Splatoon for Graybeards

Are you old like me? You might still enjoy Nintendo’s Splatoon.

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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

Camp Grizzly finally hits the sweet spot between cooperative games and storytelling games

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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

A biased but honest bit of gushing about the five minutes I’ve seen of Campo Santo’s game Firewatch.

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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!

Disney Infinity 2.0 shows how charm (and a ludicrous amount of development and marketing money) always win in the end.


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

Everything we do is to make our audiences feel like they’re the most important person in the whole world. And that’s a real good thing.


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

A silly game from Nintendo raises the eternal question: why do LGBT types always make such a fuss every time they’re deliberately and actively excluded?

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.

Warning: Labels

Why Gone Home isn’t technically a game, why that’s not a bad thing, and why the distinction still matters

Metacritic header for Gone Home
Two disclaimers first:

  1. I’m currently contracting with Telltale Games, and I’ll be talking about some of Telltale’s games here. But I absolutely don’t represent the company or speak for them in any way. This is a personal blog. My opinions aren’t necessarily theirs, and vice-versa.
  2. This is a blog post that I’ve started and abandoned several times over 2013, so I’m going to be referring to a few things that I can no longer find the links for. You’ll just have to take my word that I’m paraphrasing actual things said on the actual Internet, and not just making stuff up.

Edited 6/1/2018 to add: I’m just reading over this four years later, and the thing that keeps jumping out at me is that I used the term “transgendered” instead of “transgender.” It absolutely wasn’t intended to be dismissive; I simply didn’t understand the terminology. Now I think it sounds like describing a condition instead of a state of being, and I cringe a little when I see it. I’m not editing them out, though, since that seems too much like revisionist history.

Now: Don’t be fooled by the URL, dear readers! Gone Home isn’t actually a game.

This is exactly the kind of thoughtless accusation that’s caused a lot of consternation across blog posts, message boards, and user reviews. What are you so afraid of? demands Leigh Alexander. Are you saying it’s not a “real game” because you can’t blow shit up and you have to actually read and think about a simple family story or is it because it’s about girls and it’s an attempt at genuine “maturity” for once and God why do I even bother talking to you people?!

All right, I’m exaggerating a lot for dramatic effect. But you have to admit — and I’m saying this as someone who liked it quite a bit — that there’s a lot of “stop complaining, this is supposed to be good for you” in the discussion around Gone Home. Along with a healthy undercurrent of “you just don’t get it.”

And to be fair, it’s easy to see why. There’s also a lot of frustratingly facile “Ugh. It’s not even a game! Zero Stars!! And that is indeed stupid and ripe for mockery.

But mocking it doesn’t say anything interesting about game design or even formalism, and instead says everything about how needlessly argumentative and defensive people get when talking about video games on the Internet. Everything I’ve seen argues against the “It’s not even a game!” bit, usually with some variation on, “Is too!” But that’s not the part of the argument that makes it vapid; what makes it vapid is saying “It’s not even a game, and therefore is a failure.”

I Don’t Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Can Play

The complaint definitely isn’t a recent invention. Just off the top of my head, I can remember seeing the “Pfft! It’s not even a game” leveled at Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, the first two seasons of Sam & Max, The Sims, Half-Life 2, and Grim Fandango. It’s always presented as a discussion-ending sick burn. Of course this isn’t any good; it’s not even a game. ‘Nuff said!

Because everyone, on all “sides” of the “argument,” has this notion that “not a game” is some kind of value judgment in and of itself. Here are some other things that aren’t games: Miller’s Crossing, Appalachian Spring, the Guggenheim Museum, The Taming of the Shrew, and Rear Window. Few of us have experienced these things without a controller and thought, “God, this is such bullshit!” So why would we take such a myopic and close-minded view of interactive entertainment as separate from all other forms of entertainment? (Now I’m thinking about going on Metacritic and reviewing every book, movie, and television show on there with “Not even a game. 1/10.”)

Part of the problem, of course, is that we in the video game audience aren’t particularly known for thoughtful, cogent, holistic analysis of games as creative works. But I think another very real part of the problem is that we are increasingly trying to do exactly that: treating games as some entirely separate and wholly new thing. Acting as if the fundamental rules of dramatic storytelling go flying out the window as soon as you put a controller in the audience’s hands. Decrying some creative decisions as if they were violations of the very medium. I don’t think we can entirely dismiss the “not a game” criticism as worthless when we’ve had years of criticism and analysis that makes up terms like “ludonarrative dissonance” and gets applauded for it. You can’t spend years saying, disdainfully, that “games aren’t movies!” and then say that complaints about a lack of interactivity are shallow and immature.

You also can’t rattle off a list of game-like elements and then conclude that if something has these, therefore it’s a game. Several of the works of art I mentioned earlier have game-like elements — puzzles to be solved, symbols to decipher, a starting point and an objective — but are just fine not being games. For the record, I don’t think The Walking Dead is technically a game, either; it’s somewhere between an interactive movie and a Voight-Kampff test. If I were going to compare Gone Home to anything, it’d be a museum exhibit. And I’ve been to some outstanding museum exhibits.

An Angry Digression

But why settle for a perfectly rational, sensible, and value-judgment-free observation like that, when you can take it to an extreme so ridiculous that it actually becomes offensive?

Even in a year chock full of divisive, sophomoric campaigns of self-righteous indignation disguised as progressivism, one event stood out for me. It was the point at which I lost all patience with the video game “community,” my “at long last, have you no sense of decency?” moment. And it was, ostensibly, about a formal definition of games.

What happened was that author and blogger Raph Koster was born straight, white, and male. Some number of years after that, he dared to write an analysis of a work made by a transgendered game developer, in which he praised the work overall and then explained how it wasn’t technically a game. In other words, he did the exact thing that he does for a living.

For this transgression, a bunch of the most unrepentantly loudmouthed people writing about video games decided to attack him. Another Straight White Male perpetuating his hegemony over the games industry! He’s trying to silence the voices of the disenfranchised! One particularly vocal asshole wrote — and I’m not exaggerating — that it was a deeply personal work that Koster couldn’t possibly understand, so he shouldn’t be critiquing it at all. That’s right: it was designed to let the player experience what it’s like to go through life as a transgendered person, and if you’re a straight white male you can’t know what it’s like so should just shut up about it.

I should make it clear that Koster handled it infinitely better than I would have. He was repeatedly sympathetic instead of defensive, and said that he understood why people were angry. And when people are screaming stupid things at you, it’s almost certainly a better idea to calmly explain to them how they’re wrong than to start shouting back at them. Rational arguments will stand as valid long after the petulant screaming has been forgotten.

Still, it was gross. And depressing to think that this is what passes for video game commentary (not to mention progressivism) these days. It’s also impossible to escape the irony that a lot of the same people were disgusted and outraged when a video game reviewer wrote an overwhelmingly positive review of Grand Theft Auto 5 but was heaped with abuse by idiots and assholes because she’s transgendered. That disgust and outrage is completely justified, and should be shared by anyone with a conscience. What’s not justified is doing essentially the exact same thing to a writer for being straight or white or male.

And it had absolutely nothing to do with video game formalism. It was another clumsy attempt from people who don’t understand how empathy works, to politicize something that’s intended to be shared by all. And it’s a perfect example of how stupid it can be when you try to turn “not a game” into a value judgment.

Good Luck With That

So why do I say that Gone Home isn’t a game? And why would I say the same thing about The Walking Dead? (I even helped work on that one! Such betrayal!) It’s about agency, and the lack of it.

Several years ago on his blog, Steve Gaynor proposed a hypothetical game that was based purely on exploring an environment. You wouldn’t be following developer-imposed narrative events, but instead be dropped into a world that was as realistic as the developers could make it. Your own interactions would drive everything. If I remember correctly, part of his argument was that simply walking down an alley in a real city is more detailed and had the potential to be more interesting than anything in the elaborate game worlds that AAA developers were trying to create.

At the time, I thought “good luck with that.” Remove the tension between a developer’s narrative and the player’s narrative, and you don’t get player freedom; you get boredom. Either the developer tries too hard to make an open-ended sandbox, leaving the player just talking to himself; or the player’s just triggering a bunch of canned responses, seeing all of the developers’ ideas but never truly interacting with them.

Gone Home proved me at least partially wrong. Going through an experience based entirely on environmental storytelling is a lot more engaging than I ever would’ve thought it’d be. I was completely engaged throughout, and a couple of the characters (mostly Sam) genuinely established themselves as characters more interesting than any blank-slate avatars or NPCs with a predetermined agenda. More important than that, the developers established themselves as participants. I got a real sense that this was a personal work, and they were sharing their memories and nostalgia with me.

But I got to the end of the three hours and realized that I hadn’t actually done anything. In fact, I felt cheated because I’d spent three hours preparing myself for the chance to do something, and then was suddenly confronted with “The End.” Everything interesting about Gone Home had already happened by the time I arrived on the front porch.

That’s why I compare it to a well-made museum exhibit: I’m engaged, I’m finding things out, and I’m actively putting pieces together, but it’s still ultimately passive.

What’s Past Is Prologue

After playing Portal 2 and Skyrim, I wrote about the problems I have with environmental storytelling. Or more accurately: the over-reliance on environmental storytelling.

Used well, it’s fantastic. As all three games prove, it could be completely engaging on its own. But it’s still passive — at odds with an interactive medium — unless you can take what you’ve learned in the past and somehow apply it in the present.

Christian Nutt had many of the same observations in a blog post on Gamasutra. I agree with almost all of it, although I don’t agree at all with his take on adventure games. He calls out Gone Home‘s story being told in the past tense, the artificially game-like layout of the house and its enforcement of a three-act structure, and the “story’s propensity for titillation” (which is a perfect way of describing it). I had the same problems with it, but I don’t think they’re three separate issues.

The conceit of the house’s locked doors calls attention to itself because it’s so at odds with everything else. For one thing, the player’s actions are completely mechanical, while the much more vivid descriptions of what Sam & Lonnie are doing are emotional and character-driven. There’s exactly one moment — when you’re stuck in a hallway and a light suddenly blinks out — when it seems as if the player’s participating instead of just observing. As a result, Katie’s “story” is insufferably mundane when compared to Sam & Lonnie’s (I got to the house, I went here, I went here, I picked up a key, I went here….)

Another problem is that the things you’re asked to “do” are so simple, requiring almost no deduction. But piecing the story together — as is the case when audiences “actively” watch horror, suspsense, and mystery movies — does require more thought and deduction than is usually required by a more straightforward, “plot-driven” game. Paradoxically, this wouldn’t have been a problem had Gone Home not been written so well. But because the game combines overly simplistic “puzzles” with mature and thoughtful snippets of story content, the result is a bit like reading a novel via a See n Say toy.

And then there are the “haunted house” complaints. Christian expected a teen suicide; I expected some kind of climactic showdown with an angry ghost. I’ve seen lots of comments in response to this, to the effect of “why are people getting so hung up on the haunted house?! It’s clearly just to establish mood!” or “the game revels in the mundane, and therefore you’re in the same position as Sam & Lonnie, treating all the ‘supernatural’ stuff as a goof,” or “this is a mature, character-driven story without shooting and explosions, that should be enough for adult audiences.”

The first problem with that is that we’re not in the same position as Sam & Lonnie. We’re in the position of people who are routinely asked to fight ghosts and deal with other calamities both supernatural and not, just in the nick of time. And that’s not “gamers,” either, that’s “audiences of fiction.” If the shocking twist of The Sixth Sense had been “oh wait, it turns out I can’t see ghosts after all,” the proper response wouldn’t be, “Well of course he can’t see ghosts; we adults all know that ghosts don’t exist.” The proper response would be, “What in the hell was the point of all that?”

But I think the larger problem is that the entire fake-out — the dark and stormy night, the emergency broadcast signal, the panicked note implying that something horrible has happened, the seance table — would’ve been forgiven if something had happened that required Katie to take action. It’s entirely a problem of agency. I didn’t need to fight Oscar’s spectre back to the ghastly netherworld from whence it came; I would’ve been happy to run interference with my parents, or give Sam the crucial piece of information she needed to reunite with Lonnie, or give Sam the important piece of sisterly advice that could change her decision and the rest of her life. Any of that, and I would’ve been fine saying, “yes, of course the ghost stuff was a silly goof.” But as it was, I was built up for a climax and confronted with just “And they all lived happily ever after.”

Choose Your Own Adventure

All of that is why I think it’s a bad idea to say, “I have a very inclusive definition of ‘game'” and leave it at that. People are understandably weary of and dismissive of the whole question of “What Makes a Game,” but the distinction is still important. Not as a value judgment. And not even for the sake of some academic classification. It’s important so that all of us — artists and audiences alike — can understand all the implications of how games work, and all the connotations that go along with certain aspects of the medium.

It’s a little easier to understand coming from the opposite side. Most of us are familiar with the argument “games aren’t movies,” because we’ve seen so many games trying to incorporate cinematic elements and doing it so poorly. For many years, “cinematic” was synonymous with “legitimate,” so game developers tried to shoehorn cut-scenes and camera angles into the same old action game template. It was an exercise in style without entirely appreciating how the style works, how players watching a cut-scene and players driving an avatar are actually thinking in significantly different ways. And it helped give rise to the whole shallow “not even a game” criticism in the first place.

As developers are getting better at incorporating storytelling into games, I think there’s been a tendency for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction. To say that as long as something includes most or even some of the same elements as games, then it is a game and is therefore using interactivity “correctly.”

For years, I’ve been saying that traditional adventure games are indeed games, since they have all the same elements that games do: there are rules, even if those rules are completely prescribed by a narrative. There’s a win state, even if there’s no losing state, and winning the game is just finishing the story. Most significantly, you have a role in the game and take actions to advance the game state.

My most significant problem with Gone Home is the lack of that last aspect. You could insist that it does satisfy that requirement — the objective is to get to the attic, and finding keys and going from room to room are advancing the game state towards that objective. But again, that game is near-trivial and so much less interesting than the narrative that it can’t help but suffer in comparison. A game about getting to the attic of a house wouldn’t have generated so much discussion.

Still, that’s a very broad application of the term “game,” even to the classics. The point of contention for decades has been how the game handles choices. As adventure games have gotten streamlined, the choices have been weeded out; in many of the best adventure games, there is exactly one correct solution to each obstacle. And for that reason, they’re often — completely fairly — described as being more like puzzles than games.

The Walking Dead and now The Wolf Among Us have taken the emphasis away from the puzzles and put them on narrative choices. They’ve gotten a lot of criticism for being full of “false” choices and, predictably, “not even games.” My own personal take is that complicated choices are infinitely more interesting than multiple outcomes. If I’m given the choice of chopping a guy’s leg off with a rusty axe, the outcome “I decided to do it” or “I decided not to do it” isn’t all that interesting to me, at least not when compared to the outcome of “This is really happening right now and I’m the one who’s doing it and I can’t look away.” One is just triggering developer-created cutscene A vs developer-created cutscene B. The other is putting all the weight on me — not on my decision, but on my role as the person who decides.

Why It Matters

That doesn’t mean that the complaints about linearity are completely invalid. It just means that it’s arguing about apples and oranges. Because the most interesting choices (to me) are all experiential instead of decision points, you’re not actually advancing the game state in a meaningful way. Therefore, The Walking Dead is even less “game-like” than traditional use-the-key-in-the-lock, everything-pauses-until-you-find-the-right-solution adventure games. And Gone Home is even less “game-like” than that, because you have no meaningful agency in the present; your actions are no more advancing the state of the narrative than turning the pages in a book.

Again, none of these aspects are inherently better than the others, a “game” isn’t a superset of a “puzzle,” and there’s nothing inherently bad about not being “game-like.” It’s only bad if the work doesn’t account for all the implications that come from the creative decision to be more or less “game-like.”

Some of the criticism does come from people who, frankly, think that games can only behave a certain way, and anything that doesn’t do that sucks. But I think it’s important to be able to distinguish the valid criticisms out of that: “I wanted branching outcomes because the choice wasn’t significant enough for me on its own.” “The story implied the freedom to choose and then imposed one ‘correct’ decision on me instead.” “I felt I was being set up for a narrative climax and then had the rug pulled out from under me.” “I was presented with a bunch of interesting characters but had no way to really interact with them.”

As a more concrete example: I’ve written scenes for games that I’ve been perfectly happy with on the page, but then frustrated once I’ve seen them in action. I’d still stand by the dialogue itself as clear, clever, and — surprisingly for me — concise, but in the context of the larger game, they brought the action to a halt, or didn’t stand out against the dozens of other things the player was thinking about at the time. There’s no one right way to do any of this, and what works well in one context might not work so well in another. I used to believe that all the elements were supersets of each other, and that shooters and adventure games would eventually converge into the One Perfect Game, one that combines action and introspection, thinking and shooting, genuine character development and shooting. Now, I don’t even think that’s a good idea in theory. Adding too many disparate elements doesn’t make a work chock full of goodness; more often than not, it just becomes a jumbled mess with too many things at odds with each other.

I’d love to see more games projects like Gone Home — clever, well-written, detailed, personal, with adult characters half as complex and mature as these teenagers, showing that quieter moments can be every bit as exciting as alien invasions, and giving insight into the personal struggles of a long-persecuted cultural minority (people from Portland). I’d love to see player choices that have emotional significance, and not just be checking off a list of developer-defined objectives. I’d love to see more environmental storytelling, with more resonance and more impact than just telling me someone’s life story and ending with “…and that’s why I made the combination to the safe 1234.” I’d love to be doing more stuff that made me feel as clever as the puzzle solutions in Day of the Tentacle, and I’d love to get more of the sense of discovery that came from unlocking new islands in Monkey Island 2.

Maybe all of that stuff will be in the same game, or maybe it won’t. Maybe it won’t even be a game at all.

Look Into Your Heart

Animal Crossing: New Leaf brought out the darkest parts of my personality. It’s still better than free-to-play.

Animal Crossing screenshot
I’m talking about ethics.

It was late one night in Funkytown when a bipedal talking eagle taught me what’s wrong with the video game industry. You see, I was desperate. I’d just gotten into town a few days earlier, and I made the mistake a lot of newcomers make: getting in deep with the Tanuki mafia.

I was already 48,000 bells in debt. Granted, the town ran mostly on a fruit- and cricket-based economy, so I’d be able to pay off the loan in time. But the bells weren’t coming in fast enough. I’d been out every night, picking apples and desperately shaking other trees, looking for money. That’s when I heard that there was lots of money to be made on the Island.

There was only one catch: I was the new mayor of this burg, and the Island would only become available once I’d gotten a house and all the residents were happy. And my residents weren’t happy. The problem, as it usually is, was a dame.

Gwen the penguin, to be precise. She was a trouble-maker, causing problems with the rooster Ken and the cow Chevre in particular. Anytime I saw a resident walking with an angry purple cloud overhead, sure enough there’d be Gwen standing nearby, looking for the next neighbor she could make miserable. She had to go.

I tried pushing her. Digging holes in front of her house. Making snide comments when she called me “h-h-h-hon.” She wouldn’t leave. I needed to turn up the heat.

Animal Crossing screenshot
She was constantly asking me to visit her home; it would’ve been all too easy to slip inside and take care of the problem for good. But I was mayor! I’d be the prime suspect. I needed a patsy. Dizzy the elephant filled the role nicely.

Dizzy’s a nice enough guy. Not too bright, though: a couple of times he asked me to find an apple for him as he was standing directly under an apple tree. I wrote Dizzy a letter:

Gwen has become a problem. She doesn’t belong in Funkytown any longer. You know what to do.

and sent a shiny new axe along with it.

Animal Crossing screenshot
I don’t think he read my letter. Actually, based on some of the responses I’ve been getting, none of the animals in Funkytown can read. As mayor, I’ll have to institute some sort of literacy programs. Whatever he did, though, it worked. Gwen soon left town with no forwarding address.

The whole diversion had taken up precious time, though. I was making repeated visits to Funkytown day and night, but still barely making a dent in all my debts. That’s why I met Avery the eagle late that night, and why he said something surprising: “You look tired! Maybe you should take a rest, kaKAWWWW! [that’s his thing] Money isn’t everything.”

Money Isn’t Everything

I’d heard about people getting completely sucked into Animal Crossing, but I didn’t really see the appeal. I’d tried the GameCube version years ago, when everyone was raving about it, but it didn’t hold my interest. (In fact, when I bought New Leaf, I’d completely forgotten I’d played an earlier version). Sure, I have a history of getting completely wrapped up in “life sim” type games, but my two prime motivators in The Sims are building houses and trying to get my character laid. Neither of those is an option in Animal Crossing (thankfully), so I’d figured I was safe.

There’s really nothing you can do in Animal Crossing except pick fruit, catch fish, buy stuff, and put stuff in your house. The core game mechanic is catching stuff to sell at a profit so that you can pay off a home loan — it’s hard to imagine a premise that’d be more dull and more transparently capitalist.

Animal Crossing screenshot
But then there’s a kappa named Kapp’n who pilots the boat to the Island and sings a song the way there and back.

In other words, the game is obscenely charming. In addition to Kapp’n, there’s a dog named K.K. Slider who performs at the local nightclub on weekends, spinning a remix of his tunes every other night.
Animal Crossing screenshot
When he’s doing his acoustic set, he’ll take requests, and sometimes let out a tiny howl in the middle of a song. Again: ridiculously charming.

Christian Nutt came up with a good summation of why Animal Crossing: New Leaf has such staying power: it’s a combination of open-endedness and an extremely broad set of simple things to do. None of the things you can do in the game are that complex, but there are billions of things to do, and the complexity comes not from any single system but from the combination of all of them.

Which, paradoxically, makes the capitalist undertones of the game quickly fade into the background. Money and the drive to make more of it is ever-present in the game, but for me at least, it’s nothing more than a means to an end. In The Sims, you want to buy new objects because they let you do more stuff. In Animal Crossing, most of the stuff doesn’t do much of anything, so the goal is just to see it. It sounds as if it’d be even more crassly consumerist, but the end result is one of pure exploration: there’s almost always something new to discover.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, but no Whales

Still, when a character in the game asked me to stop playing, it was a genuine surprise. Why would the developers have put in something so self-defeating as a reminder to only play their game a “healthy” amount? How is that in their best interest? If I’m not playing their game as much as possible, then… well, wait a second.

It doesn’t make a bit of difference to Nintendo whether I’m playing their game as much as possible. I already paid my money and completed the transaction, a complicated an archaic process known in the olden days as “buying a video game.” They’re not making any more or less money out of me whether I play for hours every day, or whether I say “this feels too much like work” and never launch the game again.

Even as I’ve spent the past few years complaining about micro-transactions and “free-to-play” games, I hadn’t realized how much they’d worked their way into the fibre of how the games business works. There’s always been opposition — usually in the form of “remember the good old days?” memes — but even that has transitioned from “I hate Facebook games” to “free-to-play is ruining the mobile game market” to “micro-transactions are ruining games” to “micro-transactions are a necessary evil.”

The video game market is competitive, after all, and developers gotta eat. And we’ve seen more and more defenses of the free-to-play model, especially from people who’ve left larger studios for start-ups or companies that emphasize mobile development.

I’m definitely not saying Electronic Arts created the business model, or even that they’re the worst offender. (Although taking a near-perfect game like Plants vs. Zombies and turning it into the joyless slog that is Plants vs. Zombies 2 suggests they might have perfected it). But when you’re looking at Animal Crossing and The Sims, two games whose central “mechanic” is buying fake stuff with fake money to put into a fake house, it’s an interesting case of two roads diverging in a wood.

A few years ago, someone at EA said: “Sure, we’ve got The Sims, and it’s been a wholly unprecedented success. It’s indefinitely expandable. It attracts people who are so obsessed with the game that they make their own content and constantly promote the game online. It’s got a business model that supports regular expansions, so we can add new game mechanics along with object sets. And those expansions are selling so well, it’s defying every projection of how expansions are supposed to perform and what the life cycle of a piece of game software is supposed to look like. It’s successful enough to exist as an entire franchise, making the kind of regular income you usually only get with a successful MMO.

“And that’s all well and good. But couldn’t we tweak the business model a little bit more in our favor?”

Snidely Whiplash, CFO

And you know, fine. It’s all right that someone at EA proposed that because it’s someone’s job to come up with ideas like that. Two of the Internet’s favorite past-times are hyperbole and over-simplification, so there’s always a melodramatic polemic that micro-transactions are ruining the entire industry, and it’s the greed of short-sighted bean-counters who are trampling on the purity of art or somesuch. And then inevitably, someone pipes in and like Carrie’s mom, reminds us that “these people aren’t your friends!” Companies exist to make money! Etc. etc.

The truth is somewhere in between. I will never forget a day when I was working at Maxis, and we had a studio meeting to introduce the new CEO. After an hour of talk about market projections and franchise possibilities and the like, he closed with a line about being open to suggestions and available via email. When I got back to my desk, I wrote a polite (I thought) email asking that when he was addressing the whole company, he refer to the games as “games” and not “product.” It’s very important for morale.

In retrospect, that was almost comically ludicrous. Not for the principle of it; I still believe that it’s a subtle shift between thinking of what you’re doing as a creative work and thinking of it as a commodity, and once it’s crossed, it’s impossible to go back. And it wasn’t ludicrous for the hubris of a lowly programmer attempting to talk to a CEO; for the record, I wasn’t laughed at and escorted out of the building, but got a polite and seemingly sincere reply.

What makes it ludicrous is that I was telling someone else how to do his job, in a way that trivialized the job. It’d be as if an artist told me that I was ruining the creative process by talking about functions or vectors or scripting languages. It was my job to think in terms of code, and someone else’s to think in terms of product. That’s how the process works, and there’s no mustache-twirling villainy inherent in it.

Until you become the guy who invented the concept of “games as services.” Whoever came up with that can go to hell.

Games as Games

Animal Crossing screenshot
The whole question of free-to-play games and micro-transactions is actually a lot like software piracy, in that:

  1. People try to make it sound complicated, when it’s really not.
  2. Every attempt to defend it or rationalize it essentially boils down to spin.
  3. The farther you get away from the basic business transaction that everyone understands — I pay you x and get y — the worse it is

I’ve seen lengthy defenses of the free-to-play model that are actually just defenses of free game demos. But demos still exist, and have existed for decades, long before Zynga and the App Store even existed.

You want to let players see if they like the game before they commit any money to it? Fine, there are several ways to do that. Including releasing a game that’s free to play and allowing the player to buy a single in-app purchase that unlocks all the content. Completely unsurprisingly, I’m also fine with the episodic model.

But nickel-and-diming players for content? That’s turning the game from a creative work into pure product.

Making games where the people who play most are also the ones who spend the most? The most prevalent complaint is that it turns the business model into a meta-game, where players are playing the game of “how can I use this without paying,” instead of playing the game itself. But the problem is even more fundamental than that, in two ways: first, if you’re paying based on the length of time played, then you’re paying for a diversion, not a creative work. Second, if you’re not paying at all, then you have to ask yourself the same question software pirates always fail to ask: if I’m not paying for this, then who is?

Setting up gameplay loops where the player can either wait 30 minutes to an hour or pay to keep playing immediately? That’s such a colossally, fundamentally bullshit idea that I still don’t understand how it didn’t get anyone who suggested it fired, much less actually made it into several finished games.

The only other forms of entertainment in which the audience pays by the minute are slot machines and peep shows. I’m not interested in a career in either.

Yes, it’s hyperbole to say that free-to-play is ruining the entire games industry. But I also genuinely believe that it’s true. It’s just not some game industry exec sitting in a tower in Mordor, unleashing a horde of Farmville clones on an unwary populace. It’s a bunch of bad decisions that compound and gradually and subtly influence everything. It’s a slow shift in emphasis away from the people who think about games — players and (some) developers — towards the people who think about product.

Not-so-Long Tail

I’m not completely pessimistic, since I don’t believe it’s sustainable. Animal Crossing could easily charge me for each item, or charge a monthly fee, and it’s got its hooks in me enough that I’d probably pay it. I did with The Sims 3 for a while, after all, until I’d paid real money for fake things enough times that it didn’t seem entertaining anymore. And now, I’ve completely lost interest in the game. I’ve tried drumming up my own interest in The Sims 4, but it’s going to be a hard sell.

On the other hand, when I’m playing Animal Crossing, I don’t have to be constantly on the look-out for another case of the company trying to gouge more money out of me. And as a result, I can just relax, drop the cynicism, and let the charm do its thing.
Animal Crossing screenshot

What Nintendon’t

Overcome the overwhelming sense of futility in video games with this one weird trick

Marioatopflagpole
Not long after I spent a couple of days complaining about Grand Theft Auto 5, I started to wonder if I’d been overthinking it.

I still don’t think any of that is wrong: representation is important, even if it is just representation for the sake of representation. And I think it’s lazy to spend millions of dollars trying to get natural lighting and weather patterns to look realistic, but then slather the whole thing in a bunch of tired stereotypes. And I still think that “it’s just a bunch of over-sensitive feminists trying to ruin everybody’s fun yet again” just makes the speaker look like an idiot. It’s time to stop being so frightened that you’re losing control of the treehouse fort and acknowledge that the girls want to play, too.

So I didn’t think it was wrong, but I started to wonder if it were irrelevant. What caused the second thoughts?

First was this “Clueless Gamer” segment in which Conan O’Brien and Aaron Bleyaert spend ten minutes goofing off with the game. The shot of Conan pointing and laughing at a character’s frustration was a perfect reminder that for a lot of players — maybe the majority of the audience — the forgettable story is exactly that, and they want nothing more than a toybox with cars to drive and helicopters to fly around shooting missiles at strip clubs.

Second was playing the game. After an introductory tutorial, your Tony Soprano knock-off is in a therapy session with a caricature of a psychiatrist, and he complains about how the therapy isn’t getting him anywhere. The therapist responds with something like, “Don’t worry, an overwhelming sense of futility is all part of the process.”

That almost kind of passes as subtle commentary, sort of. A reminder from Rockstar that they’re not taking any of this seriously, so we shouldn’t either. I played some more and saw the game taking shots at both genders, and at least a dozen different ethnic backgrounds, political persuasions, and social classes. It all blended together and then faded into the background, setting the tone of a world where you were free to do pretty much anything you wanted, because nothing in that world mattered.

And after several hours of that, I turned the game off for the night. And then never went back to it.

Defenders of the GTA series like to make it out as if anyone who doesn’t like the games just can’t handle the raw realness of it all. In this set of “landscape photos” taken within the game, Phil Rose calls out the “pearl-clutchers.” Sick burn, Phil, but the problem wasn’t that I was offended. The problem was that I didn’t care about any of it, at all.

It’s Not You, It’s-a Me!

During the time I was busy not getting back into GTA 5, something remarkable happened: the new trailer for Super Mario World 3D. It’s essentially two and a half minutes asking, “Remember when games used to be fun?”

Here’s a game that lets you choose one of several different cartoonish stereotypes of characters from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. You can explore a huge world, inflict violence on the natives, and occasionally steal their vehicles. It’s even got that pointed social commentary in the form of torture scenes that gamers crave: the game locks you in the room with a suspected kidnapper and doesn’t let you continue until you’ve stomped on his head three times. Plus, it lets you play as a female character, presumably because Nintendo wasn’t saddled with GTA’s “hyper-masculine” storyline of driving around in a convertible listening to the radio, shopping, choosing outfits, and constant texting.

I’m only half-joking with the comparison, too. All of us who played GTA 5 clutching our pearls with one hand and holding our noses with the other have to ask ourselves: why are we doing this? I’m sure there’s a large portion of the audience that genuinely does get off on the violence and pretending to be a thug. And it’s almost too depressing to think about, but I’m sure there are people out there who are genuinely aroused by getting lap dances from imaginary polygonal naked women. But are there 300 million dollars worth?

Reviewers have given the game near-universal praise, but it’s been pretty consistent what they’ve been praising: how big the game world is, how well done the weather and lighting effects are, and the sheer variety of content included. The reviews I’ve read either don’t mention the trademark-of-the-series crassness, or they acknowledge it while making it clear that they’re interested in something else.

And of course, one reviewer gave the game a “superb” 9/10 rating, and a horde of worthless little shits on the internet decided to make her life miserable for a few weeks afterwards, ostensibly because she dared mention the game’s misogyny, but really because she’s transgendered. (I didn’t see such a reaction to the male reviewer at Polygon who gave the game a 9.5 and also pointed out its misogyny, down to including an infographic in the video review — maybe it’s the 0.5 that keeps you from getting harassed by losers?) Among those assholes, the most disingenuous were the ones who feebly tried to defend their abuse by saying that “politics” don’t belong in video game reviews. It’s just a game, after all.

Which is a pretty good trick on Rockstar’s part: they don’t have to answer for any of the objectionable material in their game because it’s “satire,” and if you ask any of the questions that real satire is supposed to make you ask, they can shrug it all off because it’s just a game. Don’t take any of it too seriously.

However they’ve done it, it’s worked. On me, at least. Even while I was objecting to every meaningful aspect of GTA 5, I still bought a copy and still played it. Because, I figured, that’s just how games are these days. To see the state of the art in game development, you’re just going to have to spend time shooting cops and innocents and objectifying women and flinging out constant racial slurs, in an environment in which the developers and the characters all acknowledge that everything and everyone sucks. Because to do otherwise would be taking it all too seriously.

Not to mention the fact that I never quite felt like a bad-ass given the ultimate freedom to operate in a world where I was above the law, since even with the “improved” driving, I spent more time running into street lights and pedestrians than anything else.

I realized I’d spent $60 on something that just wasn’t even remotely fun. And what’s worse: I’d been beaten down to the point where I thought that was just the state of things.

To Infinity And Best Buy

It’s not entirely GTA 5‘s fault; that was just the most obvious offender. I’d just finished BioShock Infinite, and I thought the art was phenomenal and some of the ideas behind the game were excellent, but the game was ultimately joyless. The story was a near-incomprehensible mess, only made worse by turning into The Scary Door in the last act. And the combat — presumably the mechanic that would be strong enough to justify the clumsy combination of a message about racism and religious fervor with a lead character who rips policemen’s faces off with a sky hook — turned into such a tedious slog that I dropped difficulty down to “easy” in an attempt to fast-forward to the end.

Not long after, I decided to take a breather from single-player games and find something that would be fun co-op. My choices came down to the predictably self-important and humorless Diablo III, and Disney Infinity. I got Diablo III more out of loyalty to the franchise than anything else, and it turned out to be the entertainingly pointless endeavor that it’s always been. (On the Xbox 360, it’s a decent and completely forgettable way to pass a few hours).

I also got Disney Infinity because, well, because of course I got Disney Infinity. I’m the target audience for that game. As a 42-year-old man with an obsession for both Disney and video games, a compulsive desire to complete sets of collectibles, and more disposable income than common sense, I may not be the target audience Disney likes to talk about, but I’m still the target audience.

You can tell that for at least some of the people involved in that project, their hearts were totally in the right place. It really does try to spark that sense of fun and creativity that comes from an actual toy box. They’re careful to emphasize play throughout, always making your reward for playing a standard video game be the parts you need to make your own video game. And I’ve heard a lot of Disney-produced spiels about magic and imagination over the past year, but the one at the beginning of Infinity is one of the only ones that’s seemed at least somewhat sincere.

But, of course, there’s no getting around that business model. Disney’s always been happy to take your money while they’re serving up your fun, but it’s rarely as transparently crass as a system that’s designed to keep you buying more and more toys. The toys are well built and well designed, so if you’re a collector, it’s easy enough to ignore the fact that they’re nothing more than codes that unlock content that already exists on the DVD you bought. But the “blind buy” packs of “power discs” are just gross. I wish they hadn’t even been included, because they kind of taint the spirit of the entire game, making it impossible to forget the real reason the game exists in the first place.

And still, as much as I complained about it, I still had a sense that this is just the way games are these days. Skylanders and Infinity and in-app purchases and downloadable content: it’s all about compromise. They’ve got to run a business, after all. And even if what you’re playing now seems kind of shallow, you can always buy something else that makes it interesting.

Wii Would Like To Play

Through it all, I would keep watching that Super Mario World 3D video on a near-constant loop, and remembering, “Oh right. Nintendo exists.” I’d gotten the Wii as a Christmas gift one year, and it really did have the whole family playing Wii Sports just like in the commercials. But it had been at least a year since I’d even turned it on, much less played anything. About six months ago I finally took it off life support, unplugging it and watching the blue light finally wink out.

Watching the new video reminded me of Super Mario Galaxy, though, and how the last time I remember laughing out loud from sheer joy at a video game was playing through a level and seeing Mario get shot out of the top of a volcano. And I remembered when the Nintendo 64 first came out, and people — most of them adults — would gather around the display at the Toys R Us to watch someone playing through one of the underwater levels. And how that game gave you a whole castle to explore, but you could still have fun just running and jumping around in the garden out front.

I found myself wanting a Wii U, just to get ready. The Wii U hadn’t even been on my radar. And that’s not my typical Electronic Guilt Ritual, either, vainly trying to talk myself out of buying some new gadget before inevitably picking one up. I had no interest in the Xbox One; that whole business is like a textbook example of how not to do a console launch, from the confusing and contradictory opening announcements, right down to the name. Plus it’s ludicrously overpriced, and the lack of backwards compatibility is so user-hostile it’s as if Microsoft is blatantly testing us to see how much we’ll put up with. But I found a promotion to order the Xbone for slightly less than retail, and with the same weary resignation that surrounds so much of video games in 2013, I ordered one.

The Wii U was different. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t interested; I thought Nintendo had completely flubbed this console generation, guaranteeing their own irrelevance. I thought that they obviously didn’t even understand where technology was headed: smart phones had already rendered the DS and 3DS obsolete, and now tablets meant that the Xbox’s “Smart Glass” was the only way to go. Putting a touch screen onto the game controller was an almost comically inept case of missing the point.

That could still be the case, but if they’re headed towards irrelevance now, I’m going with them. I got the version of the Wii U that came with the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker remake, and I’ve been loving it. I don’t know why I never got past the first hour or so of that game when it came out ten years ago, because it’s downright enchanting, and it doesn’t feel dated in the least. I’ve always thought the Zelda series was better in theory than in practice, to be honest, and I wasn’t as taken with Ocarina of Time as everybody else seems to be. But Wind Waker is like playing through a cartoon, and it’s got a sense of imagination and discovery that I’d thought had gone completely missing from video games.

The obligatory Mario game is imaginative but frustrating — I get the sense that they’ve split the franchise somewhat, where the side-scrollers are targeted more at completionists and people who enjoy speed runs, while the full 3D ones are more general-audience exploration. Pikmin 3 is a straight-up delight, and that was another series I’d never been able to get into. Discovering and re-discovering all these games was as if Nintendo was saying, “Welcome back, we’ve missed you these past few years.”

I Want To Be The Very Best

In my Wii U-weakened state, I was no match for the Nintendo 3DS XL sitting on my friend Doug’s coffee table. To be clear: since its release, I’ve been more hard-line anti-3DS than I ever was against the Wii U. I’d bought into the gimmick of the DS — twice! — and it had seen even less use than the Wii. None of the games really took advantage of the two screens, and even the imaginative ones like Rhythm Heaven and Wario Ware weren’t enough to hold my interest very long. When the 3DS was first released, I tried one that a co-worker had brought into the office, and I thought even if the 3D effect had worked, it still wouldn’t be cool enough to be anything other than the final gimmicky nail in Nintendo’s coffin. After the release of the iPhone and the App Store, there was absolutely no reason for anyone over 15 years old to hold a handheld gaming device.

But the new Luigi’s Mansion game, though. It really does feel like looking into a window on a little diorama, with 3D transparent ghosts flying around. And the game has you actually look through a window — moving the device around moves your view, letting you peer around corners and up at the ceiling. And you suck up ghosts with a vacuum cleaner! And Luigi nervously hums along with the game’s background music when he’s idle!

Also there’s already a 3D Mario game out, and it’s been out for well over a year, apparently. And not only can you run around in the Tanuki Suit, but several of the levels take full advantage of the 3D effect. And with the 3DS XL, the 3D effect actually works! Running around and jumping in Super Mario 3D Land was every bit as fun as when I first started the Nintendo 64 game, something that they hadn’t been able to capture since.

And the new Pokemon game! And some tactical RPG from the studio that makes the Advance Wars and Paper Mario games! It’s like opening up an old chest and re-discovering a bunch of beloved toys from my childhood, except where “my childhood” means “my early- to mid-30s.”

I dug up my old Nintendo DS games and popped my copy of Nintendogs into the 3DS. It’d been so long, I’d been expecting the worst: even if I didn’t find an actual puppy skeleton, I’d thought that Virtual Animal Protective Services might’ve taken my dog away, or at least he’d be scolding and mistrustful after I’d abandoned him for so many years. But as soon as I turned the game on, he woke up and barked and ran to the screen for me to pet him, ready to play. That’s as good a metaphor for my rediscovery of Nintendo as anything.

It turns out I can still remember what Pokemon types beat Rock and what’s good against Grass, and I can get just as sucked into berry farming as I ever was. And the feeling I got from paying my home loan back to Tom Nook was almost as satisfying as when I finally paid off my real-life college loans. I still suspect that the animals in Animal Crossing aren’t actually reading my letters, though: I wrote a five-word message to Jay, and he responded that he’d read the entire thing even though it was so long and “such a word work-out.” I get enough of that kind of grief over this blog; I don’t need to be hearing that from a cartoon bluejay.

But the thing is that I’m having good, pointless fun again. Without the self-consciousness, or the compromises, or the need to slather a bunch of “mature” BS on top of it because of some adolescent idea that Nintendo makes baby games for babies. I felt a lot more sheepish walking into a store and asking for a copy of Grand Theft Auto 5 than I did buying Pokemon X. I’ve spent so many years playing, thinking about, and being surrounded by video games, and I still let myself forget what video games are all about.

One In a Million

Device 6 is what I imagine all the books on The Island in The Prisoner were like. (In other words: it’s amazing).

Simogodevice6

Device 6 is a painfully good game for iOS by Simogo. It’s almost too good to be a mobile game, but at the same time it could only work on a phone or a tablet. And it might be the most mind-bogglingly imaginative game I’ve played since Portal 2, which something I never would’ve thought I’d say about an iOS game.

It helps that all of its inspirations are things I love or things that I desperately want to love. It’s most evocative of The Prisoner, not just with its basic premise and its fantastic opening credits sequence, but with its overall aesthetic: an uneasy combination of old Europe with “mod” Europe, 60s spy stories, weird 50s sci-fi, early Apollo program technology, and unnerving surrealism. It also reminded me of old science textbooks (back when the typography alone was interesting) and the first series of Look Around You.

Structurally, it’s a combination of interactive fiction and graphic adventure. Any random screenshot taken from the game out of context is going to look like a page from House of Leaves. But where the typographical tricks in that book seemed like nothing more than postmodern affectations — I’ve got to acknowledge that I found House of Leaves insufferable and abandoned it after around 50 pages — in Device 6 it serves a purpose.

The type forms a physical space as you’re reading about that space: sentences narrow as you enter hallways, flip as you turn corners, and then do even more imaginative stuff than that as the story progresses. (My friend Brett Douville talks about his favorite bits in a spoiler-heavy post on his blog). Once you’ve finished a passage, you can (and will have to) navigate through it as you go back and forth to get information to solve the puzzles.

It’s an ingenious way to achieve the “mode switch” that helps make graphic adventures so appealing: the sense of discovery as you explore a space, and then the sense of accomplishment as you go back through the space and put together the pieces of what you just learned. And it does it all through text and a few perfectly-chosen photographs.

The photos are brilliant, but if I got into explaining why it’s so clever how they use parallax both for mood and puzzle-solving and to give you a sense that you’re looking into a real 3D space, then I’d have to also mention the terrific sound design. And the clever interstitials between chapters. And the music. And then we’re getting into spoiler territory.

As for the puzzles: I know plenty of people who love puzzles. Put them anywhere near a cipher or a logic problem, and they go into a fugue state, furiously scrawling unintelligible symbols into a notebook until they’ve found the solution. I’m not one of those people. I don’t hate puzzles, but whenever I’m faced with one, I’m less likely to think “oh boy!” than “oh man, do I have to?”

Seeing as how I’ve spent the bulk of my career working on adventure games, this would seem like a pretty big problem. Kind of like an Italian chef who never really developed a taste for tomatoes. I’ve always seen the ideal puzzle as being something that delivered a joke (as with Monkey Island 2), something that was so integrated into the story as to hide the fact that it was a puzzle in the first place (as with Day of the Tentacle), or something that called attention to the artificiality of the puzzles and used that artificiality to its advantage (like Portal and Portal 2).

Playing Device 6, I found myself grabbing a note pad and furiously scrawling unintelligible symbols onto it until I’d found a solution to each chapter. It wasn’t the puzzles themselves that were so engrossing — frankly, none of the puzzles will be unfamiliar to you if you’ve played puzzle-based video games before — but that they were both integrated into the story and drew attention to their own artificiality to perpetuate the uneasy paranoia and surrealism of the game.

And I think overall, it’s the way Device 6 artfully combines all its elements and influences that makes it work so well. I completely lost track of time, but I’d guess I spent around 3 hours total on it, and it was full of clever moments that took me by surprise. I’d highly recommend it for anyone using iOS.