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Note to potential readers: If you don’t find the philosophy of language interesting then you can kindly fuck off.

Wittgenstein once observed that it is impossible to define the term ‘game’. Oh sure we all think we know what the word means, however, when you really sit down and think about it it soon becomes a hopeless task. Are games fun? Not always, certainly it would be hard to imagine how problem gamblers are having ‘fun’. Are games somehow the opposite of work? Not always, for professional athletes play is work. Similarly not all games involve rules, and not all games involve winning or losing. Perhaps one of the most complete academic attempts to define ‘games’ Juul’s Classical Game Model comes to the rather amusing conclusion that Sim City is not a game, despite the fact that it is regularly called a game, sold as a game and played by gamers.

We can not create a complete holistic definition of game which includes all of the things that people regularly and habitually label as ‘games’. What is startling is that we don’t need one. Despite the fact that it’s impossible to precisely define the word game, if I tell you I played a new game last night you would understand what I meant. Continue Reading »

When I Play Super Meat Boy

I never let go of the run button

I sit 8 inches closer to the screen

I use a keyboard (because I am an idiot)

I chew my bottom lip

I swear constantly

I laugh constantly

I do trigonometry and calculus at the speed of light

I spend half the time on autopilot

I savor the squishy wet slap of my run

I get sick of ‘Princess in Another Castle’ jokes

I stay up till 4:00 AM

I sometimes wonder if I should be doing something better with my time

I use Jill (of Mighty Jill Off fame) whenever I can

My pinkie hurts

My eyes hurt

I get sick of all the retro-fetish

I rage quit.

 

When I’m not playing Super Meat Boy I kinda sorta feel like playing Super Meat Boy

Rapid Fire Thoughts

Its been too long between drinks here. I went back to university and it’s taken ages to get used to the routine, hence no posts. Anyway to fix that I figured I’d just post some quick thoughts on some games I played since last time we met.

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Story Without Narrative

The two mediums that appear to have the most trouble convincing the general public of their artistic merit are probably videogames and ironically Fine Art. Show most people The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and they’re more likely to say “A shark in formaldehyde is not Art” than applaud the artist’s creative vision. So I want to write a few posts exploring some links between the two mediums. Not because I’m fighting some sort of “Games are ert” culture war but because I just think it’s an interesting thought experiment. This means I really don’t want to read comments along the lines of “Games are not/are Art” or “A shark in formaldehyde is/ is not Art”. Okay cool we’ve all put our bull horns and pitchforks down and replaced them with thinking caps? Right let’s begin.

A picture says a thousand words and often they tell a story.

In a beautiful essay titled Knifers Elatia Harris describes the above painting like so

Margaret wants to chase a butterfly, Mary wants to restrain her — beguiled as she is by the butterfly herself. It is nothing if not big-sisterly to think how to keep someone barely younger than you safe — even from butterflies. Margaret is young enough to desire and reach in one moment, Mary old enough to desire and pull back.

That perfectly describes how the painting tells a small, simple and definitely poinagnt story. But consider for a moment that the painting does not tell us the story in the way we normally expect. It is basically a story without narrative.  We the people who think too much about games often talk about how they lack authorial control because as players we control how we interact with the game. Yet we forget that this is nothing new. Does it matter if when you look at this painting you look at Margaret or Mary first? Do you notice the butterfly before you notice the girls holding hands? Do you take note of the trees behind them? Do you get an inch from the canvas and really stare at the brush work? Everyone’s experience of this painting will be different so how does it manage to convey the author’s intent?

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Gameplay is Not Always King

If someone came up to you and earnestly told you that the acting in a movie didn’t matter you’d probably laugh in their face. After all it’s not the cinematographers and editors who get payed the big bucks in Hollywood it’s the stars. Movies are made or broken by the ability of actors to bring us into the drama. And yet:

Progressive opinion in the silent era tended to deny that film was a performing art, since that would make it a form of theatre. No, film had unique capacities. Cinema was essentially moving pictures.

But What Kind of Art?

It’s a silly position to take but there is some logic to it. If one wanted to watch quality acting then surely you’d go to the theatre, especially in the silent era when all the great performers treaded the boards instead of gracing the silver screen. I’ve mentioned it before but Man With The Movie Camera is what you get when this philosophy is taken to it’s logical conclusion. And frankly it sucks, sure there’s lots to admire but I don’t think I could believe anyone who told me they’d rather watch that than a bunch of Charlie Chaplin shorts. So the theory makes sense but it doesn’t really work, what do you expect from a group of people who made communist propaganda for the Soviet Union? This brings me to my point

The problem goes that if you have an interesting story, compelling characters, plot twists and allegory, that’s all fine and good.  But what you have are the ingredients for a movie or a book, not necessarily a game.

Gameplay is King Story a Distant Second

Without a doubt this is the prevailing wisdom and it’s wrong. I’ve heard this so many times sometimes I feel like I’m being brainwashed. Thankful I have two games that should de-program anyone.

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I just got destroyed at Bloodbowl. It was an utter catastrophe of a game. By halftime I was down 2 – 0, three of my strongest players where injured, two of my line men had been sent off for penalties and my star thrower was unconscious. As the second half began I probably should have thrown in the towel then and there but I didn’t because the game was only just heating up.

In case you don’t know, Bloodbowl began life as a boardgame produced by Games Workshop. It’s a turn based American Football game set in a fantasy universe. The one defining feature of the game is that almost everything is random and even the simplest in-game action can end in failure. You want to pass the ball? You roll for that. You want to perform a block? Roll for that too. Even picking the ball off the ground requires you to roll. If you fail then not only does the action fail but it’s also the next player’s turn. Which can often mean they’re in prime position to exploit your failure to the maximum.

Failure is pretty much inevitable. No matter how you play the odds something will go wrong and if you’re really unlucky you can end up with matches like the one I described above. But the point of the game isn’t watching your plan go off without a hitch it’s the mad scramble when everything goes pear shaped. Almost every turn involves constantly adapting and thinking. When I started the second half I knew I was in for a hell of a ride. I must have thought up dozens of different plans, some of them even almost worked. Of course they didn’t, the game ended 3-0 and I was just happy that I managed to prevent it from being a total blow out.

Maybe it’s just me. I’m willing to admit I might be a little masochistic and I do tend to find peril more exciting than success. But for every game of Bloodbowl that has totally fallen apart there have been more that I’ve won and those victories were bought with slapped together plans emerging from the sublime wreckage of failure.

Clint Hocking might call this improvisational play. If it weren’t too depressing a thought I might even think of it as a life lesson.

GOTY 2009 – Canabalt

In a slighty disappointing year for games, where few in the mainstream barely even bothered trying to push the goal lines, there were not many games that can be called hip. Canabalt is hipper than a cat wearing shutter shades.

Canabalt is a haute couture robot apocalypse about a man running for his life. With it’s crisp and delicious animations and bold monochrome colour scheme this is a game that would be equally at place projected on the wall of a gallery or in a grimy back alley. This is what 8 bit games would look like if they were made by art school layabouts who chain smoke and sneer. The big boys may have found new ways to render the wetness of eyeballs but outside of the quest for hyper realistic virtual pornography does anyone really care? Screw realism with a steak knife, Canabalt looks better than the real world. Do graphics matter? Of course they do, videogames are a visual medium after all, but at this point I’ll take a bold creative art direction over a clinically technical one any day.

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