The Unreviewable

It’s no secret that there’s a thick vein of criticism of criticism present in, well, pretty much every artistic medium. Journalism’s great defence is its ability to buy ink by the barrel, and journalists love to talk about themselves, their peers, and their enemies. That this culture exists in videogame criticism isn’t surprising, but that doesn’t make the criticism (of criticism) wrong. Lords knows we’re guilty of it here at Irony Exports.

The argument is pretty simple; existing videogame review and critique primarily serves as a form of advertisement for the product, typically financed by advertising for that product. Reviewers are put under pressure to be timely, and games are primarily reviewed based on marketing cycles. this pushes reviews to focus on numeric scores and the opening impressions of any given game.

If we accept, however, that the culture of reviewing videogames is, as established by convention, wrong, or at least, not right enough, we can open the gates to reviews and therefore, promotion for games that don’t fit conventional models, or try interesting or different things. Games that really can’t be reviewed by the conventional standards of Game Journalism.

The plan had been to provide an in-depth review of a game here, but in an effort to widen the conversation, we at Irony Exports have decided to provide some micro-reviews of games obtained through the excellent promotion service of Forest Ambassador.

  • Blocks and Lots; a game that informs the player while providing a classic balancing-act gameplay model. Score: 4/5 Disgruntled Industrialists.
  • Emma; a game that juxtaposes haunting black-and-white imagery with seemingly meaningless text. Score: 5/5 Heavily Projected Narratives.
  • Clockwork Cat: An introductory platformer with charming mechanics, an easy play-through and interesting puzzle-solving. Score: 4/5 Immediate Intuitions.
  • Ladylike: A short dialogue puzzle about winning an argument with your mother about the proper role of girls. Score: 0/10 Actual Solutions

Preacher With A Shotgun

Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
– Matthew 15:11 (KJV)

shotgun preacherPaul Hall is not an imposing man; he smiles easily, his glasses are thick as a byproduct of his age, and he is quick to offer a joke. He’s a motorcycle enthusiast, a fisherman, a fan of classic rock music, an acoustic guitarist, a father, a grandfather, a preacher and Biblical scholar, and in his spare time he unwinds by teleporting to mars and shooting demons in the face with a double-barreled shotgun.

Paul is a living embodiment of the challenge of marketing videogames. In his lifetime, he’s worked as a professional chef, he’s served in the Australian Military, he’s worked in IT sales and support, full-time work in the church ministry, and even today he works as IT support for the Department of Education, alongside his part-time duty as a chaplain at a school for troubled children. When videogame demographics are discussed, there’s no box for a person like Paul.

Overwhelmingly, videogame marketing seeks to appeal to a demographic of 25-30 year old white men, who primarily consume videogames. According to longterm industry developre Warren Specter, these consumers have ‘read one book, and seen one movie.’

What then do you make of a man like Paul?

Paul is no Wii-Sports pickup, a newcomer to the gaming scene. Paul’s first personal computer arrived in his home in 1984, and he was gaming before that, on a friend’s Tandy computer. The name of the game then was Volcano Hunter, and Paul still remembers the game fondly today.

An avid motorcycle and car afficionado, Paul found driving videogames shortly after getting his own computer. Formula 1 by Geoff Crammond (and its sequels) featured core in this experience, with him and his brother pushing the envelope in how the game could be played – bringing two home computers together to do a simulation of a real, six-hour-plus Formula One race against one another.

When not driving around the streets of Phoenix and Monaco, Paul’s gaming took to first-person shooters, beginning with Wolfenstein 3D. From Wolfenstein, Paul moved on to Doom and its sequel, Doom II, and he’s been playing that family of games ever since. Most days, Paul plays a videogame, sometimes for an hour or two, and he routinely seeks ways to re-experience the games he loves, through modding and expanded fan-made levels.

If there’s such a thing as a hardcore gamer, Paul clearly has to be one. Few people can claim to have played the same game for twenty years!

Yet, Paul isn’t what people think of when they mean a hardcore gamer. Paul is a longstanding church member, he preaches regularly at his own church, and at another church he’s been fostering for about 20 years. Paul is a member of multiple communities, both online and off – and he plays games. When asked about the stereotype of the ‘hardcore gamer,’ those who are socially rejected and retreat into the game world, Paul is definitive on his view:

“I don’t think that gamer exists. I think he exists in urban mythology because he fulfills a role which people can then build a social paradigm on… I think he exists, but I don’t think he exists in the numbers suggested, and I think he exists because people want him to exist.”

Further, Paul says “the people I know who are involved in computer games are people like me. They have games on their computer and play them when they’re not doing other things they need to do.”

When the subject comes to more modern gaming, from portable devices, Paul recalls an old joke: “There are two types of people: those who play games and those who lie about it,” then says that this view is more true than it ever has been.

As for videogames instigating violence in consumers, Paul’s time as a chaplain illuminates further: “I think that the idea that games influence behaviour is a very convenient construct for people to demonise gamers and game writers. Society has always needed something to demonise, and the reason why a child may be violent needs to be far more rigorously examined than flippantly dismissed.”

“… There are other factors that are far more significant to who they are and who they are becoming. They … don’t play Doom. They probably don’t know Doom exists.”

Sticky, Arm, Growth

The University of Wollongong Computer Game Making Club flew this past month to the Queensland University of Technology to partake in the 48 Hour Game Competition. The team of six, comprised of Tristan Taylor, Alexander Kelly, Fox Lee, Shannon Archer and Jane Aubiorg went, saw, and barely slept on their way to not-quite conquering.

The purpose of these competitions is to force focus and set a hard deadline forĀ finishing a thing, and the compressed development cycle creates an atmosphere of activity. With only three words – Sticky, Arm, Growth – to work with and no fixed goals beyond that, the team spent their forty-eight hours barely awake, working hard, and pooling all their talents together into a single coherent whole. In this time, the thing crucial to the success or failure of the game is creating a core mechanic that’s fun to do for hours and hours on end; it’s about iterating and being willing to reject some ideas that don’t work properly.

The game the group made was an endless runner where, rather than move around obstacles, the player played a UFO, gathering up passersby on a sticky arm, then throwing them to be fed to a rampaging alien slug. The slug grows and becomes more capable of eating larger and larger things.

More memorable than any of these things, though, the team remarked upon the availability and size of a monstrous pizza, of sleeping under the tables, of the hostel they stayed. Unlike most other attendees, the Wollongong students weren’t local.

When not working on game-jam projects, the students split their attention between private projects and their university homework.

Word Of No Mouth

ImageHistory by definition doesn’t often make the news. Yet, in videogame journalism, we are often confronted with events that should be historically significant falling by the wayside. One such example was in 1997, when the videogame company Cyberdreams, creators of the fairly forgettable Darkseed game series, collapsed. Noteworthy in this shutdown, however, was the strange fate of one of their games, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, an expanded retelling of the Harlan Ellison classic science-fiction story. The eventual ownership of those rights bounced around for sixteen years until the game was resurrected on GoG.com, only recently.

The narrative of game history is one fraught with sad stories of undead companies clinging to rights they can’t exploit for fear of potential losses of things they won’t make. It’s very satisfying as videogame consumers to embrace this perspective, as it paints corporate entities as incompetent or evil. Thanks to an errant tweet, I was fortunate enough to be able to contact David Mullich, the producer of the original I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, and talk to him about this for a bit.

Mullich offered a simple, but powerful reminder against this outlook: “We were all paid for our work, and so didn’t share in the risk if the game failed to make a profit.” While his part in the creation of the game was something game consumers have vaulted to a near-deific status, as the producer and part-designer of such a historically significant title, he reminds us that the sacrifice of rights was also distance from risk.

Despite this, Mullich notes that the historicity of videogames is important, and thus reinforces the value of preservation-based services like GoG: “I think that it’s important to preserve video games, especially if they were innovative or influential, so that there is a record of how the art form has progressed.”

Superheroes and the Lure of False Profits

main-bgDecember 1st, 2012 was a distinctly less heroic day for MMORPG players. Paragon Studios, the studio responsible for City of Heroes shut down the servers for the last time. No hard reason as to why was released at the time, given that information indicated that the game was profitable. The eventual cite was simply that in a business negotiation that would exchange hands of the property from one studio to another fell through, and, therefore, the whole game had to shut down. Essentially, normal business operation deemed the profit presented by the game to be inadequate, and therefore, the game was shut down.

To clarify, MMORPGs exist in a special kind of ecosystem, where a game either crashes and burns very early in its life cycle, and is shut down (Tabula Rasa, The Matrix Online), or hits a stable population number and simply exists in stasis for a very long time. City of Heroes hit its stable population quite early, predating World of Warcraft, and existed for over seven years before the shutdown announcement hit.

So what killed City of Heroes? It seems a matter of business communication, a shutdown as a tool in a negotiation, to receive nothing rather than something in the name of profit. If this sounds crazy, that’s good, because it is crazy.

This historical tidbit could not be less news, though, if not for the launch of the spiritual successor project, City of Titans. The discussion around City of Titans has been defined by its comparisons to City of Heroes, and the discussion of whether or not Missing Worlds Media can successfully run a MMORPG-style videogame without its priority being profit. The focus is on community – and if it works, it will provide yet another data point indicating a sickness that runs deep through an industry already too-focused on Return On Investment

The Imperfection of Grand Theft Auto V

GTA-V-Box-ArtGrand Theft Auto V has hit the shelves and with it, the culture of videogame fans has been presented with another opportuntity to demonstrate its maturity and rational discourse. As with all such opportunities, the culture has decided no, it’d rather complain.

As a successor to a long-running franchise that first launched in 1997, GTAV has the dubious honour of being the crown prince of Videogame controversy. As a game series that focused on criminal perspectives, it has always been an easy mention when moral crusaders want to point to the evils of videogames, as they did with music, movies, comic books and presumably some cave paintings.

That’s not to say that GTAV’s audience have proven themselves mature and reasonable in all things, though. With the game’s release came reviews, and almost all of those reviews consider the game to be quite good. But reviews that dare to call it less than perfect have drawn remarkable outrage.

Jim Sterling, an ironclad dirigible of a man who never shies from hard opinions, gave GTAV a 9/10, citing the game’s clunky combat and some weaknesses around the graphical engine. In Gamespot’s review, Carolyn Petit praised the game’s qualities, giving it a similar 9/10, with passing mention to the problematic nature of the game world and its misogynistic elements. The Escapist’s Greg Tito, citing the unlikable, unironic horriblness of the characters driving the story went lower still, giving the game a score of 7/10.

The resultant firestorm from fans of GTAVĀ was explosive – with the worst of the outrage directed not at Greg Tito, but rather at Carolyn Petit. Many commenters argued against criticism of misogyny in a videogame by attacking her gender and how her perspective ‘could not’ understand GTAV.

How much harm can these three high-profile reviews have done to the game? Rockstar Games have reported that GTAV made one billion dollars in three days.