Category Archives: Culture

Vibri is the magic number

Having done the find-purge-sort process that is moving house twice so far this year, I’m discovering all sort of odd traits amongst my remaining game collection. What I noticed today was that the only complete series I own is Vib Ribbon. You’ll probably remember Vibri – the angular rabbit that did rhythm gymnastics to your CD collection. You probably won’t remember Mojibri – the big-trousered gent who did rapping calligraphy in Mojib Ribbon, or Vibri’s elastic return when she bounced all over your digital photos in Vip Ripple.

It’s not really what I expected, but the more I think about it, the more I think that Vibri might be the perfect game trilogy. Making sequels is a thankless task, always open to accusations of being too similar or too different. ‘More an expansion pack’ sneer the reviews, or, alternatively whine that things have been needlessly changed. But NanaOn-Sha, under the direction of Masaya Matsuura, broke all the rules. The three games look completely different – from the brutalist monochrome of the first, to the ink-painting organics of the second, to the day-glo sticker-kitsch of the third. And they play completely differently, from Vib Ribbon’s taxing button combos, to Mojib’s hypnotic stick flicks, to the trampoline-powered platforming vibe of Vib Ripple.

So are they a trilogy at all? Or just three unrelated games from someone too lazy to think up a new naming convention? Absolutely. What Matsuura does is use the familiar to make the unfamiliar more palatable. The common mechanics – the ability of the main character to evolve up or down, rather than having lives – and the common interface design – the circling characters that denote how close you are to evolving upwards – help give you your bearings in an experience which would otherwise be a bit too close to baffling. The same guiding principle underpins all three – that games should interconnect with the rest of your cultural life (so Vib Ribbon can make levels out of your CD collection, Mojib out of the words you write, and Ribbon out of the photos you take). And they each complement the others: Ribbon is by far the most convincing game, Mojib the greatest visual achievement, and Ripple the best implementation of user-generated content.

Imagine if more series were allowed the same latitude. Imagine if Namco had said to Takahashi, ‘We don’t want Katamari 2, we want something that complements it’. Imagine if the follow-up to The Sands Of Time hadn’t been based on the feedback-loop of focus-group complaints (more blood! more rock!), but on the idea that maybe this team which had just done something fresh and wonderful might be capable of, y’know, doing something fresh and wonderful. Because, as the manual scans of Mojib Ribbon below show, when you do that, beautiful things can happen.


Killing time

I’ve had a bumper – well, maybe bumpy rather than bumper – postbag in response to my BBC column earlier in the week about the impact violent games have on our minds. The letters raised some interesting points, so I thought I’d give an airing to them here. One questioned whether we were concerning ourselves with the right kind of violence, asking if the dangerous driving rewarded in so many racing games wasn’t having a more pernicious influence than the gun games that are normally in the firing line. It’s an issue which came to the fore with the BSM research released earlier in the year, and neatly summarises the problems facing a games industry which claims that violent games have no adverse impact, but that educational games are uniquely potent teaching tools.

Another took the firm line that gamers and parents need to exercise more control over extreme playing habits, which raises the interesting question of how much responsibility the games industry should be taking for its customers. Are the play time controls available in Windows XP and World Of WarCraft standard bearers in a new era of developer responsibility? Or are they the needless interference of nannying companies ever sensitive to the risk of lawsuits? Another correspondent quite rightly took me to task for being so quick to claim that all attacks on violent games were unfounded, and then raised the ongoing question of whether the interactive nature of games means their standards for violence should be tighter than for media like film or TV.

Thinking about these issues has made me want to post a couple of the points I didn’t want to try to shoehorn in to the column, but which I do find troubling and interesting. The first is to wonder why, when we talk about games causing violent behaviour, we always seem to automatically be talking about copycat violence. The great spectre than hangs over gaming always seems to be the idea that beating prostitutes to death with a giant dildo in a game will make you more likely to do it in real life. And so the debate gets bogged down in questions of whether or not games are murder simulators, teaching firearms skills and advanced thuggery to a nation of eager students. That theory may be self-evident nonsense, but what about the games that do make you violent or abusive? Games can be overwhelmingly, infuriatingly, unbearably frustrating, and I know that they’ve caused me in the past to be (at best) sulky and petulant, and (at worst) prone to very uncharacteristic bouts of shoe-throwing and swear-word screaming. It is for these reasons that multiplayer Puzzle Bobble was once banned in my house and that I came to the conclusion that I might part from Jet Force Gemini on better terms if I didn’t continue my final battles with Mizar. The latest, and most tragic, story along these lines is this one, of a man who stands accused of shaking a 4-month old baby to death after becoming enraged after playing a game. Is the Manhunt hysteria distracting us from a much lower-key, but more worrying issue? Here’s the key question: has gaming frustration ever driven you to a more extreme form of behaviour than other annoyances in your life? And what are the implications if it has?

The other issue is that we might have the shoe on the wrong foot. Most of the violence-in-games debate is concerned with the worry that gamers may transpose the morals and activities of the game world into the real world. There’s a growing body of research that shows that they won’t – that people of all ages have a pretty robust grasp of what’s real and what isn’t. But what if the gap starts to close from the other direction? What if the real world starts to look and behave more and more like a videogame? It’s not easy to read about weapons platforms like SWORD – which provides joystick-and-screen remote control over a machine-gun emplacement, and has completed evaluation with the US Army for possible deployment in Iraq this year – and not recall with unease the opening of something like Climax’s Black Hawk Down, which had you merrily slicing through hordes of anonymous enemies courtesy of a thumbstick-and-screen remote control machine-gun emplacement. It’s a sinister enough thought before you add in the findings of something like Stanley Milgram’s controversial electric shock experiments, which found that subjects were more willing to inflict pain on innocent victims the more remote they were from them. So do I worry about an epidemic of prostitute dildocides? No. But do I worry about what happens when you add videogame controls to a weapon of mass-murder and put it in the hands of a generation raised on Counter-Strike? Sure I do. Don’t you?

I KNOW OF PLACES, ACTIONS AND THINGS

He is in a maze of twisty passageways, all alike. No, he really is. In the new issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly (a new peer-review, open access journal clear-headed enough to admit that it doesn’t yet know what Digital Humanities actually are), Dennis G. Jerz goes spelunking for the origin of adventure games.

It’s over thirty years ago now, that the idea that a game could be an adventure was invented. Before that time, we’d been used to parlour games, combat games, sports games, racing games – tasks that required fast reactions and not much more. Nothing atmospheric, certainly. Nothing that required lateral thinking. And then along came Adventure. Released almost by accident by its original author William Crowther, it soon developed a life of its own, leading directly to the creation of Warren Robinett’s 2600 Adventure as well as the Zork games, and establishing a bloodline that today brings us Zeldas and Bioshocks and Fables.

And so Jerz digs deep, going back to the original caves which inspired Crowther, and the original source code which establishes his status as the father of the genre. The whole article is a wonderful read, even if you skim the academic bits, just to remind yourself of a time when an innovative game was something which introduced something as radical as the idea that objects could be picked up and dropped, rather than one which introduces a new kind of gun. But it’s the photos that are the real draw. Proponents of the text adventure have always said that words could do more than a thousand polys, and here’s the proof, in true, photo-realistic techicolour. If you love games because they make you feel that you’ve been places, done stuff, and seen things no-one else has, you owe yourself a visit to where it all started.

Me Me Eff Cee

Re-reading this old post (it’s not vanity, it’s self-improvement) reminded me that the researchers from the BBFC were also on the receiving end of my Syriana rant, which made it in to their report on why gamers like games. If you want to see just how much more rambling and garbled I am in speech rather than on paper, you can compare and contrast on p83. The rest of it is much more worthy of a read.

Re-reading its conclusions (summarised here) makes an interesting backdrop for the more recent Manhunt 2 fuss, which the board refused classification, effectively preventing its sale in the UK.

Here’s BBFC’s director David Cooke’s response to the research:

People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed. This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television. The adversaries which players have to eliminate have no personality and so are not real and their destruction is therefore not real, regardless of how violent that destruction might be. This firm grasp on reality seems to extend to younger players, but this is no reason to allow them access to adult rated games, as they themselves often admit that they find the violence in games like Manhunt very upsetting.

And here’s his response, two month later, to Manhunt 2:

Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing… There is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged, in the game… Although the difference should not be exaggerated the fact of the game’s unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying and the sheer lack of alternative pleasures on offer to the gamer, together with the different overall narrative context, contribute towards differentiating this submission from the original Manhunt game.
Against this background, the Board’s carefully considered view is that to issue a certificate to Manhunt 2, on either platform, would involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors, within the terms of the Video Recordings Act, and accordingly that its availability, even if statutorily confined to adults, would be unacceptable to the public.

The disparity between those two stances makes me angry, but thinking about why it makes me angry has made me happy. I’m angry because the reasoning for the rejection is the kind of paternalistic, interventionalist patter which always gets me hot under the collar. But that means what makes me frustrated about this decision is not videogames being scapegoated, misunderstood or persecuted, but the usual, unresolvable objections to censorship in general. Cooke isn’t saying that Manhunt is especially dangerous because it’s a game, he’s just saying – as he is called upon to do with all the material the BBFC examines – that he thinks we’d all be better off without it. And he could well be right. From what I’ve seen of Manhunt 2 (which isn’t much, but might be more than the BBFC’s 34mins 43s), it’s lost the sharp moral focus that made the original so compellingly uncomfortable, and that means that all you’re left with is the shlock.

But does rejecting it on those terms mean we’re still left with a double standard between what’s judged acceptable for game violence and film violence? Absolutely. But for all my free speech posturing, I can’t help but wish we’d drawn the line for film somewhere before we hit Hostel II, on whose relentlessly nasty 8462 feet (and 12 frames) the BBFC didn’t inflict a single cut. How much will we really lose by calling a halt to gaming’s love affair with mindless (rather than mindful, a distinction the BBFC has shown itself well able to make) violence here?

Ex Corde Gravitas

I’ve moved house five times in the last five years. The thing I seem most prone to losing, which you may consider more carelessness than misfortune, is washing machines. But alongside the more major traumas of slipped discs, dropped vases and abandoned trampettes, it’s the little things that cause the most hassle.

And tonight, as I try to reconstruct once again my gaming kit, that hassle is the discovery that I no longer own a single figure-of-eight power cord. How is it possible for any modern human being not to own a single figure-of-eight power cord? You get one free with every single thing you buy – consoles, battery chargers, printers, shoes, lottery tickets. If you’re me, you hoard them, and label the plugs with white insulating tape and black marker pen, so your plug-boards read like shouty manifestos: CHARGE PS2 SPEAK TV PRINT CUBE! Words to live by, indeed.

But now I have none, which means buying one, which is an amazingly odd proposition. They’re not products in their own right, surely. They’re things that only come as adjuncts, like those white paper ties that come with sandwich bags. And isn’t it immoral to be producing extra, retail cables when everyone (or everyone who hasn’t moved five times in five years) has an abundance of them? They should have amnesty drop-boxes on street corners, where you can take them or leave them as your needs ebb and flow, like those smart new Parisian bikes. But they don’t, and I don’t, and so several thousand pounds worth of kit, hundreds of bits of processing power, and a few square feet of screen are currently nothing more than junk.

And as I sit here, with sweaty armpits and dusty knees, I swear to myself – as I have before, five times in five years – that I’ll never do this again. That surely one day, eventually, I’ll escape the Sisyphean tyranny of poking cables up the back of desks so that they can fall back down with a neat clunk as I emerge from under to try to catch them. I’ll outgrow the anti-yoga of propping the bookcase up with one foot while hooking a crucial wire round the airborne corner with the other. I’ll finally sleep the sound sleep of someone who doesn’t have an eight-way plugged into a six way plugged into a splitter that doesn’t have the right fuse now that I think about it.

And then I remember what a figure-of-eight cable looks like when you turn it on its side, and realise there is no end to this. Not ever.

Monkey see not monkey do

Last night there was a fight in my house. Well, not so much a fight as a pretty brutal piece of abuse. One guy decided to show his chops by terrorising this girl. He got his cronies to pin her down and started taunting her that he was going to cut her tongue out. Someone had even found some tongs, and they were grabbing her head, forcing their fingers into her mouth, trying to grab at her tongue so they could get a grip on it. He was laughing and miming like he had a pair of scissors. She was screaming, trying to not scream, trying to keep her mouth closed as the men pried and pulled at her jaw. It was horrifying.

It wasn’t real, of course, but it was in my house. It was a trailer for BBC1’s new feelgood Robin Hood drama. The man was everyone’s favourite lovable rogue Keith Allen, and tongs were quickly knocked out of his thug’s hand by an arrow from our hero in Lincoln green. The trailer didn’t give the ending away, but I’m pretty sure the rescued girl, now flush with desire rather than terror, will have offered rakish Robin a kiss for his trouble. Probably not French, under the circumstances.

I’ve spent the week booting people in the nuts in God Hand, causing mass extinctions in Un Goro crater and executing armies of goons in Scarface, and this was still by far the most violent thing I’d seen. And that’s fairly common. Flick on the telly mid-evening and it’s very likely that you’ll be thrown straight in to some voyeuristic rape courtesy of Robson Green’s dismal Wire In The Blood, or some cockle-warming domestic violence round Albert Square. But that colossal discrepancy is appropriate, right? Because TV is passive, and games are participatory, so it’s only reasonable that we have standards with such a gulf between them that calling them ‘double’ is a joke in itself.

I’m not so sure. What changed my mind was the scene in Syriana where George Clooney has his fingernail ripped out by a horrified torturer. Watching it in the safety of my bedroom, the appalling violence of it physically propelled me to my feet. I instinctively hit the mute button, stepping away from the screen to distance myself from his pain and terror. Even in hindsight – and it’s months ago now – it makes my throat close. In fact, in hindsight it’s even worse because I now know he chipped his spine when filming the scene, so his spasms of pain were genuine. It made the idea that this was supposed to have less of an effect on me because I wasn’t an active participant seem bizarre.

It’s bizarre because, watching Syriana, there’s nothing to tell me this isn’t really happening, no physical cues to prove it’s fictional. The camera-work is intrusive and intimate. Your point of view is trapped in the room, watching everything. In the film, your role is that of an observer; and in reality you’re an observer too, shifting in your seat as uneasily as the camera shifts round the scene. There is nothing physical to tell you this square of light in front of you isn’t a window – a weird periscope which starts in your house and finishes in an air-duct in the wall of a real room where real people are torn open with pliers. I may intellectually know that George Clooney isn’t really a CIA agent, and that this square of light means something different from the square of light in the wall through which I can see rowdy students get kicked in the stomach by angry taxi drivers in the early hours of the morning, but you have to agree it’s a fairly esoteric distinction.

But in a game, you have a constant feedback that this it isn’t real. In order for someone to get booted in the nuts, you have to press the boot-in-nuts button, and the very act of doing that proves that this isn’t real. The screen may show you that’s what happening, but you know as a matter of physical, verifiable fact that it isn’t. You’re wearing slippers and drinking some coffee that’s gone a bit cold, not killing a man with your fists.

The real answer for the double standards, of course, is that after 50 years of TV we’ve accepted, as a society, that screen-violence doesn’t have a direct or decided effect on people’s behaviour. Whether that’s true or not, and whether or not the question of its insidious influence isn’t taken seriously enough is up for grabs, of course. But the collective decision was taken some years ago that that time I came home and found myself, unannounced, trapped in an MRI scanner inches away from the bursting, bleeding eye of a man being cooked alive by a psychotic lab technician who’d turned the whole thing up to 11 has done me no harm at all. Wouldn’t it be funny if, in another 50 years, we realised it was game violence that was the safe stuff?

How To Be Good At Games

I’m not very good at Halo. Decent, but not good. Watching really, really good people play always leaves me a bit green and so, while trying to make the whole thing as un-Karate Kid as possible, I always ask them what their secret is. Here’s the best answer I’ve ever had:

Go to where the people are, and kill them.

That, right there, is the only strategy you need to unlock about 80% of your Halo potential, and it holds for pretty much any other game where there are people and killings. It doesn’t matter how well you know a level, how often you can snag the best spawn, how sneakily you can tag on a plasma grenade, if you don’t have people on your screen, you’re not going to get kills.

And then I noticed another thing. Despite the fact that my scores are woeful in comparison, my accuracy is much higher than his – but my shots fired is much lower. It made me realise that because I think I’m not very good at Halo, I make myself worse at it by trying to be better (I guess the Karate Kid thing is unavoidable). I faff around trying to manufacture a competitive advantage by finding a good ambush spot or trekking off for the best weapon. And when I do face off with someone, I’m so determined to try to be a better shot that I shoot far less.

It’s all part of a phenomenon which I saw Saurian – a UK gamer with a reputation of general brilliance – sum up very succinctly with respect to God Hand:

I ain’t a legend! The only difference with me is this;

Game pwns average gamer on a forum “FUCK THIS GAME!!! It’S SO RUBBISH!!1” *throws game out of the pushchair*

Game pwns Saur “Oh man – I’M so rubbish!!” *obsessively plays to get better*

And that’s it, right there. When I play a game and do badly, it pisses me off, so I stop having fun, start getting crampy and end up playing it less. When the people I think of as seriously good at games do badly – they settle in, and enjoy the process of taming it. Which means, horribly, that Peter Moore was right: there is a zen of gaming, and Bungie are my bodhisattvas.

Six Things I Like About You

Last night, a friend challeged me to sum up videogames in as few words as possible. ‘As few words as possible’ is not one of my strengths, so it was going to take a while, but it turned out to be moot, since he was only issuing the challenge as an opportunity to show off his own little epigram:

Japan does swords, America does guns

Turns out six words is exactly hard enough to be challenging, and easy enough to entertain the lazy:

Better than books; worse than telly

Miyamoto is god; Molyneux dreams it

Played too late, eyes feel scoured

Blocks, lasers, bullets, cars, balls, fists

From their brains, to our thumbs

On, think, press, tense, yell, off

Avoid Missing Ball For High Score (of course)

Fair warning, though: do it for too long and it infects your thinking.