Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Arguing some semantics


Adjective:        Amusing, entertaining, or enjoyable: "it was a fun evening".

Halo 4’s Product Description
The Master Chief returns to battle an ancient evil bent on vengeance and annihilation. Shipwrecked on a mysterious world, faced with new enemies and deadly technology, the universe will never be the same. Enlist aboard the UNSC Infinity to experience Halo's original multiplayer and Spartan Ops - episodic fiction-based co-op missions.Key Features·                                 The Reclaimer Saga Begins: Experience the dawn of an epic new Halo adventure, solo or split screen with up to three friends
·                                 Go Beyond the Story: Halo 4's Infinity Multiplayer features a vastly expanded suite of multiplayer modes, weapons, vehicles, armor abilities, a new loadout and Spartan IV player progression system.
·                                 Spartan Ops: Extend your campaign experience in a massive-scale adventure that builds upon the "Halo 4" Campaign. Receive a weekly series of cinematic episodes on Xbox LIVE followed by new game play missions, played solo or cooperatively with up to three friends - effectively delivering two campaign experiences in one game!***
·                                 War Games: Battle the competition in fresh, immersive new game modes and strategies.
·                                 Track your groups, stats and scores on
·                                 Edge-of-your-seat Entertainment: Immerse yourself in Halo 4's graphics, sound and epic game play including a mysterious and deadly new class of enemies**
 Occasionally, I have to wonder if our game writer’s lexicon is gleamed from product descriptions online. I can’t help but cringe every time I hear a critic un-ironically say the word “immersive” or “epic” (luckily these terms have finally left our collective vocabulary as writers, apparently content at their place on the back of a box). This is an industry built upon press releases, of course, but I still feel like people like to box in games and their potential to very simple words and meaningless descriptions. For example, I hate it when people say “video games need to be fun”. (Warning: The following blog is going to essentially be me nit-picking about things you might find unimportant.)

What is fun, exactly? Well, “fun” is a word that means different things to different people, and it means nothing at all. When we are talking about games, we seem to be fans of calling everything fun; Resident Evil 2- it’s fun, Call of Duty- it’s fun, Super Mario Galaxy- it’s fun. In reality, though, the reasons we play these games aren’t to experience some nebulous thing called “fun”. Resident Evil 2 is a game you play to be afraid and helpless, or to experience an interesting world through a unique scope. Call of Duty is a game you play to A) experience a single-player experience (as I do) or B) play with others, or a combination thereof. Perhaps the only comparison between both games is that you shoot things. You might play Super Mario Galaxy to explore a world, be challenged with platforming, listen to music- a variety of reasons. But do you really play all three of these games simply “to have fun”? Do these games really live or die by their ability to be “fun”?
  I am not one of those weird pseudo-intellectual people who say “all language is ultimately meaningless, man”. Language does most certainly have a meaning; all of society is built upon the essentials of language and interpersonal communication. This belief, that language is extremely important- and precise language is doubly so, informs how I discuss art and products. Our reasons for being drawn to pieces of art or products are not simple enough to be described in one word.

Currently, I’m playing Bastion on a borrowed iPad. Bastion is an enjoyable game; I find myself enamored with it and I kind of want to play it right now. But is it “fun”? Maybe I could describe it that way. But if I wanted to make you interested in the game, the only way I could would be by explaining what interests or entertains me. Here’s an example: “Bastion has a large amount of interesting ideas that I enjoy exploring. First of all, the combat in the game is very rewarding, the sound effects associated with using the weapons (especially the dueling pistols) and the sound effects associated with fighting enemies train a part of your brain to want to keep playing- and by extension- fighting. I also think the art style of Bastion is clever; I am a big fan of the concept of a beautiful post-apocalypse, that’s why I’m drawn to shows like Adventure Time. The game is extremely eye-catching, all the colors are vibrant and even the littlest details like the color and texture of tiles you walk across is always different and unique.” Could I say “Bastion is fun”? Yes. But it’s more than fun. 

 Finally, I dislike the notion some people have that games “need to be fun” for a similar reason. Saying that a game needs to have a component as nebulous as fun A) devalues different artistic visions and B) gives off the impression that games are essentially toys, made for the enjoyment of kids and weird adults stuck in childhood. I’m tired of games like Journey for being slammed- not because of anything meaningful about what the game is- but because it isn’t “fun”, like action games, stealth games, or sports games. And, as I said earlier, the buzzword “fun” is about as concise and meaningful as “epic” or “engrossing” or “visceral”; it gives the impression of depth with no further explanation. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

The nomadic games journalist interview

There is a certain mystique to the role of the nomad. Many of us, at one time or another, consider the possibilities of a life free of the baggage that comes from living in one place. Sometimes, we would like nothing more than to cast aside bills, work, or school and live a life of constant motion. This romantic idea is only perpetuated in Western society further by the influences of Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, and others of their ilk.
 Justin Amirkhani is not your average video game journalist. He has contributed to quite a few publications including Kill Screen, PC Gamer, Official Xbox Magazine, and EDGE. More importantly, Justin is a sort of nomad. He has no home of his own, and little in the way of money. Justin has, since early 2012, been making a trek from Los Angeles, California to Toronto, Canada; he has lived for the last five months off the kindness and donations of strangers.
 The following is an interview I had over email with Justin.

Why did you decide to go on this cross-country trip- what did you think you might be able to gain from visiting various developers before you started?

 Despite having plenty of opportunities to talk to developers during the course of my career as a freelance games journalist, I've always been disappointed by the fact most conversations with them are squarely focused on the product they are releasing at the time. I'm far more curious to find out what sort of person makes a game like Gears of War than learning what sorts of weapons are in the new version. Visiting developers in their natural environments is a way of getting closer to their personal lives, finding out what drives them, and better understanding why they got into this business in the first place.

That's very interesting, actually. I'm assuming that we both view games in a similar way (as a commercial art form). I feel with a lot of art you don't truly appreciate it until you acquire a better understanding of the artists. Does meeting the developers often change how you view their games? Are there any examples where you came away with a whole new respect for a game after meeting the people who made it?

 This may seem to go against what I just said, but I don't think meeting the developers changes my appreciation for the final product. One of the most important things I've learned during my journey was that motivation is often irrelevant when evaluating the end result. It doesn't matter if an indie developer pours their heart and soul into a game if it still sucks, and it doesn't matter if Sequel Shooter 2012 is produced by automatons under the rule of a mega corporation if it's lots of fun.
 If I've gained appreciation for anything, it's how developers balance and live their lives. The most incredible talent I've had the fortune to meet on this trek have also been some of the most incredible people. I have an intense interest in individuals who can devote themselves wholeheartedly to a project and still maintain an active and fulfilled lifestyle outside of their work.

I'm curious about what a cross country trip to video game developers entails from a "living" perspective. On your blog there's a sidebar with ways to donate and ways people can help out. I'm curious in what way (if any) the help of others has played into making your trek possible?

 This trip would be impossible without the donations from my readers, hospitality from strangers, and people just generally being amazing. I'm a writer by trade, that's about as close to perma-broke as you can get. The donations from my readers have funded everything from my bus pass, to basic foods, to medicine when I got sick. People have offered me free places to stay, given me a meal or two, and helped me carry on. Without all of this, I would have had to stop a long time ago.
 The other thing is, these donations really give me a confidence that people are enjoying my work and have similar goals to me. It shows that people are interested in the sorts of stories I want to write, and that makes me feel a whole lot less alone when I think there's no real place for my weird mix of content.

The fact that writers like you and me are almost pre-destined for perma-broke status is one I try to keep in the back of my mind. 
Where are you now, how far have you gone, and where are you going next? 

 I just returned to Toronto for a quick pit stop. My original journey was set to be two months, but I've been living on the road for nearly five now. I'm not entirely sure what's going to happen next - I'm spending some time with family, at least until Thanksgiving - but I've officially got no home of my own and I expect to keep myself that way for at least a little while longer.

(Justin has traveled from Toronto to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to San Diego, San Diego to Raleigh, Raleigh to New York City, New York City to Cleveland and back into Toronto. A distance of roughly 6,500 miles.) 

If you had to name one person or place that has affected you the most on your journey, where would it be? How has this single experience changed you?

 That's an incredibly hard question to answer because there have been so many events, places, and people that have shaped my current mindset. One of the most pivotal experiences though came near the end of my current leg. I met a man named Sam in a hostel in Seattle. He's from Wales and also a writer - not about video games though - and we got along. One day he fell in love with this girl who was cycling from Vancouver to Panama and came home all upset he wasn't going to see her again as his flight left from San Francisco in a few days.
 Rather than let him sulk about the situation, I demanded we go chasing after her. Together we hitched down the Oregon coast to nowhere towns and met some fantastic people on the way. We had an entire small town looking for his dream girl and had the time of our lives doing it. We finally did find her, on a beach at sunset in the middle of nowhere and it was magical. It proved to me that sometimes, injecting life with a little foolishness and romanticism can make it so much better. Reality's what you make of it, chasing lofty ideas should be part of it.

Your project is attracting more than just gamers, obviously. Do you think people might be interested in it because of ideals embedded in Western culture, or is the appeal simpler

 It's true, my audience is now very split. I have the usual video game playing crowd, but now I've also got this group of people who know nothing about games and just like hearing about the travel. My favourite thing though is that these two groups are starting to cross-pollinate, with the gamers learning a little about travel life and the travelers learning a little about gaming.

Do you think that people are attracted to this nomadic, Bob Dylan-y idea of someone that drifts throughout the country taking in the world?

 Absolutely. I know I am. There's no doubt in my mind the likes of Dylan, Kerouac, Thompson, and others have played a role in my decision to give up my stuff and go live on the road, but by no means does it make it any less attractive to me. I can't speak for everyone, but the idea of being absolutely free from all the machinations of life is what draws me in. There's an intense liberation that comes with an open path before you, realizing you can do anything you want, anywhere. It's an incredibly romantic idea, so much so that it's consumed my life. In that way it's easy for me to understand why people like reading about it.

Have you thought about writing a book about your experiences, or something like that? I have never heard of something like this in the industry before, and I imagine a book on it would be a smash-hit among gamers. 

 There is a book in the works. I've written part of it on the road, and now that I'm back in Toronto - at least for a little while - I'll be putting most of my energy into finishing it. There are a lot of stories that I've been itching to tell that just don't work well in blog form and based on the reaction I've received so far from the project, I'm inclined to agree that a lot of gamers would find it interesting.
 The problem for me is finding that sweet balance between my experiences as a gamer and my experience as a nomad. It's harder to find than you'd think, but hopefully there's an audience for it. That, and finding money. Haha. I'm literally down to whatever's in my wallet and nothing more these days.

Just to wrap this up on a game note, have you discovered what you wanted to about game developers? 

 If there's one thing I've learned about game developers, it's that they are the most talented and hard working individuals in the entertainment world. The ones that impress me most though are those that manage to lead unique and interesting lives outside of their work despite game development taking up so much of their time. I've always been a fan of developers because they followed a passion of theirs to its logical conclusion, but truly admire those who don't let that idea stop with their work. It's the ones who pull crazy hours in the office and then still have time for families, hobbies, and adventures of their own when they step away from the keyboard that I wish I could be more like.

(If you want to learn more about Justin's journey, visit his blog: