Gamerly Musings

Where failed pitches go to shine.

Month: January, 2012

Dwarfs and the Relaxation of Futility

Recently I was feeling a bit over-stressed from a particular deadline, and needed to unwind. Naturally, I looked to my gaming library for some source of solace. But as I browsed through my collection, nothing really felt like the right choice. It couldn’t be something too hard or complex, as that would only add to my frustration. But likewise, it couldn’t be something too easy, either in challenge or complexity, since that wouldn’t occupy my mind enough to distract from my stresses.

Finally, in my exhaustion I put the question to Twitter, and amid the responses of Dynasty Warriors and Minecraft I received the perfect answer: Dwarfs. It instantly resonated, and just thinking about playing the game began to alleviate my stress. I played for a solid two hours, and it was just the remedy I was looking for. But that got me thinking, why Dwarfs? What was it about this game that made it exactly the perfect choice?

True, the game does have a rather laid-back pace to gameplay. The majority of time is spent sitting back and watching as the hapless dwarves tunneling themselves into oblivion. On some level it has the same fascination as an aquarium, or perhaps more accurately an ant farm. I watch as they go about their curious activity, perhaps even talk to them (because I’m odd like that) when they make an unexpected turn or cut a straight path further than any other dwarf ventures.

But then there is other half of the gameplay. The dwarves frequently unearth underground wells, pools of lava, or even goblin hordes that must be dealt with. On paper these intrusions should be a source of frustration. After all, with only the most limited ability to control the dwarves, these obstacles arise outside of my own control. It’s the blue turtle shell before the finish line effect, where a source outside your control threatens your success. And yet, in Dwarfs it becomes an intensely calming gameplay element.

Perhaps some background is in order. As a freelancer, much of my stress comes from sources outside of my control. Will an editor accept my pitch? Will my invoice be paid on time? Will I hear back from a source for an interview? Is someone actually reading and reviewing the job applications I send out daily? Stresses do not pile on my doorstep, they swirl around me in a nebulous void of constant uncertainty. I do not say this to complain; I love my work and wouldn’t willingly trade it for anything. But that isn’t to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows, as there are certain unavoidable realities that come along with the work.

So what does that have to do with Dwarfs? Everything. In Dwarfs I finally can see problems that arise outside of my control, and have the ability to fix them. I can stop the flow of water or lava with well placed walls and holes and I can send warriors to dispatch the goblins. Just like my real life, I can’t prevent these speed bumps from occurring, but for the first time I can resolve them after the fact. Even if only in a reactionary capacity, I can bring order to the chaos on-screen.

I let out a relieved sigh as the timer counts down and the game draws to an end. I sit back and look at the twisting pathways my dwarves have constructed. A lake of lava sits dormant, having been rendered harmless by my intervention. And past that lake more tunnels extend. Because you always have to keep trying, keep pushing further beyond your limits and past failings, if you are ever going to succeed. Because that next uncharted cavern might just hold the gold mine you’ve been looking for, and you’ll never know unless you reach for it.

Welcome To The Battlefield, Cocksucker – A Response to Battlefield 3’s Homophobia

It’s nice to see the conversation I started back in November regarding homophobia in Battlefield 3 finally taking root. I’d like to extend a big think you to Dennis Scimeca for being able to bring that to light with a larger gaming community like Kotaku. However, in two articles about it (here and here) I still don’t feel like the core of the issue has been tapped. And seeing as I am the “Scott” Dennis refers to in his second article, I guess it’s about time that I put my thoughts into my own piece, rather than simply rant about the issue on Twitter.

I guess I should start with how this all came about. I was playing Battlefield 3 multiplayer and rather enjoying it. I particularly enjoyed the feature where soldiers would automatically shout out when they killed an enemy or captured an objective without the player actually saying anything. You see, I have a tendency to mute players online when they’re playing music too loud or shouting obscenities, so it was nice to still get team feedback without dealing with certain individuals. Then I heard it. “Killed that cocksucker.” I honestly did a double take. Did I really just hear that? It was clearly the in-game voices and not another player. That seems…odd. But I continued playing and after two more matches without incident I began thinking I had simply misheard. Then it happened again, and it was exactly what I thought I had heard the first time. It wasn’t a deadpan military statement, either. The line was spoken with a tone that seemed to imply an enthusiastic “YEE-HAW!” prefix. The most immediate analogy that comes to mind is the combination of excitement and vitriol I might exclaim the phrase “Take that, gargoyle!” after emerging victorious atop Dark Souls’ bell tower.

In single-player this wouldn’t be an issue. I am not myself when playing single-player, but stepping into the role of a soldier among other soldiers. There are characters with names and backstories that, though perhaps severely underwritten, add personality to the avatars populating the battlefield. That is where you, by which I am referring to the game’s designer, should put flavor dialog. In fact, I differ from my dear Mr. Scimeca on that issue. I would actually like to see a raging homophobic character in a military shooter. Maybe that soldier catches another male soldier looking at a picture of his boyfriend during a moment of calm and it clouds his judgement. He goes on a tirade or starts giving impossible orders that get part of the squad killed as a result. It is quite possible to depict the reality of homophobia in our military without endorsing the sentiment. And perhaps more importantly, it would be a powerful narrative where the characters in the game felt like they mattered. Battlefield 3 does none of that, with references to “cocksuckers” and taking it in the bum entirely absent in its single-player campaign.

But in multiplayer I am not on a battlefield surrounded by character soldiers; I’m not fighting alongside Sergeant Tough-but-really-cares or Private Excited-for-his-first-real-battle. I am in a playpen with other real people; I’m at adult recess with other humans who are capable of expressing their own ideas through the magical device known as a headset. And they’ll use those headsets. Oh, will they ever use them. It’s hardly a secret that trash talk is common in online games like Battlefield 3, and the default in-game exclamations by soldiers set the bar for what is acceptable. Of course, the online community will always push past that bar, but that doesn’t make it right to set it so low in the first place. It’s not right to subject someone who is playing casually with just their friends, or someone who regularly puts obscene individuals on mute, to trash talk that wouldn’t normally enter their game. There are enough genuinely homophobic people already in the world, there’s no need to open that door for people who may not be homophobic but just don’t think about the issue in relation to their language on a regular basis.

For the record, back in November I contacted multiple individuals at both EA and DICE in hopes of hearing their side of things and allow them to respond in some way before I wrote an article about it. You know, journalism and all that. I still am yet to hear a reply, so clearly this is an issue that they take very seriously. But if anyone from EA or DICE somehow finds their way to this post then I’d still love to hear from you.

Why I Can’t Boycott E3 To Protest ESA’s Support Of SOPA/PIPA

There seems to be a growing call for game journalists to boycott E3 in response to the ESA’s support of the SOPA and PIPA bills. Now, these are toxic bills that will fundamentally harm the function of the internet. However, for my part, I can not participate in an E3 boycott.

For one, there is the fact that SOPA and PIPA will, in all likelihood, be decided before E3 takes place. This leads to a potentially tricky situation. What if SOPA and PIPA don’t pass, but the ESA doesn’t pull its support? Do you maintain the boycott on principle even though we got the desired end result? I would think that anyone serious about the boycott would have to maintain it. After all, a threat is only good if you can actually follow through on it.

I’m also not entirely sure that those calling for a boycott have fully thought through what that means. Yes, that means you don’t attend E3, but it’s more than that. The point of not attending E3 is to deny them coverage. As such, to truly boycott E3 you also couldn’t report on any news or announcements that come out of the show. To me, that would be a failure in my job as a journalist. That job being to report news and information for the benefit of my readers.

Now, I have heard the rebuttal, “but E3 is just a big PR-fest, so how much of it is ‘news’ really?” Ok, yes, there is a significant PR presence at E3, and if you can’t separate what is PR from what isn’t then avoiding E3 is probably the safer choice regardless of what legislation is being considered. But as journalists we should be able to make that separation, and make it clearly in our writing. Between hands-on time with games and working your way into interviews with developers rather than just their PR representatives, there is valuable insight worth reporting at E3 beyond the typical PR bullshit. I’m not ashamed to say I stalked the 2K booth last year for a good hour and a half so that I could ambush Jordan Thomas during his lunch break and get an interview about the inclusion of a prominent LGBT character in XCOM. Of course, not every developer will be so agreeable about a spontaneous interview or questions off of the PR bullet points, but as a journalist I believe it is my job to at the very least try, which requires being there in the first place.

Those are general reasons, but there is another more personal one that, I must admit, supersedes them all. One of the things that makes SOPA and PIPA so dangerous is that they could, ultimately, interfere with my job as a freelance writer. Even if some of the domestic language in the bills is ironed out, I still do a fair amount of writing for sites based overseas that could fall victim to SOPA and PIPA’s overreaching clauses. I have worked too hard these past years to get where I am with my writing; my work is literally everything to me. And in that light, E3 is probably going to be one of my biggest work weeks of the year. If you are serious about boycotting E3, and I mean really serious, then more power to you. But considering that I oppose SOPA and PIPA for their ability to hamper my job, forgive me for not willfully hampering it myself in protest.

Instead, my act of defiance will be to write. I will continue to write and inform and report and review while I still can. And when I’m at E3 perhaps I’ll find myself with the opportunity to track down someone from the ESA to question about their position on SOPA and PIPA. I could even take suggestions from boycotters for hard hitting questions to ask. But then again, maybe it would be better if they were there to ask for themselves.

Game of the Year 2011: Best Adaptation

Best Adaptation of an Existing Work: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

El Shaddai may seem like a strange pick for best adaptation. After all, the game is based on an obscure questionably canonical Judeo-Christian religious text (Book of Enoch 1, from the Dead Sea Scrolls) while including a Tron-styled motorcycle race and enough homoeroticism to make Cho Aniki hang its head in shame. And yet, it is still completely accurate to the story, and more importantly the spirit of the story, on which it is based. For example, the aforementioned motorcycle race which takes place in Azazel’s realm. In the original text, the angel Azazel acts as the Judeo-Christian Prometheus, giving tools and weapons to humanity with the knowledge of how to produce them. He represents technology and hunanity’s future, and in that sense the game’s neon robotic metropolis is a plausible interpretation based on modern knowledge of where humanity can next progress. It is the kind of interpretation that can only come from a development studio divorced from Western Judeo-Christian culture. It is an interpretation that requires developers to step back and see scripture as story rather than sacred text. El Shaddai is not a literal adaptation of its source material, but it is an accurate interpretation of its source story, and for that it is worthy of high praise.