Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Armchair Gamer Podcast Season Two Episode Four: There Are No "Right" Choices

On this installment of The Armchair Gamer Podcast I memorialize the recently-deceased Paul Steed. I briefly lament the fact that publishers aren’t marketing hard enough, because I can’t remember when anything is slated to release. Also, I talk with friend of the show Nick Schneider about Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

Follow The Show On Twitter At:
Follow Nick On Twitter At :
Also The Episode of “Games Dammit” referenced is here:

The Music

The Walking Dead OST “Alive Inside”

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Walking Dead's Abysmal Morality

This post contains spoilers pertaining to Telltale Game's The Walking Dead; I try to withhold any spoilers I find unnecessary to share, but at the same time I have come to the conclusion that proper discussion of this game requires me to reveal some plot points and scenarios. Read at your own discretion. 

 Morality is an elusive subject. Everyone has something to say about it: religion points to dogmatic books as an ultimate moral guide, politicians point to ideals between individualism and societal cohesion as a way to do what's right. Horrific crimes in America, like killing your wife or slicing off a thief’s hand, are hardly out of place in many Middle-Eastern countries. Normal social activity a century or a half-century ago (like lynching people of different ethnicities or beating a non-submissive spouse) is now widely regarded as disgusting and immoral. We debate about gay marriage today, and tomorrow politician's careers might be ruined by merely mentioning a disagreement with marriage equality. Our culture has sanctioned genocide and condemned it in the same era. No one can agree on what's moral.
 Yet so many video games (ex: Mass Effect or inFAMOUS) address issues of morality in extremely childish ways: a moral decision in a standard role-playing-game could have been picked out of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel. Somehow, video game designers have managed to take one of humanities most basic questions-how should we treat each other-and bastardized it to the point of silliness and triviality. This is not to say that said designers are childish, of course, many of them have the best intentions. The simple fact of the matter is that the way most games operate isn't conducive to giving players real dilemmas to chew on and real consequences for their actions. To borrow a rather telling quote from a 2009 Gamespot article:
 "Morality is not a black-and-white concept. Reality is very seldom as simple as a choice between good and evil; the spectrum of moral behaviours is as complicated and consequential as our emotions. Instead of mirroring this complexity and including moral choices that lead to genuine in-game consequences, video games often do the opposite--they present a watered-down version of moral choice that ultimately results in players having to choose between good or evil: to harvest or not to harvest (BioShock), to be “paragon” or “renegade” (Mass Effect), to kill innocents or to save them (inFamous), to have a halo or devil horns (Fable II)." 
 There are no "right choices" in The Walking Dead; within half an hour of starting the first episode (of five) your character (Lee) is forced to choose between saving the life of a young man you have just met the night before,or the son of a man you hardly know from an onslaught of "walkers". I saved the son (Ducky) and was forced to leave the farm I had been sheltered in . I would've left the farm anyway, but having the father of the man I let die kick me out under such circumstances really socked me in the gut. And it just gets harder from there.
 There is something very organic about the way that players can affect the narrative with their choices. Each choice you make has an impact, whether it be catastrophic or almost minute. One of the gameplay options The Walking Dead has are little text notifiers that outline how people mentally react to your dialogue options. Please, turn this off; playing the game solely from Lee's perspective and seeing how people respond to you through the story itself is much more satisfying and is a better test of Telltale's narrative chops. 
 Another example from Episode One is a scene where you encounter a survivor of the zombie outbreak who is holed up in a motel. One of your group members finds this woman and enlists your help to get her out of her room. When you do eventually lure the woman out of her sanctuary, it is revealed that the woman is mentally unstable and believes she is infected with whatever makes the “walkers” (read: zombies) what they are. Eventually, it comes down to two choices: one: you voluntarily give her a gun- a means of death on her own terms, or two: you try to keep the gun out of her hands. Regardless of what you do, the woman does kill herself; your decisions don't always matter. What does matter is the fact that how you handle the situation determines what people think of you. I didn't give her the gun, and was properly scrutinized for withholding a chance to let her be free, like she wanted. Not only that, the means she used to get the gun put our group in jeopardy- jeopardy that could have been avoided had I just let her do what she wanted.

 The Walking Dead lets you own your decisions. A central element of the source material is the idea that characters being pushed to their extremes never make the "right" choice. Your actions in the game aren't rewarded by Karma points or some other arbitrary tallying system instituted to constantly remind you that you are the good guy- the branching paths aren't sectioned into "good" and "evil"; you play the game the way that best appeases your conscience. 
 In the aforementioned suicidal-woman scenario there was no clearly good or clearly evil choice to be made. If another human being is in pain and wants an escape- than it is fundamentally hard for me to deny it to them. Trying to stop a suicide may feel morally superior in the moment, but at the same time it's a hard pill to swallow, especially under the specific circumstances in the game. And since the game gives no absolutely positive or absolutely negative feedback, the jury is still out. The Walking Dead toyed with me enough that I'm still mulling over whether or not I make the right decision every time I play the game. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Another Video Game Luminary Leaves Us

The video game medium is so young, we are not used to death. Yes, video game creators have died- but it isn't common. That makes every loss even worse. 

According to a report on "The Jace Hall Show" industry figure Paul Steed has passed away. His cause of death is, as of now, unreleased. Paul had a hand in such classics as Quake and Wing Commander. Paul's resume includes positions at EA, Atari, id Software, Microsoft, and many more. In his last years, he established a company called Exigent. 

Like many video game developers, he was a sort of polarizing figure-Paul was fired from id Software after some controversial statements over Quake 3. Despite this, everyone who knew him spoke to his genuine intentions- he wasn't an attention seeker. 

The industry has lost a legend. 

"“The real trick is staying known, staying relevant and staying excited about what you do. Our little ‘game industry that could’ has become the juggernaut that won’t be stopped. Ambition, hard work, perseverance, luck and shameless self-promotion – it’s all part of the deal.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"The Articles That Matter" Archive

When I picked up this blog again, and vowed to get semi-weekly posting done, I realized that I needed to do more than just write my own feelings on games and articles I read. So, I started an "Articles That Matter" sidebar featuring thought-provoking, interesting articles. However, to keep the blog clean and orderly, I only archive the important articles up to seven. So, here's all the "Articles That Matter" 

The mirror men of Arkane by Russ Pitts
Alone With The Crunch: How A Video Game Pushed One Man To The Brink by Patrick Stafford
Persuasive Games: Words With Friends Forever by Ian Bogost
On Player Characters and Self-Expression by Tadhg Kelly 
In The Sexism Discussion, Let's Look At Game Culture by Leigh Alexander 
High Noon For Shooters by Michael Abott 
Creating Audio That Matters by Caleb Bridge 
How An Hour With Modern Warfare 2 Made Me Hate Video Games Rowan Kaiser 
1UP's Essential 100 (P1) by 1UP.Com 
Making Violent Games in A Violent Country Eric Caoili 
Systemic Consistency and The Law of Conservation by Brent Gulanowski 
Creative, Compelling, And Cancelled: Lost Games That Could've Changed The System by 1UP.Com 
Cover Story: 1UP's Essential 100, Part Two by 1UP.Com  
It's Die Hard, In A Video Game by Michael Clarkson 

Friday, August 3, 2012

1UP.Com's "Essential 100": An Important Canonical Guide of Important Games

 I would like to be one of the hipsters that takes the non-conformist (and purely vocal) stance that I abhor lists of any kind. Indeed, I would like to proudly trumpet my inspired intellectualism and tell the whole world how absolutely careful I am in media analysis. Taking the stance of "I hate lists" would give me an out, a way to avoid conversations and debates that almost never lead anywhere. Saying that lists are pointless is an ultimate act of pacifism in the nerdy community; you can be a conscientious objector when the debate between Star Trek and Star Wars begins. 
 If I said that lists were always silly, I would be lying. When done right, lists are an interesting manner of chronicling important facts or opinions in a way that makes sense. While I hate "Best Video Games Of All-Time" lists (they are useless and seem to exist solely to start flame wars online) there is a definite place for lists and canons in the video game discussion. 
When I saw that 1UP.Com (an awesome video game website that has spawned some of the great video game writers) was compiling a list entitled "The Essential 100"
I was understandably concerned. However, my concerns were quickly put to rest when I read the Number 100 Pick: M.U.L.E.
The Essential 100 isn't 1UP compiling "the best games of all time"; the list is all about highlighting games that changed the video game-scape. Each entry reads like a love letter to a game of the past: 

"There's nothing quite like a non-violent economic simulation to angry up the blood of an '80s gamer kid. That may sound like smartassery, but in at least one case it held to be completely, unironically true. M.U.L.E. is an odd duck: A game of planetary conquest, full of aliens, robots, and even space pirates, where nary a shot is fired. Nevertheless, it's one of the most ruthless, cutthroat, controller-throwing games ever made. Yes, you will be furious at a friend for manipulating the price of food through artificial scarcity. Also, you will completely ace your economics courses because an old video game taught you what artificial scarcity is without you even realizing it." 
 I always commend 1UP's writing quality, but the skill present in this feature is consistently incredible. Every single article beautifully explains why these video games matter- not only as standalone products, but the shoulder's that other games sit on. 
This list is shaping up to be the most carefully thought-out, lovingly composed canon of unique gaming experiences around. I am eagerly anticipating what will be up next.