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Posts Tagged ‘video games’

It’s-A-Me, Ishmael

March 25, 2015 | by

Can Nintendo tell a proper story?

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From The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.

Nintendo and Netflix may be developing a Legend of Zelda TV series, the Wall Street Journal recently reported; or, as Time reported even more recently, they may not. Behind the will-they-or-won’t-they speculation lies a more complicated question: Can they? Do games like these bear expansion into full-fledged stories?

At first glance, a Zelda series seems like a savvy move: HBO’s Game of Thrones has proven that there’s high demand for vaguely medieval fantasies, of which Zelda—a franchise that made its debut in 1986, and that’s grown to include roughly seventeen games—is a prime specimen. And since Nintendo has gradually been losing its share of the video-game market for the past fifteen years, it has every reason to find other ways to wring more value from its globally recognizable intellectual property.

But games don’t translate as easily to TV or film as you might think. In his 2010 apologia Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, perhaps the most thorough defense to date of video games as art, the journalist and essayist Tom Bissell explains why: “The video-game form,” he writes, “is incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative progression.” Unlike books and films, games require challenge, “which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression.” Read More »

Systems Bigger Than Ourselves, and Other News

March 16, 2015 | by

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From SimCity, 1989.

  • On SimCity and the value of games that dared to make complex systems their protagonists: “SimCity is a game about urban societies, about the relationship between land value, pollution, industry, taxation, growth, and other factors … the game got us all to think about the relationships that make a city run, succeed, and decay, and in so doing to rise above our individual interests, even if only for a moment. This was a radical way of thinking about video games: as non-fictions about complex systems bigger than ourselves. It changed games forever—or it could have … ”
  • Philip Roth’s misogyny is treated as a given these days; “the women are monstrous because for Philip Roth women are monstrous,” Vivian Gornick once wrote. But: “Maybe Philip Roth loves women? Maybe he, who offers a three-page description of female masturbation, is in fact an advocate for female desire? … While misogynists try to shame women, Roth celebrates women’s sexual power. It’s the men he is out to get.”
  • “That sentence is shit. It’s got to be better. You asshole.” Matt Sumell on writing and doubt.
  • Today in German words that dearly need English equivalents: verschlimmbessert, which can be roughly translated as “ ‘ver-worsebettered.’ In essence, it’s a combination of verbessern (‘to improve’) and verschlimmern (‘to make worse’).  Here, then, is a verb that is able to express the idea of something simultaneously improving and worsening.”
  • In which Benjamin Percy attends the dreadfully named Man Camp and enjoys a surprisingly rousing encounter with masculinity: “When men get together, they tend to speak with irony or rough-throated braggadocio, but [here] there was an uncommon sincerity to everyone’s tone. It caught me off guard.”

Peacock-eating for Poetical Public Relations, and Other News

February 25, 2015 | by

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A mural in Switzerland. Photo: Roland zh

  • In a 1914 publicity stunt—back when poets were free to partake of the great PR machine—Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and four others gathered at a luncheon to eat a peacock. “The papers were alerted, and news of the meal spread far and wide, from the London Times to the Boston Evening Transcript.”
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, your humble correspondent, is traveling across America for The New York Times Magazine: “The editor proposed that I travel to Newfoundland and visit the place where the Vikings had settled, then rent a car and drive south, into the U.S. and westward to Minnesota, where a large majority of Norwegian-American immigrants had settled, and then write about it. ‘A tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville,’ as he put it.”
  • Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner: the Romantic legacy of these composers lives on … in first-person shooters. “The grandiloquent sounds of the nineteenth century are still alive in the new millennium … but only when someone is getting bludgeoned, bloodied, blown-up, or decimated with automatic weapons … Even heavy metal isn’t heavy enough for most composers seeking to juice up their combat scenes. We need something with a little more sturm und drang.
  • Starting to write a book is hard. Then there’s the whole middle part—also difficult. And finally there’s the end, which is no cakewalk, either. Can we learn anything from the last sentences in famous novels? “For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game.”
  • On rereading Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth, a 1982 memoir of her turbulent marriage to John Berryman: “For a long time I could not shake the belief that these poets, all of them dead before their time from madness, self-neglect or suicide, paid a noble price for their pursuit of truth and beauty … I don’t think that anymore. Now, it’s Simpson herself who seems to be the hero … Simpson, who became a psychotherapist and went on to publish several books, writes with an almost uncanny clemency and a kind of cerulean objectivity. Where there might have been bitterness there is, instead, compassion.”

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A Question Without an Answer

February 2, 2015 | by

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The cover of Amnesia.

Tom Disch, who would’ve been seventy-four today, is best known for his science fiction and his poems, some of which were first published in The Paris Review. But he also wrote, in 1986, a text-based video game called Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia, which has become a kind of curio in the years since its publication—an emblem of a brief time when gaming and experimental fiction shared similar agendas, and when “interactive novels” seemed as if they might emerge as a popular art form.

Amnesia begins the only way such a project could: in a state of total confusion. “You wake up feeling wonderful,” Disch writes,

But also, in some indefinable way, strange. Slowly, as you lie there on the cool bedspread, it dawns on you that you have absolutely no idea where you are. A hotel room, by the look of it. But with the curtains drawn, you don’t know in what city, or even what country.

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Trust Issues

January 6, 2015 | by

How The Evil Within and horror games manipulate their players.

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A screenshot from The Evil Within.

Few relationships depend more on trust than the one you have with your computer. Without faith in the indifference of its automation, how could you share as much with it as you do? Video games are built around the fragility of this trust: they let us play with the horror in our dependence, experiencing the computer as a hostile entity within the safe, fictive frame of competition. To entertain us, games must defy our expectations. But their surprises can’t lapse into incoherence—if they do, our trust is violated, our fun spoiled.

Shinji Mikami’s games have tested the limits of that trust. He didn’t invent the horror video game, but in his twenty-plus-year career, he’s done more to popularize it than any other designer. His career began in the early nineties with a string of convivial family-oriented games, but it wasn’t until 1996’s Resident Evil that he made a name for himself. Combining graphic bodily horror and cryptographic claustrophobia—and set in a rotting mansion, no less—Resident Evil became a standard-setting high point. Playing the game felt like wearing a straitjacket, and this was part of the horror: its movement system was halting and cumbersome, and it used an incoherent array of fixed camera views, ensuring that even the basic rules for moving your character changed every few seconds, even during crises. The frustration informed the fear.

Nearly a decade later, in 2005’s Resident Evil 4, Mikami abused player trust by making the game’s fundamental action—shooting—unnervingly realistic. The animations of bodies taking bullets were lifelike to the point of inducing vertigo. Most games depend on some form of violent conflict, even if it’s only colored bits of candy exploding when they’re properly aligned, but we expect the games to have moral alibis for the violence they ask of us. But in Resident Evil 4, you played the role of an alien invading an innocent foreign culture—and watched, say, a farmer stumble after being hit in the knee, then slowly rise again, pressing past the normal human threshold of pain. The game forced its players to violate moral and cultural taboos, while craftily reinforcing the adrenal joy that came with those sins. It unmasked the cruelty of play.

Now, another decade later, Mikami has returned to horror with The Evil Within, which combines those earlier templates with a kind of graphic violence and semiotic incoherence reminiscent of pink cinema, a rich, revolting tradition of Japanese filmmaking that dates to the early sixties. Though the term is often used to describe Japanese erotica, pink cinema’s aesthetic is broader, with no real equivalent in the West. The scholar David Desser has described it as a brand of Japanese modernism—“achronological, arbitrarily episodic, acausal, dialectical, anti-mythic and anti-psychological, and metahistorical”—that aims to cast off the “bourgeois individualism” of American storytelling. Read More »

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The Dreams in Which I’m Dying

August 29, 2014 | by

The vanity of the zombie apocalypse.

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A publicity still from The Last of Us.

There are few things as narcissistic as an apocalypse fantasy. The apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world, just the end of humankind, and considering such a fate can lead us into a sentimental peace with the present day. Suddenly, in spite of all its flaws—flaws that might be harder to accept in less dire circumstances—the world seems worth keeping intact. In recent years, zombies have been a catalyst of fictional doom in every conceivable manner, from popular horror and comedy to moral parable and literary send-up. They offer us freedom from death in exchange for our subjective consciousness and social identity. But we’d sooner have death, if it means our egos can be spared for a bit.

The Last of Us, a PlayStation game whose latest version was released last month, is a story about a zombie apocalypse, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Its creative director, Neil Druckmann, said in a 2011 interview that he wanted the game to be more of a love story, one between a middle-aged man and a fourteen-year-old girl. So maybe it’s more accurate to describe The Last of Us as a story about a kind of taboo love that requires a zombie apocalypse to normalize—and, by extension, a story that, through love, gives the fungal zombification of humanity a silver lining. Our species may be on the verge of extinction, but if we’re able to fall in love and learn a little about ourselves along the way, it can’t be all bad. Love is where all educated people go to bury their narcissism. Read More »

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