Fixing Deus Ex: Human Revolution

1 09 2011

Considering how late I got into games, it’s somewhat surprising that one of the first games I played–probably the first non-Valve game–was Deus Ex. It’s not a particularly difficult game, but it is big, messy, and complicated, and the chunky graphics and nonexistent physics make it particularly troublesome to modern eyes.

None of which can be said for its sequel, Human Revolution. It’s a big game, for certain, but it’s got a certain feeling of self-containedness to it, and despite the engine and texture quirks, it’s got an absolute beauty that I think is going to age well. The plot, while it lacks some of the intertextuality of the original DX, looks for a relative sense of realism and achieves it reasonably well for a series that is probably contractually required to throw in everything and the conspiracy kitchen sink. And yet, for a number of reasons, I find HR so very, very frustrating. Sure, there are the gameplay issues–the boss battles, the regenerating health but non-regenerating energy–but for me the important screen-yelling moments came when the game, time after time, presented a bit of worldbuilding and utterly failed to deliver on it. Read the rest of this entry »

Death is an Inconvenience: Peter Watts on Crysis: Legion

19 03 2011

[Since the site I originally posted this on has since gone down, I’m migrating it over to my own blog, since I’d hate to see a good gaming and science fiction interview go to waste. Enjoy.]

Those so inclined have probably tried out the Crysis 2 multiplayer demo by now, and, having been strong, fast, and invisible, may be wondering what else is going on in the Cryniverse. The answer: Words! Lots of words! So many words that they could not fit into the game, and have been condensed, in book form, by a noted science fiction author, marine biologist, and Creative Commons supporter. And so it is with great pleasure that I present the following interview with the architect of Crysis: Legion, Peter Watts.

Or, perhaps more accurately, with part of Peter Watts. In one of my more bizarre autoreply conversations, I received the following after our initial contact:

Thanks for writing. Unfortunately I have been stricken with a severe case (there are no mild ones — mortality, even with treatment, is 70%) of necrotising fasciitis. (You may also know it as “flesh-eating disease.”) I am currently in the hospital and do not have internet access. I am recovering but it may be some time before I am able to respond to your email. For further information, see my blog posting at


When I went to look, my prospective interviewee had a large bit of his leg missing, and was documenting his Goya-esque encounter with mortality in a series of photos that you may wish to view before lunch for more reasons than one–as one commenter notes, it does look a bit like roast beef.

But though I was convinced that this was the end, Watts’ resolve far outstrips that of his bemuscle-suited protagonist, and he continued with the interview almost immediately after leaving intensive care. My hat goes off to you, sir. This almost makes up for scaring me away from hospitals forever.

Read on for a deconstruction of FPS tropes, the meaning of the nanosuit, and an origami adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Read the rest of this entry »

Narrative can be murder

10 08 2010

There’s a brilliant article up now at Gamasutra about the limitations of modern narrative-based games: Namely, that they’re still all about being a mass murderer–as I’ll admit, my body count in Bioshock and Grand Theft Auto IV, to name two of the best narrative-driven games of the past few years, easily tops any killer who wasn’t also leading a country–and that while a bad story can still be a good game, it’s extremely difficult for something with good story and bad gameplay to be anything other than terrible–and, in fact, that stories tend to be superfluous to games in general.

On the first point, the best and clearest quote from Darby is that “death is a boolean operation.” It’s an easy way to create conflict and quantify success, and through the sort of mimetic development that created Vertigo comics as the “serious” comics of the 1990s, serious, narrative-driven games these days tend to be first- or third-person shooters.

I’ve been pondering this problem for some time, actually, so it’s great to have it put into words. I’m currently practicing level design with Valve’s Source Development Kit, and one of the problems I’m coming up against is that there seem to be two basic things to do in an FPS: Kill and explore. The first is fun and challenging, but more often than not, because there are so few situations in real life where murder is the best option, you end up straining a narrative around a situation so that you can throw in a few Combine soldiers. Read the rest of this entry »

The Void is really seriously good: A less-than-objective review.

4 07 2010

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an enthusiastic but not particularly proficient FPS player. In order to circumvent my poor aim and easy killability, I tend to focus on exploration, variety, and overall quality when looking at a game, rather than honing my skills at knocking down corridors of infantry with a rail gun (Do games still have rail guns? I had one in Quake II and System Shock, and it was totally useless.) It also means that I get a thrill out of games that are conceptually difficult. Games like The Void.

The Void is an offering from Russian development studio Ice-Pick Lodge, previously known for Pathologic, a survival game set in a plague- and famine-stricken village in 1912. Pathologic is the sort of game that is at once very sophisticated and very primitive: It’s got incredibly complicated gameplay, but looks and runs like something that should be running on Windows 98. The graphics are subpar, and the bugs make the game sometimes literally unplayable. The Void, by comparison, is pristine. The characters, particularly you, are plastic-faced and a bit jerky, but their design more than makes up for it, and graphics quality never detracts from the eerie, heavily atmospheric environments, which seem to exist outside space and time. Asymmetry and surreality are used here to excellent effect: Boardwalks jut into nowhere, mysterious stairwells rise out of lakes, and monsters have a carefully unfinished look, as if they’re lacking something that they’ll never find. Read the rest of this entry »

Vicarious suffering

14 06 2010

I broke down and got Metro 2033 last night: It’s a post-apocalyptic Russian corridor shooter based on (apparently) a well-known Russian novel. (It’s good, by the way, so far. Like the story of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with the mechanics of Half-Life 2.) But there’s something unsettling about the copy for it:

Witness the everyday horrors of a broken society living in constant fear. The year is 2033 and you’re part of an entire generation that has been born and raised underground. Steel your nerve and prepare to face the terrors that await.

It reminds me inordinately of another game (which I’ve never played, because it’s supposed to be not very good at all), whose copy begins:

War is hell. It destroys the human psyche as easily as it smashes the body and lays waste to the battlefield. But somehow something has come to the war-torn killing fields of Viet Nam that takes you into the deepest level of Hell in this violent, horror-filled first-person survival game.

They both just seem so…voyeuristic. Most games could be described this way, and it makes them feel like a form of disaster tourism: Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and watch the wretched descent into madness! It’s made me examine, a bit, why it is that I play games, and while I think there is a bit of this to it, there’s also a comparison to be made with other media, which don’t receive this scrutiny by virtue of being non-interactive. Read the rest of this entry »

Memento Mori ex Machina

10 06 2010

In System Shock 2, I’ve escaped both spaceships, the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker, and have gone into the mind-hive of the Many to fight them. There must have been something in the air in ’99, because the endgame of System Shock 2 feels a lot like the endgame of Half-Life, down to the shooting-the-stars-around-somethings-head-and-then-exploding-it.

There’s a certain logic to it, to some extent. It’s easier to render indoor environments than outdoor ones, because a man-made environment is far less complex and more familiar. Therefore, SS2 is set in a spaceship, Half-Life in a research facility. When things need shaken up for the endgame, it only makes sense to switch from inorganic to organic, but not to real organic, because the rendering capabilities weren’t up to that. Thus, you get Gordon Freeman from Half-Life jumping a portal into parallel universe Xen where everything is neon green and squishy-soft, and my Space Navy Guy heading into the red and gooey mind-hive of the Many (which isn’t the actual end of the game, but it’s pretty close.)

From other angles, however, this is a bad move for a video game, mostly because a game shouldn’t be playing to its weaknesses in the last couple of levels. If you’re going to put something technically experimental in a game that you’re not sure you’ll be able to pull off, it’s best to do it somewhere in the middle: If it’s at the beginning, it’ll drive people off; if it’s at the end, it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. In their native angular environments, SS2 and Half-Life look remarkably good even ten years later (SS2 only with a bit of modding), but when you move to the organic places, it’s just ugly and difficult to get around in.

So why do they do it? I’ve mentioned one reason above, but as far as I can tell there’s another reason that’s more fundamental to games and gaming culture. Partly because of their history as computer/console artifacts, and because of their mode of combat, shooters have always to some extent been about the (good) machine-like versus the (evil or weak) biological.

The body in most of the shooters I’ve played is envisioned as machine-like, technological, and mathematical. Sometimes this is literal, like when you’re a scientist in Half-Life or a mechanically-enhanced soldier in Deus Ex or Crysis or Lost Planet, for that matter, also Half-Life. In many other cases it’s metaphorical; you represent part of a crack team of soldiers who, when together, function like a machine (Call of Duty, F.E.A.R.) or a fighter designed to restore order (Resident Evil 5.)

You’re rarely, however, fighting a force that’s like you. There’s an important gameplay reason for this (re: drones are boring), but it’s also that fear and horror in a game is evoked through the hideously biological or unscientific. In Doom this is demons and Hellbeasts in space: Religion and atavism are invading the scientific domain of the space exploration project. In Lost Planet it’s a giant bug that keeps getting in the way of your terraforming, so you fight it in a giant robot suit. And so on.

Half-Life decided to consciously take this to extremes, so you’re basically a tidy physicist fighting messy biology. Your enemies (the Gonarch–a combination of gonad and monarch–the headcrab, a jumping vagina dentata, and the Nihilanth, a giant fetus in a stone-rimmed womb) are alien, but evoke human sexuality (this was referred to in Raising the Bar, Valve’s book on developing the Half-Life saga, as a way to exploit the “inherent homophobia of 14-year-old boys.”)

When you’ve built your game around this, an organic endgame is vital, because flesh has become the most terrifying thing a person can face. After all the developments of engineering and physics in the twentieth century (and the space program and computing really did make it the century of physics) the flesh is the one thing that is seen as sacrosanct and unchangeable, but also the source of our destruction. To change the flesh is frightening–hence our fear of body-snatching and cyborgs–but in the end, the flesh will decay or tumesce. The flesh will betray you, no matter how many guns you have. You are going to age and die. And shooting as many external reminders of that as you can is all you can really do about it.

P.S. Bioshock is really interesting in the context of this and Susan Faludi’s Backlash. I’ll have to talk about it sometime.

Why Grand Theft Auto tells an old, old story

21 04 2010

In my dim recollections of the 1990s and early 2000s, Grand Theft Auto comprises a not-insignificant part. Vice City, which came out in…2002, it looks like, was my first secondhand introduction to the series, via a voyeuristic article in the Portland Oregonian. I remember being appropriately shocked by the accounts of prostitute-killing, the virtual strip clubs, the indiscriminate pedestrian-murder. I remember being struck, for the first time, by the fact that it was boys who played games and girls who complained about them: “My girlfriend doesn’t like it when I play too much” was the common complaint in the article.

But now that I have a computer that can play it, and it’s under $10, it’s time to finally get in on the action here. GTA IV remains the only installation of the series of played to any significant extent. They’ve removed many of the elements people found reprehensible in the original GTA: Visiting streetwalkers no longer improves your health, and the gore is generally understated, nothing like the limbs-fly-off bloodbath of Fallout 3.

Once long ago, before ever actually playing GTA, I characterized it as a sandbox game “where the goal is to kick sand in other people’s eyes.” My recollection of GTA San Andreas more or less fits that: You can break into houses and kill the residents with a samurai sword, or play gangs off each other, through a generic avatar. But the interesting thing about GTA IV is not how transgressive it is, but how traditionally narrative.

Read the rest of this entry »


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