Video Games

Airborne Ranger

THE ELITE UNIT has always captured the imagination of both soldier and

civilian. Units such as the Rangers are the point men of the armed

forces, the cutting edge, and they fascinate us to an extent out of

proportion to their numbers. We envy them their sharp, distinctive

appearance, their high status, their esprit de corps. and most of all

their awesome skill in their chosen profession. They have an aura of

competence that is at once reassuring and intimidating, as if they

will admit no limits to what they can achieve. This unshakeable

confidence would seem preposterous if it had not been borne out time

and again by events on and off the battlefield. The really are as good

as they think they are.

An excerpt from Airborne Ranger Field Manual

My favorite game for the Commodore 64 was a 1987 military simulation called Airborne Ranger. I don’t consider myself an expert in video games of the era, but I believe this is among the first military themed-games that valued stealth and tactical planning, paving the way for venerable successors like Operation Flashpoint, Metal Gear Solid, and Rainbow Six (and all the other Tom Clancy games). Quite frankly, I think I’d rather play more Airborne Ranger than Rainbow Six, which says something about this game. If it weren’t for the poor emulator support and controls, I’d probably still play this game all the time.

Airborne Ranger (initial screen)

The game consisted of several missions in which a lone Airborne Ranger, controlled by yourself, infiltrated enemy territory and carried out various tasks like stealing a code book, destroying a munitions depot, knocking out an enemy radar array, and freeing hostages (amongst other such tasks). As you complete tasks, your ranger is promoted, eventually attaining the rank of Colonel. As previously mentioned, some missions require stealth (in one, you have to steal an enemy uniform to infiltrate the target area) and almost all warrant careful planning. While each mission has required objectives, how you carry out your mission is left up to you. You’re given a limited amount of ammunition (some of which can get lost during the air drop if you’re not careful), so even when stealth is not required, you must choose your targets carefully. If you run out of ammo, your ranger is captured, but when that happens, other rangers in the roster have a new rescue mission available to them (and if you’re successful, you can continue playing with your original character). This is a good thing, because once your character dies, he’s dead and you can’t use him anymore. Of course, you can run practice missions to make sure you’ve got the hang of a level, but the maps and objective locations are generated randomly each time you play the mission, so there’s no guarantee (this also requires you to think quickly during a mission, as you won’t know what you’re up against until you actually start the mission).

After choosing a mission, you are briefed and then given control of an aircraft. As it flies over the enemy territory, you have a chance to drop 3 duffel bags filled with supplies (ammo, medical kits, etc…) You need to be careful where you drop these supplies though – if one of the bags hits a tree, barbed wire or other obstacle, those supplies are lost.

Flying Over Enemy Territory

As you get towards the bottom of the map, the drop light comes on and you parachute to the surface. This is where the bulk of the game takes place. At this point, you need to carefully make your way up the map, gathering the supplies you dropped and avoiding enemy forces (or not, depending on the mission), until you reach your objective. Once your mission is complete, you need to high-tail it to the extraction point and hold off the enemy until your ride shows up…

Flying Over Enemy Territory

The game is lots of fun, and it holds up reasonably well even today. Sure, the graphics and sound are horrible by today’s standards, but the concept is well designed and executed. It’s probably comparable to the NES games of the era in terms of graphics and sound, but the gameplay is great (incidentally, there are several other versions of the game for other platforms, including the higher-end Commodore Amiga, which had much better graphics). You play the game frome a pseudo-3D perspective that was somewhat rare at the time and commonplace today (it’s similar to the Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto games). The only thing really holding it back is the controls. This game was far ahead of it’s time and because it was limited by the simple joystick and a single button, it made use of lots of keyboard controls, which is far from ideal (this game would probably be a whole lot easier with today’s PS2 style controllers – incidentally, the emulators for the C64 have some strange initial settings which make it difficult to play this game, but that’s a topic for another post.) Still, I had a blast revisiting the game, and it’s something I’d love to see remade with only minor enhancements…

Put simply, it’s a great game. The number of weapons, freedom of movement, varying environments (there are dessert, arctic, and temperate levels), stealth action, variety of missions and randomly generated maps make this game a tough one to beat. Unquestionably my favorite game for the C64, and it would probably end up in my top 10 video games of all time as well.

More screenshots and comments below the fold…

A Video Game Retrospective: Part 2

About a year ago, I started a video game retrospective, beginning with my first video game console, the Atari 2600. My intention was to go through my favorite games for all the various platforms I’ve played on. In typical Kaedrin fashion, I wrote about 5 posts on the Atari 2600 then promptly forgot that the series was supposed to continue. I figure it’s time to resume the retrospective, taking on my second major video gaming system: the Commodore 64 (and, after my brother and I destroyed that, the Commodore 128).

The C64’s hardware was basically contained within the bulky keyboard (the C128 had a more standard keyboard size, but had a chunk extending back that contained the processing hardware) and you could just use a television as a monitor. Now, unlike the Atari 2600, the C64 is an actual computer – you could do more than just play games on this (I remember writing book reports with some rudimentary word processing software and printing it out with a fancy dot-matrix printer). Indeed, I got my first taste of computer programming using the C64’s native BASIC language (not that I produced anything of worth, but it was a start). That said, it was primarily used for video games. Booting up the C64 gave you a command line with a distinctive blueish/purple monochromatic color scheme:

C64 Command Line

It’s funny, but that color scheme was very memorable and seems to be a popular target of geeky nostalgia (for all you Opera users out there, there’s a user mode style sheet called “Nostalgia” installed by default, so you can browse the web like you’re on a C64). It used the same controllers as the Atari (directional stick and a single-button), but it had far better graphics and much more expansive gameplay. You’ll see more of this when I go through the games later this week, but the games for the C64 progressed further than the simple, arbitrary goals of the Atari era. I just downloaded the open source VICE emulator and have been getting reaquanted with some of my favorite games. The emulation here leaves something to be desired (particularly with respect to games that require keyboard controls, as the C64 had a slightly different keyboard layout and VICE’s documentation is… lacking…), but I’m making due… Again, my favorite games will be reviewed in separate posts, so stay tuned!

Update: Follow up posts:

Link Dump

Various links for your enjoyment:

  • The Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique: Like the Boy Scouts, but for Scientists. Aside from the goofy name, they’ve got an ingenious and hilarious list of badges, including: The “my degree inadvertantly makes me competent in fixing household appliances” badge, The “I’ve touched human internal organs with my own hands” badge, The “has frozen stuff just to see what happens” badge (oh come one, who hasn’t done that?), The “I bet I know more computer languages than you, and I’m not afraid to talk about it” badge (well, I used to know a bunch), and of course, The “dodger of monkey shit” badge. (“One of our self explanatory badges.”). Sadly, I qualify for less of these than I’d like. Of course, I’m not a scientist, but still. I’m borderline on many though (for instance, the “I blog about science” badge requires that I maintain a blog where at least a quarter of the material is about science – I certainly blog about technology a lot, but explicitely science? Debateable, I guess.)
  • Dr. Ashen and Gizmodo Reviews The Gamespower 50 (YouTube): It’s a funny review of a crappy portable video game device, just watch it. The games on this thing are so bad (there’s actually one called “Grass Cutter,” which is exactly what you think it is – a game where you mow the lawn).
  • Count Chocula Vandalism on Wikipedia: Some guy came up with an absurdly comprehensive history for Count Chocula:

    Ernst Choukula was born the third child to Estonian landowers in the late autumn of 1873. His parents, Ivan and Brushken Choukula, were well-established traders of Baltic grain who– by the early twentieth century–had established a monopolistic hold on the export markets of Lithuania, Latvia and southern Finland. A clever child, Ernst advanced quickly through secondary schooling and, at the age of nineteen, was managing one of six Talinn-area farms, along with his father, and older brother, Grinsh. By twenty-four, he appeared in his first “barrelled cereal” endorsement, as the Choukula family debuted “Ernst Choukula’s Golden Wheat Muesli”, a packaged mix that was intended for horses, mules, and the hospital ridden. Belarussian immigrant silo-tenders started cutting the product with vodka, creating a crude mush-paste they called “gruhll” or “gruell,” and would eat the concoction each morning before work.

    It goes on like that for a while. That particular edit has been removed from the real article, but there appears to actually be quite a debate on the Talk page as to whether or not to mention it in the official article.

  • The Psychology of Security by Bruce Schneier: A long draft of an article that delves into psychological reasons we make the security tradeoffs that we do. Interesting stuff.
  • The Sagan Diary by John Scalzi (Audio Book): I’ve become a great fan of Scalzi’s fiction, and his latest work is available here as audio (a book is available too, but it appears to be a limited run). Since the book is essentially the diary of a woman, he got various female authors and friends to read a chapter. This actually makes for somewhat uneven listening, as some are great and others aren’t as great. Now that I think about it, this book probably won’t make sense if you haven’t read Old Man’s War and/or The Ghost Brigades. However, they’re both wonderful books of the military scifi school (maybe I’ll probably write a blog post or two about them in the near future).

World Domination Via Dice

One of my favorite board games is Risk. I have lots of fond memories of getting annihilated by my family members (I don’t think I’ve ever played the game without being the youngest person at the table) and have long since mastered the fundamentals. I also hold it responsible for my early knowledge of world geography and geopolitics (and thus my early thoughts were warped, but at least I knew where the Middle East was, even if the map is a little broad).

The key to Risk is Australia

The key to Risk is Australia. The Greeks knew it; the Carthaginians knew it; now you know it. Australia only has four territories to conquer and more importantly, it only has one entrance point, and thus only one territory to defend. Conquering Australia early in the game guarantees an extra two armies a turn, which is huge at that point in the game. Later in the game, that advantage lessens, but after securing Australia, you should be off to a very good start. If you’re not in a position to take over Australia, South America will do. It also only has four territories, but it has two entrances and thus two territories to defend. On the bright side, it’s also adjacent to Africa and North America, which are good continents to expand to (though they’re both considerably more difficult to hold than Australia). This being the internet, there are, of course, some people who have thought about the subject a lot more than I and developed many detailed strategies.

Like many of the classic games, the original has become dwarfed by variants – games set in another universe (LotR Risk) or in a futaristic setting (Risk: 2042) – but I’ve never played those. However, I recent ran across a little internet game called Dice Wars. It’s got the general Risk-like gameplay and concept of world domination via dice, but there are many key differences:

  • The Map and Extra Armies: A different map is generated for each game. One of the other differences is that the number of extra armies (or Dice, in this game) you get per turn is based solely on the number of territories you control (and there’s no equivalent to turning in Risk cards for more armies). This nullifies the Australia strategy of conquering an easily-defensible continent, but the general strategy remains: you need to maneuver your forces so as to minimize the number of exposed territories, slowly and carefully expanding your empire.
  • Army Placement and Size: Unlike Risk, you can’t choose where to place your armies (nor can you do “free moves” at the end of your turn, which are normally used to consolidate defenses or prepare a forward thrust). If you mount a successful attack, you must move all of your armies except one that you leave behind. This makes extended thrusts difficult, as you’ll leave a trail of easily conquered territories behind you. This is one of the more annoying differences. Another difference is that any one territory can only have a certain number of armies (i.e. there is a maximum). This changes the dynamic, adding another element of entropy. Again, it’s somewhat annoying, but it’s easy enough to work around.
  • Attacking and Defending: In Risk, the attacker has a maximum of 3 dice, while the defender has a maximum of 2 dice. Ties go to the defender, but attackers still have the statistical advantage, no matter how many armies are facing off. If both territories have an equal amount of armies, the attacker has the statistical advantage. In Dice Wars, the number of dice used are equal to the number of armies, and instead of matching up single dice against each other, they just total up the dice. If the attacker’s total is greater than the defender’s, they win. Again, ties go to the defender. So in this case, if two territories have the same number of armies, the statistical advantage goes to the defender. Of course, you generally try to avoid such a situation in both games, but again, the dynamic is quite different here.

The game’s familiar mechanics make it easy to pick up, but the differences above make it a little more difficult to master. Here’s an example game:

dice wars

Of course, I’d already played a bit to get to this point, and you can probably spot my strategy here. I started with a concentration of territories towards the middle of the map, and thus focused on consolidating my forces in that area. By the time I got to the screenshot above, I’d narrowed down my exposure to four territories. I began expanding a to the right, and eventually conquered all of the green territories, thus limiting my exposure to only two territories. From there it was just a matter of slowly expanding that wall of two (at one point I needed to expand back to an exposure of three) until I won. Another nice feature of this game is the “History” button that appears at the end. Click it, and you watch the game progress really quickly through every battle, showing you the entire war in a matter of seconds. Neat. It’s a fun game, but in the end, I think I still prefer Risk. [hat tip to Hypercubed for the game]

God of War

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing the PS2 game God of War. It’s quite good, though I’m not sure it reaches the astronomical heights that most reviews seem to place it. It does a lot of things right, but there are some aspects of the game that are downright annoying. I’m more of a casual gamer, and to be honest, I’m not to familiar with action/adventure games like this (I’ve never even played any of the Tomb Raider games), so it’s possible that I’m blowing some of this out of proportion.

Based on Greek Mythology, the game focuses on fighting and puzzle solving, with the occassional cutscene and annoying jumping/balancing exercise. It’s a pretty brutal game, in terms of adult content and themes, so be warned. When I bought the game, the store clerk said “Ahh, good game, good game. Easy to learn, hard to master.” Yeah, he’s obviously a tool, but it actually makes sense. It’s easy to get going, but to progress far in the game, you will need to master some of the more obscure elements of gameplay. Here are some thoughts on various aspects of the game:

  • Combat: The mechanics of combat are intuitive, easy to learn, and fun to use. This is a good thing, because fighting represents the majority of the game, and indeed it is the funnest thing about the game. Your main weapon is a pair of blades that are attached to your arms with chains, thus giving the ability to swing them at a distance. Later on, you get access to other weapons and magical spells. The system works extremely well, allowing you to do certain attack combinations that do more damage or take on a more defensive posture. When fighting big enemies and bosses, once you reduce their heal level to a certain point, you’re given a certain sequence of buttons to push (or other actions). These “mini-games” might not sound like a lot of fun, but they actually are. All in all, the combat system is very well thought out and fun to use.
  • Bosses: I had to single out the bosses from the combat section because these enemies are just a blast to fight. Unfortunatly, there are only three bosses in the game… but they’re all great. The first boss is the Hydra, and it’s a very well conceived combat sequence, with multiple stages that are both challenging and fun. The second boss (don’t know what this one is called) is not as elaborate (and the circular motions required in the “mini-game” takedown were a pain to get right), but was also more challenging due to the fact that I had very little life or magic power left. Still the animations were great, and the way you had to kill the thing was neat. The final boss is Ares, the Greek God of War (more about this will be mentioned below in the story section), and this is another one of the multi-stage bosses. Like the other bosses, each stage is challenging and fun. For some reason, defeating Ares was surprisingly easy for me. The first stage wasn’t that hard, though I died on my first try. The second stage had me worried for a bit, but I got through it without dying (Thank you, Army of Hades! That spell saved my ass on the first two stages.) Now, the third stage, that took me about 10 seconds to defeat. I must have just gotten lucky or something. Still, it was great fun and one of the best parts of the game.
  • Puzzles: The game interweaves various puzzles with the action sequences and cutscenes, a feature I’m told is common with other action/adventure games. The pacing of the game is excellent as it never gets carried away with any particular type of gameplay, and it cycles through them often enough to keep you interested. The puzzles themselves are often interesting and sometimes challenging. Maybe a couple of them are too challenging, but I was able to get past all of them eventually. Many involve pushing or aligning blocks, or depressing buttons on the ground to trigger various contraptions. It’s funny how games these days try so hard to eschew the “Find the Key” dynamic present in so many earlier games… keys are so boring, you know? But there are a couple of equivalent things in action here. That’s not a problem with the game, and in fact, most of the triggers are rather clever and well thought out.
  • Obstacles: Along with combat and puzzles, the game will sometimes throw in some obstacles that you need to jump over, climb up, or balance-walk across. For the most part, these tasks are just exercises in tedium. For example, towards the end of the game, you end up trying to escape from Hades. This is the most obsctacle-laden level of them all, and the most frustrating part of the game. One particular obstacle really got on my nerves. Towards the end of the level, you have to climb up these spinning cylinders and they have spikes where if you touch one of them, you fall all the way back down to the bottom (you have to climb a long way’s up too). After I fell off for the 100th time, I almost turned off the game forever and put in the new Castlevania game. Eventually, I got through it, but what ended up happening was that I had mostly memorized the rotations and blade positions. That’s just stupid. Most of these tasks were just as annoying and basically fell into the Do it again, stupid! theory of game design. It’s the worst part of the game. Thankfully, the truly frustrating ones don’t occur that often.
  • The Camera: One other thing that annoyed me was the inability to control the camera. I always wanted to be looking around, and there were even times in the game where the designers knew you couldn’t see an area and used that in their designs. Frustratingly, some of the walk-the-plank obstacles were made more difficult because of the position of the camera. Most of the time though, the camera was ok (and sometimes, like when you’re walking down a spiral staircase, it looks fantastic), but it was disorienting when I started playing. I’m used to being able to look where I want. Also, there were times when their cues for what to do next were kinda difficult to find. For instance, when running around in Athens, you get to a roadblock. It took me a good 5 minutes or so (an eternity when playing a game) before I figured out that you could just cut the barricade down. Then it took another 5 minutes to spot the tiny rope that lets you swing across the ditch. Frustrating. I have to admit though, that for a fixed camera game, they do a pretty good job (I just don’t like it).
  • Visuals and Audio: The designs in the game are extremely well done, from the main hero to the various beasties to the ancient Greek architecture and landscapes. Interweaved with the combat and the puzzles (ok, and the annoying obstacles) are various cutscenes which also look great. Everything about the game just looks fantastic, which I think is something of a rarity. The audio is also very good, though it gets a little repetitive. A little more variety would be nice, but what’s there is great.
  • Story: The story is mostly told in the cutscenes, which are thoughtfully spaced out throughout the game, further contributing to the game’s well paced experience. The story is a little on the dark and brutal side, and indeed the game has all sorts of adult themes including very graphic violence and even nudity. The main character, Kratos, isn’t that likeable of a guy (except in asmuch as he’s a badass and his end goals are noble), but once his background gets filled in a bit, he becomes a little more understandable. For those not worried about spoilers, the story fleshes out how Kratos came to make a deal with Ares, the Greek God of War, and how Ares eventually betrayed Kratos, who vowed revenge. Ares seems to be a little upset with his father (Zeus) and Athena, as you see Ares laying waste to Athens all throughout the game. The other Gods aid you in your quest to destroy Hades. One mildly annoying thing about the story is that the end-goal of the game is to destroy Ares, and you encounter him very early on in the game… only to be wisked away to a labrynth to get Pandora’s Box (which you need to defeat Ares). The majority of the game is encompassed with finding Pandora’s Box, and then once you find it, you’re sent down to Hades. So the game basically feels like it’s moving the goalposts all the time. As I said, it’s a minor quibble, but I did find it a bit odd.
  • Usability: One of the most impressive things about the game is the lack of “Loading…” prompts (bane of the PS2). The game seamlessly transitions between gameplay and cutscenes and back again, giving the game a much more immersive quality than most others I’ve played (I assume this is accomplished with the use of precaching techniques). As I’ve already mentioned, the game is very well paced, deftly switching between combat, puzzles, obstacles, and cutscenes. Save points are well spaced too, and the game includes various auto-save features that make some of the more frustrating battles or obstacles much easier to deal with. The combat system and gameplay is simple, yet deceptively powerful. The game explains how to accomplish most tasks as you go, so there’s no need to rtfm. The menus, text screens and other prompts that come up are easy to read and use. Many of these things are typically overlooked in games like this, with the developers choosing to spend most of the time on the graphics or the animation. To have a game with both excellent visual design and usability is pretty impressive.

Overall, it’s a great game, but there are a few flaws that I’m surprised are not noted more in reviews. Or, I should say, in the ratings, as many reviews I’ve read call out the problem areas, but still end up rating it in the astronomical 9.5-10 range. I guess the game does so many things so well that it’s hard to give it a worse rating, but I’d be fine giving it a rating between 9-9.5…

After completing God of War, I’ve moved on to the latest Castlevania game, which is theoretically in the same action/adventure category as God of War. However, it’s a distinct step down. It’s not that it’s a bad game (though I suppose I haven’t played enough to really make up my mind), it’s just that it immediately rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, you’re not playing one of the Belmonts. A trivial point, to be sure, but the person I’m playing is a bit of a tool (and the story is correspondingly lame). The attacks and combinations are nowhere near as fun as GoW, and the level design seems to be much more monotonous. I have a feeling that it won’t be long before I’m begging for one of those annoying “do it again, stupid” exercises in GoW. The other thing that was immediately and noticeably annoying was that every time you go into a different room, you have to endure a “Loading…” screen. This is one of those things that I loved about God of War, but I think I started to take for granted. Comparatively, this game stinks… so perhaps the high ratings weren’t too high after all.

More on Video Games & Art

Last week, guest poster Samael explored some interesting ground regarding the artistic merits of video games. Like Sam, I agree that it’s quite possible to argue that some games (though perhaps not all) have some value as art, even if they are mass entertainment. This week, I ran across a couple of links which I think add to the discussion nicely:

  • The Ten Greatest Years in Gaming: It’s an interesting list, in part, because I never considered any of these years particularly great. Why? Because I was never a bleeding edge gamer. For example, the first year they mention (1977) was before I was even born. 1986 started the NES trend, but I didn’t get mine until 3-4 years later. What this really means is that my favorite years are lagging behind the actual years… An interesting note, in 1993, when technology had progressed enough that games began to take on more artistic characteristics:

    CD-ROM drives were now available, and people bought them en masse, bolstered to a large extent by Nintendo PlayStation almost-ran Myst – a game which would become, and remain for some years, the highest-selling PC game of all time. Between Myst and The 7th Guest, the template was essentially down for mass-market PC games: actors, big budgets, ray-traced graphics, and arbitrary puzzles. It all seemed neat at first. They were almost like movies!

    When you look at some of the things that were done (and are still being done) in gaming, it’s difficult to categorize their artistic merits. Take Silent Hill 2 (from 2001):

    Every element in the game, from the inventory to the monsters, reflected an element of the main character’s personality. Every action the player took – even inaction – was tracked and analyzed in psychological terms. Depending on what the player’s actions said about the main character’s state of mind, the game ultimately read a different motive for the protagonist, therefore gave him a different conclusion to his journey.

    So this game is not only telling a story, it’s changing the story on the fly based on how you play the game. I’ve never actually played that game, but it sounds like art to me, and it sounds like it’s something that goes above and beyond traditional art (which I guess you’d expect from a more interactive medium). Other games that year played with people’s perceptions and otherwise began to show a more mature

    Those new fans were mostly made up of people who had been growing restless with the brainless, essentially unquestioning nature of videogames to date – those Nintendo fans who had grown older still and now were looking for some deeper meaning in their hobby – not so much legitimacy as an art form, as just some kind of actual inspiration – some emotional or intellectual meat to keep them interested. And this was the year that they started to get their wish; that, in place of real hardware or design innovations, videogames began to innovate in the realm of mature expression.

    People started to think differently of videogames: thus the (frankly kind of misguided) “games as art” and “new games journalism” movements. People began to write about them differently, analyze them differently. Take them more seriously – because games were starting to appear that were worth taking seriously. And there was much conflict.

    Have we really turned the corner, though? Gaming has certainly grown a lot over the years, to the point where I think a lot of games can tell a story that is worth telling, but is the medium where it really needs to be? This leads to the next article I ran across:

  • Why There Are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet): John Scalzi responds to the question of why video games, today’s dominant form of mass entertainment, have yet to develop a body of interesting criticism. Scalzi is extremely thorough in answering the question. For example, video games haven’t been around all that long:

    Video games are no longer anywhere near new — the first home consoles came out in the 1970s, and Space Invaders is on the verge of its 30th anniversary — but it’s only been in the last decade or so that consoles and computers have become powerful enough to allow the sort of meaningful interactive narrative that is the hallmark of video game storytelling. You can argue with me on the specifics, but I think the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst, which dates back only a dozen years. Other people might choose Civilization (1991) or SimCity (1989) instead, and I think those are valid choices, too. But however you chop it up, the video game as a criticism-worthy medium is, at best, about fifteen years old, and to my mind it’s only been since the emergence of Half-Life (1998) that there has been a substantial number of games worthy of genuine criticism. So we’re talking less than a decade’s worth of games worthy of criticism.

    Now, let’s go back to the examples of critics offered earlier: Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs. Pauline Kael began writing film criticism in the 1950s, but only really became Pauline Kael when she started writing for New Yorker in 1967. By the time Kael made her name, film, as an artistic medium, was six decades old and artistically significant films had been made for half a century. It was a mature (if still radically evolving) medium. Likewise, Lester Bangs started reviewing rock in 1969, fifteen years after rock and roll emerged as its own genre, and of course decades after pop music of any sort had become a fertile ground for criticism — and pop music in general (as opposed to rock itself) should arguably be the metric we use for the medium.

    Another reason we don’t have prominent critics:

    You actually have to be able to play the video games. Useful and valid criticism requires some academic knowledge of the field you want to criticize. But once you’ve got that, the input portion of criticism is generally pretty easy: With film, you (primarily) watch with your eyes. With music, you (primarily) listen with your ears. You’re done. Video games, however, require an additional skill, and that is to be able to play the game. Therein lies a problem: The hermeneutics of video games require a whole lot of button-mashing. How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many.

    The post is excellent and highly recommended.

  • The End of the Affair: Tying in more with the Novelty discussion from a few weeks ago, Clive Anderson’s article in Wired begins with a perfect example:

    One day a few weeks ago, I picked up Burnout: Revenge — the superb new car-racing and -smashing game — and within an hour I was hooked. I abandoned all work, blew my writing deadlines and ignored my wife. The few moments when I could pry myself from the console, I’d fantasize about when I could return. It seemed like I’d never be able to stop, and indeed, like any addict, I didn’t want to.

    Until suddenly, after two weeks of monomaniacal play, everything ended. I finished a three-hour binge of racing, clicked off my Playstation 2, and … it was over. My compulsion had vanished. I still enjoyed the game, and had plenty more challenges to complete. But I didn’t need to play it any more.

    I think we’ve all had this experience with a few games. A little while ago, I wrote a series of posts on the excellent Galactic Civilizations II, which I had played almost non-stop for a few weeks… but then, I haven’t played the game since then. This happens all the time. In fact, I recently picked up God of War for the playstation 2. I’ve played for a significant portion of the weekend and enjoyed myself (for the most part), but I can already feel it slipping from my consciousness. If I haven’t finished the game in a week or so, I doubt I ever will…

That’s all for now…

Art for the computer age…

I was originally planning on doing a movie review while our gentle web-master is away, but a topic has come up too many times in the past few weeks for me not to write about it.

First it came up in the tag map of Kaedrin, when I noticed that some people were writing pages just to create appealing tag-maps.

Then it came up in Illinois and Louisiana. They’ve passed laws regulating the sale and distribution of “violent games” to minors. This, of course, has led to lawsuits and claims that the law violates free speech.

After that, it was the guys at Penny Arcade. They posted links to We Feel Fine and Listening Post.. Those projects search the internet for blogs (maybe this one?) and pull text from them about feelings, and present those feelings to an audience in different ways. Very interesting.

Finally, it came up when I opened up the July issue of Game Informer, and read Hideo Kojima’s quote:

I believe that games are not art, and will never be art. Let me explain � games will only match their era, meaning what the people of that age want reflects the outcome of the game at that time. So, if you bring a game from 20 years ago out today, no one will say �wow.� There will be some essence where it�s fun, but there won�t be any wows or touching moments. Like a car, for example. If you bring a car from 20 years ago to the modern day, it will be appealing in a classic sense, but how much gasoline it uses, or the lack of air conditioning will simply not be appreciated in that era. So games will always be a kind of mass entertainment form rather than art. Of course, there will be artistic ways of representing games in that era, but it will still be entertainment. However, I believe that games can be a culture that represent their time. If it�s a light era, or a dark era, I always try to implement that era in my works. In the end, when we look back on the projects, we can say �Oh, it was that era.� So overall, when you look back, it becomes a culture.�

Every time I reread that quote, I cringe. Here’s a man who is one of the most significant forces in video games today, the creator of Metal Gear, and he’s saying “No, they’re not art, and never will be.” I find his distinction between mass entertaintment and art troubling, and his comparison to a car flawed.

It’s true that games will always be a reflection of their times- just like anything else is. The limitations of the time and the attitudes of the culture at the time are going to have an effect on everything coming out of that time. A car made in the 60s is going to show the style of the 60s, and is going to have the tech of the 60s. That makes sense. Of course, a painting made in the 1700s is going to show the limits and is going to reflect the feelings of that time, too. The paints, brushes, and canvas used then aren’t necessarily going to be the same as the ones used now, especially with the popular use of computers in painting. The fact that something is a reflection of the times isn’t going to stop people from appreciating the artistic worth of that thing. The fact that the Egyptians hadn’t mastered perspective doesn’t stop anyone from wanting to see their statues.

What does that really tell us, though? Nothing. A car from the 80s may not be appreciated as much as a new model car as a means of transport, but Kojima seems to be completely forgetting that there are many cars that are appreciated as special. Nobody buys a 60s era muscle car because they think it’s a good car for driving around in- they buy it because they think it’s special, because some people view older cars as collectable. Some people do see them as more than a mere means of transportation. People are very much “wowed” by old cars. Is there any reason why this can’t be true of games?

I am 8 Bit seems to suggest that there are people who are still wowed by those games. Kojima may be partially correct, though. Maybe most of those early games won’t hold up in the long run. That shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re the first generation of games. The 8-Bit era was the begining of the new wave of games, though. For the first time, creators could start to tell real stories, beyond simple high-score pursuit. Game makers were just getting their wings, and starting to see what games were really capable of. Maybe early games aren’t art. Does that mean that games aren’t art?

The problem mostly seems to be that we’re asking the wrong questions. We shouldn’t be asking “are video games art” any more than we’d ask “are movies art.” It’s a loaded question and you’ll never come to any real answer, because the answer is going to depend completely on what movie you’re looking at, and who you’re asking. The same holds true with games. The question shouldn’t be whether all games are art, but whether a particular game has some artistic merrit. How we decide what counts as art is constantly up for debate, but there are games that raise such significant moral or philosophical questions, or have such an amazing sense of style, or tell such an amazing story, that it seems hard to argue that they have no artistic merrit.

All of this really is leading somewhere. Computers have changed everything. I know that seems obvious, but I think it’s taking some people- people like Kojima- a little longer to realize it. Computers have opened up a level of interactivity and access to information that we’ve never really had before. I can update Kaedrin from Michigan, and can send a message to a friend in Germany, all while buying videos from Japan and playing chess with a man in Alaska (not that I’m actually doing those things… but I could). These changes are going to be reflected in the art our culture produces. There’s going to be backlash and criticism, and we’re going to find that some people just don’t “get it” or don’t want to. We’ve gone through the same thing countless times before. Nobody thought movies would be seen as art when they came on the scene, and they were sure that the talkies wouldn’t. When Andy Warhol came out, there were plenty of nay-sayers. Soup cans? As art? Computers have generally been accepted as a tool for making art, but I think we’re still seeing the limits pushed. We’ve barely scratched the surface. The interaction between art, artist, and viewer is blurring, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens.


David Wong’s article on the coming video game crash seems to have inspired Steven Den Beste, who agrees with Wong that there will be a gaming crash and also thinks that the same problems affect other forms of entertainment. The crux of the problem appears to be novelty. Part of the problem appears to be evolutionary as well. As humans, we are conditioned for certain things, and it seems that two of our insticts are conflicting.

The first instinct is the human tendency to rely on induction. Correlation does not imply causation, but most of the time, we act like it does. We develop a complex set of heuristics and guidelines that we have extrapolated from past experiences. We do so because circumstances require us to make all sorts of decisions without posessing the knowledge or understanding necessary to provide a correct answer. Induction allows us to to operate in situations which we do not uderstand. Psychologist B. F. Skinner famously explored and exploited this trait in his experiments. Den Beste notes this in his post:

What you do is to reward the animal (usually by giving it a small amount of food) for progressively behaving in ways which is closer to what you want. The reason Skinner studied it was because he (correctly) thought he was empirically studying the way that higher thought in animals worked. Basically, they’re wired to believe that “correlation often implies causation”. Which is true, by the way. So when an animal does something and gets a reward it likes (e.g. food) it will try it again, and maybe try it a little bit differently just to see if that might increase the chance or quantity of the reward.

So we’re hard wired to create these heuristics. This has many implications, from Cargo Cults to Superstition and Security Beliefs.

The second instinct is the human drive to seek novelty, also noted by Den Beste:

The problem is that humans are wired to seek novelty. I think it’s a result of our dietary needs. Lions can eat zebra meat exclusively their entire lives without trouble; zebras can eat grass exclusively their entire lives. They don’t need novelty, but we do. Primates require a quite varied diet in order to stay healthy, and if we eat the same thing meal after meal we’ll get sick. Individuals who became restless and bored with such a diet, and who sought out other things to eat, were more likely to survive. And when you found something new, you were probably deficient in something that it provided nutritionally, so it made sense to like it for a while — until boredom set in, and you again sought out something new.

The drive for diversity affects more than just our diet. Genetic diversity has been shown to impart broader immunity to disease. Children from diverse parentage tend to develop a blend of each parent’s defenses (this has other implications, particularly for the tendency for human beings to work together in groups). The biological benefits of diversity are not limited to humans either. Hybrid strains of many crops have been developed over the years because by selectively mixing the best crops to replant the next year, farmers were promoting the best qualities in the species. The simple act of crossing different strains resulted in higher yields and stronger plants.

The problem here is that evolution has made the biological need for diversity and novelty dependent on our inductive reasoning instincts. As such, what we find is that those we rely upon for new entertainment, like Hollywood or the video game industry, are constantly trying to find a simple formula for a big hit.

It’s hard to come up with something completely new. It’s scary to even make the attempt. If you get it wrong you can flush amazingly large amounts of money down the drain. It’s a long-shot gamble. Every once in a while something new comes along, when someone takes that risk, and the audience gets interested…

Indeed, the majority of big films made today appear to be remakes, sequels or adaptations. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that something new and exciting often fails at the box office. Such films usually gain a following on video or television though. Sometimes this is difficult to believe. For instance, The Shawshank Redemption is a very popular film. In fact, it occupies the #2 spot (just behind The Godfather) on IMDB’s top rated films. And yet, the film only made $28 million dollars (ranked 52 in 1994) in theaters. To be sure, that’s not a modest chunk of change, but given the universal love for this film, you’d expect that number to be much higher. I think part of the reason this movie failed at the box office was that marketers are just as susceptible to these novelty problems as everyone else. I mean, how do you market a period prison drama that has an awkward title an no big stars? It doesn’t sound like a movie that would be popular, even though everyone seems to love it.

Which brings up another point. Not only is it difficult to create novelty, it can also be difficult to find novelty. This is the crux of the problem: we require novelty, but we’re programmed to seek out new things via correllation. There is no place to go for perfect recommendations and novelty for the sake of novelty isn’t necessarily enjoyable. I can seek out some bizarre musical style and listen to it, but the simple fact that it is novel does not guarantee that it will be enjoyable. I can’t rely upon how a film is marketed because that is often misleading or, at least, not really representative of the movie (or whatever). Once we do find something we like, our instinct is often to exhaust that author or director or artist’s catalog. Usually, by the end of that process, the artist’s work begins to seem a little stale, for obvious reasons.

Seeking out something that is both novel and enjoyable is more difficult than it sounds. It can even be a little scary. Many times, things we think will be new actually turn out to be retreads. Other times, something may actually be novel, but unenjoyable. This leads to another phenomenon that Den Beste mentions: the “Unwatched pile.” Den Beste is talking about Anime, and at this point, he’s begun to accumulate a bunch of anime DVDs which he’s bought but never watched. I’ve had similar things happen with books and movies. In fact, I have several books on my shelf, just waiting to be read, but for some of them, I’m not sure I’m willing to put in the time and effort to read them. Why? Because, for whatever reason, I’ve begun to experience some set of diminishing returns when it comes to certain types of books. These are similar to other books I’ve read, and thus I probably won’t enjoy these as much (even if they are good books).

The problem is that we know something novel is out there, it’s just a matter of finding it. At this point, I’ve gotten sick of most of the mass consumption entertainment, and have moved on to more niche forms of entertainment. This is really a signal versus noise, traversal of the long tail problem. An analysis problem. What’s more, with globalization and the internet, the world is getting smaller… access to new forms of entertainment are popping up (for example, here in the US, anime was around 20 years ago, but it was nowhere near as common as it is today). This is essentially a subset of a larger information aggregation and analysis problem that we’re facing. We’re adrift in a sea of information, and must find better ways to navigate.

Link Dump

Time is short this week, so just a few links I found interesting…

  • Make Me Watch TV: Collaborative torture. This guy lets people choose what he watches on TV. Naturally, voters tend to make him watch the worst of the worst (though it seems that sometimes people are nice and let him watch an episode of Lost or Doctor Who). After each viewing, he blogs about what he’s seen. One interesting thing here is that, if you want, you can “sponsor” a time slot: If you pay him $5 (per half hour), he’ll let you override the popular vote and force him to watch the program of your choice. Democracy in action.
  • Life After the Video Game Crash: In light of recent bloggery, this article in which David Wong recaps the history of video games (including the beloved Atari 2600) also predicts the coming of another Video Game Crash. Basically, it argues that the next generation gaming consoles offer very little in the way of true innovation and Wong is betting that people will stay away in droves. Regardless of what you may think, it’s worth reading because Wong is funny:

    And yet, even with the enormous number of games (Metroid delayed my discovering girls for a for a good 18 months), the gaming experience itself still couldn’t keep our interest for more than a few years. Attention waned again, but this time new, fancier systems arrived just in time, offering a new and novel experience thanks to prettier graphics and character animation. And yet those systems (the Sega Genesis and later the SNES), as great as they were, eventually were retired to closets and attics and the sandy carpets of the Pakistani black market. It was a bitter, dark cloud of Japanese expletives that wafted from the meeting rooms at Nintendo and Sega when they realized their industry effectively lived under a curse.

  • The World’s Most Important 6 Second Drum Beat: Nate Harrison’s fascinating 2004 video explores the history of the “Amen Break,” a six second drum beat from a b-side of a 1969 single that’s been used extensively in early hiphop and sample-based music. From there, it spawned subcultures like drum-and-bass and jungle music. Aside from the strange fact that this is a video (there doesn’t appear to actually be a reason for this – most of the video is simply a video of a record playing or a guy sitting in a room, for instance), this is compelling stuff. It covers the history of the break, but also some issues about ownership, copyright, and what constitutes art and creativity…

Apologies for the lameness of this entry. I’ve been travelling this weekend, and I’m exhausted. I’ve got several of these weekends coming up, so I’m going to try and set up some guest bloggers to post in my stead. I think the next one will be in two weeks or so. Anyway, I’ll try to post again later this week…

Atari 2600 Links and Thoughts

Just finishing off the Atari 2600 retrospective with a few links and thoughts…

  • Activision Patch Gallery: One of the things I’ve lamented about the Atari 2600 platform is the formulaic quality of many games: you basically manipulate a bunch of pixels on the screen to reach an arbitrary goal like 10,000 points. What fun is that? Well, to make things more interesting, Activision had this program where you could send a polaroid of your screen when you reached the arbitrary goal, and they would send you a patch. For example, I was a member of the Chopper Commandos (for Chopper Command), Explorer’s Club (Pitfall!), and Trail Drive (Stampede).

    The practice of photographing the screen when you reached the end of a game lasted well into the Nintendo age (though the patches had disappeared by then – you instead got your photos published in Nintendo Power or some other such publication), but had disappeared by the 16 bit era (at least, I think so!)

  • Composite Map of the Lost Caverns from my favorite A2600 game, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. It was made from the Commodore 64 version of Pitfall II, but the layout is the same for the 2600 version of the game (the only difference is the graphics).
  • YouTube is filled with cheesy old Atari 2600 commercials, strategy videos, and parodies.
  • Kaedrin reader and video game enthusiast Samael has posted a list of his favorite Pre-NES games, including a selection of Intellivision games (a system I never owned).

That about wraps it up for the Atari 2600. Have I missed anything? Drop a comment below…