I read Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack and had felt many feelings. Overall a bit dry and academic. If you were obsessed with games of the era (I’m guilty), you probably know too much industry history to find anything new here in the first half, and you’re already sold on the cultural import. The second half focuses more on the music itself, and digs into music theory a bit more… but if you know a good bit about music already, it also feels like… just not enough. It still made me very nostalgic, though, and for a while I convinced myself I need to buy a Wii U or something.

Intelligent Artifice – The three most common techniques for telling stories in games

Mainstream games, or at least a significant subset that I’m too lazy to define here, make use of three big techniques to tell stories:

  • Cut-scenes.
  • Invisible boxes.
  • Environmental storytelling.

I think both game developers and players understand these techniques by now, and in fact I think players are getting tired of them. I know I am.

Intelligent Artifice – The three most common techniques for telling stories in games

We’re Not Louis C.K. – Indie Game: The Movie – A Video Game Documentary

Our version of working a small comedy club in Idaho was spending 5 minutes responding to an email about what type of camera we were using or a tweeted questions about the film. Little by little, it added up. We don’t want to push the analogy too hard. We’re not trying to say we’re just like Louis C.K. Not even close. But we do want to make the point that you don’t need throngs of ready-made fans to make this type of distribution effective and worthwhile. You can build towards it.

I really should have watched the movie by now. (via)

We’re Not Louis C.K. – Indie Game: The Movie – A Video Game Documentary

BURNAWAY » From Picasso to Warhol to Sega: Ashley Anderson’s Shinobi Marilyn. I’m a proud owner of one of Anderson’s other prints, and I’m so excited for this art show this weekend. Geeking out:

I love how Marilyn and 20th Century Fox never knew some artist in New York would buy a photo made to promote Niagara and turn it into some of the most famous art of the last 100 years. I love how Warhol died never knowing a game designer in Japan would inject his work into a video game (I think he would have loved it). I love how the game designer in Japan never knew his work would end up archived on the internet, found 25 years after the fact by some guy in Atlanta who would then turn the imagery right back around from the electric into the physical! It’s crazy!

Cf. Robin Sloan on the flip-flop. Atlantans: get thee to the Emily Amy Gallery this weekend.

Tom Bissell reviews Spec Ops: The Line and explores the reasons why we play shooter games. – Grantland

Couldn’t you argue that the men and women who make Battlefield and Modern Combat and Call of Duty are making the world a demonstrably worse place? I think you could. Sometimes I wonder how they sleep at night. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep at night, I play Call of Duty.

Tom Bissell reviews Spec Ops: The Line and explores the reasons why we play shooter games. – Grantland

Extra Lives (review)

Extra Lives
What I love about Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is Tom Bissell’s ambivalent relationship with video games. This is a book by an enthusiast, yes (aren’t most books?), but he also hates them sometimes:

I was then and am now routinely torn about whether video games are a worthy way to spend my time and often ask myself why I like them as much as I do, especially when, very often, I hate them. Sometimes I think I hate them because of how purely they bring me back to childhood, when I could only imagine what I would do if I were single-handedly fighting off an alien army or driving down the street in a very fast car while the police try to shoot out my tires or told that I was the ancestral inheritor of some primeval sword and my destiny was the rid the realm of evil. These are very intriguing scenarios if you are twelve years old. They are far less intriguing if you are thirty-five and have a career, friends, a relationship, or children. The problem, however, at least for me, is that they are no less fun.

And that’s the thing. I’m reminded of Daniel Mendelsohn once again, from How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken:

Strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even… Critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken.

And Bissell is definitely a critic, and a very good one. He gets really annoyed when video games don’t try hard enough, or try to do things they really aren’t made for. Here he is in the midst of talking about Fallout 3 and other open-world games (the genre at the core of the book) in general:

The art direction in a good number of contemporary big-budget video games has the cheerful parasitism of a tribute band. Visual inspirations are perilously few: Forests will be Tolkienishly enchanted; futuristic industrial zones will be mazes of predictably grated metal catwalks; gunfights will erupt amid rubble- and car-strewn boulevards on loan from a thousand war-movie sieges. Once video games shed their distinctive vector-graphic and primary-color 8-bit origins, a commercially ascendant subset of game slowly but surely matured into what might well be the most visually derivative popular art form in history.

The art comparison comes up a lot. Here he talks about the idea of surrender and participation in art, which gets right to the core of video games’ special offering and really, really difficult challenge:

When I watch a film, the most imperial form of popular entertainment—particularly when experienced in a proper movie theater—I am surrendering most humiliatingly, for the film begins at a time I cannot control, has nothing to sell me that I have not already purchased, and goes on whether or not I happen to be in my seat. When I read a novel I am not only surrendering; I am allowing my mind to be occupied by a colonizer of uncertain intent. Entertainment takes it as a given that I cannot affect it other than in brutish, exterior ways: turning it off, leaving the theater, pausing the disc, stuffing in a bookmark, underlining a phrase. […] Playing video games is not quite like this. The surrender is always partial. You get control and are controlled. Games are patently aware of you and have a physical dimension unlike any other form of popular entertainment.

And later, tying in with Mass Effect, he talks more about the control that video games offer. It’s not just kinetic/spatial; it can be moral:

Games such as Mass Effect allow the gamer a freedom of decision that can be evilly enlivening or nobly self-congratulating, but these games become uniquely compelling when they force you to the edge of some drawn, real-life line of intellectual or moral obligation that, to your mild astonishment, you find you cannot step across even in what is, essentially, a digital dollhouse for adults. Other mediums may depict the necessary (or foolhardy) breaches of such lines, or their foolhardy (or necessary) protection, but only games actually push you to the line’s edge and make you live with the fictional consequences of your choice.

There’s one excellent extended passage—seriously: exciting, edge-of-your-seat writing about a video game—where he talks about a particular moment of Left 4 Dead heroism. I’ll let you find the details in his book, but it’s followed up with this sharp comedown experience:

I then realized I was contrasting my aesthetic sensitivity to that of some teenagers about a game that concerns itself with shooting as many zombies as possible. It is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.

Delightful sometimes. Infuriating sometimes. That’s video games for you. I haven’t really played video games since I sold my dearly beloved PlayStation and Dreamcast. This book made me miss them.

I have saved the world so many times in video games that lately I have felt a kind of resentful Republicanism creep into my game-playing mind: Can’t these fucking people take care of themselves?

Tom Bissell in Extra Lives, which you should read.