumes that we’re coming into the conversation from an equal place, we’re all on the same side after all, so we can start discussing all the finer points and subtleties that the “extremists” keep missing while they scream at each other. But we’re not coming from the same place. In my case, at least, there’s never been a lack of awareness that we’re not coming from the same place. I’ve just never acknowledged just how many assumptions I’ve made without realizing it. Yes, I probably have a lot more in common with a woman in her late 30s who likes video games, than I do with the vast majority of white men. But that just means I can assume we’re on the same page when we’re talking about Final Fantasy, not when we’re talking about being a woman on the internet. Or anywhere else.

I spent about a year working on a project whose lead was a young woman unquestionably well-suited to that position: organized, driven but able to delegate, etc. Still, people would come up and ask me questions as if I had any clue as to what was going on. And when I’d point to her and say, “She’s the boss,” they’d act surprised. Whenever I’ve read novels and screenplays that describe how a character can convey an entire sentence with just an expression, I’ve always dismissed it as lazy writing. But I’d swear to God one guy gave me a look that said, “Seriously? You’re that p-whipped?” And even when there wasn’t a nasty intent behind it, she’d still get tons of dismissive comments. One of the security guys called her “princess” every single time we went through the gate. It annoyed the hell out of me, but she just shrugged it off. I was describing that situation to a co-worker at my current job, and she just kind of laughed (good-naturedly!) as my naivety. What I would take as absolutely intolerable, she recognized as pretty much a day-to-day occurance.

We’ve got options: we can acknowledge that, and then move forward, keeping it as a constant reminder that we should listen as much as we talk. We can feel guilty about it, and despair that there’s nothing we can do about it except sympathize. Or we can interpret it as an attack, and get angry and defensive.

I’m Not Sure I Like Your Tone

Defensiveness is the mind-killer. It is the little-death that tricks us into believing that apathy is action. It creates an immediate problem that we think is solvable — clearly, if everyone could just understand how this offends me and people like me, we could all get along — while ignoring the systematic, longer-running problem that’s driving all of our assumptions. It lets us believe that by not siding with the “extremes,” we’re standing firm on the center path to equality, even though we’ve seen time and time again that the “center path” inherently favors white dudes.

That’s why a guy who goes by “Total Biscuit” can post a call for everybody to calm down and not “pick sides”, and be completely sincere as far as I can tell, and still have so many people yelling at him. (Including me). It’s just one big false equivalence after the other. He says that “social justice warrior” and “men’s rights activist” are just two meaningless insults that people keep throwing around in an attempt to dismiss and over-simplify each other’s viewpoint, but neither one actually exists. Well, I hate to break it to you, “Biscuit”, but Men’s Rights Activists absolutely exist. They’re a lunatic fringe — that Washington Post article is astoundingly even-handed and even sympathetic, but still doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that they’re preaching bullshit — but not only are they real, their “men are the victims” bullshit is the basis for all of the harassment going on. Equating it to “a feminist yelled at me that one time so feminism is extremist dogma” isn’t just misguided, it’s demonstrably false.

Not to mention: “SJW” and “MRA” aren’t even the same kind of term. “MRA” is the euphemism these assholes use to describe themselves. If we were going to pick a pejorative term to sling at them, we’d just call them for what they are: misogynists.

He’s also wrong when he says that the term “SJW” is meaningless. It’s actually a very useful shorthand, like “white knight” and “politically correct”. You can use it to instantly determine a person’s worldview and motivations. Just never the way it’s intended, because it says nothing about the speaker’s target but everything you need to know about the speaker.

One of my proudest and most hilarious achievements is when I had a guy on Twitter call me a “white knight” for something I’d written, saying that I was only criticizing GTA 5 because I wanted to get women to sleep with me. Once the laughter had died down, it was clear that the guy couldn’t even conceive why someone would say something in favor of women for any reason other than because he wanted sex. What else are women good for, after all? And the “social justice warriors” are only speaking out about diversity because they want to be seen as heroes and champions; why else would anyone speak out on this except out of self-interest? And why would anybody try to be more conscious of being inclusive and respectful? It can’t really be a desire to be “correct,” but as a shallow acknowledgement of some political agenda.

Just about the only thing I’d agree with Mr. Biscuit about: there aren’t “two sides” here. That absolutely doesn’t mean that it’s a complex, multi-faceted issue. It just means that there aren’t two equal and opposing sides. There’s the fact that women are entitled to equal voice and equal representation writing, making, and playing video games. That’s it.

And again — video games. I moved cross-country and devoted my entire career to video games, and I still can’t believe the kind of self-obsessed lunatic that would make such a big deal about them.

Ready Manchild One

Anyone who says that there’s more going on here is just wrong. Whether they’re intentionally misleading you, or looking for an excuse to keep on doing nothing, or just confused, it doesn’t matter. And entertaining them as if they have a valid point isn’t being moderate or objective; it’s picking a side. Their side.

I’d always said that by giving any attention to the “trolls,” you’re just giving them a voice they didn’t deserve. I was wrong. Ignoring them gives them a voice they didn’t deserve. Someone on Twitter made a pretty good analogy: if you leave the weeds alone, they’ll eventually grow to choke out an entire garden. Instead of leaving all the work to the targets of abuse, harassment, and discrimination to just “deal with it,” we need to make more of an effort ourselves to go through periodically and get rid of the weeds. Saying “trolls gonna troll, ain’t no stoppin’ it!” is worse than ineffectual; it just gives up what is literally the least we could to help, which is to show our support.

Andreas Zecher started an “open letter to the gaming community”, and he had to close it off after getting 2500 signatures in about a day. Is that going to fix the problem? Of course not, but at least it’s a start. And it’s a hell of a lot better than giving all our attention to the assholes.

If you engage one of these clowns — and I really can’t recommend it to anyone — you’ll see how quickly all their supposedly high-minded concerns fall apart into childish selfishness. We do need to identify where it comes from, not to give them sympathy and ease their fears, and sure as hell not to “let them know their concerns are legitimate.” We need to know where it comes from so we can all identify exactly how we’re all complicit. I can only point fingers at 4chan, or ‘gaming journalism,” or wicked games publishers, or “argumentative” activists, or the targets themselves, for so long before I’ve only got one person left to point at.

My friend Matt Dessem had an insightful theory that seems obvious in retrospect: video games and comics deal primarily in power fantasies, so of course they’re going to attract an audience that feels powerless. He equated the situation to the GOP spending so much time courting the Tea Party, and then acting surprised when it turned out so many of them were unrepentant racists and misogynists.

We can’t act surprised that the video game audience is so hostile and paranoid, completely losing their shit at the sight of anything they don’t like or find even remotely challenging. We spend all of our time telling each of them that he’s the most important person in the whole world. Even in games that aren’t explicitly about saving the universe, the entire medium of interactive entertainment is inherently a power fantasy: this entire world exists because of you, things only happen because you make them happen.

When a bunch of people were calling video games “murder simulators,” I thought we all agreed that it was only okay because players could separate fantasy from reality. But we’ve taken the premise that each (male, usually white) player is the most important person in the universe, and we’ve extended it to the real world. Publishers have always said “give the people what they want,” but as the budgets have increased, there’s been even less room for anything resembling challenging content or artistic expression. Game criticism — actual game criticism, and not just reviews — has spent years focused on player agency on the assumption that, essentially, artistic intent is for linear media, and games are different.

I’ve seen writers for game sites — who should know better — insist that if enough readers are interested in something, it’s worth addressing. That’s not even theoretically wrong; we’ve seen how wrong it is. We’ve seen exactly what happens when “journalists” forget their responsibility and instead start to believe their role is simply to parrot back everything they hear in the name of “objectivity.” It’s what makes revenue-focused “news” sources give equal time to climate change deniers.

None of this is a new or earth-shattering observation. It’s not even the first time I’ve realized it. I just never had to consider how important it was, because I was complaining about echo chambers from within the safety of my own echo chamber.

A Decent Actress, I Guess

As I’ve watched the harassment of women happen with increasing regularity, I keep thinking back to one event: a panel at Wondercon with the cast of one of the Resident Evil movies.

Nerd conventions are generally great for “high functioning” nerds like myself; we get a safe space to go and gawk and pretend that we’re somehow cooler and better-adjusted than everyone else. And the horrible but perversely thrilling highlight is always the celebrity panel, when they open the microphone up to Q&A from the audience. For the socially awkward, it’s kind of like watching other people fire-walk: we don’t have to go across the hot coals ourselves, but we can marvel at it and wait for something to go horribly wrong.

At this panel, the thing that went horribly wrong was this: a dude came up to the microphone and decided it’d be the perfect time to sack up and finally let actress Ali Larter know how he felt about her ruining the show Heroes. He said, “I mean, you’re a decent actress, I guess” but how did she feel knowing that her character was “pretty much universally” considered the thing that ruined the series? Her face was projected up on the huge screen in front of everybody, so we could all see her “what the hell is happening right now?!” expression as this brave young man fearlessly spoke up in complete anonymity out of the darkness.

But then a magical thing happened: the crowd started booing, and it got louder until it shut that asshole up and drove him away from the microphone. They didn’t say, “Well, he’s just speaking his mind; he’s not actually making any actionable threats.” They didn’t say, “Eh, it’s a nerd convention. This kind of thing is bound to happen.” They didn’t say, “We’ll just let the convention moderators take care of it.” They didn’t say, “She’s an actress; she’s going to have to get a thicker skin if she wants to survive for long.” They didn’t say, “This is representative of the inherent power struggle in which people of lower social standing ‘punch up’ against the established higher social class.” They didn’t say, “He’s just socially awkward and is probably motivated by years of being bullied himself.”

They just said “boo” enough times to make it clear that this shit was completely unacceptable. And because the camera stayed fixed on Ms. Larter, you could see her expression change from surprise at being attacked to one of relief that she was finally getting shown some support. During a later question, she started with, “Sorry, I just can’t believe how mean that guy was!” and got a laugh, which broke the tension.

Notice that I said they booed him off the stage. I spent the whole time standing in a dark corner at the back of the auditorium, just thinking about how horribly awkward the whole thing was and how uncomfortable it made me feel. Ever since, I’ve wished that I’d joined in.

So Much Effort

Tomodachi Life cover
If you read any sites that talk about video games within the past week, you’ve probably seen the story about Nintendo’s new game Tomodachi Life. The “game” — from the sound of it, it’s more like a toy than a game or even a simulation — allows for characters of opposite genders to fall in love and get married, but doesn’t allow it for characters of the same sex. When some gamers started a kind of hashtag protest, Nintendo responded with a spectacularly tone-deaf comment to the Associated Press, saying that the game was supposed to be a silly alternate world instead of a simulation of real life. “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life.”

The internet quickly filled with a flood of confused and reactionary commentary like the Google Maps lady stuck doing donuts in a parking lot. There’s been a ton of posts and comments talking about what happened, what actually happened, why people are upset, and why it matters. On Gamasutra, Christian Nutt wrote a great summation of the situation and why it’s a problem, from the perspective of a man who’s played the game and who happens to be married to another man. (Except in Tomodachi Life, in which he’s married to a woman).

Today, Nintendo released a statement that gave a sincere apology for the situation and a pledge to work harder at inclusivity going forward. Really, that should be the end of it. It’d be just petulant to expect a more sweeping change to a quirky novelty title, Nintendo’s a notoriously conservative company that has a lot deeper problems with racial and gender inclusivity than this one game, and people got the chance to raise awareness of how much they care about the issue and why it’s important to them. There’s not a lot more left to say. Making it out to be a controversy is itself a big part of the problem; it’s something so “normal” that it should never be considered controversial.

But… it’s rare for a video game to drop such a perfect metaphor into our laps, so I’ve got to give my take.

No Weird Stuff


Above is a promotional video from Nintendo for Tomodachi Life, which shows Mii versions of Nintendo executives talking in their strangely-pitched computer-generated voices, singing and dancing in stage shows, racing as snails with human heads, taking to the runway in fashion shows, and hitting on female Nintendo video game characters. “Just think of all the crazy match-ups that can happen in this game.” But don’t think of too many crazy match-ups, because Nintendo doesn’t want any weird stuff. Like dudes hitting on other dudes.

On Polygon, Samantha Allen writes that Nintendo’s statement was rooted in hatred and bigotry, pure and simple. The rest of her piece is fine, because it talks about the heteronormative concepts that lead to a statement like “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary:” it assumes that straight people falling in love and getting married is perfectly natural and normal, but gay people doing the same thing is a statement. But I do take issue with the claim that it’s rooted in hatred and bigotry; frankly, I think calling it “hatred” is lazy.

Hatred is easier to deal with. If someone proves himself to be a hateful, unrepentant homophobe, you can just say “sheesh, what an asshole” and write him off. Same with an arrogant bigot who’s convinced that he’s calmly and rationally proven that your concerns don’t matter as much as his own. But Nintendo’s initial statement comes from a place of more subtle and systematic prejudice. It’s like the aunt who insists on calling your boyfriend your “friend,” and who keeps trying to set you up with a nice girl. (Note: purely a hypothetical in my case).

That’s not to say that it’s benign or that it should be given a pass, but just that it comes from a different place. And you have to handle it differently. Otherwise, you just make it seem like the full-on, recalcitrant bigots have all the numbers on their side.

Of course, it’s also not to say that the reaction is overblown or the issue shouldn’t be a big deal. That seems to be the most common reaction on message boards: why do LGBT types/liberals/liberal LGBT types/”social justice warriors” have to turn every little thing into some big issue? One of the comment threads was from a guy who made that exact point and qualified it by pointing out that he’s bisexual; apparently he’s the Lorax, and he speaks for the LGBTs. But instead of reinforcing his point, his mention of his own sexuality just underscored why one aspect of a deliberately silly game could blow up into such a big deal in the first place: it comes from the assumption that what’s important to one person is important to everyone else, and that one person’s experiences are a good indicator of everyone else’s experiences. (Besides, any gay man can tell you that bisexuals don’t actually exist).

Christian’s take on the game and Nintendo’s response describes how the struggle for LGBT rights has turned personal relationships into political issues: “…living, for us, is an inherently political act.” That’s true, but I think a lot of people miss the fact that the political aspect is a side effect, not a goal. When someone suggests that gay rights activists put forward their most “straight-friendly” relationships in a bit of political theater, it exposes their own biases and prejudices: theater has to have an audience, and the gays must be trying to sell an idea to the normals. That takes an already marginalized group and marginalizes them even further; anything you want is defined in terms of how it affects me. So you look at a lesbian couple in their 80s and consider how their marriage would impact the civil rights struggle and its longer-term effects on fundamental societal institutions. You don’t consider the simple fact that a couple who’d been together for decades would want to get married, and what a travesty it is that they couldn’t.

That’s why Nintendo’s first response was spectacularly tone-deaf, as opposed to outright “hateful.” Hate says that anything outside of my experience is wrong; cluelessness and callousness say that anything outside of my experience is weird. It assumes one version of “normal” as the default, and then assumes that anything that falls outside of that is an aberration. So a guy chasing after a girl on a beach is just how romance works. A guy chasing after another guy would be making social commentary.

We’ve seen this over and over again: heterosexual marriages are normal, so gay “marriages” must be a political agenda. Straight relationships among young people are about romance and commitment, but gay relationships must be all about sex. Action heroes are men, so having female action heroes must be an attempt to defy conventional gender roles. Leading characters are white, so introducing a non-white protagonist means the story must be about race and take advantage of the fact that he’s “exotic.”

Based solely on that Nintendo Direct video, and the amount of time spent with characters hitting on and fighting over each other, it’d be reasonable for anyone to assume that it’s Nintendo who declared that romantic relationships and marriages are a big part of this silly game. And it’s Nintendo who asserted that having characters who represent your appearance and your personality is a big part of the game. But then we’re supposed to believe that it’s the LGBT contingent who are turning it into an issue simply by pointing out that we’re not represented?

And the reason it’s such a great metaphor is that in video games, much as in real life, gay relationships are on by default. 99.9% of games don’t care about gender, so the only way you can prevent two characters of the same gender from pairing up is to explicitly forbid it. In the US, the only people who are “redefining marriage” are the ones who have been going in state by state, taking the idea of an institution that everyone understands, and appending “unless you’re gay.” In Tomodachi Life, the team had to explicitly make the effort to ensure that only characters of opposite genders would fall in love and get married. So who’s the one making such a big deal? It’s not the LGBT people in the audience, the ones who fell in love with someone of the same gender not to rock your world and defy your notions of conventional relationships, but because it’s simply normal to them.

Just Don’t Call It Woohoo

The effort it takes to allow for gay relationships is simply not to forbid it. The Sims is the first game I encountered that allowed this, and it could even tell I was gay before I could. I’ve told this story before, but I can’t remember if I have on this blog, so excuse the possible repetition:

In addition to letting you create your own characters and houses from scratch, The Sims also gives you several Maxis-generated families to start with. One of these in the first game was the “Roomies,” two women who were, according to the description, “new in town and looking to make friends.” I decided to create a “family” of two guys in the same neighborhood, who’d meet the girls, they’d all fall in love and get married, and pursue the music career. It’d be just like ABBA. I made the guys — “Tubbs,” because he dressed like a Miami Vice character, and “Logan,” because he dressed like a Sandman from Logan’s Run — and moved them into a house together, then had them start chatting with each other to build their relationship.

It turned out that the guys hit it off really well. I’d start a conversation between them, and they’d spend the next hour of game time just chatting with each other and sharing their dreams. They advanced from “friends” to “best friends,” and eventually got so close I started to wonder whether they’d seen combat together. Eventually, in addition to the conversational options, a new option appeared: “Give back rub.” What’s the worst that could happen? I thought. Nothing wrong with a dude giving his bro a completely consensual, heterosexual back rub.

But that’s when the hearts started appearing over their heads. I’d done it. It was my fault, because I’d given them permission. I’d somehow, completely inadvertently, unlocked a whole range of romantic options for the guys. And, I admit, I was “curious.” It’s just one night, after all, and it’s not like they’ll be locked into this as some kind of lifestyle choice, and I’ve already got a couple of very nice ladies set up for them, and well, why doesn’t this really seem all that weird to me?

My Exodus International-style attempts to get the guys back on track ended, predictably, in disaster. They preferred talking with each other and occasionally making out to talking with the Roomies. Tubbs, as it turned out, was progressive enough to be comfortable with bisexuality, and he quickly hit it off with one of the ladies. Logan didn’t want any part of it, though, and worse than that, he was crazy jealous. Tubbs’s ex-gay conversion started to get hot and heavy, and Logan reacted by slapping him, crying for a bit, and then going into the kitchen to make dinner. Because it was the original The Sims, though, using a stove meant instant suicide. A fire started, everyone panicked, and Logan was consumed by flame. A fittingly William Friedkin-esque end to the whole affair.

When a Sim dies, the game gives you a crematory urn that you can place in the backyard to turn into a grave. I did that, and Tubbs basically ruined the entire night with all his grieving. He abandoned the Roomies, choosing instead to go to the backyard and cry over Logan’s grave. His new girlfriend got bored, then came to the backyard to cheer him up. He was unconsolable at first, but eventually started to come around. Completely autonomously, she asked him to dance, and the two danced on his dead boyfriend’s grave. The game had let me consciously and subconsciously experiment with relationships, play around with the idea of what’s “normal,” and even push the characters towards a darkly comic moral retribution. All before I was ready to come out or was even able to recognize that coming out and being comfortable with myself was even an option.

(When I first told this story to my ex-boyfriend, his response: “Your first sign you were gay should’ve been when you bought a new video game and immediately wanted to re-create ABBA.”)

That’s an example of why representation is such a big deal in games and movies: it is, for lack of a better term, a “safe space” to see your own conception of what’s “normal” be abstracted and simplified and experimented with. The realization that this doesn’t seem that weird to me was a calming reassurance that “coming out” didn’t mean I’d have to transform into one of the bizarre stereotypes I’d always seen on TV and in movies. The game was effectively saying that it didn’t care one way or the other, so why should I? In retrospect, even the swift moral retribution for Logan’s wickedness was helpful: over the years I’d come up with so many possible nightmare scenarios of what would happen if anyone found out My Horrible Secret, that seeing one played out so broadly comic and cartoonishly helped defused the tension. It’s a big deal because it reminds players that it’s not a big deal.

Of course, somebody at EA or Maxis came along with The Sims 2 and effectively ruined it. They added the option of marriage — strictly non-denominational, of course — by giving a Sim new options for Sims with a high enough relationship level: “Propose” an “Join.” Two Sims could “Join” in a nice ceremony with all their Sim friends and it’d form a lifelong memory and a new spousal relationship.

But only if they were of opposite genders. Everything else was just as gender-agnostic as before, but if you had two Sims of the same gender, they could only “Join Union.” Every aspect of the relationship was exactly the same (except for the possibility of pregnancy from sex, of course) but they explicitly made the effort to distinguish real marriages of semi-autonomous computer-generated polygonal people with the politically-motivated civil unions of gay Sims. Of all the boneheaded decisions that EA has made over the years, that’s simultaneously one of the subtlest with least pragmatic impact, and one of the absolute worst with enough symbolism attached to wipe out almost all my goodwill towards the series. The beauty of The Sims was that it made no value judgments. The insult of The Sims 2 was that it said this distinction matters so much that we’ll go out of our way to differentiate it.

Of course, The Sims isn’t a completely free-love society; there are explicit rules against macking on underage Sims or blood relatives, for instance. And while Sims will take care of a lot of stuff on their own, they won’t do stuff like initiate romantic relationships, so players who want to play with the rule #nohomo will only ever see gay Sims if they create them themselves. Even after reading Christian’s description of Tomodachi Life, I still don’t have a clear idea of how autonomous it is, if at all — if the player doesn’t actually have control over which Miis fall in love and get married, then there is a technical question of how you implement that. If a Mii representing a straight player just automatically gets married to a Mii of the same gender, that’s really no better than Christian’s example of his Mii getting married to a woman.

But whatever the details, it’s not an unsolvable problem, because plenty of other games have solved it. And the key is that anybody who claims it’d take a ton of effort is either lying or mis-informed. If a Bioware game needs to write a whole plot line and dialogue for one of its established characters falling in love with an established character of the same gender, then that takes some effort. In a game where players create the characters and decide what they do, then it’s as simple as “don’t forbid it.”

And if you are going to make the effort to exclude me, at least do me the courtesy of acknowledging that you’re the one doing it. Don’t assume that what’s perfectly normal for me is actually some politically motivated social commentary. And don’t act as if removing the restrictions that exclude me is the same thing as catering to some special interest.