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video games | First Wall Rebate
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 9 2009

FWR Episode 017: A Return to Formlessness

In Episode 017 we construct a scattershot conversation, pulling in everything from N’Gai Croal leaving Newsweek to video capture features in games. We were joined by friend of the show, Netwurker Mez, who took the time to contribute comments in real-time via Twitter as we recorded. With her help, we take on Noby Noby Boy, Skate 2, and Street Fighter 4, among others.

We will probably try this live Twitter feed again in the future, so add us (Shawn, Shane, Trevor, FWR) and join in the fun. Thanks for listening.

Feb 14 2009

FWR Episode 015: Ruben & Lullaby

In Episode 015 we talk about Erik Loyer’s excellent new iPhone game, Ruben & Lullaby. R&L makes us think about hardware potentials and limitations, methods for emotional investment, and player roles in interactive art.

We are preparing for a new Book Club episode on Gamer Theory, so take a look at it and send us your input. We have invited the author, McKenzie Wark, onto the program, so your thoughts will hopefully be conveyed to him. We look forward to hearing from you, and thanks for listening.

Nov 19 2008

FWR Episode 009: Shawn Rider

In Episode 009 we team up with Shawn Rider from GamesFirst! for a conversation on Braid and Little Big Planet. We also talk about the social potential of gaming, web games journalism, multimodal art, and some of the other titles we’ve been playing recently.

Check out Shawn’s social networking project, CrashBomb, where you can track and compare games with your friends. As always, thanks for listening.

Nov 1 2008

FWR Episode 008

In this episode, responding to Spore and Little Big Planet, we discuss user-created content and how it relates to questions of ownership and authorial distribution. We also drool over our new MacBooks, get excited about unnamed upcoming guests, and talk over the haunting sounds of barking dogs. Thanks for listening.

Aug 11 2008

FWR Episode 005

In Episode 005 we talk Grand Theft Auto IV in a noisy hallway, wandering through such topics as:

The narrative structure of the game and comparisons to Edgar Allan Poe’s vision of story crafting.

Graphical representations, the timelessness of game space, and fear of art overtaking reality.

Troubling characters based on stereotypes and Three’s Company.

More episodes are coming soon. Thanks for listening.

Aug 7 2008

an open invitation to talk World of Warcraft

Shane and I will be recording the Book Club episode of FWR within the next week or so and would be delighted to have you participate.  If you’ve already picked up a copy of Corneliussen & Walker-Rettberg’s book Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft reader, please post your thoughts here on our blog or in our Facebook forum and we’ll incorporate them into the show. If you haven’t read the book but would still be willing to share your WoW thoughts/observances/experiences, we’d love to have you chime in as well.

More than anything, we are way more interested in facilitating a conversation about WoW and issues raised in the book than “reviewing” or critiquing.  If you are even passingly interested in World of Warcraft, we want to hear from you.


Aug 4 2008

FWR Episode 004

The dust has settled on the personal interferences, vacation plans, and marathon sessions of Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid that have blocked our podcast progress for the last few weeks. We invite you to explore FWR Episode 004, in which we:

Record in a tiny closet during the Writer’s Edge conference in Portland, Oregon, and forget to introduce ourselves.

Discuss the portrayals of war in games in reference to the Call of Duty and Metal Gear Solid franchises.

Think about the labor issues involved with the recent controversy regarding voice actors in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Look for our GTA Blowout episode soon, and thanks for listening.

Jun 3 2008

FWR Episode 003

This week we get back on schedule with a bonus two-fer and very informal Episode 003. Shane gets way up on the mic and Trevor really hates it when E disses Powell’s. Some of the things we informalize on:

In-house podcasts from Microsoft, Bungie, Insomniac, and Capcom.

Easter eggs after credits (in Iron Man), ownership, individuality, Ronald Reagan, and labor unions.

Shock jocks, vinyl, enhanced podcasts, and fear of a fragmented reality.

Be sure to leave us a comment here at the blog, in our Facebook group, or at the Gmail address on the right. If you’re a reader as well as a gamer, you should probably get involved in the first FWR Book Club discussion that we will be fostering through the month of June, 2008. Thanks for listening.