After aeons of nothingness Game Cabaret springs into action with the (passionate and wild) help of its very first guest blogger: the Red Bull from the excellent Red Bull Diary.
Play is a primal urge for me. Like eating. Like fucking. I want it in a way that is irrational and passionate. My brain hungers for new challenges. I'm only happy when I'm thinking hard. When I'm creating. When I'm feeling that brief sense of godhood as the computer makes the paintings in my mind glow with life. When the avatar I live vicariously through grows in power. This is an exploration of possibility space. This is the attraction of gaming for me: it's the realization of every Freudian, narcissistic fantasy that makes my lizard brain squirt adrenaline into my veins and the hair on my neck stick up. Play is the stimulation of a fundamental pleasure center, the satisfaction of an unspeakable, id-driven need.
But this is the thing that no one says, because we are overcome with guilt for wasting our lives sitting in front of our wondrous boxes of color and fury. There is your mother looking in on you and wondering whether you've done your schoolwork, or the clock face staring down at you, reminding you that you should have gone to bed hours ago. We cannot help but be ashamed because this feels so good. To be challenged in all these different ways. To feel a thrill of satisfaction when you've gotten it licked – beaten the boss, solved the puzzle, topped your high score. It's an experience like no other in history up to this time, encompassing all elements of theater and cinema, sculpture and story. It's a brave new world of virtual challenges and ever-greater realism. But for those who don't understand, who don't hunger the same way, they look at you with that dissatisfied bewilderment that says that you're just fundamentally lazy.
I'm the furthest thing from it. My mind is like a furious thunderhead, roiling with strange images and terrible energy. These punching bags, these hamster wheels simply serve to break up the storm. My brain is a voracious, tentacled beast. Its thrashing thoughts snatch whatever is at hand to pull into its maw. It's all I can do to keep feeding it and keep my fingers clear. The harder the problem, the longer my feral mind keeps gnawing at it, trying to consume its marrow. Only through play do we find ever-more satisfying fare.
I'm not sure if it's because I'm from the original MTV generation, or if I need to take my Adderall, or if it's the plastic seeping into my food from microwaving plastic containers. Maybe my television-addled brain can only understand the world when it's framed in a glowing window. Maybe I'm like the fireman's wife, whose friends lived in the walls. I can't speak for anyone but myself, a man with needs to constantly see something new, test my own limits, challenge, create and push on. This wonderful world of play gives me a way to do that.
Play on, don't be afraid. You only live this life once, my friends.
Monday, December 29, 2008
After aeons of nothingness Game Cabaret springs into action with the (passionate and wild) help of its very first guest blogger: the Red Bull from the excellent Red Bull Diary.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Let's get one thing out of the way first. I don't believe porn, or pornography as people in weird grey-ish clothing tend to call it, is evil. Or inappropriate. Or even inherently sexist. What I actually do believe is that -in all its varied guises- porn is both interesting and a frankly under-explored medium. Also, I quite love it, and if you don't or have anything against mankind, sex, having fun and/or life in general, and thus feel offended, well, that's not my fault. I'm a bloody misanthrope too, you know (especially on Mondays).
Besides, porn wasn't the first thing that came to my mind for my belated Game Cabaret premiere after all. It's just that tackling deep ludologic issues might be a bit too much for me at the moment. Urban geography is taking up far too much time, and I obviously digress. Also I should have finished this article ages ago.
So, what is porn really? Or, to rephrase the question, is every depiction of sex pornographic? Well, no, though admittedly the answer could change depending on the society within which the matter is discussed. 18th and 19th century Europeans for example were so shocked by the perceived obscenity of ancient Greek and Roman nude statues, that literally went on and chopped their dicks off (the statues', not theirs unfortunately), whereas pornographic depictions of sex were pretty standard in the practice of a variety of more humane religions. Personally -obviously influenced by contemporary society, too- and while cunningly avoiding narrow puritan definitions, I do tend to define any attempt at intentionally, sexually stimulating ones audience as pornographic.
Whether I (or anyone else) is actually stimulated is another matter altogether. It's the creator's -perceived or actual- intention I care about, in a way not dissimilar to what I would use to classify a horror movie. Or game.
Were I actually discussing cinema, I would definitely not consider any uncensored sex scene as reason enough to classify a film as porn. Baise-moi for example does sport quite a few sexually graphic scenes that are definitely not meant to arouse. The contrary rather. Then, there are films like Novecento where one or two sex scenes are merely added as just another story element or for purely realistic/artistic/whatever reasons. Wouldn't call that porn either.
Proper porn movies, on the other hand, the garden variety of dirty flicks if you wish, fail on everything else besides the sex scenes, and one could even argue that most of them aren't that good or varied to begin with. It was Clive Barker I believe who actually tried to define quality porn, as something that manages to captivate its audience even after said audience has climaxed and, sad as this sounds, the only porn movie I think managed to achieve such a lofty goal was Deep Throat with its -at times- brilliant humour (mind you, humour and porn do work quite well together it seems).
Thankfully though, quality porn is more than a theoretical construct or merely a wish. It can be found -among other places I'm sure- in literature, and as most should be familiar with Marquis/Citoyen De Sade's works, indulge me while I go on and briefly focus on Andreas Embirikos. Embirikos, you see, besides being my favorite surrealist poet, a pioneer in Greek psychoanalysis, a photographer of beautiful girls, an excellent writer and, when in the mood, a socialist, was also a great pornographer. And an immensely proud one too. His greatest contribution to porn, Megas Anatolikos (The Great Eastern), was an epic novel spanning one hundred chapters, taking place on the titular cruise ship and eloquently showcasing the glory of almost every imaginable perversion. Frankly, absolutely nothing was considered taboo or perverted enough to be left out and, were the book released in our era, the censors would be having an editing party. What's more, the sex scenes were at once poetic, funny, arousing, plot advancing and brilliantly complemented with giant penises rising from the ocean or extensive descriptions of the ship's library. Oddly, it was quite a publishing success too.
Let us now move from literature to video games (a humongous leap indeed), where the story so far is rather sad. Pathetic even. To begin with, sex, let alone pure gratuitous porn, is virtually absent in the mainstream and to such a degree that a semi-naked woman is easily considered scandalous, whereas -say- a mutilated corpse goes largely unnoticed. Standard puritanic medium-wide ethics aside, even when sex is present, it usually is presented in a ridiculously sexist/immature way and lazily treated as a reward for gamers. Interactive sex, truly arousing scenes playing on the medium's strengths and thus proper video game porn is, for the time, nigh-on unthinkable.
Cataloging every attempt at sexy games is of course beyond this article's scope, but briefly discussing a few of the niches in porn games most definitely is not. First of all, we have the virtual dollhouse games a la 3D SexVilla or the less germanic Virtually Jenna, that besides their grotesque attempt at realistic graphics don't offer much of a gaming experience either. Pathetic and marginally more fun than undressing your children's dolls or something is what they are. Then, we have more or less proper games that tend to vaguely stick to a genre or another, while cunningly introducing an erotic theme and a few sex scenes, just like the Lula series that eventually spawned the atrocious Lula 3D, or a variety of Tetris-clones and chess games that sort of reward the player with the odd video of a tit being all titty. Slightly better are the Japanese choose-your-own story offerings, which aren't totally unlike watching a hentai porn DVD with a marginally less than obvious chapter selection feature. Finally, and after ignoring such bizarre masterpieces as the wonderfully nonsensical Sex Station 7, we do have games (in name only) that are nothing more than glorified adult chatrooms. Oh, yes, and a myriad of games like Leisure Suit Larry that never claimed to be pornographic, never tried to, but were still horribly misunderstood by the sex-starved gaming audience (and this of course does not include our readers; male or female). In a nutshell: video gaming porn is and has always been in dire straits. At best.
The question thus can only be: Could it work? Could there actually be a video game that manages to be arousing? Well, I'd say yes, but only in theory and in the realm of the indie scene, as I just can't see anything interesting happening in the world of children focused consoles or mainstream PC gaming. Quite obviously an erotic text-adventure/piece of interactive-fiction would be a nice start, and a rather easy one too, especially if one were to follow -as is rather typical for this kind of games- classic literally rules while adding a touch of interactivity. Interestingly, and that could be a positive sign indeed, women have been -up to now- more interested in the sexier side of gaming (have a look at the Sexy Videogameland)... This could probably spare us the sexist bits.
Oh, and on an absolutely unrelated and definitively closing note, let me remind everyone that Woody Allen (I think) was correct: being punctual is a very lonely experience indeed. On the other hand, I'm absolutely positive Mr. Allen was the one to also insightfully notice that sex between two people is a beautiful thing. Between five, it's fantastic.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
After charges of racism, the Resident Evil 5 team made no changes to the game.
Anyone who works in the U.S. for a company of almost any size has probably had training on sexism in the workplace. The point that is made time and time again [as I have had about 4 of these sessions at different places] is that sexism is not a matter of intent but of perception. Argue with that if you want, but that is the definition.
The point is that it is not up to the speaker to decide what is sexism but the victim. So does this logic apply to other forms of prejudice. And there is a simple explanation for this perspective: it is possible for us to speak or act in a way that is offensive even though we might not mean it as such. But ignorance does not cut the prejudice to a less harmful dosage. It is simply then unintentional racism.
For example, years ago, I was at a small party of about 25 people in Indiana. There's one who has smoked and drinked a bit, so he's talking loudly and says something about a "porch monkey." The party was almost entirely white. Almost. Two black men were there and became irate. The woman hosting the party talked to them, aware of their anger and then went to the guy and explained that he had been offensive. I believed the guy when he said he had no idea that "porch monkey" was a prejudiced term . . . he thought it just referred to yard statues. He wasn't even aware of the black men or talking about them. He apologized profusely. The black men accepted it, although they were amazed that someone would claim to be so ignorant. It was a clear tale of different experiences for it is possible for some to speak and behave in a biased way without knowing the meaning behind it.
I doubt that the Capcom team intended racism. But it's the context and perspective of the victim that matters. Sure, white guys get killed in games all the time. It doesn't matter if no one said anything about Latinos getting shot in other games.
There were ways to address the issue without throwing the game to wayside and starting over. For them to disregard the complaints is a worse action, one done not ignorance but in purposeful defiance. The original charge of racism against Resident Evil 5 seems no different than Sony's "white is coming" ad.
But their response would be, thus, be the same if Sony hadn't pulled the ad but stayed with that campaign. I honestly don't believe that Jun Takeuchi is racist, but I think the game's racist perceptions are valid. I also think it's mistake to judge racism by claiming that it wasn't intended. We know that racism is often expressed in coded but ambiguous terms. I've seen it in play, learning that "welfare" and other terms are loaded, with a wry smile or subtle expression to convey the real meaning. We've seen the "dog whistle" messages at work in the U.S. this campaign season. Whether we like it or not, the victims get the first right of refusal, however inconvenient that may be to some. This is the price of history, which can't be conveniently wiped away within a generation and after happy-happy-joy-joy political speeches.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
No More Heroes has captured its share of analytical attention. Of course, when Suda said that the game was influenced by the surrealist western El Topo, that was like announcing a $2 buffet to construction workers and college students.
Sadly for me, cowzilla3 wrote the article that I have been planning when I first started playing the game back in February, specifically the idea that in NMH, we are not so much playing a character named Travis Touchdown but that we are playing a gamer, all of us who have ever played a game just to kill and level. But since cowzilla and others have well described the irony and critique in NMH, I'll have to comment on something else, which is, I think, the obvious question for any artful creation that flaunts the rules and smashes the plane between the art and the audience: so, now what?
Spoilers ahead . . . .
NMH is a punk game, which is what makes it so interesting. At least, that's what the Grasshopper Manufacture logo suggests. But thanks to the continuous recycling of punk every few years, we may have lost the vitality of what punk is, or at least was. It was not just thrashing but conscious breaking of conventions, of making music what it was . . . rebellious. And NMH is one of the more rebellious games I've seen in a while, an upstart that disregards and even thumbs its nose at all the conventions that the 'stadium' games luxuriate in--the sexy, photo-realistic graphics, the complex stories, the intricate controls and involved gameplay, layers of sound and music, and especially the violent game play and objectives. (Schlaghund argues that parody is not necessarily punk, a point well taken. However, I think we shouldn't be too fastidious about what is and is not punk: Grasshopper's slogan is "let's punk" which he explained in a Gamasutra interview: "What I mean by 'punk' is to destroy existing ideas and create something new, original.")
Games have largely become a host of set of conventions with minor tweaks that are nothing more than the t-shirts of someone else's rule-breaking. Mixing FPS and RPG elements are not the stuff of ground breaking games, truth be told.
The ending, such as it is, for NMH is where it flaunts the rules the most. Not only do the characters start acknowledging that they are in a game, the ending splinters in a way that we don't really know what the story is.
So, just in case you weren't sure of the point of NMH, Suda has beaten you over the head with this ending to clarify: bullocks to your narrative structures. The ending reminds me of when Public Image, LTD appeared on American Bandstand and Johnny Rotten disregarded the lip syncing conventions of the show and just danced with the crowd.
Anyone who makes a game like this deserves accolades because it is an expression of freedom and creative independence. Yet, we have seen this kind of rebellion before. The problem is that we often find ourselves with the equivalent of the Institutional Revolutionary Party: rebelling requires something to rebel against, and if the revolution becomes successful, then it must invent a foil to rebel against further or face the fact that, as the Who sang, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss." Or it must simply fade away.
Rebelling against conventions for the sake of breaking those conventions only works for so long before we ask, "Now what?" and "So?" In painting and sculpture, we've seen artists rebel against a non-existant conformity after the impressionists, then the expressionists, the cubists, and other -ists make the point that artists don't have to paint cherubs to create something meaningful. Deconstruction is really only interesting and post-modern awareness is clever only for so long.
Even though we should enjoy NMH for what it is and isn't, it's hard not to wonder what Suda's post-punk game will be. These kind of creative efforts are significant because they can be watersheds for even more interesting work, something that might not be obvious to the mainstream until much later. Suda might be working on a game that goes even further in its parody and critique, but is it possible that, in flaunting game conventions, we can look for much different games? Will Suda and his games have that kind of influence? Or is he one of the rare types who can not only critique but can create alternatives, too?
I see NMH mostly as trying to accomplish the first aim for punk games, to destroy existing ideas about what a game is supposed to be. In fact, I think you could argue that NMH doesn't so much destroy those ideas as it has challenges them, maybe even bloodies them. Perhaps I'm being fastidious myself when I say that destroying something is not the same as creating something new. While I appreciate the cleverness and freshness of NMH, it strikes me as a transitional game, one that says, "Games don't have to focus on violence, use levels, have tidy endings, use realistic graphics." If NMH is a critique and rebellion against indulgent, violent and soulless games, then NMH really can't be What Games Can Be. NMH is original, yes, but it is not the real alternative to ladders of murderous gaming that it implies ought to be there.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Instead of talking about games, I want to talk about gamers. Not hardcore. Not casual. But the existential gamer.
My 8 year old son has been looking forward to the new release of Sam & Max: Night of the Raving Dead and loves playing the series. Watching him, I've realized that he plays games in a very different way that I do now because he carries the game experience beyond playing the game.
For example, he talks about the game with anyone who will listen, recounting the funny parts or his attempts to solve the puzzles. Because he loves to draw, he draws pictures of the characters while sitting on his bed or riding in the car. When he plays outside with friends, they sometimes play characters from the game in some imagined setting. He's enjoying the game in other ways than just playing the game. He owns his play with the games, creating his own experiences other than what the game defines.
The last time I experienced a game in such a way was when my friends and I played Everquest in large part because we had such interesting stories to tell. Even if we played together and retold the night's events, the perspective each of us had was interesting and different, not to mention the humorous spin we added. We told stories about how we played through the game event as well as how our character behaved, somewhat separating the two. It wasn't uncommon for us to switch between first and third person: "I saw that no one was on last night . . . . Vali fought in East Karanas." Sometimes, though, the difference between player and character somewhat blurred. Yet, even for players who maintained that the character was apart from themselves, they still talked about that character outside the game with great details. Regardless, we all enjoyed the game outside of the game itself. While some of that external talk was about strategy and teamwork, we were also developing our characters while telling those stories, explaining motivations or telling some backstories. We didn't mistake those characters as "real" but they became interesting in their own ways.
But since that time, I don't talk or think about games (either playing them or the events in them) as stories. Listening to friends who play games, I don't hear them thinking that way either. It's about achievements or about the game graphics or engine or difficulty.
Certainly, a part of it has to do with the games themselves, but mostly, it's the gamer. Why recount something from Mass Effect or Super Mario Galaxy when anyone who plays it will probably have the same experience? Yet, do we really have the same experience? An multiplayer game is dynamic because it involves real people, and sometimes we can hear stories about multiplayer sessions.
There's also the consumer element. I know many gamers who are like speed readers: they consume games very quickly, and I frequently hear (from myself and others), "There are so many games to play." With so many viable platforms to play on, we have indeed more games that we can play. As a result, how do we not regard games as somewhat disposable and momentary? I also hear games talk about games as critics, how game Y isn't as good as game X.
For my son, Sam and Max are important. Not out of whack important. 'Meaningful' is a better word . . . these aren't just characters or a game that he plays and then leaves behind. His experience of those games are something he talks about, that he replays in different ways outside of the game.
It's tempting to think of this difference as one of identity and otherness. Mature gamers like myself mostly recognize our game experience as something very different from ourselves. It's a way to "get away" from jobs, pressures and the like. To get away from our "real" lives. Paradoxically, we often gain this separation by immersing ourselves in a game.
But for my son, he doesn't have that need to separate his life from the game. His immersion is different: he immerses the game into his life, allowing it to inspire his non-computer play and activities. His connection to a game that he enjoys is much deeper than mine. The boundaries are different for adults like myself where his boundaries are more fluid, thanks in large part because as an eight year old, he's still defining himself largely through play, even while working at school. When he does his math, he is making a game of the task and the numbers. Yet, for all his goofing, he is learning: He's a straight A student. So, his ways work, where boundaries between learning, work, and play, between games and life are looser, even while he clearly knows the difference between them and doesn't think the game is life. It's not that simple.
I'm reminded of a line in A Thousand Plateaus:
Be the Pink Panther and your loves will be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon.This Lewis-Carroll sentence comes in a passage where Deleuze and Guittari explain their theme of the rhizome, of connections and interplay. They talk about betweenness as AND logic, which is not going one way and then another but traversing both ways at the same time. In a way, they are talking about the absence of boundaries.
This is what I think he does with his work and play, life and gaming. His gaming is both more playful and more serious than mine. It's not serious in the way of using a spreadsheet to track when to do what in an RTS. It's serious in that the game is something to use for other purposes, often creative. It's serious in that he's willing to experiment more than I do with the games that he truly enjoys.
What of this difference? Should I be more like my son? Am I playing Robert Fulguhm here? In a way, yes. But it's hard for us as adults because our lives are so different. If nothing else, few adults in their 40s are still trying to define themselves, although I think we still are. Most of us probably stopped drawing, writing, singing or doing anything creative long ago because we became convinced we couldn't that. I don't think we have the playful kind of roleplaying speech and activities that my son and his friends have.
I'm not sure the world would be better if we were more like kids. But I'm thinking that we might have more fun, at least. We've designated one part of our lives to gaming, where we roleplay in safety. But what if we did more of that? Some adults do that, but they get tagged quickly as abnormal, obsessive, immature, or queer. Some adults take the games too seriously and probably forget their responsibilities too easily. The point is to play but to open up the play.
Take a linear game like Titan Quest. Rather than play it as a shopping game or just following the scripted storyline, have your character start losing his belief and faith in these gods: begin as a pious character and play the game an increasingly disillusioned character. Or maybe play as someone who's fallen in love with one of the NPCs. Write your own story here, just as if you were playing a sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion. Don't take the given game as the only given.
When my son and I play a multiplayer game like Ben 10 or Marvel Ultimate Alliance, I would sometimes get frustrated because he wasn't "playing the game." But he is. He's playing his own game. When we play those kind of games now, we often provide our own dialogue and talk in voices for the characters and come up with our missions. Sometimes, we play just for the sake of trying to come up with bad puns and jokes. Sometimes, we don't do anything in the game that we are "supposed" to do. Sometimes, we have no goal at all. So, I'm learning to be the existential gamer that my son is. Oddly enough, I'm finding the attitude improving my "real" life, too. I'm not getting into cosplay, but I am reminded that I'm in control of nothing except myself and my attitude about what I can't control.
To paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is the father of the gamer.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
While the homoerotic subtext in films such as Top Gun and Frank Miller's 300 have been explored rather vigorously by the mainstream media, less attention is typically given to video games. In this article I explore some facets of subtly repressed homoeroticism its roots in cultural discomforts with the portrayal of the sexual human body.
Most side-scrolling "shooters" are known for their fast-paced action, copious enemies, and "end bosses" that herald the near-completion of a level. One of the most ubiquitous shoot'em'up side-scrollers was released in the 1980s: R-Type. Like most of the arcade shooters that followed, R-Type featured a singular space ship controlled by the player via joystick embattled by screenfuls of oncoming enemies. The ship, is conspicuously named "Arrowhead" - which is obvious phallic imagery hardly worth mentioning; it emits bursts of concentrated energy that explode enemies on contact; often the same enemies fire bursts of energy back at the ship threatening to destroy it. By the end of the level, the player encounters the end boss, thus signaling the beginning of a long and bitter fight to the death.