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Posts Tagged ‘video games’

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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Ask Questions Later

August 22, 2014 | by

At the worst possible moment, Battlefield Hardline valorizes police violence.

An early screenshot of Battlefield Hardline.

The Battlefield series, one of the past decade’s most popular video-game franchises, has already given gamers the chance to play as soldiers in World War II, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Now Battlefield Hardline, slated for release early next year, allows players to assume the role of a new kind of soldier: the police officer. A recent preview of the game shows a cop throwing a thief to the ground and cuffing him; the player is given the option to Hold E to Interrogate. The officer yells, “Tell me what you know!” and earns fifty points: Interrogation successful.

To Visceral Games, who developed Battlefield Hardline, the roles of soldiers and cops are so interchangeable that Army camo can simply be “re-skinned” into police uniforms. In light of the killings, riots, fear, and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the game raises disquieting questions about the relationship between law enforcement and citizens—in short, it’s a horror to watch.

As a cop in Hardline, you’re tasked with preventing robberies and rescuing hostages, which often means shooting all the criminals until they’re dead. (The gentlest thing you can do is arrest them.) The game also enables players to take the role of the criminals, and perhaps the more troubling aspect of Hardline is that this experience is identical to playing as the police: both “the good guys” and “the bad guys” see the world through crosshairs. The best players shoot first, and shoot from behind. Read More »

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Mocha Dick, and Other News

August 22, 2014 | by

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Image: Creative Editions/Randall Enos, via the Atlantic

  • At the Morgan Library and in England, Jane Austen miscellanea abounds: recent years have seen the discovery, exhibition, and/or sale of Austen’s turquoise ring, Austen’s nephew’s memoirs (with her handwriting somewhere among the pages), Austen’s teenage notebooks, fragments of her unfinished novel, a stone shield excavated from a house near her birthplace …
  • “Once a sci-fi plot conceit, time travel has become among the most popular structural devices in contemporary fiction. Today ‘time machine fiction’ reigns supreme.”
  • Before Moby-Dick there was Mocha Dick—not a coffee-chocolate phallus but “a real-life whale … who fought off whalers for decades before being killed by harpoon.” It was a magazine story about Mocha that inspired Melville to write his novel; now, in a new illustrated book, Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury, the original whale gets his due.
  • The history of nine terms of endearment, including such perennials as sweetheart (1290) and sugar (1930), but also some deep cuts: mopsy (1582), bawcock (1601), and prawn (1895), the last of which ought to come into vogue again any minute now.
  • A manual for the first computer game—“The Ferranti Nimrod Digital Computer,” dubbed “Faster than Thought”—has sold for $4,200. The computer was designed specifically to play “a match-stick game called Nim that was played in the French movie L’Année Dernière à Marienbad.”

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Life After the Bench, and Other News

August 19, 2014 | by

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Garry Winogrand, World’s Fair, New York City, 1964

  • Catching up with two subjects from a 1964 Garry Winogrand photograph—that one, up there—fifty years later: “I never saw a photographer, or anyone taking our picture. It was not like today, when people are taking pictures every minute. We were just a bunch of girls out having fun. Why would anyone take our picture?
  • Whither the book jacket? “If, for the majority of books, the jacket no longer serves a protective function, it still shields the subcutaneous narrative metaphorically. As we spend more of our reading time in digital, disembodied, notional environments where texts lack differentiation and may easily leach into one another unconstrained, covers (and physical books in general) remain part of an anxious cultural effort to corral and contain the boundless.”
  • Humor is dead, subtlety is dead: Facebook is now proposing to append a “satire” tag to any shared article with a comic bent—the equivalent of winking after every joke.
  • Sensory deprivation used to be a form of torture; the CIA thought it could help with brainwashing. Now it’s a form of therapy.
  • “Escaping into video games is something that people have been doing since video games were first invented … Traditional media cannot provide the amount of hours of entertainment that games can, exercise and sports are limited by physical exhaustion and most other hobbies or activities would be impractical if pursued to the same extent … It could be argued that the last two decades or so through which the video game has risen to prominence have created a boondoggle of incalculable proportions.”

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When All You See Is Falling Blocks, and Other News

August 1, 2014 | by

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Is this, like, your reality, man? Photo: Aldo Gonzalez, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Whence comes relatability? A hundred years ago, if someone said something was relatable, she meant that it could be told—the Shakespearean sense of relate—or that it could be connected to some other thing. As recently as a decade ago, even as relatable began to accrue its current meaning, the word remained uncommon. The contemporary meaning of relatable—to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected—first was popularized by the television industry … But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of relatable.”
  • And for a certain audience, video games are all too relatable. They begin to impinge on reality, an occurrence that scientists call game transfer phenomena: “I used to play [Tetris] for hours every day. When I went to bed I would see falling blocks as I closed my eyes. I often experienced the same thing when waking up … a female video game player [was] suffering from delusions of being persecuted, exhibiting violent behavior and experiencing constant imaginary auditory hallucinations triggered by the music of the Super Mario Brothers video game.”
  • How do Hollywood studios create so much prop money for their movies without being detained as counterfeiters? (And why don’t we do the same?)
  • MFA vs. NYC = MFA vs. DMV. My personal favorite: the “Widening Gyre” road sign. New drivers always miss those.
  • The German film theorist Harun Farocki has died at seventy. His best-known work is probably The Inextinguishable Fire, from 1969: “In the film’s most famous moment, the camera dollies in on Farocki—who has just finished reading a napalm victim’s report out loud—as he puts out his cigarette on his arm, explaining that napalm burns at seven times the temperature.”

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