Diary: May Arcadia

Shaun

AJ has also decided to get in on the shortform mixtape diary approach this month (see below), so I’m going to keep my contributions fairly short and sweet.

Moving Pictures

Over the past month I’ve been dabbling more with videos. There’s probably some wry humour to be wrung from this given my remarks around YouTube in the April diary. So it goes. As it turns out, capturing videos and performing basic edits on them is relatively simple, and I feel like my narration on the Quadrant review wasn’t entirely awful. The viewcount on the video and the hits on the post aren’t great, but what’s interesting is that this video has seen a steady trickle of traffic day by day, quite unlike what we usually see with written posts (a large spike on the day of publication, a smaller spike the day after, and then near total drop-off unless it gets linked from elsewhere).

The companion video for my review of Home is Where One Starts… didn’t do so well. Probably not such a surprise: the review was written, and the video is just raw gameplay footage of a short game’s opening minutes. I included it largely as an experiment, and the results of said experiment are that people aren’t that interested in such videos. So now I know! I have another review appearing alongside some videos later this week, and I’m curious as to how those do. Time will tell.

Aside from dabbling with videos and managing to actually write a decent number of reviews alongside work, I’ve also found time to quit smoking, so I’m probably a bit sharper and meaner than I usually am. Keeping myself busy has helped with quitting. So too has revisiting some nostalgic favourites; I’ve sunk twenty hours into Privateer 2: The Darkening, a game that no one ever really talks about. I’m tempted to write about it to redress that balance, because I think it does still have enough charm to be worthy of minor note. We’ll see, I suppose.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere

A few quick links. This piece on a pixel artist renouncing pixel art is a really interesting read, both as an aid to understanding what constitutes quality art and animation in games, the background to pixel art techniques, and finally why stepping away from such techniques can be a sensible move for both an artist and their audience. It’s an insightful and refreshingly honest essay.

Over the past few months there have been a number of responses to an essay Ian Bogost wrote titled ‘Video Games Are Better Without Characters’. I’ve been wanting to weigh in on the debate myself, largely because it seems to me that a lot of these responses, whether or not they are internally logical and rhetorically sound, are a reply to the title of Bogost’s article rather than its substance. Here’s a really lazy example – lazy because I’ve not read the piece being linked – illustrated in a quote from a Critical Distance round-up post: “Osborne not only insists that games are better with characters, but that the representation of character is necessary to include people in games. In short, presentation of human beings is, itself, a system”.

This invites a “Thanks, Ted, that was the joke” sort of response, because this is literally the point Bogost himself makes when he writes, summarising the research findings of Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, “There are lots of tools, lots of styles, lots of ways to make games about people. Human representation and identification is itself a system, one without clear answers and without sure outcomes.” The thrust of Bogost’s essay is that an obsessive focus on individual representation to try and address exclusion ultimately leads to a cul-de-sac of creative abstraction, because you cannot possibly accurately “represent” eight billion unique human beings. Instead, he argues, systems that represent the creator’s perception of how diverse groups of people inter-relate and interact with one another as groups – and, yes, individuals – is an abstraction that is achievable by game designers and developers.

I see where Bogost is coming from although I don’t wholly agree with the grandstanding conclusion. However, I can’t pretend that I’m particularly in the know around this debate, as I honestly find trying to follow many such debates hugely time-consuming as well emotionally exhausting. Why the latter? Well, because they sometimes seem to fall down on either side of a drawn across a perceived rhetorical battleground, and I can’t take academic debate seriously when participants start taking sides. It’s a discussion, not a turf war, and whilst I understand that people feel very personally invested in such discussions the unpleasant behaviour I occasionally see is enough to turn me away. And so too others, I am quite sure.

 


 

AJ reckons

Having seen Shaun do one of these, I felt that it was too good an opportunity not to also chime in.

Sitting a while and listening

Recently, the main thing (outside video games) I have been experimenting with is more podcasts – as a way to not kill myself at work. A thought that pops into my head about once or twice a week is that it would not be so bad if I veered my BMX into oncoming traffic, so having optimistic and/or thought provoking stuff in my ears when I get there is a good way to not go all Christopher Walken.

A recent one I picked up is called Justice Points, a podcast that deals with identity politics in video games as well as discussing things I had honestly not really thought about. Recently they have talked about how the focus seems to frequently be on the conflict between disparate groups in the current #goobergate debacle, rather than on the successes there have been as a result. In essence it is the angry articles, like the one I wrote a while back, that are now counter-productive. We should be boosting articles and podcasts that promote actual positive change rather than spending time fighting an ongoing pointless battle that no one who matters really cares about.

The other podcast I have been really getting into is You are not so smart. In particular their interview with Jon Ronson and the history of public shaming is an interesting one (although I find Jon Ronson’s writing to be a little twee and lacking in depth) and is very relevant to what has been going on with social networks. There is also a lot of exploration of how we tend to react emotionally first and then rationalise those emotions; we are also prone to not examining that rationalisation once we set ourselves on that path.

Kicking Kickstarter

I tend to post a lot of links to Kickstarter campaigns on our Facebook page and once even drunkenly donated 250 dollars to a game that was looking to be PC only (it is now coming to console – maybe), so crowd funding is clearly something that interests me. Seeing an article about how pseudo-indies are killing real indie Kickstarters was an immediately interesting topic.

I pretty much agree with the ‘damage’ that can be done thanks to these projects which use crowd funding as a method to prove audience interest to investors, but at the same time I am sort of convinced that rather than this being a bad thing that must be stopped it is actually the future of crowd funding. It makes sense to me that you would want to get users to buy into and enthuse about your product. In essence, make them pay for you to advertise to them, and then make sure that there is a structure in place and real money people who make you accountable for delivering a product, as well as shouldering the largest portion of the blow if everything falls apart. On top of this if the real money people are professionals – and they aren’t always – then they are going to have a better understanding of how deadlines and development costs actually work, as opposed to the usual armchair developers I see frequent the comments section on every article on this topic.

Freedom isn’t free

Free to Play has been around for a while now and I have largely ignored or been repulsed by its existence. This was easy to do when I only played games on a console but the term ‘console’ has less and less meaning. Some might say that consoles are over.

Regardless, what this means right now is that there are more and more Free to Play offerings coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Warframe was an early forerunner that I just bounced off hard. Its controls were just too light and geared towards mouse and keyboard for me to get into it. On top of that the purpose and direction of the game is utterly baffling; I was never really sure where I was supposed to be going and what I was supposed to be doing to progress.

Happy Wars would be a really great game in its own right and I would have loved to get into the delightful cartoon violence of its 12 versus 12 battles and 3-class system, offering simplicity for newcomers and enough depth and challenge to encourage long-term team play. I would even have been tempted to drop some money into it to get some good gear. The problem is that its lobby system is atrocious; thanks to matchmaking times upwards of five minutes (sometimes even longer than the matches themselves) I had taken to having Netflix running, snapped, at the side of my screen. One rule of a game I hate to have broken is if I have to do something else to entertain me while supposedly playing a game then I should stop playing that game right away and instead do the washing up, mop the floor, cooking; anything that is actually a chore but gives me real world results.

Setting Happy Wars aside there are two games right now that seem to scratch a gameplay itch whilst doing F2P well: SMITE and Airmech Arena. Both offer unlock models that make you feel like you have access to all the content you need for the game to be functional (£23.99 and £15.99 respectively) but then offer bells and whistles that the vain can use to distinguish themselves from the vanilla player.

Where they differ is in the style of play. Airmech Arena is an RTS game where you build units and place them using the transforming mech that you fly around the map and shoot stuff with. SMITE is a class-based game where you attempt to take over towers and encourage your armies to charge forth. It is built with League of Legends and DOTA 2 in mind but this is way more accessible for a console player, given that the camera is pulled down close and over the character’s shoulder.

They are both good and I am curious to see how long they hold my attention (Awesomenauts, like SMITE a console-friendly MOBA, was played for months before I finally got tired of the dwindling player base and lack of new content). I think that Airmech Arena has the better chance as the single player mode is solid, as well as playable in short seven minute bursts, and I already have one friend who has dug deep on it.

Oh, and also…

I have been really lazy recently in writing about games but I have done a couple of spots on a friend’s film blog. I wrote a drunken rant about Avengers 2 but I recommend that those who are faint of heart when it comes to Joss Whedon criticism go look at some of her stuff. My current favourite is her Kill Your Darlings review which goes off on a rant about representation of female librarians.

I am, by no means, as erudite as Shaun when it comes to music but during an attempt to start up a new series of interviews I ended up at a pub where they were showcasing new musicians. I and my interviewee had to leave due to the sound levels but not before hearing Shannon Wardrop play a song called ‘Medicine’. The video doesn’t do her voice justice; she is incredible live.