Decisive Book Reviews
The Study of Play
When I told a friend that I was reviewing The Video Game Debate, I was asked, “What debate?” I briefly explained––perhaps too generally––that the “debate” in the title referred to all that talk about whether or not video games are good for us. You know, whether video games make us lazy or prone to committing violence or are rotting our brains or making us antisocial weirdos, etcetera, etcetera, that kind of stuff. My friend responded, “I thought that debate was over.”
As cliché as it may sound, the first moments of a video game tend to be among the most important. They’re when the game foreshadows the journey to come, or when they give you a small taste of the ideas that later parts of the story are going to develop. System Shock 2 stands apart from this: while its early moments achieve their goal of setting up the themes the game is going to explore, they also fully develop their own ideas within that brief span of time. More specifically, the opening to System Shock 2 engages with and deflates the sort of fantasies we expect from first person shooters. Where its peers use military themes to make the player feel powerful and reinforce ideas of self-betterment, System Shock 2 denies both by remaining true to the mundane realities of military life.
Halo 5: Guardians (H5) is a first-person shooter in two parts: multiplayer combat and a series of story missions. In multiplayer, the player’s avatar is made distinct from other players’ with cosmetic modification (colour choices and armour options), giving them a range of options for self-expression that are unavailable in single player. Through this and other methods, Halo 5 affords certain possibilities for self-representation or expression, encourages a limited range of actions, and ignores other possibilities. Affordance, in this case, refers to everything that Halo 5 online multiplayer allows the player to do, what it encourages the player to do through its various systems (coaxed affordance), and what the player cannot do or is discouraged from doing by the platform or discursive environment (constraint).
Game jams are not without controversy. Ostensibly a community-based event that fosters enthusiasm and creativity, game jams do not always reflect these ideals in practice. As the lead organizer of two game jams in Waterloo, Ontario, I’ve had the opportunity to develop a perspective on what this event is—and no, it doesn’t live up to its hype, but jamming is not a terrible idea. The enthusiasm, creativity, and community promised by game jams are important and needed in a performance-obsessed society, and although game jams do not always deliver on these ideals in practice, they have the potential to do so.
In Episode 8 of the First Person Podcast we discuss Campo Santo’s debut game Firewatch. In this short episode Rob, Shawn, and Emma cover a ton of topics including: genres of horror, the cost vs time investment debate, what realistic depictions of romance in games look like, the game’s multiple endings, what games made us cry the most, and how Firewatch is like a short story in all the best ways possible. This episode is full of spoilers and we don’t recommend it if you are planning on playing Firewatch and haven’t got around to it yet. We do recommend that you go play Firewatch and experience its bomb voice acting first hand before you get back over here and listen to us because this game is definitely worth both your time and money.
Released in 2011 to near-unanimous critical acclaim, the action role-playing game Dark Souls was hailed by many as a return to old-school gaming principles that eschewed overly-detailed narrative exposition or player tutorials in favor of a trial-and-error design philosophy and strong risk-versus-reward approach to in-game deaths. Many critics praised the game’s ability to cultivate a type of psychological torment (but also potential for satisfaction) via its unforgiving gameplay, as echoed in Keza MacDonald’s original review of the game where she states “Dark Souls’s design is so consistently dark and twisted that it actually starts to encroach on your mental well-being after extended play” (McDonald, 2011). Despite the emphasis on what was seen as a return to older design principles, equal attention was paid to the game’s radically innovative approach to online multiplayer. Unlike many other online role-playing games that operate through persistent shared universes—or, games that create virtual spaces where dozens or even hundreds of individuals can interact with each other in real time—Dark Souls operates primarily through asynchronous, indirect, or highly-restricted player interactions, such as its famous anonymous user-generated notes posted throughout the world. Such a novel approach to online multiplayer was described by Kevin VonOrd as an “unusual and wonderful contradiction” insofar as Dark Souls makes players “feel remarkably alone in this frightening place, yet simultaneously part of a large multiverse where simply playing the game makes you part of a chorus of silent voices urging each other forward” (VonOrd, 2011). In this sense, Dark Souls achieved the almost paradoxical feat of creating a gamespace that is shared by many but individually experienced as a fragmented and desolate landscape.
I write this, Mr. Johnson, because your work resonates with me. I respect you and I think when you write, you aim for the same targets I do. On paper, Offworld Trading Company is exactly the type of game that sparked my interest in strategy games in the first place. It’s receiving some very positive press and has already sold over 100,000 copies. That’s great. I hope it does well for you. I won’t be buying it, though. It has to do with your company’s co-founder and president Brad Wardell. Wardell’s decision to associate with a group of people that have had demonstrable and undeniably negative effects on the gaming industry is something I have a lot of trouble with. While that group may adopt the language of platform holders to hold their harassment at arm’s length by calling it the work of “third-party trolls,” they still provided the platform for those abuses to be carried out and are unable (but more often unwilling) to take responsibility for that.