Good art in gaming

So recently (as in over a month ago – I moved recently, give me a break) Cary over at Recollections of Play (great blog, check it out) posted an answer to the question, “are video games art?” The short version being yes, and the long answer being maybe if video games can be considered more than their code, cartridges and consoles. She raised some excellent points about how we define art and how that affects our views of what is and is not considered art. Great post, MS DOS is brought up, check it out.

Thing is, however, I’m not a big fan of the question.

Are video games art?

I hear or read this and my first response generally falls along the lines of, “Fuck off son, we’re doing this again?”

I mean, it’s been eleven years since Roger Ebert declared that “Video games can never be art” and seven years since he wrote an extended article on that subject, in which time we as a community have written millions of words that amount to “what the fuck did Roger Ebert know about video games anyway?” (something that Ebert himself reflected on only a few months later). Art is an experiential thing. Without an audience, without emotional interaction, a painting is just paint, a sculpture is just broken rock and a video game is just code. If you’re not part of the audience then you have no right to judge it either way, and those of us who do experience it – those of us who make emotional connections and find our thinking being adjusted – have generally come to the conclusion that yes, video games are indeed art (at least as much as any other narrative media). Much like hardcore pornography, it’s hard to define but we generally know it when we see it.

So, are video games art?

Well, yeah. We’ve all pretty much agreed on that right?

Now, before I go on I want to make it abundantly clear that I don’t think there is anything wrong with having this discussion. Such weighty concepts as the definition of art should be constantly debated, lest our culture stagnates or some fuckwit compares Justin Bieber to Tennyson or Shakespeare or Kanye. Nor am I saying that the opinions of those who disagree – those who say, “no actually, video games are not art” – are wrong. To the contrary, that’s a perfectly valid thing to believe and I’d love to hear your arguments as to why. There can be no debate without respectful opposition. I mean, I’ll probably still end up telling you to fuck right off, but that’s just how I converse with everyone.

No, my problem is not that people keep trying to answer the question, it is that we as a community keep asking it. Over and over and over again. Even after all these years we seem unable to move past it, and that’s a problem because this is first year – first semester – Bachelor of Arts shit. Philosophy 101. The introductory chapter of that far-too-expensive textbook.

So what question should we be asking? Let’s start with “what makes a video game good art?” and go from there.

Let me put it this way: we don’t have a video game equivalent of the film Citizen Kane, often called the perfect movie, something that was pointed out by Roger Ebert himself. But then again, how the fuck would we know? Citizen Kane is considered a masterpiece because enough people – whose opinions we as a culture consider to be expert – tell us it is a masterpiece. They tell us that, according to the technological limits of the time, the direction and photography is perfect. They tell us that the acting is incredible. They tell us the script is superb. They tell us the story is incredible. They don’t tell you that you need to enjoy the movie to recognise it as a masterpiece (I personally think it is boring as fuck), but recognise it as a masterpiece you must. They have criteria, which the film in their subjective but educated opinions meets, so it is a perfect film.

We need our own. Narrative, gameplay, mechanics, style. What boxes need to be ticked, what weight should we place on the importance of each, and does a good game necessarily need to be good art? If we don’t figure this shit out then we won’t know when that perfect game comes along, or if it already has.

So yeah, video games are art. Now let’s start arguing about what video games are good art.

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Once in a lifetime laundry lessons

So I moved about a three weeks ago. It’s been a bit stressful, partly because it was shorter notice than I was expecting and partly because the only furniture I had to take with me was my bed. I’ve basically started from scratch, and honestly moving to fucking Canada (and then back to Australia twenty months on) was easier, if only because I booked the tickets months in advance and gave myself time to plan. But it’s done now and I love my little apartment. Will love it even more when my new couch finally arrives.

Funny thing though, moving. It’s full of very specific lessons that you probably will never use more than once a decade, if ever. Such as when you’re buying a washing machine.

Yeah, I bought a washing machine. A decent washing machine as well, as far as I can tell. Not one of those fancy fuckers that somehow manages to iron your clothes while it’s removing stains, but one that doesn’t seem to tear apart clothes or walk itself across the room while it’s spinning. A decent washing machine. With short pipes.

That’s the first lesson I learned. Manufacturers assume (not without reason) that the taps, outlets and waste points are going to be right next to where you’re putting the machine. So this means if said taps are more than, say, a metre away they’re not going to reach. No big deal, nothing that a trip to the hardware store can’t fix.

So I hooked it all up, plugged it all in, went for a walk back to the hardware store and picked up a clamp so the extension was properly sealed over the appropriate waste pipe (lesson number 2 learnt – always buy a clamp). Realised they’d sent me the wrong fucking washing machine. Gave the company a call, was told that I could keep it if I wanted. Did a quick Google and discovered that this was a probably a slightly better machine than what I ordered. Decided to keep it. Wondered how the bloody hell these people were still in business. Figured the answer was probably “because the internet” (lesson number 3 – the internet). Ran a quick fifteen minute cycle to clean the machine out.

Then I finally did some laundry. And that’s when I learned the big lesson. Never put whites through as your first load in a new machine.

Now I searched the inside of the washing machine before I switched it on, but I apparently missed the silicon pack hiding in the barrel. I’d run desperately low on the clean white shirts I’m required to wear to work, so in they went, and out came the murder evidence.

Seriously, they were streaked and splattered with lines and splotches of vibrant red, as if I’d been finishing each shift by bottling all the customers I didn’t like. As if I’d been out American-Psychoing hookers, hobos and coworkers without wearing the appropriate raincoat or protective smock. As if I’d seen seen the re-animated body of Jackson Pollock working a canvas with a can filled with what may or may not have been red paint, raised both arms and cried “have at it!”

Fuck my life, is what I’m trying to get at.

I needed the shirts the next day, so I pulled out the gel pack and resisted the urge to take it outside and peg it at a moving vehicle. The stain removal spray came out, the shirts went back in with my hopes and prayers. And to my surprise most of them came out passable clean. A few faint marks on the sleeves or hems, where I could hide it, but otherwise clean and white. Except for one, which still looks like Exhibit A two more washes later, and which I’ll have to soak in some proper stain remover. But that’s okay.

So life lesson learned. Never put your whites in first when you’re breaking in a new washing machine.

But when am I going to use that information again?

Hopes, dreams and more than a few memories: On Age of Empires 4

I must have been ten years old when I was given the Age of Empires deluxe pack. I can’t remember if it was Christmas or my birthday, but I remember it was my Aunt who gave it to me. First game, second game and their respective expansions across four CD-Roms, an artbook and a manual. Goddamn, remember when there were manuals? Lotta kids don’t.

It’s what we had before wikis were a thing, children.

Anyway, I played hours and hours of those two games, especially the second. The first was and remains a classic, of course, but Age of Empires II: Age of Kings stands in my mind as the pinnacle of real time strategy games, something that I reckon a lot of people would agree with. And it wasn’t just me: my parents played almost as many hours as I did (mum, in particular, was fucking ruthless). I remember watching that opening cinematic for the first time, the excitement and joy, the exuberance at what I was going to be able to do. What I would build and what I would destroy. The theme became a key part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

After Age of Empires came Age of Mythology. Again I found myself disappearing into an epic world of Ensemble Studios’ creation for days at a time, leading armies of Centaurs, Valkyries and Anubites against the poor bloody infantry of my many, many enemies. The first time I watched a cyclops pick some unfortunate pixel bastard up and toss him across the map was pure magic. It was about this time that my brother started playing video games – too young to fight a campaign, he’d park himself on the scenario creator and put together epic battles of blue versus red. Christ, I wonder if he remembers that. He must do. I should ask him one of these days.

Finally came Age of Empires III. Fuck me dead, the base game came out in two-thousand-bloody-five. That’s twelve years ago. I’m getting old. Anyway, whereas the first three base games (and their expansions) from the franchise were instant classics, AoE III was not. Now I’m not denying a bias on my part, I was deeply disappointed by this game and its expansions, but it received mixed reviews across the board and hasn’t found its way onto any “best ever” or “most influential” lists that I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I played through the game. I built up my home city, burned my enemies’ colonies and bought all the expansions hoping that it would get better, but it never did.

For me, I think the most disappointing thing about it was the campaign, a fucking ridiculous tale about multiple generations of a family fighting an evil secret society that wants to obtain the fountain of youth. No, really, that was what the campaign was about. Compared with the simple yet stunning campaigns of AoE II, which allowed me to follow in the footsteps of William Wallace, Atilla the Hun, Joan of Arc, Frederic Barbarossa and Saladin, it was ridiculous and riddled with cliches. Even when AoE III‘s second expansion, The Asian Dynasties, brought the story campaign back to actual history, they failed to understand that a bit of solid voice over work, a decent script and a couple of sketches will create far more emotional investment than watching a tiny rendered figure, indistinguishable from all the other tiny rendered figures around him, committing seppuku ever could. Whereas Age of Kings cemented in me a love of history and will forever stand as one of my favourite examples of the possibility of interactive education, AoE III will forever stand as one of the games that left me the most disappointed.

Regardless, that last expansion was released in 2007. Microsoft would announce the closure of Ensemble Studios a year later, and one of the greatest franchises ever (despite a disappointing younger sibling) seemed to go out with a whimper.

Then 2013 came and an HD version of Age of Kings was released through Steam, to much fanfare. Not only that but two new expansion packs, The Forgotten and The African Kingdoms, have since been released. I can tell you right now, they hold up. But they weren’t a new game, and it didn’t seem like we were going to get one.

Until now.

Ye-heh-eah you gorgeous bastards! Ten years on and being developed by a different studio, but I haven’t been this excited about an announcement trailer in I don’t know how long.

Months. Years maybe. Man, I used to get so excited about new releases. I mean, I still do, but I’m not quite the rabid fanboy I used to be. Is that another sign of aging? Shite, it probably is.

Moving on, with Ensemble Studios no longer being a thing the reins have been passed over to Relic, famous for the Dawn of War and Company of Heroes franchises. Considering that this is really the only information we have so far, we really know fuck-all about the game. I mean, yeah, we don’t know the era or the art style, but we also don’t know much about the mechanics beyond that it will be an RTS. Of sorts. Whereas you know more or less what you’re going to get with other studios (you know roughly what a Firaxis turn-based game will look like, or how a Creative Assembly grand strategy game will work), Relic constantly shake up the formula, even within the same franchise as is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the profound difference between the first Dawn of War game (which had fairly standard RTS base-building and resource collecting mechanics) and the second (which played more like an isometric action RPG). In all likelihood Relic won’t shake up the classic AoE formula that much, but we can’t be certain.

I’m excited to learn more though. To find out how the mechanics will work, what era/s the game will be set in and how the campaign and single player will work. Who will I be able to play as and who will I be able to crush.

But as excited as I am, all this is tempered by the fact that I probably won’t be able to play it, at least not soon. I’m a Mac user, y’see, and this is a Microsoft game. There is every chance that this game will not be released on my platform of choice, at least not until well after the initial release. Yes, yes, I am aware that there are emulators and Bootcamp, but the former is generally pretty shit while my computer is getting too old and fat to adequately run the latter. It might be released on the X-Bone, but my experience with Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 on the 360 was not a positive one. So yeah, bit of a mood killer that. Almost as bad as how old I’m feeling as I write this.

Anyway, I’m still happy to see one of my favourite franchises, the series that more than any other got me into gaming, is returning; I’m glad to see it given to a studio with such a fantastic pedigree; and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to add another AoE game to the ‘Best of…’ lists. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Old School Movie Reviews: Hot Fuzz (2007)

So it was my brother’s birthday recently so we had a bit of a thing tonight to celebrate. We all gathered at the family house, mum made sushi and dumplings, and we all sat down to watch a movie together. Since it was my brother’s birthday he chose the film, and thankfully he has pretty good taste in movies, picking the second in Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright’s so-called ‘Cornetto Trilogy,’ Hot Fuzz.

Let me just come out and say that I fucking love this film, and I think everyone should watch it. It’s a masterpiece of clever ideas that are executed perfectly, and not just by the headliners. Pegg and Frost fit their roles perfectly, but so does everyone else in the cast (Timothy Dalton, in particular, is bloody excellent). Edgar Wright, who directed and co-wrote, does an excellent job at both, providing a clear vision and a brilliantly cohesive narrative out of what is a bit of a convoluted script, but I expect a lot of the credit for that should go to his DoP, Jess Hall, and Film Editor, Chris Dickens. The parallel scenes of Pegg and Frost’s characters bonding over movies while another character is murdered is perfectly cut together.

I think what really impressed me about Hot Fuzz with this most recent viewing was the way it managed to be gruesome without ever being gratuitous. Blood and gore is played for laughs, certainly. There are decapitations, stabbings, and one bloke gets his head crushed by a giant stone spike. But they never spend so long on the gore that it becomes uncomfortable, so the film is able to maintain its humorous tone despite what happens with a bear trap. If you’re making an absurd, violent black comedy, this is the standard you should look towards.

So yeah, watch Hot Fuzz if you haven’t already. Watch it again if you have.

I’d absolutely watch that: A quick thought on M*A*S*H

So I’m at the bar and staring at a few gin bottles and for some reason my mind wandered across to the show M*A*S*H (possibly because of all the recent talk about North Korea and Kim Jong-Un’s continued testing of bigger and better missiles and talk of a possible US military response, possibly because we’ve got a Korean bartender and two Korean cooks who are just awesome, and make the best fucking fried chicken you’ll ever taste). My mind goes to weird places sometimes. Anyway, I’ve had to explain to someone recently about how gin is grain alcohol that’s had juniper berries added somehow (generally infused). That without juniper berries it’s just not gin, it’s vodka. At this point I remembered Hawkeye and Trapper (later B.J Hunnicut) had a love of dry gin martinis, going so far as to keep a gin still in their tent, and a question occurred to me: where were they getting their juniper berries?

Seriously, where were they getting their juniper berries from? They’re in an army hospital a few miles from the frontlines of what was a massive fucking war, often struggling to get supplies and equipment even through the black market (in fact that was the theme of a couple of episodes if I remember correctly), and juniper berries are not native to the Korean peninsula. But they clearly say they are drinking gin martinis and, as I’ve already mentioned, without juniper it’s just not gin. It’s vodka.

What I’m getting to is that I would totally watch a show about a Korean black market juniper dealer braving snipers and shelling to ensure that US army doctors can enjoy their dry martinis without having to resort to using vodka (like peasants). We can call it SM*A*S*Hed, or something less stupid and copyright-infringing, and it can be about more than just juniper. Maybe he also smuggles peat to a Scottish tank crew? Maybe he’s struggling to fill and then transport a big order of sugarcane to an Australian warship with a monopoly over the supply of rum to the rest of the allied fleets. There’s a lot you could do with this. Give him a dark yet hilarious past and a sassy cockney lesbian business partner and I reckon you’ve got television gold.

There you go Alan Alda, I’ve done the hard work for you. Now make it happen. ‘Cause I’d watch the hell out of that.

Working through the backlog: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Evening folks and welcome to the first in a short but hopefully enjoyable series of reviews that don’t really matter but will hopefully kickstart a creative spark past the blockage formed by six-to-thirteen day work weeks and an absolutely fucked sleep cycle, since all the cocaine and hookers don’t seem to be doing the job anymore. Speaking of expensive hobbies: video games. Aren’t they great?

Yeah, I can still segue with the best of them.

As some of you might know, I spent a while in Canada. Away from a console for approaching two years I missed some of the biggest launches for some pretty huge franchises. I also missed the rather dismal launch of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which underperformed miserably compared to its brethren (but still made tonnes of money) and to many marked an ignominious shift in the famous franchise’s fortunes (sorry, I’ve been trying to increase my alliteration lately). And that’s a shame because it’s probably the most I’ve enjoyed a Call of Duty game in a long time.

Now, I’m talking solely about the single player. Haven’t sat down for a multiplayer session since Modern Warfare 2, what, seven years ago? Something like that. I like a bit of story behind my acts of virtual violence (alliteration) and better written dialogue then what a racist, homophobic thirteen year old (they’re all racist and homophobic) will scream through their overpriced headphones. Because that’s not an outdated joke at all.

So I sat down and played through the single-player campaign and the story was, honestly, not good. The narrative is riddled with ridiculous cliches and plot-holes, with an enemy so needlessly, impossibly evil that I simply cannot think up a good metaphor for how moronic Salem Kotch and the SDF are. The best I could come up with is that their delivery boys blow their own brains out if they don’t deliver the pizza in thirty minutes or less, and I fully acknowledge how lame that is. At one point Salem (stupid fucking name by the by) just demands that the player character and his mates surrender themselves for, I shit you not, “immediate execution!” I mean, c’mon, I get it. These guys have got the whole ‘death before dishonour’ thing going, but demanding that the opposing side literally just roll over and die is just stupid – and unrealistic – writing. I’d also really like it if we took the whole “villain shoots their own men to prove to the hero how much of a villain they are” trope out behind the shed and shot it, and having your antagonists openly and verbally declare their hatred of freedom is just a little bit too on the fucking nose. But hey, this is an American game.

Anyway, that’s just my issues with the villains. Don’t get me started on the casually telegraphed named character deaths, the obvious plot twists, the clunky dialogue, the main player character being given command (because of course the grizzled white American male is) despite the game itself pointing out what an incompetent leader he is, or the fact that the entire story (about two dozen missions all told – including side operations – across the solar system) apparently takes place in one fucking day. One. Fucking. Day.

And it’s tragic because between the stark design-by-committee cliches and abject paint-by-numbers bullshit you can see the seeds of a genuinely great story with some genuinely fantastic characters.

The actual idea of a heavily militarised former colony, with a culture that has diverged sharply not least due to the enormous distance from Earth and the hardships that entails, makes for a fascinating villain if done right (like in the books and Netflix series, The Expanse). Throw in the fact that the SDF military is full of robots (whereas we only ever see E3N on the UNSA’s side) and you could have had a really interesting difference of opinion. But instead of hardened and bitter frontiersman who’ve built a culture around the machines that have helped them survive in the cold regions of space, we got Space Nazi Jon Snow telling us how much freedom sucks.

Your wingman and best friend, Nora Salter, is a Lebanese woman (voiced by an American, but you can’t have everything). She’s smart, aggressive, opinionated and loyal to a fault. But instead of playing as this well-rounded foreign woman of colour we have to play as a generic grizzled American white guy.

And for all the awful dialogue and cliches, there are some beautiful moments. E3N’s sense of humour is delightful, and, to my shock, as telegraphed as their deaths were I found my heart-strings being tugged as named members of the crew began dropping. The underlying message, that good commanders need to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, and order those under their command to do the same if it means victory, starts off clunky but ultimately works out quite nicely with a solid emotional payoff.

This is a decent game, and with a bunch of little changes and a smarter story it could have been great. What a pity.

Not always appropriate travel music

Do you love songs that you never actually listen to?

Anyone that knows me well can you that my love of Bostonian Celtic-punk rockers The Dropkick Murphys runs as long and deep as Spicy McHaggis’ famous pipes and infamous pipe. They’ve been one of my favourite bands since I was old enough to know what good music sounds like and remain one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen, not least because a Murphys’ audience is one of the best fucking mobs you can ever be a part of. Their latest album, 11 Short Stories of Pain and Glory, is another collection of epic distilled into musical form. A group of anthems and ballads telling stories of love, loss and missing hats. Take this fella right here:

Yeah, that right there? That anthem right there is everything I love about hard rock. Big, loud and proud. Strong and powerful, offering hope through the guarantee of community and support. Wind, rain, storms, violence, tragedy. Come what fucking may there’ll always be someone beside you. So stand tall and dream big. How can you resist singing along to a chorus like that?

I can’t, so nine times out of ten when it comes on through my earphones I hit the skip button.

If I’m listening to music odds are good that I’m at work (in which case I have no choice over the music being played), I’m in the car listening to the radio (in which case I also don’t have much of a choice in the playlist), or I’m on the train listening to music through a pair of headphones (where I have full control over the playlist). When a song like ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ comes on I can’t help but sing loud, sing proud, sing tunelessly. And that’s just not polite on the train.

Now I have no problem telling people that I love the Dropkick Murphys, and even less of a problem telling people I love this song. I wouldn’t be writing this if I did. But no one in a crowded train (or bus) carriage wants to listen to someone else’s music. Definitely not just the chorus sung badly without any musical accompaniment. There’s a name for people who do that, and it starts with ‘C’ and rhymes with ‘runt.’

So I never really listen to this song, but I don’t love it any less. And when I do I’m probably singing along at the top of my voice.

What about you? Any songs you love but never listen to?