Spoilers →

it's time to stop DVR-ing the series and start watching it live. You'll be happy you did, and you'll be happy to return to the cultural conversation. Let's bring a return of watercooler culture to the offices, chat rooms, and entertainment blogs of America. We're not arguing for spoilers; we're arguing against letting yourself get spoiled. Suck it up, America. Watch the damn shows.

New York Magazine - Spoilers: In Defense of the American Watercooler

Spoilers →

it's time to stop DVR-ing the series and start watching it live. You'll be happy you did, and you'll be happy to return to the cultural conversation. Let's bring a return of watercooler culture to the offices, chat rooms, and entertainment blogs of America. We're not arguing for spoilers; we're arguing against letting yourself get spoiled. Suck it up, America. Watch the damn shows.

New York Magazine - Spoilers: In Defense of the American Watercooler

No Comment

As you probably noticed, I'm playing about with the comments on my blog: disabling them for most new articles, unless I really, really want to hear what other people have to say. This sounds like a total dick move. "You're suppressing debate!" Probably. I don't really see it that way. The thing that kind of swung the no-comments move for me was something Merlin Mann said during his presentation with John Gruber at SXSW, when he recalled what John Gruber's response when he asked him why he doesn't enable comments on daringfireball.net:

... you were like ‘I wanna own every single pixel on my site, from the top left to the lower right. And if I have somebody come in — even if it’s somebody incredibly smart; even if it’s whoever; even if it’s SeoulBrother comes in and has something to say, like somebody really smart and really funny, like, it’s not my site any more.’.

Then Derek Powazek gave his own particular reasons for not enabling comments on his blog

I turned off comments in the last redesign of powazek.com because I needed a place online that was just for me. With comments on, when I sat down to write, I’d preemptively hear the comments I’d inevitably get. It made writing a chore, and eventually I stopped writing altogether. Turning comments off was like taking a weight off my shoulders. It freed me to write again.

This is what sold me. I don't know if you've noticed, but my blog output has gone up since disabling comments, exactly because I don't feel like I have to think about every word I write. I can write bullshit like that thing about Before Sunset - stuff that I would have previously held back because I'd have visions of a random drive-by commenter calling me out on it, making me feel bad.

Update: I was having second thoughts about the no-comments thing. Over the past few days, people have been very pointedly asking me why I've disabled comments - who the fuck did I think I was, comparing myself to John Gruber? - so I was thinking maybe I should just turn them back on. That is, until I enabled the Daring Fireball with Comments extension for Safari yesterday. This is from a random article (click for the larger version):

See? It completely changes the mood of the site. This is exactly what I don't want, so I think my comments will be staying off for the time being.

Great FAQ Answer →

Real helpful. Thanks, Microsoft.

Q:Is there a maximum number of Points that I can have in my balance?

A: Yes, there is a limit. When you reach that limit, you will be notified that you've reached the maximum number.

Great FAQ Answer →

Real helpful. Thanks, Microsoft.

Q:Is there a maximum number of Points that I can have in my balance?

A: Yes, there is a limit. When you reach that limit, you will be notified that you've reached the maximum number.

Before Sunset, Rome Edition

Herself indoors was away for work last night, so I had the house to myself. What kind of wild and crazy shenanigans did I get up to? Did I throw an awesome party that will be remembered through the ages? Did I fuck. I watered the plants, put on Before Sunrise and sat down to do some ironing.

Woo! Being 31 is great!

If you don't know this film, it's about two people, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who meet on a train, realise they've got an immediate connection and decide to spend the night walking the streets of Vienna before Ethan Hawke has to fly home to America the next morning. Throughout the night, they keep coming across all sorts of interesting things, such as: late night fairs, palm readers, late night cafes, dive bars with pinball machines, churches that apparently stay open all night, bums that will write you a poem for some money. I'll save my opinion of the actual film for another time (quick spoiler: thought it was a great film when I saw it in my early twenties; in my early thirties, however, I thought they were a pair of hateful douches). What I was thinking though is how I'd love to see that movie set in Rome. Because you know what's open in Rome after midnight? You know what's happening around this city once it gets dark?


Seriously. I really cannot believe it sometimes. Most bars close around 1am - except for the 'social clubs' - speakeasy-type joints that are well-hidden and very wary of strangers. You could go to the coked-out clubs in Testaccio, I suppose. They're too busy snorting and preening to notice the time. But in general, after 2am, this city is a ghost town. A really sketchy ghost town. We used to have a McDonalds near us that would close at 10.30pm. 11.00pm on Saturday nights - as an Irish man who is used to his battered sausage and curry chips after a night in the pub, this was the most painful for me: there's nowhere to get any kind food after the bars close.

Things are only worse during August. Already, a load of bars, restaurants and cinemas are already closed in anticipation of ferragosto - a month-long celebration of whateverthefuck. I honestly have no idea what's being celebrated. I just know that the end result is that most Romans disappear off to the beach or somewhere less oppressively hot. Which has its benefits too. Sure, more things are closed and you have to think about what shops are still open when you want a pint of milk, but the lack of crowds means that the city is a much more pleasant place to be. Still, doesn't help my initial point: there's almost nothing to do in Rome after dark.

I'd really love to see Before Sunrise: Rome Edition. I bet it would be a real short film.

No Content Found →

There’ll be some discussion of the ending of Mass Effect 2, so if you haven’t played that game all the way through and you like your life spoiler-free, stop reading now

After about 30 hours of playing, I finally, finally finished Mass Effect 2. And having finished it now, I’m still happy that pretty much everything I said about the game still stands. There were a couple of side-missions that were time-based: you have X number of minutes to escape from X or to stop X from happening, but…

Mass Effect 2: Addendum

There'll be some discussion of the ending of Mass Effect 2, so if you haven't played that game all the way through and you like your life spoiler-free, stop reading now

After about 30 hours of playing, I finally, finally finished Mass Effect 2. And having finished it now, I'm still happy that pretty much everything I said about the game still stands. There were a couple of side-missions that were time-based: you have X number of minutes to escape from X or to stop X from happening, but these were still small, local instances, usually coming at the ends of missions. There was no sense of urgency to any the larger narrative. Take all the time you need; that person dying of space-flu or space-gonorrhoea or whatever in isn't going anywhere. He's in another mission. Sure, the galaxy needs saving, but - holy shit! - that Krogan hasn't tasted sushi before. Better take care of that first!

Which is why the ending feels like such a cheap shot.

After being stung by some of my choices at the end of the first Mass Effect - where the game pulled a switcheroo and the person I actually wanted to save ended up being the person that died - I made sure that, for Mass Effect 2, I read up about the ending and what choices I should make if I wanted my characters to survive. Some might call this cheating. To this, I say: FUCK YOU. Including the first game, I'll have spent around 60 hours playing as this character and I'm not going to leave this shit to chance again.

Anyway, the Gamefaqs entry for Mass Effect 2 includes this little warning:


When you return to the Normandy, you will have the ability to go through the Omega 4 relay in pursuit of the Collector ship. If you go on any other missions first, half the Normandy's crew will be killed, including Yeoman Chambers.

Now, I wasn't affected by this because, like I said, there were almost no side-missions left by the time I came to travelling through the Omega 4 relay. But still, I feel like this is unnecessarily punitive, especially since that the developers have established one rule throughout the game: that you can delay and it doesn't matter. Why the abrupt change? Why punish players like this? Why Yeoman Chambers?!

For the record (and as I mentioned on Twitter), immediately after saving the galaxy, I jumped straight in and did the dirt on Miranda. Commander Shepard: space mutt


Another thing Emmett said that got me thinking was this:

Probably these developers know something I don’t. Probably they know that their market already understands the conventions of this world, and that eventually, and through repetition, anything that deviates from these conventions seems somehow false. (I suspect that this might be what Tom means when he mentions games literacy.) But for me, this time at least, it never stopped feeling like a videogame.

This is a criticism I hear a lot - that playing videogames presupposes a certain amount of knowledge. The reason I hear it a lot is because my wife is so unfamiliar with videogame conventions. So much that she's a terrific litmus test for the accessibility of a particular game. Give me a joypad and my hands instinctively fall into a familiar grip. After a short while, I'll be accustomed to the controls of a game that there will be almost no barrier between what I want to do and what I can make the game do. The controls will disappear for me, allowing me to fully immerse myself in the game. For my wife, the controls are always present. She isn't familiar with the joypad, so when the game tells her to "Press X to open", she has to actively think about where button X is. It will never not be a game for her. Years of experience has taught me that, almost universally, "X" (or "bottom button") means "Okay" and "O" (or "right button") means "Cancel". I've been doing this for so long that I don't even think about it now. For my wife, this is still a strange concept even though she uses these buttons every day to watch movies and TV through our Xbox.

Within the game worlds themselves, there are also conventions that might only be immediately obvious to someone who is familiar with games and has been playing them for a substantial amount of time. For example, the near-ubiquitous red barrel has an obvious meaning to gamers: kick-ass explosions. Wooden crates can be smashed open to potentially give you some amazing loot. In most games, the double-jump has no grounding in either the narrative or the physics of the world - I mean, what the fuck is that? Someone can 'jump' again in mid-air to go even higher? Seriously? - but this is something I almost expect when I'm playing a platform game. When it isn't present, I feel like something is missing. Giant Bomb has helpfully put together a fairly comprehensive list of the most common videogame conventions so that we don't have to go through them all here.

And so it's not so much the fact that these conventions exist that bother me, but more the fact that this is used as a stick to beat videogames as a medium. A typical conversation when we try to play games together:

"How did you know you could open that door but not the door beside it?"

"It's obvious!"

"Not to me!"

"Well, because 25 years of playing videogames has taught me which doors can be opened and which can't."

"You see?! This is why I can't play videogames!"

Here's where I'm in danger of sounding like a snob, but my answer to this is: so learn, get used to it.Or, to put it in more Xbox Live-friendly terms: have you considered sucking less?

You're reading my blog, so I'm guessing that you're probably a middle-to-upper class white male with at least a secondary school educationand your name is probably Steve, Bob or Gar. You probably spend a fair portion of your spare time reading - I mean, no-one's paying you to read this so, if nothing else, I'm probably right with this assumption. Now, just think about the conventions of reading. We take it for granted, but this, too, presupposes a whole bunch of stuff. Obviously, you have to be familiar with the language, you have to be familiar with the form of the letters, the spellings of words. You have to understand the process of reading (in English, at least) from left-to-right, then top-to-bottom. These are the literary analogues to videogame control conventions, "X means 'okay'".

Once you actually master the mechanics of it, there are also conventions used in literature and reading. Right now I'm reading David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System. To read this properly, to understand it and convert it from just words on a page to ideas and concepts, it helps to be familiar with, among other things, the logic of metafiction and the various philosophical theories of language including, but not limited to, the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The first time I read Thomas Pynchon's V, I was completely unfamiliar with metafiction, and I had a hard time reading that book. Just as the game never stopped being a videogame for Emmett, V never stopped being a book for me. I was reading at such a cripplingly slow pace that it took me forever, which meant I never really developed a 'flow'. I was always completely conscious of the process of writing that made up this book. I didn't enjoy it. Because I wasn't immersed in the subject of the work, I was very aware of the form of the work, I was aware of the author's 'tricks'. It's like my wife playing a game, the controller/book never disappeared for meMy second read-trough, after more exposure to the genre of metafiction, more exposure to Pynchon's work, was much more successful. I don't think anyone would accuse the book of being at fault here. I was unfamiliar with the genre, and I was punching above my weight. I knew that. I accepted that.

I guess this is made worse with games because they are all rules, they're all convention. I recently played a game of Carcassonne with my wife, and the rules never once disappeared into the background because we constantly had to think about what we were doing. Our first game of Dungeons & Dragons was quickly disbanded after we said "fuck this" because we couldn't figure out what the various numbers meant or how we were meant to calculate things. In none of these cases did we blame the game's rules, we blamed ourselves for not knowing themThis is a lie, we totally blamed the D&D rules. Christ, even their "beginner's guide" is written with the assumption you were playing D&D in the womb. In videogame terms, I have little experience of Japanese RPGs. As a result, I don't enjoy playing them. Their rules are so transparent that I feel like I'm watching an Excel spreadsheet with fancy graphics. At the same time, I'm unfamiliar with their conventions. Do you know how long it took me to wrap my head around the concept of 'grinding'My enjoyment of Dragon Quest VIII increased immeasurably once I copped to this? These games never stop being 'games' for me. I'm never immersed.

But still, what should be done? What should I do when I'm having trouble reading a book like V? Well, I should read other books. Books that are more at my reading-level. Slowly build myself up my familiarity with literary conventions so that I could enjoy the book properly. You wouldn't expect a teenager coming straight off Twilight (for example) to be able to pick up and enjoy Ulysses (again, for example), so I don't see why you'd expect someone completely unfamiliar with modern videogames to be able to enjoy them properly either.

So the question is, why blame the game?

No Content Found →

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how Red Dead Redemption could be seen as a useful metric to demonstrate how far videogaming has come. Now I want to discuss the other side of that argument, how Red Dead Redemption represents how far videogames still have to go as a medium.

Let’s tackle the issues in reverse order

The Ugly

As Emmett points out, despite being labelled an ‘open world’ game, Red Dead Redemption does not offer the player a particularly satisfying level of immersion and…

Red Dead Redemption: The Other Side of the Coin

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how Red Dead Redemption could be seen as a useful metric to demonstrate how far videogaming has come. Now I want to discuss the other side of that argument, how Red Dead Redemption represents how far videogames still have to go as a medium.

Let's tackle the issues in reverse order

##The Ugly

As Emmett points out, despite being labelled an 'open world' game, Red Dead Redemption does not offer the player a particularly satisfying level of immersion and freedom. There's very little actual 'openness'. It's hard to play this game and not feel an amount of disappointment with the enormous gap between what is possible in the game and what you wish was possible. As with almost every game I play (especially these open world, sandbox games), the first thing I did with Red Dead Redemption was to test just how far I could push the game until it breaks. This gives me a feel for the 'rules' of the world I'm in. I started running around, knocking things over, knocking people over. I wanted to see if there was any way to get the non-player characters to react to me in the world. Nothing happened. I spent five minutes pushing one NPC into a fire, and again, nothing happened. One of the face-buttons on the controller allows you to 'interact' with NPCs; however, this could be more accurately described as a button that allows you to "tip your hat and say ma'm". It does nothing else. This is the extent of your ability to interact with the majority of characters beyond shooting them deadEven this isn't final. I can't think of the amount of times I shot the poker players in Armadillo only to have them re-appear the next day.

And while I praised Read Dead Redemption for the range of possibilities it presented, the game offers little outside the realm of prescribed activities. Apart from the hilarious bugs, very little emergent behaviour is possible within the strict videogame framework. Despite being traditionally one of the most popular activities in westerns, your character cannot rob a bank. One could argue that this is intended to keep your character in line with the game's narrative (similar to why you cannot hire a prostitute in this game, despite it being one of the most famous features of its Grand Theft Auto cousins). Why, then, can none of these things be done during the game's epilogue, when none of these rules apply?

On the other hand, perhaps this criticism is unfair. True 'openness' is virtually impossible to achieve without the assistance of a real games master behind the curtain -- as in Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death -- or a virtual one -- such as the kind of thing we're approaching with Left 4 Dead's AI Director. On the plus side, at least the game's setting helps give the lack of activity a sense of reality. For me, one of the most frustrating parts of Grand Theft Auto IV was the way in which the city appeared to be a bustling metropolis, a living world, yet the vast majority of the buildings were just flat textures draped over geometric shapes which you couldn't interact with. Plus, with the crowds of people in GTAIV, there was enough character model repetition to break any sense of believability. It's hard to take a game seriously when it randomly sends a herd of identical characters coming your way. Red Dead Redemption at least does away with these unbelievable flat-textured districts populated by clones in favour of a more believable barely-populated expanse of prairie. This at least makes sense within the context of its setting.

##The Bad

In my previous post, I mentioned how Kane was criticised for not having enough for the player to do. However, no-one complained about the weak-sauce narrative that supposedly tied the entire thing together. Maybe this was just a product of its time - 'story' didn't seem to be a major concern in 1986 (the year that gave us Crocodile Dundee, Cobra and Police Academy 3: Back in Training). Or maybe it's just that no-one thought a videogame could or should have a good story, so it was just taken as given that any story tacked onto a videogame would be a pile of ass. Who cares about story when shit blows up good?

First of all, let's call a spade a spade. It's 2010 and the story of Red Dead Redemption is no great shakes either. An outlaw, trying to mend his ways but brought back out for one last job. If that sounds familiar to you, it's probably because it's also the plot of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, a film that the developers return to again and again. Along the way, Read Dead Redemption touches on themes of manifest destiny, the taming of the frontier west and the whole Conradian question of whether civilisation is actually just savagery with a nattier dress sense. Again, these are themes that we see time and again across the entire Western genre. When Red Dead Redemption actively attempts to tackle these themes, it demonstrates just how immature videogames are as a storytelling form. For example, as a mouthpiece for the supposed dangers of scientific hubris and the inherent savagery hidden beneath civility, Harold MacDougal is handled dreadfully. There is no subtlety to any of his conversations. It's as if Rockstar were so afraid that people might miss their point with this character that they decided to hit the player over the head.

Few characters in the game are handled much better than MacDougal. For the briefest of moments, I thought Rockstar were demonstrating an understanding of subtlety with their handling of the relationship between Vincente de Santa and Quique Montemayor. The first time you meet them, there is a brief look between the two of them that makes you think "hey - are they together?" It was so brief, so easy to miss that I thought maybe I was either imagining it or reading too much into a few keyframes thrown in by a bored animator. A few more interactions and it is hinted that, yes, these characters are in a homosexual relationship. But just like with MacDougal, the game eventually gives over, afraid that you might have missed those hints, again hits you over the head with the point: these characters are gay. This isn't even the worst of Read Dead Redemption's crimes against characterisation. Marshall Johnson is little better than a slightly less hateful (but similarly, slightly less nuanced) version of Unforgiven's Little Bill Daggett. Landon Ricketts is clearly the bastard son of Lee Van Cleef and Sam Elliott. The snake oil salesman, Nigel West Dickens, well... well, he's just a sophomoric creation lacking any sort of nuance or wit.

As well as the characters, many of the game's missions are also lifted from films. For example, the stampede scene from Red River becomes an entire mission in Read Dead Redemption. Another involves rescuing Bonnie MacFarlane from hanging, just like in Hang 'Em High. Robbing a train full of ammunition? The Wild Bunch. The side-mission where the player must save a person from being hung by shooting the rope is obviously taken directly from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Except without any of the tension or narrative support. Throughout the game, you are asked to save prostitutes from being sliced by some knife-wielding cowboy who, just like in Unforgiven, took offence at the prostitute laughing at the size of his penis. Unforgiven turned hat event into the inciting incident of that film. Red Dead Redemption treats it like a throwaway joke.

Against direct comparisons to film (which it seems to openly invite), Red Dead Redemption falls completely flat. The lack of originality in its storytelling is only exacerbated by the ham-fisted way in which it is executed.

##The Good

With that said, what these films fail to achieve and what Rockstar seem to pull off so easily is to provoke an emotional reaction to its themes. The Wild Bunch can make you think about the end of the era of the outlaw cowboy, but Red Dead Redemption can actually elicit an emotional response to this same theme. The reason Rockstar succeed where the movies fail is because of immersion. Your own experience is central to Red Dead Redemption, and placing you inside a well-realised world helps colour your experience.

Mise-en-scene is an enormous part of storytelling. I'm a huge theme park nerd, and my favourite part of any good theme park ride is the pre-show area, where you queue to actually get on the ride. To stop punters getting bored, the creators of theme park rides often litter the queuing area with props which create atmosphere and allow the punter to construct their own story before they even get on the ride. When it's done well, the scene-setting transforms a good ride into a great ride.

Videogames have the ability to create a level of mise-en-scene that film, as a medium, has no hope of replicating. Red Dead Redemption is filled with incidental details that serve no explicit storytelling purpose but just enrich the atmosphere of the game. Props that tell stories, if you want them to. For example, although it isn't beaten to death in the game, Marshall Johnson is a widower. If you want to, you can find his wife's gravestone in the local graveyard. This allows the player to fill in the gaps and construct a back-story for Johnson, more than actually comes up in the course of gameplay. Likewise, the environment is dotted with things for people to find. For example, the 'Mystery Site' at Repentance Rock has become famous precisely because there's no explanation for it. It's just there for players to stumble across and flesh out their experience. A film, on the other hand, is limited in how much it can put on screen. It must be judicious in its mise-en-scene. Too much and it can be confusing. As huge a fan as I am, Terry Gilliam sometimes tries to cram so much on screen at once that his films become visually distractingThe Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of my favourite films of all time, but I think I've only twice managed to watch it in one sitting. Every other time, my brain just shuts down from overstimulation.

Similarly, while film places the audience very much apart from the action, but videogames literally puts you inside of the action. This isn't someone else's story, this is your story. Although everyone plays the same game, the way in which you approach this game allows you to write your own story. How many people came across grieving suicide man? How many did it while hunting beaver in Aurora Basin? How many did it having just survived an attack by a grizzly bear and a coyote? How many players actually came across the Mystery Site at Repentance Rock? Although I share experiences with other people who played Red Dead Redemption, my play-through is my story. While some people argue that this kind of immersion can have a negative effect, it's also one of the medium's biggest strengths.

From a storytelling point of view, immersion is a valuable tool that Red Dead Redemption often uses to its full advantage. Even without the overarching narrative of the cutscenes and interactions with characters -- the traditional storytelling tools used in videogames -- the game tells an entire story just using atmosphere and its immersion.

(Here's where I'm going to have to get a bit spoiler-heavy. If you haven't played the game to see "REDEMPTION" flash across the screen, you might want to stop reading now).

The opening acts of Red Dead Redemption take place in the classic image of the frontier west: one-horse towns with ramshackle, wooden buildings. Lawless places where storekeepers aren't afraid to tell you about their hatred of the jews. These towns paint a picture. Just as the town of Deadwood was as important a character to that show as Al Swearingen and Seth Bullock, the frontier towns you visit in the game are as important to the story of Red Dead Redemption as Nigel West Dickens and Landon Ricketts. You spend a good twenty hours in this version of west and, at the end of those twenty hours, you come to appreciate it, you come to romanticise it. Although some might accuse me of overstating my case, I'll say you actually develop an emotional attachment to this placeOn a similar note, I'd argue that the 12 or so lonely hours you spend in the world of Shadow of the Colossus helps you develop an enormous bond with your only companion throughout that game -- your horse, Agro -- to similar emotional results.

So, when you finally reach the town of Blackwater, the last section of the game -- with its brick buildings, tea rooms and vision of modernity -- you actually feel out of place. You feel as if you are, as Landon Ricketts says, a relic, an anachronism. I personally felt a genuine sense of disappointment that I'd left the west that I'd come to love, because as a player, you understand that version of the west. As a character, MacDougal might be clumsily written, but he's a perfect cipher for the entire town of Blackwater - underneath his facade of physiognomy, MacDougal is a racist prick - perhaps worse than the shopkeeper in Armadillo because he believes his racism is scientifically justified (the shopkeeper just hates Jews, take it or leave it). Blackwater is probably more savage than any of the frontier towns you've visited -- suddenly you don't feel as if the things you're forced to do are serving any sort of 'greater good', they're just plain mean -- but Blackwater hides this savagery under a facade of modern brickwork and electricity.

The experience of reuniting with your family at the end is difficult to describe to someone who hasn't played through to this part of the game. Having been exposed to the viciousness and brutality of Blackwater and having finally put a (somewhat unsatisfactory) end to your outlaw days, a return to a more straightforward, rural life is incredibly affecting. You might not be taking on gangs of armed bandits, but the idea of spending a few hours tending to your herd, teaching your son to shoot -- the quiet life -- feels like a reward. As I pointed out, Read Dead Redemption essentially apes the entire plot of Unforgiven, yet for everything that film did right, at no point did it make me feel any sort of emotional connection to Clint Eastwood's character. At no point did I have the tiniest inkling of what it meant to put down guns, leave the outlaw way of life behind and to settle down. For everything Read Dead Redemption did wrong, I understood this. I felt this.

In many ways, the twenty-four years that separate Kane and Read Dead Redemption are like the hundred-something years that separate the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar. There's no question that Cameron trumps the Lumieres in terms of sheer spectacle, but it's debatable whether his film actually represents a century of storytelling progress. The level of technological sophistication in Read Dead Redemption is leaps and bounds above that of Kane, but at the same time, there can be little doubt that the level of storytelling has also improved. Granted, we're talking about the progression from virtually nothing to mere cave paintings, but it's still a demonstrable improvement. But, more hopefully, there's improvement in the right direction. Rather than simply aping films and filmic conventions, videogames are finding their own feet when it comes to storytelling. They are using the uniqueness of their own medium to their advantage.

It's a start, right?

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Almost three years on, Clint Hocking’s Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock is still dangerous.

If you’ve got five minutes, you should go read his essay now, but if you had a quick look and you’re still all “tl;dr”, here’s the short-short version of Hocking’s argument: while the story in BioShock is all about freedom, choice and power, the story of player’s actions (what Hocking calls the ‘ludonarrative’ of the game) is restricted to one pre-defined path. So, despite all the talk of free…

Side-Quests and Narrative

Almost three years on, Clint Hocking's Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock is still dangerous.

If you've got five minutes, you should go read his essay now, but if you had a quick look and you're still all "tl;dr", here's the short-short version of Hocking's argument: while the story in BioShock is all about freedom, choice and power, the story of player's actions (what Hocking calls the 'ludonarrative' of the game) is restricted to one pre-defined path. So, despite all the talk of free will and choice, the player actually has no choice in the game since it does not provide an option for the player to do anything but help Atlas.

The danger in Hocking's argument comes from the way that it makes you realise how prevalent this ludonarrative disconnect is within games. It's like the little arrow in the FedEx logo: suddenly, you can't see anything but this dissonance.

Right now, I'm slowly playing through Mass Effect 2. I say "slowly" because, not only am I experiencing a difficulty with the underlying story and mechanics of the game (I find that the cookie-cutter structure of the missions gets a little stale after 12 hours or so), but also because the ludonarrative dissonance in Mass Effect 2 means I am not as fully absorbed in the game as I really wish I could be, so I can't do anything but slowly chip away at it.

##The problem with Mass Effect 2

Like the majority of videogames, Mass Effect 2 is about saving the galaxy. Huge, terrifying aliens are coming to destroy all life and - surprise! - only your character can stop it. This is the 'main quest' of the game, and given the weight of it - the protection of all life in the galaxy - it should be your number one priority. Except there is nothing forcing you down this path. In fact, the game does the opposite; rather than forcing anything, it presents the player with an smorgasbord of 'side quests' and gives the player the option of how he or she wants to play the game.

Heavily influencing my playing of Mass Effect 2 is my experience playing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I powered my way through the main quest of that game in the course of a couple of evenings. I completely avoided all of the side-quests or, indeed, anything that would take me from the path that would lead to me destroying all the oblivion gates and saving the world - I mean, who has time to join guilds and fight in gladiatorial arenas for sportI did actually complete the arena missions in Oblivion - one of the advantages of playing through the game the way I did was that I never got to a high enough level that the monsters were particularly difficult. The arena missions, then, were an easy way to make a lot of money in the game when there's an evil demonic force sweeping the land? In the end, the game was fun, but after I completed it, I didn't see much point in playing the rest of the game. The rest of the game being where everyone says the real enjoyment is to be had. In effect, I sabotaged my own experience of this game.

With this in mind, I'm doing things differently with Mass Effect 2. I'm trying to play each and every side-quest I can find. I'm scanning planets, talking to every random stranger, endorsing each and every shop on the citadel and trying to fuck just about every character I think the game will allow me to. Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying Mass Effect 2. These parts of the game are actually lots of fun and amazingly relaxing ways to kill a few hours. Except they're completely at odds with the story. In most of the cut-scenes, my character shouts about how the reapers are coming and there's no time for X - the galaxy is in danger and time is running out!

And yet, I waste hours - literally hours - scanning planets for minerals.

To make it worse, the game actually encourages this ridiculous disconnect. For example, your crew members will occasionally come to you with a problem that present new missions. If you choose to help them, completing these missions will increase their loyalty to you. When you first speak to them about these problems, there are two conversation options: "Sure, I'll help" or "Sorry, there's no time". Within the context of the game, I'm left asking: why does that second choice even exist? If my hours of fucking around scanning planets has taught me anything, it's that there is time. Lots and lots of time. Even still, if you agree to help your crew member, this mission just becomes another side-quest which you can tackle whenever you want. There's nothing compelling you to go and deal with it right there (which is good, because in my game, Jacob's dad has been in trouble for a couple of weeks now). Theoretically, you could say "sure, I'll help", completely ignore them and finish the main quest without any sort of punishment.

Within individual missions, too, there's a lack of urgency or engagement. The game will tell you that someone is in trouble, that their life is hanging by a thread, but at the same time, the game actively encourages and rewards slow and methodical exploration. So, rather than rushing to the next area where the hostages are being held, you should first examine every nook and cranny, hack 'datapads', break into wall-safes, collect the ammo that has conveniently been left lying around the place. Take your time because the game, and the character who is supposedly in danger, will wait.

In my 22+ hours of playing Mass Effect 2, I have come across one - ONE - mission that was time-based and had a sense of urgency. A side-mission in which the player must stop a missile from launching within a set time limit. One mission out of maybe sixty.

I don't mean to single out Mass Effect 2 with this complaint. Lots of other games suffer from the same problem. I finished the penultimate mission in the main quest of Fallout 3 before deciding that instead of facing the climax of that game and saving everyone, I would rather wander the wasteland with my dog and giant supermutant friend, hunting out all the side-questsUnlike Oblivion, it used to be that when you finished Fallout 3, you couldn't go back and continue to play the game and explore the world - this was corrected in a subsequent patch. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is another example. You could rescue Zelda, or you could kick some chickens for hours and hours. In fact, it's almost a genre staple: the RPG whose over-arching 'main' story is less important than the abundance of side-quests.

Other games have been more daring in their approach to the time mechanic and what it means for the narrative. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, for example, has actual, time-based consequences, constantly increasing the tension in that game. Dead Rising is also built around time: the entire game takes place over the course of three days, and actions occur at certain times within that world (and, unlike BioShock, this game does give the player the option of non-participation. The player can simply sit around doing nothing, waiting for the game's three-day timer to run out and for rescue to arrive. It's not a great ending, but at least it's catered for).

Having been disappointed by powering my way through Oblivion and disappointed by taking my time with Mass Effect 2, how should I tackle Dragon Age: Origins?

Recipe: Spicy Potato Wedges

We hosted our first movie night last night. A bunch of friends came around and, in honour of this god-awful heatwave, we turned on the air conditioning and watched A Guide to Recognising Your Saints.

I made a few snacks for us to nibble on during the movie. Some were more of a success than others. The bean and cheese pate? Yeah, I probably won't be making that one again. By far, the biggest hit of the night were the spicy potato wedges. I know this sounds embarrassing for someone who loves junk food AND loves to cook, but this is the first time I felt like I actually nailed spicy potato wedges. They were spot-on. What's more embarrassing was how easy they were to make.

A couple of people asked me for the recipe, so here it is.

Spicy Potato Wedges

  • 1kg Medium/Large Potatoes
  • 1tbsp Olive Oil
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • salt and pepper
  1. Get the oven on hot. I put ours onto fan-assist, 200°.
  2. Pour some oil into a roasting tray and put it into the oven to get hot.
  3. Cut the potatoes into halves, then cut those halves in half again.
  4. Put all the ingredients into a large bowl and combine.
  5. Once the oven is hot enough and the oil is moving around that roasting tray, pour in the potatoes.
  6. Tossing occasionally, cook for about 25 minutes, or until they're done to your liking.

I'd show you a photo of what the end result looked like, but honestly, we ate the fuck out of those things. I didn't have a chance.

Review: Tom Bissell - Extra Lives

If you're someone who plays videogames, have you ever tried to explain why you like videogames to a non-gamer? Horrible, right? Conversely, if you don't play videogames, have you ever had a videogame nerd try to explain why he or she likes videogames? Horrible, right? The problem is that videogames are a tough 'sell'. Let's face it, for the most part, videogames are antisocial things that seem to bring out the worst habits in peopleI guess I should point out that it's not just videogames that bring out the worst qualities in people, some board games do too. I remember playing Trivial Pursuit with my wife who wouldn't give me a wedge because I had said "Rock and Roll Music" when the answer was "Rock Music" - this will never be forgotten in my house. I scream and shout and swear at the TV all the time when I'm playing games. Even a seemingly 'quiet' and slow-paced game like Risk: Factions has me trying to break my controller with my bare hands (something I haven't actually done since the days of the SNES). My wife often complains about how I remain 'twitchy' for hours after playing certain games. In fact, she uses this as a sort of litmus test to see if I'm lying and, instead of working or studying, I've actually been shooting fools in Modern Warfare 2.

For someone who has never played videogames before, watching someone behave like a petulant child is hardly going to make them want to see what all the fuss is about.

I think that the best way to 'sell' videogames to a non-gamer is by talking about them from an experiential point of view, talking frankly and openly about the experiences a game has provided, rather than trying to describe the whole game in 500 words. This is something that has caught on in the last few years, the idea of New Games Journalism, where dispassionate cookie-cutter descriptions of videogames with a meaningless score tacked on the end (7/10) were replaced with first-person accounts of play, focusing on the emotions evoked by certain experiences within the game. In effect, rather than trying to provide a description of the elephant as a whole, we are shifting our focus to each of the blind men's experiences because they have experienced this elephant in a closer, more intimate way than any simple overview could provide. In fact, I'm going to say that videogames are one of the few mediums where we can consistently focus on individual experiences. For example, how many people have come across the suicide man in Red Dead Redemption? How many people experienced the exact same story in Mass Effect or Dragon Age?

Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter is one of the first books that attempt to present a first-person, emotional account of someone's experiences playing videogames. As I mentioned before, Paste Magazine described it as "the first truly indispensable work of literary nonfiction about society’s most lucrative entertainment medium". Now, having read it, does it live up to this hype?

I'm sad to say: not really. I found it to be a wildly uneven book. It swings erratically between a genuinely entertaining account of the author's video gaming experiences, and a boring, dime-a-dozen primer on video games. For example, the chapter providing a blow-by-blow account of the opening minutes of Resident Evil might be interesting to someone who has never played the game before, but as someone who has played that game (and especially that section of that game) more times than he cares to admit, I found that there were very few actual insights in this chapter. I understand the desire to want your book to be as accessible to as many people as possible, but really, it just gets out of hand sometimes. Imagine writing a cookbook and explaining what a 'pot' was, or the etymology of 'recipe'. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. Except with videogames.

To make things worse, the author's literary background (because he's a real, legitimate, literary author, dontchaknow?) causes the whole thing to occasionally tumble over into the ridiculous. Like Roland Barthes reviewing Pac-Man.

Which is not to say it's all bad. There are moments of real genius in the book, but he rarely gives us more than just moments. Frequently, Bissell will touch on a topic or offer a profound observation only to drop it in favour of a more casual-friendly read that will appeal to a broader audience. And this is the real shame of the book. There's a terrific interview with Bissell on the Brainy Gamer podcast. I suppose the pre-defined audience of this podcast allowed him to go into a lot of detail regarding his experience with cocaine and GTA IV and the relationship between the two, why cocaine is the perfect drug to play GTA IV to. It was genuinely interesting and so I was left wondering why he couldn't have included these thoughts in the actual book he was promoting? It would have made the book a lot more enjoyable for both gamers and non-gamers alike.

(Also, since this is the internet - the perfect place to pick nits - I was a little dismayed by the inconsistency in the book. At the beginning, Bissell talks about the confusion caused by the variety of names people use to talk about videogames: "videogames", "video games" and "video-games", and announces that he has settled on "video games", yet he uses all three throughout the book. Would a little search-and-replace have killed him? I probably wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't explicitly addressed the issue of nomenclature himself.)

Although the book is definitely a great start, I feel as if Bissell failed to show us 'why video games matter', but instead tried to explain why video games matter to him. Even then, I don't think he did a great job. For a more engaging and coherent argument on why video games matter, check out the chapter in Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You.

Some things to check out if you want some really great examples of the kind of "New Games Journalism" that I felt Bissell was going for:

  • Bow Nigger. Arguably the first example of "New Games Journalism"
  • The Idle Thumbs Podcast, who spend much of their time talking about the ridiculous and fun things they get up to in games. They make it sound so appealing, it's hard not to want to join in and see what the fuss is about.
  • Ben Abraham's Permanent Death in Far Cry 2 is everything I think Bissell's FC2 chapter wishes it was.
  • Alice and Kev - a hilarious and touching exploration of homelessness in The Sims 3
  • The Gamer's Quarter - a terrific series of 'zines. I'm genuinely sad that they've stopped publishing.

We Deal in Lead

I've been thinking a lot about Kane, an early wild west game that came out on the Commodore 64 in the mid-80s. Actually, I doubt if it even counts as a 'game' by today's standards. Really it was just four mini-games - shooting birds (or rather, 'birdies'), riding a horse to the right, a shoot out, and then riding a horse to the left. The game wasn't particularly flashy, nor was the narrative wrapper that supposedly connected these mini-games (essentially, the plot of High Noon - "Kane" being the name of Gary Cooper's character in that movie).

Despite the flaws, I fucking loved that game.

I loved it because I was 10, and this was a game where I could pretend to be a cowboy. And when you’re a ten year old boy, all you want to do is to be a cowboy. For me, the small numbers of actions in the game actually added to the effect. I mean, what the hell else did cowboys do but shoot things and ride horses? That was just me, though. The Spectrum magazine, Crash, criticised the game for the limited amount of things you can do in the game, saying "it would be fun if there were about 10 more sections to battle through".

Playing through Rock Star’s Red Dead Redemption, I couldn’t help being reminded of Kane - one of the first games I ever played and definitely the first cowboy game I ever played - which then got me thinking about how far videogames have come. If you were to jump in a time machine and show this game to my ten-year old self (on a 60" HD LCD TV, natch), I can guarantee you I would have quite literally shit my pants.

While Kane was mostly played in static screens, with just four types of activity in the entire gameWell, two, if you want to be persnickety about the qualitative distinctions between riding left instead of right and shooting birds instead of dudes, there’s no shortage of activity in Red Dead Redemption. In my almost 35 hours of playing RDR, I never once felt bored or like I had nothing to do. There were always animals to hunt, outlaws to kill (and loot), horses to lasso and women to hogtie and place in front of a fast-approaching train. I love the amount and variety of possibilities that the game throws at the player. I've finished the story and I still have things to do, such as killing grizzly bears with my hunting knife.

What I love most about the Red Dead Redemption is the way it feels like a real, living world. I was always stumbling across little things, micro-stories that felt like they were happening completely independently of me and my actions. For example, while riding around Aurora Basin, hunting for bears, I spotted a man kneeling on the ground. I rode closer and saw that he was kneeling next to the body of a dead woman and bawling his eyes out. As I stood there, watching him cry, he took out a gun and shot himself in the head. I was completely stunned by this. I didn’t know what to do.

(I got off my horse and looted his body.)

I'm not particularly proud of my actions. All I'll say is that we all have our own ways of dealing with grief and kleptomania is mine. But let's just think about this: the amount of effort and number of man-hours put into crafting this one tiny, incidental scene in Red Dead Redemption probably outweighs the total amount of effort and number of man-hours put into the entirety of the making of Kane. And this was just a background action, something that would (apparently) happen whether I’d seen it or not. I could have missed it. I could have just as easily chosen to ride past the man without checking it out. It didn’t need to be there, but Rockstar put it in there because it fleshed out this world.

It's easy to be jaded about these things (and I definitely felt a bit disappointed the second time I came across the suicide-man) but my goodness - we've really come a long way. No wonder my ten-year old self would have shit his pants.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter →

I've spent a good portion of today checking out videos from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which just opened in Orlando. Sure, there's rollercoasters and all that junk, but what I love is the mise-en-scene of the whole thing. The attention to detail. Mobility scooters aside, Hogsmeade looks perfect.

The Ollivander's spiel made me wish I was 13 years old again (the 31-year old me couldn't help but see the genius of the scam behind it - what parent is not going to buy a wand for their child after it has 'chosen them').

The AttractionsMagazine youtube channel has tons more, if you're also a giant man-child and fancy wasting a couple of hours too.