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June 2012

Fish in a barrel

BoothbabesE3 killed my desire to play games. After three days of wandering two massive expo halls filled with games, I found myself gripped by a powerful urge to hug my analog family and flee into analog nature dual-wielding analog sticks equipped with analog marshmallows.    

E3 is about whetting our appetite to play video games, not recoil from them, right? What happened? I'll explain. Happily, my story has an upbeat ending.

As an event aimed squarely at 14-year-old boys, E3 can make a guy like me wonder if I belong there. It can also make one wonder if we've made any progress, aside from technical, in 30 years of game development.

We have, of course, but when you see a line of guys waiting for their chance to be photographed next to an unfortunate $12/hr shlub posing as Master Chief, or gameplay footage captioned with "After getting her groove on with the stripper pole, Juliet beheads some zombie patrons," you wonder. I'm not cherry-picking, folks. E3 2012 offered up heaping helpings of ludicrous flimflam. No point in imperious smirking. It is what it is. Fish in a barrel.

Belonging, and not
The fact is, I probably don't belong at E3. My first request for a media badge was turned down because the E3 organizers didn't consider Brainy Gamer "industry-focused"...and they're probably right. Nowhere in its requirements for media affiliation does E3 mention anything about game critics. A generous plea on my behalf from Ben Fritz at the L.A. Times secured my badge, and I was genuinely thrilled to attend my first E3. Even as I write this, I fear I'm being ungracious. I hope not.

Describing E3 as overwhelming is like calling a tornado "windy." It’s a pounding audiovisual circus. Sensory overload typically hit me after an hour on the show floor, so I regularly retreated to the media lounge to detox and gather myself for a few minutes. Then it was back into the breach for more ludic bacchanalia. Don't get me wrong. It was fun, sort of like gorging on the bucket-full of candy you bring home on Halloween as a kid. But when the bellyache hits, that Tootsie Roll don't look so good.

What, me worry?
It's easy to be worried about video games these days. CNBC wonders "is the videogame industry dying?" Nintendo reported its first annual operating loss in 30 years. Smart people who love games are concerned. Warren Spector says the ultraviolence has finally gone too far. "I think we're just appealing to an adolescent mindset and calling it mature. It's time to stop." Women and people of color continue to be underrepresented in the industry, and many still feel shut out or undervalued by the community.

Some people read my previous post as an anti-shooter rant, but that's not how I intended it. I have nothing against shooters per se. Halo 4 was easily one of the best games I saw at E3 this year, and I can't wait to see how 343 Industries implements its plan for episodic releases. The multiplayer demo I played was smooth and silky FPS-ness at its best.

The problem is homogeneity, and this year's event was essentially about watching publishers run one shooter after another up the E3 flagpole. Aisle after aisle of games with guns isn't ethically problematic. It's worse than that. It's boring."

Chorus of blues
This year's E3 was a bloated, discombobulated and, ironically, trifling mess. I'm hardly the first to say so. The Verge's Paul Miller laid bare the banality of the E3 press conference. Eurogamer asked "was E3 the grisliest games show ever?" Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft wrote an especially dispiriting essay on why, for him, this was "The E3 of Disillusion." Tim Rogers penned a 5700-word essay for Kotaku called "Allow Me to Apologize for E3 2012."

Tomorrow, the Game Critics Awards will be announced, honoring the "best of E3 2012." Of the 30+ journalists invited to judge the games at E3, only one is a woman (Fran Reyes, EIC of Official Xbox Magazine). With so many informed female and transgendered voices to choose from, it's inconceivable that E3's organizers cling to an outmoded old boys network of voices.1

It's tempting to read E3 as a barometer of the entire game industry. Nearly all the major developers are there (plus an increasing number of indies), and media coverage breathlessly delivers timed announcements as breaking news:

"Hey guys, you don't wanna miss this. We've got in-game footage YOU WON'T BELIEVE of the new Splinter Cell! This will undoubtedly be one of the best games you'll play next year!"

That's a game journalist describing six minutes of gameplay, demoed by a Ubisoft representative, of an unfinished game no one has yet played. News commingles with hype at E3, and it's often impossible to separate the reporting from the selling.

I may not be the target audience for E3, but I'm grateful I was there to see it first-hand. If you want to understand how the game industry works and what its messaging says about that industry, E3 is an essential place to be. It's not easy, but if you can see past the booth babes and fever-pitched hype, you’ll find some intriguing things happening at E3, mainly in the margins.

I met the 4-person dev team behind Papo & Yo and played their remarkably beautiful game. I chatted at-length with the lead animator of Klei's Mark of the Ninja, a game that looked and played like no other game on the floor. I played The Unfinished Swan with its creator, Ian Dallas, standing next to me, discussing what he's learned from watching people play his game.

Several AAA games impressed me too. I mentioned Halo 4 above. I also attended David Cage's live demo of Beyond: Two Souls, and I'm eager to play it, Heavy Rain comparisons be damned. Far Cry 3 gets more enticing the more I learn about it, and the Wii U looked and felt much better than I expected. At an expo full of sameness, Nintendo's booth was dotted with game ideas that felt fresh and fun.

Best of all, I'm happily playing games again, and I have E3 to thank for that too. I'll explain why in my next post. For now I'll just say that what I'm playing, where I'm playing, and how I'm playing have all changed for the better. More soon. Happy gaming!

1. According to Game Critics Awards judge Gary Steinman (EIC of Games Radar) on Official Playstation Blogcast, Episode 27.

High Noon for Shooters

Searchersethan31   Max_Payne_3_-_1

"It's abundantly clear that we're living in the age of the shooter. The category dominates sales charts...gripping audiences with its versatility. The stories we remember most end up being told down the barrel of a gun." --GameTrailers

For over a decade - beginning in 1949 and ending in the mid-1960s - Westerns ruled the small screen. In 1959, 26 Westerns aired each week during prime-time. In March of that year, eight of the top ten shows were Westerns.

The same period was also the golden age of Hollywood Westerns (The Searchers, Shane, High Noon, Rio Bravo) with many of America’s greatest filmmakers producing their best work in the genre: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, William Wyler, among others.

But it didn’t last. History rarely offers a precise road map, but it can sometimes point us in a useful direction. The decline of the Western - the causes of its near-demise, and its reemergence in other guises - are worth noting because I believe shooter games are on a similar trajectory. It will be 1959 at E3 next week, and we will find ourselves awash in barely distinguishable shooters. But it won’t last. It can’t last, and that’s a good and necessary thing.

Westerns began to disappear in the late 1960s for reasons relevant to modern game developers: 1) Genre fatigue and homologous products; 2) High cost of production; 3) Public outcry over violence; 4) Narrow target audience.

Each of these factors apply to contemporary shooter games, but the most threatening is the mind-numbing sameness of these games. We’ve reached a saturation point where the dismissive cliché has become a valid claim: they all look the same. When a genre sustains itself by promoting minor tweaks as revolutionary features - and its hardcore fans claim ownership that typically resists change - death looms.

It’s worth noting, however, that death doesn’t necessarily mean disappearance. Gunsmoke, TV’s longest-running prime-time drama, died somewhere around 1965...and ran for another decade. It’s also worth noting that CBS received many letters from fans who opposed the series’ transition to color in 1966, claiming it would ruin the show’s rustic nature. Fanboys defending the realm are nothing new.

"We ask ourselves: if there wasn’t anyone to shoot in the game, could it still be fun?" --Jason Vandenberghe, Narrative Director, Far Cry 3

Want more evidence shooter games are mired in similitude? Here are publisher-penned descriptions of key features contained in their games, all released or forthcoming this year. See if you can identify the games. (Names and titles are xx’d out)

  1. “QUAD-WIELDING CHAOS - Slash, grab, and throw objects and enemies...while simultaneously firing two weapons, adding a new dimension to the FPS category.”

  2. “From automatics to handguns to rifles and explosives, XX wields (and dual-wields) a wide range of high-powered weaponry in both single player and multiplayer. XX provides devastating firepower for any and all situations that call for decisive and punishing action.”

  3. “Alternate Aiming Perspectives — Players can choose the shooting style that suits them with the ability to alternate between first and third person views to best pinpoint enemies"

  4. “Pervasive Environmental Destruction - XX has been specifically designed to allow for maximum destructibility using the “Havok Destruction” module. Blast through the environments, target your enemies’ cover blasting it to bits or even knock down overhead objects to crush the enemy below."

  5. "Blast your way in and utilize your military grade DART6 chip to breach enemies and the environment as you battle for market dominance and your life. Some takeovers are more hostile than others.”

  6. "50 WEAPONS, ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES - Get unlimited access to the most advanced arsenal in the world, with over 50 weapons including highly customizable assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and submachine guns. Choose from a wide variety of grenades to suit your mission objectives and context."

"When I remember Half-Life 2 I don't remember just shooting things, I remember moments, like the escape from the boat, or crossing the bridge, or investigating the farm or invading the prison." --4A Games’ Huw Beynon on the forthcoming Metro 2033: Last Light.1

So what happens when 1959 ends? Again, history could prove prophetic. The second wave of Western filmmakers (Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood) turned our deep familiarity with the genre in on itself, addressing existential questions and examining the nature of violence. These films were radical departures from the Hollywood formula, not because they rejected the familiar settings or the guns or the hero/villain dichotomy, but because they made these the very subjects of their scrutiny.


This is precisely where Rockstar has tried, but mostly failed, to go with its recent genre-inspired games. Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire contain the stylistic trappings of their filmic influences, but little of the complexity. To be fair, the interactive dimension goes a long way toward bridging this gap, and RDR, especially, makes inhabiting John Marston feel more personal than any film could hope to do. 

But it’s Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 that most painfully illustrates the shooter ball and chain. I’ve played many games I wish had skippable cutscenes. Max Payne 3 is the first to make me long for skippable action. Buried under hours of conventional designer-charted gunfights is a story with genuine noir sensibility, not merely cosmetic style. Rockstar jettisoned the campy (and easier to manage) noir-esque style of the previous Max Payne games in favor of something far more Robert Mitchum. Max takes weary self-loathing to new depths.

Consequently, it’s heartbreaking to see a character as potentially compelling as Max dropped off at a “shithole” hotel in the 3rd Act and instructed to “clear the place out” as if it was essential to the narrative. It isn’t, and I know it, Rockstar knows it...we all know it. The Imperial Palace Hotel is just another gunplay funhouse with waves of baddies for me to defeat. What a shame and what a waste.

Max Payne 3 is a game devastatingly at war with itself. All its smart, gutsy, genre-savvy ideas are wiped out in a bulletstorm of shooter game orthodoxy.

It’s High Noon for shooters, or as a certain Minnesota cowboy would say, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

Games described above: 1. The Darkness 2, 2. Max Payne 3, 3. Resident Evil Revelations, 4. Inversion, 5. Syndicate, 6. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier