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Worth a Look

Worth a Look

Whatever your thoughts may be about BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, there is no doubt that something happened during its development that lead to such a rocky debut, a series of choices so clouded in the public’s questions and shrouded in the mystery a company like EA’s BioWare can afford, the game was otherwise assumed to be relegated to the “well, that happened” category of games and we (as the gaming public) would be forced to move on.

This frankly bizarre secrecy around AAA game development shines a light on a major deficiency in the community––companies can bury “failed” games in mystery because they can get away with it. Though not focused on a failed game, a few years ago the BBC made a docudrama about the legal troubles of rockstar game studio, Rockstar Games, against which the developer filed suit, in a bit of irony. The development of Sony’s long-delayed The Last Guardian was mostly kept behind curtains, allowing the game to speak for itself when its time finally arrived, which had the aggregated conclusion of “it’s fine.” Though these are two of many examples, most of the community has accepted the idea that we will most likely never know how the choices were made, for better or for worse, and these companies will keep their business secreted away behind blast doors.

Peebee from Mass Effect: Andromeda. Image courtesy of BioWare and Electronic Arts.

Luckily, some people are starting to catch on to the fact that “video game history” isn’t relegated to the eighties and nineties alone; it’s happening now. Right now. Mass Effect: Andromeda got a lot of dirt piled onto it. I enjoyed it for what it was and what it’s worth, but the tidal chart of nerd judgement is rather unforgiving. If something doesn’t meet a certain standard (a standard I believe is often rather arbitrary), that game, movie, comic, or tv show is dumped upon. There is no critical middle anymore in popular culture. And such a strong negative reception can taint a studio or franchise for a long while, a stain nobody can afford to live with. So, with things like Jason Schreier’s article coming so soon after Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s release, it can shed some much needed counterpoint onto the conversation.

To be clear, Schreier’s article isn’t an apology for the game. Instead, it’s investigative; he isn’t casting judgement, but instead acknowledging that something happened and the public reacted to it and he simply wanted to find out why:

[To] those who worked on it, Mass Effect: Andromeda felt unusually difficult. This was a game with ambitious goals but limited resources, and in some ways, it’s miraculous that BioWare shipped it at all.

This is an effort to chronicle recent history rather than simply cast it in one light or another, but to try and find out the whole story so historians have all the pieces with which to assemble hindsight instead of waiting for a day when only two or three members of the team are alive to tell the tale. This has actually been a trend I’ve seen recently and it warms my heart to see members of the games press turning a historical eye to the industry instead of being the first to give readers a hot take (not that hot takes and investigative pieces are mutually exclusive). Waypoint published a fantastic oral history of Halo, a genre of historical recording of which I’m growing fonder (more on that in a future episode). Waypoint also published a fascinating look at development documents for what would have been the sequel to the 2012 Square Enix-published Sleeping Dogs. I think the industry needs to be more self-aware, or else corporate red tape could actually contribute in the hindering of keeping this medium from becoming the art form it deserves to be.

Way back in Episode 58, Andrew and I discussed our (and listeners’) “gateways to geekdom,” accepting that the road to fandom is not necessarily––perhaps rarely––a straight path. A lot of us come to our passions through strange on-ramps or off-ramps from one fandom or medium to another. Popular culture has definitely done this with superheros and their stories with the rise of superhero cinema. It certainly wasn’t the comics industry who were making amazing books that the populace grabbed onto, but filmmakers who loved the comics and finally, finally, started making good movies based on those properties. Does that make cinematic universe enthusiasts any less of a fan than comic book readers? Ultimately, no. A fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man.

The few times we spoke with friend-of-the-site, Elijah Kaine, he mentioned his initial gateway into comicsdom––of which he has become thoroughly ensconced and well-read––was not comic books but the X-Men animated series, and this was probably the “in” for many X-Men or comic book fans. How many people started reading The Walking Dead because they watched the AMC tv show first? During my teenage years, my severe interest in Japanese feudal history and martial culture could be traced back to things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Highlander. But they were gateways for me to walk through and soak up the world on the other side of the jamb.

Doctor Fate v Atrocitus: Dawn of Injustice 2. Screenshot courtesy of NetherRealm/Warner Bros.

Mike Diver’s article hints at something a bit more nuanced. He discusses the fact that he’s learning about DC’s characters by playing the fighting game that uses them. Sure, he’s also jumping online to mine wikis, but the fact is he’s actually getting a strong sense and knowledge of these comic book characters by playing a video game set in that world (but in its own continuity). In fact, it may be fair to say he’s becoming a fan:

Here I am, playing, and learning—and with superhero fiction such a staple of modern entertainment, it’s good to get deeper into its (to me, at least) weirder corners, via the accessible “in” of an easy-to-pick-up fighting game.

This intersectional literacy is probably the most common method of knowledge creation and meaning-making, more than traditional, antiquated, or teacher-centric educational models would lead us to believe. While my previous examples were my gateway to an interest in the topic, sometimes there are non-traditional texts––like video games, comic books, movies, tv shows, etc.––that actually gives the user information that would otherwise only be learned in that actual field. I wonder how many people learned legitimate history from playing games like Age of Empires, or gained a knowledge about different aspects of our world’s cultures from playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? How many learned about the intertwined influence of economics and politics by playing Crusader Kings or Civilization? How many people developed an interest in the hard sciences because they watched Star Trek? The answer to all of these questions is likely the same: many more than you would think.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

Source: SAG-AFTRA

It may surprise some reading this that the voice actor’s strike against the video game industry is still in effect. We discussed it back in October on Episode 112, around when it started, and even though the media coverage around it has died down, many voice actors are still struggling to get their voices heard, pardon the pun. In fact, the loudest spike I’ve heard on the incident since that initial furor was at the beginning of December during the 2016 Video Game Awards. Video game voice actor monolith, Nolan North, won the award for Best Performance through his work on Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and had some choice words to say about the strike, albeit in vague––and, perhaps, surprising––terms:

Ian William’s article highlights the major developments that have happened since the strike began, but a point relevant to North’s speech stuck out to me. This strike is not about voice actor vs. developer––let’s be honest, each needs the other. However, North sees it this way, as do many others, and it makes me wonder if this narrative is constructed by certain parties or one that organically surfaced due to the limited media attention as well as general reader ignorance of how games are made. Perhaps it’s both. Either way, this false conflict between developer and performer isn’t good for either side and, especially, for the creative side of the industry as a whole:

“I know who wins the battle between game developers and voice actors. It’s the game corporations.” -Keythe Farley, National Chair of the Interactive Negotiating Committee

While the plight of voice actors in video games have been only recently brought to light through the strike (and mostly forgotten), a highly visible topic over the last five years or so has been the rather horrible working conditions developers have to slog through to get games done. From the frightening revelations of the dying giant, Konami, to the recent issue of Crytek employees not getting paid for months only to have the company shut down a bunch of its studios once the news went public (which highly reeked of the almost immediate implosion that was 38 Studios). However, if the voice actors can get the deals they need to be able to do their best work, it could be the first step the industry needs to reconstruct as a whole. The squeaky wheels get the grease, but a smart mechanic realizes it may be indicative of a larger problem.

Not to get somber, but Bill Coberly’s article hits on something I think we’re only going to see more of as, especially, my generation extends into old(er) age. A big aspect of our parents’ culture that my culture (basically Generation X and Millennials) have rejected is the idea that the things which brought us joy as children must be abandoned to be successful or healthy as adults. Some people fully embrace all of nerd culture and plaster their homes and themselves completely in things that they loved as children (tattoos of cartoon characters, clothes patterned with triforces, or shelves lined with Marvel toys, for example), others have that one activity––playing video games, reading comic books, loving science fiction––that they bring with them into adulthood, expectations be damned. As time moves on, more and more people will have experiences like Coberly did with his father. “My Name is Ozymandias” is a touching piece about Coberly finding save files for Civilization IV on his father’s computer after his father died. His dad was a “normal” guy whose “quirk” (by old world standards, that is) was that he loved strategy games and RPGS, and apparently played Civ IV nigh obsessively. The piece is a powerful reflection on their relationship, how games unite father and son, and what to do with the digital data left behind for survivors.

This last aspect is incredibly interesting because save files are, in essence, verbs in stasis. They are records of us doing something and stopping so that we can come back later and pick up from where we left off to continue to do. In this case, the “do” is to play Civ IV.

Screenshot of Civilization IV. Source: Ontological Geek

Coberly inadvertently points to a larger cultural place video games (and other sundry nerdy things) will inevitably play in family relations. There may be, if not games, then franchises or love for a genre that may be passed on from parent to child. Or, perhaps, even save files. I think of games built around crafting and creation––can servers of Minecraft be part of a heritage? Can we inherit the hard drive with my mother’s Steam library downloaded on to it?

While not involving a death, I have had a moment where video games, in this case, played a particularly powerful role in my relationship with my father. My dad is decidedly “old school.” He does not dalliance with video games beyond Tetris or Spider Solitaire. When he was young, he buried himself in the science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ross Macdonald‘s world of crime and detection and expressed himself by drawing Martian vistas and alien women in gauzy veils that hugged their curves. But he abandoned most of that with maturity. By the time he was my father, he was an academic of philosophy and history, and was nerdy about them as long as they were huge books with full indices and academic references.

I took a chance one day as he was up visiting my wife and me for a weekend. As mentioned, my dad is a history buff, especially of California transportation––especially of Los Angeles, where he was born and raised. Having played through Rockstar’s L.A. Noire, and knowing how much effort they put into recreating late 1940s Los Angeles, I figured he would at least have fun tearing it apart as I drove around in old cars and showed him a digitized version of his former home.

My dad actually has memories of when L.A. actually looked like this. Source: Rockstar Games

The following was a comment I wrote on the defunct gaming website, Known Griefers, as a response to their question: What is a game that you have bonded with family over? It has been edited for grammar and accuracy.

My dad was born in 1940 in Hollywood, CA. Late 1940s & 1950s L.A. was his stomping ground and he remembers it fondly. He became a professor of philosophy and taught that for forty years before retiring to become a professional historian of none other than 1920s-1950s L.A. When he drives through L.A., he sees none of the modern desolation that has descended upon that city. Instead, he still sees bright trolley cars clanging their bells down the street and dudes who wear fedoras and three-piece suits while Duesenbergs and Hudsons grumble down the street in jet-black finishes.

Basically, my dad still imagines an L.A. Noire world. So, having played the game extensively, I nervously asked him if he wanted to see a video game I owned last time he visited. He begrudgingly agreed and as soon as the game loaded and the city opened up on my television, any hint of skepticism evaporated. We looked at as many cars as possible and he drove me around the city on memory alone. We wandered through the lobby of Union Station and even got up to the rail yards. We scoped out the Hall of Records and tried to get into the Roosevelt Hotel, but couldn’t. While it isn’t an exact replica of the city (we tried to find his aunt’s house, to no avail), it was pretty damned good, enough for an old man to nearly be brought to tears by it, as if he were looking out a younger pair of his own eyes at the city he once saw so clearly and now only sees in nostalgic visits. If I had any complaints about the game (which were very few), they lost any validity because of the game’s ability to make my dad experience something he never thought he’d get a chance to do again.

While not a lineage passed down from one generation to the next like Coberly experienced, this is an instance of a “new” technology, a “nerd” technology, one pushed off as “childish” and “immature” really helped strengthen the bond between father and son in a way––and I say this without hyperbole––no other medium could have done and it will be something I never forget.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

It’s weird to think about, but video games didn’t officially become protected expressions of free speech until a 2011 Supreme Court case judged it so. I think what adds to the surrealism of that realization is how prevalent video games were as a topic of discussion in popular discourse leading up to that decision. Violent video games and their effects on children through to “hot coffee,” Grand Theft Auto, and the mercifully forgotten Jack Thompson were just bookends on a narrative full of ups and downs. According to Patrick Klepek’s article, however, the fight had been waged in the court system long before the Supreme Court ever got their hands on it.

Source: Waypoint
Source: Waypoint

By 2011, the video game scene was pretty much United States-centric as an industry with developers such as Rockstar being brought under the microscope to search for corroborating evidence that they were as bad as Camel using cartoons to sell cigarettes to children. In 1993, however, Nintendo was king. And, despite their stateside headquarters in Seattle (and, for a long time, a majority stake in the Mariners), it was very much a Japanese company. That’s why Klepek’s overview and interview of how Nintendo went under the gun to defend video games is well worth the read through, because I wonder if they would be as hearty today. Part of me thinks Nintendo would be excused simply because it’s a multigenerational institution at this point, and our culture is comfortable with its presence and practices (I think of John Denver being called in front of the PMRC in the mid-1980s to defend against censorship in music). However, another part of me wonders if they’d be excused because the company has become so divorced from modern gaming that it’s not even in the conversation for many people.

Either way, the company went to bat for the industry at a critical time, and Klepek’s interview and overview should be read and supported by all gamers. Also, a big welcome to Waypoint, the official gaming wing of Vice. They headhunted Austin Walker away from my favorite gaming site, Giant Bomb, to become editor-in-chief, and as sad as I was to hear that he was leaving, as soon as they said Vice had sniped him, it made total and complete sense. They already have a lot of thoughtful critical articles up at Waypoint, and I suggest you check it out regularly.

Worth a Listen:

This is the last I’ll mention it, possibly, but the recent election left a lot of people scratching their heads (as well as angry, horrified, and dreadful, for a variety of reasons). The last place I thought I’d find any decent, rational conversation about it would be a podcast associated with the humor website and listicle factory, Cracked. Editor-in-Chief, Jack O’Brien, sits down with Cracked.com‘s executive editor of humor and well-informed dude, Jason Pargin (aka David Wong), who wrote a widely-circulated article post-election titled, “Don’t Panic.”

ear_crackedpodcast_1600x1600_cover_final-1024x1024
source: Earwolf

While I will not say that what is discussed in this podcast is gospel and should be fully obeyed, they go out of their way to be as inclusive as possible while doing their best to recognize their own privilege and points of view. That said, it’s a great starting point for conversation about the election and what progressively-minded people can do in its aftermath.

Most importantly, I never thought I’d be pointing toward anything that had to do with Cracked. It was brought to my attention by friend of the show, Walter, and I thank him for doing so. I’d have to listen to the episode again to assess how much of it is simply two white guys calming each other down in the face of an open nativist being elected into office or if it actually has some salient points. At the very least, none of the topics or points of view are radical in the episode and serve as an excellent start to a conversation that we all could use to help balance the discourse and get people to start listening to each other rather than just yelling (though I’m not disparaging the yelling, either; sigh. It’s a complicated issue).