Video games just had their biggest week in years, and here you are reading this instead of playing. That doesn't mean your priorities are out of whack, friend, that means you are an intellectual. As you already know, us intellectuals like to consider things and discuss them. That means you're exactly where you ought to be.
So, That Happened is meant to be a collection of The Best Stuff We Didn't Write, a way to expand my own understanding of games and hopefully those of my readers. Diving into the tropes that plague our beloved medium, exploring the personalities that shape it, the fandoms that drive it, and the technology that powers it gives us perspective. Whether you want games to just be fun or the spearhead of a cultural revolution, perspective is a valuable thing to have.
Photo by Matt Smith
Ms. Male Character Tropes vs Women in Video Games
"When female characters are 'marked' by obligatory stereotypical identifiers it actively limits the range of available options by enforcing a narrow, restrictive and monolithic model for the portrayal of femininity. Meanwhile, since male characters are allowed to be unmarked it permits a much wider array of possibilities for their designs."
The latest edition of Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarted video series, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, is a doozy. It focuses in on the Ms. Male Character trope, personified by Ms. Pac-Man, which works to make men the default in media and women the perennially pink-bowed-and-long-eyelashed exception. She also touches on the related Smurfette Principle, which observes that ensembles in games (and cartoons) tends to be composed of men and one token woman.
If it ever seems like Sarkeesian's belaboring the point, it's only because video games did it first. For thirty years. The damaging influence of trends that may appear goofy and harmless when isolated come into sickening focus through dozens of examples, and disturbing patterns emerge. As always, she points out that gross aspects of a piece of media don't necessarily invalidate the rest of the work. Wouldn't it be nice if we could stop making that qualification?
Criminal Mind: Grand Theft Auto's Reclusive Genius Sam Houser Can't Get Away
'There are other games that have a sort of artistic, noble appeal and cross over,' says Houser, 'but does that speak to a mass market audience that is otherwise consuming superhero movies and more lighthearted stuff?' Thats where Rockstar succeeds in spades, because Grand Theft Auto has both a coarse and an elegant magic. 'One thing were not going to run out of is ideas for the kinds of things we want to make. Weve got a lot of ideas.'
Rockstar Games president Sam Houser gave his first media interview in five years to Playboy magazine. Typical. The reclusive co-creator of the Grand Theft Auto series tells Harold Goldberg at length about his upper-class youth, his love of hip-hop, and how a gig at BMG eventually led to his supreme command of one of the world's most influential media creators. The Houser brothers' personal triumphs and travails are at least as interesting as their crime dramas.
That said, Goldberg gives Houser a lot of credit. Grand Theft Auto is endless fun, but "satirical, artful, misunderstood and maligned" is a bit of a stretch for a series that can't stop telling the same story of bad guys gone good gone bad and that plumbs juvenile humor for most of its laughs. Similarly, he lets Houser wave off the Rockstar Wives' allegations of poor work conditions as part and parcel of the creative process. Still, it's an enlightening read.
The Buck Stops Here
"Spectators watched the action from overhead balconies. The walls were lined with Buck Hunter machines, which were almost always occupied. Between rounds, a camouflage-clad emcee tried to pump up the crowd, though he was nearly unintelligible over the music and noise of the games. A giant screen displayed the standings in the double-elimination tournament, positioned right next to the Pappys Jug trophy, which bears the names of all the previous winners."
When you think of competitive gaming, you probably think of a bunch of twenty-somethings in oversized headsets and sponsored polo shirts hunched over monitors. Samantha Nelson explores a different sort of competition, the Big Buck HD World Championship, in a feature for The Gameological Society. Enthusiasts gather from around the nation to assert their skill at blasting virtual deer in a combination butcher shop/event hall in downtown Chicago. Though some competitors do still wear matching shirts
Rural hunting culture and arcade gaming scene don't cross paths often, but when they do, it's a good time. Plus, this gives a little bit of context to that guy you always see feeding quarters into the Buck Hunter machine at your local dive bar; he's not escaping his family and work commitments down the sight of a sticky plastic rifle. He's training.
Photo by Don Biresch
Iwata Asks: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
"As soon as we started the presentation, I could clearly see Miyamoto-san's facial expression rapidly darkening. I thought, 'This is bad...' And then at the end he said, 'This sounds like an idea that's 20 years old,' that was the killing blow. We were down on the floor."
Iwata Asks continues to provide frank and illuminating discussion between some of this industry's greatest developers in its latest edition, which focuses on The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata grills Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma and four other developers for seven pages of insight into the creation of the paradigm-shifting Zelda game. They even reveal why Ocarina of Time 3D didn't use a drag-and-drop interface for its inventory.
There are plenty of (laughs) to be had, but the most striking theme to emerge from this and previous Iwata Asks is that Shigeru Miyamoto is terrifying. Like a mother bear with multi-million dollar franchises for cubs, Miyamoto tears unsatisfactory pitches to shreds. But thanks in no small part to his high expectations, the team managed to create a novel game which has earned nearly universal acclaim.
From Battlefield to Mass Effect: How one engine is shaping the future of EA Games
"Because there are so many teams constantly adding to the engine, that only serves to strengthen it. The Frostbite of today has largely been defined by DICE's efforts. However, as more and more studios start getting their hands dirty and creating new content and tools, the engine will continue to produce striking results, hopefully at a faster pace."
Every non-sports console game in development at EA is running on Frostbite 3. This single-engine initiative is unprecedented for a company of EA's size and diversity, with projects from shooters to racers to RPGs building off of one code base. It may sound a little limiting, but the employees who spoke to Timothy Seppala for his Engadget feature make a strong argument for the collaborative effort.
Many games are built off of pre-existing material, but licensed engines like Unreal only grow at their source. With 2,000 employees adding new engine optimizations, animation routines, and more bespoke elements to the Frostbite 3 code base, a sort of open-source-as-long-as-you're-an-EA-studio environment emerges. As studios acclimate and repositories grow, the engine becomes stronger. Hopefully this means Battlefield 4 and Need for Speed: Rivals get all of the buggy launch issues out of the way for the rest of Frostbite 3's long, fruitful life.
Emergent gameplay vs whatever the other kind is
"Heck, look at Myst. For twenty years, gamers have been dismissing Myst as a linear slideshow--while other gamers remember it as a completely open, unconstrained, explorable environment. I refuse to declare that either view is wrong. Surely this demonstrates that there's more than one layer here? Every 'emergent' game has scripted aspects to it, and every 'linear' game has aspects of surprise, and they can both be happening at the same time in different ways."
For a long time, but especially since Minecraft remade the world in its cubic image, games that focus on emergent systems have been up as inherently superior to games with pre-defined narratives. Designer Andrew Plotkin argues in his post on The Gameshelf that this premise, held in a recent presentation by Deus Ex and Epic Mickey creator Warren Spector, is unrealistic and flawed.
It's difficult to sum up his reasoning without repeating it verbatim, but suffice it to say Plotkin is a smart (and thankfully readable) cookie. Creators of more "systemic" games exert just as much influence over their creations by carefully authoring those systems, and games with single set resolutions can still let players arrive at those resolutions creatively. If your brain aches by the end, like mine, that's just the sweet sting of a mental workout.
Super Hot subverts running and gunning in the first-person shooters with one simple, endlessly compelling stroke: time only moves when you do. But so do your bullets and those of your enemies. Instead of circle strafing endlessly, players must take their time and consider each movement to clear otherwise impossible scenarios.
Tidbytes isn't a single game, but rather an ongoing project from Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn. She's taking a page from webcomics in her goal to produce a small game every other Thursday, with the first two results being a Goosebumps trivia game and a deliberate text adventure clone. This should be an interesting ride.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday
An action-adventure game set in the Iranian revolution, starring Iranian characters, created by a team of Iranian ex-pats, several of whom fled the country fearing for their own safety. Led by former Rockstar developer Navid Khonsari, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday aims to convey a turbulent, misunderstood era of history to the world at large. That's if it manages to Kickstart $395,000, of course.
Publish or perish
It's an interesting time to be alive--not only because of the video games, I guess, but they help a lot. If you encounter anything you think might fit in here--whether it's a blog, a video, more browser games about hoarding sweets, or just some thoughts to share about existing entries--be sure to leave a comment with your findings below.