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Video games and other things.

Taking Issue

I have much I want to talk about: Halo and its classic FPS horror aspects, the marvelous life story contained within Dragon Quest V, the StarCraft II beta in general (ayup), recent game music purchases and trades, PAX East remnants, and so on, but for now, some complaints and observations about specific video game magazine articles.

*****

Kill Screen, Vol. 1, No. 1The Article: “Why Kill Screen?”, by Jamin Brophy-Warren; Kill Screen Issue No. 0 (but listed inside as “Vol. 1, No. 1″. Um.), Winter 2010, pages 4-9.

What It’s About: In this debut article in Kill Screen‘s debut issue, Editor/Head Guy Jamin Brophy-Warren explains why the magazine wound up with the name that it did.

Where I Take Issue: Even before I got the first issue of Kill Screen in the mail, I thought it was a great name for an ambitious, serious-minded indie magazine on gaming. The term “kill screen”, as Jamin explains early on in his article, “comes from Golden Age of Arcade terminology and refers to the ‘end’ of a game forced by a programming error such as the unplayable 256th level of Pac-Man.” Kill screens are, to me, simultaneously the ultimate proof that games are made by human hands and the ultimate proof of the limits to which players take their games. Later on, and especially as games began to shift to home consoles, kill screens began to share space with bugs, easter eggs, leftover code, and so much more. (For the record, I have never come across a kill screen myself. The closest I have come is the endless 99th level in the Atari 2600 version of Mario Bros., which I found in the most natural way possible: by not looking for it, or even knowing it existed. Another topping-out bug I’ve come across is in the PS1 version of Final Fantasy VII: can’t recall exactly, but it’s either the “total time” or the “total gil” counter that starts glitching out after passing a certain number.)

However, what Jamin talks about in his piece is not so much about the humanity of a (hardware and/or software) creator’s limitations, or that of a player’s love, but death. The meaning of “kill screen” is lost as the words are pulled apart to just kill and screen. The Hindu concepts of jiva and reincarnation are invoked before diving into the topic of how games allow us to die over and over again.

[T]here was something primal about dying in games that I saw as laudable. Something special was happening at that strange intersection of jiva and soul. Death was an echo of something I couldn’t repeat in real life—a temporary flirtation with immortality and a chance to be, dare I say, creative in erasing myself and others.

Death in both single and multi-player games is explored: the hows, the whys, and especially the novelty of it all. The gory Mortal Kombat era, when developers embraced the coolness of death, is fondly recalled, and then, things go off in a slightly different direction when sex gets brought into the picture. “Bad death” in games is compared to pornography, or the “done to”; “good death” to actual sex, the “done with”. Sure, this nicely illustrates our relationships with many games, but as an explanation for the title Kill Screen… I’m not so sure.

A kill screen isn’t copulation, it’s dissection, often unintentional, and always with fascinating results. A kill screen is, literally, Level 22 in Donkey Kong. Less literally, it’s the hidden credits in Adventure and the snarkiness of a doomed heroine in FFVII‘s Debug Room. It’s the SaGa speedrun and (speaking of death) the playground in Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s what we weren’t supposed to see; sometimes, what they secretly did want us to discover; and overall, the evidence of the human hands that guide our own human hands. That, to me, is what Kill Screen the title could mean. With that said…

Yeah, But How’s the Rest of the Mag?: Funnily enough, there’s not so much about death and rebirth in here as about personal stories and waxing poetic about games. Save for the article on Ocarina of Time—because I hope to play that one day, although I have the sneaking suspicion that deep down I don’t like Zelda-style games—I read everything. I read about two ambitious indie games: one that sounded interesting but not my thing (Where is My Heart?), and one that I would love to try (Airline Traffic Manager). I read stories about siblinghood (“Player One, Player Two”) and first impressions (“Our Residence Evil”) that I could relate to on some level, as well as less personal pieces (but no less well-written) about game controllers and by Peter Molyneux. It’s all presented in a package that has more than a bit of a hipster vibe to it: elegant, functional layout, interspersed with highbrow fanart (is that an oxymoron?). Regardless of that, the visual presentation’s quite nice, but it could all easily become overly pretentious if the Kill Screen folks aren’t too careful.

My favorite piece in the whole issue was “Us vs. Them” by Leigh Alexander, which laments the poor, mallish atmosphere present at your typical GameStop, as devoid of gaming culture as the internet is rich in it. I am completely sympathetic to this situation, but at the same time, I wonder what would happen if things were different.

For instance, look at comic book stores. I’m lucky in that I live near NYC and have access to some of the best-stocked, cleanest, friendliest, and flat-out greatest comic shops in the country, but most such stores in the US are insular, fanboyish lairs that can be rather unfriendly places, especially for kids and parents. The specialty stores themselves are a major reason why comics have long had a hard time being accepted by the mainstream, and I would hate for game stores to share the same fate.

However, one bright spot for comics (especially graphic novels and manga) in recent years has been mainstream bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble. That said, I think such an approach for games stores, with special events, maybe a cafe of some sort, related merchandise (including music CDs, books, magazines, and toys, please!), great customer service, and a general atmosphere of love and respect for the medium would be awesome. There’s already some of this present at Manhattan’s Nintendo World Store, not to mention the usual indie shops, but how sweet would it be if everyone, nationwide, could have regular access to such a shopping experience? Games are barreling headfirst toward the download model though, so I don’t think the Borders of Gaming will happen, but I can dream, right?

My favorite fanart piece was the Duck Hunt one by Anthony Pedro. Very classy.

For More: killscreenmagazine.com. A single issue costs US$20, including shipping, and there’s subscriptions and other stuff available, too.

*****

GamePro #260The Article: “After the Credits: David Cage on Heavy Rain“, interview with David Cage (a specific interviewer was not listed); GamePro #260, May 2010, pages 56-59.

What It’s About: GamePro asks Heavy Rain‘s creator some questions about the game in this post-release interview.

Where I Take Issue: First off, I have absolutely no objections to the questions that GamePro asks. In that sense, this is a good interview. My gripes have everything to do with the interviewee himself, David Cage. He comes off as a bit of a self-absorbed auteur, but it gets really annoying around the fourth or fifth question. Let me pull some quotes here…

I could never have been able to write and direct Heavy Rain if I didn’t make Indigo Prophecy first, so there is some experience in pioneering a new genre with no other references out there.

Indigo Prophecy. Pioneering a new genre. Uh-huh. From what I understand, Indigo Prophecy is an adventure game with some interesting ideas, and the same goes for Heavy Rain. Adventure games are one of the oldest video game genres out there and have many, many alternate names and sub-genres (interactive fiction, point-and-click, visual novel, etc.). Maybe David Cage’s games fall under one of them, and certainly they represent an evolution of sorts, but I doubt they consist of a whole new genre unto themselves.

I’m really curious and nervous to see how the game is going to be understood and accepted or not accepted because it’s a game that breaks most of the video-game paradigms, and when you break so many things at once, you can have two types of reactions: The first one is, “Yeah, this is great, this is brand new and it dares to go where no one dared before;” the second one is, “This is too different from what I know, and I’m not interested.” So, I’m really curious and passionate to see on what side most people fall.

This is the bit where it was really hammered home to me that Cage has a damning case of Molyneuxitis (previously known as Romeroitis), a condition of self-aggrandizement and a sense that one is a true pioneer and creator of magnificent importance and genius. It, along with other passages, also made it very clear to me that Cage hasn’t played enough games to back up his sweeping judgments of the gaming world. As implied from another passage, he seems to think all mainstream games are about “shooting and driving” in a world where some of the most successful titles of all time have been things like this, and this, and this. To be fair, he is based in France, and the European games press does seem to love their shooters and racers, but I’ve also seen the likes of Eurogamer and Edge champion all sorts of other interesting games on a regular basis, very much including Heavy Rain.

Anyway, it’s not up to him to decide whether or not his work is “paradigm breaking”, it’s up to his audience. As a creator, he does realize he can’t be his own critic, right?

After Heavy Rain I’m going to spend some time working on the DLC—I really want to explore this new process and way of distributing content, especially because the DLC is story-based, so it’s not like adding a level to a shooter or adding costumes; it’s really adding a bit of story—probably prequels.

Again, the apparent ignorance comes to surface. Half-Life 2, despite being a shooter, seems to have done pretty well with story-based DLC. Telltale delivers entire games as episodic DLC story chunks. Sure, with Heavy Rain, the content and themes will be different due to the sheer nature of the work, but it’s not like story-based DLC hasn’t been done at all before.

Anyway, now that Peter Molyneux seems to have mellowed a little over the years, it’s only fitting that the ensuing void is getting filled as David Cage becomes a “big name”, I guess. Here’s to a new era of pretension?

Yeah, But How’s the Rest of the Mag?: This is the first issue of GamePro I picked up since their much-heralded format switch, and also the first one I’ve bought ever. I like it. No previews—not in the traditional sense, anyway—interesting articles, and lengthy, thoughtful reviews. Haven’t gotten around to everything yet, but overall, the writing ranges from decent (“The Real Science of Mass Effect 2″) to great (the God of War III review) and the design is some of the best I’ve seen in a mainstream game mag. Refreshing, and definitely one to keep an eye on.

In fact, I’ve already picked up the next issue, and have seen a little bit of possible evidence of the “GamePro effect” at work in the first issue of the “new EGM“, also now on newsstands. Haven’t gotten that one (nor the also-newly-revived GameFan, which doesn’t have nearly as much adult appeal as the other two), and at first whiff, I think I would prefer GamePro anyway, but if it’s any good, let me know and I might check it out one of these days.

For More: GamePro.com. Individual issues available at US newsstands for $5.99, with the usual subscription cards wedged in there just in case you decide to take the plunge later on.



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