I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)
This is a good example of video game analysis done right. Scott’s description of the different levels of Deus Ex‘s story reminds me of (you guessed it) Gayden Wren’s style of analysis. You know how I love that.
As I’ve mentioned before, Deus Ex is one of my favorite games, and its atmosphere–which the game’s creator Warren Spector called “millennial weirdness”–was one of the major influences on my novella. I recommend watching this review for anyone who doesn’t play games to see what I mean.
Coincidentally, Spector tweeted this today (The embed tweet code isn’t working; sorry):
“When is a game going to win a Pulitzer Prize? Are we ready and deserving of such an honor? Can we at least TRY to be worthy of that? Please.”
Before watching Scott’s video, I probably wouldn’t have said Deus Ex deserved it, but having seen it, I realized that as a piece of “entertainment pseudo-journalism”, I decided it was.
“Reactivity”. “Choice and consequences”. “Influence”. These are the watchwords for the RPGs designed by Chris Avellone.
For example, one of the major features of Alpha Protocol(2010) was the branching path structure of its story, depending on what the player chose to do. The world of Alpha Protocol reacted to the player’s choices, making it feel like they were really changing the story as they played.
More than just being a quirk of game mechanic design, this philosophy permeates the Avellone-led Black Isle/Obsidian RPGs in surprising ways. It goes beyond just being a player ego-stroking mechanism into every aspect of the games.
Planescape: Torment‘s protagonist can influence the story, setting and other characters in countless ways, and while this in itself makes for an interesting game, the mechanic complements the theme of the story: that belief can influence reality itself. Musings on self-fulfilling prophecies and consensus reality are integrated with the structure of the game.
If video games are power fantasies, designed to make players feel like they can impact the world, then these RPGs are both archetypal examples and subtly subversive at the same time. While they allow the player to make all manner of changes to the game world, they also ask the player to reflect on the consequences of their actions.
It is a delicate balance, but in a medium defined by user input, the experience is most satisfying if the need to tell a story is balanced with giving the player choice in how it unfolds–if the story is the player’s story, and the player is not simply a bystander.
In many games, the player is to the game’s plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are at best just there to perform the requisite tasks to fulfill the writer’s story. Not so with Planescape/KotOR II/Alpha Protocol–in these, the player is the story.
Perhaps the most famous of Avellone’s characters is the enigmatic Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. She embodies the philosophy of player choice more so than any other single character. (Her avowed hatred of the predestination element of the Force could be interpreted as opposition to the “railroading” so common in games.)
Kreia is seemingly amoral, allied with neither the Jedi nor the Sith, but uses both to achieve her goals. To gain influence with her, the Jedi Exile (the player’s character) must show that they can make logical choices consistent with furthering their own long-term goals–in other words, that they understand choice and consequence. Kreia doesn’t care if you are good or evil–just so long as you know what you are doing and can strategize to make it happen.
In this way, the game mechanics, characters and story are all fully integrated. The mechanics reinforce the characters who reinforce the theme. This level of coherence is what produces a truly satisfying experience. When game mechanics clash with the theme or the story, the player feels subconsciously confused.
Since games, unlike other art forms, rely on user input to tell the story, it only makes sense to center them around the user’s input in every respect. If thematic coherence is what makes Art great, the greatest games should surely be built around the idea of player choice.
I normally don’t like games that are just about repetitive gameplay. I like to make progress through a story, and reach a satisfying ending. To just keep doing the same thing to try and get a high score doesn’t really appeal to me.
But Faster Than Lightis an exception to the rule. The game, in spite of its 1990s-caliber graphics and nearly-impossible to win gameplay, it’s extremely fun and addictive. (It doesn’t hurt that the Advanced Edition has material written by the great Chris Avellone.)
The idea is that you are in command of a starship, and you have make through nine sectors to fight the enemy flagship. You can get different types of starships, with different crews, weapons and layouts. I’ve only unlocked one so far, and I’ve never beaten the enemy flagship. That’s right: I’ve never actually won the game.
It doesn’t matter, though. FTL is a journey, not a destination. As you travel through the sectors, you never know what will happen. Sometimes, you’ll get a free laser weapon upgrade, or “scrap” (money). Other times, you might be lured into a trap by evil aliens. You never know what you’ll run into. It really is like playing a season of Star Trek.
Another element I normally hate, but FTL makes enjoyable, is the resource management aspect of things. I normally am terrible at this, but in this game you have enough downtime between space battles to think about whether you wan to upgrade lasers, shields, engines, etc. You’re not rushed in making decisions.
The best part is, it’s available on the iPad, which makes it easy to take with me. Only downside to that is I end up getting hooked when I really should be doing something else.
There are a few nit-picks–the menus are kind of dense, and on the iPad sometimes I end up pressing a menu button when I want to select a part of the ship. But it’s not a big deal. I can hardly wait how much fun it will be when I actually win it.
I still don’t care for the setting, but I will admit that it is so beautiful and atmospheric I can kind of get past that–it is a seriously gorgeous game, and it is really fun just to wander around the huge open-world with no aim, admiring the scenery.
But of course, this is a Bethesda production, so the minute you start to run into anything related to the plot or characters, things get silly. The major issue so far in the game is that dragons are attacking the land for some reason, even though everyone thought they had been destroyed a long time ago. The opening sequence of the game involves a dragon attack, which is a shock to all the characters around.
Naturally, we learn that the player character is special, being a “dragonborn”, which gives them the power to absorb dragon souls, or something. And of course there is a prophecy about it all. (First rule of fantasy: there is always a prophecy. I guess they make their prophets in volume.)
My character has already been in five or six battles with dragons, and won all of them by hitting the dragon with a hammer when it lands ten yards away. This makes the dragons seem, frankly, stupid. They could win continually if they just stayed up in the air, or perched somewhere I couldn’t get at them with my hammer. But no, they obligingly allow themselves to be drawn into my kind of fight. It’s the “Cthulhu Problem” all over again.
Then there is the dialogue. In one town that I rolled into while running away from monsters, there is some mystery that has to do with a house being burned down. The locals are too afraid to investigate, because they are, according to the “Jarl” (the executive of the town) “too superstitious”.
I wanted to say to the Jarl “Of course they are! We live in a world where dragons attack people and sorcerers openly summon evil spirits. Just yesterday I was attacked by a gang of reanimated skeletons. You’d be an idiot not to be superstitious in this world!”
(The house mystery, by the way, turns out to be the fault of vampires. And the clues to solving it are provided by ghosts. Yeah, I’d say the people are right to be superstitious.)
Also, there is the recurring problem of people saying essentially “well, hello there, heavily-armed stranger who just ran in three seconds ago from the vast wilderness populated by legions of bandits and bloodthirsty monsters. Here are all the secret intrigues and problems of everyone in town.. Please help fix them.” This problem is to some extent inevitable in a game like this, but I think it could still be handled more deftly.
And then there is the criminal justice system in Skyrim. It’s set up so the guards will attack you if you commit crimes against the people of a given town. Neat idea, but I don’t see how it is that stealing a carrot can be punishable by death, whereas hitting the Jarl in the face with a sword can be forgiven if you put the sword down afterwards. (And yes, Fallout: New Vegas suffered from this too, a bit.)
In short, so far it seems to be Fallout 3 all over again, only more so: awesome scenery and landscape, laughable character interactions, plot and dialogue. And like Fallout 3, I’m having fun with it. More than I expected actually. If they had only gotten Obsidian Entertainment to write it, they would have had another masterpiece on their hands.
This time of year is always important for the video game industry, as they move their products into stores for the coming holiday rush. Games have become one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment, with recent years seeing multi-million dollar launch events that break records once belonging to Hollywood. Early December is the peak time of year for selling the latest installments in hit franchises to loyal fans.
10 years ago today, the sequel to 2003’s Game Of The Year was released. And not only was it a sequel to an award-winning instant classic; it was set in the Star Wars universe; George Lucas’s billion-dollar space-faring fantasy whose allure has captivated generations. Small wonder, with such a pedigree and promise, that LucasArts was eager to ensure it was released in time for the Christmas shoppers–they wanted to be sure to get everything they could out of this highly-anticipated title.
This eagerness caused them to encourage Obsidian Entertainment to push the release of the game forward, even if it meant not having time to finish the ending as originally planned. The result was that the game, though eagerly bought up by thousands of fans, did not receive quite the same delighted reviews as its predecessor; that it was criticized as incomplete, or incoherent. Its last few hours in particular were perceived as a rushed muddle of action sequences that arrived at a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion.
And so with this moderate, but not spectacular, success behind it, the “Old Republic” franchise moved on; to be resurrected again, briefly, first as a book and then as an MMORPG to go to war against World of Warcraft–a war which, like the Mandalorian Wars that form the background of KotOR II, is a futile and depressing effort from which no combatant ever returns victorious.
Obsidian Entertainment has moved on as well, most notably to the retro-futuristic Mojave wasteland of Fallout: New Vegas. Both developer and franchise have gone their separate ways; and though talk of another Obsidian-made Star Wars game surfaces now and again, it seems likely that, given Disney’s purchase of the galaxy far, far away, the darker and more mature tones Obsidian always brings to their stories may not be as welcome.
So what to make of Knights of the Old Republic II, ten years later? Now that the Star Wars film series has been ended and revived yet again, now that Mass Effect, BioWare’s spiritual successor to KotOR I, has run its course, and left its original fans as bitter as Star Wars fans dismayed at the prequel trilogy; where does that leave Obsidian’s strangely rough, brooding tale of the exiled Jedi who travels the galaxy not to defeat an Empire or rescue a princess, but to come to terms with the effects of war on the human psyche?
In spite of the name, canonical Star Wars has rarely been about war. The original film series depicts an insurrection against a tyrannical empire; but this occurs largely in a couple of battles–primarily, the story is about the Skywalker family. The prequels deal with the run-up to a war in the first two films, and the end of that war in the third, but Lucas shunted the details of the war into comic books. (A few of which were written by KotOR II creative lead, Chris Avellone.)
The Sith Lords, though, is very much about war, though not in the shallow sense of being a Call of Duty clone with a Star Wars coat of paint. KotOR II is about war in the way that The Deer Hunter is about war–it is exploring the mental and spiritual toll that war takes on everyone it touches. Or, as Kreia tells the Exile early in the game: “You are the battlefield. And if you fall, the death of the Republic will be such a quiet thing, a whisper, that shall herald the darkness to come.”
Kreia is always the focal point for any discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, and even the game’s detractors will usually admit that she is one of the greatest characters in the history of video games. A mysterious old woman, allied neither with the Jedi nor the Sith, yet overwhelmingly knowledgeable about both, she at once fits the Star Wars tradition of the Wise Mentor and violates it utterly. She is a gadfly in the Star Wars universe, questioning everyone and everything; and by the end, the player comes to understand that her rebellion is against the Force itself; the mysterious metaphysical “energy field” which most characters accept with a (sometimes literal) hand-wave, but which she attempts to understand and destroy. Many players find it immensely satisfying to see this brown-cloaked Nietzsche slicing through the pop-philosophy of Lucas’s universe.
Kreia’s occasionally harsh criticism of the player’s actions are emblematic of one of KotOR II‘s distinctive features: namely, that it is not necessarily meant to make the player feel good. In literature, film and television, it is common for a story to leave the audience sad, or contemplative, or shocked. But games are meant to entertain; and to write one that does not simply laud the player for their victories over ever more powerful foes, but instead compels them to think about what they are doing–to think of, as Zez Kai-Ell says in the game’s pivotal scene, “all the death you caused to get here”–was a bold move, indeed.
In this way, KotOR II is the forerunner of another one of the most fascinating games released in recent years–2012’s Spec Ops: The Line. Though different in style and in tone, (not to mention that SO:TL is far more polished and graphically advanced) Yager’s dark satire of military shoot-’em-ups is at its core the same tale as KotOR II: that of a soldier who commits an atrocity and is forced to face the consequences.
But while Spec Ops is a sharp, tightly-plotted tale with every element integrated into its gripping narrative, KotOR II is less minutely-engineered, and more filled with oddities and curious plot threads which lead in unexpected directions–or sometimes nowhere at all, thanks to the content having been cut at the eleventh hour. While this makes the game seem less focused and at times even hard to follow, it also lends it a certain feeling of scope; an epic, vast implied scale that even next-generation open-world RPGs have not matched. There is a hauntingly depressing quality to the sprawling modules of Citadel station, of gloomy isolation to the corridors of Peragus, and of melancholic splendor to the partially restored surface of Telos, that creates a peculiarly memorable and powerful mood.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about KotOR II‘s plot threads without also discussing The Sith Lords Restoration Project–the fan-made effort to restore the cut content. While interesting in its own right, and a must-play for any fan of the game, the restored content ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Some of it really is integral to the story, but other parts are relevant only as curiosities, and serve only to add unnecessary complications to the game’s already complex plot.
But even with the missing pieces restored, insofar as possible, KotOR II remains a very odd, misfit game–an exile, like its enigmatic, war-worn protagonist. If the original KotOR was an effort at making a playable version of the summer swashbuckling blockbuster epic that Star Wars helped revive, then KotOR II was an attempt at making a playable version of a more mature, David Lean-ish kind of epic. It is not designed for commercial success and records, but for critical success and acclaim. It is Oscar Bait in a medium that does not receive Oscars.
It is possible that being part of such a widely recognized franchise hurt its chances among the very people most likely to appreciate its many virtues. Critics searching for video games that prove the medium is a mature art form, not merely an entertaining diversion, can be too quick to dismiss a “mainstream” game in search of something more unusual. And few entertainment franchises show a more striking disparity between their commercial success and their reputation among critics than Star Wars.
In spite of its less-than-universal acclaim, though, KotOR II has not been completely forgotten by gamers. In 2010, it was included in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Kreia still frequently appears on lists like “best video game characters” and “best female antagonists in video games”. But it has not been considered particularly “influential”, either; certainly, it has not become a household name like, for example, Valve’s Half-Life 2, released three weeks earlier.
Much of the plot of Knights of the Old Republic II is concerned with finding that which has been lost–be it knowledge, people, or places. As Kreia explains at the end, the real “lost Jedi” the Exile has been searching for have been there all along–“they simply needed a leader and a teacher”. Similarly, the nightmarish planet of Malachor V–the site of the pivotal battle that is at the heart of the game’s entire plot–had been forgotten by the Sith Lords of times past, before being rediscovered in the Mandalorian Wars and spawning the innumerable stories of victory, heroism, defeat, death and horror that the Jedi Exile encounters on the journey across the galaxy.
And so it is fitting, as the medium matures and gamers and game critics cast about for evidence to prove its legitimacy as an art form, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords sits quietly on the fringes of the game universe like Malachor V; not at the center of attention, perhaps, but still well remembered by all who have seen it firsthand.
As the preeminent video game critic of my time <insert laugh track here>, I feel compelled to weigh in on the recent series of events referred to as “GamerGate”.
As I have stated before, I absolutely despise this habit of appending “-gate” to everything that is considered a scandal. Following this logic, you’d think the Watergate scandal was about water. Attention, people born after the 1970s: the Watergate was an office complex. The scandal was called that because it centered around a break-in at said office complex.
The origins of GamerGate are shrouded in the mists of the internet, but the facts are these, as related by that always perfectly factual and unbiased source of information, Wikipedia:
The controversy came to wider attention due to the sustained harassment that indie game developer Zoe Quinn was subjected to after an ex-boyfriend posted numerous allegations on his blog in August 2014, including that she had a “romantic relationship” with a Kotaku journalist, which prompted concerns that the relationship led to positive media coverage for her game. Although these concerns proved unfounded, allegations about journalistic ethics continued to clash with allegations of harassment and misogyny.
Kotaku is a video game focused blog from the Gawker network. Being outraged at them for giving biased coverage to a given game is a bit like being outraged at The Chicago Tribune for giving biased coverage to the Chicago Bears. Or maybe being outraged at Weekly World News for giving biased coverage to Bat Boy.
Zoe Quinn’s game Depression Quest supposedly, according to the GamerGate crowd, got more favorable press than it merited, either because she was romantically involved with a critic (not true) or else because the gaming press generally was biased in favor of a game made by a woman.
Might the latter be true? Sure. Remember, the first rule of journalism is that “Dog Bites Man” is not a story, but “Man Bites Dog’ is, because it’s unusual. “Man Makes Game” is not interesting, because most games are made by men. So of course the press would pay extra attention to her game; regardless of any extracurricular romantic activity on anyone’s part.
Now, I don’t know how much coverage the game really got compared to a lot of the triple-A titles. I do know that I would never have heard of it if not for this GamerGate business. So they have not exactly done a marvelous job, if their goal was to correct what they saw as an imbalance in the game’s favor in terms of press coverage.
But things quickly went beyond Zoe Quinn and her game. First, internet troublemakers started publishing her personal information online. People responded by saying the attacks on Quinn were “misogynistic” and constituted harassment. More troublemakers responded to this by posting those people’s personal information as well.
Among the people whose info was posted was actress and writer Felicia Day, after she wrote a post about “GamerGate”. This is noteworthy because Day’s biggest claim to fame is writing the web comedy The Guild, the final season of which culminates with a huge protest made by a bunch of gamers, who have something of a reasonable point, but undermine it with their insults, sexual innuendos, and boorish behavior. Life imitates Art, it seems, and all that stuff has given the “GamerGaters” a bad name; and while their concern may be journalistic ethics, they have been completely overshadowed by the trolls on this one.
Putting aside all the sordid instances of harassment against female gamers/game developers/journalists that have been perpetrated by those allegedly affiliated with the “GamerGate” crowd–which invariably devolve into arguments over who is truly part of the “GamerGate’ crowd–I want to focus on what a singularly unlikely and useless thing it is to want “ethics” and “fairness” from gaming journalism.
First of all, we will never have unbiased gaming journalism as long as companies like Electronic Arts exist and have a seemingly endless supply of money to throw at promoting whatever re-hash of a game they are selling. (I actually don’t despise EA as much as many do; but I think they are a negative influence on gaming.)
I don’t know what an un-biased entertainment journalism industry would look like, to be honest. I mean, what’s the idea? the good games get coverage and the bad ones don’t? Well, I mean, this may shock people, but there are disagreements as to whether particular games are good or bad. I love KoTOR II; other people hate it. I thought Half-Life 2 was a mediocre FPS; most people think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Do people think we have an unbiased movie journalism industry? The truth is, which movies get reviewed and given awards is based on which studios decided to pay which journalists to review them, to submit them for which Academy Awards, etc., etc., etc.
Does this mean the gaming industry is doomed? No; not really. I don’t think that journalism matters that much when it comes to gaming. I don’t make my gaming decisions based on what some review on Kotaku said; I make it largely based on what genre it is and whether or not Chris Avellone wrote it.
Integrity, honesty and ethics are easy things to ask for from journalists who are covering subjects like politics, weather, crime and so on. We don’t get them, but it’s reasonable to ask for them. It’s much harder to ask for them from people covering art and literature. But the good news is, we don’t need integrity in gaming journalism; because we can just go right to Steam and download whatever strikes our fancy. I don’t care that Destructoid gave Alpha Protocol a 2 out of 10; I still know it’s a very good game. And I’ve said so. On this blog. That anyone can read.
Do you want to see an example of what happens when gaming journalism gets hit with a truly innovative game? Here it is:
If you’ve played the game, it’s hard not to cringe at some of the questions the reporter asks there. It’s not her fault, because nobody knew what to expect from SO:TL, but the questions are in anticipation of a typical “choose your ending”-type military game, when Spec Ops is… let’s say… different. If you think Depression Quest is ‘not for typical gamers’, well, Spec Ops is actively against them. You want to know more than that, play the game. But my point is just that all kinds of games can flourish now; gaming journalism isn’t holding them back.
Longtime readers know I love alternate interpretations of fiction. I never could make it through Majora’s Mask. Too weird, even for me, and I hate timed games. I loved Ocarina of Time though. In any event, this clever analysis by The Game Theorists does make me a bit more appreciative of the game’s merits:
Generally speaking, I don’t like to comment on peoples’ appearances much on this blog. You wouldn’t go up to random people and start criticizing their looks, so it seems similarly rude to do so in a public forum. It’s true that I occasionally do talk about it, as in this post, but I justify that by saying (1) it was about appearances as they related to politics, and (2) it was about politicians, who are sociopaths whose feelings can’t be hurt.
But for the most part, I try not to go around playing “hot or not” just for fun–people pay enough attention to surface appearances as it is, and this blog is supposed to be about examining the less-obvious things in the world, and the subtle points that people too easily miss.
This post is going to be about looks, though–and it’s even going to involve one particular lady’s looks. (I am especially hesitant to blog about women’s appearances, since I think they tend to be judged on those too much as it is.) I’m only doing it because I think it’s a good jumping-off point for sociological and cultural discussions, and because the lady in question already discussed the topic on her own blog, which I think (at least, I hope) means she does not mind a polite public discussion of it. But before I get to the point, I’ll need to give some background.
Felicia Day is an internet celebrity, popular especially among gamers because she is not only pretty, but also a gamer. This, of course, makes her very popular with many male gamers. She’s been in several online video series, including starring in the show The Guild, which she also wrote.
I mainly like watching her show Co-optitude, where she and her brother play multi-player games. It’s a very funny show. (be warned: lots of profanity, only some of which is censored.) Here is a recent interview with her for those unfamiliar with her:
Anyway, though, the point is she had a lot of male gamer fans, until one day, she cut her hair short. Well, ok–she still has a lot of male gamer fans, including yours truly, but according to this post on her blog, she started losing some, who complained that her new short haircut made them lose interest in her.
She linked to this article by Laurie Penny about why short hair on women is a political statement. That article is itself a response to another article called “Girls With Short Hair are Damaged” by someone called “Tuthmosis”.
At this point, I should like to pause briefly for an editorial comment: there may be many articles on the internet about celebrity haircuts. But what site besides Ruined Chapel gives you assigned reading in the course of such an article?
Now, there are lot of interesting points in all these posts. For starters, I don’t buy Penny’s idea that a woman cutting her hair short is a political statement. I know conservative Republican housewives who cut their hair short because they find it more practical and convenient.
But what I really want to focus on is this: in the “Girls With Short Hair” article, “Tuthmosis” asserts that long hair is “almost universally attractive to men.” And Penny, in her feminist response to that article, implicitly agrees with this assertion. She views short hair, therefore, as women rejecting the notion they need to please men, whereas “Tuthmosis” views it as a negative thing.
What I want to examine is whether the assertion is even true. It is qualified with the word “almost”, which may be enough to save it, but I want to see the data backing it up. I say this because I am one of those men who find short hair more attractive. I don’t mean this in some high-minded “it’s attractive when a woman asserts her independence” sort of way (although I do think that as well.) I mean that at a very fundamental level, I find women with short hair to be, for lack of a better word, “prettier” than those with long hair.
My personal opinion does not prove the assertion false. I am the “almost”. (I might even say, “I am the 1%”) Even so, the fact that such an exception as myself exists admits the possibility of this taste for long hair changing, and short hair being preferred.
But while I may be in the minority, I’m by no means convinced I’m in as small a minority as that. And anyway, if the 1% elites are allowed to control every other aspect of society, why not hairstyles as well?
I’m kidding. But really, is long hair that overwhelmingly preferred?