Jun 22 2009

FWR Episode 023: J Goldberg, Red Faction: Guerrilla, and Art VS. Reality

Revisiting some favorite themes, Episode 023 also sees us joined by J Goldberg, Community Manager at Volition. Having recently shipped Red Faction: Guerrilla, J sits down with us for a conversation on open world gaming and the significance of destructible environments (metaphorically as well as mechanically). We also take on fears of simulation and representation, shifting similarities between games and other artistic spaces, and player characters in fictional roles and their importance. Thanks to J, don’t forget about our book club, and enjoy.

Jun 5 2009

Dante's Inferno: The Age Of Anti-Intellectual Property

First and foremost, I need to say that I adore Leigh Alexander and very much consider her a friend of the podcast. She chatted with us a few weeks back about social media, the future of print journalism, and how sentence-and-paragraph writers are quite possibly as important now in the digital age as they have ever been. Alexander consistently creates some of the most thoughtful writing about video games out here on the blogosphere, and she routinely forces me to rethink my attitudes about those who make, play and care about them. A lot of times, these moments are triggered by something that on the surface might initially seem insignificant, but it’s usually the little thing that tends to get stuck in my craw. What can I say, though? I’m a fickle little bird.

Alexander has been posting and tweeting all week from the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. Among her impressive amount of info-relay is this column up over at GameSetWatch, in which she makes the argument that Electronic Arts’ upcoming video game Dante’s Inferno need not worry about trying too hard to adhere to its literary namesake. In describing the game as an “action title set in Hell,” Alexander asks a certainly appropriate rhetorical question: “Why not have fun with it?”

Dante's Inferno

Fun is almost always the baseline value by which we evaluate something we might call a “video game” (tangentially: if you want to get really semantic about this term, check out the latest episode of Big Red Potion, where Sinan Kubba, Joseph DeLia, Eddie Inzauto and yours truly get into some interesting territory about what we might mean or assume when we use that particular word). By nature, we are creatures who prefer the warm fuzzy over the cold prickly, and activities which require us to focus for long stretches of time and draw more than summary conclusions about what we’ve experienced are made more difficult when we aren’t having a pleasant time doing them.

Games and fun might go well together like chocolate and peanut butter, but let’s be careful not to assume that these aren’t incredibly subjective things we’re talking about. And yes, I know all of this nit-pickery about terminology can get incredibly tedious and annoying, but these acts of definition are nevertheless important, because when we talk about games as a medium, we are essentially talking about how game designers communicate ideas through building artistic vehicles for those ideas, as well as how game players receive and react to those ideas. When we whittle these efforts down to whether a game is “fun” or not, a lot can get lost in the trimming.

Case in point: Dante’s Inferno. Alexander writes, “The Divine Comedy, after all, is largely a poem about two guys walking and talking, not exactly the core gameplay of an action game. In that way, the liberties the [design] team took were intended to create a stronger video game, a more reasonable priority for, well, a video game, than focusing on a strong epic poem adaptation.”

These “liberties,” Alexander reports, include depicting Dante as “a former Crusader armed with a giant scythe that looks like it’s made out of a monster’s spine,” who embarks upon “a vaguely risque subplot about rescuing Beatrice from the devil’s seduction.” Some of the obstacles blocking this digital Dante’s path include “the imagination of Chiron’s [sic] boat as a living entity with a head to be twisted off at the neck,” and “unbaptized babies running around with weapons.”

"There are unbaptized babies running around with weapons."

“Gleefully gruesome and literally hellish,” Alexander continues, “the game seems to use the poem’s backbone and references to enrich an action game, rather than use the game as an attempt to emulate an epic poem in video game form…Audiences would like a game that uses the medium’s potential to correspond with other cultural sources, and that’s an excellent goal.” She punctuates her astute observation in asserting, “Dante’s Inferno is not that game — it would rather be an action title. And that’s okay.”

I am lockstep with Alexander in seeking out connections video games have to other artforms. I, too, believe that finding the places where these media (“sources”) intersect (“correspond”) is worthwhile. For me, whether a game is “fun” or not is almost always secondary to me deciphering what it might be trying to tell me, and then deciding what I ultimately think about that particular argument, issue, or aesthetic. How “successful” a game is has everything to do with its coherence as an artistic expression and nothing to do with its NDP numbers. For me, games are an interactive conduit for ideas, arguments and meaning, and “action” is that thought, deed or utterance inspired by the experience of playing the game.

So what’s the problem, then? It’s simple: caught up in the never-ending cattle rush among other videogame publishers to acquire and trademark new brands of intellectual property, Electronic Arts have marginalized Dante Alighieri’s Commedia as little more than a crudely-painted backdrop for a yet another insipid action adventure. And as much as I respect Leigh Alexander, I’m not at all sold on the And It’s Okay argument.

detail: Domenico di Michelino, Dante and The Three Kingdoms (1465)Dante Alighieri’s Commedia is an epic poem written in three sections, Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. The 33 cantos comprising Inferno are a lavish litany of revenge, and serve to settle a host of scores with his personal enemies. A messy civil turf war in Alighieri’s home city of Florence landed him in exile, and it was during this angry period late in his life that he began constructing his Commedia. He largely created his own game structure in the epic tradition to have his way with political enemies in Florence and Rome. Dante was certainly capable of designing his game in the linguistic engine known then as Latin, but his deliberate choice to cobble together an epic in a new Tuscan-Sicilian engine of his own design, “Italian,” made it clear: he wanted to communicate his ideas to a more diverse audience than what the old engine afforded him. A powerful way to think about his Commedia, then, is as one of Western literature’s most elaborate mods.

Since Electronic Arts’ attention span for Dante’s Commedia begins and ends with Inferno (dare we imagine what its take on Paradise might look like?), it’s important to consider the “recognizable symbology and references” from that particular section of the epic that so-called “literature buffs…[will] still get a kick out of.” More precisely, it’s important to consider those references in their proper contexts. This assumes that we are indeed sincere about finding those places where different “cultural sources” do that “correspond” thing they do; of course, part of the problem is we already know that old colloquialism about what an assumption makes out of you and me.

Enemies for Alighieri aren’t Beezlebub, Minos or Lucifer, fantastic creatures (with totally awesome dropitems, natch!) who refuse him passage unless he pulls their brains through their noses ala David Jaffe. Enemies for Alighieri have real names, and they’ve committed real crimes, and in his estimation, they deserve real punishments for all of eternity. Where Electronic Arts’ digital Dante is on a collision course with an abstraction called The Devil(TM) (seriously, now, can a game studio ever top the sheer aesthetic and philosophical bliss of Neversoft capping Guitar Hero III with a down and dirty tête-à-tête with “Lou,” that dark prince of psychobilly?), Alighieri’s conflicts are with real people—chiefly Benedetto Caetani, b/k/a Pope Boniface VIII—who made real enemies through the buying and selling of abstraction itself.

See, here’s the rub: to even begin approximating the underpinnings of Alighieri’s 14th century text-based adventure, Dante’s Inferno’s executive producer Jonathan Knight would need to conceive and deliver anti-papist imagery so graphic and severe that Dan Brown’s conspiracy theory novels would truly pale in comparison. But this assumes (there’s that word again…) Knight and his development team at Visceral Games (1) understand Alighieri’s justifications for all the savagery depicted in Inferno and (2) actually care about pulling them all the way into the 21st century; on both counts, this could be assuming far too much.

I submit for your consideration this recent interview with EuroGamer’s Kieron Gillen, in which Knight explains:

“The poem is fiction, is fantasy,” he says. “Arguably Dante is the first fantasy writer of Europe. That’s basically what piques people’s imagination – that his imagination was so insane…

…The game operates on two levels,” explains Knight. “If you’re really into the fiction, the mythology, the literature, that’ll be there for you. As you punish and absolve these shades, you can just jam a cross in their head and absorb their solve… or you can see each one has a name. As you absolve them, that name will be called out and you can go into the menus and read about them, as all those names have been drawn from the poem. Virgil is in the game as a narrator, but he’s optional – you don’t have to listen to him if you don’t want to. If you just want to kill demons and have a great time, you can do that. But if you want to have a little more a narrative, literary experience – with fighting – then it’s there.”

That he would supplement the “literary experience” (meaning…???) “with fighting” demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about Dante Alighieri’s agenda as a game designer. His Commedia—and especially the 33 cantos he called Inferno—is pure agon. It is The Fight itself, given body and force through text. If there is fantasy in Dante’s epic, it is very much a fantasy of the real; if there is insanity, it is only so due to patience and lucidity.

Because here’s the heart of the matter: Electronic Arts would no more have us butcher Boniface than miss their annual Madden ship date. The National Broadcasting Company still has never rebroadcast arguably the most incendiary 9 seconds of live television ever shown in the United States, wherein after performing an a capella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War,” singer Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II and urged everyone watching to “Fight the real enemy.”


If you thought the Catholic League came unhinged over Kevin Smith’s Dogma, just imagine their reaction to a video game wherein the player-interactor willfullly exacts corporal punishment upon a pope.

And this, friends (for you are truly a friend if you’re still reading this…), is part of the reason why venturing into that wasteland of conversation titled/trademarked When Will Video Games Have Their Citizen Kane Moment? is still largely a waste of time. For Orson Welles, making Kane wasn’t about exercising a studio’s intellectual property rights, but exorcising his personal political demons. Kane is a work of art perfectly and hermetically sealed within its historical moment, yet it’s an expression so precise, poisonous and personal that its angry energy still infects us, a white dwarf high-beaming us from light years away.

still: Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (1941)

Like Virgil and Dante, Welles’s voice refused to be ignored (which has to be disappointing for Knight, probably. One should just be able to listen to what they want, right?) because of its arrogance, audacity and white-hot brilliance, and he himself suffered great injury for his inability to darken or cool it. (Adding insult to injury, Welles’s original negative of the film was lost in a fire at his Spanish villa in the 1970s.) Art endures, convulsive, twisting itself into the future.

Not unlike the film industry during Hollywood’s Golden Age, the video game industry has a pantheon of studio-beholden stars who make compelling work, but still work that is primarily (a lot of times only) produced to be consumed, not considered. And frequently the attempt to seriously consider these expressions is met with that familiar anti-intellectual ditty titled “Oh Let It Go Already, It’s Just A (insert medium here)!” As much as we might try to convince ourselves otherwise, we do not live an age of ideas or even an age of information. We are living in The Age Of [Anti-]Intellectual Property(TM).

And but so, Alexander’s final analysis in this, our Glorious Age Of [A-]I.P., is prudent and pragmatic. Things Are What They Are. Everything That Is Is What It Is. And That’s Okay.

I mean, Right?

You tell me.

Mar 16 2009

Lay it on, Layoff

I just spent most of my morning playing and marvelling over Tiltfactor Laboratory’s new browser game Layoff. Co-developed by Tiltfactor and the Rochester Institute of Technology Game Design and Development program, Layoff is a smart and smarmy commentary on “the current state of the US financial crisis,” in which the player helps restructure yet another faceless corporation’s hapless workforce.

The gameplay is a variation on Bejeweled, wherein the player targets entire classes of workers for layoffs by lining them up in multiples of at least three; once three or more workers of the same class are arranged in a row, they are sent tumbling to the bottom of the screen, where they are instantly queued to collect unemployment.

Unlike the jewel-encrusted browsergames that partially inspired its game mechanics, there is no leveling in Layoff or warm-fuzzies awarded for clearing the grid. A tally is kept in the top right screen, showing the player how much money she has saved the company by gangplanking the workers onto the public dole. If the player matches five workers of the same class, a corporate merger ensues and a banker icon is added to the grid; bankers cannot be selected or grouped for removal in the same way that the other classes can, and are only alleviated by the “BANK BAILOUT” button underneath the player’s tally of “$ SAVED”.

What I find most satisfying about Layoff, of course, is its underlying argument. Hovering the mouse over any worker on the grid gives the player a short character sketch of that specific sprite’s personal history or situation. Mini-bios for the workers are poignant and sobering, revealing the hardships, worries, and strife that are becoming all too commonplace in our New Depression.


A different poignance is found in the bankers’ pop-ups, whose text frequently parrots the corporate-speak commensurate with the talking heads on CNBC or FOXBusiness. In my most recent game session, I laid off an entire row of orange-shirted workers and was immediately rewarded by the banker who took their place shamelessly proclaiming:

The gameplay is confined to the top half of the browser window, but it is probably the bottom half that is most compelling. This is where the text pop-ups appear, also where all the displaced workers pace back and forth as they wait to collect their unemployment checks, and still also where a CNN/FOXNews-style ticker displays factoids from the real world of corporate mergers and the collapse of the U.S. banking system. The total effect of this space is a powerlessness for the player that is rare to find in most games, because most games are trying desperately to distract us from these kind of issues. In other words, Layoff is by design all about the proverbial bottom line, and it does not hesitate to point fingers.

For Tiltfactor, Layoff’s competence as both a game and an argument draw immediate comparisons to the rhetorical/persuasive works of Ian Bogost, Gonzalo Frasca and Paolo Pedercini. This is not only high praise in my opinion, but praise well-earned.

Feb 3 2009

Games and the New Administration

The past few weeks in Washington DC have been incredibly surreal. Hell, the past few months have been pretty odd. The two topics I hear about most in my daily social circles, apart from our immediate task needs, are videogames and politics. And with the way that gamesmanship pervades the political realm, I can’t help but see them in mixed terms. First, it was the hordes of political activists campaigning for their candidate. Then Fallout 3 started promoting in the Metro, and the game forever changed my mental map of the DC Metro area. And then the election and subsequent inauguration — both of which created real, palpable chaos on the streets. Fear! Uncertainty! Disbelief!

And then, calm. A feeling of relief has swept into the city, and I can visibly notice an upswing in mood that is not the mania of the inauguration, but is certainly is elevated. The dog days of the Bush administration are over, and the future is much brighter than it has been in a long time.

But it is still unclear exactly what the new administration means for videogame legislation. We have gotten few glimpses of what Obama brings to the discussion, and the Democrats have a rocky past with the subject of videogames and freedoms of speech in general.

Historically, the Democrats have not done well with videogames. Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham-Clinton and Joe Lieberman co-sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA) in 2005. This bill would have mandated government oversight of ESRB ratings, a whole secret-shopper program to catch noncompliant retailers, and stiff penalties for selling adult rated games to minors. Had FEPA passed, it would have cost the government a bundle of cash every year and would have also set a disturbing precedent. Keep in mind that at this point both the MPAA (the movie ratings board) and the ESRB (the game ratings board) are private organizations whose power comes from an agreement worked out by members of the respective inudstry. Government censors need not be involved.

Obama does not curently seem to be interested in focusing on censorship over more pressing issues, such as our economic collapse and multiple wars. However, as GamePolitics tracked throughout the primary and election process, Obama does clearly connect videogames to underachievement:

You know, I will invest in education. We’ll make sure government gets behind the schools. But it won’t make much of a difference if parents aren’t turning off the television set and putting away the video games and making sure that our children are doing their homework.

In light of the recent push for educational videogames, and building research confirming that games are educational in a variety of ways, I’d much rather hear Obama talking about creating more ways to reach students and seizing the power of all our media options to connect with learners. With games like Operation: Resilient Planet and the current wave of “pop-ed” games for Nintendo DS and other more casual platforms, the world of educational gaming is just beginning to come to life. I hope that the Obama administration will actually tend more towards the other side they’ve shown.

Never before has a presidential campaign or administration embraced technologies of communication so enthusiastically. From SMS text messaging to video blogs, the Obama administration has done a great job leveraging the power of technology. Their social web experiments have garnered a lot of positive attention and they have left no tone unturned when exploiting the power of networked communications to further their message.

They even advertised prominently during the election in videogames. Their ads showed up in a bunch of titles on Xbox Live. Millions of gamers saw Obama’s smiling mug while racing at breakneck speeds or strategizing dominance on the field. These advertisements were clearly successful and contributed to the building of Obama’s cool cred. Xbox Live also featured special coverage of the Inauguration as free video downloads.

It would be very unfortunate if these sorts of enthusiastic and strategic uses of technology were limited to increasing Obama’s political cache. We need the same kind of informed, innovative and effective use of technology in our classrooms and government operating procedure. And videogames have always been connected to innovation and adoption of technology. Games provide a lot more than the momentary respite from the day to day grind, or the proverbial “five minutes of fun” that so many markerters and apologists claim.

At this moment, another example of a hysterical political response to something lawmakers clearly do not understand is making its way through the New York State Assembly. Assemblyman Brian Kolb (Republican) has introduced a law that would require a whole lot of crazy things from NY retailers and game makers. At first blush, the requirement for game makers to provide a free demo of every game sounds like good business. But requirements for retailers to keep mature content games in a locked cabinet and for the state to impose its own ratings system sound, again, like expensive and pointless nonsense. The real comedy gold of the bill is in the required warning label mandated by the bill:


  • RAPE

The bill requires that if a game contains any one of these items it must contain the whole list on the back of the game. While we regularly see games with violent crimes, references to alcohol, and possibly even murder or morbid violence, I have never played a game involving sodomy, rape, incest, or bestiality. Even more to the point is that a general list like this is never going to be as effective as a list based on the actual content of a specific game, such as the list that already exists on every game reviewed by the ESRB.

This is just one example. There are many similar pieces of legislation in the US and abroad, illustrating just how much of a struggle it has been for mainstream society to deal with videogames. However, the pervasiveness of games increases, and all the lawmaking in the world has yet to stem the tide of games. With more powerful tools for individuals to participate in high quality game making on the rise, it is unlikely that the medium of videogames will be truly stymied in the near future. It is an eleven billion dollar industry that no country wants to lose.

Yet what lawmakers do can have a great impact on the games we see developed and the progress we make in leveraging the technology for the benefit of the culture. As White House staffer Bill Burton said, for the Obama team coming into the building was like going from “an Xbox to an Atari”. That reflects well the lack of progress the Bush administration did in effectively leveraging any kindof modern human knowledge. And hopefully it also reflects a bit more of the savvy of the new administration.

But we are gamers, and gamers always want more. We want an Xbox 360.