Thursday, December 19, 2013

Games of the Year 2013

It's year in review time, but for the first time in many years, I didn't play enough games to make a best-of list. I did play a fair number of games, most from this year, but not all. Rather than a traditional round-up, here's a list of all the games I can remember playing this year, more or less chronologically in order of when I played them.

The Cave (2013)

Reviewed this for Paste.

Far Cry 3 (2012)

As a charter member of the Far Cry 2 appreciation club, I find it best to take Far Cry 3 on its own terms. It's at once sillier and more controlled than its predecessor, and also, quite honestly, more successful on some counts. Far Cry 3 definitely embraces its gaminess. The entire notion of skinning animals to build bigger wallets so you can carry more money is ridiculous for almost more reasons than you can count, and yet it follows a certain internal logic and is fun to do. Why pick nits? I really enjoyed this game.

Metro 2033 (2010)

Started a fresh playthrough in 2013 after starting one a few years ago and abandoning it a few hours in. This time, I played on easy mode, which is a common theme for me these days. I just don't have the time or the interest to master games. I want to get through them and see what there is to see. There's plenty to see in Metro 2033, and I agreed with a lot of the praise I read for it when it came out. It's a great setting and a well-done storyline that doesn't rely on cutscenes to move the plot forward.

It's a short game, and each chapter is brief and to-the-point. Each focuses on some different wrinkle of gameplay. Some are based on stealth, some on action. There are turret sequences, but they don't feel gratuitous here -- they feel like a different way of experiencing the game world. Sometimes your primary concern is finding enough gas mask filters to survive in poisoned air. It's always different, always unexpected. And if you don't like the way a certain chapter is designed, at least you won't have to repeat it.

Ridiculous Fishing (2013)

I got this right after the baby was born and I needed something I could play with one hand while I was holding him. I don't understand why everyone likes this game so much. Maybe I'm associating it with a traumatic event.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (2013)

Reviewed this for Paste.

System Shock 2 (1999)

Quite simply one of the best games ever made. I had played it before, maybe in 2001 or so, but found that I had retained less than I thought, so it felt like I was playing for the first time. What an amazing experience. An incredible sense of place. Terrifying survival horror-style gameplay combined with deep (and, to be fair, occasionally inscrutable) RPG systems. Astounding audio design. Ambitious, unwieldy, magnificent.

Also, I played on easy mode and with a walkthrough.

Torchlight (2009)
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 (2012)

I got both of these games because they were being given away. In both cases, I played for an hour or two, had an okay enough time, and then needed to decide whether I was willing to devote any more time to them. In both cases, the answer was no.

Tomb Raider (2013)

This was a spectacular action-adventure game whose main flaw was pretending to be something other than a spectacular action-adventure game. I loved the Metroidvania-style design, and the realistic nature of Lara's power-ups. Loved the environments and the platforming. Didn't so much love the shooting, but put up with it (tried to roleplay a little and stick to bow-and-arrow and melee attacks).

But Tomb Raider kept promising something different than what it delivered. So much was made of Lara's taking a life for the first time, but then her kill count almost immediately rocketed to "Arnold at the end of Commando" levels of ludicrousness. Among her first objectives are finding something to eat and building a fire, which set up expectations of a more robust survival mechanic than what the game actually delivers (which is none, other than trying not to get shot). And for as much as the storyline is supposed to be about the birth of a survivor, it's really about the birth of a killer, and at any rate Lara's death scenes are so graphic and so numerous that not only do they belie her status as a survivor, they cross the line into brutalization more often than not.

I wanted the kills to matter more. I wanted about 1/50 as many enemies, but longer and more meaningful combat engagements. I wanted to have to hunt and survive in a way the game never demanded me to do after the first five minutes. Overall, I found myself in the odd position of truly enjoying the game I was playing, all the while wishing I were playing the game Tomb Raider pretended it wanted to be.

Just Cause 2 (2010)

I found this to be basically unplayable with a keyboard and mouse.

Gunpoint (2013)

This might have been the first game I've played in which I enjoyed the cutscenes more than the gameplay. Not that I didn't enjoy the rewiring puzzles -- just didn't flip out for them. I loved Gunpoint's approach to saving and re-loading, and then hated how it abandoned that approach in the last mission. As a result I never actually finished the last mission. Was worth the price during the Steam sale, though.

Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine (2013)

I played this for five minutes and had no idea wtf was going on.

Dishonored (2012)

My second-favorite game I played this year. I wrote about it a bit already in the post "Verbs." Nothing else to add.

BioShock Infinite (2013)

This game is such a drag. I've read some pretty well-considered takes on the problematic aspects of its story, but I can't even get to that level of scrutiny myself because I find it unpleasant to play. It brings me no joy to say this. Whether it's the way the game treats me like an idiot, still giving me onscreen reminders about everything even several hours in, or the general Potemkin village nature of the game world, it seems like a game built to keep players from getting lost in it. And it's just not fun. It is a rote, uninteresting shooter, aside from questions of story or gameworld. What a weird and unfortunate arc that has taken Irrational Games from System Shock 2 to this.

Battlefield 4 (2013)

Reviewed this for Paste. I'll add that I was a little hesitant to spend so much time harping on the bugs and crashes, especially because I thought they would be resolved quickly. Suffice it to say that ensuing events have made me feel more than vindicated. That said, I still enjoy the game quite a bit and have continued to play it when I've been able to. 

Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign (2013)

Reviewed this for Paste. This is the game that has at last displaced Fairway Solitaire as my daily dumper.

Games I acquired and didn't play:

Deus Ex
Fallout 1
Fallout 2

Surely, there will be plenty of time for Future Mitch to play these.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Plenty of dialogue, but you don't say a word.

Many years ago, I had a conversation with the editor of the Phoenix about Grand Theft Auto. He had a young son who was interested in playing San Andreas, and wanted to know if these games could be as bad as he'd heard.

"Well," I told him, "It is true that you can do a lot of violent things. You can rob and kill people. But the thing is, the game doesn't force you to do it. And if you do go around mowing people down, there are consequences. The cops will come after you, and if you cause a lot of mayhem, eventually they'll call in the army. So it's not like it's a murder simulator. You aren't forced into anything. You can drive according to the rules if you want."

He later told me that he liked that answer. I did, too, at the time. But I've come to think that it was wrong -- or, perhaps, incomplete.

People will tell you that games are nothing more than sets of rules. This is obviously true, and it's often used as a defense to explain why violent games hold an appeal that may not be obvious to the casual observer. But it also strikes me as a dodge -- a way to avoid seeing what is in front of one's eyes. Because games aren't just sets of rules, they're also sets of verbs. The actions a game allows you to take, or not take, are what defines them.

Grand Theft Auto games are conspicuous in the verbs they offer to the player, and those they withhold. You can shoot or not shoot, punch or not punch, steal or not steal. What you can't do are make any meaningful choices that affect the world or the story. You can play a relatively mayhem-free game in sandbox mode, but what's the point? There is nothing else to do. And if you want to progress through the story, you are stuck with even more restrictive verbs. Rest assured, you will be punching, shooting, and stealing.*

It's for this reason that I find myself with less than no interest in playing Grand Theft Auto V. The world may be prettier, goofier stuff may happen, and maybe the story is even better, but why should I care? The series' verbs haven't changed in a decade.

Seeing things in a different light.

Recently, I played through Dishonored, a game that is all about expanding your vocabulary of verbs, and their syntax. Playing Dishonored as a pure shooter is an option, one that is supported by the game's systems but not necessarily encouraged. You can just kill everyone you see. You're also welcome to make your way through the game without killing anyone, something I attempted to do (and failed, without realizing it, at some point during the last mission). You can even make it to the end credits without an enemy ever seeing you, although I gave up on trying this almost immediately.

All this is possible because Dishonored pulls a bit of sleight-of-hand: instead of pitting you solely against opponents, it pits you against the map. This isn't a game where you're choosing between the fast gun that's inaccurate, the gun that's only powerful at close range, or the long-range weapon that takes forever to reload. It's a game where you're choosing to take a direct route through a garrison of guards, or one that goes over a rooftop and through a back entrance. And it gives you a varied collection of skills to do all this.

First and most useful is "Blink," an ability that silently teleports you to anywhere within range. The genius of Blink is that it can be used to support most any other action you might want to accomplish. In a lethal playthrough, you can Blink to a position advantageous to assassination. In a non-lethal playthrough, you can use it to sneak up behind people and incapacitate them (or use it to hide their unconscious bodies in out of the way places). In a ghost playthrough, Blink is your best tool for staying hidden while traversing a level. In a way, Blink isn't a verb -- it's an adverb.

Everything else you might choose to do in Dishonored changes your vocabulary of in-game actions. Depending on how you want to develop your character, you might unlock a double-jump. Or you might enjoy "Dark Vision," which allows you to see enemies through walls. Crucially, not all of the available powers are different ways to kill people -- but they do offer different ways to contend with the map. I loved this game.

Behold my crow-gun! Not to be confused with a Krogan.

I didn't realize how much I loved Dishonored, though, until I started playing another game. After completing the first couple acts, I wondered why I wasn't enthralled by BioShock Infinite. Certainly it wasn't the environment, which is gorgeous and imaginative, and it wasn't the story, which has my interest piqued. It seems like the sort of game I usually like. In comparison to Dishonored, the reason was obvious: the verbs.

The city of Columbia is beautiful. The architecture, the fashions, the blue sky above -- they're lush and unique. They're also a facade. In the gritty, rat-infested city of Dishonored's Dunwall, I became used to going places I wasn't allowed to be. If a door was locked, that meant it could be unlocked, or another entrance could be found. In Infinite's Columbia, a locked door is the same as a wall. It's a barrier, dressed up to look like something else. Unlocked doors tend to fly open in front of you; functionally, they may as well not be there at all. Only a few doors are interactive, usually for reasons of plot and pacing.

BioShock Infinite has a jump button, although I'm not sure why. You can't jump on anything higher than about knee level. More than once I've thrown myself against waist-high ledges, expecting to clamber over them, and been thwarted. Climb, surmount, hurdle -- these are not verbs in BioShock Infinite's vocabulary. By itself, that's not really a criticism. If a game is a set of verbs, then obviously its contents won't be, well, infinite. The problem I'm having is with the verbs BioShock Infinite does include.

Essentially, the only thing you can do in BioShock Infinite is shoot. So far I've picked up three "vigors" -- supernatural powers that ostensibly grant you extra abilities. One of them is the ability to throw fiery grenades, which is another way to say that it lets me shoot my enemies. One is the ability to summon a flock of ravenous crows, which is another way to say that it lets me shoot my enemies. And the first one I got, "possession," is the ability to temporarily take control of opposing persons and machines.

Dishonored has a possession ability, too, but in this case we're talking about homophones. To possess in Dishonored is to become another creature. You are a rat scurrying through a filthy tunnel connecting two rat-sized holes. You are a fish zipping through the currents under a bridge full of sentries. You are a sentry, striding through a security gate that would electrocute you in your usual form. If you're feeling sadistic, you may become a suicidal sentry, one who steps off of a rooftop with no warning. In any case, using this power grants you a new and different set of abilities, at least for a short time.

To possess in BioShock Infinite is to make other creatures become you. You are shooting at the cops with your gun, but if you choose to possess one, he will shoot at the cops with his gun. (For extra measure, he will turn the gun on himself upon returning to his senses.) You may possess a gun turret, which will shoot at the cops with itself. In no meaningful way are you controlling these entities, and in no meaningful way is this power providing you with anything more than synonyms: you're shooting, blasting, firing.

Now, it may be that as I progress into BioShock Infinite, some of this will change. Although it hasn't happened yet, there's potential for the Sky-Lines to become something interesting. The Vigors could open up more gameplay possibilities. Even if not, there's nothing inherently wrong with a game that focuses on shooting, and there's more to enjoy in the game, as I've already mentioned. My aim here isn't to slag on BioShock Infinite for not being precisely the game I might prefer it to be.

But it's been interesting to observe how games can differ from each other in more than aesthetics, and how mechanics that seem superficially similar can communicate vastly different ideas. The genetics of these games -- the rules -- aren't all that different. They're just speaking different languages.

*Grand Theft Auto games include a lot of mini-games and diversions, like playing poker, but even if partaking in them is sometimes quest-critical, I don't include them here for one important reason: there is no way to play through a Grand Theft Auto game only by playing poker.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Game informing, revisited

Four years ago, I wrote a post called "Game informing," in which I gathered the concluding sentences of several previews from a single issue of Game Informer. I did this because I possess the ability to remember things I have read in the past, and to connect those memories to things that have actually happened. Over and over I would read previews that glossed over potential problems and expressed hope that a game would be great, only to play the game for myself months or years later and discover that it had not delivered on the previewer's promises. Optimism is a good quality, but the blue-sky attitude we read in previews rarely matches up with reality.

It's not a problem unique to Game Informer. A lot of previews are too credulous. But I thought it might be worth revisiting that post and seeing what came to pass with those games.
Splinter Cell: Conviction -- "Let's just hope Sam doesn't sneak past his fall release, because we've been waiting long enough to play what's looking like one of the best games of the year."
It sucked. (Partly for this reason.)
The Last Guardian -- "With the PS3 breaking down technical barriers, the possibilities with Team Ico's next masterpiece seem to be endless."
The possibilities are always endless for a game that still doesn't exist.
God of War III -- "With the massive titans waging war, more gods entering the fray, and Kratos determined to topple Olympus, God of War III will be packed with jaw-dropping moments worthy of passing into legend."
It was boring.
Assassin's Creed II -- "We'll know more about whether our high hopes are justified as we get hands on time with the game in the coming months."
They weren't.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves -- "Our time with the game left us confident that Drake's second big journey may be just what Sony needs to draw in PS3 doubters."
This was true.
ModNation Racers -- "If the gameplay shows even half the potential of its customization tools, ModNation Racers might be the game that finally drags the kart-racing genre into the 21st century."
I have no idea what this game is.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii -- "There definitely were bigger, more graphically impressive games at E3, but we'll be surprised if many of them are as anticipated as New Super Mario Bros. Wii."
Sure, I guess.
Dirt 2 -- "We're eager to see what other cities Codemasters has transformed into rally circuits."
Hands up if, in the year 2013, you can name even one city in Dirt 2.
Heavy Rain -- "We can't wait to meet the remaining protagonists in the upcoming months to see if they, too, can dodge a grisly end."
Some of them could! Also, this is way less effusive than most of the rest of these lines, and then Heavy Rain turned out to be the best game of 2010.
Alan Wake -- "While we still have nearly a year before this spooky narrative finally hits the Xbox 360, it looks like the title will be worth the long wait."
It wasn't. I mean, it was a fine game, but it wasn't worth the long wait.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow -- "But if the final game can live up to the excitement caused by the trailer... Lords of Shadow may finally give gamers a 3D action title worthy of the Castlevania name, even if some series staples are missing."
It couldn't.
Borderlands -- "With fast-paced action, strong co-op, and this much variety, we can't wait to gather some treasure hunters and start exploring this promising wasteland."
Again, this is one of the most restrained lines in the whole piece, and it's about the game that ended up as my 2009 GOTY.
Homefront -- "Though it wasn't shown or talked about in detail... what little we've seen of Homefront looks good."
This sounds even dumber today than it did then.
League of Legends: Clash of Fates -- "We've spent a lot of time with DotA and other games, and League of Legends is clearly the most exciting title in the sub-genre to date."

Thanks to @oldgameswriting for reminding me that this post existed.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Quiz: The Citizen Kane of games

Which game is being called the Citizen Kane of games?

1. ...not just the finest game that [the developer] has yet crafted and an easy contender for the best game of this console generation, it may also prove to be gaming’s Citizen Kane moment – a masterpiece that will be looked back upon favourably for decades.

2. ...the writer and creative director... wanted to have a chat, writer-to-writer-to-writer, about what we thought. Now, if you're at all interested in action video games, video-game writing, or video-game narrative, this was a little like being summoned to a screening of a 90 percent–edited version of Citizen Kane and having lunch with Orson Welles afterward.

3. "Call of Duty is huge, but it would never be mistaken for Citizen Kane," says McCaffrey, who gave [the game] a 9.4 rating out of 10 in his recent review. "[this], on the other hand, is as close as video games have gotten in a while. The story, game play, characters and fantastical... setting all combine to pull you in and keep you engaged until it's over."

4. The game industry is not waiting for its formative masterpieces to materialize from the hazy future. They're here, right now, walking among us... Like Citizen Kane, [this] is a landmark in both technical innovation and pure creativity.

5. Anyone who wants to know what makes a video game a video game — what makes it different from movies, television, books — can find the answer in [this game]. In a non-narrative sense, the Citizen Kane comparison may still be apt. That film represented the movies’ coming of age — the point when they ceased to be filmed versions of stage plays and asserted their identity in a language all their own. In the same way, [this game] is, for better and worse, definitive.

A. Grand Theft Auto IV
B. BioShock Infinite
C. The Last of Us
D. BioShock Infinite, again
E. Metroid Prime

1. C (Empire)
2. D (Grantland)
3. B (USA Today)
4. E (IGN)

Friday, May 31, 2013


It was just past 9 on a Friday night. The baby was asleep. My wife was turning in early. Finally, I had a chance to pop in the copy of Tomb Raider that a friend had lent to me. Not to go all sitcom-dad on you, but I was practically giddy to have a couple of hours to myself. I poured a drink and fired up the PS3.

"The latest update data has been found."

Okay. Fair enough. We're six and a half years into this thing. I'm used to it by now. And, as PlayStation 3 patches go, this wasn't a bad one.

At the title screen, the display glitched in an ominous way I've seen before. But I thought it might have been intentional. Maybe Tomb Raider attempts some Kojima-style breaking of the fourth wall.

Nope. I made it as far as inverting the Y-axis -- inverted being the one true Y-axis -- and then the PlayStation beeped and the screen went black. I tried to restart it, but it wouldn't power on. I couldn't even eject the disc, which, remember, I had borrowed from a friend.


The gaming situation is less than optimal in the Krpata household right now. The Xbox 360 has been out of commission since last fall thanks to, let's say, an incident involving the collision of a gamepad with a wall. With the PS3 out of the picture, that leaves a mid-range PC that is starting to show its age.

In the past, when I was reviewing games on the regular, I replaced hardware as needed. It paid for itself, and was a tax write-off. These days, circumstances are different. To replace a console is a big investment. And with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right around the corner, it seems counterproductive to replace a current-gen system, especially since they're still charging three hundred goddamn dollars are you kidding me for a new PlayStation 3. Better to grab a Blu-ray player with wi-fi for under a hundo, and get 90% of what I was using the PS3 for anyway.

All this has gotten me thinking about game consoles in the big picture: what they're for, how we use them, and whether we even need them anymore.

Obviously, the console manufacturers have been wondering the same things. They're trying to make themselves indispensable with carrots (new features, more powerful hardware) and with sticks (no used games). They're trying to become all-in-one entertainment solutions, which not coincidentally allow you to make all your entertainment purchases directly through them. But the tighter they try to keep consumers in their grasp, the more we want to escape.

Let me make an observation: I've already had to repair or replace each console from the current generation, but my 15-year-old Super Nintendo works just fine. (And my saved games are still intact on my Super Metroid cartridge!) Of course today's consoles can do a lot more than my SNES ever could. But what is reliability worth?

Even when modern systems work, they don't work. The PlayStation 3's system updates and pre-installs are the stuff of legend at this point (and I thought it was interesting that Sony reps made a point of assuring us that the PS4 will handle these things in the background). The Wii's vaunted motion controls were so bad that even a game like Skyward Sword, which required an additional peripheral to function at all, included a manual override for all the times it got messed up. I guess the Xbox 360 pretty much did what it was supposed to, provided your console didn't RRoD or you didn't get a Kinect.

You can't just own a console anymore; now, you have to manage it. It takes three separate subscriptions to watch the new season of Arrested Development on your Xbox. On the PS3 you can subscribe to a monthly service, the PlayStation Network, in order to sometimes be able to pay less for other things you can buy. I don't even know what the hell you need to do with Nintendo's online service, but in fairness, I don't think Nintendo does either. The PC used to be better about this, but I was just trying to figure out how I could take advantage of an Amazon sale on BioShock 2 to install it on Steam so I could buy "Minerva's Den" from Games for Windows Live, and ultimately decided that five bucks was still too much to spend to deal with that. Sorry, Steve.

I haven't been a foot soldier for one console maker or another since the 16-bit days. I learned my lesson when I finally got a SNES after years of proselytizing for the Genesis and discovered, to my shame, that it ruled. Since then, I've been omnivorous. So, when I say that I'm going to have to think long and hard about which next-gen console to buy, it's not about brand loyalty. It's about whether I need to buy any of them at all. It's about whether I want the effort of owning them.

Based on what I know right now, I don't want what Sony and Microsoft are selling to me. I don't want to buy a game system and then have to pay a fee to use it. I don't want to spend several hundred dollars on a piece of hardware that can do everything but stay up and running for more than three years. I want something that runs video games. If it can do other things as well, fine -- I'm happy to stream Netflix through wherever. But if it isn't fucking great for playing games, then I am not interested.

So far, I'm not convinced that I must have either the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One. Not with cheaper alternatives for their non-gaming functions, and especially not with a backlog of great games I've missed that I can still play today. I haven't played much new recently, but in the past couple of months I've made my way through Metro 2033 and Super Metroid, and right now I'm waist-deep in System Shock 2. None of this has made me feel as though I need a new console, that's for sure.

I recognize that I'm an old man having his get-off-my-lawn moment. But I'm not trying to argue that games today are crap and that everything was ideal back in my day. My concern is that the barriers are getting ever higher. If you can't borrow a game from a friend, if you can't play a single-player game without an internet connection, if you can't trust your expensive hardware to last its intended lifespan, then where does all this lead?

Maybe it leads to the end of consoles.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Phoenix, to ashes

Last week, after over 40 years in print, the Boston Phoenix ceased publication.  There have been plenty of odes to the paper from some of its most distinguished alumni: Charlie Pierce, Susan Orlean, Joe Keohane. Humbly, I'd like to take a shot at it too. Because while most of the Phoenix fraternity has made its mark across the world of hard news and traditional arts coverage, the Phoenix was also one of the first real newspapers to take a chance on covering video games, and I had the good luck to be there at the beginning. After almost a decade, I can trace everything good that has happened to me professionally to those days at the Phoenix.

In 2004, I was working in the Phoenix's web department, taking the newspaper content and publishing it on the website. My boss came up to me one day and asked if I knew anything about video games.

"Sure," I said. "A little."

I didn't mention that I had spent the entirety of my high-school years self-publishing video game sites, writing daily to the various IGN sites, and even hounding PSXPower's Jay Boor for career advice.

"All right," said my boss. "We're going to start covering video games for the web site. It's your job to figure out how."

It wasn't even my idea. I feel like it's only fair to say so. A WFNX radio personality named Jim Murray had cornered the Phoenix's vice president, Brad Mindich, at the Best Music Poll show. Fueled by liquid courage, Big Jim told Brad that video games were the wave of the future and that we were missing the boat if we didn't start covering them. He made his case well, and soon we were given the green light.

I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn't a journalist. But I started firing off emails to publishers and PR firms, renting and even buying video games to review, and writing a weekly opinion column. Some publishers never gave us the light of day. Others couldn't get us on the list fast enough. Whenever I talked to a PR rep with local ties, they tripped over themselves getting stuff to us. They knew that we had a direct line to tens of thousands of college students, and tens of thousands more young professionals. I have to imagine that, for them, it was a white-whale opportunity they'd been waiting for.

We scraped along for a while, publishing exclusively on the web. I got an intern, a journalism grad student at BU who was surely more qualified than me. I put him on a weekly news roundup, and we worked the phones and emails even harder to chase down more review copies. My actual job title -- not to mention my salary -- never changed. But shortly I got a stack of business cards calling me "Video Games Editor."

In the winter of 2005, the Phoenix gave us the greatest exposure yet. I don't know what kinds of numbers the web-based gaming coverage was doing. But the paper's editor, Peter Kadzis, made the decision to do a cover story of some of the collected game reviews we'd recently run. And so, there on the front page, was a full-body image of Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil 4, and a tease of several more reviews within (NBA Street Vol 3 and Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, as I recall.)

Yes, the headline read GAME ON.

From then on, game reviews appeared regularly in print. To this day I am still not sure what decision-making went into getting them a spot. I'll never forget an early conversation I had with one of the arts editors about how video games worked. I don't mean on a deep level. I mean, he didn't know what a video game console was. "It's like a VCR," I told him.

But here's what I do know: the Phoenix won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for its classical music coverage, and, in the mid-aughts, they had the foresight and the stones to start running game reviews in the same section. Today, when the New York Times regularly runs content from Kotaku, that might not seem like a breakthrough. But somebody had to do it first.

Things went well for awhile, and, for me, this led to a lot more professional opportunities -- opportunities I never would have dreamed of when it all began. I wrote for Paste, for Slate, for Joystiq. I guested on podcasts. I was published in a book. I appeared on a panel at PAX East. I met dozens -- hundreds? -- of amazing writers, all of whom were equally convinced that we were heralding a new age of games journalism. Things reached their apex when the editors granted me full-page space for reviews of Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV, as well as a cover-story thinkpiece about violence in games. Life was good.

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned just a couple of notable ex-Phoenicians. There are an awful lot of us, ex-Phoenicians, and that's because the Phoenix is an excellent place to be from. Even as the paper was putting more muscle behind game reviews back in 2005, as a low-level staffer, I was faced every month with a legitimate question of whether I'd be able to pay my rent and my student loans. That summer, I got a new day job, one that was easier and less stressful, that offered better benefits and about 50% more pay -- and the Phoenix still kept me on as a freelancer, which frankly was a more lucrative arrangement with them. For a time, it was an excellent situation.

Things began to change in 2008, when the recession hit. Advertisers bailed. Page counts dropped. My reliable weekly column started to run bi-weekly, and sometimes less than that. My own life was starting to change, too. By 2010, my low-level editorial day job had become a mid-level production job, which required a lot more time and energy. Then my wife and I bought a house in the suburbs, and a long commute started to make playing games impossible on weekdays. Weekends were often filled with housework and yardwork.

Even as the publication schedule seemed to stabilize, by 2011 I was beginning to feel the strain. In the earliest days of the Phoenix's games coverage, it had been liberating and exhilarating to feel as though we had almost no editorial oversight. As time went on, though, it began to feel like a burden. I found myself scrambling to figure out the paper's coverage for them, trying and often failing to get my hands on a game in time to meet my deadlines, and turning in work that I didn't always think was my best. I kept it up, because I still enjoyed the work, and because the Phoenix still paid better rates than anybody else I wrote for. But the zeal was gone.

That's why, when the Phoenix changed formats last fall and stopped asking me for reviews, I didn't even bother offering. It was a relief, to be honest. Something was missing from my life, to be sure, but it felt right to have moved on.

Even so, I had no way of knowing when I filed it that my review of Darksiders II would be the last I would write for them. Reading it now, I wouldn't say it's the best I ever wrote, but it's true to the approach we laid out in 2004: irreverent, funny, not necessarily written for the hardcore crowd. In its news and criticism, the Phoenix had an approach all its own, and I tried to emulate that when I wrote for them. I felt I owed nothing to the game's publisher, and everything to the reader. I didn't assume that the person reading the review was an expert in games, but I did respect their intelligence. Above all, I always tried to ask one question especially. Not "Is this game good," but "Is this game bullshit?"

This post has been about me, not really about the paper, but the paper has been so much a part of me for the past many years that I can't separate the two. I am sorry for the many good people who have lost their jobs, and I am sorry for the city that is losing such a vital voice.

Worst of all, though, is knowing that the videogame section I helped to create is gone -- and with it, a template that helped to give rise to other writers and thinkers. We published some of Chris Dahlen's earliest game coverage while I was there, and after I left, Maddy Myers kept at it to become an indispensable voice in the video games scene. These people are talented enough to find work anywhere, but I think it's telling of the Phoenix's legacy that this is where they got noticed first.

I guess that's it. I'd like to sum up with something witty or wise, but mostly this just makes me sad.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Never-on DRM

The release of EA's SimCity, with its controversial always-online single-player requirement, has caused its share of grumbling. Because the game won't work without a connection to EA's servers, and the servers are overloaded, lots of people who have bought the game aren't able to use it. I've been following the kerfuffle more closely than I ordinarily would -- not because of a particular interest in the game itself, but because my Verizon FIOS internet has been down since last Saturday. Even if I wanted to play SimCity, I wouldn't be able to. When "always-on" faces off with "never-on," the latter prevails.

You won't be surprised to learn the myriad ways that being without internet access has caused me grief these past few days. Sure, I can't play internet-connected games. I can't pass the time by watching Star Trek on Netflix (and I'm so close to finishing season one!). Even cooking dinner has been difficult. We don't file recipes on paper like some kind of cavemen -- my wife keeps them on a Pinterest board.

First world problems, I know, but I'm also supposed to be working from home while waiting for our baby to arrive, and without an internet connection, I can't do that. Not only am I paying for a service I'm not getting, but the outage is now making it harder for me to make money in the first place. I've been working around it, but after three days of improvising, the cost in time and money is beyond a portion of our monthly FIOS bill.

We've been in contact with Verizon customer service every day since the outage began. Every day they have told us that service was estimated to be restored that day. I stopped believing them after the third day, and at this point I don't think I'll bother to keep asking. To be fair, everyone I've spoken to, either on the phone or through their Twitter account, has been very nice and has tried to help. The problem is that they're part of a corporate structure that is ensuring they can't help. They can give me their best estimates about when things will be restored, but can't do anything to make that happen. If it's out, it's out.

And so, even though I'm not attempting to play SimCity right now, I feel a kinship with those players who paid for a product and got a service, once that couldn't even be assured to work. We have reached a point in our commerce where transactions are one-sided, in which handing over your money does little more than improve your odds of getting the thing you want. Buying a game no longer means buying a game, it means renting access to the game.

One could argue that pirates have driven publishers to this point, but excusing always-on DRM as the price customers have to pay to avoid piracy is ridiculous, because paying costumers don't need to avoid piracy. Who is suffering when draconian anti-theft measures prevent honest consumers from getting a fair deal? It ain't the pirates. I'm not trying to make the counter-intuitive argument that piracy is a net gain because it expands the pool of players. I'm simply saying that preventing paying customers from getting what they bought doesn't help anybody. But, apparently, EA has found it necessary to destroy SimCity in order to save it.

Welcome to the future.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Maybe violent video games can be harmful. Maybe we should find out.

But today we know that a portion of every dollar spent on triple-A military-themed video games flows into the pockets of small arms manufacturers, either directly through licence payments, or indirectly through advertising. These beneficiaries include Barrett in the US and FN in France. They may include other controversial arms dealers, such as Israel Weapon Industries, creator of the TAR-21, which appears in Call of Duty. Such deals politicise video games in tangible yet hidden ways. Consumers have, for the past few years, unwittingly funded arms companies that often have their own military agendas.

You all know how that goes, that spiral of defensiveness when someone questions something you take for granted.
When Wayne LaPierre took the stage on December 21 to deliver the NRA’s response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, all I wanted to hear from him was a little introspection. A little humility. I wouldn’t have expected him to gnash his teeth, rend his garments, and renounce his life’s work by calling for a blanket ban on all firearms. I just wanted to hear an acknowledgement that, when such violent acts occur, we all need to take a hard look at ourselves and ask what we can do to prevent them from happening again. 

That’s not what happened. Instead, I heard grandiose statements that were indistinguishable from parody. The immortal line, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” sounded like it might have been from the winning essay in the NRA’s Lil’ Patriots essay contest, written by Wayne LaPierre, age 8. LaPierre’s case for the NRA was so hideously self-defeating, so ugly and off-putting to all but the most ardent pro-2A ideologues, one honestly might have believed that he was a double agent working for the Brady Campaign.

Of course, as part of his attempt to exonerate America’s gun culture from any culpability in firearm-related crime, LaPierre fingered video games as the true culprit. And why not? These kids today, with their Mortal Kombat and their Night Trap, why, they’re nothing but bloodthirsty savages, killing for the fun of it and fashioning sports coats from their victims’ skin. Gamers were incensed. They denounced LaPierre for daring to suggest that violent games could contribute to a culture that glorifies violence. Just like him, they knew that they had done nothing wrong. They knew someone else was to blame.

And so, for the past month, as the Vice President has recommended a multifaceted approach to preventing gun violence that included studying the effects of violent games, the drumbeat from self-pitying gamers has been unceasing. Games aren’t the problem! Games don’t cause violence! We’re the real victims here!

I’ve been reading this stuff non-stop, but what I haven’t seen much of from my cohort is the same thing I wanted to see from Wayne LaPierre. Introspection. Humility. An honest accounting of whether the culture we are so much a part of might bear some responsibility for the latest in a string of gun massacres, and whether we have any power to prevent the next one. When someone asks if games are a factor, we are, in essence, plugging our ears and shouting “NA NA NA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

We participate in a culture that glorifies violence, and a society that enables it. You can rage against this fact all you want, but it doesn’t change it. Once, I read an article about traffic patterns, and a quote in it has stuck with me. It was something like: “Everybody thinks they’re in traffic. Nobody thinks they are traffic.” Simple, but profound. When you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam, rarely do you stop to think that part of the reason the congestion exists in the first place is because your car is on the road. The same is true of our culture. Like it or not, by playing violent games, we are helping to sustain this culture. And, as Simon Parkin reported in the article linked at the top of this post, by buying violent games, we are enabling it.

Now, before we go any further, I want to stop and re-assure you that we are most likely on the same side. I’m not advocating censorship of our games, I don’t think Call of Duty is training the next generation of thrill killers, and I‘d rather not gut the First Amendment in order to preserve the Second. I suspect that untreated mental health problems, access to guns, the social safety net, alcohol and drugs, child abuse, and a million other things are likely to be greater drivers than video games in the development of mass murderers. I’m after something more subtle, here. I want to do the same thing I want LaPierre and his ilk to do: to look, honestly and without agenda, at our pastime and its effects. I want to know more about what effect the games I am playing are having on me, and what effect they may have on my son.

To that end, I was intrigued when Kotaku’s Jason Schreier dug up a treasure trove of studies that attempted to find a link between gaming and violence. It’s fascinating reading, but ultimately unsatisfactory, because all of the studies cited are measuring an immediate aggression response to games, which is not the same thing. I didn’t need a bunch of scientists to tell me that games can cause short-term adrenaline spikes – I’ve got a bin full of shattered controllers to prove it.  

But that’s beside the point. What’s at issue here is the effect prolonged exposure to violent media has on the human mind, particularly a developing one. If a long-term study has been done, I’m not aware of it. We can all agree that playing a game of Grand Theft Auto won’t make a hitherto peaceful person rev up the car and mow down a crowd of pedestrians. But can you say for sure that a lifetime spent consuming violent media has no negative effect on a person? Is it impossible or even unreasonable to wonder if too much time spent playing violent games might hamper a kid’s emotional development?

Video games tend to favor swift, disproportionate responses to obstacles, and almost always demand violent solutions to problems. They tend to sort characters neatly into one of two categories, good or bad.  A kid who learns most of what he knows about making his way through life from playing games could very well grow to lack empathy, be quick to embrace aggressive solutions to problems, and more apt to view other people as antagonists. I’m not saying this is definitely the case. I’m saying it sounds like a fair question, and a testable hypothesis.

It’s important to remember that we’re talking about probability here. Obviously, playing violent video games does not, by itself, cause people to kill other people, because millions of us do play violent video games and have never even been in a fistfight. But saying so should not allow us to elide the deeper question. Frankly, I am not convinced that playing violent games can be ruled out as one of many contributing factors to violent behavior, especially since so many of these spree killers do seem to have spent a lot of time on the Xbox. What we need to know is what all of the risks are, and to what extent each one contributes to the making of a murderer.

Look at it this way: smoking cigarettes is not a guarantee that you will die of heart disease. Many people who don’t smoke will get heart disease. Some people who do smoke will never get heart disease (many people, actually). Yet it’s indisputably true that smoking cigarettes raises your risk of getting heart disease. That’s what we don’t know the answer to: does playing violent video games raise your risk of committing a violent crime?

And if so, can we identify what that risk is, and where it fits within a matrix of risk factors? In the same way that many unhealthy living habits work together to cause heart disease, along with genetics, so too could a variety of contributing factors cause someone to commit a crime. If we know what those factors are, and how to weight them against one another, then we’re closer to preventing them from happening at all.

Besides which, as defenders of the realm, we’re in such a rush to assure one another that video games don’t affect people that we end up contradicting ourselves. When Senator Lamar Alexander said that violent video games are a problem because “video games affect people,” he was roundly mocked from the usual quarters. And yet it’s hardly controversial among gamers that games do affect us. We talk about games that made us cry, games that made us think, games that made us feel guilty. More to the point, every time a study comes out that suggests a possible benefit to playing games, we fucking trumpet that shit to the skies. (Even if it turns out not to be true.)

There’s more. Many of us believe in the educational potential of games, whether through overtly educational software like newsgames or, more obliquely, by learning how to strategize, prioritize, and think laterally in order to accomplish objectives in even the least educational games. Steven Johnson wrote an entire book that argued that video games, along with other increasingly complex media, are making the average person smarter. Whether or not any of this is true, I don’t know for sure. (Intuitively, I do buy it -- the kind of strategic thinking required to get through a game like XCOM makes my head spin).  But I do know that I don’t typically read tweets calling people idiots for thinking games could provide such benefits. Of course not -- because viewing games as a wholly positive force doesn’t require us to contemplate a world in which they might have to change at a fundamental level.

Of course there are witch hunters out there. They’re the ones who tend to get the press -- and they’re also the ones with an agenda. They want to shirk responsibility for tragedies like the one that occurred in Newton. They exaggerate the possible dangers of games, using them as a way to deflect attention from that which they are struggling to protect. They’re wrong to do so, but their wrongness doesn’t give us the right to do the same thing. I think we’re better than that.

Unfortunately, gamers, we’ve got something in common with the NRA. We’re terrified of losing the thing that we love. Wayne LaPierre’s entire life is devoted to preserving unfettered gun rights at all costs, and so he lashes out like a cornered animal when it seems like that goal is in danger. So too do we dismiss anybody who dares to suggest that our pastime could be hiding potential dangers. Our reasons are purely selfish. If they come for our games, what will we have left? We can't even imagine.
Yes, I want studies to be done. I want to know if violent video games are a contributing factor to real-life violence. I don’t want that research to come at the expense of exploring and treating other causes, but studying violent media is a sensible part of a broader approach to diagnosing and treating potential perpetrators of gun violence.

It’s win-win: if it can be proven that games have no deleterious effect whatsoever, then it would be great to cross them off the list as we continue to address the real problems. And if it turns out that there is a definitive link, even a minor one, between consumption of violent media and engaging in violent acts – hell, even if it can be proven that playing games causes any neurological change -- I want to know that too, for the same reason I’d want to know if there were chemicals in my drinking water. Knowledge is a good thing. I’m not afraid of what we might find.

Are you?