Monthly Archives: October 2012

Adventure (1979)

On pretending to be a cube and respecting an artist’s vision.

I typically don’t role-play when I game. I just have no desire to actually place myself in my character’s shoes, to make decisions as if I were actually a spaceman or a druid and not a middle class, white American male gazing glassy-eyed at his computer. Which isn’t to say I don’t invest deeply in whatever game I’m playing; my emotional connection to my avatar is just usually fueled more by traditional audience-to-character empathy than E.T.-and-Elliot-esque synchronicity. Perhaps it’s because the perspective I’m bringing to video games relies much more heavily on fully authored sources like films and novels than more participatory pen-and-paper RPGs and the like (I’ve played roughly one-fourth of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in the entirety of my nerdy existence, and while I enjoyed it, the game sputtered out for a reason), or that I got into video games around when they started cribbing more of their narrative tricks from the cinematic. Whatever the reason, I play games more to engage with the work as a whole than to invest in a protagonist as an extension of myself.

I know this is sacrilege to some, a squandering of the gift of interactivity and the intensely personal experiences that can result from co-authoring a story. And not only do I see the appeal of role-playing – of just saying “fuck it,” suspending disbelief, and fully investing in being a time-traveling hermaphroditic dwarf or whatever – but I would agree that my inability to do so sometimes makes me miss the point of games where it’s the key draw. When I started this project, I wanted it to function not only as a series of opinion pieces, but also as an exploration of why classic games are so loved, even when I disagree with the reverence. But I quickly realized that my desire to view games as complete works, to dissect them as one would a film or a book, would inhibit my ability to find value if a creator actually intended for me to role-play. In these cases, were my very attempts to respect an author’s intention actually causing me to ignore it? Continue reading

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Spacewar! (1962)

The more things change…

Spacewar! was the first video game the way that Little Richard was the first rock star. Both gracefully wrote a fairly complete rulebook for a future worldwide obsession, yet were known to such niche (or, in Richard’s case, unfairly marginalized) audiences that it’s no wonder they now play footnote to the Pongs and Presleys of history. Whether or not Spacewar! was technically the first video game does not particularly interest me; no matter how far back you go in a movement, there will always be people searching for antecedents, trying to stretch a genre back to its very kernel. OXO (a tic-tac-toe simulator) and Tennis for Two (a rarely glimpsed Pong predecessor) have Spacewar! beat chronologically, but if we’re discussing what games are “about” beyond just being graphical representations on a computer screen, then it’s no contest.

Spacewar! still holds up to the modern definition of what a video game looks like, plays like, and who it primarily appeals to, to an extent that we are not just discussing technical influence, but the creation of the mythos and values of an entire medium. It’s possible the last fifty years of video games (which, importantly, are also the first fifty years of video games) have been less about true innovation than refining what Spacewar! achieved, turning a group of early MIT programmers’ brainy off-hours passion project into something accessible enough that at this very moment, your eight year-old nephew is probably playing some rip-off of it on his cell phone. Continue reading

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Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007)

For all its grimness and despair, for all the death and malice that finally creep past City 17’s anonymous citizenry and zero in on Gordon Freeman’s closest friends, Half-Life 2: Episode Two is attempting a celebration. It’s an insiders-only affair, a product created by and for those with such boundless affinity for the franchise that it is comfortable risking moments more brazenly comic and outright tragic than any found in the rest of the series. It’s “fan service” to its core, not just trotting out easy references and beloved characters expecting us to cheer in mere recognition, but also using its established toolkit and bond with the audience to strengthen and stretch its universe’s connective tissue. Simply, this is Half-Life at its most comfortable with just being Half-Life, and for every lateral step that entails, it also allows for some leaps forward and maybe even a little self-reflection. Even the original Half-Life‘s nuked microwave casserole returns as the crux of an antagonistic relationship.

Valve’s employment of this insular fan club shorthand is, for better and for worse, a result of its full embrace of the serialized storytelling required by the episode format. Continue reading

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Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006)

Looking back, why did people not approach the prospect of yearly Half-Life installments with the same suspicion as a Thomas Pynchon book signing or a Jeff Mangum world tour? (Okay, so every once in awhile these things work out.) Valve’s monolithic, twice decade-defining flagship franchise condescending to become serialized, expansion pack entertainments instead of rare magnum opuses is like your most brilliant, successful longtime friend suddenly frequenting your hometown bar: sure, his presence is appreciated, but wouldn’t you sacrifice constantly seeing him to know he was still on the move toward grander goals? Valve’s desire to create these episodes is understandable, perhaps even noble; both full-length Half-Life titles’ development cycles sound like living hells that would turn any programmer’s hair grey, if he didn’t tear it all out in the process. Plus, a desire to give the world Half-Life at a more frequent and inexpensive rate places them somewhere between Santa Claus and the dudes who invented Napster on my list of generous individuals.

The problem, however, is this is not the Valve way. The company is an ever-buzzing brain trust that isn’t happy unless its members are blasting down the walls fencing in game physics and storytelling, or redefining the distribution paradigm with Steam, or wondering what reality would look like through a stupid-looking pair of goggles. Valve the ideal is so much grander than Valve the developer that when it actually gets around to making a game anymore, that title must stand for the same ambition and playful futurism as the rest of the corporation’s endeavors. The Half-Life episodes were fated to choke on their creator’s chutzpah from the start, dwarfed by the never-ending possibilities and ceaseless perfectionism to which they were once thought an antidote. Continue reading

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