Video Games

Reviews and ideas and philosophy and why they still suck more often than not and though i still play them feel that they make the world a dumber place.

An Accidental Education: Games and the Real World, Etc.

As a writer and former devotee of fantastical works of fiction i have an uncomfortable relationship with the entertainment diaspora of video games. I should say straight out that i am also an avid gamer. This is not the same thing as saying i truly like them. They are still mostly a distraction, a diversion, and sometimes a complete and total waste of time. What interests me most about them is their potential. Games, like most writers, would be graded with the dubious distinction in the classroom of ‘not living up to their potential’ – a remark i’ve heard many times on my own report cards from when i was a lad of 15 – lo these many decades ago.

The trouble with video games is that they are not literature. Literature aims at explaining ourselves to ourselves, deepening the experience of our reality through identification with others. Games, on the other hand, accidentally stumble into a strange form of education. Well, some of them anyway. Most of them only educate you on the best way to dispatch zombies. But see i’m one of those management RPG gamers. I love The Sims, Civilization, the Total War epics, etc. Anything where you build empires and attempt to maintain and grow them is my thing. The war and killing stuff – ehn. You could leave that out of them and i would still be a pretty happy world builder.

Literature, you see, often stumbles into the human psyche, telling us a lot about ourselves and how we view the world and overcome our own foibles on a very personal level. Games, because they aren’t literature and generally aren’t written by those with a literary mind, don’t do this much. Sure there are the story games that come pretty close: Red Dead Redemption, the Grand Theft Auto series, etc. But for the most part they fall short because they are predicated on adversarial relationships of a violent (and entertaining) nature. Connection and real interest in the characters is often wanting – in the extreme. Therefore, truly interesting connection with the story isn’t really possible. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe reading, because it’s such a personal journey of the mind, can’t and shouldn’t be supplanted by games, but for an avid reader and a middling gamer i could use a little more.

Which finally brings me to the subject at hand. One thing i have noticed that games do very well is provide an opportunity to grasp difficult concepts in an informal and entertaining manner. The empire building games i love have really sparked my imagination and made me wish that even those games could do it better. Empire: Total War can be interesting in a way that a lecture on Napoleon and the age of Empires couldn’t. (unless you’re me of course) And the game itself is just deep enough to make it desirable to want to learn more. Age of Empires can teach about resource management and sustainability if you let it, and who could forget about trying to problem solve your way through the traffic snarls of SimCity?

I don’t believe that the designers of these games attempted much more than trying to make a lucrative game that would be widely engaging enough to make oodles of dough. That said they somehow stumbled into a way to teach real lessons about real things.

Lately i have been playing a lot of World of Warcraft. True to form i don’t just play. Well… I do – while i’m playing it, but whenever i log off i am flooded by the sociological, anthropological, and theoretical. I’m taken in by where it COULD take me if it were more developed and more focused and less bent on rampant entertainment. What i have learned, so far, about World of Warcraft is that it is a crash course on capitalistic entrepreneurism. Every character created and every player behind those characters, want what we all want – to acquire stuff, to be legendary, to be heroes. But within the world of Azeroth the primary means of this legendary status seems to be capitalistic. You buy your way to the top, by making things and selling them on the market – often attempting to manipulate the market in your favor.

The game itself, in terms of the stories it tells, has quite a bit of morality to it. Every race of characters has a story and it’s easy to sympathize, but the primary means of moving through the story eventually becomes economical. I don’t think of this necessarily as a bad thing. I mean, it’s a game and it’s always important to remember that (as some occasionally seem to forget) The fact remains, however, that there is more that games COULD do, if the writers were there to work on them. The stories COULD become a great means of interacting with a world that is more or less in your control, and the morality and ethics of the training that is possible if the world were well written could be an invaluable resource to a world that is getting smaller and smaller with each passing day and each bit of information shot across the world. Can you imagine, for instance, a conservative christian playing as a Paladin banding unwittingly with a conservative muslim to save a virtual home from a raging force? It’s these possibilities that could be better explored and i hope will be.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what video games are capable of but i think, in a way, these educational moments will have to remain accidental and not heavy handed. Technology seems to have thrown open the doors on the possible and shown where it crosses with the intentional and the accidental. We’ve concocted an entirely new realm (sometimes literally) where people learn quickly how to adapt the new tools at their hands and put them to a qualitative purpose. I’d like to think the best of this technology. In the past few weeks we’ve seen how it has started literally changing the world we live in. For a while now i’ve been saying the days of ‘Wars for Regime Change’ can finally be put behind us once we start securing the right of people to information. Instead of dropping bombs, drop servers, bandwith, tweets. Yeah. I know that’s a little fantastical and delusional but we have yet to fully discover just how delusional that is – particularly when the power of thought expressed, shared, and evading dictatorial repression has just moved two mountains in the past month.

So what can Games teach us? What can we learn about ourselves? What can we learn about others? Perhaps it will take a virtual world to teach us the value of the real one? Perhaps it will take Orcs and Taurens and Gnomes and Elves to teach us the absurdity of racial divides within ourselves? Who knows. Right now i can honestly say that Warcraft alone is fully capable of teaching us the intricacies of markets in a way the stock ticker on TV never could. I don’t know if thats a good thing or not but it’s more than i had before – particularly in regards to a subject i could have cared less about a month ago.

Now if you’ll pardon me i have to go check on how the Mageweave Cloth market is doing today and i’ve heard there’s a run on Iron Bars which i just happen to have on inventory.

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Categories: Deep Thoughts, Video Games | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shhhh….

Well it’s been a rough day. When we’re on scales of roughness, isn’t it a safe bet that we ought to get off of them? I mean, honestly. The first decent measurement of a rough day is to be taken while safely ensconced behind a nice frosty bottle of something with some quality TV, smooth music, or some other edge removing sensory stimulant. Unfortunately the TV is crap tonight and i have a feeling that if i snap on my iTunes it will be blaring some Bad Religion at me and i’m not prepared at present to have sandpaper grind on the sandpaper of my nerves. So it’s off to gaming, my escapist poison, my sometime drug, and i am about to attempt something i said i would never ever ever do in a million years. So don’t tell anyone. Promise?

Okay. I am about to join the hoopla.

I am not, traditionally a hoopla joiner. And to protect the reputation of the innocent (Me – not that i am innocent or have a reputation to protect) i shall not mention the game i am about to play. Let us just say that it is shorthand for awe and excitement – an expression if you will.

I have harangued this ‘expression’ for quite some time but being true to myself can sometimes be a burden and it behooves me to understand that which i harangue. I should mention this attitude has, on occasion, gotten me into considerable trouble in the past. We’ll see how it goes.

I am probably NOT going to detail my further travels into this area as i try not to talk about gaming much (because i have lately been having a lot of success getting away from gaming) but i am floating this out there because, well, the things still downloading and i felt the need to write something for today, even though there are oh… i don’t know, something like 50 or more scenes from Seeing Stars i could be editing right now. Did i mention it was a rough day? Maybe once i get my head wrapped around this new thing i will have some more fortitude to rip the guts out of my fledgling screenplay. We’ll see.

Just don’t tell anybody.

Categories: Video Games, Writing | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Red Dead Redemption – Review

Holy Great Googly Moogly! Red Dead Redemption is here!!!

I love westerns.

Not all westerns. I’m fairly specific.

 In the list of the Best Westerns of all time i would have to say Unforgiven is the obvious top. The paragon of all. The Alpha and the Omega. It is the condensed mythology of all of the history and mythos of westward expansion jammed into a very painful two hours – as complicated psychologically as it is cathartic. Next up is Lonesome Dove, both the book and the exceptional Miniseries. I always figured we’re all stuck somewhere between the extremes of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call and their steady, plodding, manuevers through the american west is our steady and plodding movement from coast to coast. Enterprise and ingenuity meet laziness and ease, still somehow managing to accomplish the amazing.

I have often lamented the dearth of westerns in Videogames which is choked full of aliens, mutants, zombies, magic and fantasy and so far still woefully lacks anything compelling in terms of psychology or narrative. This is a lament i will probably continue until the powers that be in the gaming industry realize that they need to start hiring good writers to craft their stories, and until there is an active program generated by the universities to train writers in how to tell a story well using buttons and joysticks.

Well, along comes Red Dead Redemption. While it is not a triumph of storytelling – no matter what the glowing reviewers might say – it’s closer than most things have come. It is also a wonderful triumph of an experience. No video game has given me more joy to see its main character being rained on. I can’t tell you the glee i had when i roped my first mustang and then tamed it and then to ride drag on a herd of cattle? Really? Do i honestly get to do this in a game? Oh but it gets even better than that. Just you wait.

Anyone who has played any of Rockstars Grand Theft Auto series will know of its tenet for allowing the player to do things and go anywhere. This is no longer a shock in the video game world, but never has it been so pretty. In watching the cinematic opening scene i felt like my Xbox had been rebuilt from the ground up. I fear, now, that Red Dead’s gorgeous setting, graphics and game play may have ruined me for other games. I think i spent several minutes of my first day just wandering around to watch the dust get kicked up by my boots.

If you’ve played the first Red Dead nothing is similar. Nothing. The traditional pathed environments, missions and most particularly the overly mythologized spaghetti western thematic is gone entirely. The world is now populated with wry witticisms delivered by townsfolk, the occasional opportunist bad guy, card sharps, hucksters, gamblers, thieves, gunmen, and tired relics. For the most part they are fairly believable entities, blithely unaware that the weight of civilized westward expansion is about to put their world to an end and it’s unfortunate and leveraged harbinger is you.

John Marston, the character you portray, is much like many of the characters in the game. He’s simple, just wishing to live out the rest of his days tolling in the fields with his young family but unable to walk completely away from his past. Like Josie Wales or Bill Munny, he trudges back into the violence he thought he’d left grudgingly but with an odd acceptance. He is also the agent of change and everyone he meets seems to know it and resent it.

Quite literally Marston is set loose in the land by ‘the folks back east’ to bring the law to the land he used to run ragged in. His job, whether you choose to accept it or not, is to bring to ‘justice’ his former compadres of the bandit gang he once ran with. It’s not a job he wants. It’s not going to be easy. But within ten minutes of playing it you know damned well it’s going to be fun.

I have, after a week and then some of playing, JUST managed to unlock a new section of the already dauntingly huge map. Throughout the map, all of the maps, you meet the straggling bandit, those who are slowly losing their minds in the vastness of the west and all number of characters you will appreciate (and some you will not). But the land itself is alive. Coyotes, wolves, mountain lions. You can race deer on horseback, watch buzzards circle fresh corpses, listen to the wind whistle through the arid barnboards of a dead town, and ride forever into dusk while being struck with the beauty of an enormous blue moon.

Yeah. I fancy myself a gamer at times but i knew this was special when i rode to the edge of a cliff and simply stood looking out over the plains studded with the silhouettes of cacti, sparkling with the faraway light of a town, and all glowing under that moon. The game puts you into the west in a way no game and few movies have.

There are a few sticking points I feel I have to mention if this is to be a truly fair review though. Every so often things don’t quite work the way they ought. I noticed once, in coming out of the saloon i occasionally call home, a feller leaning on a chair that didn’t exist. Needless to say he was a little easy to knock over. I wondered briefly if he was a transplanted mime from France, finding himself a stranger in a land made of and for strangers.

And speaking of strangers – they are out there, providing respite and relief from the main path of the storyline and if you are to play the game i highly recommend you seek them out. From the young woman trying to survive the desert on faith alone, to the sad wanderer dreaming of a destiny too long-delayed, their brief stories add poignancy to the main quest, acting as waypoints on your moral compass, to some extent, in your dealings with the slippery characters you end up fraternizing with.

As usual the controls can feel a bit sluggish at times and sometimes it gets a tad frustrating, like while trying to follow a dog through a henhouse while brandishing a Winchester. Marston, while walking, moves interminably slow but there is always the run function. Because of the grand scope of the environment, no enemy you ever draw a bead on feels particularly close and you will often find yourself looking into the blue night trying to find muzzle flashes to direct your fire at. In my opinion this is not a bad thing.

If i had one major critique it would be that the tutorial doesn’t fully explain everything. I still struggle with the quickdraw (a mini game wherein you square off against an opponent High Noon style) and Dead Eye (a function wherein you slow down time allowing you to shoot down multiple opponents in rapid succession) still eludes me from time to time. As a whole, however, Red Dead is enormously satisfying and i hope it continues to be with the release of further Downloadable Content.

Basically, if you are a western fan, this is the game you’ve been waiting for. It’s too early in video game history to call it the Unforgiven of Videogame Westerns – more like The Searchers or High Noon, but it has everything you need – roping, gunmen, law and order, gorgeousness on a grand scale, and characters who are well above the average of the fairest examples of compelling video game folk.

I’ll see your steely eyes in Armadillo. Come heeled.

Categories: Video Games | 2 Comments

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