The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for thinking that maybe you could set up a Twitter bot to write these introductions. Would that be a markov chain? I don’t know. Let’s round up the week’s writing about videogames while we think about it. A good selection this week.

Amr Al-Aaser writes about cyberpunk, its rise in popularity as an aesthetic, and why games which fail to acknowledge the ideas and context of the genre rob it of “humanity and complexity.”

Cyperpunk carries no less meaning in its iconography. Westerns carry the violence of masculinity and imperialism, cyberpunk carries the anxiety of living in a globalized society where progress has outpaced humanity. Cyborgs reflected the anxieties of a world that was becoming increasingly mechanized and technology driven, where corporations were beginning to increase dramatically in control. It was an atmosphere where the importance of the individual disappeared, and questions of personal identity became muddled.

Jim Trinca writes at Eurogamer about the new Elder Scrolls Online expansion, which is set in Morrowind, and whether it can appeal to someone who loved Morrowind but hates MMOs.

What I’m obsessed with is the idea of Morrowind, as it exists in my head. The Morrowind that bestrides the BC to AD transition in my personal gaming history. I already loved and craved it before it even existed, when as a strange 11-year-old boy I developed a comparable obsession with David Braben’s Frontier: Elite II. The two games couldn’t be more different on the surface, but they conjure much the same magic; a portal to a different reality, a chance to live another life in another world. (Braben is also to blame for my lifelong Grand Theft Auto fixation. He’s probably directly responsible for several thousand divorces.)

For how long can I keep linking to every post Robert Yang writes? Let’s find out. This past week he blogged about first-person one-roomers and grass games.

I specifically set my games in small man-made domestic spaces instead of trying to build huge sweeping landscapes. And even if I did attempt to build a huge landscape, my shabby default Unity 2 tri indie grass will never be able to compare with photoreal translucent Unreal grass, or Breath of the Wild’s lush Miyazaki grass, so maybe that’s why I don’t bother. As much as I enjoy and admire all these grass games, I recognize that it’s out of my wheelhouse and capability. Instead of trying to build a giant grassy forest landscape, I can rest with a decently crafted urinal and lean on that.

Rob Fearon is feeling boxed in by recommendation algorithms and digital stores. I know the feeling, though I don’t think there’s an easy solution.

I would know that if it was a Monday, there would be people in early in the afternoon and that they’d be getting a new release to watch before the kids came home and stuff like that. This stuff, despite the beliefs of the tech sector is not stuff you can replace easily with an algorithm because it’s a constant two way process, it would take an algorithm six months to get even close to what I (or any other good counter assistant, really) could nail in a week. And crucially, I would never be boxing customers in and making just looking round the shop difficult.

Henrique Antero writes about how videogame gardens can be a place for contemplation, which, yeah, but there’s lots of good stuff in here.

I’m no gardener, but I learned this when I was little, about six, when my father took me fishing for the first time. He woke me up at 4 in the morning, and said that first we had to go to my grandmother’s house. I didn’t understand what our purpose there was until my father pointed me the flower bed, handed me an empty can, and asked me to dig gently. We needed bait. He warned me not to take too many worms, or the flowers would miss them, and grandmother would be mad. I had passed by this flower bed many times before, but it was by sticking my hand into it that I was able to consider the relationship between the flowers, the soil, the earthworms; even the fish, my grandmother, and myself (it was a particularly gross experience overall).

Thomas Grip, founder of Frictional and designer of Amnesia and SOMA, wrote about creating the illusion of an analog world. That’s “analog” as it relates to decision making, where the opposite is the kind of binary/digital yes/no that most games offer.

The best example of this sort of design is a scene from Spec Ops: The Line. Late in the game the player finds themselves surrounded by civilians. These people are not too happy that you are here and start throwing rocks at you. It is a very dangerous situation and it is clear that you need to get out of there. At this point, the player basically only has a single verb at their disposal: “shoot”. So what can you do? You really don’t want to shoot civilians, but you also don’t want to die. The player really has two options here. One is to shoot at the civilians, killing a few of them and making the others run away. The other option is to simply shoot in the air and scare them off, killing nobody.

Did everyone everywhere link to this on Twitter, and you’ve already seen it? I don’t care. Jon Bois returns at SB Nation with 17776, a story about what American football will look like in the (distant) future. No, you don’t need to care about or understand American football to enjoy the story – I sure don’t. There’s no good way to quote from it, so just go along for the ride til at least the end of the first chapter, yeah? Jon Bois is also the author of Breaking Madden, which I’ve linked before and which was actually videogame relevant.

Music this week is still Lorde’s new album, Melodrama, and still Grimes. Take REALiTi and Green Light.

31 Comments

  1. Jay Load says:

    Braben is also to blame for my lifelong Grand Theft Auto fixation. He’s probably directly responsible for several thousand divorces.

    This amuses me greatly. And leads one to wonder about the social cost to gaming. It’d be fascinating to learn which games have actually ended marriages/relationships.

  2. Kollega says:

    I’ve said it before and I will say it again, and again and again and again: the idea of “cyberpunk as escapism” or “cyberpunk as power fantasy” is about as bullshit as it can get when it comes to dealing with genre fiction. Cyberpunk as a genre is dystopian by its nature, trying to paint the picture of a future where uncontrolled advances in technology and lack of social responsibility from pretty much everyone have resulted in a highly stratified and violent society where being anyone else than the power elite really, really sucks. And using this sort of dystopian backdrop as a mere playground for yet another “grimdark badass antihero hell-bent on revenge” or whatever just feels disgraceful, considering that the original cyberpunk works didn’t exactly portray the bleakness of their future worlds as a good thing.

    And don’t take this to mean that I am against cyberpunk in general. I am not. Cyberpunk as a genre is important, and insanely relevant in today’s teched-up, stratified world. But casting the protagonists/player characters in such stories as “elite corporate agents out for revenge” or “badass mercenaries fighting secret wars”, rather than oppressed and marginalized people thrown aside by the ultra-capitalism, or brave but powerless revolutionaries who seek to upend the status quo… “cyber” it may be, but “punk” it is definitely not.

    Side note: I wonder how many examples of “cyberpunk as escapism” or “cyberpunk as power fantasy” in games are there simply because “power fantasy” is a standard mode of operation for many of our games (e.g. shooters or fighting games).

    Other side note: I still have no clear idea what the hell kinda escapism is “the real world, except much worse”. Doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, personally >_<

    • MrUnimport says:

      Nothing wrong with playing as the bad guys in a cyberpunk setting.

      • Kollega says:

        Maybe sometimes, but all too often I see it tip over into playing people too evil and/or jerkass to be fun to play as. Just ask the original Watch Underscore Dogs. And this is exacerbated by the fact that unlike e.g. Overlord or Evil Genius, cyberpunk usually isn’t comedic. (We need more cyberpunk-styled comedies, oh yes.)

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      Grizzly says:

      The escapism is the power fantasy of being someone able to stand out in that world, rather then the world itself.

      • Kollega says:

        Thank you, good sir! This is perhaps the first time I hear a reasonable argument about cyberpunk-as-escapism, especially put so succintly. It finally makes sense to me why someone would want to engage with a grim-and-gritty cyberpunk dystopia… though if I actually ever make something based around this sort of power fantasy, it will be not just about standing out, but about actually defeating a dystopia like that. For me, given how I often see the elements of a cyberpunk dystopia in my real life and can’t do shit about it, that would be an awesome power fantasy.

    • Urthman says:

      Religious people would probably say the exact same thing about DOOM. “You’re missing the entire point of hell!”

      • Kollega says:

        Maybe so, but in DOOM, you’re still playing as the guy who sends Hell packing, rather than the guy helping it to take over the mortal world. So even if DOOM misses the entire point of Hell, at least it doesn’t try to say that a Hell-ruled world would be a good thing :V

  3. kwyjibo says:

    REALiTi is by far the best thing Grimes has done, I don’t know why it never made it onto a record. Love the video as well, really has a culture-shock/cyberpunk feel, because Asia is already there.

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      Don Reba says:

      I don’t know, even after watching REALiTi a few times, I still feel like Grimes is a one-hit artist — with Oblivion. Which isn’t bad — so are Eagles and the vast majority of artists who make anything good at all.

      • Thants says:

        That doesn’t really make sense. The album she released after that, Art Angels, is her best selling and best reviewed one.

    • Orazio Zorzotto says:

      She actually did rerecord it and it’s on Art Angels.

  4. batraz says:

    Westerns also carry a sense of scale unifying the human being and the cosmos. Or maybe I just don’t get it ?

    • Cederic says:

      You do get it. The pretentious author of the cyberpunk article didn’t get it.

      “Violence of masculinity”? Clearly haven’t seen Johnny Guitar. Try violence of being alive, but stop thinking that Westerns are anything to do with violence in the first place. Once Upon a Time in the West was about people, time, places, relationships, integrity, self-awareness, the inevitability of change and the ending of an era. Violence? Not a fucking hope.

      Cyberpunk is indeed not an aesthetic, but it does have an aesthetic. If you want to use that, go for it, enjoy yourself, relish it, wallow in it. It’s a great aesthetic, even if you don’t bring in the Gibsonian influences to build out the society it depicts.

  5. kwyjibo says:

    Cyberpunk is in danger of having that subversive history co-opted to build capital for commercial products.

    Cyberpunk is so old now, this has happened several times over. How was it subversive? That it had the message, “unregulated capitalism is bad”, “the future isn’t Star Trek perfect”, “we are going post-human”? They just seem fairly bland statements now.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      The article is a bit ambiguous with regards to the point it wants to make, IMO. I think the author wants to draw attention to the history of the genre, as a counterbalance to people superficially treating it as a background setting, but in referring to cyberpunk’s aesthetic as something whose meaning is fixed goes completely against that point. Instead of cyberpunk’s history, the article should be talking about its origins, just like it did with house music.

      In failing to make that distinction between history and origins, it also fails to more deeply look at cyberpunk’s wider co-optation as part of that very history. I mean, follow William Gibson on Twitter for a while and you’ll see a once radical guy that’s basically now left-of-center in comparison to a newer generation of writers. Cyberpunk can still carry radical messages, but now it can also carry conservative ones due to its historical development. That doesn’t mean we have to abandon it altogether, but we definitely need to let it go.

  6. unclellama says:

    to my understanding, a markov chain is an efficient way to fit a model with lots of parameters, accounting for multiple minima in your likelihood function. i think what you want to write article intros is some kind of neural network?

  7. Merus says:

    17776 is basically Homestuck but with football instead of RPGs.

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    Do we need a better term than “Cyberpunk”? or do we just concede that the “something-punk” terms are just vague genre indicators and that the punk nature is already lost?

    • Nasarius says:

      or do we just concede that the “something-punk” terms are just vague genre indicators

      Only because silly people started doing this with steampunk and so on. The “punk” in cyberpunk does actually *mean* something.

      Basically, any story which doesn’t involve a bunch of grimy hackers is probably lacking the punk that goes with the cyber.

    • Urthman says:

      The word “cyber” became officially, irrevocably uncool in 2010 when the US Army adopted the word as their official jargon for “hacking.”

    • sabrage says:

      If anything we’re post-cyberpunk now.

  9. Wulfram says:

    The Cyberpunk article seems like a verbose way of saying “I like this genre narrowly defined and resent it being made mainstream for casuals”. Which is a sentiment I’m very familiar with, but have to recognise is silly.

    And really, if you want to be actually “punk” then you should make up your own iconography rather than depending on old stuff that’s been rendered unchallenging, not because its been commercialised, but because its old. Its nostalgic. It didn’t lose its subversive quality by being commercialised, it lost its subversive edge and thus became easily commercialised.

  10. LennyLeonardo says:

    The word “punk” has had many meanings, and so has the word “cyber” (it meant something very different when I was 14). So it’s OK that the meaning of “Cyberpunk” is vague and dependent on context, isn’t it?

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    Serrit says:

    Not being plugged into social media, I hadn’t seen the Bois thing yet. Good job you’ve got me covered Graham (although I’ve still got half of the Tim Tebow story story to get through, if I can dig out the tab from a few years back).

  12. dethtoll says:

    It’s sad, but cyberpunk has been exploited by corporations multiple times over by now. The genre is 35 years old. No, I think we’re seeing something much more insidious happen, where cyberpunk has gotten so far removed from its roots in the name of aesthetic futurism that there are indie games that say the universal basic income is bad.

    • Cederic says:

      Not sure it’s sad as much as predicted. Inherent in the dystopian future it set out was corporate ownership and exploitation of intellectual properties to the detriment of society, and one reason it grew so popular so fast is that it was always a vision of the near future and not pie in the sky sci fi. That near future has in many ways come to pass, although enough is still to come that the original cyberpunk novels are not yet passe.

      Not that Neuromancer could ever become passe. Its visceral evocative writing is immortal.

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