Race Music, or I Miss That Guy

28 12 2016

The Grand Theft Auto games are a lot of fun, but for my money, one of the most enjoyable parts of the 3D outings was the ability (sadly absent in some of the later titles, at least on the Xbox 360) to create your own music playlists. Several of my friends and I would craft our own lists, always keeping things prior to the year portrayed in the game in question, and the results were pure gold. We’d share what we came up with, and as the lists usually didn’t have a whole lot of overlap, we’d end up introduced to or reminded of tons of great music.

Microsoft released Forza Horizon 3 not long ago, and it was the first title to make use of the Xbox One’s new background music feature, which allows music to be served up as game background by any app that’s configured to do so. Around the same time, I read this post over at Slacktivist (love me some Slacktivist), which reminded me of the utterly ridiculous term (and furor over) “race music” back in the early days of rock ‘n roll. Those two things (combined with the fact that I love both variants of the Forza series, the heavy simulation of Forza Motorsport and the open-world “let’s see how far I can fling this Fiat” wackiness of the Horizon games) made me bound and determined to create a playlist for FH3 and name it (of course) “Race Music.”

Over the holiday, I finally did just that. I’ve been listening to it while working, and I don’t want to boast or anything, but it’s downright superb.

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No Good Choices for Kyrat, or Video Games and Real Conflict

4 01 2016

The 2016 campaign for President of the United States has been underway for a little while now, with most of the media’s focus squarely on Donald Trump, that master of ridiculous, attention-grabbing statements. He’s set the tone, but I don’t know how different things would be if he weren’t involved. Ted Cruz was in the race before Trump was, and while Trump might have made rash, ill-considered statements the order of the day, Cruz’s gleeful embrace of that style isn’t at all out of character.

Perhaps the best example of Cruz’s use of Trump’s blustery, substance-free style is his recent tweet, “Our strategy with radical Islamic terrorism should be very simple. We win. They lose.” I was going to give him some slack – it’s Twitter, after all – hard to be substantial in 140 characters. Of course, the tweet is accompanied by video of him saying the exact same thing in a press conference. Presumably he wasn’t tailoring his in-person answer to the character count.

It’s also a nod to a similar line from President Ronald Reagan that Cruz seems to love – he tweeted it in that form back in November. Thing is, no matter how revered (reasonably or unreasonably, accurately or by hagiography) Ronald Reagan is among conservatives, the fact that The Gipper said something doesn’t make it magically deep or wise, and as a “strategy,” “We win, they lose” isn’t just lacking, it’s profoundly stupid. It’s meaningless. As someone (I regrettably can’t remember who) said on Twitter, it’s amazing that consistently half of all NFL teams fail to employ this remarkably simple “strategy,” this “one weird trick,” every single week.

I don’t know if Senator Cruz plays video games, but his visionary “beat them” plan for beating ISIS sounds a lot like the plot to a run of the mill modern military shooter, and he’s far from alone in that regard. We have the biggest and best guns, so we’ll just win. It’s as simple as that. Recent memory shows it’s definitely not as simple as that, but apparently that doesn’t matter. If we fail, we can just try again, over and over and over until we get it right.

So what does this have to do with Far Cry 4?

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Companions in Isolation, or The Ache

10 02 2015

At a recent staff meeting, I had a weird epiphany – there is an ache at the core of many of the games I like. It’s not universal – Halo barely has it (if it has it at all), and Call of Duty hasn’t had a trace of it since the first Modern Warfare, and maybe I’m stretching to find it in the Assassin’s Creed series, but it’s damn sure there in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and GTA V. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is about the ache for a path to success and security outside of the mainstream. In some ways, it can be read as the story of an illegal immigrant (some literal, as the titular Stalkers have to illegally cross a border into an area they’re not supposed to be). GTA V is about the ache of finding success and realizing that it’s meaningless on its own, and that the path to obtaining it and gathering its trappings seems destined to make its meaninglessness clear once it has been completed. Assassin’s Creed is (maybe) about the ache of trying to contribute to the betterment of the world slamming into entrenched systems that like the world exactly as it is. Halo, ostensibly about saving all sentient life in the galaxy, ends up spending a lot of time on an ache that exists between John-117 and Cortana, two intelligences that share an intrinsic not-quite-humanity and find a strange companionship. Is it love? Ask Cortana on a Windows Phone and she’ll tell you “That’s… complicated. And personal.” So there’s an ache there.

Thing is, do people really want to play the experience of deep ache? Read the rest of this entry »

First Impressions of Assassin’s Creed Unity, or the French are Revolting

4 12 2014

I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Unity in fits and starts for a little while now, and I wanted to get down some preliminary thoughts. Since I haven’t gotten very deep into the game’s story, there isn’t a lot more to cover than the nuts and bolts of the gameplay. As such, this will come close to being what the #GamerGaters seem to want out of a review. As much as I hate to please those guys, here we go.

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Grand Theft Auto V, or Honor Among Thieves

20 11 2014

As I mentioned before, when I finally broke down and played Grand Theft Auto 3, I tried very hard to play like a “good guy.” I tried waiting at stop lights and staying on the right side of the road. I studiously avoided plowing through pedestrians. I tried to live in Liberty City the way I do in the real world. Of course, that all went out the window pretty quickly, as I realized that the world of the game is carefully crafted to include real-world annoyances (long traffic lights, people driving slowly in front of you when you’re in a hurry, traffic jams) as a means of enhancing the thrill and fun of behaving badly. It recreates the irksome situations many of us face daily so that we’re positively giddy when we whip over into oncoming traffic to make better time, or we clip the rear fender of a passing car as we run a red light. If the roads were wide open, not only would it hurt gameplay by removing obstacles, it would hurt our sense of freedom to do whatever we wanted.

Of course, the GTA series offers that freedom outside of the cars, too, and the designers at Rockstar are just as careful about how they underscore it. Read the rest of this entry »

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, or Everything Has Meaning

13 11 2014

Talib Kweli Greene wrote a great piece about the use of the word “nigger” or “nigga,” its racial contexts, and why everyone somehow agreeing to universally drop it from their vocabulary wouldn’t make any real difference in the world. It’s very much worth a read. I found it particularly interesting because he touches on something I’ve tried to express in some of my writing about games and social responsibility. In short, you can say whatever you want – just know what you’re saying. Make a conscious choice, because everything we say can and often does have consequences and will hit different people differently. If you’re touching on a subject that is more likely to offend, you need to be prepared to explain and defend your choices. If you want your art to be completely free of any offensive material or deeper meaning, that’s fantastic, but it’s going to require a hell of a lot of work on your part to analyze everything you’re saying to make as sure as you can that your assumptions about what is and what is not offensive are correct. The makers of Resident Evil V were probably not racist and didn’t intend any racial commentary in their game’s setting. Unfortunately, they picked a setting and scenario that automatically brings a lot of baggage and subtext, and their ignorance of that subtext meant that there was little defense they could offer beyond “We didn’t know, that’s not what we meant.” That’s unfortunate.

On the flip side, we see games that nibble at the edges of weighty and controversial topics in order to seem edgy or of the times, only to veer hard away from them whenever they start to look like they’re trying to say something – see the recent entries in the Call of Duty series. I guess that’s a better way to go than the RE V route, since it represents a consciousness of the issues (if only enough consciousness to avoid them), but it’s still deeply unsatisfying for me. They want to play with dangerous material without risking anything.

We need artists (in every imaginable medium) who make the conscious choice to offend and do so with purpose. Games definitely lack that.

What to Expect from Me, or The Ethics Manifesto

3 11 2014

I’m hoping (not at all promising) to write more frequently going forward. With #GamerGaters still insisting that their movement is all about ethics in game journalism, it seems appropriate that I set out my own code of ethics. I wouldn’t call myself a journalist – I’m definitely more of a critic – but it still seems like a good idea.

  1. I have never been given promotional material, gifts of meals or entertainment, review or preview copies of games or access codes for such, or sweaty piles of cash by any game developers or publishers that I can remember. Should any developers or publishers wish to offer me any of the above, I will accept them quite readily – contact me at your earliest convenience, publishers and developers! That being said, I will do my best to keep any such largesse from coloring my opinions, and I will disclose such gifts in any articles touching upon the entities that gave them.
  2. I will make absolutely no attempt at writing “objective reviews.” First off, unless you’re writing a spec sheet (“This game runs at 1080P as advertised. The multiplayer features listed on the box are indeed present.”), a review can’t be objective. As soon as you express any opinion, you’ve abandoned objectivity. Beyond the semantic silliness of the idea, I have no interest in writing what seems to be the goal behind the impossible banner of “objectivity,” a simple numerical grade that tells you whether you should buy a game or not, like the GamePro reviews of a bygone age. For one thing, I don’t know you. I have no idea what you like and don’t like. Given that I’ve recommended games to people I know quite well only to find that they hated the things, I certainly don’t think I should be telling complete strangers how to spend their money. Furthermore…
  3. I will not keep my politics out of my writing. Games are cultural currency, and they both reflect and shape the sociopolitical reality in which they exist. I’m going to comment on that. Games completely devoid of political content are vanishingly rare, even if their developers intended no political message. I will talk about issues of inclusiveness and representation when I see fit. I will apply my personal politics to the games that I examine, and I will express my opinions of the sociopolitical state of the industry when I feel it is appropriate to do so. If the fact that I am staunchly liberal and progressive is likely to bother you, the writing you find here is likely to bother you. Fairly warned be thee, says I.
  4. In criticism, authors assemble examples from the criticized text to support their thesis. They should at least acknowledge elements in the text that undercut the thesis, hopefully explaining how these elements are outweighed or are otherwise insufficient to prove their thesis wrong. There are plenty of valid reasons that such acknowledgements may not be included or may only appear in passing – this does not invalidate the criticism. It is not the job of the critic to present every possible viewpoint, and it certainly isn’t the critic’s job to undercut his or her own thesis at every turn. In my criticism, I will do my best to explain my opinion and how I came to it, citing examples from the text. I will try to acknowledge things in the text that don’t fit with my thesis, and I will welcome comments by people who see things differently. If someone points out that I’ve made a mistake in my citations or arguments and I agree that it is actually a mistake, rather than a difference of interpretation, I will write a correction if I feel that it is appropriate to do so. That being said, mistakes and omissions do not automatically invalidate a thesis, and I won’t behave as though they do. I am always interested in honest discussion of differing viewpoints, but discussion has to start from somewhere other than screaming “YOU’RE WRONG!” and nothing more.

I may add to this over time, but those four things are unlikely to change at any point in the future, so they’re a good start.