Tug of Warfare – The Games Culture Struggle

The Game Awards 2014 have represented this total weird place we live in right now, with regards to games culture. On the one hand, we have our glorious history behind us with people like Roberta Williams coming out and we have this heartfelt and real celebrations of their work, and we have indie developers come out and show these genuinely astounding and fantastical games that make us excited and seem new and like the next step forward. On the other hand, we have the super constructed world of AAA ‘bro’ culture that somehow still lives on harder than ever, with deep voices proclaiming the next trailer is a ‘WORLD PREMIERE’ and building up this constructed hype around games that look fairly similar to each other and to the last five year’s worth of games, and we have these problematic figures coming out and receiving awards proclaiming them as the voices of our culture while they promote a continuing of our male-dominated and male-oriented ‘prove it’ aspects that we’ve tried to move away from.

It is, to say the least, a bit of a crazy game of cultural tug of war.

It seems to sit between the world of real open inclusive interest and excitement, and constructed and manufactured excitement and interest over products designed to interest the few and indulge them. Take Playstation’s keynote; Sean Murray, from Hello Games, came out to show No Man’s Sky, and here you have this guy who is clearly nervous about the crowd and not a comfortable speaker but he loves his project and is so excited for it that he just has to come out and show it to you, and everyone else then gets infected with the excitement because hell, No Man’s Sky is a game to get goddamn excited about. On the flipside, we have David Jaffe, coming out to discuss a game set in a teenage boy’s notebook and its all hyperviolent, and he cussed on stage because he’s cool and edgy, and the whole experience of him being there and his game just felt like such a constructed attempt to be ‘hip’ and ‘edgy’ and appealing and indulging to what seems to be perceived as the ‘core’ demographic of games that it kinda actually hurt.

There seems to be some contingent of the games industry that still thinks like the teenage boys they were, playing games like Doom and Leisure Suit Larry, and remembering how great they thought all the violence and sexual gratification was and wanting to continue it, and constructing hype around these young male fantasies so people can try to make real buzz out of it. Obviously, these people existed before, to make games like Doom and Leisure Suit Larry, but it seems to be the developers who followed that and came into the industry as teenage boys who hadn’t fully grown up, and still haven’t, and the folk in suits who saw what money they could make from teenage boys and think that’s still the way to go. So the corporate structure and the ‘visionaries’ in charge of studios creates these games to aim at these young males (and at themselves to an extent), and the hype machine revs up for us to have this big reveals and cool dubstep or metal on the trailers and for this false constructed excitement to occur, where you get excited because the publisher wants you to be excited, so you’ll buy, rather than the developers wanting you to be excited because they’re really into their project.

But at the same time, there is a contingent, as there has always been, of developers and folk that want to create games for everyone, or at least don’t want to just play to young males and their fantasies and ideas of what games should be, who really genuinely believe and are excited in the work they do. The indie community is a great example of this; there are so many games creators who are so invested in the work they do and believe so much in their projects, and it creates infectious excitement. It becomes hard not to be excited when you see a Sean Murray or Roberta Williams come out and talk about their projects and see how genuinely invested they are in the work they’re doing or have done. Its this very genuine and very real love of games, rather than just trying to appeal to one group or make money from one group or indulge the fantasies of that one group. It makes games culture this thing that anyone could come into and understand the excitement and joy of.

But of course, how would that natural shareable excitement fit in a games culture where we constantly need to prove our status as ‘gamers’? How could we make things inclusive when its so crucial apparently that everyone prove their knowledge and experience of games all the time so we all know that they do really like games and their opinions are valid? How can we let people into our games culture and make games for them, when we can’t be sure they’re really into this for the games and they’re not just lying about being into games, because being a fake gamer is the most heinous crime? Because a crucial part of our games culture is the machismo nature of needing to prove one’s status obviously, and we could never do without it.

Or wait a second, what if we could just have things be inclusive and open and not try to have people prove themselves all the time? What if we got rid of the overt macho rubbish in games culture with regards to how we act towards each other, and we could make progress towards having inclusivity in games, and excited developers and not having constructed hype pushed towards us? What if our creative industry felt more like creatives were in charge of the process, or had a bigger say, than just men in suits pushing hype to their big new shooting game or male power trip? Because we’re like getting there. The indie revolution has made us have some progress towards making games culture and the industry better, but there’s still some space to go, so like, can we finish the job please world, and just stop this daft tug of war?

 

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Zero Shades of Grey – Morality & Games

Morality. Its a very complex social idea. How do we know we’re doing the right thing, and how will people view us for doing what we think is right? Very few of us ever take a difficult decision without thinking that its the right thing to do from our perspective and situation. Very few of us actively set out to be the bad guy or an evil person or anything like that, and we all think ourselves as good people for the most part. Its hardly a common thing for humans to look at their actions, then maniacally laugh at the malevolance of their movements; generally, the differences we see in what we do and what other people do are subtle, and certainly, everything is just positions on a grey scale.

So why the hell don’t games understand this, by and large? What is it about morality that loses any sense of subtlety and complexity within games, and turns into black and white systems of “Good guy/bad guy”. When playing games, it feels more like you make a conscious decision to play down the hero route or the villain route, than you stumble down whichever path based on your proactive decisions at any time, which kind of destroys the entire point of having a morality system really.

Consider a game like Fable, or Mass Effect. When you’re confronted with the options of what to do in a particular situation, its generally pretty obvious to any spectator which option is the “good” option and which one is the “bad” one. Often because the two actions will be something like “Save the townspeople, and be a hero” or “Let the townspeople die, because you don’t really care”. Or, one of my favourite examples from the Mass Effect series, “Let this species live in peace now they are passive and pacifist” or “Kill the last queen of the species, and let them be extinct, because they were trouble once according to the lore”. Sure, there’s an element of pragmatism there, but its pretty clear which side each decision lies on, and with these games, its very rarely the player’s pragmatism that makes the decision.

More often than not, the player will have a preconceived idea of where they’re going to lie throughout the whole game. Its very much a followthrough of the Dungeons and Dragons idea of morality; as a DnD player, you define who the protagonist is from the beginning on the lawful/chaotic and good/evil scales, and then make your decisions as part of that. Except most video games remove the lawful/chaotic scale, and just weirdly incorporate that into good/evil. In Mass Effect, the evil choices are often far more chaotic such as pulling a gun on someone to get them to confess; in inFamous, being good often means helping to keep the order while being evil means you cause chaos as you solve issues. But back to the point at hand, the idea of playing to a particular idea instead of playing pragmatically is a hand-me-down from tabletop games, and it informs a lot of the way players play, and also the way systems are designed in these games.

Even ignoring how many games incentivise going fully good or fully evil with trophies, which can be fairly avoidable by not caring, there are still plenty of games that actually lock off your abilities and full strength if you don’t go in knowing exactly which way you’re going to swing for the whole game. inFamous holds back some of the strongest abilities and ability progression behind a ‘morality wall’, meaning you must either choose to go fully good or fully evil, or risk being colossally underpowered towards the end of the game. That means pragmatism is pretty much impossible, unless you’re trying to make it even more difficult for yourself (not recommended).

Another limitation these games self-impose on player choice and morality is the fact that they clearly identify it as “this is the good path” and “this is the bad path”. Even when its hidden behind a thesaurus, like Mass Effect tries to do. If you say to a player “are you going to be good, or bad?”, it is inevitably going to produce a different result to making decisions on a situation by situation basis. It just further lets the player play it with the intention of their character being something by the end, rather than letting them play it in the present and make decisions by feel. I mean, you may be feeling like these townspeople have been idiots and they deserve to die, but you’re trying to play a hero and know the hero path is going to include saving them, so that’s that, your decision is made.

Also, by framing it as good and bad, you inevitably take away any subtlety to the decisions. Obviously, if the situations in these games were real, there would be more agonising and trying to justify it to yourself that you were picking right, but in these games, with the choices so clear and the lack of any shades of grey, you have no reason to consider and justify. Without a sense of scale and without any reason to consider and justify your actions, the decisions lose meaning and weight; sure, you let a species go extinct, but you had to because you needed those renegade points to make sure Shepard was fully evil, and its not like its going to stick with you much. It all becomes very impersonal, which kind of defies the point of having a morality system at all; if your decisions are supposed to mean something, and be a personal choice, having meaningless decisions that aren’t necessarily based on personal choice and may quite possibly mean nothing to the player kind of defies the point surely.

And if those decisions are as obviously affecting as they are in these games, it takes away any sense of surprise or shock you may have. The decisions that make the most notable impacts on the way your character’s ‘morality’ goes are often so narratively signposted that there’s no way you can go in without knowing that its a major decision. In fact, some games even make it patently obvious what’s happening by outright stating or showing it; inFamous had a small icon that appeared to indicate when a decision was going to have an effect on your moral standing, which was just beyond ridiculous. Though I suppose if you’ve already made the decisions meaningless and based on character plans and not player choice, then hey ho, who cares if they can see the decisions coming.

So there’s a lot of games now that use morality systems to try to lend weight to their narrative and to their characterisation, while also giving the player choice in how things go, and that then kind of fail to do any of those things particularly well. Which is probably as much to do with the position of writers in the development of many of these games, as it is to do with morality systems being inherently flawed or their deployment being done wrong. But just to try and bring it back around from all my negative examples, its probably pretty useful to discuss games that actually handle morality systems and ways of judging the player’s decisions a lot better than many do.

Catherine, the bizarre super-Japanese puzzle game from Atlus, has a system based on polar opposites and a scale between the two that gives you one ending or another, and all the progress along that scale one way or the other that you control is clearly done through questions between puzzles. But, despite the fact that those are things I’ve said hugely dampen what effect morality systems can have, its handled very well within the game. First of all, the opposites you’re sliding between are never stated all that clearly in the game; what the scale means is implied more and more the further you get into the game, and it is, on some level, cleared up by whichever ending you get, but its never really stated. The questions also don’t really give it away, as you’re asked hypothetical questions on relationships and your personal life with no true right or wrong, rather than given life-saving and world-changing decisions with obvious implications

Secondly, despite the fact that the narrative so clearly defines who Vincent is as a character, you don’t know Vincent enough to really be able to answer the questions you’re given from his perspective, which means they do require some thought from the player, and have meaning from that. Whatever way you fall on the scale is more down to who you are as a player, than how you’re trying to play Vincent, which makes it actually feel like an informative and meaningful experience. The questions are also relatable; unlike making decisions on whether to save an insect species in space, you’re asked questions on what you’d prefer from a relationship or similar, that you probably actually have some thoughts on anyway. All in all, Catherine’s morality system, if its possible to call it such once you get a feel for what the scale stands for, ends up feeling quite memorable and personal because you’ve considered your answers and the game has done its behind-the-scenes bits to try and sort of line you up with the ending it thinks befits you.

The other game that I think handles the idea of morality well is Alpha Protocol, mostly because it has a morality system without any real morality to it. The way the game handles it is more of a system where you have a reputation going into conversations with people based on the actions you take, though if you consider how any Bioware game handles morality systems, its basically the same, but without the poorly done hero/anti-hero scale to it. And when you take that scale away, it basically frees up the player to choose whatever course of action they feel is most suited to their situation. Because that’s how spies work: pragmatically.

From there, the game just remembers what choices you make, and feeds into it how other characters perceive you; do they see you as cold and calculating but professional, or a suave spy capable of avoiding unnecessary combat and defusing a situation, or a guns blazing crazy person? It makes more sense than having you be judged because you behaved like a good guy or a bad guy in a particular situation. As if someone like Wrex is going to talk to Shepard and be like “Hmm, you’re acting a bit evil, Shepard”. Nah, Wrex, the hardcore old school Krogan mercenary, would be like “Shepard, I understand why you made that choice, I like your professionalism, but I think you need to think a bit less about what your teammates will say” or something like that. The Alpha Protocol system just makes it feel more realistic and well handled, so the way that your actions influence people’s views of you becomes more meaningful and has more impact within the game than just “You are a bad man, how could you be so bad”. Which is dumb. So dumb.

And of course, there are obviously more games out there, I’m sure, that handle morality systems in a way that isn’t just stupidly blunt and heavy-handed. But I just hope that eventually, all games manage to do that, and that it feels less like a nice surprise when I find a game that handles it in a meaningful and reasonable way. Because what’s the point in implementing a morality system, if it doesn’t reflect real human morality at all, huh game developers?


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.

Marvel

Ye Olden Golden Days – Marvel and Superhero/Movie Tie-In Games

San Diego Comic Con 2014 has now passed us by, and we’ve had lots of news and announcements and seen all the new radical and crazy stuff companies are doing. But, here, I want to talk about one particular thing it made me think about; what the hell happened to superhero games and movie tie-in games? Marvel had one of their many panels at SDCC talk about their Games division. I was following all the news and announcements and the games they were discussing, and here’s some statistics; only 2 of the games weren’t F2P, only 1 of the games is on home consoles, only 1 of the games is an actual proper PC game. And if you want an example of the kind of odd thinking that really drove me to talk about this; Marvel announced a new fighting game, with just their characters in, and then said that it was purely a mobile/tablet game. Because of course, as we ALL know, fighting games are known for their suitability to mobile and tablet formats, and have a huge audience there.

And all that got me thinking, what the hell happened to the days when I was younger and there were all these awesome games with Marvel heroes coming out and being pretty good? There was Spiderman 2, the X-Men Legends games, the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, the couple of Hulk games that let you free-roam and destroy stuff freely. And even when the games weren’t great, they still at least showed some potential to be great; I’ve played the Iron Man movie game, and while the actual game leaves a lot to be desired, you can tell the ideas were in the right place and it was still kind of satisfying to fly around as Tony Stark, and use repulsors and unibeams and rockets and all that stuff to shoot tanks and planes and the rest.

Beyond all those older things though, a lot of the games were starting to get better anyway; both X-Men Origins Wolverine and Captain America: Super Soldier were/are pretty good games. Wolverine had some pretty cool ideas for what to do with a Wolverine game, and Captain America was Arkham Asylum with a shield and Nazis so pretty cool all around. Plus there’s the prototype footage of the Avengers video game that THQ (I believe) had in development; yeah, it’s kind of bizarre that it was in first person, but also it just looked really cool on all accounts. Spiderman has been doing alright with the Amazing Spiderman games as well, as they both seem pretty good.

Yet here we are, stuck in a world where Marvel have been primarily making free-to-play mobile games for each of their films and generally. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played (and paid) quite a few of the non-film games; they’re not _bad_ games by any means, but it also feels like I was playing them to fill a bit of a void. And funnily enough, every time I find myself getting into LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, I lose interest in those free-to-play games. Because I realise that the free-to-play games really are my stop-gap for not getting enough Marvel superheroes in my gaming diet. So I find myself very glad that the Guardians of the Galaxy movie game isn’t a free-to-play game where it feels like I’m going to be nickel and dimed slowly but surely because I enjoy Marvel.

We’re not past the mobile thing though. Yes, the Guardians of the Galaxy movie game (subtitled The Ultimate Weapon) isn’t free-to-play, but its still a mobile game. Yes, the Guardians of the Galaxy will be getting put into Disney Infinity 2.0 (don’t get me wrong, I am very excited to have Marvel in that game, the original is pretty cool in my book), but its still only being an extra in a larger game which isn’t even just about Marvel. So we return to my problem, which is basically summarised as “Where the hell are my console or PC games that I can buy and play without microtransactions, Marvel?”.

In fact, I’d just be happy to get more LEGO Marvel Super Heroes with even more characters and even more area to play in and even more of everything basically. Or if you could give me more games to go with the movies, if that’d help you financially, because I know that’s always important. I literally don’t care, Marvel, just give me things that I don’t have to play on my mobile. My mobile is basically just for Marvel Unlimited, Twitter and texting by now anyway, so I’m not playing games on it. JUST LET ME PLAY SOME GAMES ON MY CONSOLE SO I CAN ENJOY YOUR GAMES AS WELL AS YOUR MOVIES AND COMICS AND KIDS CARTOONS AND ACTION FIGURES AND EVERYTHING ELSE. PLEASE, MARVEL, PLEASE.

Okay, calming down now. Thanks for reading folks.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Shadow of the Colossus

Down On The Upside – Is Being Contrarian Really That Bad?

My name is Joe, and I am a hipster and a contrarian. I don’t like Michael Jackson’s music, I think Led Zeppelin are over-rated, I find Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings boring and I reckon people are daft when they say Pulp Fiction is even close to one of Tarantino’s best films. I almost thrive off having unpopular opinions. It just runs through my veins, like when I start wildly ranting to people about how Batman sucks and Superman is the best DC hero (Supes isn’t the best-best but he’s the best of the ones that anyone actually knows). But when it comes to games, I seem to feel that bit guiltier for some reason when I don’t like a game that other people do or that is a supposed classic or masterpiece, or when I really enjoy a game that is not popular.

This occurred to me while I was playing the HD redo of Shadow of the Colossus on my PS3. This is a game that everyone is supposed to love, is supposed to be some kind of wonderful artistic masterpiece of gaming and of an interactive experience. Yet, here I was, sitting there, thinking “The controls are obtuse, the game mechanics are strange to grasp or awkward and the difficulty is crazy punishing”. I mean, I get why those things are as they are, I get the purpose of it all, but it just doesn’t fit me. And I found myself apologising on Twitter for not liking this game. What ground do I have for apologising for my opinion on something that doesn’t seem like it’s supposed to fit me?

Dark Souls was the same case for me. Dark Souls is this game that people hold up as one of the shining examples of brilliance in games during this last console generation, and I literally cannot get into it at all. I tried to for like an hour and a half, and I appreciated the atmosphere of it but the gameplay just threw me out so badly, and playing Shadow of the Colossus brought me right back to that. These are both incredibly atmospheric games about reasonable but brutal difficulty and a satisfying result when you take your opponent seriously and manage to finish the job. And I can’t get into that. At all.

Both of those games, when I think about it now, are games I’d be happy to watch someone play and experience in a secondary way, but they’re not games I would ever play and finish for myself. And I know that, and I’m personally fine with that on an internal level. But I feel like those two games just serve an example of how there’s this weird feeling of pressure and expectation as a gamer that you’ll appreciate all the games that other people consider classics or masterpieces and you’ll love them too. Which, in turn, leads me to this weird situation where I feel like I need to apologise for not enjoying games that are not my cup of tea or my style at all. I have never been into games that have such a focus on high difficulty or anything like that. Hell, I can barely deal with puzzle games; that’s why I’ve never played Braid and would only ever watch an LP of it.

All that being said, why do I end up bowing to this weird odd sense of peer pressure about not liking games when I know they’re my style? Is it because I’m still this person who seeks the approval of others when it comes to the validation of their tastes? Is it because the games community can get so tetchy on opinions and whether or not you enjoy a certain game? Is it because I know other people enjoyed the game so I think there’s always a chance I might know where they’re coming from if I just struggle through and get myself to have this acquired taste? I don’t know really by rights know. It’s just one of those things where I have this weird guilt attached to it and I allow it to make me feel bad for not persevering longer with games like Shadow of the Colossus.

The same kind of sense of needing to agree along the grain with general gaming opinion gives me the same weird feelings of guilt and such when I enjoy games that aren’t considered that good or cast-off too. Personally, I always try to keep a critically open mind, and find good points and bad points in everything; I mean, I realised that I actually did kind of like Afterfall InSanity in a genuine way because it has a good story at times and the presentation is interesting, and that takes real strength of will. In fact, I’d wager many people that know me from Youtube or Twitch know me as a man who will happily take on the challenge of playing a shit game and finding some weird perverse way of enjoying it through the fact that its shit, because on a personal level, I’d rather play a game that is dirt bad but funny in how bad it is than one that is boring but well-made.

But, when it comes to actually having an opinion on games that other people didn’t enjoy too much or cast off pretty quickly, I seem to temper it with how other people feel about a game. I’ll say with total honesty; I really sincerely enjoyed Arkham Origins. It may not have been the leap forward that Arkham City was after Asylum, but it kept the formula solid without ruining much, and introduced some neat little things that I hope Rocksteady keep on for Arkham Knight, like the detective work. That detective stuff actually drove me through the post-story clearing up quite nicely because I got really into going through the weird CSI-like discovery of it, and I don’t really get people’s issue that it was ‘too linear’ as if it was supposed to be this huge non-linear clue hunt game. That’s not how the world’s greatest detective would work, folks. But back on point, when I was talking about Origins after having finished it, I actually may have docked a point or two from where I maybe would have put it; part of that is probably to do with the fact that I was suffering major Joker-fatigue by the end (I genuinely dislike all Batman media’s insistent hard-on for the Joker as an antagonist) and there are some irritating boss sequences towards the back end of the game, but by the same merit, I may have docked it a bit for the sake of face.

Even when I said I thought Origins was good, rather than pretty damn great like I probably acknowledge it is now with some hindsight on the situation (Asylum and City are fantastical masterpieces to me, even as someone who’s not big on Batman), I still found myself having to explain myself to others. Whether those other people hadn’t played it and had bought into the reviews and internet mood toward it, or had played it and just didn’t find it much good, I don’t know. But they did really want to question why I’d feel that way. And I mean, that’s the nature of a discussion, I’m never going to begrudge people the chance to question my feelings and why I have them. It does feel, though, like I let some of that slip into my opinion, and let some of that slip into my expectations towards the game at the start anyway, and it bugs me that my opinion on games can be so susceptible.

So basically, I don’t really know what I’m saying here with this article. I don’t know if I can really stop myself from bowing down to weird pressures on my opinions on games and how I like or don’t like the games I do, and I don’t know if I’d want those things to go away even if I knew what caused them, but I just wanted to write about it, because it seems like an interesting thing to just consider and talk about. Also, I just wanted to say that Arkham Origins is actually great and definitely worth playing. Eff the h8rz, as the kids would say.

 


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Aiden Pearce - Watch_Dogs

Cult of No-Personality – Gruff White Guys & The Idea of the Default Hero in Games

Did you know that Die Hard, every reasonable person’s favourite Christmas movie, is actually based on a book? And in that book, John McClain, Mr Gruff Rogue Policeman Protagonist himself, was actually a fairly old, grizzled and grumpy man, a la Donald Glover in Lethal Weapon? And that in the movie, they decided that wouldn’t quite fit, so they changed his character to be more suited to someone like Bruce Willis to play? I tell you this fact, just as an interesting introduction to the world of the media wanting young or middle-aged, gruff, white, male protagonists, though obviously, I’m going to talk about games here because this is a games website and I try to remain a focussed writer to some level. To get back to games on some level, why don’t you take a look around at the protagonists of many of this year’s biggest games, and how many of them are gruff white guys, which I’m now shortening to GWGs to save my word count some abuse (extra bonus points go to where they’re a vigilante of some description, or their family was hurt prior to or at the beginning of the game, or where they’re out for redemption of some sort for past sins, because those are all crucial GWG qualities).

Watch_Dogs is a pretty prime example of everything that is the issue with GWGs in games. Ignoring the fact that Aiden Pearce, aka Hack’n’Shoot Hatmaskman, is essentially a walking digital pile of crime fiction tropes, he is essentially given very little real development throughout the game. The game introduces him as a gruff white guy who hacks stuff for his own personal profit, then some bad stuff happens, he feels guilty for the bad stuff that happens, and becomes a vigilante to redeem himself and get some fairly petty vengeance against people. Following all that hassle, he gets embroiled in a revenge plot against him by an old partner which puts his family in danger, all of which is again insanely stereotypical crime vigilante fiction and in no way gives you a good reason to play the game. And if your lengthy singleplayer-focussed story-oriented game has a protagonist that has no relatability or interesting features, and a story that has no real originality to it, then things are going to drag real quickly. The only reason I personally found to want to follow the adventures of Mr Hatmaskman was that this was about as close as I could get to a good Punisher game at the minute, and went about trying to focus on enjoying the gameplay and being a vigilante in a fairly solid city simulation with working public transport and nice gunplay.

And that’s a game that people have largely derided for its story, so its not exactly hard to pick at its already criticised-to-death corpse with all the other amateur journalist vultures (note: I actually quite like Watch_Dogs as a game, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have issues). Both of the big hitting AAA games that competed for Game of the Year on most sites, and are getting or have had re-releases this year, also have this major issue with using GWGs as their protagonists. The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V both feature morally ambiguous white men who end up seeking redemption or something similar on their respective journeys; yes, you could say that the storylines to those games are more complicated than that, and there is more to the characters than that, and even that I’m attacking games that don’t need to be attacked because they still tell fine stories with the characters they use and they have other playable or leading characters that aren’t gruff white guys. And you’re not wrong to say that; hell, if all gruff white guys were as well written as Joel in the Last of Us, we’d be just fine. But what if we could be better than just fine, and what if we could have made some of those characters not just fit the default?

To a rather basic observation, the characters of Joel and Lee, from the Walking Dead games by Telltale, are actually rather similar. Both of them are these grizzled cynical middle-aged guys who’ve seen their fair share of shit and done their fair share of bad things, and end up pairing up with a young girl to try and seek redemption and survival in the crazy post-apocalyptic worlds they live in. And without this necessarily becoming a reflection on which developers have better writers, Lee is the more interesting of the two characters in my opinion, and this is largely helped by the fact that he’s not just another gruff white guy; there is dialogue that allows for a reasonable, non-exploitative use of the fact that he’s not a GWG, emphasis more on the W than anything else, throughout the Walking Dead. That then allows for a more interesting dynamic between him and some of the other characters as well as allowing those of us who don’t experience life like that a small emulation of the experience and allowing those of us who can more directly relate to Lee to have someone to look up to in games, which is far too rare. On the other hand, Joel’s character is more just defined by his gender, age and gruffness, which is just a bit better than par for the course with game protagonist character development; again though, this isn’t me saying ‘Oh, The Last of Us is terrible because Joel is white and gruff’, this is me saying ‘Joel’s character is great within the story generally, but it is also very default-hero and I see no real reason why that has to be the case, when we see more interesting non-default heroes of a similar vein elsewhere’.

And then onto the other big game, Grand Theft Auto V. The one where Rockstar decided to be a bit ballsy and have 3 protagonists instead of just 1. And to their credit, it was an interesting design choice, for sure; now if only the protagonists were as interesting in design choices. Of the three, two are gruff middle-aged career criminal white guys, looking to make some money to pay off some bad choices and help mentor the third character, who is a young inexperienced black guy (who is fairly underplayed and is generally regarded as the worst of the three characters by most players, which tells you something about Rockstar’s focus in character design and plotting). I get that Michael is the retired family man, and that Trevor is the psychopathic criminal, neither of which are totally obvious crime fiction tropes at all obviously, but what specifically requires both of them to be gruff middle-aged white guys. In conversations I’ve had with people, they’ve said “Because the plot requires them to be so”, but I refuse to believe that Rockstar write a plot first and then go “Right, well, nothing about this can be changed, this is literally the Bible to our new game and this is the purest and holiest form of game canon” and fit all their characters into it. Just think about how cool it could have been if Michael was a female character, who’d settled down into a mother role and was lured back into her criminal ways or had her criminal ways catch up to her, in a kind of Orange Is The New Black style perhaps, or if Trevor had been some kind of Machete-like psychopath, as opposed to just a disgusting balding white guy.

Which leads me to what I think is a game that I think will make a fairly solid comparison to Grand Theft Auto V; Sleeping Dogs. Sleeping Dogs is yet another open world crime game, but it has plenty of distinctions that make it rather unlike the rest; as opposed to being set in an American city or a pastiche of an American city, it’s set in Hong Kong, and instead of having another white guy criminal or grizzled middle-aged cop out for redemption or revenge or whatever, you play as a young Interpol agent who originally came from Hong Kong but mostly grew up in the States and is back to infiltrate the Triad. Now, to me at least, that brief summary of only the start of Sleeping Dogs sounds more interesting than most open world crime games set in America with a GWG as a lead, but hey, what do I know. And this is not to say that Sleeping Dogs does not descend into crime fiction tropes either; it is absolutely full of them, and often feels like a grand tribute to John Woo, but hey, how many games do you get that feel like they’re homages to John Woo as opposed to people like Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino. It is very much a game that tries to represent a culture that other games don’t, and that gives it this wonderful sense of novelty, for lack of a better word, that feeds back into the world so much more; in place of the typical open world mini games, there’s bizarre little things like a Karaoke mini game, which I find unceasingly hilarious but not because of how odd it is to have it in there, which make sense within the context, as do other changes to the game. The whole game world and the plot and everything are all the more interesting for the fact that the protagonist and the game’s setting were picked to be outside of the default gruff white male crime game lead and the default American urban environment.

On the topic of games that benefit from having a protagonist/s that isn’t all that default in a game world that isn’t too default either, its about time I brought up Mercenaries as a counter to boring old gruff white guy marine stereotypes. Yes, one of the three characters you can choose to play as IS a gruff white marine, but he’s more of a violent Swede than an American, and of the three, his background is the least interesting; the other two characters are an African American soldier whose father was a diplomat, and a Chinese-British female soldier. The main reason that I mention the African American soldier’s father is that each of these characters got a neat little un-mentioned bonus in the course of the game, as depending on the character you chose, you’d be able to understand what one of the three non-UN factions working with Korea were saying; the Swede could understand what the Russian mafia said, the American understood the South Korean forces and the Chinese-British woman understood the Chinese leadership. It meant that you got this slight insight into what each group was up to, and it was all the more reason not to trust anyone within the warzone. Also, the warzone itself, rather than being [insert Middle Eastern country where instability might happen] or America’s own backyard, was North and South Korea, which you freely roamed, trying to hold back North Korean troops from conquering the peninsula. It’s not really an environment you see much in games, and it has a wonderful alienness to it as you see all this Communist architecture and all these statues dedicated to their glorious leader. The environment could be done with a gruff white protagonist, sure, but I like to discuss it as being outside the default, plus half the fun of exploring that environment comes from the fact that you’re a private contractor who is not your average US soldier in the warzone and you can go and do your own thing instead of sticking with your particular regiment or whatever.

In the wake of Alien: Isolation coming out, it seems relevant to think about the space equivalent to our dear gruff white guy marine as well. Considering we live in a world where women are getting ever closer to being frontline soldiers just like men, and its not like women aren’t in the armed forces anyway, it seems odd that the vast VAST majority of combat-participating characters in shooty games set in the future are men. To the point where a female character in Gears of War is apparently an applaudable thing. A single female character. Sure, we get the occasional badass female in space, following in the footsteps of Ridley and her alien-ass-kicking ways, but most of the time it’s another Master Chief or whatever-the-boring-lead-from-Gears-of-War’s-name-is or whatever-the-boring-leads-from-the-Killzone-games’-names-are to add to the pile of soon-to-be-nameless and forgotten protagonists who shoot stuff in space. And its a terrible case when these people who have some degree of imagination because they can come up with these fantastical worlds in the galaxy and these cool weapons and setpieces and things can’t be bothered to do anything with the protagonist because its easier to just lean on the default and work from there. Why not let the player be in some kind of Sisters of Mercy-esque (The Sisters of Mercy are a group in Warhammer 40K, who are essentially violent fiery nuns to the Emperor) unit that goes around kicking ass, instead of just being another grunt, huh?

So what I’m saying is, how about we stop falling back on the default heroes and environments and plots and all the rest in games? How about we push some boundaries, get some more interesting things going, create a more diverse industry and fanbase for gaming, and all have that bit more fun? How about we put our imaginations and creativity towards creating something other than short-haired-deep-voiced-grunt-no.326 and his journey into a desert to shoot folk for the US government? As much as people worry about the idea of having this more diverse cast of protagonists across the games industry, it only helps to push developers and writers to create more interesting stories and characters if they don’t just rely on the default gruff white guy archetype that games seem to love and use oh so very much all the time. And if nothing else, I’m much happier having interesting games with new narratives than another gruff white guy who lost his family and is looking for redemption or who lost his squadmates and is looking for revenge. Much happier.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

 

Tommy Wiseau

Bad Games Do It Well – Why Bad Games Can Still Be Good

I’m against this idea of a universal objective rating of a game, and the idea that is forever how we are to judge a game. Not only does this make us hold games up to crazy standards that might not apply to everyone, but it can make us throw away games just because they’re considered bad. It’s almost like we have no notion of how artistry and experiential art forms work. My own personal ideology is that so long as a game has something interesting about it, something to serve as a hook and keep you wanting to play it, it’s worth the time you put into it. Only boring games are the truly regrettable purchases or uses of time.

To take a cue from a completely different media form, look at the Tommy Wiseau-made cult classic movie, The Room. There is no way in hell you could ever argue that film is ‘good’; it’s made badly, the writing is atrocious, the acting is so bad, the music and sound design is beyond cheesy etc. etc. But, by virtue of all those parts and the story around it and the fact that it was made with such serious intention, you end up with this movie that has become one of the best accidental cult comedies. I don’t know if we necessarily have a game that’s reached that point of cult accidental hilarity or anything yet, but the lesson there is clear; so long as you don’t just half-ass what you’re making, it will surely come out interesting to someone in some way.

One of my standout memories of playing a game that was so weirdly bad and oddly designed that I couldn’t help but just laugh my way through was probably 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand. I mean, how could you not laugh at a game to which the basic idea seems to be “Well, that first game where we used 50 Cent’s name and likeness to make a cover-based third person shooter did alright, so why not set it in the Middle East and have ‘Fiddy’ destroy an entire country to chase a diamond-encrusted skull”. I am not joking when I say that the opening of the game basically gives you all you need for story because 50 Cent walks into an office after a show, hasn’t been paid by the organiser, pulls a gun on him while G Unit cheer him on to kill this guy, is given a diamond-encrusted skull by the organiser (which he does not appreciate the historical significance of) and then, when it gets stolen very quickly afterwards, declares his vengeance.

You come into gameplay after that, where 50 Cent proves himself bulletproof by just tanking the small arms fire of many men and shrugging off RPG fire like it’s no biggie, while Fiddy and whichever unknowable G-Unit you have chosen spout off random bits of ‘gangster’ language. Also, there’s a scoring system so you should kill your enemies as fast as you can. Also, if you taunt your enemies you get extra score. Extra also, sometimes you get special bullets to shoot your pistol that will do things like set fire to your enemies. The whole game is literally just beyond reasonable sanity, despite it being this licensed product in the third person shooter genre that was so popular in the late ‘00s and being mostly sandy and trying to follow that Middle East shooter trend that also existed. It makes no sense that this game is this bizarre and over-the-top, but it was made in this way to seem ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ and ‘exciting to dudebros’ evidently. That’s the part that makes it so funny. It’s something that a game like Goat Simulator could never simulate, because accidental comedy just has this wonderful element to it that can make it so much better than designed/created/manufactured humour.

Don’t mistake me though, I don’t just believe that the only value bad games have is for comedy. Sure, there’s little in this gaming world that can be as funny as ‘appreciating’ games like Legendary, Bad Rats, Secret of the Magic Crystal, Ride To Hell and the ilk with friends and acquaintances and the internet, but ‘bad’ games can also have creative value and serve as a flawed showcase for good ideas. Whether people agree with me on that is a matter of their personal choice, but I find that there are plenty of situations in which a game turns out ‘bad’ or maligned and ignored mostly because it has ambitious or interesting ideas for story or gameplay or anything like that and it doesn’t quite meet what it was shooting for. Apparently, in game development, if you aim for the stars and miss, you don’t land on the moon; you just end up in an expensive accident and everyone ignores you.

Afterfall InSanity is my go-to example of this idea. There are plenty of other games that I could use to illustrate my point, but that’s the game I’m choosing, especially because it’s not just middle-of-the-road in quality, its genuinely quite bad and torturous at times. But when that game really works and stretches its chops with its ideas and the intriguing story and the twists and when it starts throwing your head for a bit of a psychological curveball, it works insanely well. Its like the game gives you enough to pull you into wanting to play, then forces you to wade through a horrific assault course to reach this fantastical banquet of good ideas at the end. Now, far from me to say where anyone who is to be developing games should be looking for inspiration, but that game genuinely does have a really intriguing story as horror games, post-apocalyptic games and indie games generally go. And I’d love to see people take some inspiration from that, while also purging all the crap from the gameplay, barring maybe how fun the weight of the melee weapons can be.

There are plenty of other games I’ve played, or I’ve heard about, that have this similar kind of situation where they are pretty bad or middling games but they nonetheless have some great ideas within them that I wish other people would see and capitalise on, or the developers would get a chance to work on them further. Games like Remember Me with its memory sequencing gameplay, Wet with the crazy over-the-top action that actually flowed quite well and how it oozed a sense of Tarantino-esque style, or The Saboteur, with the great use of colour as a dynamic way of measuring your progress in freeing Paris and the huge amount of things you could do in this fantastic period world in order to help free Paris from the Nazi invaders. Games like those where anyone who has played them sees some potential through all the crap they have to wade through in order to really finish and experience it.

So basically, what I’m saying here is to give bad games a try. I’m not saying you have to adopt my philosophy that the only truly bad thing a game, or any other media, can be is boring. I’m just asking for you to give games that have been thrown by the wayside a chance. Who knows, you might have a laugh or you might stumble on the needle idea in the haystack of badness.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Guitar Hero 2

An Ode To The Plastic Axe – The Stairway To Heavenly Music Games

I was in my early double digit years, way before you become a real teen and start realising all the ch-ch-ch-changes, back when you’re just trying to figure out how you might fit into your new school. It’s so long ago now that my memory has faded those bits. But what I do remember was being in Toys’R’Us on a summer’s day during my school holidays, and doing what I always did, which was going over to the games section and looking at what consoles they had demos on. I vaguely remember seeing the PS2 booth bit set up with a game I didn’t recognise all too well (I had briefly seen screenshots of Guitar Hero back in Official Playstation 2 Magazine back in their little page feature on relatively unknown games to look out for), and a plastic guitar controller sticking out rather than the usual PS2 controller. I distinctly remember the first song I played on there, which was Bad Religion’s Infected. I got really into that song actually for a little while because it just stuck with me after playing it, but that’s beside the point. The point is, I was hooked. This little demo booth had got me hooked on the whole idea of picking up a guitar controller, ignoring how much of a pillock you look, and jamming out to your heart’s content on Guitar Hero.

It’s kind of difficult to accurately state how much rhythm games have had an influence on my life. And I say that as someone who hasn’t gone into game development, and decided to play the drums after he got into Guitar Hero. But genuinely, the amount of things in my life that I can look back to and just think “Actually, Guitar Hero or Rock Band probably influenced that in some way”, it is genuinely pretty astounding. Not only have those games had a huge effect on my gaming tastes and what I’ve spent gaming money on and not only have those games had a huge effect on my music taste, those games had a huge effect on how my social life has been as a teenager and adult. Where other people cite games like Halo and Elder Scrolls and Civilization as sets of games that have changed them and affected them as they’ve grown up, I sit here, proud of what music games have done to me.

It was my 12th birthday, so back in 2006, and it was the summer holidays after my first year at secondary school. I’d made some friends, like most kids do, and while I wasn’t the coolest of the bunch, I fit in alright. They all came round and we were all trying to play Guitar Hero, back before any of us had much time on it or were any good; I was the best of the bunch and I still struggled on the second to last set of songs on Easy. There we all were, struggling away at playing Crossroads, which seemed like some insurmountable peak then, and in comes my older cousin, who played the guitar, and he just sailed through the song and got maybe 3 or 4 stars, and we were all stood there in amazement at this act. And I knew then that I had to get better, I had to be able to play better. Those games probably didn’t help my competitive edge, more than likely.

Fast forward to after the release of Guitar Hero 2, wherever that sat on the timeline of my youth. I was sat in my computer chair, feet up on the desk under my bunk bed, getting through the final set of songs at Stonehenge on Medium. I’d just about managed to get through songs like Institutionalized (still don’t like how difficult that song is, fucking Suicidal Tendencies) and Hangar 18 (I do quite like that song, some nice solos if you can get through them), and here it came, the final encore track. Screen flashes up with the same message as usual “Are you sure you want to play this?” or whatever it said; I said yes, then came another question asking if I was sure, so I said yes again, and there were quite a few pop-ups. All pretty justified if you’re finally going to go the full hog and play Freebird. As normally happens with music games, I think I just entered a bit of a flow state, but that song felt endless and my hands killed afterwards. It was a hell of a way to spend Christmas Eve as a teen.

Right now, while I write this article, I’m listening to a band that Harmonix introduced to me through the Rock Band 3 soundtrack (Golden Earring for note; I absolutely love playing Radar Love on RB3), and before this, I was listening to an album that has a song I loved on Lego Rock Band (The Passenger by Iggy Pop), and my most recent musical obsession has spun out of both hearing one song when I was a kid and hearing a couple of songs in music games (The White Stripes, Blue Orchid is on Guitar Hero 5 (I know, not Harmonix, whatever) and The Hardest Button To Button is on RB3). And that’s ignoring all the other bands and songs and albums that Guitar Hero has pushed me towards; back before I owned the first one, I was just listening to whatever indie music was coming on the radio and just gravitating towards that, but after Guitar Hero (and a little-known documentary the BBC made called Seven Ages of Rock) my music taste suddenly developed all these different bands and songs I’d never heard before that I now loved. Yes, that included David Bowie and Black Sabbath. Yes, I was raised in a weird household where I learnt UB40 songs instead of classic rock songs. (Yes, I didn’t really listen to the Beatles properly until I eventually picked up Beatles Rock Band a few years ago).

One of my good school friends had downloaded the demo for Guitar Hero 3 on his 360, back in 2007 I think, before it came out, and he’d gotten alright at playing it on the controller. We’d played Guitar Hero on my PS2 before, but this was the first time one of my friends was really considering getting one of the games for themselves; he’d pre-ordered it and everything. I went to stay over at his the night that the game released so I could be there to leech his game experience (I couldn’t get the game until at least Christmas, and I was only going to end up with it on the ol’ SD Wii) and see how the game was. I don’t really remember how most of the evening went, other than I think it might have been the first time I watched Team America: World Police, but I do remember having these feelings of not wanting to sleep at night or go back to sleep in the morning because this game was so good and I couldn’t bear the idea of us not playing it to the end. Looking back, Guitar Hero 3 isn’t really that fantastic or anything, considering its main standout point is that it’s the most difficult on average (in my opinion) of all the Harmonix and Neversoft music games, but its just another case where that game helped me develop as a teenager.

The final kind of developments I can really kind of solidly remember coming from music games are from my lengthy time playing Rock Band 2. I mean, I loved Rock Band for the fact that they let me rock out with the bass and the drums (good practice for a drummer after all), but the thing that really sticks with me from the Rock Band games is how good they are to play with other people. And not just in person either. Some of my best memories of playing games online come from way back in my early days of being an online person, when I used to hang out with a couple of American dudes on Saturday nights, staying up late because I was a cool teen, and playing Rock Band 2 excessively with them. Not only was I amazed by how good everyone was (everyone I played with was hitting like 95%+ at least on Expert consistently no matter what, and I did alright on Hard/Expert vocals), but also the fact that we used to sit and joke on mic between songs and stuff. It was a genuine little band-family unit that we had, even if it only happened at this one time a week and was very much fluid depending on who could come play. Those times genuinely are some of my first great memories of playing games online, and it probably did help set me up for this fluid online social life that I now have.

Don’t get me wrong though, Rock Band 2 and 3 have also been major additions to my social life in person. I’m sure that without Rock Band 3, and some of the DLC that I have for it (thank you, Total Eclipse of the Heart), I wouldn’t have some of my favourite stupid drunken nights and memories from doing my A Levels and going to university. And so, it is with that final little memory note, that I say, to Harmonix, to Activision now that Neversoft is no more, to Ubisoft with Rocksmith, to anyone that has considered a rhythm game a project they want to do; I will always be here for these games. As long as I can keep my plastic axes, and my plastic drums, and my microphone in a workable state, and as long as I can keep hold of all these music games for my PS2 and my PS3, I won’t let the genre go. I don’t need a Rock Band 4 (I’d love one though, so get to it please), or a Guitar Hero 7, because I’ve had my fine run with these games, and I’ve loved it, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Note: I also love DJ Hero 1 and 2, they’re fantastic games. I own Guitar Hero 1,2,3,4,5,6 and Rock Band 1,2,3, Beatles and LEGO across my PS2 and PS3. Also, I own Guitar Hero 4 on PC. Which is a terrible port. Don’t ever buy into the novelty of that unless you need a cheap PS3 guitar because its the same exact guitar.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.