video games

Westerns and video game criticism

May 19th, 2010  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I played about an hour of Rockstar’s Peckinpah-inspired Red Dead Redemption last night. My initial impression is that the mechanics are comfortable and fluid and the scenery and atmosphere are really well done. (As you might expect, there is some characteristically unsubtle social commentary as well.)

In fact, the sense of time and place is so strong that I found myself doing very little to advance the story; instead, I just rode around the old West, exploring, sightseeing, and hunting varmints. This dynamic may be familiar to nerds of a certain age. Indeed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d had a similar gameplay experience somewhere before — but where?

Screenshot of the Oregon Trail, via Wikipedia.  Fair use.

For a longer and rather less restrained reaction, see Seth Schiesel’s piece in the NYT. I typically avoid video-game writing in general-interest periodicals, since it tends towards the perversely anthropological, focusing on the writer’s amazement that the same industry that produced Pong now might spend hundreds of person-years and tens of millions of dollars in order to create a single work of interactive entertainment with narrative and pathos.1

This self-conscious outsider stance and the prose it often inspires are unfortunate because, in contrast to the video-game press, general-interest publications employ writers who can read. Specialist “video game criticism” is a rhetorical shantytown of clich√©, infelicitous turns of phrase, and thinly-veiled product placement. Game “reviews” are almost exclusively free of actual criticism but splattered with irrelevant technical details from press kits. (e.g. “This title will redefine interactive entertainment. It runs at 60 frames per second but its closest competitor runs at 59.2 frames per second!”)

However, I may need to reconsider my attitude about game reviews in the NYT after reading Schiesel’s article, in which he actually says, “In the more than 1,100 articles I have written for this newspaper since 1996, I have never before called anything a tour de force. Yet there is no more succinct and appropriate way to describe Red Dead Redemption.” Indeed, if major newspapers could promise me that even one in ten video game reviews would be as entertaining as this breathless piece, I’d read every single one.

Thanks to Art Gillespie for the link to Schiesel’s article.

1 There are exceptions, of course. The Onion‘s AV Club section is consistently very good, as is Ben Fritz, who occasionally writes about video games at the Los Angeles Times.


April 21st, 2010  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

This morning, I discovered that my credit card had been compromised and had been used to pay for several hundred dollars of “World of Warcraft” subscriptions without my knowledge. The helpful and thickly-accented woman at the call center asked me if I played “World of Warcraft” (I do not); she then asked multiple times with increasing intensity whether the “other user on this account” might be responsible for the charges before finally saying “Your wife, sir, I suppose she is playing a lot of ‘World of Warcraft’ and you do not know?”

This line of questioning may only be hilarious to those of you who know us, but let’s just say that I regard the prospect of Andrea playing “World of Warcraft” and racking up massive credit card charges in the process as only slightly less likely than the prospect of her using the card to buy plutonium from the Libyans. (Although that’s too bad, since I understand that you can get triple reward points for all purchases of fissile material from state sponsors of terrorism.)

Remaindered thoughts

February 26th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Here are a few things I’ve long meant to post but haven’t for some reason or another. I still have a lot of drafts, but some of them are far too untimely to post now (the entry about Ronaldo probably falls under this category, actually). These posts are headed with their original intended titles and are in chronological order.

On genre (5/2008)

Consider this: Grand Theft Auto IV ends with a wedding, but it is not a comedy.

A minor usability note (7/2008)


“Status updates” — as made ubiquitous by web applications like Twitter and Facebook — demand brevity and thus encourage a writing style heavy on sentence fragments. Here’s a problem: the type of fragment most appropriate depends on the medium, because any “update” will be displayed in some context.

Facebook assumes that you are the subject of a sentence, and even goes so far as to supply the copula for you if you are entering an update through the web. Although the interface asks you a question (“What are you doing?”), Twitter users generally provide self-contained sentences that do not address what one is doing. Since I typically avoid the Facebook web interface, I relay my Twitter updates to Facebook, which probably makes them slightly less comprehensible than they are already. It would be better, I guess, if the Twitter-to-Facebook gateway provided some other clue that my twitter updates were not intended to complete a sentence starting with “William” or “William is.”

Ronaldo, slavery, and abuses of language (7/2008)

23-year old Cristiano Ronaldo is good enough at soccer that he makes ¬£125,000 a week (ca. $542.8 trillion US) and is incapable of appearing in public without an Iberian swimsuit model at his side. (It’s not an entirely rosy picture — he does have to play for Man United.) Unfortunately for him, he is so doing as part of a long contract, which, like most contracts, restricts his ability to move to another team at will.

Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, likens Ronaldo’s apparently onerously-long contract to the lot of a “modern-day slave.” Ronaldo, displaying all of the perspective that one might expect from a young man who is paid absurdly to kick a ball around and lives in a world that doesn’t regularly encounter forced slavery, agrees.

I guess if commentators in the US can apply “fascist” or “Stalinist” appellations to American politicians who have never organized mass genocides or purged their staff from history, then it’s difficult to get particularly exercised about someone who could pay cash for a new primary residence every week comparing himself to a child sold to a brothel for a pack of cigarettes.

Difficulty and worthiness (12/2008)

Longtime readers of this site are probably aware of the most popular — in terms of comments — thing I’ve ever written. (If you aren’t, perhaps you should take a break to see how one might finance a college education, and then come back when you’re done.) I have previously lamented the lack of reading comprehension exhibited by nearly all of my benighted correspondents on this matter, but would like to focus now on a theme that has appeared ever more aggressively in recent comments. I am referring to the idea that something is worth doing — and, moreover, worth demanding spectators for — merely because it is difficult or expensive, or is likely to result in injuries, or whatever. This seems to me to be plainly false, but since it is such a popular claim, I would like to debunk it here by way of several analogies:

Downhill shopping cart racing certainly can result in bruises and lacerations and probably requires a grueling practice schedule. However, most of the practitioners are hoboes and most of the spectators are misanthropes and the audience of MTV’s Jackass. But I repeat myself.

Consider the early serial music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, which extended the serial tone row idea to all aspects of performance, so that each note had a different dynamic level, articulation, or whatever. This music is probably hard to write (especially, as Stockhausen was at the time, without a computer) and it is definitely hard to perform. However, I have a very hard time recommending that anyone invest the time in learning how to perform these works (or in attending a performance). Furthermore, I suspect that efforts to reproduce this idiom would be ultimately unsatisfying, as with any musical language that hurts listeners or otherwise sounds like yelling.

Other example pursuits also come to mind, but they hit rather closer to home.

“Copyright” without “copying”

July 17th, 2008  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Ben Fritz writes about Lips, a newly-announced karaoke video game. Lips is notable because it will apparently allow players to plug their iPod into their Xbox and sing along with DRM-free songs from their personal music libraries. (It is also compatible with Microsoft’s Zune, which should make several dozen people very happy.)

Fritz wonders how the music industry, who currently realize royalties from the inclusion of songs in video games (and especially as paid downloadable content for music games), will react to this:

And on the face of it, it doesn’t seem like there’s a reason why the source of the music (my iPod vs the game disc) should [a]ffect who gets paid. Half the people who bought “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” may already own lots of Aerosmith CDs, but that doesn’t mean Activision got out of paying to use the songs. Making the song into a game is arguably a transformative use for commercial gain.

Well, the legal reason why it doesn’t matter is that you aren’t actually copying anything when you play a song from your iPod. Copyright only governs distribution; you can sing along with, remix, or generally fold, spindle, and mutilate copyrighted works as much as you want as long as you keep the end results to yourself. The reason why Activation et al. have paid royalties is that they are actually distributing the original songs (or — in the case of some songs in the Guitar Hero games — that they are distributing recordings of copyrighted compositions). There isn’t a provision in copyright law stating that someone other than the copyright holder may distribute work X in format Z to me if I already own work X in format Y. With the Lips model, there is no distribution, and since the game only works with DRM-free files, the DMCA (which criminalizes defeating copy protection even if no copyright infringement occurs) doesn’t come into play.

Microsoft already allows Xbox users to play their own digital music (from CD or iPod) along with other video games. Incorporating what is essentially a sophisticated music player into a music game does not infringe upon any copyrights. As Fritz indicates, the more interesting question is political, not legal: how will this sort of technology impact the increasingly-strained relationships between rights holders and technology companies? Certainly the RIAA could try and insist on a check for every sale of Lips; it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done something like that, and Microsoft might not have a strong position to argue from.