Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Pitfall II: Scene 3: Cycles of (Non)Violence


Returning to Pitfall! is like revisiting Leaves of Grass: progenitive, dizzying, and ultimately frustrating. Yeah, I’m just invoking literature in a bid to take this old game more seriously. The problem, or my trick, is that I can never really take Leaves of Grass seriously. One thing they really do have in common is being great influences on greater works. And being a bit racist. Pitfall! is better than Leaves of Grass. I can take Pitfall! seriously. Only trying to have the most incomprehensible asinine gamer opinions on here.

Pitfall! seemed like a staple game for the era. Complete rote tasks as fast as, or for as long as, possible, to get that high score. I’ve played it a few times like this. Having multiple screens keeps the focus away from solving the game, compared to… well I tried listing specific examples, but I just mean “arcade game.” There’s a freedom to approach—(okay it’s just how far left or right you go)—and that freedom layers and delays the period until all the player is doing is matching the machine. Would this difference be noticed or notable at it’s time of release? Is it noticed or notable today? It sold a lot, I guess, and it’s been said that’s the reason why. I think that the assemblage we call “platformer” is mostly taken for granted, because it’s just a convenient way for a game to happen.

Did you know that Pitfall! is the first metroidvania? I’m around 30% serious when I say this, given that it isn’t true, and metroidvania is one of the greater videogame wordcrimes. It is more accurate to say that Pitfall! envisioned a different kind of videogame compared to its contemporaries. I didn’t realize this when I first played the game. I didn’t expect it. The game repeats so many screens it appears to be random, but Pitfall! is innocuously huge, connected, and non-random.

It doesn’t become apparent until you start to play seriously for score, the game of just running around, dodging into and through jungle life, opens up into a metagame of finding out how big this game really is. Strewn about all 254 screens is, idk, fucking, jungle gold. Matching the machine means getting all of it. Playing this game “legitimately,” mapping out bunches of identical screens, getting genuinely lost, while under the pressure of a really strict time limit, honestly sounds like a terrifying prospect. Probably a month long project. Someone did it.

I know someone did it, because I followed a walkthrough. Beating Pitfall!, as opposed to the freeform style of playing it, as opposed to feeling out the solution—beating Pitfall! turns it into an incredibly strict speed game, with a hyperspecific route. Quite literally no mistakes in platforming can be made and even a “no mistake” run needs to be slightly optimized or you’ll time out (as I shudder to recall). Knowing that the first conventional platformer (one that looks a platformer, that plays like a platformer) is both a mestroidvinia and a speedgame feels like a totem to this era of games, and is a curse onto the shape of games to come.

But like, I wanna draw attention back to the fucking jungle gold. No matter how deep I want to dive in the game, or how I want to try to pull it apart, Pitfall Harry is a really awkward Indiana Jones cipher who’s entered a “forbidden jungle” to collect valuables. It’s not worth denouncing the game as absurdly racist and reflective of the settlers who made it, though that’s still true, because the racism itself is tokenized. It’s unassuming, not serious, naturalized, and badly filtered through more famous pop culture with somewhat identical problems. It’s there ‘cause it was “fun” and would sell a game.

Basically all of the moods of the game fall apart. When I’m exploring the mirrorworld, the purpose is to rob. When I’m optimizing, getting better, the point is to get the hell out of a place I’m not supposed to be as fast as possible (with all the things I robbed). Unlike god damn mother fucking Mario (and other platformers), Pitfall! uncomfortably strays away from fantasy, or damningly, thinks its dynamic is one of fantasy. Pitfall! is admired for its technological legacy, but its artistic legacy is boring and one-dimensional.

When Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was released, the Atari 2600 was considered obsolete (after a run of 7 years, at least), and it was treated like shovelware because of Atari’s own loss of marketshare (I will not say “game crash”). At this point, I mean at our point, in 2020, I think people are starting to understand that this cycle of forced obsolescence feeds into real life cycles of exploitation and violence, as the supply chains for manufacturing electronics becomes more transparent. Our post-industrial hellscape means we deforest actual forests to render artificial ones for abstract value. I see in Pitfall II an argument that there’s always life, always untapped veins, in our modes of game making, that never get to materialize or be appreciated, because of this unnecessary cycle of destruction.

Pitfall II reinterprets Pitfall! into a gentler, nature-appreciating cave-diving game, rather than a twitchy score hunt arcade game. I think the muted appreciation of the game at the time, alongside its unremarkable reception over the years, shows how its chill non-conflict is an aesthetic pose within videogames that has been comparatively misunderstood and underappreciated. Generally, Pitfall! is remembered over Pitfall II for having more “firsts.” Pitfall II has some firsts, but I suppose, when taken in the moment, the sequel is less shocking, and less of a paradigm shift. We’re outside the moment though. Nowadays, in our current retrospect, I think the foundations laid down by Pitfall! have been subsumed into games because they’re pretty obvious. Someone would have stumbled on them. On the other hand, the aesthetic argument made by Pitfall II is much more difficult to grapple with.

Does Pitfall II deal with the problem I will call “being a game made by white Americans”? Not exactly, but I contend that Pitfall II is much less dull about it. An important thing to note about all Activision games is that the actual game designer (so, David Crane) had next to no input about the marketing, including the shit that got put in the manuals. So, while the Pitfall II story is in some ways just as embarrassing as the Pitfall! story, it can keenly be felt that the marketers really had no idea how to adapt the concept of Pitfall Fucking Harry to the game Crane actually made. (At least this time they don’t imply that he’s taking the valuables, but is rather finding what was lost.)

More pertinently, Pitfall! takes place in a jungle, and what that implies geographically is inarguable. Pitfall II takes place in a nondescript forest, within a nondescript cave. The manual can say Peru, but really the location is “anywhere” or “in homage to nature.” The geographical features of Pitfall II unintentionally resemble USAian vistas, which feels at least, multiple degrees less othering and exotified. In its own damning way, the shift to a more cascadian geography coincides with the game’s own gentle and forgiving aesthetic, because this is “home” while a jungle is not.

Okay, I know I’m reading way too much into this shit, but I really do feel like Pitfall II is healthy to a degree an 80s game can be, and Pitfall! just isn’t. This angle is one of the main ways that feeling expresses itself and can be coherently explained. And, despite their continuum of hang ups, Pitfall! and Pitfall II both have no combat and no map. I have to give props to that. There’s no dominance, no killing shit, no mastery over; no “exploration” as we have come to understand that word in videogameland. This contributes a massive amount of authenticity toward these games' naturalistic aesthetics, despite the heavy abstractions done as a result of limitation.

Pitfall II is just about hanging out in a forest, then hanging out in a cave! It gets maybe too demanding—pixel perfect dodging is required at some parts—because it’s still an Atari 2600 game. The game feels like it’s catering to an imagined player, rather than accomplishing the poetry I feel on the margins. But I can get no more sheer joy from something as simple as hanging out in a nice forest and hanging out in a nice cave (which admittedly Pitfall II is mostly a cave), at least second to actually going to nature in real-life land.

I get the feeling that expressions of nature appreciation in the 21st century are translated as an automatic cliche. We’re suspicious or disinterested in landscapes (understandable) and other kinds of art that centers landscapes. I would argue that this is in part because we are conditioned to have a lesser relationship to natural ecosystems, and this lesser relationship is necessary for environmentally destructive capitalism to continue its reign.

I want to specify that Pitfall II is about hanging out in these natural spaces. Unlike a Skyrim where these natural places occur (so you can extract shit from them), the whole focus of Pitfall II is trying to slot into, trying to figure out how to co-exist, with the land itself. There are no distracting mechanics, or natural resources to collect, so the only way to relate to the land is by getting to know it, and this means going through it without disturbing anything. This is among my wildest “depower fantasies,” it’s a way of being I feel I have been deprived of utterly in our hellscape of post-industrial life.

Pitfall II is still a goofy arcade-y game, no doubt. Waiting to run under a death bird flying in the same pattern forever isn’t more “real” than having infinite bullet gun and shooting it out of the sky. But I mean, which expression shows more respect and awe toward birds and their ecosystem? Someone reading this can call me corny, and that’s fine, because that’s how I really feel. I fucking love birds, I fucking love caves, I fucking love nature, and in Pitfall II they’re all fixtures to be seen and navigated, rather than destroyed.

Granted, some of this attitude exists in the original Pitfall!. Pitfall II creates a less fearful or adversarial relationship than Pitfall! because there are no lives, no death is permanent (Pitfall II is in fact the first game with a checkpoint system). More importantly there is no timer to fight against. Navigating landmarks in Pitfall II at a leisurely pace is essentially an aesthetic opposite to Pitfall’s rushed repetitive mirror labyrinth. Leisure, waiting, watching, integration, non-disturbance; these expressions that weren’t possible in Pitfall! become valid in Pitfall II. And honestly, these expressions that lend themselves toward nature appreciation for its own sake still aren’t possible in many level-based games besides!

Okay so this is the part where I have to admit that I’m extremely fucking weird (though three parts into this write-up: no shit). Granted, I just got done getting to the kill screen in Pitfall! so I was primed with misery, but that’s not an excuse anyone can relate to. Anyway, I just about cried when I heard the first chiptune swell in Pitfall II. Like there’s a lot of stories and movies that I felt like I could’ve had that response and I didn’t. But I cried playing fucking Pitfall II I guess. My brain just comes up with new ways to be unrelatable to other people. Listening to the main theme now, it’s definitely good, though probably not that good...

Still, there is something both uplifting and melancholic in the theme itself, a potent crossfade. But more than that, it’s literally struggling to be heard, its low-fidelity distortion exemplifying that struggle. Something that shouldn’t be heard, something that is barely cohering, and yet it is heard! Music is not really something the Atari 2600 was known for, or capable of, and yet here the console is singing its heart out. I feel like I can textually link that struggle to the pacifism and nature appreciation central to Pitfall II, which are beautiful thoughts that struggle to be heard and internalized.

I guess I was also feeling an overwhelming reconnection. This is the sort of game that made me fall in love with a softer potential of videogames, that prodded me to imagine ways of playing, use, and growing with games that had nothing to do with stale bloodlust and devastation. It took me back to when I played Seiklus for the first time (at ye olde age 15), though for other people this game might be Journey, this game might be [topical walking sim], or hopefully some rad bitsy game, or any of the many sorts of gamey experiences that aren’t mediated by the taking of life.

The swimming animation in Pitfall II and Seiklus are near identical, which shook me immediately. Seiklus is a bit more fantastical and post-n64 platformer-y, but shares a similar core aesthetic of nature appreciation. This connection spawned this whole close read, and yet, is probably a meaningless observation to most people because Seiklus is a game that only people-who-went-on-yoyogames-dot-com-to-look-for-new-games-in-the-00’s would ever encounter. I’m still absolutely certain that Pitfall II had some influence on cly5m. And in that sense, all at once, I played Pitfall II and felt this massive missing link of non-violent videogame design that I believe has yet to be recognized. Even if Pitfall II didn’t directly influence games like Knytt and Journey, it would be an awful mistake to discount how connected Pitfall II is to that style of game.

Well, it feels like all the time someone is bemoaning the state of violent games (often because they’re trying to sell their own games that might be violent in ways they have yet to reckon with) and in that pose I think there’s something deeply tragic that

people don't really fucking care about the games I’ve been namedropping

Besides Journey, of course, but I would contend that even its cachet has been fading. The commonality between these games is that they’re old, independent, and obscure. It’s really frustrating to see some kind of us vs. them approach toward rallying around a new non-violent game, which causes us to keep litigating the same aesthetic arguments over and over again without any anchor to history.

It feels opportunistic and disingenuous to see people incredibly serious about decentering violent videogames, yet at the same time cannot see or imagine how videogames in the past were often beautifully or excitingly non-violent. It makes me think they don’t really want “non-violent games” because more exist than anyone could play already, or crucially, more than anyone even really knows about. Meaning, I’m pretty sure they just want to see videogames made in their own image, like most people in this scene.

Don’t get me mixed up, I’m a bona fide freak who cried playing Pitfall II. Violence in games is often (but not always) just something I deal with to get to the aesthetic parts of the game I do like. So I mean, I fully support the argument that we do not need to focus entirely on violent interactions in games. But to actually do that will require supporting old, independent, and obscure videogames!

The harder truth is that we’re unlikely to convince people of the merits of nature appreciation for its own sake through fucking videogames. We’re unlikely to convince people the merits of reflective or personal growth through the medium of fucking videogames. It’s kind of a conclusion you have to reach outside of videogames, to be brought to videogames, because this is a subculture dedicated to itself. Though besides, I mean, people in industrial societies don’t really fuck with poetry or nature anymore to begin with, so why do people think we can just force this meme through the medium with the least respect and least connection to the world outside of it. A medium that is also thoroughly compromised with real, actual environmental destruction, probably more than any other artistic medium.

This work is a complete fool’s errand! So if we’re going to do it, we at least have to do it right. We still need history and frameworks that are comprehensive and foundational that direct away from destructive practices like technological obsolescence.

Lately Pitfall II has felt like a potent symbol to me that any attempts to direct away from technological obsolescence will be forgotten or eroded, because of the combination of what kind of game it is, and its status as a failure in the throes of the so-called game crash. That’s 50% of why I have been obsessed with writing about it. I don’t want this kind of expression in games to be forgotten and eroded.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Pitfall II: Scene 2: "Good Game Design"


What follows is not an accurate depiction of David Crane’s words, it’s an interpretive collage, quoting separate interviews. If the words are interesting, and you have the time, I recommend experiencing them in context. He and I are from different eras, and I’m definitely sure Crane wouldn’t agree with a lot of this essay (though I would hope he agrees with some of it), so I want to make it clear that I’m not using his words for that reason. I went through a lot of David Crane interviews to curate this. Those interviews were colored by a bit of Silicon Valley myth-making. The ways in which the arcade mentality will (rightfully) never leave the original game authors is interesting, but is a view that I have personally left behind. From various interviews, my impression of Crane is that of a humble and genuine person, and I’d say his reminiscing over the glory days was something hard earned.

This is neither a defense of Crane, nor a plea for recognition for game history that is dissipating from our eyes. This isn’t exactly about him, a successful man by all rights, that doesn’t need some blogger to prop him up. This is about authorship and reconnection.

I turn this space over to my interpretive pantomime of David Crane.

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Each time I finish a game I look to the real world for inspiration. I was primed for the idea when I saw it, and the product flowed very easily from that point.

I stick to games that a normal person can pick up easily and enjoy 10 minutes away from that difficult spreadsheet. I stick to casual games and that [might’ve been] the secret to my longevity in this business.

There was no doubt during development that Pitfall! was going to open up a whole new genre of games: the genre that came to be known as platformers. With screen-to-screen gameplay, the next screen could be the start of a completely different environment. If rom allowed (which it didn't for many years) you could theoretically run from the jungle, to the city; and from the city, to a ship docked on the ocean, etc. I just had to make pitfall good enough to achieve that promise, and it would lead the way into the future.

A lot went wrong at Atari in 1979, in spite of the fact that they were making $100 million per year selling videogame cartridges. They made a classic mistake, one that is repeated over and over in every business. They didn’t follow rule number one: If you make your living on creative products, keep your creative talent happy. Four of Atari’s most successful game designers: Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead and I tended to hang around together. One day we discovered that we four had created games that accounted for 60 per cent of Atari’s $100M in game cartridge sales for the previous year. We were making less than $30K salaries. When we asked Atari’s new president (Nolan was no longer there) for a piece of the action, we were told ‘You are no more important to the success of those products than the person on the assembly line who puts them together.’ We didn’t agree so we left to form our own game publishing company. We met up with Jim Levy and together created Activision.

Activision was founded on the principle that a video game was a creative product for which the author ought to be credited. Other companies at the time treated games as engineering projects, no different than the next electronic chip to come from the engineering department.

We wanted to create an environment where if a game player enjoyed the "writing style" of a particular game designer, he or she could look for the next game by that same author and not be disappointed.

[Credit] was a founding premise of the company. We started our own publishing house because we felt that people would like to know who authored their favourite game so that they could buy their next one. What was really fun was going into the game store the day our first four games shipped. The owner of the store was just unpacking the boxes and looking at our pictures as we entered the store. He did a classic double-take.

Think more "book author" than "pop star". The recognition we sought was that of the author of a creative work of fiction. Like most people, I have my favourite authors and I know that I will buy their next book on the strength of their last.

[The] real thrill is hearing directly from a game player that your work touched them in some way. Because there was a name and a face behind the game, players were able to let me know directly how much they enjoyed playing one of my games.

In the early days of Activision our primary focus was quality. We continued to work on a game until the whole group could say it’s as good as it’s going to get. Most times that meant a whole lot of rewriting and tweaking. And sometimes a game never reached that threshold and it was shelved.

I did not leave by choice. The new president [at the time], Bruce Davis, asked me to take a fraction of my salary, with the rest made up through an incentive bonus. I asked him to put the bonus in clear terms in writing and he couldn't. You might think we were at an impasse, but we weren't. He just slashed my salary without a compensating bonus. So I left. See, I learned something from my days at Atari when it comes to verbal promises.

There is no comparison [to Activision today]. The Activision of the Eighties was a research project. Every aspect of the business, from technology through marketing had to be invented. You could fill a textbook with the ideas pioneered by the over-achievers who flocked to work at Activision. And many of those ideas are still in use today.

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There's a lot I wanted to say about labor as it relates to corporate game making, and so like, the hollowing out of Activision, as it compromised toward profit margins, is this genuine representative tragedy of what has been lost. As I consulted primary sources, I wanted someone with real stakes to represent those links, and to let them mostly establish themselves. My goal instead is to scale up the tragedy of Activision as a loss of appreciation for authorship and authored games in general.

This concept of authorship is a bridge between past, present, and future in videogames. After playing a range of original Activision games, I was impressed by their raw intention. They’re purposefully made, defying the stereotype that early game design was by people who didn't know any better, and convey a bite-sized, accessible mixture of texture and emotion. There is no doubt they are a product of self-respecting, strenuous authorship. Though 2600 games are somewhat similar in their form (it is inarguable that technology shaped their biases and approaches) these originals are still as stunning as games that win Ludum Dares, or similarly inspired sorts of experimental arcade-y games that proliferate on Itch.io. And so I wondered, why did these ancient (in game years) 2600 games feel so similar to modern game making approaches?

This was a genuine shock because the conventional wisdom I was baptized in on forums and retro game communities were obstinate that 2600 games were… not any good. I accepted this without playing any 2600 games. As the narrative goes, the console was too primitive, and, at that time, developers really didn’t know what they were doing, resulting in awful games that are best thought of as historical curiosities; some stepping stones toward whatever retro golden age, and so then further toward the advancements we have today. Ironically, as I’ve been cursed to live on the internet longer and longer, I’ve seen this same narrative repurposed to smear the NES, which was vehemently considered the superior console with the best game library some 15 years ago, and could probably see this line of reasoning dreamed up for pretty much any year in games older than 5. People are really invested in this idea that game design has gotten better over time and that it’s self-evident that prior developers had undeveloped ideas of good game design. I think if you read almost any interview from game makers of their time, this mythical lack of foresight or direction is nonexistent.

When it comes to charting a coherent videogame history, authorship is a simple concept that I find ties us all together. The desire to create with whatever tools we have, to share something with our fellows, is a powerful commonality that transcends artistic mediums and approaches. Whether from self-love, or love for each other, or dissidently any mixture of negative emotions, the need to process the unspoken, and so on, those desires are what binds and compels artistic pursuit. I need to emphasize that all of the beloved retro games came from solo devs, partners, or small teams! The majority of games that have been made, and are being released in the present, have been authored or co-authored, and this is a contrast to the recent commercial proliferation of corporate made art.

Present day, games that are authored are marginalized in favor of videogames that are directed within corporate access. Authored games are squinted at and mistrusted. The majority of players end up playing a slim minority of games made. People’d sooner pay $60 for assured reaffirmation from a sequel, than be assed to take a bet on something that's free, and usually only asks for an hour or less of your time. That "hardcore" videogame subculture sprang out of Silicon Valley-esque attraction to new-tech-for-the-sake-of-it and can be understood as a mass culture mirror of SV-ethos. Progress at any cost! (Labor, materials, the warming of the planet, the inability to define progress, these are thoughts to be buried deep into the void of fun). Innovation over all! (What is “innovation” besides the backing of capital?) While gamers tacitly follow alongside the technosphere's reality warping by their uncritical acceptance of planned obsolescence, labor exploitation, and being completely at the whims of investors, they don't exactly realize or acknowledge what it is they’re supporting. If you try to persuade a gamer of any of this, they will completely deny it, because they are convinced of their own freedom to buy and play only "good games."

Simultaneously, and I believe not yet in contradiction to our technocratic subculture, I think we’re hitting a point and time where lots of people are realizing (to some extent) that technological progress is a hamster wheel. I’m not being generous. The barriers toward VR access/appeal, and the obviously slimming difference between what the major consoles iterations can achieve, have been disillusioning. Nintendo has a runaway success on very medium-tiered, cellphone-like technology (again). Digital stores and subscriptions are filled with older games, rather than curating newer selections, and the retail "product cycle" of targeting and marketing only new releases husk of what it was, being replaced by chaotic free-for-all digital storefronts, and videogames that are whole markets and platforms unto themselves (GAMES AS SERVICE (I'm playing fgo as I write this)). People are finding out that Super Metroid and Super Mario Bros. 3 are still good (oblivious that the profile of these games are magnified by Nintendo’s cultural monopoly). These are good and bad developments, though notably just forecast the future for corporate made videogames.

These futures reign ahead because AAA-tentpoles aren’t enough anymore. Progress and innovation at all costs is simply not what it used to be (and if you’ve noticed, “progress and innovation” hasn’t exactly been the goal of big budget games for decades now). The companies that can afford to have alternative revenue streams are chipping away at them, even if they’re as absurd as an EA-games-only monthly subscription. The customer loyalty and manipulation that stems from being able to bask in history-making achievements (or rather, esoteric technological achievements) is approaching non-competitive when compared to the staggering, statistical might of manipulating base psychological desires directly. No narratives of progress that need to be learned, no special inclinations toward technology needed! I make this point in all of my generalist essays, the simple fact that F2P has outpaced, and probably at this point, replaced the videogame containers we grew up with, for different reasons, so I’ll try not to belabor it.

In light of this replacement, and so a resulting shift of profitable priorities, what constitutes progress is getting fuzzy. Super Mario Odyssey is a good example of this (it's also the only one I can come up with because I'm becoming more and more disconnected from the game zeitgeist). By any metric you throw at it, it’s a conservative, by-the-numbers game that plays exactly how you’d expect it to. Its graphics are, you know, amazing, because amazing is the par, but they aren’t on the bleeding edge of anything. There’s no way to imagine Super Mario Odyssey looking like the Apple II Prince of Persia, so a sense of technological progress is still embedded into what an acceptable Super Mario Odyssey game would look like. Is the game “innovative”? Fuck no. Controlling the protagonist through awkward and egregiously pointless transformation has been the dream since Battletoads, Wario Land II, or Banjo-Kazooie, and likely uncountable other mascot-driven psychosis machines. Odyssey just has more because Nintendo dumped more money into its development. Is Super Mario Odyssey expensive? Hell yes. Obsessively over-detailed to the point of sickness, and I can’t tell if the sickness is from overstimulation, or some base rejection of people throwing away their lives crunching over a fucking Mario game.

This game got fucking lauded for being expensive. It was claimed as being highly innovative, at least in the context of Mario games, which I assure you is a pointless fucking context. Even if I were to pick at and prod what innovation means, I would be assured by someone that, if nothing else, this game is Mario gameplay at its best, with some bullshit explanation about it being the most polished or most iterative or the best feeling. Because it just is. It is buttery smooth and responsive...

What if I don’t want that? What if I’m fucking sick of condescending game mechanics that are willed exactly where I want them to be! Games that only lightly push back, and never go against my expectations, so I can feel both comfortable and accomplished. Game making that can only produce games that are afraid of their audience, that try to pacify before thought breaks through sensation.

Well, with this tantrum I’d rub up against what is our most (at least now it is) enduring faux-narrative of progress: the fact that game design gets better over time. With the growing loss of our games-as-technological-progress narrative, this one is our fallback. A technology of ideas! The technology of ideas has lasted concurrently with "technology make game good." Wolfenstein 3D invented the concept of first person shooters, and Doom really honed that early concept, perfecting it, but it wasn’t until the Half-Life series that first person shooters really came into their own as immersive experiences. I have seen that narrative enough times that I’m just as familiar with it, or maybe more familiar with it, than my own life experience. It’s just one of those permanent synapses up in my brain now. And, besides being hugely inaccurate on its own terms of a videogame historical-materialist artistic legacy, it’s complete bullshit.

There’s absolutely nothing indicative in that narrative about how the games play or what makes them improvements on each other, except the fact that the feature list of each game gets larger. People have really poor language for describing how game design gets “better," and it's the same between genre lineages like those, and new Mario games. Here’s the secret why! It doesn’t fucking get better or worse in a linear line. Each context a single game occurs in is way more unique than is currently and generically given credit. That games are authorial constructs has yet to penetrate the pink membrane of gaming. Yes, large formal similarities between Doom and Half-Life tie them together. They are 3D games with first person perspectives that require the protagonist to shoot at times. But there’s so much less in their emotional textures, or in their aesthetic arguments, that’s comparable. In just a basic refutation, they come from almost entirely different perspectives on how to make a game! (Dream horror clusterfuck vs. persistent and consistent world).

Here's my own cheesy analogy for this. The Divine Comedy and Frankenstein are both collections of prose bound together in the shape of a narrative. We can conclude that Frankenstein improved on the prose techniques introduced by Dante to make reading more legible and possible, but it wasn’t until the Foundation series that—
You get the point, hopefully. Draw comparisons and conclusions like this about videogames at your own embarrassment.

To clarify a fracture point, I’m well aware that id Software and tons of other developer habitats, from basements to small companies, were really cognizant of being the world first at implementing game tech at scale. This stemmed from more of a gold rush-type Silicon Valley attitude than anything. Yet few people remember Alpha Waves or Alone in the Dark except as these sort of technology-of-ideas-curiosities. Fewer still can advocate for those games on their own merits. So...

Who the fuck cares who’s first! Who the fuck cares who’s better! I don’t want impassioned canons about conquering each other. I want to care. I want to dream inward toward people I’ve yet to become. I want to feel your beating heart embroidered over barely working computer detritus. I want to feel something real and to never feel ashamed that I can.

Unless those “firsts” or "polished good game design" get serious market penetration, they don’t really matter. If any of this game making stuff matters at a soul level then we need to get over this bullshit market-first thinking. We need to get over damaging, impossible ideas of artistic progress. Because these concepts are soul killers. They’re antithetical to the present day continuation of authorship and authored games, authorship that is the lifeblood of communities that I treasure and find joy and solace in.

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links to david crane interviews

http://www.gooddealgames.com/interviews/int_David_Crane.html
https://www.retrogamer.net/profiles/developer/david-crane/
https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134618/the_replay_interviews_david_crane.php?page=2

Monday, January 13, 2020

Max's Freaking Game of the Decade List


Undertale (2015) - The amazing boss fights that breaks the game’s preset rules remain fresh in my mind. This game felt revolutionary when it came out, but I don’t know how accurate that is. The tone, music, and warmth in its characters shines through. The shine has faded a bit for me but there’s still so much to love about this game.


Loop (2016) - A haunted house game that feels creepy at first, but wards away fear with charming minigames and jokes. Slowly this comfort unravels and pulls away until it becomes a nightmarish mad dash. I love how the whimsy pulls you back in before making you realize you were right to be afraid.


The Pear Game (2017) - Its constantly changing multi-genre playfulness includes platformer, RPG, shmup, and more before opening up to a sadder, meta conclusion. A goofy comedic game with an emotional core I can feel in my bones.


Awkward Dimensions Redux (2016) - “The (Adolescent) Beginner’s Guide.” I love the different dreamspaces shifting rulesets throughout the game. The personal narration and dev commentary develop context that pulses to life.


Anodyne 2 (2019) - Okay, this pick was a tough call, but ultimately inspired me to start on this list in the first place. I played Anodyne 2 in December of 2019, the last month of the last year of the decade. It’s downright hilarious and meta in all the right ways. Its different vignettes hit varied emotional and political beats, while keeping crescendo a compelling coming of age story.


Bloodborne (2015) - Tragically, I love “SOULSBORNE” games and have played far too many of them, including the no man's zone of hanger-ons not by From Software. Bloodborne's gothic-ness and aggressive combat keeps lasting in comparison. The trick weapons are fantastic to play with. Its veiled story about present and coming cosmic horrors is easily the best out of any of the Souls games, by virtue of having any lore worth caring about at all.


Night in the Woods (2017) - Coming to age in a dying old town—Having nowhere else to go. There’s a lot of raw neet angst here that hits close to home. Exploring the town and hanging out with Mae’s friends just shines. The game was so effecting I basically slipped into a depression after finishing it... but that’s another story.


Crypt Worlds (2013) - An exploring walking sim set in semi-satirical hell world. Its giant space hosts many surprising ways to interact, like the ability to piss on anything, and/or become a cyborg. I immediately loved this game and it’s been a lasting influence since, but I find it hard to explain why I like it so much.


Dustforce (2012) - Dustforce is flow. Within its complex acrobatic, players express themselves, and find their own pace in demanding labyrinth-like levels. The stylish abilities and ever-increasing potential of speed makes continuing effort toward mastery a delight.


Pathologic 2 (2019) - A horrifyingly brutal survival system combined with beautiful Russian literature. This game captures the essence of Pathologic 1 while breaking the confines of a remake. The revamped mechanics are a great improvement, while the completely rewritten story ultimately makes neither game redundant. It's an even more challenging dive into chaos, but the blood and guts are worth digging through.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Live-a-Live and Being Powerless


I don't think I would have loved Live-a-Live if I hadn't played it blind. I had to think about this. I usually fall with the camp that says a good text shouldn’t depend on an unspoiled reading. It should hold up even if you do know the plot twists and big reveals. But Live-a-Live isn’t that type of work. It was full of surprises, but they weren’t memorable for their diegesis alone. The most rewarding payoffs for me came when Live-a-Live solved its structural mysteries, not its narrative ones.

The basic structure of Live-a-Live looks like this: there are seven main chapters, playable in any order. Each chapter is a vignette set in a different time and place, each belonging to a different style of familiar genre fiction, reveling in that genre's tropes while observing its conventions. These stories, being so different in style and substance, left me wondering: how will the endgame tie everything together? What will it even look like?

Live-a-Live is still ultimately an RPG and it tells its stories with standard RPG tools: top-down exploration, binary dialogue choices, item acquisition and usage, and, of course, turn-based combat. How do you use these tools to build a narrative that isn't just an RPG story in a Western skin? There’s a reoccurring mystery of how each chapter will unfold. What will the actual action of the next vignette consist of? Live-a-Live quickly makes it clear that its use of genre is more than just window-dressing: when it invokes the Western genre, it wants to tell a Western story. Live-a-Live confronts the RPG in 7 different genre settings, and although its answers aren’t always satisfying, each of them is unique. This commitment to avoiding RPG plot structures was clear by my second vignette. From then on I was propelled by curiosity, waiting to find out what the hell sort of story the next chapter would tell, and how the hell it would use this RPG toolkit to tell it. Each time I was charmed, not because they were great stories, but because they were unexpected ones, told cleverly and playfully.

I see two kinds of value in Live-a-Live’s recurring structural mysteries. The first is that I feel a basic pleasure at being surprised well. I got to experience the pleasure of having a long-standing curiosity rewarded with an answer both unexpected and satisfying nearly every chapter. The second is how the game actively leverages the unexpected. Live-a-Live’s genre confusion makes it impossible to rely on RPG tropes or plot structures to predict what will happen. Live-a-Live uses this uncertainty to effect new emotional experiences of types rarely seen in JRPGs of its era. My favorite example of this is the kung-fu-movie-themed chapter, "Inheritance."

In "Inheritance," I play the Xin Shan Quan master, an aging martial artist seeking a successor to carry on his personal fighting style. After he recruits 3 promising pupils, the game tasks me with training them in 1-on-1 sparring matches, letting me raise their stats and pass on my techniques through individual attention. But the master is getting old. I can only train so much in a day before getting exhausted. The question is, then, how do I best distribute my dwindling energy among my pupils?

"Inheritance" doesn’t given me a lot of information to help me decide. Questions abound: how long will this training go on? What will these characters do when they're done? Should I invest in all my pupils equitably, or is it best to focus my efforts on one? Will I have to train up any I ignore? What's the point of this, anyway? Does it even matter? Is all this training just a pacing device? I can't make informed decisions when I don't know what the ramifications of my choices are, or if there even will be any. The only choice is to admit ignorance and follow my instincts. I elect to heap my attention on Sammo Hakka (an homage to Hong Kong martials arts legend Sammo Hung), because I think he deserves better than the chapter's relentless fat jokes. I will have to accept whatever consequences follow.

One day, after investigating a disturbance in town, the master returns home to discover his mountain dwelling has been viciously attacked. Two of his pupils have been slain, and the third badly wounded. Causality becomes clearer here: the sole survivor is Sammo. Surely this was the outcome of my training decisions? But I still have questions. Sammo was the highest level even before training began—could it be that I had doomed my weakest students by overinvesting in the one who was destined to live no matter what? Could I have saved them all if I had divided my attention more equitably? How much control did I really have here? I’m tempted for a moment to reset and see if I can’t do a better job, but I revel in not knowing and press on instead.

The master storms the bad guys’ lair seeking revenge; Sammo catches up along the way. In the final confrontation, I am relieved of control of the master, and instead control Sammo alone as he fights the big bad. When the dust settles, we see that the master has finally reached his limit, and with his last breath names Sammo the heir to Xin Shan Quan. Sammo carries on his teacher's legacy beyond the epilogue, replacing the old master's sprite in the chapter select screen with his own, and eventually appearing as the kung fu chapter’s representative in the final chapter. Inheritance is complete.

This ending suggests new boundaries to the nebulous possibility space to which Sammo's survival belongs. It seems unlikely that everyone could have died. Someone had to live in order to join the master in the final battle and inherit his ultimate technique. Could the others still have lived? Did Sammo survive because he was the highest level or because he received the most attention? Was this the easiest outcome to achieve? The only? Or are they all equally possible?

I've heard people express frustration with the chapter's design. It’s not fair to the player for so much more to ride on a decision than you're able to know when deciding. But often what players identify as unfairness is the breakdown of a power fantasy. "Inheritance," in particular, is making a critique of it: a framework of power means that consequences ripple outward beyond your foresight or control. There's always more riding on your decisions than you know.

As long as the master is training in solitude, I have the power of Xin Shan Quan with no strings attached. For him to transmit his lifework means putting the recipients in harm's way and assuming responsibility for their safety. Perhaps the master's isolation causes him underestimate the gravity, making him as short-sighted as I was about the ramifications of his training choices. How could either of us know which approach is right? In "Inheritance," there are no right choices. Every option takes something away, even in the best outcomes, and the connection between cause & consequence is deliberately obscured. In this way, Live-a-Live undermines the tradition of choice as an expression of player power and uses it to make me feel uncertain, ineffectual, and vulnerable to unforeseeable ills—powerless.

Live-a-Live deals in surprise from start to finish. Though "surprise" can mean a whole emotional experience of an unexpected type. Embracing atypical RPG settings gave Live-a-Live license to experiment with consequences; expressing permanent loss subverts RPG expectations of player-centricity and monotonic power growth. The result is an experience of powerlessness uncommon in, and at odds with the values of, the JRPG canon. More conventional RPGs feel like they’ll stay within certain bounds no matter what direction the story takes, but in Live-a-Live those bounds don’t exist. Playing it is like watching the limits of what feels possible in a game world shift and blur.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Pitfall II: Scene 1: The Great Video Game Crash of 1983


This is a story that’s overtold. Now the domain of wide-eyed youtubers who serve their indentured lives to Google by reading you another Wikipedia article. The myth, recitied monthly: Atari was pong. Then they were cartridges. Those cartridges ended up in a landfill.

Atari, in its original incarnation anyway, endured for over a decade after the crash. Basically the game crash had about as much material impact as our current “single player games don’t sell” games-as-service apocalypse. Both have led to closures and significant downsizing, but isn’t that just the nature of the work? Videogames have always traded in hitmaking and that tendency generally continues today. If “crashes” were so serious, well, I’d imagine our entire entertainment sector would have angled away from hitmaking toward more consistent forms of revenue. Market capitalism rewards undercutting competitors, mindless brand loyalty, and other monopolistic bullshit, so corporations that have the bulk to rapidly gamble continue to persist. (o7 Disney o7)

The “game crash” was a tectonic settlement that occured after the home console market’s faddish gold rush. Established arcades were operating fine and like every year some landmark arcade games came out (1983: Dragon’s Lair; 1984: Tower of Druaga). Yeah, spit and prayer arcade joints unfortunately closed down, lots of hardware and software manufacturers shuttered, and yes, Atari reported great losses. But this is unfortunately a consistent trend in videogames. (Was the huge wave of MMORPGs that’ve now mostly gone boom a game crash?) Fad chasers run up against [nasally voice] Supply And Demand. In only two years, home consoles would boom again, thanks to a different friendly neighborhood con artist, and the home console market has kind of oscillated like that until today. Nintendo got edged out by Sony, who got edged out by Microsoft, who got edged out by Valve? Maybe, except Valve is (probably) too busy fucking with tax shelters to post their profits, and anyway now they’re all together reckoning against closed games-as-markets (Fortnite, et al) that are increasingly making the hardware/software producing entity meaningless.

Rather than a closed ecosystem around allied software developers, the future is getting people to play one game and have them bully each other into spending $20 to get the 2019 version of Peanut Butter Jelly Time. Always online, always invasive. Epic doesn’t care if people download Fortnite off their store. I mean perfunctorily they do, but a sale of a battle pass is a sale of a battle pass. Of course, being gatekeeping bastards and creating proprietary hardware/distribution bloatware and so establishing a bottleneck on must-have hitmade very innovative or whatever videogames has always been the gold star scam in the videogame business. (Google and Amazon are both trying to do this pathetically as I breathe CO2 emissions and die. (That’s supposed to be a riff on live and breathe)).

By 1984, CMB and their Commodore 64 home computer came out on top, at least briefly. They marketed a basic assertion: why buy a console to play games, when a computer can play games and do other stuff too? Now in the 80s, home computers and home consoles were separate and competing. Today, that’s meaningless. Only the dork-tech giants care about hardware; Ubisoft is going to hawk Assassin’s Creed 14: El Dorado Bungalow on whatever people have that will run the game. In other words, the Great Videogame Crash is based on conditions that don’t exist and mean nothing in the current game market. Similar rubber band snaps have been neatly weathered over the years because fuck if nothing can finally kick Nintendo’s ass for good.  

Early videogames sold speculation. I assume for adults it had a proto-silicon valley appeal. Getting Atari was like buying Google Glass or Oculus Rift or something. Proximity to a sci-fi future stapled into a disappointing container of the present. I’ve read Pilgrim in the Microworld and the author accounted a kind of deliriousness and fear reckoning toward our new lives with machines. Having essentially grown up with videogames, I consider them part of the “natural world,” or at least it’s hard to imagine a videogame as something invasive or new, you know? Part of what was being sold with early home consoles and home computers was a break from an established “natural world,” something never seen before. I would imagine for the average person, the kind of software didn’t matter as much as the novelty of psychological displacement that comes from using any kind of software at all.

That being said, investors, speculators; the “average adult” demographic orbiting videogames; shocked by games, reckoning with them, and ultimately seeing no use for them, easily felt games had run their course. The Great Video Game Crash was really a loss of Atari’s speculative power and the reasons for that might not be very deep. Atari spread themselves too thin, made a handful of business mistakes, got catapulted around by the whims of coke-addled boardrooms that have never touched a game in their life, and Newspaper Reading, Ford Driving, Light Beer Drinking American Men thanked god that their kids would go outside again with the death of this atari game nonsense.

So I ask the obvious, why the fuck has videogames historicized the nascent, knee-jerk opinion of retailers, toy-business analysts, investor pyramid schemes, and otherwise boring dads? Whose game crash? I’m convinced that the Great Videogame Crash, the one that gets talked about, only exists in retrospective, a way to explain why Nintendo replaced Atari for those who lived through it, dramatic enough to match the iron anchors of childhood fixation. Atari lost stewardship, resulting in anxiety over a loss of needed authority (again, in retrospect), that would lead to videogames being considered less important. But like, this is neurotic as shit, basically a symptom of “NO, games ARE ART Dad!!” Like, no fucking kid in the 1980s thought about the market and the investment value of their junk. Serious hobbyists might have mourned in passing while messing around with their new computers. Who else remembers the crash? Who else is the crash about?

When it’s suggested that Valve is going to cause another videogame crash by allowing anyone to put a game on their store, the local poster, esquire, is pointing to a vague signifier of collapse that either can’t happen or has happened rapidly in cycles, take your pick. I’ve been hearing this line for 15 years though the reasons are topical the culprit is the same: too many bad games. Bad games are just games and as long as there’s games there’s going to be weirdos to argue about which of them really count as games (thinking of schisms in rpgmaker forums or fangame groups about what makes a “good” game, which games have the correct effort signifiers, when both are relative creative faultlines that Polygon can’t mine and r/indiedev gets to lord over). He who is mad at sjws, or “greedy companies” (but not capitalism), or devs having free reign (that he doesn’t have), calls for a game crash. But what he really craves is a deathlike release! A spiritual death because he put everything into videogame corporations and will get nothing back. This release will not come from videogames alone (and so maybe, perhaps, he becomes a nazi, or nazi-adjacent).

Revising the history around the game crash matters because otherwise what remains is corporation-worship that puts a magnifying glass on profit margins while disguising human effort and lives.
At this point I don’t think it’s controversial to state that videogames will endure as long society as does. Videogames informed by a strict subculture of critics and artists will probably remain marginal like noise sculptures and jazz improv jams, unless as a whole, arts culture improves. People still for whatever reason make the terrible stuff they need to see. Or basically, the history of videogames is a history of game developers, not shareholders, profits, and blockbusters.

"You are no more important to the product than the guy on the assembly line who puts them together” -- Ray Kassar to David Crane, 1978