The Sunday Papers

Last Sunday was for Sundaying extra hard because it was a bank holiday weekend in the UK, and that turns Sunday into even more of a holiday than normal. But this is just a regular Sunday. That means we get to round up some of the week’s (and last week’s) best writing about videogames.

At Eurogamer, Edwin Evans-Thirlwell wrote about NASA’s efforts in video game development. I like NASA, but I like that Edwin picks at the issues with their intent with games.

Norris wants video games to pick up the baton from Bonestell. He’s eager to play titles that treat interplanetary travel not as an entertaining fantasy, but “something we could reach, something we could do, and should do – something that was almost our birthright, something whose time had come”. To that end, he and NASA have collaborated with Blackbird Interactive, developer of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, to construct a simulation of a hypothetical 22nd century Martian colony in the Gale Crater, near the landing site of the Mars Curiosity rover. Titled Project Eagle in a nod to the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, this far-flung interactive diorama is a work of creeping hyperreality – that’s to say, it troubles the distinction between reality and representation.

EVE Online’s latest war is being fought over anime, as Steven Messner explains at PC Gamer. I can’t help but feel that this is a signal of where the real world is headed.

Wars in EVE Online have ignited over everything from personal vendettas to the dire need for resources. But the galaxy of New Eden has just seen the opening salvos of its first ever anime war. Understandably, it has the entire galaxy wondering where the hell things went so wrong for the hardcore space MMO. EVE Online players have a new threat to worry about: weebs.

At Gamasutra, Chris Priestman tells the story of the development of Signal from Tolva, the most recent game from washed-up games journalist Jim Rossignol. He’s not the boss of me anymore.

“It was important to us that [the player and enemies] have cover locations everywhere that they can run to. One of the big tasks for me was making sure that, in any given area there was likely to be a fight, there would be some cover that looks naturalistic enough, but was actually a location that the robot knows it can run to and get out of the line of sight if it feels threatened or gets damaged, or just wants to fall back to reload or anything like that,” Rossignol says.

At Waypoint, Mike Diver revisits Blur and argues that the racing game deserved better than it got. What it got was weak sales and the closing of its developer.

There’s great, exhilarating, occasionally exhausting chaos to races, where up to 20 cars ram and slam against one another, exchanging bolt blasts and barges, each gradually coming apart unless you pick up a “repair” item. Cars can each hold up to three items at a time—one more than any Mario Kart’s ever offered—and how and when to use them becomes an invaluable tactic, if you ever want to finish third or higher and therefore not outright fail a race event. (Told you it was demanding.)

Split/Second was better though.

At Games Radar, Steve Hogarty argues that morality in video games shouldn’t be about being a good turtle or evil scorpion. Why doesn’t Steve write for RPS.

“Would you mind,” interjected the scorpion, “if I rode across the river on your back? Because I’m a scorpion, and I think scorpions melt if they touch water.” “Hmm,” the turtle hesitated. “I read a book called Scorpions Are Actually Absolute Bastards, where a scorpion stung an airline pilot with his tail and the plane crashed into a nunnery. Aren’t you fundamentally hardwired to be violent?” “Nah, mate,” replied the scorpion, “you’re getting me confused with bees. Let’s go!”

At the Ontological Geek, Bill Coverly writes about what it’s like to play Devil Daggers. I just like to hear it described.

Devil Daggers is a swirling, con­fus­ing, chaotic mess of a game; a per­pet­u­al motion machine com­posed of neon lights and the cov­ers of metal albums. Devil Daggers is a clan­kety tum­ble dryer full of gar­goyles and paint­balls that is fueled by the souls of the damned. Devil Daggers is per­fect, but also use­less. Devil Daggers is pure videogame, inject­ed direct­ly into your ears and eye­balls via a rusty hypo­der­mic found in a ditch behind a mid­dle school. Devil Daggers is pret­ty fuck­ing sick, dude.

Last week was all about Ian Bogost at The Atlantic arguing that videogames are better without stories.

Feats, but relative ones. Writing about Gone Home upon its release, I called it the video-game equivalent of young-adult fiction. Hardly anything to be ashamed of, but maybe much nothing to praise, either. If the ultimate bar for meaning in games is set at teen fare, then perhaps they will remain stuck in a perpetual adolescence even if they escape the stereotypical dude-bro’s basement. Other paths are possible, and perhaps the most promising ones will bypass rather than resolve games’ youthful indiscretions.

This is an old debate and it’s depressing to return to it now. It seems especially re-heated given that Bogost has covered adjacent territory before in more interesting articles, for example when arguing that games are best when they focus on representing and exposing the systems that surround us in life rather than on individual narratives. That one was called videogames are better without characters.

But, an unpopular question lingers, one that Maxis’s closure calls to mind. Why must we have characters in games at all? Or, more gently put, why have we assumed that the only or primary path to video-game diversity and sophistication lies in its representation of individuals as opposed to systems and circumstances? In truth, we’ve all but abandoned the work of systems and behaviors in favor of the work of individuals and feelings. And perhaps this is a grievous mistake.

The responses to the article were mostly as expected, and therefore by and large no less energising to read, but I did enjoy Austin Walker’s piece at Waypoint on why stories are solutions not problems.

Let me put that another way: Let’s imagine a world where games don’t have stories, and let’s even restrict “story” to mean only stuff like “plot,” “characters,” and “lore.” What might games without those things look like, and what does their addition do for players, game developers, and publishers? What does adding the names and visual designs of queens and knights and bishops do for the basic mechanics of chess? What work has the inclusion of Master Chief and Cortana in the Halo franchise done for Microsoft, 343 Studios, and Bungie? What does the mixed race heritage of Mafia III’s Lincoln Clay do for one of the game’s senior writers, Charles Webb?

Eurogamer’s video bods borrowed our Pip in order to play Star Trek: Bridge Crew, the approaching multiplayer VR game in which each person can be the captain, or the science officer, or Darth Vader, or a Cylon, or any of the other beloved Star Trek characters. Part two is available, too.

Music this week is Cate Le Bon. Start with Are You With Me Now.

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31 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    The Star Trek bridge crew videos are great, almost makes me want to get PSVR.

    On morality in games: I like Steve’s writing, but I don’t think Telltale games are the best example to compare to the likes of Dishonored or Mass Effect. What works for Telltale tends to work because they’re very tightly scripted and have limited choices so each one is more important.

    Dishonored has you making choices all the time, choices about how you want to approach a level, what tools you use, what routes you take. They’re stuck really, because they obviously want to show consequences for the players actions but there’s a limit to the detail of those systems, and people would complain if there was no feedback at all.

    On Ian Bogosts articles: I almost don’t want to respond to these because everyone else already has and it’s a bit tiresome really. But I will say that I got into gaming because of the stories and characters, limited though they may be.

    • LearningToSmile says:

      The excerpts from Bogost’s articles are enough to make me very much want to never read anything he’s written, and pretty sure I’d dislike him as a person.

      Maybe I’m getting the wrong impression, but I don’t particularly care to find out.

      • JakeOfRavenclaw says:

        I’ve met Bogost, and in person he gives every impression of being an intelligent, articulate dude who’s fascinated by video games.

        I’m not sure I even disagree with his premise here, which is that video games aspiring to be “literary” is a pointless goal, since it’s expending a lot of effort of effort to create a pale copy of stuff that traditional media does better anyway. Bogost’s fascination with video games primarily as system-based abstractions of the real world is very understandable.

        I think he does tend to underestimate how interactivity can change the audience’s relationship with a given story–i.e., you *could* make Gone Home as book, but reading something like “Katie entered the bathroom, and her heart stopped for a moment before realizing that the ugly red smear at the edge of the bathtub was not blood, but rather the remains of Sam’s hair dye” is a different experience than entering the bathroom and looking around and coming to the same realization yourself. But I find I can pretty much always understand where his criticisms are coming from, even if I don’t personally agree with them.

        • Napalm Sushi says:

          I was on the cusp of agreeing with Ian. As I get older, I’m finding myself increasingly drawn towards “software toys” rather than actual games: stuff like Everything or Strangethink’s work or Universe Sandbox, that’re about exploring and/or prodding at a (often highly abstract) system rather than facing a challenge or telling a story.

          Then I recalled Stories Untold, one of the most interesting narrative works I’ve recently consumed and one that is completely untranslatable into any other format.

          He’s right that there’s a problem with standardised narratives being “bolted on” to standardised game systems, of course. Stories Untold shows that there’s a solution in constantly making the story and the medium work for each other.

        • Premium User Badge

          Thirith says:

          For me, even fairly cinematic games are still distinctly different from films in terms of how they affect me; take something like The Last of Us, which is almost entirely conventional in how it tells its story, yet playing it I feel myself in Joel’s shoes, which carries over into the cutscenes. It changes my perspective on what’s happening. Whether this is expressed in systems or not doesn’t really matter, nor does agency and choice. In that respect it feels close to playing someone on stage, at least to me, where I have lines written by an author and directions by a director to follow, yet this doesn’t diminish the fact that this is very distinct from watching someone else play the same role.

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      Allow me to latch on to your first paragraph and say:

      Yeah, that was flippin’ GREAT!!! I haven’t laughed that hard or for that long in ages, and I laugh at perhaps more things than I should. At the start, my reaction was a simple “Hey, cool, it consists only of people whose youtube videos I really enjoy”, but what came after brought me to tears and made my throat and cheek muscles and stuff all sore. I’ll need to recharge my entire face for a day before watching the next episode.

      It was just perfect in every way, and I don’t expect my own experience to be anywhere near as riotous, but I’ll be darned if I don’t pick it up anyway. (It’s coming out for the Vive and Rift, too, if you have those options and aren’t allergic to that Ubisoft account thing.)

  2. LearningToSmile says:

    That morality article brings up the point that’s actually the opposite of my experience with morality sliders – where are those games that restrict your options so drastically based on your current alignment? Sure, Mass Effect for example locks you out of some specific charm/intimidation options, but it doesn’t really force you into being a bad guy if you went all renegade. And I often wish it did – I really would love a game, where if you’ve been a huge prick for a while now, you do not get to suddenly choose the completely altruistic option out of nowhere. Maybe it would be less realistic given the chaotic human nature and all that, but I think it would feel a lot more immersive.

    But of course, all that is ignoring the basic problem with having morality systems in games in the first place. There are two reasons why in a simple black and white morality system I tend to go with being the good guy – one is that as I grew older, I simply see less entertainment value in being a jerk. The second one is that, well, being a jerk is all you can ever be. Outside of some very, very specific niches, no games allow you to be “evil”. There are tons of things, such as killing children, or rape, that are simply taboo and could never be included in a mainstream release(and for a good reason, just to be perfectly clear I’m not arguing otherwise). Hell, usually when faced with your usual sidequest your options are to(besides ignoring it) help someone as the good option, and help someone but demand payment as the bad option. Where’s the option to not help them, and force them to give up the reward with a threat of violence? So in the end you’re left with the option of being a good guy, or being a good guy who’s also a bit of a selfish jerk – and I think that option has little appeal for people who aren’t selfish jerks already, or just care for min-maxing their character with little regard to role-playing an actual personality.

    • Turkey says:

      Morality systems already feel like relics at this point. I think it’s something that will live and die with Bioware.

      • Wulfram says:

        Bioware never had them in Dragon Age and didn’t have it in the latest Mass Effect, so they may well be done with them aside from Star Wars where they’re rather baked into the setting.

    • Urthman says:

      But in real life, the people I would be tempted to describe as “evil” aren’t people who are never kind and only delight in hurting people. Rather they are selective or capricious in who they are nice to. A player role-playing as “evil” should always have the option to help someone because they have a funny name, wear sexy boots, or have an annoying enemy.

      • Holderist says:

        Yeah, even Josef Mengele spared a family of Jewish dwarves (vertically impaired?) because they were a curiosity to him.

        I think it’s entirely fair to describe a person as evil when their “nice” or “good” actions are done for purely selfish reasons. (Damn, it’s too easy to break Godwin’s law)

    • malkav11 says:

      Killing children is absolutely something you can do in games. It’s just that as they become increasingly high profile and mass market they’ve also become more sanitised in certain ways. For example, you can kill literally anybody in Fallout 1 and 2. If you kill children, you’ll get a “Child-Killer” reputation and huge social penalties ensue, but it can be done (except in the German version, which made them invisible, breaking things in a couple places). One of the things people complained about when Bethesda took over the franchise was their decision to make all the kids invulnerable. Not because they were sociopaths (necessarily, anyway!) but because it’s weird and immersion-breaking and can mess with the game. Or there’s the baby you can sacrifice to demons in Neverwinter Nights’s Hordes of the Underdark expansion. Etc.

      I absolutely agree that it’s too common that it’s a choice between shiny hero and jerk hero, but there are definitely some games with actual evil options.

  3. dethtoll says:

    “World War Weeb”

    Well done.

  4. jusplathemus says:

    Split/Second was better though.

    I agree wholeheartedly.

  5. Wulfram says:

    I never felt particularly constrained by the Paragon/Renegade thing in Mass Effect. My renegade Shepard saved the council and cured the genophage, and one of my paragon Shepards let the council die and sabotaged the cure.

    They’re obviously not necessary and can lead to oversimplification, but I do think they provide something that’s not always adequately replaced in their absence – a way to track and thus react to the general conduct of the player character.

  6. Sin Vega says:

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been playing a lot of EVE again in recent weeks, and this anime shite has had precisely zero impact on anything I or my droogs have done or heard. I wouldn’t even have known about it without that article.

    It’s oddly nice that I have such a quiet life there.

    Also, re: morality in games. I can only point at King of Dragon Pass again, for eschewing good and evil and instead concerning itself with cultural mores and keeping your people happy and secure while also meting out justice and reason.

  7. poliovaccine says:

    Really dig the Eurogamer article. Made me immediately fire up a game of RimWorld haha. Between RimWorld and Fallout, I like to think I’m preparing myself for any of the most likely possible futures..

  8. Premium User Badge

    FhnuZoag says:

    I think critiques of morality systems don’t really look into the core reason they exist – which is to have long term consequences to actions that don’t succumb to combinatorial explosion. If decisions just ripple out infinitely then the writing you need to do becomes insane, especially for collaborative writing projects like Bioware RPGs. So your options are to either severely limit the scope to which decisions can have consequences (see Telltale), make your game really short (see Alpha Protocol), or adopt state variables that record and summarise the player’s decisions – i.e. the morality or reputation or relationship score system.

    There’s certainly discussions we can have about the sorts of decisions we allow, and avoiding Angelic vs Bone-headed evil type choices. But there’s a reason why those systems exist.

    • draglikepull says:

      I think Dragon Age: Origins did a good job of presenting the player with fairly clear, straight-forward decisions that were actually interesting and didn’t necessarily fall into the trap of “good guy option” vs “bad guy option”. For example, which prince you choose to side with in Orzammar can not be easily broken down into “the good prince” or “the evil prince”. Same with the decision about what to do with Branka at the end of that whole quest line.

      • malkav11 says:

        Given how many people have complained about Bioware’s binary morality meters in the past it always struck me as odd that nobody seemed to notice that Origins was much more nuanced.

    • Wulfram says:

      Pedanticly, morality systems exist because DnD had them, and DnD had them because Poul Anderson’s book Three Hearts and Three Lions had a Law vs Chaos conflict in it and I guess Gary Gygax and friends liked that book.

      That’s the same route by which video games got paladins, and regenerating trolls

      Your reasons are good for why morality systems might have been found worth keeping.

    • The Bitcher III says:

      Both the talk about narrative and morality choices prompted me to think back to a very, very long campaign in Medieval Total War 2. Here you have multiple agents with their own interests. How you affect those interests affects their view of you.

      If you raze every town, you are feared and distrusted more. It directs the NPC to one course of action over another. It narrows the options. We start out with the possibility of ‘close allies, friends, meh, skeptical, enemy, will not stop until you are destroyed’. With every action we can very easily tip the balance, make it harder to engage in contracts, or irretrievably damage a relationship.

      In scripted games, it could be that the NPC’s perception of you action may only count at a certain fork in the narrative.

      The point is; you decide what you do. The NPC/narrator decides what that means to them.

      I’ve no great experience in RPGs, but both ‘Witcher/Life Is Strange’ come close to implementing this.

      And both games combine this with ‘the dilemma’, where the roles are reversed, and the player makes one or more forking choises that lead to ‘unpredictable’ series of events.

      The easiest way to do this is to box these up as discrete episodes that do not interact.

      But there isn’t really any problem for me, if we keep an overall tally of these relationships and use that as the basis for binary NPC choices later on.

      It’s still the same amount of branches. You are just keeping score w/r/t the agreeableness/trust that exists within a relationship. The solution is to present the player with fewer binary narrative choices, and have the NPC AI/diplomacy/whatever model make them on the basis of the player’s conduct. We can further reduce the branching by really selling the player on the desirability of a particular outcome.

      It probably means dumping a lot of the high-fantasy and CRPG tropes that people are comfortable with.

      Oh, look. I can’t really gather my thoughts on this right now. I’ve had this bee in my bonnet for quite some time.
      There was an article on here pointing to a 28 part ‘critical’ response to ME3. I didn’t make it past the first page. It was riddled with false dichotomies and, in the choice of examples it put forward, revealed a deep ignorance of the source material…. a total failure to grasp the mechanics of conventional screenwriting/movie making/literature/drama – in particular a failure to recognise that relationships and reactions are the point where world building and drama meet.

      I really need to get my head sorted, do some reading and research and do a blog. The increased attention to narrative in games was welcome but the critique gave us issue led games, and over-compensations for percieved failings. What I am interested in is the art and technique. What John Steinbeck and Dickens achieved was built on artistic foundations that a great many consumers and producers of our medium just are not interested in – for whatever reason.

      See? A right bee in my bonnet. I’m going to shut up. It’s the cowardly option, -5 respect, but I am not leveled up enough to address the sheer number of dialectic branches this path entails.

      I hereby promise never to encroach on these issues again whilst on RPS.

  9. malkav11 says:

    Like a lot of people, I disagree with Bogost’s article, premise onwards, pretty strongly. But I hadn’t encountered Austin Walker’s response and I quite enjoyed that. I’m so glad that guy’s not just getting work but running the whole site.

  10. ffordesoon says:

    The formalism thing again? Really?

    No, videogames are not better without stories. That’s a stupid question, even asked rhetorically; videogame stories are context for the game’s verbs, and context is always meaningful even when it doesn’t hook into the systems of the game directly. I think you could make a somewhat compelling case that videogames are better without plot, but plot on its own is not story.

  11. DGriff says:

    Eugh Bogost. Eugh formalism. Oh god not again!

    This argument was tired before video games existed. People have argued for all art forms to be considered merely on the merit of their form, and for narrative content to be either ejected entirely, or (in cases where the artform insists on narrative, e.g. Opera) for the narrative to be suppressed or rendered irrelevant.

    This is largely because, as Pierre Bordieu write in his book ‘Distinction’, the hierarchy of legitimacy imposed upon art tends to favour less narrative art, or art where the narrative can be easily ignored in favour of something else (painting, sculpture, opera, ballet) over arts that insist upon narrative (TV, especially soap operas, and I would add video games themselves to this). Largely because the powerful have the luxury of allowing themselves distance between art and narrative. They see themselves as default, the world already reflects them, they don’t have to look for it reflected in media.

    The upshot of this for Bogost is that his argument is an argument for video game assimilation into dominant ideas of what art should be, and an argument against its independence and radical potential.

    Rather pleasantly, given what he’s writing, the form of his argument undermines its content.

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    particlese says:

    I wanted to read more about Devil Daggers, but I think you all killed the Ontological Geek’s website. :|

    Hopefully my phone’s just out to lunch…

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      Ah, it’s working now (and was already on Wayback Machine). I always wonder why people compare Devil Daggers to Doom rather than Quake, especially visually, but it’s clear Bill knows his Daggers — regardless of his record time. Good to see some nice writing about the game from someone who’s gotten deep into it!

      Regarding Steve Hogarty, I am all for commissioning/poaching him to write for RPS, if possible. Had that article appeared here, nothing would have seemed amiss.

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