Saturday, February 28, 2009

The World Begins With Us

I was going to write a post sometime soon about The World Ends With You. It was going to be a high brow review, rejecting numerical summaries and hype-driven prose, for I felt this game deserved more. And of course I'm too good for such drivel. No, I was going to take the "game as arts" approach and herald it as a rare jewel. I was going to mention the brilliant manner in which Jupiter has captured the theme of loneliness en masse and held true to that vision in every pixel, the grin-inducing moment when I realized that the regional "trend" system that guided my choice in equipment could in turn be affected by me and what kind of a wonderful message this was, delivered via gameplay mechanics as only an interactive medium could. I was going to write some paragraphs, dust them off, and feel good about myself for commenting intelligently on a topic dear to me and adding another post to my blog.

Then I made the mistake of beating the game.

I have dreamt of making video games since I was five years old. I was even drawing them on paper back then, a hobby that would turn into making levels in Wrecking Crew on the NES, then into making more complicated levels in games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, then into programming. All along, video games were produced by people, not people like me, for if they were like me I would understand them. No, people with talents and visions far beyond what I was capable of grasping or imagining. Imagine my shock two years ago when I entered the industry and realized that these people did not exist.

Well they did, except they weren't unattainable gods of the interactive arts. They were people like me. It has been relieving and disappointing, and above all else disorienting, to come to terms with what the industry has become. Every asset carefully calculated in a middle manager's spread sheet, every in-company rumor carefully filtered through a bloated pyramid. But that's how it is, and that's how games are made, and I don't deserve to expect more when I have a job and so many don't right now.

And I understood this, and things were simple, until I beat the game. And again and again, three weeks of what should have been groan-inducing plot twists when the game "wasn't actually over" instead drew out smiles as I realized with relief that I did not have to stop playing yet.

I was going to write an artistic review about the artistic merits of an artistic game, but The World Ends With You deserves far more than that. Far more than I can contort my fingers to type. For it is far more than art, and it is unfortunate that I do not have a word to describe what it is.

When I was fourteen, I read an article in an innocuous encyclopedia describing the mating habits of humans, and it has torn a hole in my soul so deep that I can never feel romantic love. I watch my friends date, have sex, get married, and a voice louder than a thousand ends of the world wants to yell, to tell them that they are just doing it because of hormones, that they don't really love each other, that we are just meat machines, that we all live in our own little worlds and can only appear to come out and connect when there is something we need, and that we are selfish in such a way and, worse, deterministically so, so we can't be blamed nor can we ever change, and don't they even realize this? And why am I the only one that finds himself suffocating in this toxic air of causal psychology and nihilism? Am I a super intelligence painfully evolved to recognize the illusions of morality and justice, or am I so far behind the cognitive development of the average human for letting such emotional desires as sincerity cause me to think that this world was ever something more? Just a strange mix of emotional and insightful?

Why am I alone?

Art has become like this romantic love, perverted beyond the reach of sincerity. Art has become snarky toilets in snobby museums, an antithesis to the desires of the uneducated masses, a battle between the interpreter and the creator, and all manner of semantic faux debating, and to reduce TWEWY to this realm of ivory tower treadmilling is a sin far greater than I care to commit. It is unfortunate, then, that I have no rhetorical training to describe what I am trying to get at, but I must still try.

An Explanation, as best I can

I purchased this game a couple of weeks ago. I had heard good things, but I had never been in a hurry to get it. Looked like a slightly innovative game for anime fans and Japanophiles in general, enough to pique my curiosity but not enough for me to purchase with a first priority mindset. I enjoyed it right away, glad that I purchased it as the fresh aesthetic and quality were immediately apparent. It took a little bit longer to appreciate the purposefulness, the manner in which the heroic journey from self-isolation to ally dependency was expressed not only in the characters and story but in the gameplay mechanics, through and through. A little bit later, and I realized that this game was at least as good as Chrono Trigger, an amazing thing to realize as I have not felt that way about an RPG in years. Forcing myself to play through a few every now and then, I thought I had just outgrown them. Now I realize that we have just quit making them good.

Skip forward to tonight, and I have just completed a game so emotionally moving, by its own merits as well as by what it means for our craft, that I immediately had to take a walk through the local park and collect my blended thoughts. At 4 in the morning.

Yes, I'm scared. I'm scared that this isn't really as good a game as I gush about and that I am overreacting because it happened to resonate with me, for whatever reason. Seeing a verdict of 89 on metacritic last week, I nodded in agreement. Felt right. Now, I am wondering how numbers are even the right way to measure such a title, when GTAIV about tops out the max at 98. I would suggest you get this game, but what if you don't enjoy it? What does that say about my abilities as a designer, a skill in which the accurate assessments of other titles is a necessity? I thought I was mature enough to understand and accept the innate subjective limitations of views on the quality of art, but now I'm not sure I can afford emotionally to be wrong. That's what this game has done to me.

I described earlier the feeling of separation between my childhood self and the gods that made video games. At some point growing up and entering their circle, that feeling vanished. Until now. The feelings that TWEWY have evoked in me, night after night as if to assure they aren't accidental, have proven that there are gods of game development far beyond my comprehension yet again, and in a bittersweet way I wonder if I have made any progress whatsoever toward mastering the art, choking back tears with laughter as I realize that it is out there, the star that I have been reaching for but have become blind to after decades of struggle, that there is a right direction, and I need to take it.

I'm disappointed in myself. What have I done? With my life. What the fuck have I accomplished? If I die tomorrow, who will remember me? Who will I have changed? What has my purpose been? I graduated from college, run through the factory of higher education. I won the state math competition one year when I had an odd infatuation with math, and my parents assure me that I still have a plaque at my high school for the highest cumulative SAT score. But how many people's lives have I enriched with an SAT score? I have shipped two commercial video game titles, one ranking in the fifties and one in the sixties on metacritic, and neither deserving of much more. Every week or so, I blog cynically about the state of the industry, never changing it but patting myself on the back nonetheless for constructing such "insightful" declarations in such edgy tones. I am kept up at night with internal dialogs.

I should quit my job and try to start my own video game company where customers are friends, not sources of income to manipulate through marketing.

But I don't know how to start a company, and I don't have the money, and if I borrow money from an investor then I am stuck in the art-disruptive cycle of financial responsibility yet again

But if I don't take that risk then I may go through my life without ever truly doing what makes me happy

And why am I not happy now, now that I am in the wonderful industry that I dreamed of entering since I was five?

And what will my parents think if I fail, run away, and need to leech off of them again?

And will I ever really be happy, or is satisfaction just a bubble under some infinite wall paper that I can chase around but never capture?

And on and on, until I somehow fall asleep.

I have accomplished absolutely nothing, and it pains me more than I can bear. I wake up every day, marching to work like a toy soldier, because I have to pay the bills, the very expensive bills that I have amassed moving out here to work in the industry in the first place. And if I die tomorrow, no one will remember me. No one will remember me, because I don't deserve remembrance. Sure, the people that matter to me will, and maybe a few of them will cry. But I don't see them anymore. I talk to them on the phone, if I talk to them at all, their digitized voices trying but failing to mask the 2,000+ mile gap that I have put between us. I fail to see them at Christmas, because I am too tired from crunch on a project that will soon be lost in the middle of the game ranking bell curve to even fly home.

I tell myself this is okay, because at least I have a job, and... you know, "the economy" and all that. But a job is nothing without happiness. Life is nothing without happiness. I am not happy with my life. I have hope, but that is a painful kind of happiness, because it can easily be taken away or spoiled before fruition.

The World Ends With You has shown me that I was wrong to believe that it was my jaded attitude keeping me from enjoying games, for how else could I enjoy it as much as any of my childhood favorites at my current age? Most games today are developed by incapable, uncaring individuals with far too much power over the individuals that do care. And really, in my long winded way, that is what I am trying to praise Jupiter and Square Enix for; they care. They have to care. The localization team cares, the voice actors care, the writers care. They all care. This game exists because people enjoyed making it, and wanted to share that joy with an audience that is precious to them. I have no other reason to believe this than the game itself; that it is capable of communicating this is a testament to their talent as well as their sincerity. I must seek such a position, I must be a part of this. Could you imagine if every game developer put innovation above finance, quality above innovation, art above quality, and sincerity above art? What a wonderful world such would be!


I can't do this alone. I can't even continue tricking myself when I wake up each morning into believing that I can be a savior of the craft someday, that today is going to be different from yesterday somehow. I have no clout. I have not been in the industry 'x years' for any impressive value of 'x'. I dream, I desire, but I don't see the answers. If you have any answers, any answers at all, whether you are an industry veteran or a college student trying to get in, or if you are simply a fan of games interested in a healthier future where the discourse between developers and purchasers is more meaningful than the current back and forth of "you give us money, we give you product", please let me know.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Randomly Inspired, Belated Answer

It has become nigh memetic to ask, “When will we have our Citizen Kane” of games?

Not before we have our “Y'all Want a Single”, I can guarantee that much.

“We wanted to add 3 or 4 more songs, so we came back to record them. Then our record company was like 'Hey, we'd really love to have a single' and our management, The Firm said 'We would really like to have a smash hit single, man, can you dig it?'. We were really appalled by that scene. They wanted 'Got the Life' or 'Freak on a Leash', and that shit wasn't flying with us at all! For the first time in our lives we were dissecting our music, and try to analyze the structure of those songs, trying to figure out what made them huge hits. But Korn never works like that, and while we're all were wondering, Jonathan came up with a line: "Y'all want a single? Say: FUCK THAT" and we wrote Y'All Want a Single as a big 'fuck you' to them.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Before I forget...


"The traditional game industry model ... is not really set up to make games, per se.

It's more set up to make game companies. Each game is just a vehicle for the company. We're really talking more about game company development here than game development."

And it does need to change.

My, Haven't We Come a Long Way?

I just beat Eternal Sonata, and now the credits are rolling and all the characters are judging and patronizing me :(. AND OH GOD NOW THERE IS A FUCKING SNAIL TALKING TO A CATERPILLAR AFTER THE CREDITS ROLLED.

Without spoiling too much, an important character turned on the rest of my party, becoming the final boss for no believable reason. Then another character kills them self for no believable reason (though it is foreshadowed), then the credits roll with random party characters telling me I shouldn't give up until the end or something. This is after a good 24 hours of typical RPG narrative nonsense where for some reason I end up with a dozen characters in my party that decided they had no lives and desired to follow my group around. Cait Sith Syndrome, if you will. In the basest sense, I feel I can explain "why" characters chose to do what they did and why the story followed the path that it did, but I just didn't "feel" it. I didn't "feel" that my party would so readily turn on a long time ally just because he said "lol Let's Fight!" I didn't "feel" sorrow that one character commits suicide while another one lets her monologue for several minutes, asking afterwards what he could have done to save her. I am getting a similar feeling that I got at the end of Braid, a game which, for some reason unsatisfied with being an exemplar of the interactive arts via its mechanics, had to pull a narrative switcheroo by "not really being about what you think it's about" in the end. I know I know, "art" and all that jazz, but art is allowed to be critiqued, and, feeling as if I've somehow "missed" something in Eternal Sonata (ugh), I can't say that the ending is all that satisfying to me. I suppose that an ambiguous ending, or an ending where there is a deeper meaning to "get" can cause some water cooler/forum discussions that extend the life of your game past its ending, but is that really the best way to extend the life of an interactive experience? Via tricks of the linear narrative trade?

Eternal Sonata is a fantastically beautiful game visually and aurally, and it even has an innovative combat system and faster-than-usual progression for those of us who don't want to commit 50-70 hours to beat an RPG. Thus I am a little disappointed that, while captivating enough for me to put over 20 hours into beating (which is more than I can say for many video games nowadays), I found myself lacking emotions, empathy, and understanding of the characters' motives for most of the game.

I guess games have matured? I mean, I'm thankful that modern games give me a narrative drive extending beyond being a bad enough dude to save the president from ninjas, but... do I need that same pseudo-intellectual pretension, that coy "this is our story but this isn't really our story" attitude that filled many a poetry explication in high school Literature classes? Are cheap shots like this taken from old linear forms of media the best way to expand our interactive arts?

If High School Lit is any indication, then soon all of our narrative games will "really" be about masturbation or something. Or has this already happened and I'm not "educated" enough to have noticed?? @_@

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Advertising Blues

So I got home around 9 tonight, not because I just finished a late night at the office, but because I haven't finished my work yet and just decided to get some food and finish it at home. I could rant about that, but it's more of a mild annoyance than a topic worthy of a full blog post. That is, assuming that it stops occurring so frequently, an assumption I hold onto like a battered wife holding her black eye and smiling as she reminisces about the golden days and tells herself they're coming back, just around the corner. I'm not sure what my "golden" days are in this metaphor since I have been crunching constantly from the day I entered the industry, an unfortunate side effect of being put on a game being rushed to completion in less time than it should really be given, laid off, then being hired and put on another game being rushed to completion in less time than it should really be given.

This post is about what was waiting for me when I got home. An apple software update. An innocuous yet pesky blue-iconed window that I usually close out of habit while I'm trying to get work done. Since I am waiting for a build to finish, I decided to go ahead and accept the updates to get it out of my way. After telling it that I don't want to reboot my computer now (have we still not found a way to ubiquitously update software without bringing the user's system to a full halt?), I was greeted with a followup window advertising some new software that I might want to download.

So next I decided to play some PC games. I opened my Steam client, which took a while to load as always, possibly because it's loading these ads in the background of this software suite that I paid for. That I paid a lot for, as Steam games, despite digital distribution, are just as expensive as boxed games. And yet they still feel the need to open a second window of ads and further peck away at my dwindling economy of attention when I just want to enjoy some games that I have paid for in a short break period sandwiched by long hours at work. They don't call them ads; no, they call it "Update News". Closing that window, I see an animation in my main steam client (which defaults to the "store" tab instead of the more useful "my games" tab upon opening, to guarantee diverting your attention to their advertising) that cycles through a list of huge budget games that everyone knows exist anyway. Particularly interesting is the ad for Fallout 3, boasting a "100/100" score on Gamespy, a site that uses a 5 star rating system. Yes, there is a huge difference between 5/5 and 100/100, but who am I to judge marketing spin. Even more remarkable is that I purchased the PC version of Fallout 3 from Steam on the day it came out! And they're still advertising it to me??? They know what games I purchased from them! Not only are they wasting my time and attention, they aren't even doing it efficiently!

It would be interesting to see a study of our modern economy of attention and how much advertising and constant update reminders cost us in this economy. How many times a day do you find yourself updating something? Do you even know what you're getting when you update it? Is it improving your use of the software, or just moving some GUI components around so you have to relearn where things are? I recently had a stressful time trying to put together hospital bills and insurance statements after heart surgery due to the piles of junk mail that would pile up when I got home from 12+ hour shifts at work. Do you ever have these problems? spam, pop unders, telemarketers? Seconds of your life, robbed from you by a faceless corporation's childish need for attention. A shame really, as time is the most nonrenewable resource.