The Sunday Papers

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Sundays are for chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool. With writing about video games.

For Eurogamer, Philip Boyes wrote about how ideas surrounding civilisation have shaped gaming. It’s not the first time I’ve seen the argument that games reflect our Western-centric ideas about how society progresses, but it’s a good argument that I’ll share most times I get the opportunity to. Also, I really really really want to play a game set in the world of the Culture or the Hainish Cycle.

There’s an implicit assumption that western modernity is a sort of pinnacle, and that the future will look like us, but more so. True, cyberpunk often nods visually to East Asia, but that’s more of a post-Blade Runner genre production design cliché than an attempt to extrapolate a future based on actual society or culture there. Even then, it’s capitalist, neoliberal Japan which is the main touchstone. This approach to futurism isn’t unique to games, but literary science fiction is starting to do a better job at building futures that extrapolate from other cultures within the modern world.

On Kotaku, Keza McDonald wrote about how God Of War accurately presents the stress of parenthood. The game is the main thing I’ve been playing and thinking about all week, for reasons quite different to Keza’s, but my heart still panged at the moment mentioned below.

On one level God of War is the story of how this relationship is repaired—how, in the course of their shared adventure, Kratos develops from a distant, stern authority figure who cannot even bring himself to lay a hand on his son’s shoulder to comfort him, to some semblance of a good father, someone who has faced his demons and wants to be better for his son. It is touching to see this progress, and despite the outlandish things that happen as the two of them climb and slice and tear their way through Norse mythology, there are parts of this story that are relatable to anyone who’s lived with a father who struggles to express himself, hiding instead behind a cold veneer of authority.

On Waypoint, Dia Lacina also wrote about God of War – although she argues that the game contains a deeply flawed presentation of motherhood. Both Dia and Keza’s pieces make very valid points. The game may be a touching look at fatherhood, but it only contains one female voice. That’s questionable, but then again, I don’t necessarily have a problem with a story being told in which mothers are either absent, or portrayed in a negative light. Hmmm.

Atreus, armed with the skills his mother taught him, must face the dangers of the world. But for that to be possible, her role is to die. In the world created by God of War, sons have to be separated from their mothers to become men. The contribution of men is to perform the final test―the viability of a son in the world. Rearing and nurturing is women’s work, but also letting go. If a mother can perform her role and depart she’s succeeded, and with a little luck her son will pass this fatherly test and become a man.

This is a cracking mechanical tentacle monster.

“The biggest problem (with reading while riding on a horse) is not being able to see where you’re going”.

Chris Bratt has launched his Patreon, called People Make Games. Basically, Here’s A Thing is still a thing. Hurray!

Here’s a thing (not one of Chris Bratt’s): a couple of weeks ago someone in the comments linked to Critical Distance, a website dedicated to the same thing as this column. Which makes it an excellent place to check for stuff I can put here, but doing that without saying anything feels incredibly cheeky. I mean, including the pieces below that I found through Zoyander Street’s collecting still feels cheeky, but they’re good and I think you should read them so…thanks Zoyander! Sorry Zoyander!

Brendan Keogh wrote about how the expectations that game development students have when they enter the industry often don’t square with reality. It’s required reading for anyone in that position, and highly recommended for anyone who wants to know just how much work goes into the games they enjoy.

Not only is it invisible, it’s often actively rendered invisible. Large commercial games invest a lot of money in hiding the work that goes into videogames in a number of ways. Firstly, they do this by prioritising frameless and frictionless ‘photorealistic’ game experiences that, as close as possible, feel like full worlds to inhabit. They hide their artifice, ironically, behind a massive amount of labour and, in doing so, make it difficult for a layperson to understand just how much work it took to create that world.

Jesse Mason blogged about how every aspect of Magic the Gathering is shaped by capitalism. I know next to nothing about Magic, other than that it’s a black hole that’ll likely suck in all my money if go near it. I’m really hoping Valve manage to pull off the model they’re going for with Artifact, and that becomes the new standard in the same way that Netrunner’s expansion pack buying ‘LCG’ model did – which still seems too expensive to me!

Anyone that plays constructed is required to intimately know the finance of Magic. It’s impossible to ignore unless you’re so new to the game that you just play with cards you’ve opened from packs and got from friends, or so Montgomery Burns-style rich that you see absolutely no difference between a $15 draft and a $3000 deck. No one gets to just play Magic, if you want to play Constructed. You have to buy or trade for cards, and that means giving up some (large) amount of either your own money, or the cards you own already. Before anyone can be an expert in playing any deck, they have to be an expert on the availability of those cards, the price of the cards that they already own in order to acquire it, and the price of every other deck in the format, in case one of those other decks is more affordable.

Doshmanziari went and found the real-world architecture that inspired the buildings in Dark Souls.

Music this week is The Game by the Levellers, which is a fantastic song with such an appropriate name that I was saving it for a special occasion. Oh well.

22 Comments

  1. Ghostbird says:

    I’m glad to see people still discovering Critical Distance – it’s one of those things I instinctively assume everyone knows about already. And they have a Patreon if you think they’re worth supporting –
    link to patreon.com

  2. Grizzly says:

    As a small headsup, the link to the eurogamer article about civilisations doesn’t work.

  3. Babymech says:

    Scifi literature has always been good at trying out different types of futures – communist planned societies, capitalist dystopias, incomprehensible AI-virus futures… It’s scifi games and big budget scifi movies that are bad at imagining greater variety, but that’s intrinsically linked to the lack of scope in our gameplay loops and our movie arcs. We typically can’t design a gameplay loop that works in a static, zero-conflict feminist utopia, so by choosing to make a game, we limit the types of futures we can present.

    • Kollega says:

      I would posit that the degree to which we are limited by artform in films and games is overblown, however. Utopias that are truly “zero-conflict” may be hard or impossible to present dramatically, yeah… but I think it’s entirely possible to make a strong game that is not centered around a big war, or a repressive regime, or a desolate post-apocalypse. To name the example that’s super-obvious: it’s easy to make a classic adventure game or a puzzle game set in a peaceful, prosperous world, and center the plot around low-level conflict that would still be present in the people’s lives. Like struggling with who you are, or with getting what you want out of yourself and your life, or with finding the right people to hang around with. It’s not as “gritty and realistic” as scavenging for food in a post-nuclear wasteland, and not as “intensely gripping” as being a badass space marine in future-war, but countless great literary works have been made about internal struggles of their characters! Or take the detective genre… I know there are genre issues with that because of games being hard-coded and thus not friendly to solving mysteries in a fluid way, but there are great games about solving mysteries (and not even necessarily the murder kind). I think those could work great in a low-conflict setting! I’m sure I could go on.

      That being said, I wonder if – in the eyes of the writer of that article – it would be sufficient to portray a future without Western capitalism and daily strife to make it “different enough”. Because I can imagine the kind of future that e.g. the solarpunk genre strives to depict, where the capitalist excess, rampant inequality, and (frankly unreasonable) paradigm of infinite growth are replaced by communal, people-first society and a sustainable approach to civilization. Would that be sufficiently novel to call it “not the same”?

      • Babymech says:

        I entirely agree – I think part of the problem is that with most mainstream games or movies, the central loop/arc has to be what’s most important in that world at that time. You often can’t play a game in a future world without also saving that entire future world, or upending it. It would be neat to just do inconsequential things in the world and learn about your society indirectly, rather than having to be the god-hero every time. I think a murder mystery, as you mention, is probably the easiest / laziest way to do that – you don’t have to fix the world, just solve a murder. That’s sort of cheating – it’s throwing a familiar, competition-based story into the grander setting, but at least it allows for a greater variety of surrounding contexts. Of course, the real challenge of imagining future societies is trying to imagine something that is as alien to us as we are to the 1850’s or 1200’s – but coming up with that, and putting in a comprehensible game mechanic, is a challenge.

        • Kollega says:

          I think a lot of gamedevs draw false equivalence between “playing as a more-or-less ordinary person” and “not being able to do something that’s fun/interesting/important”. I think it’s totally possible to make a game about a person in a future-world who is “ordinary” in the sense of not being Superman or Batman, but has a really cool job. Like being a detective chasing (in)famous larcenists, or a pilot flying in unusual and dangerous conditions, or an owner of a small enterprise in a co-operative economy, or a scientist working with practical applications of new technology. That’s even discarding the idea of a storyline revolving around personal growth.

          As a whole, I think the “save/destroy the world” plot type is unnecessarily basic, and so is “survive in bleak dystopia” plot type. People who think there can’t be anything interesting when everything is going alright are not being imaginative enough.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        The necessity of conflict in a story reminds me of one of my major pet peeves about a ton of novels I’ve read recently, which end rather abruptly after the main conflict is resolved. It’s like nobody wants to take a chapter to tie up loose ends anymore, or their editors don’t. You get a few pages and then it’s done, novel over, bye.

        Similar thing going on in The Name of the Wind, where the very instant young Kvothe solves one crisis he finds himself in another. This happens repeatedly, and it was so obvious as a storytelling gimmick that I had to laugh.

        Of course you need something driving the narrative, but it can be nice to break the formula and explore the world and characters without constantly ratcheting up the tension.

      • sosolidshoe says:

        @Kollega – a “solarpunk” game sounds great. You could do a 4X game based on KS Robinson’s Mars trilogy, rather than the normal “minutiae of capitalism, but with robots” Mars/other planets coloniser games. Or if you want to get really weirdy-beardy and out there in terms of theme and tone but still maintain a vaguely recognisable “actioner” game in terms of the basic plot structure and most of the mechanics, a game following a Special Circumstances agent from Banks’ Culture novels would be fantastic(and the superficially familiar trappings could be used to set up some really mindbending gutpunch twists later in the game).

        @Babymech – You know, that’s the thing I most miss about sandbox MMOs, just being a pleb. Pre-ruination SWG was a fantastic game despite all its flaws because it let you just *be in* the Star Wars setting. I had more fun wandering around Tatooine fending off critters while placing my mineral extractors, or hunting in the wilds of Naboo, or doing basic roleplaying with my shonky-lookin’ attempt to bodge up a Gand Findsman despite there being no Gand player race, than I have in all the “big damn hero” MMOs combined.

        Even if they have to stick with the normal, standard formats though, they could do so much more with them – the original Mass Effect was fairly middle-ground in terms of gameplay design, but the “quest for knowledge” as opposed to “quest to punch things inna fig” was enough to elevate it.

        Eh, it’s nice to dream, but in the end Big Hero Punchy Men games sell, and as long as they do there’s no incentive for publishers to make more than their normal token effort at funding more innovative or novel titles.

    • Cederic says:

      Article is at link to eurogamer.net

      I find it fatuous to claim that sci-fi futurism builds from Western civilisation.

      It does tend to follow the millenia long trend that improved industrialisation and superior technology provides a culture with the longevity needed to become more dominant. Over the past three hundred years or so European and then American cultures have had that industrial and technology advantage so much of the sci-fi has itself reflected that advantage. It doesn’t mean it’s supporting Western civilisation.

      The Japanese influence in cyberpunk is merely the sci-fi writers recognising the technology advances there. Japan for decades was renowned for miniaturisation and experimental technologies; ideal for a cyberpunk setting.

      So basically the author is proceeding from a false premise, let alone failing to recognise the convergence of modern American, Chinese, European and Nigerian lifestyles, economies and (at a computer gaming level) cultures.

      • Relenzo says:

        Was waiting for someone to make this point. Advanced technology, capitalism, and to a certain extent shifts in values towards liberal individualism, aren’t necessarily ‘western’ anymore, depending on your definition of ‘western’–the difference between other cultures ‘adopting’ western ideas vs. developing them independently is a very murky one. Convergence is the right word.

        Further Reading (admittedly questionable hypothesis discussed, we’re not really sure about this): link to slatestarcodex.com

        I mean–yes, the future is extremely likely to involve advanced technology, capitalism, and even large buildings. It’s not going to involve a lot of traditional pagodas or wooden buildings of any kind unless someone decides to build them for aesthetic purposes. Barring catastrophe, there is a definite trend of societies moving in this direction.

        That being said, it’s not sci-fi’s job to sit down and try to extrapolate the most likely future via some form of beam search algorithm. Sci-fi, including games, is probably more responsible for imagining the crazy, seemingly-unlikely futures to expand our mental possibility space, so I see no reason to demand that they follow ‘likely trends’.

      • LovelyWeather says:

        Capitalist Japan is a touchstone in cyberpunk because its foundational works were created in a time where Japanese corporate growth appeared likely to give them a dominant position in the global economy. The closing years of the post-WWII “Japanese Miracle” economy saw Japanese corporations acquiring companies and land at quite a vigorous pace, leading to a lot of suspicion about the effects of foreign investment (captured in thrillers like Michael Crichton’s “Rising Sun”, and later Tom Clancy’s “Debt of Honor’). It’s about as much of a design quirk as the racism of WWII Looney Tunes, but it’s also simply about recognizing technology (hence why the Yakuza show up as a force in a good amount of cyberpunk).

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        alison says:

        I was a bit disappointed with the article because from the summary here I was expecting it to go much deeper.

        I agree with you that the modern world has globalized in such a way that makes urban development not really belong to any one culture or ethnicity any more, but I think in rural life the differences are more apparent.

        I don’t have a lot of experience visiting rural areas around the world, but I can contrast two places I have visited. In some small villages in Namibia, I was surprised to find the kids have cellphones and watch videos just like kids elsewhere. But there’s no electricity. Everyone has their own tiny solar panels and hand cranks. No roads out there either, and cars only come by every couple weeks. I met someone who opened a chip stand in her front yard, since she used a microloan to become the first person in town with a deep-fryer. That’s very different from the modern rural lifestyle in the parts of America I have visited. In the Great Plains and south-west the kids also have phones and watch videos. But there is also infrastructure that goes beyond a few cell towers – at least some roads and electricity. Those kids might drive to McDonald’s to get fries instead. I’ve heard that some reservations and parts of the Deep South are far more isolated and poverty-stricken, but even still I am not sure they would have the same ways of dealing with it that the villages I visited in Namibia did. That’s the cultural difference, perhaps.

        Of course there are some aspects of urban life that develop differently in different cities too. Mostly aesthetic decisions about how buildings should look, different foods, that sort of thing. But it perhaps doesn’t feel as fundamentally different because the scale necessarily means a lot of things will be the same as everywhere else. Once your community has grown to the point it participates in the global supply chain, well… you’re not just going to be a “band” or a “tribe” any more.

        Maybe I just don’t have a good enough imagination to see the kind of game he’s hoping to see built. To me TIMEframe is a different world from Remember Me is a different world from Dreamfall or NORTH or A New Beginning (just to pick a few memorable sci-fis that don’t feel “American” from my Steam library). We could certainly do with more diverse sci-fi settings in gaming, but i don’t think there’s something inherently broken about how games depict modern/future civilization. (Well, perhaps outside of Civilization itself.)

        On a (vaguely) related note, Bill Gates posted a link to this the other day: link to gapminder.org It’s a neat website where you can look at how different people in different countries at different economic levels compare with one another. I think it helps to make clear that all of us do actually want pretty much the same things, and once we have the ability to do so, we get pretty much get the same things too.

      • Babymech says:

        “I find it fatuous to claim that sci-fi futurism builds from Western civilisation.”

        Counterpoint: I would find it unlikely that any futurism we try our hand at today would be able to actually distance itself from Western civilization, because that’s almost the only model we know for global societal development. Imperialism, industrialism, and globalization all stem from a Western heritage, with all its flaws and benefits, and we have very few examples in history of large-scale non-Western social structures (the Chinese empire being the obvious and most known alternative).

        It’s fatuous, I would argue, to say that we have reached a global urban culture that is not western, because there just hasn’t been enough time for that to happen. It’s beyond ridiculous to say that we’ve seen a “millenia long trend that improved industrialisation and superior technology” provides longevity, because there hasn’t been millennia of either industrialization or technology. We are still living in the aftermaths of the British empire, Europe is still trading on its role in the industrial revolution, and the US is still the world’s most prominent cultural exporter. We really haven’t had any examples of world-shaping societies other than these because we’ve only had one world and very few real ‘cycles’ of civilization, so of course it will take a lot of creativity and imagination to break free of the mold of western civilization and its approach to world building.

        I think the problem with your approach is twofold – 1, over-estimating the amount of time that has passed (the industrial revolution isn’t even 200 years old), and 2) thinking that the issue is that sci-fi ‘supports western civilization’. The criticism isn’t that sci-fi supports western civilization, but that it is often unable to imagine any future development that doesn’t look exactly like the rise of western civilization. It’s not the support but the lack of imagination.

    • Monggerel says:

      I’d like to note that pretty much every Culture novel (except The State of the Art I guess, which is a collection of novellas) is either about warfare, the causes of warfare, or the consequences of warfare and about why exactly the Culture, a post-scarcity, post-anythingarchy, enlightened, materialistic, hedonistic, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-as-long-as-its-consensual society, ends up embroiled in (or rather, actively seeks out) just about every kind of military activity conceivable, but *especially* regime change.
      One part of it is the simple fact that the Culture basically acknowledges no other valid authority (or, in political parlance, sovereignty) besides itself, and thus has no respect for other cultures, *precisely* because the Culture is so happy-go-fuck-it casual about everything.
      This is sufficiently problematic that there is at least one group of Culture separatists mentioned in the books who choose to actively integrate foreign cultures as much as possible, which usually goes against the Culture’s moral sensibilities.
      (I remember once astonishing a Culture fan by informing them that yes, the Culture is indeed permissive of incest. He wouldn’t believe me until I found a relevant passage in The Player of Games and returned to him with it, at which point he was so completely stumped I almost felt bad for him. But not quite.)

      A game set in the Culture universe would be… a space shooter. Or perhaps space tactics. Or space strategy. The point is, it would be a game about people fighting.
      If it had Iain Banks’ sensibility, it would be closer to Spec Ops: the Line rather than Halo, but it sure would end up filed under the “In the Grim Darkness of the Future There is Only War” heading.

      • Babymech says:

        I don’t know Banks closely enough to say anything about his sensibility, but if the game were to try to accommodate the scope of a Culture novel it would be an RTS / strategy game, or a multi-character adventure game with action elements. I still think that could be great – a throwback to games like Rise of the Dragon, or something new, like a 4X game that is also a scifi mystery (the closest to that being, I guess, SM Alpha Centauri).

  4. Nolenthar says:

    Again two articles on God of War ! Is there nothing else to talk about that a damn console exclusive game ? ;).
    Apart from this. Thanks for the great articles on other stuff.

  5. Lars Westergren says:

    Nice article selection.

    Konstantinos Dimopoulos, indie game creator of The Sea will Claim Everything, writer on The Talos Principle and also I believe occasional RPS contributor, has started crowdfunding a book about the maps and architecture of cities in games, called Virtual Cities, together with artist Maria Kallikaki.

    If interested, you can back it here.
    link to unbound.com

  6. encadence says:

    Dia Lacina’s piece on God of War was one of the best I’ve read this year. A really interesting look at all that ‘dadification’ in games and how it affects the portrayal of mothers.

  7. LuNatic says:

    Culture is always an expression of experience, hope or fear – and frankly, the latter two derive from the former. Why should videogames be any different?

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