I’m Ready for My Close-Up

Its vision is based on movement.

Keep still. Its vision is based on movement.

Nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a large, mostly secret government facility that houses all the fantastic stuff that they’ve collected over the years and don’t want you to know about, including the Dead Sea Paper Footballs, Einstein’s loaded d20 and d100, and the original, uncut, undoctored Dirk Benedict. The main building covers about a million acres and can be seen from low Earth orbit with the naked eye, if you know where to look and the stars are properly aligned (with the Big Dipper in Uranus) and all that.

Not far from there is an even larger facility that stores only two things: a complete yet growing catalog of everything in the whole world that bugs the ever-loving llama shit out of me, and Wilford Brimley. (Wilford is not part of said catalog; he’s merely there to grunt disapprovingly at everything and occasionally maintain an ominous silence. He does a fine job, as one might expect.) If you stroll down aisle 1138, jink left at Jar Jar Binks, gingerly step over the rampant misuse of the apostrophe in initialisms, acronyms, and pronouns, duck under every instance of someone parking on the white lines instead of between them, and pointedly ignore everyone who thinks these fucking things are appropriate attire anywhere but home or here, you’ll find item number 10086A on the top shelf behind the untouched shaving cream.

It’s the Pictures That Got Small

If you're trying to scare the shit out of me, you're doing a good job.

“I might look all suave and laid-back and 50s-leading-man slick, but honestly, you’re scaring the warm cinnamon Christmas shit out of me.”

Square Enix recently announced that they’re working on a version of this year’s Tomb Raider rehash for the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, complete with “enhanced visual storytelling.” The following quote is from Crystal Dynamics executive producer Scot Amos:

The new hardware let us finally express the original vision in all of its glory. This was a continued labor of love. We pulled the game apart and rebuilt it with painstaking detail to add enhanced visual storytelling but without changing the award-winning tale. The end result is a cinematic living world.”

Along with all of the new Tomb Raider’s DLC and the tie-in comic by Dark Horse, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition will sport better graphics, thanks to improved texture resolutions, better lighting, and AMD’s TressFX technology, which makes hair and grass look, oddly enough, more like hair and grass. Before we get all aggressively tumescent and start combing the internet alleys of ill repute for some next-gen funware, let’s take a look at the above quote line-by-line.

“The new hardware let us finally express the original vision in all of its glory.” Please read this as “All of you shmuckbags who spent varying amounts of $, €, £, or ¥ on the original new Tomb Raider can suck it; this is the game we wanted to make all along. It’s got wavy hair and pretty plants!” The original vision of what, exactly? The original-original 1996 Tomb Raider? The 2006 reboot Tomb Raider Legend? Or the 2007 reboot of the rebooted reboot Tomb Raider Anniversary? This series has had more reboots than a Windows 95 floppy disc installation, and now it’s getting a refresh of the latest reboot. Also, glory = wavy hair. Who knew?

“This was a continued labor of love.” (“We love having jobs, and Square Enix told us to labor on this instead of on something new.”) No problem there; I understand jobs. Jobs are good. Let’s not make it sound like everyone at Crystal Dynamics lined up outside Square’s offices with picket signs demanding to be allowed to resize the textures for Tomb Raider, though; the bosses said “FROG!” and you said “boing!” It happens.

“We pulled the game apart and rebuilt it with painstaking detail…” Uh-oh! Bullshit alert! Pulled the game apart? The whole thing? And rebuilt it in painstaking detail? In less than a year? (And hey, what the hell did you use to build the game the first time around? Broad-stroked generalities and a fat-fingered Crayola?) Say, isn’t it about time that Angel of Darkness got six or seven reboots and some painstaking detail of its own?

“…to add enhanced visual storytelling…”  I have news for Mr. Amos; wavy hair and pretty plants don’t add up to “storytelling,” visual or otherwise. They’ve improved the graphics, that’s it — this kind of corporate mindfuck upspeak isn’t going to help sell anyone on a new expression of the original vision of a rebooted old version of Tomb Raider. In fact, that kind of condescending palaver will probably inhibit sales; their market is smarter than they think it is, and can (in general) smell a bucket full of birdshit a mile away. (Is this a bad time to point out that Scot Amos used to work at EA?)

Yes, the very first thing everyone is going to notice is the fact that her hair tells a story. Sure, because dirt.

Yes, the very first thing that everyone is going to notice is the fact that her hair tells a story.

“…but without changing the award-winning tale.”  This means that everything you might have hated about the old expression of the original vision of the rebooted version of Tomb Raider is still there, and will still piss you off. So yeah, you’ll still have to press X or A 23 times to open a chest, and you’ll still have control of Lara Croft wrested away from you at any time that the developer deemed appropriate to cram some cutscenes into your mindhole, but at least you’ll be able to enjoy the enhanced visual storytelling while you do it. Or in the case of the cutscenes, while you don’t do anything.

“The end result is a cinematic living world.”  Ah, here it is. This is the bastard in aisle 1138, item number 10086A: a confession of inferiority that holds the essential attributes of another medium (film) as gaming’s de facto highest standard; it is a cinematic living world that is their original vision and not, as one might expect, a great video game.

The notion that gaming is a visual medium does not confer upon it the fundamental, defining attributes of all other visual media; you don’t hear the works of Jan van Eyck or Ansel Adams described as “cinematic,” yet for some reason gaming cannot shake this subservient and at least partially self-imposed designation — some of its most egregious offenders are people within the industry, namely those who set out not to make a great game, but to reproduce a “cinematic experience” or an “interactive film whatever.” No other art form so thoroughly subjugates itself to another, with many of its so-called artists seeking the validation of what they presumably consider to be a more sophisticated, more respectable medium. And this is sad.

Regardless of their overall quality, games that are intended by their developers to deliver a cinematic presentation ultimately leave me unsatisfied; even Mass Effect 3, with its unparalleled production values and vaster than vast narrative, made me feel as though I was just a witness to someone else’s story. It kept me at arm’s length by consistently pulling me out of my own experience in order to show me Something Else, More Important, which is an essential characteristic of traditional literature; it must, by definition, tell someone else’s story.

And that’s fine; that’s why I read novels. That’s why I watch TV. That’s why I go to movies: to see and experience someone else’s story. It’s not why I play games.

Trying to Be Twenty-Five

Keep still. Its vision is based on...you know what? Fuck that, run like hell!

Keep still my ass. My vision is based on getting the hell out of here.

Gaming doesn’t have to be taken seriously by anyone else in order for me to enjoy it; with respect, late Chicago film critics and Miami lawyers can think and say whatever they want, and it’s not going to stop me from adoring BioShock or Terraria or even the tawdry portions of Saints Row 3. It baffles me, though, why so many developers — talented developers, at that — fail to exploit their own medium’s inherent and unmatched strengths, chief among which is the ability to permit players to tell their own extrinsic stories, through their persistent, uninterrupted interactions with the game world. This is not possible in games like Mass Effect 3 and Tomb Raider, both of which consistently sever the player-developer collaborative bond with long periods of passive, cinematic inactivity.

Using your strengths is always good advice, but denying a portion of those same strengths in order to pander to the unattainable standard of an inferior medium is unforgivably callow. If you want to make movies, then make them; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that  — but if you want to make video games, then by golly-gum-wow make games, not starry-eyed love notes to an industry that can’t decide whether you’re a threat, a joke, a marketing vehicle, or an amusing anecdote.

Gaming must learn to speak with its own authority and in its own voice, but it will never do that as long as the word “cinematic” is still part of its vocabulary.

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One Simple Rule

Dick

“Wheatoooooon!”

Everything you’ve heard is true; the holidays are coming. As if it isn’t enough that they return every year, lately they’ve been doing it earlier and earlier; this year the big-box whatchamacallits had their yuletide wares displayed on the day after Halloween, which is a full month before I even want to see a friggin’ Christmas tree. In a couple of years I suppose it’ll be Labor Day when they begin assaulting your ocular orbits with visions of merriment and splendor, along with exhorting you to drag your carbed-up ass out of bed at four in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving, freezing off said recently dragged ass while standing in line outside the store for two hours, risking death by Adidas when the poor minimum-wage-earning schmuck finally unlocks the door and the horde of bleary-eyed, ass-frozen, hive-minded thriftsters stampedes for the warm, succoring hole of commerce in order to save $10 on a blender. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

This year it’s different; this year many stores will eschew the traditional pre-dawn Black Friday openings and opt instead for opening on Thanksgiving Day, many of them at 8 p.m., but some as early as 6 p.m., with others conducting business on Thanksgiving like it’s just another day. That’s fine with me; many self-appointed defenders of American Tradition like to bitch and whine about the “death of Thanksgiving” and “family vs. greed,” but my values are not defined by the holiday hours of big-box retailers, or by the shopping habits of other people, so stores that stay open for 41 straight hours are not a threat to Everything That I Hold Pure and Good and Right. As long as your holiday plans don’t involve a high-powered rifle, a clock tower, and a 5000-word manifesto hand-lettered in 1-point Copperplate Gothic on a single Post-It note, I don’t give a roasted figgy shit what you do on Thanksgiving. Personally, you’re not going to catch me anywhere near a retail establishment over the course of Brown Weekend, but that’s because I’d rather eat my own face than associate — even by proximity — with people for whom “getting a bargain” is the highest priority on any day of the year.

If you do plan to brave the manic throng on either Thursday or Friday, please take a moment to first familiarize yourself with the following safety and courtesy guidelines rules rule from a handbook that I picked up while working in retail, published by the National Association for Systematically Teaching Your Customers Undeveloped Necessary Transaction Skills. Remember, the life you save might be your own, but the sanity you save will be everyone’s.

Rule le premier: The only rule of shopping in the immediate temporal vicinity of Thanksgiving Day is — you guessed it — don’t be a dick. That’s all you need to know. “That’s deceptively subjective,” one might say. “How might one know whether one is being a dick, and by what standard?” It’s simple; while shopping, imagine your child treating you in the same way that you’re treating other people — if you then want to slap the happy holiday fuck out of him, you’re being a dick. Stop it.

"Game over, Moon Pie!"

“Game over, Moon Pie!

If you don’t have a child, get creative; imagine the assistant manager at GameStop speaking to you in the same way that you spoke to her — if you then want to make a call to Grapevine and “get the bitch fired,” you’re being a dick. Stop it. (Though if you don’t have at least one kid, and you’re still out among the bleating undead lovely purveyors of thrift on Thanksgiving evening, you should probably make an appointment to talk about a few things with someone of a professional persuasion, ’cause…damn.)

Sure, a company needs money, but it doesn’t need your money more than it needs anyone else’s. A company needs customers, but it doesn’t need you in particular, so if you can’t buy a copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts for little Tyler-Dallas-Austin-Beaumont-Cameron-Houston-Galveston (or whichever city in Texas you named your kid after) without making Idi Amin look like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ted Danson’s roast regalia, do the world a favor and stay the fuck home. If you can’t wait in line without derisively tossing your purchases on the counter when you finally get to the register and passive-aggressively looking away as though you’re not a nimrod, consider that the person you’re dealing with has probably been A) there all day, B) dealing with people like you, C) making very little money for a large amount of work, and D) in a constant state of weighing the value of his job and/or clean criminal record against the pleasure of watching you stagger around the store with a computer monitor imbedded in your skull. (That specific visualization got me through 2003.)

Stop it.

Stop it.

If you absolutely must go shopping in a brick-and-mortar retail establishment this holiday season, and you’re prone to occasional or regular assholery (yeah, you know who you are), don’t overestimate the average retail worker’s grasp on sanity, or his ability to continue giving that last slim sliver of a shit, which might be keeping him employed and out of prison — you weren’t the first ass-monkey to walk through the door that day and you certainly won’t be the last, so why take chances?

A Foot-and-a-Half Note

The holidays are supposed to be a time of blah, blah, blah, and whatever, but I can tell you from firsthand experience in two states, across varying economic and social strata, that the holidays are responsible for exposing more raging dickheads than Pfizer, Bayer, and Glaxo combined, and in more ways than one; if the inevitable and tiresome defenders of tradition were truly concerned with preserving the spirit and sanctity of the season (they aren’t), you’d occasionally hear a peep or two from them along the lines of, “Hey, bro, don’t be such a dick this year,” but you don’t. You hear things like “it may take legislation” and the ever-reliable mynah bird squawk of “corporate greed.” If it’s greed that opens stores on Thanksgiving Day, what is it that fills those stores, and causes people to come lumbering back for more at 6 a.m. — or earlier — the following day?

The fact that no one has started a petition against customer greed squawks volumes about the motives of those who E) want corporations to shoulder responsibility for the actions of consumers, and who F) then seek to control those corporations through “legislation”; the acquisition of power — not merely over corporations and trade, but over you and me and the things we do and say and think — has always been the goal of people who would try to fashion their own values into law. To tell a corporation that it has no right to open on Thanksgiving Day is to tell you and me that we have no right to shop on Thanksgiving Day; while I might disapprove of when you shop (and what you buy, and where you buy it, and what you wear while you buy it),  I will defend to the death your right to spend your holidays however the hell it pleases you to do so, even if the very act of seeking that pleasure turns you into a total boob.

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You Take My ALT-CTRL

"I...I live among...the creatures of...the night."

“I…I live among…the creatures…of the night.”

One of the criticisms that’s frequently levied against console gaming by PC-elitist fanboy snob-holes is that the keyboard-mouse combo of the PC offers superior controls over the standard controller-nothing combo of the console. This is a valid point, though not solely for the reasons that these people provide; sure, aiming is more precise with a mouse than with an analog stick, and there are many more buttons available on a keyboard than on a basic controller, but in their fervent castigation of all things consolian, they’ve overlooked the most pertinent reason why PC gaming is superior to console gaming: better immersion.

I know that word gets tossed around too frequently by people for whom it does not mean what they think it means, I think, but in this case it refers to a specific, quantifiable component of the PC-vs-console comparison, namely, input. It’s one thing to shout “bettur controlz” in defense of your system of choice, but it’s something else entirely to be able to break down that preference into its essential elements, and to examine each element’s role in the context of providing an allegedly superior user experience. After all, the abstract concept of better controls must eventually be linked to a discernible benefit if you want to convince anyone that your position has merit, but the pro-PC crowd rarely accomplishes this beyond the first-layer connections of precise aiming and a greater selection of buttons. As is the case with the entirety of life, the first question you should ask begins with why, as in, “why do these things aid in immersion?”

"I haven't got...the will...to try and fight."

“I haven’t got…the will…to try and fight.”

First of all, to say that a game is immersive usually means that it takes place in a finely wrought and convincingly detailed world, one that allows players to effectively suspend disbelief and, you know, immerse themselves in the experience. By necessity this means that the gameplay is not contradicted by the presentation; a game cannot be sufficiently immersive if it consistently breaks the medium-specific fifth wall, that is, it consistently reminds you that you’re playing a game by inundating you with repetitive input (“press X repeatedly now!”) or showing you its fancy-pants cinematics every time you enter a new area or discover a new enemy. (Games that are guilty of this, you know who you are by now. There’s no need to single anyone out.)

A good sense of immersion can only be created by a skilled developer during the design and programming of a game, a feat which is all that much more impressive when you consider that immersion can be broken by almost anything: a barking dog outside your apartment; an unruly child banging on pots and pans with a spoon; a 50-pound meteor that makes the full and unfortunate transition to meteorite smack-square in the middle of your living room; and a squeaky right trigger on an Xbox 360 controller are just a few that come to mind, but it’s the latter that most concerns me in this context; good hardware cannot create a sense of immersion in a game, but bad hardware, even a bad control scheme, can certainly detract from one.

Think of how many times you press the “use” or “activate” button in a game. If you’re playing on a PC, with the industry-standard default controls, this means that in order to perform said action, you must first line up your character with the intended target, take your finger off the W key (which means coming to a stop), move it to the E key, activate, and then continue. Not such a big deal when you consider it on a single-case basis, but multiply that sequence by as many times as you’ll use the “activate” button, not just in one game, but in every game that you play, and you’ll begin to notice a cumulative, immersion-breaking effect.

"I'm living...in the forest of...a dream."

“I’m living…in the forest of…a dream.”

Fortunately, most PC games give you the option to remap the controls to your liking, which means you can use the right mouse button for that action if you so desire, which in turn means that you maintain a full range of X, Y, and Z-axis motion while performing said action; the right mouse button is always at your quickest and most efficient disposal, sitting right there beneath the middle finger on your right hand. (Unless you’re a lefty-mouser, in which case you’re weird.) Somewhere along the line in PC game development the right mouse button began to be mapped by default to the “aim down sights” function, a particularly annoying disintegrating feature that I use only when zooming with a sniper rifle, or in third-person non-VATS combat in Fallout 3. (“We’re gonna have two combat stances: can’t hit shit and can’t hit less shit. You decide!”) In those cases, “aim down sights” can be cheerfully mapped to Left Shift, Left Alt, or Left Ctrl while maintaining full unimpaired usefulness.

Most console games don’t give you the option to remap the controls; even some of my favorites, like BioShock, BioShock Infinite, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, force you to use their preset control schemes, all of which employ one of the controller’s face buttons for the “use” function. On the Xbox 360 and Wii U the face buttons include the X, Y, A, and B buttons, on the PlayStation 3 they’re the X, circle, square, and triangle buttons, and pressing any one of them requires players to take their thumbs off the right analog stick while they’re trying to line up their sights with the useable object in question. Again, considered on a single, case-by-case basis this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the effects of such mechanics are cumulative; after thousands of move-thumb-find-button-press-button-move-thumb-proceed actions during the course of a single gaming session, fatigue sets in, immersion is broken, and players are reminded, however subtly, that they’re playing a game instead of living in the world that the developers have created. And yeah, that’s bad.

"It's the night...time that flatters."

“It’s the night…time that flatters.”

This tiny revelation occurred after I purchased the Battlefield 4 controller for the Xbox 360; I haven’t played Battlefield 4, but I was looking for a new controller after my third (and last) Razr Onza stopped working, and the Battlefield 4 controller looked promising; it sports dual 3-way programmable multi-function wheels on its underside, which permits the standard face-button controls to be mapped to an input that doesn’t require the removal of my thumb from the right analog stick. The result thus far? While I can’t vouch for the controller’s long-term durability, I can say that it’s well-built, with good travel and feedback on the analog sticks, but the deal-maker is the inclusion of the 3-way programmable wheels.

I guess the PC fanboys have a good point, even if they don’t know exactly why; better control isn’t simply a matter of being able to hit where you’re aiming, but being able to interact with the game world in a manner that keeps you in the game world; being able to reload, jump, crouch, and use objects while maintaining a full range of motion has done more towards bridging the input and, by extension, the immersion gap between console and PC gaming than any other controller or peripheral that I’ve used.

I just wonder how long it’ll be before first-party hardware manufacturers catch on.

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