Monthly Archives: March 2013

What makes something art? Copyright law!

This has to be the most elaborate troll of the gaming community I’ve seen since Jack Thompson. “games aren’t art because they’re code, and that’s proven by how they’re copyrighted”? Glorious.

Kudos, Liel Lebovitz. Not only for writing something so ridiculous that it defies Poe’s Law. Not only for artfully avoiding both the fact that code is copyrighted all the time and the fact that language itself is quite literally a code. Sneaking in the implication that books and musical notation aren’t art, though? Opening the door to arguing that ANY digitized medium isn’t art, since digital media is nothing more than elaborate computer code?

Wow.

If only we all didn’t have better things to do.

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I’ve Had an Extraordinarily Bad Day

…but this isn’t the place to talk about it.

(If you’re THAT curious, email me. Who knows? You might even be able to help. Yes, you. You, in the sweater.)

(That’ll put Gmail’s spam filter through its paces.)

Instead, I’m going to relay a really brilliant comment I read about SimCity on RPS.

Excellent question. Sure, you might have just been trolling, but it is important to ask, “why are people so concerned about this game?”

Pull up the chair, and let ol’ Granpa tell you a story. When I was a but a child, I went to a Community College and had a job. My job was playing computer games in a small office, back when “software testing” was something you not only could do while going to Community College, you could get paid for.

Remember when companies paid people for things?

Moving on…

We were an independent contracting house. Most of the games were the shovelware crap of the day — I have my share of war stories.

One day, we were asked to do final external testing on this Mac game from some small company out in Orinda. Yes, it was SimCity, and yes, it was an amazing game.

But it was more than an amazing game, it was amazing code. I remember we only encountered one showstopper bug. You could move around the city, but the city itself was frozen in time.

On the phone to Maxis, the reply (probably from Jeff Braun) was straightforward, “Yeah, that just means the simulation crashed; the interface will keep running.”

I know this sounds like basic game coding 101, but between the games I worked on and the ones we had in office for “research”, I was seeing between a half-dozen and a dozen games a week, on all platforms, and I’d never seen a game that was so well behaved as to have the simulation hang without bringing down the whole thing. And the stability was right up there with the titles from the PCEngine that we were certifying for the US market: frankly, there weren’t very many bugs, and those that we found were so minor as to be inconsequential. This was clean code.

The original was a rare thing: one of the few perfect games. Flawless code, easily readable, immediately accessible, SimCity gave birth to a genre while it marked a fond spot in the memories of a generation.

So it hurts to see it become the predictable result of groupthink mediocrity, a vision darkened by the urge to monetize and blinded by the buzzword-laden venom spat out by suit-wearing asps whose MBAs give them the right to override common sense and computer science.

For those managers who think the blasphemy of SimCity can all be attributed to teething problems, let me state clearly in your terms the problem: As long as you treat games as having a retail channel, you will be following a marketing model that flogs week 1 sales. DRM necessarily affects the core functionality of a game and necessarily changes continuously (out-of-date DRM might as well not be used). If you attach DRM to such a game, you will then increase significantly the chances that a significant percentage of your customers will not be able to play the game; that is, you will increase the number of dud products you sell. If you require internet-connected DRM, then you increase those odds by several orders of magnitude.

Always-on, Server-client games require a “Games as Service” business model. That business model is simply incompatible with a Week-1 spike in sales. A blockbuster movie has people waiting in line to see it. A video game with a long queue only generates hostility.

Your job is only safe until someone comes up with a metric to show how many millions you’ve wasted. Until then, enjoy laying off the people who actually contributed positively to the project.

So in short, what was a revolutionary title built on solid code, is now a “me-too” adaptation to the Social Network of 2008 with code that evokes comparisons to WWIIOL at launch.

I can’t add much to that…except that the story that it was linked to is one where a Maxis insider confirmed that SimCity doesn’t actually need the servers at all. Ayup. Doing a single-player version of SimCity isn’t just possible, this insider confirmed that it would be trivial. The only parts that wouldn’t work would be the “region” stuff, and while I’m sure that that sort of thing is neat, it clearly isn’t justifying this debacle.

I find it hard to care. People in the sorts of situation I’m in have trouble caring about stuff as abstract as digital rights management, which is one of the reasons why they can get away with that sort of thing in these dire-as-hell days.Yet it’s good to know regardless. It could have been different. It could have been better. And it WAS BETTER.

Just remember that.

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Women’s take on the DC Universe

Not my normal subject for discussion, but I ended up really enjoying Women Writing on Comics‘ breakdown of the “New 52” DC comics universe.  Especially their discussion of Wonder Woman: several of the commentators pointed to some issues that I hadn’t thought about, like her lack of agency on the whole WW/Superman thing that fans always seem to be banging on about, or the fact that it would make her a “supporting cast member” for ol’ Kal-El instead of a character in her own right.

(Tell you what, though; it’s REALLY making me miss DCUO. I have to get a better computer sometime soon.)

Anyway, check it out.

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Anita Sarkeesian’s First “Tropes v. Women” Video is Out

Yep. After all the shouting and yelling and accusations and whatnot about pretty much everything but the videos in question–largely revolving around a backlash against their funding and a counter-backlash against the ultra-horrible misogyny embedded in much of that backlash…

…we finally have our first video!

So much for the guys who thought she’d just take the money and run. Or whatever that was supposed to be.

Quick reax based on partial viewing…seems good so far, though nothing that exceeds the sort of work done by, say, Lindsay Ellis  on women in movies at Chez Apocalypse or Campster’s gaming-focused stuff at Errant Signal.   The discussion of subject v. object in games did remind me of something I read recently by Todd Alcott about superheroes, though:

(Technically, the true protagonist of The Avengers, is, of course, whoever is on the other end of the celestial jukebox that Mr. Bigrobe is talking to.  This turns out, eventually, to be a guy named Thanos, and Mr. Bigrobe turns out to be a guy named, er, “The Other.”  The “protagonist” of a story, the way the Greeks used the term anyway, was the guy who set events into motion.  Thanos wants The Tesseract, The Other sends Loki [the “ally”] and The Chitauri to get the Tesseract, and it falls to Nick Fury to stop those guys from doing that. This, technically, makes Nick Fury the antagonist of The Avengers. To make this distinction seems picayune, but, in fact, this protagonist problem is why so many superhero movies suck — it is inherent in the genre that the protagonist of the narrative is the bad guy.  The moment you have a main character whose job it is to run around stopping things from happening, you have a reactive protagonist, which means a weaker narrative.  When you have a weaker narrative, you end up throwing all kinds of nonsense at the screen, hoping that no one will notice that you have a reactive protagonist.  This is, incidentally, why Batman barely even shows up in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies — he understood that the protagonist of his Batman movies had to be Bruce Wayne, not Batman, and that, for his narratives to succeed, the bad guys had to be reacting to the actions of Bruce Wayne, not Batman reacting to the actions of the bad guys.)

The true protagonist, the true actor, in all of the Super Mario platformers is BOWSER. Mario has more agency than Peach as a player avatar, but he’s fundamentally reacting to Bowser, instead of really acting to achieve anything in his own right. He’s a superhero through-and-through, no different than Spiderman or Nick Fury.

The question may well be open as to whether or not Bowser’s more interested in Toadstool or Mario as an object, too. What if Bowser’s only kidnapping Toadstool to get Mario to go through his troops and traps to rescue her? What if he’s not actually interested in Peach as a possession (as alluded to in Sarkeesian’s “damselball” bit) but is only looking for the challenge, and knows of no other way to goad Mario into accepting it? What if Bowser doesn’t really want Peach at all?

And, weirder than that…what if Mario and Peach both know this?

More later.

Edit: Okay, it’s later.

For the most part I liked it. She did a good job bringing out issues of empowerment and objectification to a popular audience.  I saw two (surprising) issues here, though.

First, it’s barely about games per se. Sarkeesian analyzed her subject games strictly as narrative texts, without any real thought being given as to the reason or motivation for these things from a ludological perspective. Her “players” might as well be viewers, and the games might as well be television. I’m very surprised by this one; anybody who talks or thinks or writes critically about games has been absolutely buried in arguments over ludology v. narrativism, and the war over that sort of thing ended because almost everybody now realizes that you need to look at them through both lenses instead of one.

“Empowerment” in games is as much about play as it is about anything else. A playable character is always more empowered and enjoys more agency than a non-playable one from a strict gameplay perspective. She didn’t really get into that much, and it surprised me. Sure, she’s a media critic and not a gaming critic, but you really must address these things if you want to talk about games in 2013.

Second, it doesn’t have much of a temporal perspective. It treats the Zelda and Mario series (which are nearly completely the objects of analysis) as one big unit, instead of works that evolve over time with the changes in overall culture.

That’s somewhat of a problem with Mario, since Mario has evolved to become a larger franchise with players more used to the playable Peach of the modern franchise than kidnapped object Peach of the “core games”. While you can argue that Super Princess Peach for the DS isn’t a key game in the franchise, or than Peach’s surprisingly active role as an intermittently playable character that plays a key role in her own escape in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door doesn’t really count, or that Super Mario Brothers 2 was an outlier due to the whole Doki Doki Panic thing (as Sarkeesian does), it’s really hard to argue that Mario Kart doesn’t really “count”. Those games are as popular as the platformer, and an entire generation grew up on those games. They ARE Mario to a big, big audience of gamers. You can’t arbitrarily discount that.  Sarkeesian doesn’t even really address it, though; she just focuses on the “core” games and leaves the others aside.

It’s a big problem with the Zelda games, though, because that evolution over time is by far the most interesting thing about them. Yes, Zelda started off as little more than a plot device in Legend of Zelda.  Over time, though, she’s become a more and more interesting character in her own right, and has started playing more and more of a role as a sidekick instead of a mere object. Sarkeesian did bring up Zelda’s Sheik and Tetra personae as examples of welcome subversions of Zelda’s traditional role, but didn’t really mention that process of change and evolution.

The omission that REALLY surprised me, though, was Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. That’s a game where Zelda is, absolutely, positively, one hundred percent a core character from pretty much beginning to end. Her personality is refreshingly more like the feisty Tetra than the passive Peach.

She’s also extremely important from a ludological perspective.  The way in which the player controls her when she’s using her possession mechanic is the very thing the game is named after.  I wouldn’t even necessarily call her ghostly state in the game “dis-empowered”; her ability to possess Phantoms in Spirit Tracks is as vital to success as Link’s whole werewolf curse thing was in Twilight Princess.  The player is quickly taught that Link’s quest would be utterly impossible without her.

It was a grand step forward, a fun mechanic and a welcome counterexample to the standard trope. So where on earth was it? Maybe Sarkeesian is saving it for the followup where she talks about “flipping the script”. I certainly hope so; the game doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition.

In any case, I’m looking forward to the next one. I’m especially interested in seeing how she deals with Princess Rosella in Sierra’s King’s Quest IV, since that game’s as clear a reversal of the standard trope as you can get, and by a female game-maker besides.

Another Edit: Shouldn’t give the impression that I’m entirely critical, so I’ll name two things that really worked for me too. That story at the beginning with Dinosaur Planet and Starfox Adventures? Gold. Journalism worth watching in-and-of itself even if you never watch the rest. (Which you should.)   The transformation of the main character of Dinosaur Planet to damsel-in-distress in Starfox Adventures really is sketchy as all hell.

Also gold? That sequence with all the female characters shouting “help!”. It really, really nails down just how formulaic and lazy this sort of thing is. The big takeaway of this for me is that the damsel-in-distress is used because it’s easy. It’s a trivially obvious way to motivate a presumed audience of boys and young men.

That’s why I’m so interested in how she addresses King’s Quest IV. Not only because it’s an obvious and incredibly prominent subversion of the trope in the history of electronic gaming, but because it gets into the fact that PC games had a different audience. It was still primarily male, but usually older, better off, and less interested in adolescent power fantasies. The entire adventure game genre is rife with titles that either subvert this trope or ignore it entirely, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

NEW EDIT: Okay, embed’s fixed.

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