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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PC Games as "Art," Vol. I: The Catch-33 of Deus Ex

I'm not using that term quite right, but you'll get it in a minute. For those of you lacking the patience to plow through what's certain to be a long post, feel free to skim and comment: Name some instances in which you appreciated shades of grey in a game's plot or worldview.

Let's dive right in. I think the most important distinguishing feature of video games is the immersion of the player into the narrative. You, personally, are participating in the unraveling story, not sitting at a comfortable remove as a passive observer. The First Person Shooter (FPS) genre has an easier time achieving this than others for obvious reasons, and the home of the FPS is undoubtedly the personal computer, emerging with Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 and solidifying with Doom in 1993 (it took a full four more years before a console would produce a truly worthy counterpart with GoldenEye in 1997).

Now, nobody's trying to avoid the honest truth here -- games like Wolf and Doom were conceptual and technical successes only. Their plots can be summarized roughly by a mere handful of words: "Get weapons. Shoot [insert appropriate undesirables here]. Repeat." (The only ambiguity I see here is what exactly I'm shooting at... pixelated vampire-Hitler?) But with their undeniable popularity, these proto-shooters gave rise to a genre that has blossomed into a powerful vehicle for complex narratives. Much as Rapture's lighthouse represents but a narrow portal into the depths of its underwater city, gamers have come to expect not only an entertaining variety of gameplay dynamics in their first-person shooters, but also a wealth of story and character that they experience through that gameplay.

An FPS is possibly the easiest way to get a visceral thrill out of your gaming -- see Omaha Beach in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault or the darkened, demon-infested Mars-base of Doom 3 -- and these are fun and valuable experiences. Lord knows I love to stay up into the wee hours of the night with the lights off and the volume up and scare myself witless with some Doom 3 or Dead Space. But these are still largely reactions you can get from popping in Saving Private Ryan or any (in)decent horror flick. What I want to talk about in this entry are the responses that I think gaming has a unique opportunity to effect.

Enter Deus Ex, which I regard as the magnum opus of the modern cyberpunk-thriller genre (have you reinstalled it yet? got it running in the background while you read this?). Read my review here, or skim the Wikipedia article for more info. Dark, serious, and solidly based upon real-world politics and theoretical sciences, Deus Ex extrapolates logically upon current social climates and technological development (circa 2000) to a future overrun by parasitic, corporate capitalism (that's not too far-fetched for you, is it?) and troubled by increasingly questionable uses of bioengineering and genetic modification. The player character represents the synthesis of those two motives, a superhuman created by a "cabal of technophiles" to defend national interests against various "terrorist" groups (noteworthy is the fact that national and corporate interests are essentially equivalent in this context). Your job throughout the game is, in the simplest terms, akin to peeling an onion -- an onion whose every layer is another conspiracy of global portent.

Ok. Are you still reading? Then you probably realize that a set of problems this massive and complex simply cannot be satisfactorily solved unless you've got a big red "S" stuck to your chest. The key word is "satisfactorily." There are solutions available to you at the end of the game (three, in fact), but none of them are anything but problematic, much less offer you a sure road to human salvation and the obligatory victory cutscene. The brilliance of Deus Ex is that though you are, more or less, a superhero, you cannot save the world. All your extraordinary abilities win you is the chance to get yourself all good and invested in the outcome of the plot only to arrive at a tie between three equally dubious choices.

Many games offer the player options; a (sometimes paralyzing) degree of control over your character serves as a supporting pillar of basically every RPG in existence, and several other franchises have also capitalized on player choice as the impetus of plot development (see the Star Wars Jedi Knight series), but these choices are largely relegated to very black and white, good vs. evil situations (do I wantonly slice that hapless bystander with my lightsaber, or... not?). Deus Ex is one of a relatively small contingent of games to thoughtfully, persistently delve into moral territory so grey as to be virtually impossible to navigate. There are no right choices in Deus Ex, only choices.

Of course, we shouldn't praise moral ambiguity simply for its own sake; if we did, we might just as easily prefer characters like, say, the Joker to come out on top instead of Batman, at which point... what's the point? But the complexity of Deus Ex provokes a kind of reasoning that is really only just beginning to be utilized in gaming: ethics. To keep the superhero thread running, who's really going to boo Superman for saving a bus-load of children from toppling off a bridge? He's a stand-up guy, no doubt about it, and that kind of simplicity can be satisfying, too. My favorite novel, The Lord of the Rings, features one of the clearest notions of right and wrong ever put on paper. Clarity is definitely a good thing.

But consider, in contrast, the conclusion of a film like The Dark Knight, with Batman accused of multiple homicide. It's certainly not the ideal outcome, but the way the characters deal with it says a lot more about them than a knee-jerk reaction to the tired "rescue X from Y" trope ever could. In Deus Ex, it is the player who must react effectively to an unyielding, unforgiving environment, and I think the process of that reaction unlocks not just an exploratory gaming experience, but a self-exploratory one. Isn't that exactly what "art," however we define that almost totally useless term, is supposed to provoke? Explorations like that are vital to our media because they require us to examine and sometimes redefine the beliefs and the values with which we approach the world; they're especially vital to our video games because they continue to prove that this medium can make worthwhile contributions to modern culture.

I digress. Next time, I'll dive into Rapture in search of a little thing called "cultural relevance." Sounds thrilling, doesn't it? I know. I've had Django Reinhardt's "La Mer" on repeat for days in anticipation. (Just for clarity, that's repeat in my head. I apparently can't make it stop.) So, readers -- what other games haunt you with their moral complexity? Any I absolutely can't afford to miss? And yes, I'm already working on Fallout 3.

PC Games as Art: An Introduction

Thus commences a long-planned exploration of the medium that demands (and receives) a massive allotment of my fascination and my imaginative energies. Throughout, I hope to perpetuate, at minimum, the following idea: PC gaming is a valuable medium in modern pop culture, offering complex, entertaining narratives that are (with the rare exception) unique in that they rely entirely on decisions and actions taken by the participant rather than following a predetermined arrangement of scenes and characters. (This is not to say that game plots are not linear; rather, the manner in which they progress is determined by the player rather than the developers.)

To that end, I will not stoop to arguing why PC games are, in fact, art; at this point in time, I believe the only persons who would actively argue against this are both a) snobbish, likely aging members of academia with a vested interest in keeping a relatively new medium in its place, and b) woefully uncool (see right). Sorry, Roger, but your argument assumes that all other art forms except video games contain no dialogue whatsoever between artist and consumer, which any English major worth his or her student loans will tell you just isn't true. Instead of arguing something that's been successfully argued already, I will provide and discuss examples of PC titles and concepts which prove the point. (And for further discussion on game narratives, check this out.)

And why PC games, as opposed to video gaming in general? Two reasons. One -- quite simply, I am a PC gamer, and always will be. The personal computer offers a degree of customization and end-user freedom that is and always has been light years ahead of any other gaming platform ever produced. Case in point: user modifications, which simply do not exist elsewhere, not to mention the ability to tweak the game and/or your hardware to achieve the best performance possible for any given title.

Second, I generally regard the PC as the most economical option for today's video gamer, considering that a brand new console from each competing developer emerges every few years and costs $300+, simultaneously rendering the previous ones obsolete, while a single PC can continue to evolve with the technology.

Let me tell you now, the line about PCs being more expensive because they require constant upgrading is a steaming pile of bullshit. I purchased a pretty middle-of-the-road PC in 2006 for about $600 (AMD Athlon 64 3500+, 1GB DDR SDRAM, NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT, for any who care) and have been happily gaming away ever since. Don't believe me? Check the BIOS date in the pic at the left. Only this past January did I have to add memory and a new video card to play BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum, which cost me roughly $100 (Newegg.com ftw!). I have only recently broken down and decided to replace the motherboard and processor, but that's it -- they'll be going straight into the same old casing and hooking up to the same old power supply and hard drive. The cost of maintaining a decent gaming computer is, at the very most, more or less equivalent to purchasing a single brand of consoles (e.g., Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo) over two of their generations (Xbox + Xbox 360, PS2 + PS3) -- except mine runs games and does everything else a PC can do, which means I don't have to drop an additional few hundred dollars just to be able to write this blog post or use a word processor.

And, on a pleasantly responsible note, the less you replace your electronics, the less you contribute to the problem of conflict minerals, and the less you have to take your old ones to a special recycling center or, worse, commit the wasteful and environmentally harmful act of just tossing them in the garbage.

And, on another responsible note, upgrading your own PC means you will necessarily learn a lot more about how your entertainment devices function, which is never a bad thing.

This is not to say that console games don't have their own positive aspects (in-house multiplayer rather than over the internet and their generally much larger libraries come to mind) -- I just don't plan on discussing them here, except in relation to their PC counterparts.

Well, the day is getting on, and I'm due at work in about an hour, so the "actual" first entry in this series will have to wait. As a teaser, though: I'll discuss the value of moral ambiguity and Really Tough Choices in a medium where all is dependent on player action, via Deus Ex and BioShock. Read up on them so you know what I'm on about.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Final (and so far, only) comments on The Sopranos

The lady and I just finished The Sopranos the other day. Whew... what an investment. Of time, to be sure, but also emotion -- on which there is very little return. Not that I'm saying by any means that I didn't immensely enjoy the show; on the contrary, it's one of the best TV series I've ever watched. Possibly the best, with the only real competition being Deadwood.

By the way: don't read this if you don't want the finale spoiled for you.

What I mean by the low return on emotional investment is: almost none of the characters show any real development in recompense for our attention and affection over the show's six-year run -- and by "development," I mean change for the better. Again, I'm not disappointed by this; it's one of the things that makes the show so fantastic. As consumers of a fictional story, we have been trained to expect the characters to grow, to improve, or to experience some sort of grand enlightenment as they traverse their precarious tight-ropes. In other words, they should have the proverbial "character arc," as Christopher Moltisanti pointed out to Paulie once upon a time (Chris was right, by the way -- he doesn't have one). With the exception of being slightly less of an asshole for a while after he's shot in the beginning of the sixth season, Tony is the same exact character in the final shot as he is in the series pilot. It's our own fault if we expect anything else -- we are dealing with (arguably sociopathic) criminals, after all.

With that in mind, I find it really ironic that everyone seems so concerned with "what happens" after the show's finale ends. On the one hand, I completely understand the feeling; we don't like not knowing. And, to be perfectly honest, we all develop an affection for Tony despite the fact that he's a murderer (even of friends and family), and so part of us hopes he can pull it together -- both out of genuine goodwill, and the expectation that he should, because this is fiction and that's what happens to the main character.

But there is no character arc, for anybody -- except perhaps pointing slightly downward. Our emotional attachment to Tony is always rewarded with more of the same (making it really easy, by the way, to empathize with many of the other characters on the show). He doesn't keep his end of the implicit bargain that is always present between the audience and the characters. Perhaps on some level, we feel guilty for liking a guy like Tony (and Chris and Sylvio and Paulie etc. etc.), and we want him to change for the better so we could genuinely like him if we knew him in real life.

But he doesn't, so what more can you really ask for in an ending? While briefly rising out of his coma after being shot, he asks Carmela, "Who am I? Where am I going?" The answer is either "nowhere" or "the same place you've always been going." If you think about people in your own life of whom the same is true, people who have had every opportunity to change and who have been repeatedly prodded by friends and family to improve themselves but refuse to do so every single time, eventually the only option is to just disconnect, for your own good.

And yet, a whole lot of viewers complained vehemently about the abruptness of the ending -- it wasn't enough, there were too many loose ends, we needed more of Tony and his mid-life crises and his seedy criminal predicaments. In a brilliantly ironic twist, The Sopranos puts viewers in the shoes of characters like Carmela and Tony Blundetto, who wanted to get away from Anthony Soprano but couldn't, and at the same time manages to get people craving what is so often leveled at TV shows as a criticism -- more of the same.

What I'm saying, basically, is that, right along with the baggage of obligatory affection for fictional "protagonists," I also don't feel like I have any real reason to care what happens to Tony after the screen goes black, whether in a long-term or immediate sense. Ambiguity is perfectly satisfying sometimes.

Other comments:

The tension between safety (family) and danger (the walking Michael Corleone reference) in the final scene is amazing, particularly because the only reason we get anxious while watching it is because we know it's the last episode, and, judging from the clock and the show's subtle cues, we know it's the last scene. If that same sequence had been in the middle of the episode, or a few shows back, it would've been just another dinner out for the Sopranos.

I love it when a movie or a TV show connects a song so strongly with a particular moment that I'll never think of one without thinking of the other again (i.e., "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey). Other examples that come quickly to mind include "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News (Back to the Future), "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel (Reservoir Dogs), and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan (Watchmen).

Also, "The Man in Me" by Dylan, in The Big Lebowski (twice!).

Friday, June 11, 2010

Jaws of Unquenchable Thirst -- A Tidbit of Tolkien Ecocriticism

On a recent road trip back to the Twin Cities from somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin, the lady and I listened to an episode of This American Life about why General Motors has continually lost revenue to foreign competitors (namely Toyota) for the last 30 years. The show centered around the joint-venture plant called "NUMMI," that is, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., a cooperative endeavor between GM and Toyota that could have shown the United States' biggest auto manufacturer how to increase both efficiency and sustainability while still maintaining profits.

In any case, you know the end of the story, at least generally speaking -- GM didn't learn nothin', and went bankrupt because of it. This episode details the repeated opportunities the NUMMI plant afforded GM, and the repeated, persistent, idiotic refusal of GM's top executives to change their company in ways that could have saved them from, well, its near-death experience last year. In every instance, they were more concerned with the immediate profits of CEOs and shareholders than long-term interests such as sustainable-energy vehicles, better working conditions for laborers, avoidance of Chapter 11 proceedings, etc. The episode is exceedingly interesting, featuring interviews with several high-level managers and executives who were involved with the NUMMI project.

On another car ride recently, this one likely from work to home or vice versa, I was listening to a story on MPR about the coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 people. Specifically, the radio host interviewed a Mine Safety Expert regarding investigations into Massey Energy Company's safety policies. Once again, the corporation was more interested in its own profit margin than the lives of its workers, even to the point of implying in several memos (but of course not exactly stating outright) that worker safety concerns are always secondary. After all, the money comes from the coal, not from the miners making it out of the tunnels in one piece at the end of the day.

And, of course, there's the catastrophic event of BP unleashing a Balrog* -- er, millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Shockingly, they cut corners and greased up government officials (under the Bush administration, wouldn't you know) in order to swell their coffers. And 11 people died, not to mention the as-yet untold damages to multiple ecosystems upon which thousands depend for their livelihoods. And, you know, the Earth is way prettier when not slicked with the decomposed remains of prehistoric lifeforms, but hell, if they don't care about their sentient employees, who can expect them to give a fuck about a few pelicans?

I guess the solution is: Jesus H. Christ, you oblivious persons and wildlife, stop putting yourself in the path of these few dozen ass-wipes trying to make a buck. Or you know, a few billion that they don't even know what the fuck to do with (Exxon-Mobil continues to be the United States' most profitable company).

In the wide realm of Tolkien criticism (you saw this coming, didn't you?), exploitation of resources in order to consolidate power (i.e., money) is frequently likened to the recklessly destructive actions of Saruman and his minions at Isengard. Indeed, Peter Jackson's film version of The Two Towers goes so far as to have ol' Sharkey saying "the forests will burn in the fires of industry," which to me is about as clear a finger you can point at ecologically irresponsible organizations.

But as we drove home from WI that day (I was in the passenger seat, and thus probably waxing more philosophical than otherwise), looking at some pretty sun rays coming down through dark rain clouds, the concept of these corporations as individual entities (which, according to the Supreme Court, they are) struck me as something else entirely. They don't even seem to be as rational or as deliberate as Saruman was in his machinations to conquer Middle-earth and destroy the natural world in doing so; they seem to me more akin to Carcharoth (also called Anfauglir, the Jaws of Thirst), the watch-wolf at the gate of Angband who, after biting off the hand of Beren that holds a Silmaril, is driven utterly mad by the jewel's power. He rampages all across Middle-earth attempting to slake his now unquenchable thirst, inconsolable and unreachable to logic or reason of any kind, rending apart all who come in his path. The only choice left to Elves and Men is to either slay him or continue to suffer the swath of death and destruction he cuts through the green, living lands of the world.

To quote Théoden, "What can men do against such reckless hate?" The whole thing would be a lot simpler if "ride out and meet them" was the appropriate response, swords a-swinging and a-cleaving. But really, the day at Helm's Deep is saved by the arrival of Gandalf and Théoden's allies -- the key word being "allies," in that unity is required to defeat the hosts of the enemy. Holding true to the comparison, though, the Rohirrim didn't really fight back until all was nearly lost. Such seems the likely outcome in our lives, as well.

Really the answer, I think, is to just wake up the Ents. Or, in the event we can't find any, build some robotic ones, maybe. I think laser beams in their eyes would also expedite the whole process.

*Excuse the slip-up. Crude oil and Balrogs are just so similar. I mean, both are readily flammable, hide in deep underground caverns, and are, according to all evidence, impossible to stop once unleashed. Incidentally, crude oil and Balrogs tend not to cause problems if you just leave them the fuck alone. Just sayin'.