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November 2011

Tropes are for dopes


spitting in the wind: [spit-ting-in-the-wind]
idiom; euphemism (see also pissing in the wind)
1. A futile, self-defeating act.
2. Wasting time trying to achieve something than cannot be achieved. e.g. “Assigning Congress the task of addressing the budget deficit is like spitting in the wind.”

Bellyaching about mainstream media coverage of video games is an exercise in expectoration blowback. No amount of complaining seems to make a difference, and those of us who believe media coverage imacts public perception battle high blood pressure every time we hear another outmoded, ill-informed piece of reporting from journalists who clearly lack first-hand experience playing games, or have simply failed to do their homework.

NPR (National Public Radio) generally bucks the tired ‘soundbyte-news’ trend with thoughtful reporting that goes deeper and wider than other news outlets. Recently, the network has attempted to address its stuffy ‘east-coast intellectual’ image with refreshingly astute and lively coverage of the arts and technology. Video games, in particular, have received frequent attention. In the last week alone NPR aired four segments devoted to games on its flagship programs, All Things Considered and Morning Edition.

But apparently not even NPR can avoid the common pitfall of shoddy reporting on video games. Like its mainstream brethren, NPR consistently frames its game coverage with ‘analysis’ that fails to illuminate the games themselves. This kind of coverage produces four threadbare tropes that have come to define game journalism in the popular media:

  • Video games make a CRAP TON of money. Even more than movies!!

    RENEE MONTAGNE, host: The new version of the video game “Call of Duty” is out now, released last week. In the first 24 hours on shelves in the U.S. and the UK, the game made a staggering FOUR…HUNDRED…MILLION…DOLLARS in sales - a new record.

Coverage of the game industry as business news will inevitably include sales data, and it’s certainly newsworthy that the COD franchise generates big revenue numbers. But Montaigne’s conversation with Harold Goldberg (G4TV) wasn’t a business report. The segment focused on “this season’s hot video games…” and Goldberg’s remarks were limited to 20-second blurbs - on COD: “It’s almost a lifestyle for certain people”; on Skyward Sword: “…at once sweet, adventuresome, heartwarming, and a little scary; on Skyrim: “It’s much more than slaying dragons; it’s building up your character…”

Goldberg does the best he can, but the segment is yet another consumer-focused “game buying guide” story that doesn’t say much about the games themselves.

  • Gamers are CRAZY! (see also lazy, anti-social, obssessive, etc.)

In a segment called “Gamers Take Advantage Of Three-Day Weekend,” Beth Accomando of KPBS recorded an interview with her 18-year-old son and his friend who spent three uninterrupted days playing Skyrim.

DAVID: Oh, for a game like this, you should more or less just say goodbye to your life now - your wife, kids, job, bills - bye.

KYRA MORALES [customer in line at San Diego GameStop]: I’m going to play like 24 hours and then drink a Mountain Dew to keep me up.


KYRA MORALES: And then play another 24 hours.

The report is a personalized and lighthearted take on gamers and their devotion to certain games, but once again we learn almost nothing about the game itself. What’s more, the piece feeds the popular misconception that gamers are mostly obssessive teenagers with time on their hands…when reams of data on games and gamers proves otherwise. Lots of players stood in line and bought Skyrim at midnight; but far more of us unwrapped our copy when it arrived from Amazon on the day of release.

  • I don’t waste time playing games myself, but I’ll happily discuss why you think they’re interesting.

Reporter2One of the saddest aspects of games reporting is that few of the journalists covering them seem to know much about their subject. NPR relies on experts like Jamin Warren (Kill Screen) or Brian Crecente (Kotaku) to discuss games with its on-air hosts, but rarely do these experts get to weigh in with more than cursory expertise. Warren recently discussed Batman: Arkham City with Renee Montagne:

MONTAGNE: Now “Batman: Arkham City” is getting attention for more than its good reviews. And it’s gotten good reviews. It is being sold with 10 percent of the game missing – that missing part would be Catwoman. How does it work?

What follows is an informative exchange about the industry’s increasing reliance on DLC, but once again (noticing a theme here?) we learn almost nothing about the game. Why did it get good reviews? Ironically, Warren co-founded the preeminent print magazine devoted to games criticism, but here he’s limited to being an industry pundit. He performs admirably, but one wishes he could have weighed in on why these Batman games have so deepened the cultural footprint of this iconic character and series.

  • I don’t have anything interesting to say about this game, but here’s a provocative montage with lots of carnage, accompanied by blurbs with numbers in them.

I’ll admit this one’s a bit of a cheap shot (not aimed at NPR, by the way), but if we’re compiling a list of media coverage tropes for video games, this one must be on that list. Offering lots of heat, but very little light - this familiar encapsulation of games as wildly popular, violent, newfangled, ever-more-realistic, etc. has become the de rigueur presentation of games as a pervasive form of entertainment invading our living rooms, competing against TV and movies for our money and attention.

I focused on NPR in this post because I’m a true blue fan of the network. I financially support my local station, and I’m a devoted listener to its full slate of programming. I single out NPR because I believe it can do better in its coverage of games, just as it routinely does better with its national, international, and political reporting.

During the same period in which the stories I mentioned above were aired, NPR interviewed artists like novelist Don DeLillo, musician Keith Jarrett, and filmmaker Alexander Payne. I’m happy the network has expanded its coverage of games, but it can truly lead the way by focusing on games as creative expression, not just as commerce or cultural curiosity.

Reporting on Skyrim multiple times without talking to its director Todd Howard is a curious and disappointing omission. I’m happy to hear Harold Goldberg’s thoughts on Uncharted 2, but why not sit down with Amy Hennig and discuss her goals for the series…or what it’s like to be the most creatively influential woman in an industry dominated by men? Games offer so many compelling hooks for good reporting. Break free of the tropes and blaze a new trail.

What would such coverage look (or in this case, sound) like? Last Friday, P.J. Vogt from WNYC's "On The Media" reported on Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker, and "what happens when your creations take on a life of their own." It's the kind of smart, illuminating reporting on games that I hope we'll see more of in the future.

Cow Clicker - On the Media


Take 3 - Uncharted the Director


The history of narrative game design can be fairly summarized as an ongoing effort to enable the player. Games enable choice, strategic thinking, moral deliberation, mechanical mastery, etc., all designed to make the player feel smart, powerful, responsible, or otherwise connected to a world where the player’s actions and decisions matter. In one way or another, all the major game franchises aim at this same brass ring. Mass Effect, GTA, Bioshock, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed, Fable, Fallout - each unfolds a story (apparently) driven forward by the player. Each enables the player to impact the world…or at least delivers an illusion of impact.

But not Uncharted. From its opening moments, Uncharted 3 establishes a cinematic sender-receiver relationship with the player. Advancing the story is the game’s prime directive, and it also functions as the player’s reward. The game presents a steady stream of prompts (timed button-presses) action challenges (climbing, gunfights and hand-to-hand combat), and puzzles, each requiring the proper response. Get it right, and you get more story. Get it wrong, and it’s rewind and try again.

In this way, the player activates story sequentially, bit by bit, not by choosing sides or navigating branching dialogue options, but by earning it like Mario coins. The Half-Life games work similarly (sans cutscenes), but the Uncharted series builds such pot-boiler suspense and character intrigue into its narratives that the player feels swept up in a globe-trotting page-turner that insists on steady progression. If I don’t keep going, who’s going to rescue Sully? Missing a jump means I’ve delayed the story, which somehow feels more consequential in these tightly-paced games. Cutscene as carrot; Rewind as stick.

In this ‘play the movie’ system, cinematic fidelity is paramount, and each game has raised the bar higher in this regard. Uncharted 3 retains the colorful adventure-movie look of the previous games, but this time the virtual camerawork has a Paul Thomas Anderson feel, relying heavily on constant-motion Steadicam cinematography. As cinema, Uncharted 3 feels at once old-school-Hollywood and art-house edgy. Pay attention to the “camera” in this early scene to see what I mean. It never stops moving.

So, if cinematic interactivity is Uncharted’s raison d’être, how does this affect the player’s experience? I believe an apt parallel can be found in the relationship between a lead actor and director on a film set, with the Uncharted player as actor and the Uncharted game as director. Playing Uncharted 3 is less about watching a film than shooting a film.

Uncharted-3-game-art_290The actor must hit his marks and deliver his performance within a tightly constrained set of parameters. Autonomy is secondary to precision in this environment. I may have my own ideas of how to ‘play’ a scene, but if my approach violates the director’s (or cinematographer’s or art director’s, etc.) plans for how the scene must be executed, we have a problem. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s simply the nature of filmmaking, and the Uncharted games rely heavily on this paradigm, both as presentation and as player experience.

Like a good movie actor, my job is to make what I’m told to do look like it was my idea all along. When I hit the triangle button to dodge a punch, or jump at just the right moments to escape a building crumbling beneath me, Drake looks fabulous doing it. When I deviate from that script or miss my mark, Drake dies in a pathetic rag-doll heap. Film actors quickly learn that a skillful performance matters, but nothing matters more than what the director (and editor) do with that work. A good director may redeem a bad performance; but a bad director usually makes everyone look bad. Uncharted 3 is a very good, but very prescriptive director.

Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked “Actors are cattle.” If you’ve watched a film being shot, especially on location, it’s a nasty, but mostly fair observation, at least in terms of what’s required to get film into the can. Hitchcock later amended his observation: “I never said all actors are cattle, what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.”

So, does Naughty Dog treat Uncharted players like cattle? Well...maybe Hitchcock’s notion that we should be treated as such isn’t far off the mark if we see mainstream narrative game design as a certain kind of cow-herding: moving a mass of players from point to point, keeping them fed and happy, and trying hard not to lose any strays. This is the general feeling I get from Uncharted 3. At the risk of issuing damning praise, I believe the game is a spectacular exercise in interactive cinema. No game comes closer to delivering a truly playable movie, with AAA production values and a craftsmanlike grasp of film language.

But the total experience falls short for me, not because Uncharted isn’t enough of a “game” or because it relies heavily on cutscenes. There are lots of ways to tell stories in video games, and Naughty Dog executes its way better than anyone else. I just wish this director trusted me a little more with my performance. I’ve worked with him (I could as easily say "her") three times now, and I think he's terrific. I love the studio, and I love the ethos. But I need a little more creative input now. I need to feel less like a cow and more like a collaborator.

RameseA couple of examples highlight my point. A pirate named Rameses attacks Nate in Yemen, knocking him out with a piece of wood. He then takes Nate prisoner, transports him to a dry dock, and tortures him for information. When Nate refuses to cooperate, Rameses replies, “Perhaps your friend Sully will be more grateful for his life,” and departs.

Later, Nate is re-captured by Rameses’ men, but Nate manages to escape, steal a gun from one of the pirates, and shoot Rameses in the chest...with no input or interaction from me. Hey, Mr. Director! I could have done that! Given Rameses' treatment of me earlier, it would have been a pleasure. Why couldn’t you trust me to take care of the job?

A few chapters later, Nate staggers through the Rub’ al Khali desert - lost, alone, and dying of thirst. This section of the game is reminiscent of the Nepalese village portion of Uncharted 2: a tonal and mechanical shift occurs, and the player is free to explore and make sense of this apparently incongruous section of the game. But unlike the village, the desert in Uncharted 3 directs me ways that confine and confound me.

I admire how the control system breaks down in this scene, making it difficult to manipulate a staggering, hallucinating Nate. But all too soon, the game extracts me from the situation and moves the narrative forward, long before I’m ready. I wish the game had trusted me to explore, even aimlessly, perhaps encountering hallucinations that tell me more about Drake’s obsessions and fears. It’s a missed opportunity for me as Nate to wander confused, disoriented, and face myself. I might have learned something here. You gave me a place and situation to do that, but you didn’t trust me enough to make that time of wandering meaningful. Forty days and nights might have been interesting…

I like the Uncharted games. I'll begin playing Skyrim tomorrow, and I'm guessing I'll like that too. I don't need one game to be like the other. Vive la différence! But I'm a restless actor. I’ll happily accept another gig as Nathan Drake if the director wants to cast me again. But let’s talk about how to make that next performance more valuable for me. I’m happy to let you run the show. I just need a little more room to breathe. Work with me here, ok? :-)

Joy in Mudville


More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. –Woody Allen

Gamers are a confounding lot. For a pack of people who like to play, we sure do seem miserable most of the time. We complain about review scores; we hate games journalism; we mercilessly pick at each other on forums; and we shake our heads sadly at projected dim futures for franchise X, developer X, or console manufacturer X. A newcomer to the ongoing “games conversation” on dedicated websites and social media channels could hardly be blamed for concluding that playing games and talking about them can take a serious toll on the psyche.

Let’s take a collective breath for a moment, shall we? When I survey the video game landscape and make a dispassionate assessment (as much as possible), it’s hard to understand why we’re so prone to gloom and despair. I see a bright horizon, filled with promise and terrific games.

The immediate future looks especially enticing. A “Magnificent Seven” assortment of big new games beckons me, and I couldn’t be more excited to play them.

  • Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
  • Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
  • Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
  • Assassin’s Creed 3
  • Saints Row: The Third
  • Kirby’s Return to Dreamland
  • Super Mario 3D Land

One can easily scoff at this list. All sequels (so we’ve obviously run out of ideas); all AAA titles (so I’m obviously biased toward major studios); all console games, except Skyrim (so I obviously hate PC games); no Call of Duty 3 (so I obviously hate war games). Bibbidy bobbidy boo.


As I write this, Uncharted 3 is winging its way to me, “out for delivery” at any moment. The very thought of this brings me joy because the Uncharted games have given me so many gaming delights. I’ve written here before that a major Zelda title is my “drop everything” game, and Skyward Sword will be no exception. Will it revolutionize the Zelda franchise? No. Do I need that to fully enjoy the game? No.

I’m normally immune to pre-release hype, but Skyrim’s jaw-dropping trailers have me salivating for a new Elder Scrolls. Bethesda’s long record of superior craftsmanship suggests their new game will draw me into its world and, once again, steal dozens of hours from my life. I’m not the biggest Assassin’s Creed fan in the world, but the first two games point in such a promising direction that I’m encouraged Ubisoft will deliver a game that builds on what they’ve learned.

Dedicated Kirby players appreciate, as few others do, that Kirby games have consistently pushed in innovative directions, often jettisoning standard Kirby-isms in favor of other creative ideas its designers wish to pursue (e.g. Canvas Curse and Epic Yarn). As a swan-song Wii game, I’m curious to see what HAL Laboratories has come up with this time. The game is out now, but I haven’t yet had time to play it.


Super Mario 3D Land is a major Mario release, developed by Nintendo EAD, the company’s main studio in Kyoto, also responsible for the masterful Mario Galaxy games. The 3DS has been kicked around, and justly so, for its lack of quality games. A new Mario designed specifically for the system is clearly Nintendo’s attempt to help silence those complaints. It’s worth remembering that EAD has an admirable track record designing games that leverage a system’s unique properties (e.g. Mario 64, Mario Kart DS, and the Galaxy games), so optimism for a new 3D Mario doesn’t seem misplaced to me.

That leaves Saints Row: The Third, perhaps a curious title for me to enthuse over. At the risk of being a little cryptic, I'll say that the developer of this game, Volition, lives down the road from me in Champaign, Illinois, and I've seen bits of what they've been working on. Let's just say this game refuses to be ignored. You'll see what I mean very soon. 

These seven games pile on top of the ones I’m currently playing with joyful gusto. Dark Souls has owned me for 40+ tension-filled hours with no end in sight. NBA 2K12 (GASP! a sports game?), broken online-mode aside, is a stellar sports game, the first I’ve seen to successfully blend cutting edge graphical realism and old-school simulation. Finally, Batman: Arkham City waves at me from its unopened plastic, crying "What about me? :-("

As excited as I am about these games, my optimism has other roots too. My recent visit to IndieCade convinced me we need not worry about a lack of vision or forward thinking in the games industry. In Culver City I saw a virtual cavalcade of terrific games, covering a wide spectrum of design ideas, and a burgeoning collection of designers eager to advance this art form in many new directions. I’ll write about one of those games in my next post.

More reasons for hope. This year I’m honored to again serve as a judge for the Independent Games Festival, held at the Game Developers Conference this March. Last year, the festival received nearly 400 entries, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. This year, the entry pool increased by another 40 percent! Even if many of these games never see the light of day, the raw numbers suggest more and more young artists see game design as their preferred mode of expression, and that can only be good for the future of the industry, broadly defined.


One last thought. My friend Corvus Elrod has been working on an indie board game called Bhaloidam. Corvus describes it this way:

Bhaloidam is an indie tabletop game from Zakelro that is an open and accessible storytelling platform. With it you’ll spin character-driven stories and weave them together with the stories of your friends. You’ll exert your influence upon the storyworlds you create together, shaping its future and controlling your characters’ destinies as you perform their successes and their failures.

45 days ago, Corvus announced a Kickstarter fund to support the project, seeking $27,900 from backers. That’s almost 28K for a boardgame with an odd-sounding title and nobody famous involved. Today Corvus and company are celebrating. As of this writing, Bhaloidam has received $30,948 in support from 567 backers. The project is a GO, and Corvus is moving ahead with an initial production run of books, boards, tokens, and packaging, thanks to a community of supporters who believe in him and his work. I think that's a pretty remarkable thing.

There’s plenty of cause for hope around here. Sometimes we just need to break away from the chatter, which seems inevitably to follow a negative trajectory. As Mark Twain put it, “Lord save us all from a hope tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.”