Death of the Game Manual

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Ubisoft have announced that they are ditching paper manuals for games in favour of electronic on-disc copies. This is sad news. Not that I was particularly fond of paper manuals - they are now mostly just legal boilerplates more than anything to do with the game - but because this means we're almost at the end of game pack-ins entirely.

I was a little disappointed when games switched to DVD-style cases. Yes, it's great that publishers finally settled on a standard shape and size for their boxes and my games collection doesn't look like a fucking cardboard shanty town, but it also meant that game designers couldn't pack extra things into the game box. Back in the 80s, Infocom games usually came with 'feelies'. These were ostensibly copy protection, but it's not fair to say that's all they were. Rather than the usual, bland, hard-to-photocopy sheets of teeny-tiny numbers for the game to ask you "what is the number in row G, column 16?", the Infocom feelies also gave you something that felt like an artefact from the game world. It was something physical that helped you identify with the game, made the game come alive and feel more realAnd let's face it, those Infocom text adventures needed all the help they could get to feel more real.

Looking back, I think most of my favourite games had some sort of pack-in to enhance the player's experience. For example, the graphic adventure of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came with a small, 20 or 30 page replica of the grail diary on top of the usual copy-protection. It wasn't essential and you didn't need this grail diary to finish the game, but they gave them out anyway. As an 11-year old who was crazy for that game, this cheap, paper copy broke the game's fourth wall and made the whole experience more real. It felt like treasure.

More recently, there's Heavy Rain which has you hunting for a serial killer known as the "Origami Killer", who gets his name from the fact he leaves a little origami figure in the cold, dead hands of his victims. Origami is used as a visual motif for the entire game, right down to the logo to indicate the game is being saved. Even though creator David Cage has a major boner for movies, he ignored the whole ubiquitous floating head idea for the poster, and stuck stuck with a simple image of the origami crane from the game.

When you're installing the game, a process that can take a few minutes, a message comes up on the screen to tell you to take out the flat sheet of paper packed into the case and, over the course of 12 steps, you're taught how to make your own origami crane, just like the one from the cover. Things to keep you distracted while your game loads/installs aren't anything newYou hearing me, Kojima? Watching an old fart smoking for 10 minutes is not fun, but it's hard not to be impressed by Heavy Rain's implementation. It's different, it's fun. And how difficult was it? It's a sheet of paper, yet that one sheet of paper enhanced my experience of the game and my overall impression of the care that went into the game.

So today I'm pouring a 40Not literally, obviously. What a waste of booze for game manuals and pack-in tchotchkes. At least we have special editions, right?

Videogames, Art and Ebert

Going back to the old well of the videogames-and-art debate, film critic, Roger Ebert is once again trolling the entire internet by pronouncing from the mount, that video games can never be art. For writers, these kinds of articles are a great way of generating ad revenue, since they represent a massive source of 'clicks' and comments. For contrast, an insightful article about uncovering the meaning of Michael Haneke's Cache got 224 comments in three months, in three days his anti-videogame piece has gotten over 1200. I ususally try to avoid feeding internet trolls - especially one who makes a living criticising movies and yet whose contributions to that same medium are completely appalling - but I'm making an exception here. Mainly because of a couple of things Ebert has said that I feel are completely bone-headed.

The first, talking about Braid:

Her next example is a game named "Braid". This is a game "that explores our own relationship with our past...you encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there's one key difference...you can't die." You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.

I can't argue with his criticism of the prose in the game. It really is that hackneyed and bullshit. However, the issue is that he clearly has not played, nor sat down and watched anyone play, Braid. If he had, he would have realised that the going-back-in-time mechanic in the game is not just some giant "undo" button. It's not a ctrl-z for your mistakesEbert's bone-headed argument here seems to be that this mechanic is seen as antithetical in the game of chess. This is like complaining that the rules of Poker go completely against the 'discipline' of the game of chess. What the hell is he talking about?. The game relies on your ability to manipulate the flow of time, and it's this mechanic that really sets this game apart from other platform-puzzling games. Not only because you play it and are completely awed by how someone could create something this clever, but also because it's also the thing that gives the ending the emotional impact that it has - the time mechanic allows a level of reflection and re-evaluation that feels cheap and manipulative when done through more conventional storytelling methods (As in BioShock, for example).

For fun, contrast Ebert's dismissal of Braid to his love for Harold Pinter's Betrayal, a film which uses a similar storytelling device. Writing about the film in 1983, Ebert says

When Pinter's stage version of "Betrayal" first appeared, back in the late 1970s, there was a tendency to dismiss his reverse chronology as a gimmick. Not so. It is the very heart and soul of this story.

Now in 2010, here comes Ebert, dismissing Braid's time-manipulation device as a mere 'gimmick'. He's wrong. It's the heart and soul of this storyThat's not to say that it's all about the mechanics. The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom has a similar time-manipulation mechanic, but has no emotional payoff. The story and the writing in that game just aren't able to pull it off..

Talking about Flower, Ebert says

We come to Example 3, "Flower". A run-down city apartment has a single flower on the sill, which leads the player into a natural landscape. The game is "about trying to find a balance between elements of urban and the natural." Nothing she shows from this game seemed of more than decorative interest on the level of a greeting card. Is the game scored? She doesn't say. Do you win if you're the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?

I think this passage highlights precisely why Ebert will never 'get it' - he still thinks that games are about competition. He's still stuck in the Pong mentality of 'avoid missing ball for high score'. For him, games are strictly about 'winning'. This is not the case, any more than films are about using narrative devices to tell a story ('sup Koyaanisqatsi?). For reference, no, there's no score in Flower, and there's no 'winning'. This is a game that you play just for the joy of playing.

And it's completely divisive. People either hate it or love it.

Personally, I'm firmly in the 'love it' camp. Let me explain why. Like most people, I went through a fairly rough patch when I turned 30. Anxiety, depression, all that fun stuff. All stemming from an overwhelming fear, not so much of death, but rather of non-existence. And everything I read or watched exacerbated this fear. For example, I made the stupid mistake of reading The Road in the middle of this funk. Even more stupidly, I watched The Wrestler. It seemed like everywhere I looked, things just made me aware of my own mortality and how fragile it is.

Flower, by contrast, made me aware of the beauty of life and nature. More importantly, it delivered this message with an experience I could not get anywhere else. People talk about how it's the interactivity of videogames heightens the emotional impact of whatever you're doing, whether it's shooting some fool in the face or trampling prostitutes. Flower shows this swings both ways. Transcending the TV-controller interface, I was a gust of wind, bringing life to the environment. Although it sounds simplistic, it is precisely this simplicity that helped the game have such a profound effect on me. Think back to American Beauty, an Ebert favourite. This is a film that beat us over the head with its message, and so we are treated to five minutes of staring a plastic bag blowing in the wind, with some weird gargoyle-looking man telling the audience "this is beautiful". Fuck this didactic bullshit. Flower lets us experience this beauty for ourselves. It doesn't tell us, it shows us.

And this is exactly what videogames can be so good at. Showing, not telling. In a world where elephants can splash about paint and people call it 'art', I think it's a bit much to say that videogames can never be art. Especially when they're doing such a great job of beating movies at their own game.

Sweating the Small Stuff →

Secret Lab tells us why the promotional images for the iPad show 9:41am (and the iPhones all say 9:42am). I love that even the trivial, incidental stuff tells a story.

You Should be Watching: How to Make it in America

Remember when Entourage was good? This was way, way back. Back before the writers went off on wild story-tangents that no-one cared about and before almost every character became completely unrecognisable, loathsome shells of their former selvesAri Gold as empathetic solver of personal problems? FUCK YOU.

Yeah, good times.

There's definitely a sense that with their new show, How to Make it in America, HBO is trying to recapture the spirit of the early Entourage. At its core, the show about a couple of schmoes trying to... uh... make it.

In America.

New York, to be precise. And no, they haven't quite managed to capture the fun, carefree spirit of early Entourage. My wife has yet to watch an entire episode without commenting on how much she hates the main character ("Look at his face! It's so hateful!"). And it's true, Bryan Greenberg comes from the school of acting where "emoting" means "look smug whilst simultaneously looking like you're nonchalantly trying to pass a kidney stone".

Which all sounds terribly negative, and it probably would be if this is all there was to the show. So thank goodness the show is more of an ensemble piece. People like Eddie Kaye Thomas, Shannyn Sossamon and Martha Plimpton pop up occasionally. HBO regular James Ransone (Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire, Corporal Ray Person from Generation Kill) even appears in a blink-and-you-miss-him cameo. But, best of all, it's got Luis Guzman. I mean this in a completely hetero way: I love Luis Guzman. His dreadful sitcom aside, I think Luis Guzman steals the show whatever he appears in, and, more importantly, he also makes things infinitely more watchable. He's even one of the best things about Community, and that only has a statue of him. He's perfect in How to Make it in America, playing a felon released from jail and trying to establish himself as a legitimate businessman (with his energy drink, Rasta Monster). He alone makes the show worth watching.

It's still early days yet, and I'm not quite sure I know where the show is going, but it's definitely worth checking out.

Random notes

Aloe Blacc - I Need A Dollar (Official Video) from Stones Throw on Vimeo.

Tremerz →

Flash game of "Tremors" - fuck yes.

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Lost reimagined as a Saturday-morning kid's cartoon. More over at Behance.net

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"Avatard"

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Belladonna has her own World of Warcraft guild and she's psyched for Final Fantasy XIV. Mind: blown.

The good thing is that since I don’t work for anyone else, I’m my own boss and I schedule everything. I know that I can push things back a little or switch things around so when I do let myself go and play World of Warcraft for two weeks, I’m ok. It does kind of slow you down. Usually, I’ll get things done and get ahead of myself, but sometimes it’s fun to just let yourself go and play video games all day long.

Read the entire interview on original-gamer.com