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The Sunday Papers

From guns to skeletons

Sundays are for filling in while the usual paperboy is away on holiday, squinting at the words through new glasses because your eyes are still suspicious that the world is too in-focus and it must be up to something.

Abby Denton looks at Flash games on Newgrounds after the September 11 attacks. It's strange seeing these games after all these years and instantly remembering discussions, arguments, and jokes from online communities in the aftermath.

The first game posted to Newgrounds on the morning of September 11, 2001 came at 6:40 AM EST, 2 hours before the first Tower was struck. The last hurrah of the invincible America was Bush Aerobics, a browser toy where then-President George W. Bush dances to some jaunty tunes.

Over on The Verge, Megan Farokhmanesh talks to a number of current and former Telltale employees to build a picture of the studio's problems following its explosive growth after The Walking Dead.

The story of Telltale — its rise, decline, and potential reformation — is not just the story of the missteps of one studio. It's a shocking window into the $36 billion video game industry (which is now so large and lucrative that it rivals the film industry), and how its worst practices can grind down and burn out even the most devoted and valuable employees.

I keep failing to post about the wonderful Manifesto Jam organised by Emilie Reed in February. A load of developers wrote manifestos, dreaming of many different futures for games, game development, games culture, and beyond. I had intended to cover all this in a series of posts but ah, look, we're here now. I like manifestos, and liked reading randomly through these. Many are both tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious, and it's great. I laughed at lots while totally agreeing.

Manifestos are important precisely because they are impractical. Whether positive or negative, whether embracing potential worlds or outright rejecting the one you're in. They are visionary, they demand, they refuse. Manifestoes can be of any scale, defining your personal aesthetic or how to fix the entire world, but they cannot be satisfied.

As for specific manifestos, sure, here are a few. Michael McMaster's Against Introspection declared it illegal to make video games about video games.

Pixel art is immediately outlawed, of course — the clearest symptom of a regressive yearning for a past that no longer has any power or influence beyond that very yearning. A self-perpetuating feedback loop that produced countless beautiful works with absolutely no aesthetic ambition whatsoever; a display of polish and proficiency that makes no attempt to convey anything other than a worship of the past. Games described as "retro" are now declared pure expressions of Neoclassicism: a game development tradition that is ostensibly interested in exploring/innovating/maximising within a specific design space, but inevitably reproduces a tired rehash of misinterpreted ideals, reinforcing the (now illegal) monoculture.

Heather Robertson wrote the Meatpunk Manifesto:

the world is super fucked up right now and we live in a giant capitalist machine that will grind all our bones into dust to make bread for the rich. there are no heroes in meatpunk games, only people doing their damnedest to make it through the day. the goal of success is not grace, in making it through the game unscathed, but in taking as many hits as you humanly can and stand up again and again to take more. there may not be hope but we have each other and we can trust our fists and that's enough

The Inhumanity of Hit Points by "BabylonTheGreat" rebukes the limitations of game design built around these ubiquitous numbers:

When people criticize walking simulators or visual novels for "not being video games" it is tempting to think of them are merely being reactionary towards the breadth of the medium. But it is perhaps more apt to say that both the walking simulator designers and their critics have integrated the hitpoint so deeply into their conception of video games that they cannot imagine many video game verbs that do not include them. Games like Firewatch do not have much in the way of interactive activity (beyond doling out narrative via scavenger hunt) because so many of the other verbs that could be added have been taken over by the grasping hands of the hitpoint, and the connection with combat that that entails.

Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux ask What Should We Do With Our Games?

The greatest trick the videogame industry ever pulled was convincing the world that videogames were games in the first place.

And Tom Smith's Skeleton Manifesto is strong:

- skeletons should not wear armour because if a skeleton wanted to wear armour it would keep its skin
- wizard robes are an exception but ABSOLUTELY no hats or helmets
- if a skeleton has big fat crystals all over it somehow from being in a weird cave that's okay. that is in fact: way good.

Okay! Away from manifestos and over to... a load of other posts on the same topic. Waypoint have focused this past week on guns in video games. Austin Walker kicked the week off:

Great art doesn't ignore violence, it actively explores the nuance of its power, using it as metaphor, as catalyst for major plot development, as the expression of a climactic release of tension. In the real world, the complexity of violence is even greater: A real appraisal of violence demands you contend with how it has shattered lives, yet also how it has protected them; how it has been a tool in the struggle against oppression, yet often works (whether performed or threatened, whether direct or indirect) to maintain the most tyrannical status quo.

But guns in games rarely carry the power of real violence. Instead, they gesture at power, the way a flexing muscle might suggest the possibilities offered by bulging biceps yet prioritizes first and foremost the pose.

Patrick Klepek talked with Daniel Rosen, the creator of Receiver - a game which simulates the mechanical workings of guns in painstaking and frustrating detail.

"A more interesting question to me," he continued, "is 'Could video games teach gun owners how to use them safely?' Every year, about 12,000 people are accidentally shot in the United States. I'm hoping that spreading knowledge about how firearms work could have some effect, at least a little bit. Anyone who has played Receiver will know that a gun might still be loaded even if it has no magazine, that a revolver can still fire even if the hammer is not cocked, and that it's easy to fire a gun by accident if you have your finger on the trigger."

Danielle Riendeau talked with Ben Burbank, who has made a habit of playing shooters without shooting:

"I was at work and got a text from my wife that started with 'I want you to know the kids and I are safe but...' and she explained a shooting that they'd just been involved in," my friend (and Campo Santo programmer) Ben Burbank told me by email, about the scariest message he ever received. "A man had pulled out a gun in the grocery store parking lot and had fired more than a dozen rounds in all directions before speeding off. She saw him look directly at her, our kids in the car, and she ducked and our lives haven't really been exactly the same since."

And Kelsey Atherton and Ian Boudreau delved into dressing guns up to look cool - "tacticool":

It's hard to define precisely—though you often know it when you see it—but it transformed firearms and associated equipment from functional specialty gear into elaborate statements of identity and belief. Its origins are inextricably connected to a modern gun culture that grew up around the AR-15, the civilian version of the US Army's standard infantry rifle—and a video game culture whose development paralleled it.

The Game Developers Conference has just wrapped up but, before it started, Bruno Dias wrote a series of posts criticising GDC. We tend not to cover GDC itself, because we're not too industry-focused, instead just using it to write about the developers and games gathered there. So hey, here's something about the event. Dias explored issues from the negatives of hosting it in San Francisco to splitting off "advocacy" as a separate conference track:

"Advocacy" tries to pursue the cultural cachet of seeming like a progressive industry without actually integrating progressive thinking into the practices of the industry; it’s meant to ensure that if you follow your assigned conference track, you don’t encounter social critique of the work you’re doing.

Geoff Manaugh (of BLDGBLOG) in The New York Times talks with an amateur sleuth trying to find a man who went missing in Joshua Tree National Park eight years ago. This isn't strictly games, but I am fascinated by people treating real-world tragedies as puzzles for funsies.

"Getting into missing-persons cases was a way for me to stimulate my brain," Adam Marsland told me. We were hiking into a remote region of the park known as Smith Water Canyon, where Marsland had logged more than 140 miles, often alone, looking for Bill Ewasko. Marsland, now 52, was a pop musician living in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He calls himself a "desert rat" and told me he is used to taking long solo hikes in the Mojave and beyond. "I love being a musician," he said, "but it isn't an intellectual puzzle most of the time. Developing this hobby was like I wasn't a musician for a while: I could be a detective."

Music this week is Shannon and The Clams.

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