The Managed Expectations of the VGX
Posted on Tuesday, December 3 2013 @ 13:44:43 Eastern
Is it just me, or do the game of the year nominees for Spike's VGX awards feel underwhelming? I mean, four of these games are critically acclaimed masterpieces, yet it feels like there is no fundamental difference between most of the nominees this year. Of course you can name some, such as genre differences or presentation, but that is honestly irrelevant to the issue at hand. There is this problem we need to address that is continuously growing in the gaming industry; many of the critically acclaimed titles for the year are just the managed expectations of the media, portraying what they think is good, versus what really is good.
Well, that is really unfair to say. Out of the five nominees, only two of them I would argue actually have weight to them as a "good" video game; Grand Theft Auto V and Super Mario 3D World. For me, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider and The Last of Us pale in comparison to the others because of what they are emblematic of, this idea of managed expectations for the consumer base. It is not really a question of quality or talent, and not even the hype behind them that likely catapulted these titles to critical acclaim. It is simply a question of what people feel is right for the industry, when in reality it is causing stagnation over growth.
One could argue that those three games take no risks whatsoever in defining themselves outside of the experience given. Now no one is saying the design of these games is bad either; each game world is unique, dynamic, and rife with its own themes and conflicts that give their respected settings both texture and context that make them memorable. This provides great window dressing to set a story to as well, offering new ideas and experiences for the player to witness. Neither would I dismiss the acting in these games either, which deservedly so garners praise across the board for strong characterizations and dynamic relationships that add a level of complex storytelling to make us empathize with the protagonists.
Yet for all the praise of the story, the settings, the voice acting, and the characterizations we see in these games, there is one point where the critics seem divided when they write up their reviews, the gameplay itself. Steven Burns of Videogamer.com pointed out that Bioshock Infinite had combat that “suffered from monotony through overuse.” Polygon’s Philip Kollar noted that The Last of Us “leans more on the traditional trappings of third person shooters…These sequences sit at odds with the rest of the game.” Justin Speer of Gametrailers chided Tomb Raider for a similar problem, saying “Lara feels preternaturally skilled at killing, and while she’s clearly emotionally shaken when she’s first forced to kill her first animal, subsequent killings treat furry bodies and human skulls like piñatas filled with experience points.”
Yet these three games were favorably reviewed, with each selling over 3 million for the year of 2013. Admittedly the dissenting voices are the minority, and this does reflect the quality of the overall product. After all, none of these games are “bad” in terms of broken, buggy or just shamelessly uninspired messes. We have beautifully realized worlds with gorgeous aesthetics, supported by strong scripts all coded into a mesh of dynamic cut scenes that can offer an exhilarating experience for the consumers to watch. However, the key word here is watch, not play. From the ludonarrative perspective, these titles are poor representations of what video games are because of this focus on watching the story unfold.
In a way, the storylines in these titles is what is carrying games. Many fans have criticized the flaws in the gameplay of all the VGX nominees, unwilling to buy into the hype that surrounded them. It is a telling sign that a paradigm shift has occurred, a change in the focus of what game critics see as more acceptable for the medium. An interesting aspect of this argument is that up until ten years ago, video games were still marketed on their gameplay, over the storyline. For example, a title like Halo wasn't sold on its dramatic storytelling, but rather its shooter mechanics, with the advertisements reflecting the focus of the marketing. Most games released before the 7th generation followed this pattern of emphasizing gameplay, much to the derision of critics.
It did feel like for a time, critics pined for something more. Arcade-style games full of gameplay simply weren‘t enough, and for a period in the mid to late 2000’s, almost every game had a story mode, even titles that didn’t need it. It was a time for experimentation in this way to see what worked, and what didn’t, but as the graphics grew more powerful, the ability to tell emotional stories became much easier for developers to create. This sort of “rose period” for the gaming industry has many benefits, and we see it in the labors of the forerunners that emphasized storylines as much as gameplay. Games like The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, and the original Bioshock may not be perfect, but they are memorable for being the best at this new paradigm; this emphasis on dramatic storytelling while keeping up with the demands of providing adequate gameplay.
Video game stories still have a long way to go before they reach critical acceptance outside of the industry, a key factor at legitimizing games as a visual, tactile, and storytelling art form. Even the very best of the past generation are from perfect, with Mass Effect, Bioshock and The Walking Dead containing flaws in their narratives and how it is presented to the player. Perhaps this is why the emphasis on tight, constructed storylines is what journalists are managing. We are seeing more and more examples of games which have a high emphasis on story, but minimalist or sometimes rudimentary gameplay. Games like Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us and Tomb Raider are not compelling video games through gameplay, but compelling video games through their narratives, giving them more kinship to an interactive movie.
Our expectations are tailor made to fit this line of thinking; we expect a good story now from a video game, and we expect to see a satisfactory conclusion without lingering issues or a thought-provoking finale. All the while ignoring or tolerating at best mediocre gameplay mechanics or problems with ludonarrative dissonance, we have our expectations managed to a specific line of thought on what makes these games truly great, when in reality they are not the perfect titles we once believed in.
Considering the fact that the VGX awards are handpicked by a crop of journalists and personalities, including Brian Crecente, Geoff Keighley, Mike Krahulik, and Jeff Gerstmann, the media has the final say on which games are nominated for this award show, and which game wins. Yet the similarities that most of the nominees have does depict a telling picture, one that asserts to both consumers, developers, and publishers that these are the type of games the media favors. It is a case of commoditization through the control game journalists have, dangerously similar to the payola structure for the music industry which paves way to managing the expectations of the consumer base by carefully controlling what they expect to like for the goal of profit and recognition.
Now, one could argue that Super Mario 3D World is the exception to this rule, and you are right. It is an anomaly among the other entrants, being a pure gameplay experience over a story-driven masterpiece. Perhaps it was a token nod, or there is genuine love and respect for Mario that is filling the void to add diversity to the nominations this year. Or Mario is simply filling the gap for a delayed title that journalists expected to nominate this year. I suspected earlier that Watch Dogs was likely to be nominated, again considering the hype behind the title, but its delay forced a quick replacement to the list. This is of course conjecture, but I personally don’t rule it out as a possibility. I would not be surprised if Watch Dogs was nominated next year however, as it would be again managing the expectation that the title will be good, regardless of the flaws it may have.
As journalists and consumers, we need to be more critical in this new paradigm shift so that the standards of what a good game are continue to evolve. With the constant whitewashing of critical flaws within gameplay, however, many journalists neglect to remark how issues with gameplay transform the perspective of the storyline. You simply cannot ignore aspects of the gameplay that clash with the storyline anymore, especially if, from a narrative standpoint, it makes no sense for the player to be doing things the character on screen can’t or will not do.
A telling trend of this is how numerous posthumous editorials continue to crop up after a critically acclaimed game is released. Pieces from professionals and contributors on sites like Kotaku and Gamasutra are all the more common now a days, often rifling through the negative aspects of these games with a fine tooth comb. These editorials are providing an almost investigative point of view of something that a critical review may have forgotten. Or, in worse cases, simply ignored when showering these titles with praise.
We also need to be cognizant of why this is unacceptable. For many games we let these “game conceits” slide because we’re participating in the storyline. Through interactivity by pushing buttons, we show investment into the game by continuing to watch what happens, by pushing buttons when appropriate, and by interacting with the world at pre-determined times. It is a subconscious, near Pavlovian response, pushing buttons to see a desired effect. We allow game conceits to occur because we show interest in only advancing the plot or through enjoyment of the gameplay. Such conceits need to be taken into account now, especially if they begin to break the narrative flow of the game itself.
This is a difficult balance to hammer out, yet we have seen some games that are more balanced than others. Issues aside with Mass Effect, it is one of the emblematic examples of interactivity as part of the gameplay experience since it drives the narrative through it‘s gameplay. The Walking Dead is an example of a "pure narrative" game, one that is designed solely on how you structure your narrative through your choices and to present the effects of said choices while playing. Other games, like Spec Ops: The Line, have a linear progression but narrative interactivity through devices that allow more complexity to your actions than what meets the eye.
Even recent titles can strike that balance and offer gameplay that improves the narrative, while emphasizing narrative interaction. Remember the torture scene from Grand Theft Auto V? That is another example of this, not just pressing buttons but interacting with the experience through the simulation, while simultaneously going through a major plot point in the storyline. It is gripping and shocking, and is designed to be this way because you’re playing it instead of watching it. You are pushing buttons and allowing the torture to happen, and despite any reservations behind the scene, it’s both compelling and interactive, allowing a moment of pathos that can't simply be watched from a cut-scene.
Truth be told, if I really valued the VGX, the game that deserves the win the most for game of the year is Grand Theft Auto V. While it is far from perfect, as everything really is, it has enough of a balance between good gameplay and a consistent narrative structure to keep the players engaged, and doesn’t attempt to manage expectations as much as the other nominees. Major flaws aside, it is the only game that gives both the critics and the consumers what they want as well, a good video game all around.
Through all of this though, the lesson that critics need to learn is that we need to stop managing expectations for what we perceive as a “good“ game. A storyline can be important, but they are not the only part of a game to focus on. The over-emphasis on story and visual presentation in the past few years has made games less about games, and more about expectations of what you’ll take away from it internally. Critics need to find that balance once more, that hook that allows them to critically analyze narrative and gameplay, and rate it accordingly. Otherwise the message, as seen by the nominees for the VGX, will remain the same, and any growth we can hope to achieve will forever be stagnated to what we always expect.
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Sandy Hook Slaying Turned into Gun-Control Video Game
Posted on Friday, November 22 2013 @ 15:26:43 Eastern
[b]*Note: this article was first posted on Blistered Thumbs and can be found in the link below.[/b] http://www.blisteredthumbs.net/2013/11/sandy-hook-slaying-turned-into-gun-control-video-game/
Can video games be political statements?
This is the question we should be asking after the news broke today, regarding a Flash game about the Sandy Hook Elementary Killings. Entitled The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary School, amateur developer Ryan Jake Lambourn takes the basic timeline of the Sandy Hook tragedy and transformed it into a game where you play a faceless murderer who barges into the school and slaughters teachers and children, before being forced to turn the gun on yourself when a timer counts down to zero. Suffice to say, the game is heavy stuff to sit through, and Lambourn is suffering the wrath of the press and the internet combined.
On Twitter, family members of one of the victims, teacher Victoria Soto, fired back at Lambourn by asking "Please tell us how playing a game that recreates how Vicki died would be beneficial? Please tell us." Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) also criticized the game and its creator during a press conference yesterday. "To make a game about the murder of 20 children and their six teachers is absolutely sickening," Murphy said in a statement. "I hope the very disturbed person who could think of something like this sees the cruelty of what he's done and stops it."
Lambourn, a Houston native now living in Australia, believes the message for gun control is clear. "Australia had sweeping gun control laws placed after the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, in which 35 people died. The result of that sweeping regulation is guns are no longer a noticeable part of Australian culture." he argues. "And here we are nearly a year after the Sandy Hook shootings in which 26 people were killed, 20 of which were first graders, and absolutely nothing positive has come out of it."
Lambourn has been down this road before, creating a game based around the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, the deadliest mass murder shooting recorded in American History which resulted in the deaths of 32 people. Lambourn believes the best way to combat gun control is to shed away your apathy. "You have to remember your politician's aren't mind readers, and the NRA is not doing anything more than motivating its members to passionately talk to those representatives about their opinions." he said "Your absolute apathy is the reason why the news is unbearable to watch."
It is clear that Lambourn is pushing for a specific political agenda, and video games, like any form of expression, is a fair medium to use. This is the purest form of a soapbox game, one that is designed to be controversial because of the subject matter. No, it's not as pretentious or complex as other hot button titles like Super Columbine Massacre RPG, and I think the imagery is too close to home to really be an effective political message in the end.
I see what he is trying to do, but I don't know if the game will do more good than harm, especially considering the vague connections Sandy Hook had to video game violence when the shooting occurred. Almost prophetically, Lambourn sums up the general consensus by most of the public on his twitter feed. "The liberals don't like me because I've disrespected the dead. The conservatives don't like me because of the gun control message. The trolls don't like me because the games not edgy enough."
Sources: [url]http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/someone-made-a-video-game-about-sandy-hook-where-you-play-as[/url], [url]http://swfchan.org/2942/sandyhook.swf[/url]
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Mike Krahulick, Dickwolf Bully?
Posted on Friday, September 13 2013 @ 12:43:34 Eastern
This member blog post was promoted to the GameRevolution homepage.
Is Mike Krahulick a dickwolf bully?
For those not in the know, or are like me and barely cared when this occurred because you find Penny Arcade to be unfunny, back in 2010 Penny Arcade got into some hot water over a strip titled The Sixth Slave. The comic, lampooning the silliness of game mechanics asking you to rescue X amount of people, included a throw-away line which involved a slave talking about being raped by dickwolves. Whether the line itself is offensive is honestly irrelevant, since this does boil down to one's taste in humor to even be funny or not.
That didn't stop several people to express their disgust with Penny Arcade, so much so that a comical apology was issued to quell the anger that rose from the strip. The problem, some argue, is that Krahulik has taken "dickwolf" too far.
Let's be very clear for a moment, and state simply that this is no longer about the issue of rape. Even Penny Arcade has stated that they are against the notion of rape, and Krahulik has time and again pointed this out. That, of course, doesn't mean it could be funny. Comedians have discussed taboo subjects time and again because it should be tackled, as anything can be in art. As George Carlin once said though, "You can joke about anything; it all depends on how you construct the joke."
In the case of dickwolf, that is a bigger point of contention. Sicnce the 2010 PAX Prime, Krahulick has brought up dickwolf time and again, from free-drawing the dickwolf during the make-a-strip demonstration, to selling "Team Dickwolf" t-shirts for a time at the Penny Arcade store. Much of this controversy can be tracked by this handy timeline, titled The Pratfall of Penny Arcade that chronicles the responses, twitter posts, articles and strips that are both for and against what occurred.
The dickwolf merchandise was removed after several companies and speakers threatened not to attend PAX Prime, with Krahulick protesting this decision by wearing the shirt anyway at PAX that year. Fast forward to last week, where Krahulick once again brought up dickwolves and how the removal of the shirts were a major regret.
This flew some writers into a major tizzy, such as Rachel Edidin of Wired magazine. Penning an editorial titled Why I'm Never Going Back to Penny Arcade Expo, with Edidin expressing her disgust with the dickwolf snafu, accusing Krahulick of being a de-facto schoolyard bully.
In Krahulik’s mind, he’s still the underdog rebelling against an unfair world bent on keeping him down. Despite decades of success and influence, he’s never learned to distinguish between criticism and censorship or understood the relationship between power and personal responsibility. He’s an angry teenager with the clout of an industry baron, and he’s cultivated a horde of followers who respond to criticism with death and rape threats. These are the sorts of people Penny Arcade courts when it digs in its heels and goes to the mat in defense of its right to punch down.
Edidin is not the only one haranguing over the return of the dickwolves. The outspoken Elisabeth Sampat blasted Krahulik on her blog over his lament for pulling the dickwolf t-shirts by calling the creators the "problem," and urging people to never attend PAX again. Accusing co-creator Jerry Holkins and business manager Robert Khoo as enablers for Krahulik's destructive behavior, Sampat goes over a laundry list of complaints against Krahulik and Penny Arcade, from an alleged cover-up story regarding the sexual assault of a woman by a PAX enforcer to Krahulick's transphobia comments.
Before we go back to Krahulik, I need to address something quickly. Both Edidin and Sampat, while their opinions are noted, are also completely biased. Sampat's editorial reeked of sour grapes based upon her own problems with the behaviors of Penny Arcade, to the point of being almost sanctimoniously righteous that Penny Arcade and PAX are a cancerous problem in the gaming industry due to their creators. Edidin inferred in her article several aspects that are clearly formulated by her own opinion on the matter, echoing Sampat in believing that Krahulik was wrong in raising the specter of dickwolf once more.
In many ways, we wouldn't even have this conversation again if both Sampat and Edidin didn't voice their disdain for the dickwolf. Since then, the story has once again taken a life of its own, making the rounds on the blog-sphere for all to copy off in support of or against Penny Arcade. If one flaw in this method of spreading the word can be said, it is how filtered the message is. Inferrence and presumptions aside, you can't fault either of their opinions, but you can question their validity as fair interpretation of what was said. In this case, I feel both women are out of line in their current accusations.
That doesn't mean Krahulik is off the hook. Despite the fact that Penny Arcade as a comic has had several references to the taboos of rape, pedophilia, bestiality, death threats, and even implied murder over its near fifteen year run, it was the dickwolf in 2010 that became the straw that broke the camel's back. Or rather, the response after the fact. While the dickwolf comic itself can be seen as a catalyst because of the use of rape in the joke, ultimately the response by Krahulik is his biggest failing in this whole debacle, from the flippant responses to his critics, to his somewhat incredulous defiance towards many who felt uncomfortable because of dickwolf.
In a position of power, which Penny Arcade has within the industry, it is difficult to maintain professional decorum. Time and again we have seen rampant abuse performed by many within the industry, be it intentional or not. From journalists to developers, commentators and critics, no one is immune to criticism regardless of the subject at hand. Krahulik is no exception to this, and his responses to the dickwolf controversy, even in the style fans of Penny Arcade is accustomed to, has only snowballed into a negative stream of comments and complaints. It is to the point where even admitting regret over a possible t-shirt sale has become a hotbed of controversy, a toxic asset for Penny Arcade.
I think Krahulik has realized this too. Mere hours after Edidin's editorial was posted, Krahulik issued another apology, this time directly, regarding the dickwolf incident.
"So let me start by saying I like the Dickwolves strip. I think it’s a strong comic and I still think the joke is funny. Would we make that strip today? Knowing what we know now and seeing how it hurt people, no. We wouldn’t. But at the time, it seemed pretty benign. With that said I absolutely regret everything we did after that comic. I regret the follow up strip, I regret making the merchandise, I regret pulling the merchandise and I regret being such an ******* on twitter to people who were upset. I don’t think any of those things were good ideas. If we had just stopped with the strip and moved on, the Dickwolf never would have become what it is today. Which is a joke at the expense of rape victims or a symbol of the dismissal of people who have suffered a sexual assault. the comic itself obviously points out the absurd morality of the average MMO where you are actually forced to help some people and ignore others in the same situation. Oddly enough, the first comic by itself is exactly the opposite of what this whole thing has turned into."
So much of the vitrol does boil down to this, even moreso than the charges that using rape in the comic was offensive. Humor has always been difficult to criticize, because it's often brutally honest when discussing what many find harsh or controversial. We have seen famous routines, from Lenny Bruce sniffing glue, to George Carlin uttering seven words, Chris Rock pointing out the absurdities of his own race. All are controversial but do reveal how humor can be subjective in taste, yet poignant in its message. But again, this stems from how the joke is crafted, and who is saying it.
In truth, we can play a zero-sum game over the dickwolf controversy, but in the end, the controversy itself has been blown out of proportion. Krahulik is no bigger a bully than the people who lionize their cause against him for using the joke. Krahulik is no saint, but he is far from a sinner in this situation. The real question now is what do we do about this the next time something offensive is said? For Krahulik, it should be the promise for a more tactful approach against the rabbit hole that is the internet. For his detractors, it should be analyzing the issue at hand, instead of promoting a cause. For all of us, it should be to simply judge what is said by how it's said, but to not lose ourselves in a fervor of emotion.
All of this is hard to do, but this is how we, as an industry, prevent ourselves from becoming the very bullies we fight against.
The opinions expressed here does not necessarily reflect the views of Game Revolution, but we believe it's worthy of being featured on our site. This article has been lightly edited for grammar. LinksOcarina provided the image links. You can find more Vox Pop articles here. ~Ed. Nick Tan
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Seeing the Love: My Time at Video Game Fan Fest
Posted on Wednesday, June 26 2013 @ 12:30:01 Eastern
[Editor's Note: As LinksOcarina comments below, this article is on Blistered Thumbs so it won't be a part of the official Vox Pop competition (yes, I will soon amend the fact that I missed last month's Vox Pop due to E3). However, we thin... read more...
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Is InXile Crowdsourcing or Outsourcing?
Posted on Tuesday, May 7 2013 @ 22:25:48 Eastern
[Editor's Note: This article was published on BlisteredThumbs and thus will not be eligible for the Vox Pop monthly prize. However, we believe it should still be featured as a part of our community.]
Update: InXile has gr... read more...
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Remember Me and the Female Touch
Posted on Friday, March 22 2013 @ 10:23:04 Eastern
Why are there no female leads in gaming?
A strange question to ask after recently reviewing Tomb Raider, but it is a fair question considering that there are few female leads in gaming today. In fact, according t... read more...
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The Ghost of Video Game Violence
Posted on Thursday, February 7 2013 @ 07:54:19 Eastern
October 7th, 2005. In the throes of the Autumn weather, then Governor of California, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed two bills into law. The bills in question were California Assembly Bills 1792 and 1793--more commonly known as the video ... read more...
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The Dissolution of Choice, How Choices Matter in Gaming Narrative
Posted on Monday, December 17 2012 @ 13:26:13 Eastern
Note: The following editorial contains spoilers. You have been warned.
"Choices." "Consequences." "Engaging and defining your play style." These are the short and catchy buzzwords of... read more...
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Fiction Over Fact: Why EA Is Destined To Lose When It Doesn't Deserve It
Posted on Wednesday, September 19 2012 @ 12:36:47 Eastern
A sort of disclaimer before I begin. It is not every day that I normally throw myself out there with the purpose of starting a conversation to discuss discourse of the general gaming audience, but with the calm before the holiday stor... read more...
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Separate but Equal: The Narrative and the Gameplay.
Posted on Monday, March 14 2011 @ 10:37:39 Eastern
The recent release of Dragon Age II has kind of compelled me to write this piece. It is something that has been on my mind for years, something that is starting to become a grim reality that anyone who is a fan of video games is facing. It is also so... read more...
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