Election Season

A short walk through a long darkness
But ahead – a clearing
Dante’s light of the reason of man
Rationalism ascendant in liberalism
One god, and the market is his prophet

Blonde Jesus, Just, Sexless, and Pure
Teach us how to pray

Our father, who art in Manhattan
Hallowed be your fame
Thy democracy come
Thy law be done
In Tehran as it is in Washington

Give us this day our daily iPhone
And forgive us Tamir Rice
As we forgive September Eleventh
Lead us not into Socialism
But deliver us from ISIS
For thine is the dollar, the oil,
And the blood of the innocents, forever and ever

America, America, who kills the prophets
And shoots those who are sent to you
We sent you King, and Lennon,
And Malcolm, and Milk –
Look, your house is desolate,
And you will not see
Until you can say,
“Blessed are they that come”
In the name of Allah
The Gracious, The Merciful

Plans

The queen on his throne
Sitting so nonchalantly
So unharmed
Making mockery of our science
What goes up must come down
But will bring down with it
Every lethal plan
Aborted, half-formed
And impotent

We Can’t Repel Bullshit of This Magnitude

SPOILERS

NO REALLY

DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU

OK LET’S DO THIS

Everything wrong with Avengers in Space Star Trek 3: The Search for Luke Star Wars: Remix Edition Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens was for me encapsulated by the presumably-of-legal-age man/boy sitting directly behind me in the theater that started sobbing uncontrollably when Han died and did not stop until well into the credit sequence. The movie was clearly made for that guy and all the other fans that, to my eternal confusion, excitedly cheered and laughed when C-3PO, undoubtedly the worst character of the entire original trilogy, appeared to make terrible jokes and generally be annoying and British. That we got a movie about Han Solo is astounding enough, that we got a movie that emotionally climaxes with the death of Han should cause us all to reflect deeply on why we keep pumping money into billion-dollar American movie franchises.

Nothing in the film makes sense. Why does a 70-something former General decide to start up smuggling again? In a reformed Republic that he helped build? What exactly does he have to gain by that? Isn’t the entire point of the “noble smuggler” profession of the original Star Wars that the Imperial Law is oppressive and draconian so it is those on the fringes of society that are just? Only there’s a New Republic… presumably. We never see it because instead there is a “Resistance” (because Hunger Games?) and a new Empire that’s not the Empire but somehow despite not ruling the galaxy has the funds and technology to build a weapon ten times larger than the Death Star. A weapon which eats stars. If you want to destroy a solar system (which, why would you, the entire point of the Death Star was to rule by absolute fear, not to actually go and systematically blow up, you know, the people you’re taxing and the resources you’re extracting) why build a giant laser cannon that blows up a bunch of planets when you already have the technology to EAT STARS. Just go park the damn thing in the solar system you want to destroy, eat their sun, give them the finger and drive away. Oh, that terrible black hole gun from the (fun but intellectually bankrupt) Star Trek reboot says hello.

How the hell did that bartender/soothsayer character get Anakin’s lightsaber? Why is she willing to give it up to the first rando that sneaks into her storeroom to fondle it? How is said Rando, who up until this point has never wielded a lightsaber able to beat a defeat a trained Jedi Warrior? Why does Adam Driver’s hair look like that? But most importantly, what I keep coming back to is, why are we, the audience, supposed to care about any of this? Remember when Abrams used the black hole gun to destroy Vulcan and no one cared? Or when he made a movie about Benedict CumberKhan and no one cared? This is the same movie. Han is irrelevant to Star Wars. He’s a side character. His role in the original trilogy is to keep everything centered and human, but he is not what the original trilogy is about. They could have killed him off 15 minutes in, or set the film after his death by natural causes and it would not have mattered at all because Han Solo, the character, does not matter to the Star Wars myth. Han Solo is not a mythic character. Star Wars is not about his journey. The prequels at least understood that.

Look, the prequels were generally terrible, I’m not going to say they weren’t. The Force Awakens, as a film, is vastly more competent. But that’s all. It completely misses the point of Star Wars. The prequels, for all their faults, did not. Six movies about the rise and fall of Darth Vader, everything else is window dressing. It’s a (mostly) coherent narrative – the hero’s journey. Anakin rises to power, falls from grace, and is redeemed by the true hero, his son. Who is in this film for about five seconds.

It’s entirely possible that the forthcoming sequels will make something out of the (thoroughly pointless and boring) proto-heroes that are being set up in this installment, but as of now what it constitutes is roughly two and a half hours of stupefyingly tired fan-service. In the same way that Revenge of the Sith had a clear narrative demand, to get us to the climactic fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan and complete the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader, The Force Awakens needed to show the fruits of what the Rebellion fought for in 4-6 and establish Luke Skywalker’s heroic legacy. It did neither of those things.

But hey, Kylo Ren was actually an alright, interesting character! Too bad they felt the need to make him Han and Leia’s kid. Because it was utterly superfluous. It was just a thing to make nostalgic people feel things. Like that Vader mask, and Kylo calling Anakin grandfather. It’s all kinda cool, I guess, but it has no real weight. Luke having to deal with the fact that he totally Obi-Wan’ed this whole New Jedi Order thing – that has weight. I want to see a movie about that. Or about whatever happened when Kylo rebelled against him. Or about the galaxy spinning wildly out of control because the repeated collapse of governments completely destabilized galactic trade and politics and the Rebellion wasn’t well enough equipped to run a government once their holy mission to overthrow Imperial rule had succeeded and Luke Skywalker has to quickly rebuild the Jedi in order to prevent everything from going medieval. Or you know, literally anything but another goddamn year 201x movie about some skinny brooding bad guy with a superweapon that wants to blow shit up for no reason and a whole bunch of assholes we don’t care about flying around trying to stop him while we lead up to a boring third act where some side/main-ish character dies and we feel feelings and then the bad guy is stopped until the next movie. I know I pay money to see these movies and I’m part of the problem, I’m going to go think on that that while I wonder to myself why on earth Thomas Brodie-Sangster was only in this damn movie for about 18 frames.

Call of Spacey: Advanced Oversimplification

Finally got around to playing last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The game itself was more of the same (now with contextual double jumping!), another jingoistic rail-shooter with hilaribad writing and three billion dollars of production value up on the screen, but I came for digitized Frank Underwood and was more or less delivered digital Frank Underwood. In this case we have a motion captured Kevin Spacey as a transparently megalomaniacal CEO of a futuristic private military company, Atlas. (Sidenote: this game is basically Metal Gear Solid 4-2.) Spacey, aka Jonathan Irons, manipulates the outcomes of a series of terrorist attacks to grow the company to a level of might greater than that of any of the governmental superpowers.

At some point Kevin Underwood Irons announces on live TV that he is going to destroy the US because of how they have historically abused their miltary might to send millions off to their death to kill millions in other countries, and our intrepid band of US Marines go “hoo-rah” and run out to kick his ass. In power armor. Because Advanced. Warfare. But let’s look at Evil CEO Jonathan Iron’s justification for declaring war on the US.

The World is asking one question: Why did I attack the United States? The United States has had the world in a constant state of war for over a hundred years. Time and again we have seen the catastrophic results of this belligerent, militaristic policy. These wars haven’t led to resolution, or peace. These wars have only led to more wars. The United States has set the agenda because they wielded the biggest stick. Well no more. This is not the beginning of a war, this is the end of all wars.

We then cut to our hero flying an Advanced Plane of some sort (multi-talented fellow, that Troy Baker) as he narrates, “After San Francisco, the entire free world turned against Atlas.” What about the not-free world (define that however you like)? Or perhaps anyone with a bone to pick with the US? We just cut to our hero blowing shit up in New Baghdad (natch, Irons is Saddam 2.o, complete with his American-funded weapons) without any need to sort out the geopolitical ramifications of any of this. More importantly, however—how exactly is Jonathan Irons wrong?

I may be reading this too literally, but as far as I can gather from Advanced Warfare‘s Wikipedia entry, the events of Irons’ betrayal occur circa the year 2060. “[A] constant state of war for over a hundred years”, indeed. If we take 1960 as the starting point for Irons’ accusation, we have some 55 years of justification already, and it’s not hard to imagine another 45 following the same course. From this future-historical perspective we neatly skirt the Just War philosophizing of World Wars I and II and go straight to the heart of the matter: Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq…

OK, perhaps consolidating economic and military might under corporate power with one absolute leader isn’t such a great way to clean up the world’s (undeniable) problems. Regardless, the game demonizes Atlas and Iron’s intentions by revealing them to have undertaken cliché human research projects in cliché underground labs and ultimately condemns them by their use of biological warfare against military and civilian targets, but it’s all a transparently facile way out to paint Irons as a sociopathic mass murderer. It’s a cop-out. Just like it’s a cop-out when in the final moments Kevin Spacey has a gun to the main character’s head but says he won’t shoot because he’s “not a monster”. A convenient hand-wave to confirm to our audience that, yes, he is a monster, because only a monster that makes utilizes bio-WMDs would deny being a monster, while allowing our hero to survive long enough to kill the hell out of the bad man.

But what are we to do when faced not with caricatured evil, but nuanced evil? Nuanced evil very nearly exists in Advanced Warfare, both in the form of profits and power-obsessed Irons before his descent into stereotypical madness, but also in the evil wrought at the hands of the rightfully accused United States of which we see only the innocent dead and the righteous warriors who act unilaterally to destroy the out-of-control superpower Atlas, not because it is unethical to concentrate that much power in one mans hands (why did no one protest this sooner?) but because he dared to do unto the US as the US has done unto others: call them a naughty name and start blowing shit up.

Sadly most games and other entertainment media seem ill-equipped to handle any kind of incisive look at the nature of war, money and politics. For every Holly Hindsight look back at “the horror, the horror” of the Vietnam War we have a dozen “hoo-rah” celebrations of Western might in film and television. For every Spec Ops: The Line (which really should have been the end of the military shooter genre, if anyone had paid attention to that game at all) there are a dozen Call of Duty: Black Opses (perhaps someday, literally). If writers and designers were to start attempting the job, however, I think a good place to start would be to cast our heroes as villians and our villians as heroes. Let Atlas enact “justice” upon the vulnerable United States and then deal with the consequences of those actions. What a great opportunity for sequels—Advanced Warfare 2 could then deal with the freedom fighters/terrorists rebelling against the corporate power that has completely superseded representative government in the West, in a world where the rich are just as affluent as ever and not interested at all in the removal of their new corporate overlords.

Missed. Opportunity.

For some reason it seems we have ceded the necessity to think even remotely deeply to “indie” feely-experimental games. But I think one of the many lessons that Spec Ops taught us (not to shoot a dead horse) is that effective critiques of violent media happen best inside of violent media. The key to thinking more deeply about how we approach our own nationalistic warmongering horseshit in games is not to make flash games about puppies with feelings that we can link on our Facebooks (although if that gets you off go nuts), it’s to think more deeply about the very games in which we warmonger and find ways to subvert them, both through critique and alternative readings of those texts but also, hopefully, through games being developed that intentionally re-read and subvert those texts themselves within the context of violence and war.

Also, I love a light-gun QTE shooter as much as the next guy (actually probably more so), but I seriously hope that Black Ops 3‘s campaign does a little something more to innovate the CoD formula than “now I have power armor ho-ho-ho” because were it not for the desire to see Kevin Spacey’s mouth continue to speak words while large areas of his face remained distressingly immobile I never would have made it to the end of this nonsense. Exo Zombies sure sounded neat (John Malkovitch! Bill Paxton! Bruce Motherfucking Campbell!), but not $50 extra worth of neat. I realize all this motion capture is expensive as hell (maybe it’s time to go back to FMV cutscenes?), but if the three Activision studios slaving away on these games can’t start to ask interesting questions of themselves, then they’re at least going to have to innovate on the core design assumptions of the franchise if thoughtlessly killing endless waves of the faceless other in the name of American Superiority is supposed to remain interesting.

Deal with the Devil: The Genius and Failure of Doom 3

Like every other id Software release, Doom 3 is a master class in game design, a technological powerhouse, and an absolute blast to play. And like many other id Software release, Doom 3 is an absolute mess. Monster closets, jumping puzzles, futuristic weaponry that has no concept of a tactical light — if these aren’t enough to discourage you from finishing the game, the sheer exhausting relentlessness of the action and overwhelming horror may well be. There is no downtime in Doom. You’re either being jumped by monsters that teleport in behind you, or frantically scavenging for ammo while hoping that no monsters teleport in behind you. It’s oppressive. You can’t see anything. It’s brilliant.

We can’t talk about Doom 3 without talking about Half-Life 2, so let’s get that out of the way. Both games were released in the same year, both had incredible expectations riding on them as the successors to legendary shooters, and both featured new graphics technologies that would serve as the base for a slew of other important games. Half-Life 2 was just better in virtually every regard. It looked better, it played better, it had environments that consisted of more than dark industrial corridors, it had a proper story, it had proper characters. I could go on. The game is nearly 10 years old, but has yet to be surpassed in narrative shooter design. Half-Life 2 is one of gaming’s crown jewels, surpassed in its form arguably only by Portal – which owes its technology and several of its key ideas to Half-Life. So maybe it’s unfair to talk about it in relation to Doom 3.

Where Half-Life was visionary, Doom was conservative. Doom 3 wanted nothing more than to be Doom 2 by way of System Shock — a pure twitch shooter with a strong element of horror. To this end it succeeded greatly. Would Doom have been better if it had traded its claustrophobic darknesses for an expansive sci-fi world? Probably not, as Raven’s Quake 4 did just that — using the same id Tech 4 engine powering Doom 3, no less — and it was pretty terrible. Granted, part of that was due to the inherent weakness of id Tech 4 in making anything look good except overwhelming blackness, but that’s what it was designed to do, and it did it so very well. The internet loves to make fun of the lack of a proper flashlight in Doom 3, but that lack is integral to the level design. If you have a flashlight out for anything in Doom aside from peeking behind a staircase to see if there’s ammo hidden back there, you’re doing it wrong. In Doom 3, player and enemy attacks light up the screen. Fireballs thrown by demons cast dynamic shadows across the walls of the military complex; plasma rounds illumine entire rooms with their blue glow. Ten years later, it’s still a glory to behold – just try not to look too closely at the textures.

Even the monster closets are crucial elements of Doom’s level design – don’t get me wrong, I never want to play another game with this degree of over-engineered insanity ever again, as I much prefer a more organic and believable solution to the fourth wall breaking issue of enemy spawns. But they’re just so perfectly engineered in Doom 3. Most modern shooters are obsessed with their lackluster story and their tired setpieces, to the point where there just isn’t a particularly compelling design argument for their existence. Doom‘s design is built around two fundamental principles — immerse the player, and unease the player. The scope of the game could be more focused, but the tension never releases. Like Far Cry 2, it is a game where there is no winning – only varying degrees of justification of survival. Even the defeat of the end boss feels lackluster, partially due to uninspired setpiece construction, but largely due to the absolute lack of heroism in the Sisyphean emptiness of Doom‘s never-ending battles.

Of course, none of this diminishes the serious problems inherent to Doom 3. You’ll never see me defend the jumping puzzles, or the Lost Souls, or the absolutely godawful gun feel that got genetically passed on to other id Tech 4 games, of which there were mercifully few. Let’s face it — id Tech 4 just wasn’t the all-encompassing successor to the Quake 3 engine that it should have been. And if I’m being honest, Doom 3 was not at all the successor to Doom 1 and that I would have wanted. Perhaps Carmack and company envisioned the original Doom to be as depressing and disturbing as Doom 3, complete with unsettling hell levels with demonic babies and human corpses everywhere, but were severely limited by the technology of the time. When I look at the original Doom, however, all I see is a batshit little game that doesn’t take itself seriously and uses the forces of hell as a source of fun rather than a source of horror. I rather hope that this is the kind of game we get when Doom 4 is finally unveiled, but if not, we can at least hope that there’s a little of that genius still left at id. If we’re really lucky, maybe we’ll get another Half-Life to go with it, and ten years from now I can be foolishly defending Doom 4‘s honor in the face of its chronically poor timing. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go play something a little more life-affirming.

Single White MMO

If the present state of first-person shooter development is in a rut, then massively-multiplayer role playing design is in a dark, echoey, spreadsheet-filled crevasse. I make it a habit to enroll in every open beta for every MMO that I can get my hands on, just to remind myself how beautiful the world is when I’m not hooked up to an IV drip feeding me 90% purity World of Warcraft. I even straight up bought a copy of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn because a) it’s Final Fantasy and b) I’m an extremely lonely mammal. For a while I thought about doing a blog series about trying to find friendship inside an MMO, but like my aspiration of starting a book store in The Elder Scrolls Online, the whole plan fell apart when the sinking realization set in that I would have to actually play the godforsaken game.

The knowledge curve on any given modern MMO is just terrifying. I may have been playing endgame-level content in World of Warcraft at one point, but I just loaded it back up a few weeks ago and could barely remember how to get around in the game world, let alone how to effectively grind my Mage back into endgame-functional status. I wanted to love Guild Wars 2, but after a few dozen hours I still don’t understand what the point of the single-player experience is, and every time I load into PVP I start panicking and dying and trying to wrap my head around how my mid-level gear is functioning with temporarily boosted top-level character stats. Then my brain melts and I eat a box of Cheez-Its while watching Seinfeld. I suppose it’s not dissimilar from DotA – if DotA added 632 systems on top of its existing mechanics and made you play single-player grind fests between matches.

If none of that makes sense to you, be glad you are of the uninitiated. If all of that makes sense to you, and you think I totally missed the point of MMOs, and I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m a noob, well, you’re probably right. But that’s just it – I don’t want to have to know what I’m doing. The insane amount of knowledge and time required to hit the point in a traditional MMO where you are playing the actual game and not just farming means that you have to be invested enough in reaching that point that you are willing to endure a generally solitary experience until you arrive. MMOs are extremely unfriendly places. Even social-only MMOs like Playstation Home are about as effective for socializing as a pub match of League of Legends, and there’s even less to do. And even if you reach the endgame in an MMO, there’s nothing to guarantee you’re going to fall in with a competent enough guild that you can actually run the endgame – you might just end up, as I did, with a handful of weirdos that have a habit of disappearing and selling off their accounts to gamers on other continents as soon as they get a chance.

It’s all quite horrifying, and if ESO, WildStar, and WoW Expansion 5: This Time With Fewer Pandas are any indication, it’s not likely to change anytime soon. I was intrigued by the Jane Austen MMO Ever, Jane for about a minute, before I realized that to be endgame-functional for that I would like have to read all of Austen’s works at least five times each, when all I really want to do is run around shouting “Oh, Mr. Darcy!” and swooning a bunch. Maybe I’ll do that anyway. I hear great things about The Lord of the Rings Online, a game that has its own music festivals, but I’ve already been to a Renaissance Faire in real life.

Social bonds in the real world are generally formed when humans are thrown together in a situation and forced to work together toward a common goal, defined however you will. Critically, this must involve communication, and not just communication but communication about more than just the goal. People can meet people all day long, and they can click on little monsters until they blow up with other people all night long, but those interactions in and of themselves are not particularly meaningful. This is why Guild Wars 2 made the MMO a largely single-player experience by removing virtually all need to group up. There must be a need – if I can’t find some girls to join me when I roll up on Mr. Darcy in his PS Home crib, then there’s not much of a point in interacting with the digital gentleman or forming the social bonds. There must be the need for meaningful social interaction and the capacity for meaningless gossip. And it will never happen if developers can’t figure out how to make an MMO that those of us who don’t want to have a desk full of spreadsheets and commentaries on The Silmarillion are actually interested in playing. Perhaps I’m in the minority, given the success of Magic: the Gathering, Football Manager, and Pokemon, but there’s got to be gamers out there that are interested in socializing about something other than theory-crafting or killstreaks, right?

Right?

Hello?

I wonder if Seinfeld is on.

On Fail States

I’ve recently spent an unreasonable amount of time playing “puzzle” games (for lack of a better genre signifier), punctuated only by bouts of Dark Souls 2. I think I finally “get” Dark Souls. It’s a genuinely singular experience, and I feel like a much more complete person now that I’ve uninstalled it. Some part of me wonders what would happen to my general happiness if I uninstalled every game I own revolving around killing or dying – except Titanfall and Unreal Tournament, of course, because I’m not insane.

A friend was watching me play Thomas Was Alone and the first thing he asked was, “How do you die?” Not, “Who are these cute little anthropomorphic rectangles?” or, “What is the objective here?” or, “Who composed this score because, my god, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard!” It was, “How do you die?” The friend in question is not a gamer, but, like most people, plays games, and I found his question to be more insightful than he had perhaps intended it. From the viewpoint of that moment in time, games were not something that brought joy to our lives, they were not something that caused people to grow closer together, they were not art pieces that showed us something unique about life, they were experiences in which you fail and die. They were Dark Souls.

As a medium, games have an incredible power to induce reflective, emotional, and thoughtful experiences, a power that is often underutilized. I’m sure that Dark Souls has imparted its share of emotional moments to gamers, although when I read about them they are invariably about the hard-fought victory that is surmounting the game’s fail states. Dark Souls is intentionally inscrutable, and even as a lifelong gamer I find its depths bewildering and uninviting. On the other hand I have regularly expressed my displeasure with dreamy non-games (again, for lack of a better genre signifier), which in addition to lacking fail states, lack any sort of true interactive state as well. To a degree, this vast gulf in game design can be attributed to the simple cause of the designer knowing their target audience, but I think it is actually indicative of something much more serious and in need of remediation – the identification of gameplay with the fail state.

In what I will loosely, and certainly regrettably, dub a “pure” game (Soccer, Chess, Civilization 5), matched opponents compete over fixed resources (points, pieces, hexes), meaning that there is a win state and a fail state – the one necessitates the other. But in the vast majority of narrative games, there is not such a clear oppositional structure. The player does not “compete” against an AI, the player is striving against a fixed series of gameplay gates in an effort to reach “the end”, however questionably defined or executed. Generally, this has no clear reward, aside from bragging rights. Crucially, these gates can take any form – they do not have to be failure points.

In Thomas Was Alone, it turns out there are sections in which a character can “die”, but the character is immediately and without comment respawned, typically not far from where they “died”. Thomas Was Alone is not a particularly hard game, and its not a particularly long game – but yet it manages to present a beautiful, thoughtful narrative paired with gameplay that remarkably fits that narrative. When the experience of play and the experience of story are aligned, there doesn’t need to be failure to motivate the player. When the narrative is dull, the play uninteresting, and the two out of sync, then gated failure is all you have.

I love competitive games, and I love winning, but in a narrative game I am not interested in reaching an arbitrary win state by surmounting pre-ordained combat points, opposed only by battles that exist as a fixed constant. “Success or death” is a paradigm born out of a lack of options; it is not a paradigm we should promote for its own sake. It is all inextricably tied to the concept of games as killing simulators – we have transferred the anxiety of death in real life as ultimate fail state to the world of games, and assume that in order to produce meaning we have to approach death as failure in games, over and over. If this is truly the case, then Dark Souls is among the most meaningful games – among the most meaningful experiences – ever created. However, I do not think a fixation on death produces meaning, and a fixation on failure does not produce hope.

If my writing has been focusing on the darker side of gaming recently, it is only because I see so much of it in game design. So much of gaming is inherently shallow – empty experiences that may be enjoyable but do not aspire to show us anything special or unique about ourselves and the world. And that’s ok – games can be fun for its own sake. But when we’re looking at heavily developed narrative games – games that demand our time, attention, and intellect – I think we should expect more than a fun combat loop punctuated by failure gates, frustration, and eventual victory. I’ve grown weary of investing a dozen hours into a game like Last of Us, gritting my teeth with frustration at the seemingly never-ending series of battles devoid of narrative weight or emotional investment, all for the the thirty second payoff at the end. Both single-player and competitive games need to stop asking how to sell five million copies of another dark sci-fi/post-apocalyptic man shooter, and start asking how to make more games that teach us about friendship and sacrifice. Fail states do not teach us anything except how to surmount them.