Monthly Archives: April 2013

Bioshock Infinite (2013)

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My first guest post, from the awesome Lee Landey!

Given the overriding concept of this blog, I rarely get to comment on games while they’re firmly in the zeitgeist. Since I started Playing the Canon last June, my life has basically been that xkcd comic where the dude plays games six years late and sings “Still Alive” to all his friends in 2013. (Note: I think xkcd is often sorta problematic in its worldview, but that one got me.)

Few games in the history of the medium have been as thoroughly zeitgeist-y as Bioshock Infinite, so my good friend Lee Landey graciously volunteered to cover the game here while I stumble my way toward the end of the Mass Effect trilogy. Lee is a great dude, a fantastic writer, and one of the most sincerely passionate game-lovers I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. You can read more of his thoughts on his own blog, Last Boss (which he should update more frequently because it’s great!).

I haven’t played Bioshock Infinite, but the discussion surrounding it has been simply incredible and fills me with hope for the future of games writing and the industry in general. At the risk of hyperbole, this feels like the games community’s first genuinely mature, nuanced conversation about a mainstream, big budget action game. (Mass Effect 3 had a shot, but unfortunately entitled whiners hijacked the discourse early on.) People who love it, like Lee, are approaching it from a philosophical angle and still questioning certain aspects of the game’s design; there is little of the IGN-esque, “10/10 OMG AMAZING STFU N00BS” one-sided nothingness that haunted past releases’ praise. On the flip side, people who were more lukewarm on Infinite are still largely praising its ambition and finding aspects of the game worthy of a real discussion. (Check out Tim Rogers’ take for a Homerically long but largely brilliant counterpoint. And the excellent blog This Cage is Worms has a pretty solid linkdump that covers all sides and angles.)

I’ll let Lee take it from here. His enthused contribution to Playing the Canon (which — full disclosure — I’ve only read in part, because spoilers) makes me incredibly excited to take Infinite for a spin. Regardless of where I fall in the debate, for once I can’t wait to take part in it. – Joel Newman

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Tempest (1981)

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A different kind of tension.

The grotesquerie of the subconscious is not what makes nightmares scary. It’s one’s lack of control in their shaping, the manifestation of private, impossible fears tricking the mind and convincing it that this horrible shadow of existence is a genuine reality. A nightmare isn’t really a nightmare unless its host feels completely powerless as it plays out, a slave to whatever torture his mind conjures before his sleeping eyes.

So I never understand some people’s need to undermine a slasher film or a survival horror game by commenting that “I wouldn’t do that” whenever a character makes an illogical move. The whole idea of nightmarish terror originates in these “I wouldn’t do that” moments, when people open doors that they shouldn’t or run into a dark forest with a masked killer on the loose. Fear is not a logical, measured emotion, and its origin can almost always be traced back to a sense of circumstantial powerlessness. A good, scary moment in any story terrifies precisely because it shouldn’t be happening, but the audience is unable to stop the inevitable.

Really, all fiction is a bit nightmarish when you think about it. It finds its base in reality, but abstracts and simplifies its logic, forcing audience members into a passive role where the story subjects them to its whims. Continue reading

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Side Quest: Why This Matters

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On March 27, 2013, my friend David Cole passed away in an automobile accident. He was twenty-seven.

David had one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered in my day-to-day life. He read at a pace and with a level of comprehension that made me feel inadequate on a good day, like a proper numbskull on a bad one. Toward the end of his life, his admiration for Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals led him to read more about Abraham Lincoln in a few short months than most of us will throughout our entire lives. He was also re-reading Infinite Jest, and although “re-reading Infinite Jest sounds like something a snobbish character on a sitcom would do, he never discussed his intellectual proclivities with even a hint of snobbishness or posturing. Of all the media hounds and pop culture junkies I’ve known over the years, David’s interests always felt the most pure, the most born out of a genuine love of the arts and the discourse surrounding them. He didn’t talk endlessly of Faulkner’s brilliance or claim Andrei Tarkovsky’s famously trying Andrei Rublev was his favorite film for any other reason than that they emotionally and intellectually moved him. Yet he also adored the comparatively pulpy¬†Song of Ice and Fire novels, obsessively followed comedy podcasts, and had old usernames inspired by Final Fantasy characters. He loved everything that gripped him or made him think, and if you got him talking on any subject for long enough, he could be touchingly earnest, hilariously self-effacing, and mind-warpingly smart within the space of a few sentences.

I never met David Cole in person, but in this day and age I don’t believe this disqualifies me from calling him a friend. Continue reading

Half-Life: Full Life Consequences (2006)

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Video games indulge their audience more than any other artistic discipline. If gamers line up for a franchise, its publisher will release increasingly uninspired yearly installments, until there’s not a cent left to be made. If players enjoy a certain side character, he will almost certainly return for his own spin-off series. Gamers have a hard time letting go, because they’re so used to getting more, more more. More DLC, more character packs, more endless franchises. They whine when a title gets delayed, and then complain it feels “rushed” upon release. They want constant content, but they also want it to consistently meet their expectations.

So it’s not hard to see how fanfiction reared its ugly head among this madness. Fanfiction allows distraught gamers to access more narrative threads within their favorite fictional worlds, indulging beyond the mere vision of the game designers. Didn’t like the ending to the latest Mass Effect? Write a new one where Shepard throws her crew a big goodbye party! Fanfiction is largely about taking control of a cultural object and finally, truly making it your own. Is it powerful beyond the solipsism and complete disrespect for authorial intent it represents? Sixty billion Fifty Shades of Gray fans (a book that famously began as Twilight fanfiction) can’t be wrong.

Yet every so often, a fanfiction author emerges who is so attuned to the world of his obsession — its tone, its themes, its characters’ dialects — that he not only validates the genre’s existence, but provides a fresh, worthwhile take on a beloved property. Through his capable prose, the form actually transcends mere indulgence and speaks to the fan in all of us, encapsulating what lured us to the source material to begin with. Of all the fanfiction masterpieces recognized as worthy successors to their originals (citation needed), perhaps none is more monolithic, more perfect, and more real than Fanfiction.net author Squirrelking’s magnum opus, Half-Life: Full Life Consequences. Continue reading

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