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October 2007

Mercenaries, PMCs, and video games

Old_snake_gun_2 Stick with me. I promise this will eventually get around to video games.

CNN is reporting today that the Iraqi government has completed its investigation into the Blackwater shooting incident and has asked the U.S. State Department to "pull Blackwater out of Iraq":

Al-Maliki adviser Sami al-Askari told CNN the Iraqis have completed their investigation into the shooting at Nusoor Square in Baghdad...Al-Maliki and most Iraqi officials are "completely satisfied" with the findings of their probe and are "insisting" that Blackwater leave the country.

Blackwater is one of many private military companies (PMCs) in Iraq. Currently approximately 100,000 PMC contractors work directly for the U.S. Department of Defense in Iraq providing services ranging from operating mess halls on U.S. military bases to providing security for officials. (More info on PMCs can be found here.)

Article 4.1.4 of the Geneva Convention draws a clear distinction between contractors and mercenaries. A captured contractor is to be treated as a prisoner of war, while a mercenary is deemed an "unlawful combatant" with no right to claim prisoner of war status. A contractor is considered a mercenary when he/she engages in combat.

Now the game angle.

Video games have a long love affair with mercenaries. It's a natural attraction. The lone wolf on a dangerous undercover mission. Weapons, maps, stealth, strategy, shooting...pure gaming bliss: The original 8-bit Mercenary series; the Soldier of Fortune series; Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction and its forthcoming sequel; the Jagged Alliance series; Mech Warrior 4: Mercenaries...the list is a long one.

That love affair may be over, at least for now. Game designers, clearly influenced by current world events, have shifted their focus from mercenaries to PMCs. In particular, three upcoming games suggest that this new focus will be a critically reflective one.

HAZE (Ubisoft, U.S. release date: November 19, 2007)

Set in the year 2048 in a world where Governments have outsourced military operations to Private Military Corporations, you play a newly enlisted soldier seeking fulfillment and thrills by fighting for a good cause. As the leading PMC, Mantel Global Industries offers a high-tech arsenal of vehicles, deadly weaponry, and a performance enhancing bio-medical support known as Nectar, a nutional supplement that enables soldiers to fight harder and smarter.[1]Haze

However, as you progress through the game, you find out that there is more to Mantel and the "nectar" than meets the eye. The game takes place over three days that will "change Shane forever." Mantel battles a guerrilla group known as The Promise Hand led by a dictator called Gabriel "Skin coat" Merino; a brutal man who wears the flayed skins of his POW camp inmates. In recent trailers, it has been revealed that Shane will switch sides over the course of the game.[2]

Army of Two (EA Montreal, release date: November 13, 2007)

From a Gamasutra interview with lead designer Chris Ferriera:
What we’re trying to do as we advance though the story in the game, we start with the characters. We take them from their days in Delta Force, and their days as Navy SEALs, and their start as PMCs and how they get trained. We unveil the corruption behind the military privatization, and we explain the problems that poses to society and to America, and the world, when you have a gigantic organization that does nothing but operate for corporations and for money.Armyof2_2

We’re hoping that someone who plays the game a lot and who really follows the story, and doesn’t just skip through it and pays attention, that we can spark them to say “you know what, I’m going to look into this.” That’s all. “I’m going to gain interest in this, and find out what’s really going on here. What am I doing?” In the game you’re doing all kind of crazy stuff for this company. You’re sent on all these different missions, and then you find out what’s wrong with this deniability and what’s wrong with everything in general.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (Kojima Productions, release date Q1 2008)

From a Gamasutra interview with assistant producer Ryan Payton:
This is the first time for a Metal Gear game that the subjects have been very relevant to the time that it was being released...With MGS4, we've been doing a lot of research on what's going on recently. Recent conflicts in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, where real private military companies are being used to fight wars.Snakegun

And obviously there's that whole issue with Blackwater, and that controversy. This is becoming a very relevant issue. It's tough for the writers, and guys like me, who are involved with the story, because new information is coming in almost on a daily basis. We were literally days away from finalizing MGS4 story, and the text, and going to record it, and Hideo comes by our desks and says, "Did you see the news on NHK today? We've got to put that in there too. Make some kind of reference to that in the story." And we've done that. So it's very up-to-the-minute in the story, and we've been keeping watch of what's going on in the world.

In his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Ian Bogost argues that games have the power to mount arguments and influence players. They can "disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world, leading to potentially significant long-term social change."

I agree. In a mature medium, artists convey what they see and think and feel into a vehicle of subtle expression. Maybe one of these games will transport us in such a way. My money is on Kojima.

Oh, did I just refer to video games as art? There I go again.

Gamers care about the environment too

It's easy to be cynical about events like Blog Action Day. Does anyone pay attention to such calls to action? Do they really make any difference?

I'm tired of cynicism. My wife and I are expecting a baby due next month, and I've been thinking more than ever about how to make her world a better place to live.

Blog Action Day asks bloggers to address the issue of the environment. So here are a few constructive ways game publishers and game players can make a positive impact on the environment.

  1. Complete the transition from hard media (CD/DVD, plastic case, paper manual, plastic wrapper, paper box, etc.) to digital distribution. This obviously entails a conversion the industry is not yet prepared to do, but it's the inevitable place all media is going eventually, so let's try to get there sooner. Steam is the bees knees, in my opinion.
  2. Share your games with friends. I realize game publishers think this is a bad idea, but I think it simply promotes more gaming by more gamers...which means more sales in the long run.
  3. When a game like Halo3 comes along, do we all really need to purchase the same package of unrecyclables? Let me buy the DVD and give it to my friends to use as well. Let them certify themselves and pay for the game online. This works well for World of Warcraft, so why not other games?
  4. Get more libraries involved in loaning games like they loan books.
  5. Use services like Gamefly to rent games. If you decide to purchase, Gamefly will give you a great deal on a certified used copy will all original materials.
  6. Stop using PVC DVD packaging. Instead, use cardboard packages finished with a water based lacquer.

Let's face it, most of us just want the game. Once we've got it, we don't care much about the packaging anymore. I confess I'm a bit of a collector in this regard, and I enjoy my shelf full of game boxes that show off my gamer cred...but I think I can survive without them.

Got more ideas? Let me know.

Girls play games

50footwoman3Lately it's nearly impossible to tool around the gaming side of the 'net without bumping into a news story or blog post about girls and games. It seems clear that games are bad for girls. Equally clear is the fact that games can be good for girls. One major problem is that the industry ignores girl gamers, except when it caters to them. Games designed for girls are getting better; games designed for girls are getting worse; designers need to stop designing "games for girls."

I initially thought I would offer my "take" on all this--after all, that's what we bloggers do, right?--but the deeper I dig and the harder I think about it, the more I realize just how silly that would be. Not because I'm a guy who's not entitled to an opinion on the issue (though I confess to feeling a bit of that), but because there is no "take" to be had. It turns out, there are many "takes," and the real picture of girl and women gamers looks rather more like an intricate mosaic. Despite the best boil-it-down efforts of dozens of websites and blogs, complexity confounds the nifty sound bite.

So instead of offering yet another "what do women gamers want?" treatise, I thought it might be useful to sample and feature a few of the more thoughtful essays devoted to the subject of girl and women gamers from various sources. This is by no means a comprehensive collection, but I believe it represents a fair sampling of various points of view. If I've missed one you consider essential, let me know and I'll be sure to include it.

  • First a little something to set the tone: a delightfully subversive feminist parable courtesy of Saturday Night Live (Dec. 6, 1997) called Chess for Girls:  (Update: According to Youtube: "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by NBC Universal" - sorry)

This skit inspired a chapter in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, a portion of which can be read online here.

  • Using "chess for girls" as a reference point, gaming blog Castle in the Air complicates the question of what women want from games by suggesting it's the wrong question:
    • Here’s the main reason the question of “what women want” is stupid: We all want exactly the same thing from our games. Oh, some of us may prefer puzzles, others strategic board games, and still others vicious PVP, but what we really want is fulfilling entertainment. More...
  • In Playing the Games of Love, Japanese journalist Chiyono Sugiyama writes about the popularity of dating game simulations among women in Japan:
    • <game designer> Uchida said: "Many women told us that, after they finished getting to a romantic ending with one character, they felt guilty about focusing on a different male character than the first one. Some said the male characters seemed to be vividly true to life. That's a real compliment for us."Kinjeq9_2
  • Ubisoft announces new line of Imagine games targeted at 6-14 year-old girls:
    • Imagine™ Fashion Designer invites players to become hip Manhattan designers.
    • Imagine™ Animal Doctor puts young players in the role of a veterinarian.
    • Imagine™ Babyz® is the first simulation game focused on caring for babies.
    • Imagine™ Master Chef allows players to create recipes from all over the world. 
    • Imagine™ Figure Skater, players live the life of a champion professional figure skater.
  • Ubisoft's announcement prompted outraged responses from ParentDish and Wonderland:
    • Honestly, I think I'd rather have my daughter blasting aliens with a machine gun than playing a game that reinforces gender stereotypes that are so outdated, it makes games like "babyz" look downright absurd.
    • I would love to know what else Ubisoft is doing for girls, other than shopping, fashion and pets. Anything? It's a bit ironic that the series is called Imagine, and yet Ubisoft is demonstrating a distinct lack of the stuff here. As Brian brilliantly said, "what's next, Imagine: The Glass Ceiling?
  • University of Texas study looks at girls and video games Among the findings (I only report 'em folks, I don't write 'em):
    • Many game programmers and artists do not want to work on 'girl' games or serious games.
    • Those who are willing to try have an extremely difficult time thinking 'girl.'
    • [Games for girls need] to be nonviolent with lots of role playing, age appropriate adventure, a peaceful buildup and a rewarding conclusion.
  • Despite reports of its demise, social satire LIVES! Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble is an RPG where "good girls get better by being bad!":
    • Steal into the underbelly of your hometown. Confront oppressive adults and malicious peers. Defeat their avarice with naughty little games. Win useful tools like lip rouge, crowbars, boyfriends, and cigarette lighters.


  • Halo 3 leaves girl gamers in the dark:
    • A game doesn't have to be packaged into a Bubble Gum Pink case with purple and yellow flowers everywhere for girls to like it. All it has to do is have a little feminine appeal. Here are some ways Microsoft and Bungie could have turned on the light for Girl Gamers while keeping up their image with the fanboys...More
  • The Official blog has created "Geek girl" stereotype Bingo, a scorecard for use whenever you come across an article or blog post dealing with women and gaming, technology, science, etc.

  • "It's Just a Game" from the Feminist Gamers blog addresses why sexism in video games matters:
    • Sexism in videogames may not be the most crucial issue on the top of the feminist agenda, but it’s not entirely unimportant, either. And to be told that there are areas of our culture that should be magically exempted from feminist critiques is a request that smacks of desperation.

  • Two essays (among others) from The Escapist deal with women in games. In Women Monsters and Monstrous Women, Bonnie Ruberg addresses the question of representation:
    • Should we be pushing for equal representation as the gaming other in the same way we push for equal representation as the gaming self? Why do only men get to be the bad guys? We still have to keep in mind that most gamers are male. Do we really want to provide more women for them to hunt down and kill? Of course it looks bad, but in the end, is it really any worse than killing men? These issues, while important, remain relatively unexplored. Like many questions of gender equality, they have no easy answers.Residenteviljill
  • In Holding Out for a Heroine, Erin Hoffman has a dream:
    • Somewhere in the uncharted plains of videogame potential, in the wild primal cloud of yet-nascent human ideas, is my perfect heroine. I don't know what she looks like or where she's from, but I know she's a manifestation of despair and triumph, of trial and overcoming, of badass throw-down and ephemeral grace. She's a creature of fire and passion tempered by intellect, of depth and history and complexity. She will surprise me and challenge me, and when we bring down her arch-nemesis - perhaps a phantom from her past, perhaps a threat to all she stands for - our unified victory will be unmatched; the world will echo with the lamentation of our fallen foes.
      And I know she has never seen life on the screen.

  • Finally, Girl in the Machine has a fascinating piece called Live in Purity and then Die which analyzes the PS2 game Fatal Frame (AKA Project Zero):
    • Fatal Frame is, in my opinion, one of the most terrifying experiences on the Playstation 2, beating its two sequels by a landslide when it comes to scares. Its estrogen-enriched cast is one of its many perks, and a storyline that details young women overcoming the cruelty brought upon them by old, superstitious tradition is a more than relevant parallel to the experiences of women today.

As I said, these merely scratch the surface, but I hope they're a useful snapshot. If game designers were half as interested in these questions as bloggers, I wonder how different the video game landscape would look.


Neongirl I'm on the road with limited internet access, so I won't post again until Sunday. In the meantime, I'll tease you with the topic of my next missive (cue blinking neon light): Girls, Girls, Girls!

Stay tuned.
(Special thanks to P.T. Barnum)

What is a "next-gen" game?

Hl2ep2 Long before the current crop of consoles arrived, game pundits began tossing around the term "next-gen" to describe hardware and software that would elevate gaming to the next level. When Nintendo announced the Wii, debate centered on whether or not the system specs were sufficient to be considered truly "next-gen." Spore developer Chris Hecker infamously described the Wii as "two Gamecubes stuck together with duct tape." Game designer American McGee responded with: "The only truly next-gen console out there is the Wii. Everything else is just a video card and processor upgrade."

This week David Braben--co-creator of the seminal computer game Elite--told Eurogamer that while he enjoyed Bioshock's atmosphere and visual style, "the gameplay itself was not next-gen." He promised that his own game-in-progress, The Outsider, "will be one of the first next-gen games."

So what, exactly, is a "next-gen game" and should we even care? Matt Peckham over at PCWorld thinks we ought to drop the "next-gen" terminology altogether:

Aside from the way "next-gen" as a descriptor is a horribly abused and lazy stand-in adjective, the whole philosophy behind it seems backwards when you think about it. It implies that games like chess are poor or wanting because they never "evolve" or become anything more than nudging pieces around a checkered board. It suggests that scanning abstract marks on paper or illuminated in liquid crystal behind a thin plastic screen (i.e. "words") are somehow passé because we've been reading more or less the same way since Gilgamesh (and popularly since Gutenberg). As such, the whole sordid history of film is a creeping mess of barely notable upticks...On such a scale, compared to video games, art and entertainment in general look decidedly old-gen.

I think Peckham has a point. I started playing The Orange Box today, beginning with Half-Life 2. Am I playing a last-gen game or a next-gen game? Is it a next-gen game because of the hardware or a last-gen game because it's 3 years old? Maybe I'm not officially playing a next-gen game until I get to the brand new Episode 2. UGH! Who cares?

Unrelated, but related. This weekend I'm going to the Orpheum Theatre in Madison WI to see Godard's Pierrot le Fou starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. This film was released in 1965--very last-gen--but in my book, any film with Belmondo can only be considered next-gen. Will I think about these things? No. I plan to enjoy the film. Just like I'm enjoying Half-Life 2...whatever generation it is.

What if gamers got to choose what's on TV?

Freaks_and_geeks_2 Video games now command more viewer-minutes than many prime-time television shows. Clearly, many of us are choosing to play games or surf the net rather than watch whatever the networks dole out to us each season.

Still, lots of people watch network television--25 million tuned into this week's episode of ABC's Dancing with the Stars, for example--and companies still pump billions into prime-time advertising.

So what would happen if gamers decided which shows should be on television? What if the generation that grew up playing Mario on the NES were in charge? What would that season look like? Probably a lot like the one on TV right now.

The kids who munched mushrooms now write and produce television shows, many of which bear an unmistakable video game sensibility (and comic book panache). Currently on American TV, it's all about geeks with special powers. It began last season with Heroes and its ensemble of characters who "thought they were like everyone else...until they realized they have incredible abilities." Notably, the most popular character was the nerd of the bunch, Hiro Nakamura.

This season brings us a computer whiz with the world's greatest spy secrets embedded in his brain (NBC's Chuck); a video game playing slacker who lives with his parents and harvests souls for Satan (CW's Reaper); a "forensic fairy tale" focusing on Ned, a pie-maker with the mysterious power to bring the dead back to life (ABC's Pushing Daisies); a San Francisco reporter who involuntarily travels through time (NBC's Journeyman); and a bartender with experimental medical implants who develops superhuman abilities (NBC's Bionic Woman). Two other new shows, CBS's Big Bang Theory and CW's Aliens in America feature central characters who lack super powers but qualify as grade-A geeks.

Then there's the unstoppable force known as Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad) who made the leap to Hollywood after establishing his nerd-cred as writer and producer of television's first foray into geekdom, the highly regarded but seldom watched Freaks and Geeks (featuring a young Seth Rogen, NBC, 1999-2000).

Apparently, the crazy pendulum that dictates network programming has swung away from reality shows and toward scripted programming (22 of 28 new series use scripts). Somebody has to write these shows, so why not gamers?

I may have to start watching television again...after The Orange Box, of course.

Click nothing to learn something

Lilsister One of the very best things about joining the community of game-related bloggers is discovering all the terrific people hard at work thinking about this medium and pushing it ever forward. Clint Hocking's blog Click Nothing is unfailingly adept at lifting the hood of a game and explaining in clear terms how all those gears and tubes work...and what may need a bit of repair. As Creative Director at Ubisoft Montreal, Clint's ideas go beyond theoretical musings, often beyond what an academic like me is generally equipped to do.

In his most recent post he discusses the dissonance that he sees in Bioshock between the narrative and ludic aspects of the experience:

To cut straight to the heart of it, Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story. By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all. The leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either, forcing the player to either abandon the game in protest (which I almost did) or simply accept that the game cannot be enjoyed as both a game and a story, and to then finish it for the mere sake of finishing it.

It's important to note that Hocking loves the game and admires it on many levels. It comes closer than any game he has seen (and I wholeheartedly agree) to achieving the kind of narrative/thematic unity found in the best cinema:

BioShock is not our Citizen Kane. But it does – more than any game I have ever played – show us how close we are to achieving that milestone. BioShock reaches for it, and slips. But we leave our deepest footprints when we pick ourselves up from a fall. It seems to me that it will take us several years to learn from BioShock’s mistakes and create a new generation of games that do manage to successful marry their ludic and narrative themes into a consistent and fully realized whole. From that new generation of games, perhaps the one that is to BioShock as BioShock is to System Shock 2 will be our Citizen Kane.

You can read the full text of Clint's essay here.
Art courtesy of limabean01 at DeviantArt

War games may not be violent enough

Moa "What are the communicative consequences of reliving the bombing of Pearl Harbor? What does it mean to memorialize war through interactive media, such as video games?" Aaron Hess, a doctoral student in the School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, poses these and other provocative questions in a recent essay that appears in Communications Currents, an online journal published by the National Communication Association.

Hess contends that no matter how many grizzly visuals or vibrating controller responses are built into war games, they will never adequately represent the dreadful nature of war. In this sense, he claims, war games may not be violent enough to give gamers an understanding of war.

While films, such as Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor, may provide gruesome visual frames for public audiences, as a medium, they are largely passive. Conversely, video games are interactive, allowing audiences to enact war. In this sense, the memorial becomes both participatory and private, as in played out in the home. However, through their digital participation in war, gamers may lose sight of the reality of its gruesome detail. Video games, as all representations, fall short of the real, and Medal of Honor is no exception. Technology and creativity may move closer to capturing the nuance of war, with vibrating controls, surround sound, and blurred shell-shock vision, but the front lines of war gaming will never fully grasp the violence of modern warfare. It is in this sense that war games may not be violent enough to give gamers an understanding of war.

Click here to read the complete online version of Hess's essay. The expanded print version entitled “You don’t play, you volunteer”: Narrative public memory construction in Medal of Honor: Rising Sun appears in the most recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication.

In support of Gameology

Gameology is an intelligent and respected blog devoted to news and commentary for the game studies community. Zach Whalen, one of the key contributers to the blog, is a Brainy Gamer subscriber and was kind enough recently to include my site on the Gameology blog roll. I have assigned Gameology essays to my students in the past and have always appreciated the positive ways they have provoked my students to think about video games.

Zach's most recent Gameology post includes details of a threatening letter he received from an attorney representing Left Behind Games, Inc., developer and publisher of the Left Behind series of video games based on the best-selling books. Gameology, along with many game review sites, panned the game and its "convert or die" gameplay premise.

The letter threatens Zach with legal action unless he removes "false and misleading" comments from his website. From the letter:

Left Behind Games Inc. is demanding that you immediately remove any and all information contained on your site about the above stated game that is false and/or misleading, including any such statements or commentary and the responses thereto. This includes posted comments made by others in the context of reading the incorrect or misleading statements.

If you do not comply immediately, the company will be forced to pursue additional legal action which will include claims for damages, costs of suit and attorney’s fees. This may subject you and your organization to significant legal and financial damages.

It appears Zach isn't the only blogger who panned the game to receive such a letter. You can read more about others contacted with more details on the story here and here.

I have read all of Zach's Gameology posts on the Left Behind game and can find nothing but solid critical writing. Zach's opinions of the game and the ideology that spawned it are clearly articulated. He objects to some of the fundamentalist tenets espoused by the game, and he explains why they concern him. In other words, he functions as a critic.

Left Behind Games' lack of specificity regarding "false and/or misleading" statements suggests less about anything Zach has done wrong and rather more about a company bullying small-time bloggers with few resources to wage legal battles. Perhaps not coincidentally, it comes from a company that "has yet to realize a profit and [whose] stock price has collapsed from a high of $7.44 a share last November to as little as 14 cents in recent trading." (Daily Kos)

The Brainy Gamer strongly supports Zach Whalen and the entire Gameology crew. I encourage others to do the same and respond to Left Behind Games Inc. in whatever way you deem appropriate.

I like cutscenes

Jeanne_2 ...and almost never skip them. I'm a sucker for story, and generally (though not often enough) cutscenes can be relied on to advance or enhance a game's narrative. Titles like Devil May Cry 3 and God of War, and heavyweight franchises like Metal Gear (3D), The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil all rely on in-game or pre-rendered cutscenes to do a variety of useful things. Blizzard, creator of the best cutscenes in the industry, even has a dedicated design unit whose sole responsibility is creating Hollywood-quality (oxymoron?) cinematics. Occasionally, cutscenes even outshine the game itself (see Onimusha 3 or Final Fantasy VIII).

Other games, not so much. Few experiences raise the break-controller-over-knee frustration level higher than games containing frequent recurring useless cutscenes that can't be skipped. My exasperation about such games stems partly from frustration, but mostly from a concern that gamers who play these titles are essentially being trained to skip cutscenes whenever possible.

I know LOTS of gamers who simply never watch cutscenes if they can avoid them. They just want to "get back to playing the game." For a guy like me--who still thinks Aristotle's Poetics is a pretty useful document--watching this happen is like tearing my heart out. "Wait! Don't you want to know why his brother betrayed him?! How can you NOT WANT TO KNOW that?! Are you aware of how much time and effort went into that little 30-second scene?! Ingrate!!"

It's perfectly understandable to me why designers create cutscenes we can't skip. They see them as essential to the game experience. But those cutscenes had better be more than superfluous interruptions or load-time cover-ups. They had better be compelling in some way--or even just Kojima-freaky weird--or players will skip them if they can. Some players won't ever care about story, and that's fine. But I think it's possible to lure players to a story and keep them attached if you've got what Aristotle told us we needed 2300 years ago:

  • a story about something important
  • characters with something at stake who reflect something recognizable about ourselves
  • delivered in a way that exploits the medium to its fullest potential

So what makes a cutscene compelling? I think it should do at least one of the following:

  • Establish setting and tone - see opening sequence of Final Fantasy XII or Diablo II
  • Advance the plot - see Resident Evil 4 or Fahrenheit
  • Develop or enhance our understanding of the characters - see Persona 3 or Planescape: Torment
  • Provide a rhythmic transition or palette cleanser for the player - see Metroid Prime  or Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker

Hanging a narrative with frequent cutscenes on a game that won't support it is a bad idea. The frustration I described above came from playing the otherwise excellent Jeanne D'arc. This title by Level 5 works nicely as a traditional tactical RPG, but shoehorning this experience into an absurd amalgam of historical 15th century France, contemporary Japanese anime, and high fantasy underworld demons just didn't work for me. Certainly, the story of Joan of Arc needs no leg up from Level 5 in the narrative department. While the cutscenes may vaguely adhere to elements of my list above, the stylistic collisions that result are so jarring--and occasionally laughable--that they finally derailed my desire to get to the next battle.

So I guess, at least on my PSP, the English baddies conquer France with token resistance. Sorry about that, La Pucelle.

Read this blog now

Artfuldodger Brainy Gamer readers will surely be interested in The Artful Gamer, described by its author as "in search of the poetic and lyrical in video games." Chris is a fine, astute writer, and I admire his careful and attentive approach to the subjects he covers. In particular, be sure to check out two of his most recent posts: A Game Begins with an Idea:

Making meaningful games is not so much about making games that we ‘like’ or we find ‘entertaining’ necessarily (since feeling angry or depressed doesn’t fit into either of those categories very well) - it’s more generally about finding meanings that accord with human experience. Engineering, tweaking, and re-design all come after we allow our imaginations to roam freely.

and Auteurship, Indie Games, and Out of this World/Another World in which he analyzes one of the greatest games you may never have heard of--(Chris, I played Another World on my old Atari ST, and I was dead certain no game could ever possibly surpass it):

...what is most surprising is that a classic linear story is told without dialogue, captions, or other kinds of exposition. This kind of storytelling stands in the face of contemporary games that inundate the player with checkpoints, hours of expositional dialogue, and quests, practically hammering them over the head with information on where they are located, where they are going, and what they should be doing next.

Go read and subscribe to The Artful Gamer. You'll be glad you did.
Geez, I sound like a carpet salesman.

Halo 3 dissenters unite!

Stras400 After rapturous reviews from mega-sites like IGN and Gamespot, others are responding to Halo 3 in rather more skeptical and, dare I say, clear-sighted ways. In particular, critics like Daniel Weissenberger at and Leigh Alexander at Destructoid cite the game's failure to deliver on its PR hype about Halo 3 as a significant cultural milestone.

Weissenberger: Halo 3's biggest flaw is that at it never rises to the level of epic storytelling or gameplay that the premise suggests, even demands. Although I was told time and again there was a war for humanity's fate going on, I certainly never saw any evidence of it. Great stakes are discussed, but never established. I'm supposed to be horrified that the Flood overrun a city, or that most of Africa needs to be bombed to prevent their spread, but since no one actually seems to live there, why should I care? No reference to civilian casualties, or even civilian existence, is ever made, so there's no tragedy in the "glassing" of Africa, just the mild satisfaction that comes from having survived it.

Alexander: Even if you're an enormous Halo fan, I think it's hard to argue with the perception that what with the advanced press, inflated reviews and hype, the game's enormously overrated. Perhaps if Halo 3 is going to serve as an ambassador to the uninitiated, I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth; maybe knowing that a broader section of society is playing a "hardcore game" should be good news to me...But what, exactly, about Halo 3 has "greater significance," makes it a "cultural milestone," besides the sheer size of its audience? This isn't a facetious or rhetorical question; I really want to know.

I discussed Microsoft's ad campaign for the game in my last podcast and described feeling intrigued but troubled. I asked for your reactions and received the following thoughtful response from Danny Fisher, Buddhist chaplain and FOBG (Friend of Brainy Gamer ;-)):

I watched the ads that you linked to at your blog. Like you, I'm struck that they're kinda brilliant as promotional work. Overall, though, I think they're repulsive--if I can be blunt about it. In the end, I guess the joke here is really on a style of documentary filmmaking. But, as I see it, that style is pretty closely associated with its subject matter:  war, the veteran experience, and so on. Maybe there's a time to ape or mock those kinds of films, but is that really right now, when we're in the midst of an unpopular, unjust war waged under false pretenses that is killing thousands of Iraqi civilians and so many young Americans? I think not. It would be nice if we had the luxury of relegating war to the museum and being hip and ironic about films about veterans, but we really don't. War is happening RIGHT NOW. And it's not some glamorous, "Greatest Generation" thing. It's horrific.  (Look no further than the wounded kids coming home that you mention in the podcast.) These ads smack of thoughtlessness and heartlessness--and I don't really think that's overstating it. It all makes me sad and angry.  Has this Administration been so successful in keeping the effects of war out of sight that ads like this play without more outrage?  Have we gotten so soft that we don't mind being manipulated into buying a video game this way?"

The more I reflect on those ads, the less I like them. But I'm thinking about them, see? See how that works? Damned if Microsoft doesn't win again. They always win.