blarg?

November 21, 2012

Fifteen Minutes Of Forever

Well, that certainly took off, didn’t it?

I’ve had some pretty mixed feelings this week; putting a ton of time and effort into a startup that doesn’t take off and then seeing a tiny little side project blow up has had me quietly making Scumbag Internet ragefaces, but I suppose if Internet Fame was going to find me, I’m happy it’s for doing something I’m proud of. Sure beats falling down an escalator on Youtube and then being Youtube Escalator Guy forever.

Here’s a video of the introduction to WindWaker running in Dolphin, with my pronoun patch applied.

So anyway, that Windwaker mod? Huge, and kind of all over the place. The first wave of web coverage started with Hackaday, followed quickly by an unfortunately-titled Ars Technica article before metastasizing to Metafilter, Kotaku, Joystiq, and a bunch of international sites I can almost but not quite read.

One Dutch site declared, “Vader hackt computerspel dochter om van hoofdpersonage vrouw te maken”. I have no idea what that means but if I try to say it in English it reads “Vader hacked computerspells doctor on van hoofed-personage vroom to making”, and how awesome is that? (Update! It’s actually Belgian, my mistake.)

Funny anecdote: I looked all over the place for software that would record from a segment of my screen and capture the audio coming out of my speakers. Quicktime, incomprehensibly, will do video but only record from the microphone or line-in but not audio-out. After trying a bunch of free/trialware that was all garbage, I had one of those embarrassing “self, you’ve been stupid” moments-of-clarity and solved the problem by plugging a male-male headphone cable into both jacks on the Mac. Man, solving software problems with hardware: so gauche.

Dear Quicktime devs: that’s right, I’ve added a missing feature to your software with a copper wire. “Plaatsvervangende schaamte“, speaking of awesome Dutch words, roughly means “transposed shame”; embarrassment you’re feeling on behalf of somebody too oblivious to feel it themselves. I’m feeling plaatsvervangende schaamte right now, and I’m looking at you.

So, a couple of general points, mostly random notes or observations I’ve made in the last week and a half or so.

  • First and foremost: thanks for the positive press and lots of public and private messages of support. There’s been quite a bit of interest in this, and I’ve taken those opportunities to to talk about how women are treated by the video game industry and gamer culture, and how I think things need to change. I doubt I’ll get a podium like this one very often, and I’m glad I feel like I’ve done the right thing with it.
  • If you want to try it out but all that stuff about hashes and patches in the original post was offputting, one commenter has got a thing that will make it much easier for you, for which I’m grateful. Thanks, Daniel!
  • Boy, trying to do anything progressive on the ‘net sure brings out the cranks, doesn’t it? I suppose there’s always going to be somebody out there with the time to tell you you suck, saying “FAIL” and fantasizing about murdering your family while yelling at you to google Ron Paul, especially if you’ve got the temerity to suggest that women should have an equal voice in the world and maybe aren’t property. Brendan Behan once said that “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves”, and while I don’t agree with that every day, that sentence has definitely been rattling around my head for the last two weeks.

    But the ‘net’s usual cadre of reactionary neanderthals aside, a number of white dudes have suggested that this was somehow unnecessary because there are plenty of strong female role models in video games, citing Samus Aran and Lara Croft, and leaving me shaking my head. Truly, those people haven’t been paying attention or can’t read, two problems that may be reinforcing each other; neither of those characters are in games suitable for a child, and both of them have been horribly mistreated in the most recent editions of their franchise, for the most patronizing, misogynist reasons imaginable. So dudes, while you’re making a strong argument there, it’s not at all the one you think you’re making.

    In any case: there were fewer death threats than I expected, but not none. Way to stay in character, purse-dogs of the Internet.

  • Etherpad – and presumably any collaborative text editor, but specifically Etherpad – is so much better than doing interviews over the phone. A bit slower, a bit clunkier if you’re not a touch-typist maybe, but being able to actually have both sides of the interview collaborate, be able to walk away for a few moments without breaking anything, and having something you both have a record of and can cut and paste? So good, and outweighing the alternatives by quite a bit.
  • Even if it still has tremendous reach we all suspect old media is doomed, right? Well, funny story about that, you can sort of tell how doomed various segments of the media are by how they try to get in touch with you. I was interviewed by a couple of people, and how people got in touch with me was informative:
    • Lukas Blakk at Geek Feminism found me on IRC and proposed doing the interview in Etherpad right away. Ok, you’ve got me. I’m in.
    • A number of people who found the article scrolled down to the Contact page, and found me through that. That’s cool, that works; when Skype got a little choppy we could switch to Etherpad, and it worked out well.
    • A smaller number of people – some independent journalists, some larger media organizations – googled me, found Bespoke I/O and contacted me through that; some of those people used Skype or otherwise on voice recordings of their interviews, which is OK even if it seems like a lot of retyping.
    • Nobody’s tried to fax me yet, but two people saw the article and then looked me up in the phone book and left a message on my land line. Doomed, guys. Doooooooooooooooooomed.
  • We all kind of know URL shorteners are bullshit, but you really don’t find out just how bad they are for small shops and the Web in general until you’re trying to learn things from your referrer logs. No joke, URL shorteners are a straight-up theft of knowledge. In fact, I’m wondering if being able to hoard all that redirect info for themselves is the specific reason that Twitter has decided to tell their entire ecosystem to go die in a fire. As an aside, it is such a shame to watch them blow another opportunity – “Become Infrastructure” – that most startups would cut off an arm for, but hey, that’s Twitter. Maybe everything that new guy learned at MySpace will be able to help them hahaha *sob*.
  • It seems a little churlish to complain about media rights, given the nature of the project, but my Flickr feed is flagged “All Rights Reserved”. Among larger media outlets NBC News, Der Spiegel, Huffington Post, Buzz60 and the Toronto Star were noteworthy for actually asking for reprint permission, as were a handful of smaller blogs. Precisely zero of the big-name techblogs – Ars Technica, Kotaku, Jezebel, Joystiq, any of them – bothered to ask.
  • Oh, Today Show… closing out with “Oh, the things a Pop will do for his princess”, really? Go say that in an empty room; listen to the echo. That’s the sound of your being part of the problem.
  • Nobody cares about Google+. For real; I have evidence. Ever heard of Plurk? Yeah, neither have I, and maybe this is some sort of unexpected sampling bias, but Plurk’s numbers destroyed Google+ as far as my referrer logs are concerned. Google actually does run a vibrant, engaging and competitive social network, but it’s called Google Reader.

A lot of people have asked me if I’m going to do this again with some other game, and I started last week saying that it depended on what my daughter wanted and which way her interests went. The amount of pushback I got for it though, the threats and hate mail, have certainly helped me make up my mind.

Definitely, yes.

October 5, 2012

Destroy Your Legends

Filed under: arcade,awesome,digital,interfaces,lunacy,want — mhoye @ 1:41 pm

The Verge is running a question for their community: “You’ve Just Been Given Control of a Great Video Game Franchise!” What do you remake, and why?

I wrote this:

Now, I’m an inveterate Legend Of Zelda fan, but if you’re paying attention to the sociopolitical background noise in that series, it’s… well. Literary theorists call this sort of thing “problematic”, which an in-field shorthand for “inconsistent and, if you look carefully, kind of sadmaking.” Your role as a hero there is to ostensibly to gain the powers and tools you need to defeat Ganon, noted evil megalomaniac, and secure the safety of the Kingdom of Hyrule.

But if you look a little closer, your role there is explicitly to restore the status quo ante of the Kingdom of Hyrule, power structure and all. The Royal Family stays Royal, the gods stay gods, the people stay the people. It’s a little… undemocratic.

The only time they’ve really deviated from that formula was in Majora’s Mask, which I don’t think strictly counts as a Legend Of Zelda game, despite being arguably the best game in that series.

The game I want puts a spin on that; a new Legend Of Zelda in which, through the curse of the wayward Skull Kid, Link wakes up to that realization and seeks out the Princess and Ganondorf, who have known the truth of the situation for centuries. The player retreads some of the older games, seeking out some of the less-used artefacts and people; large parts of the game played as Gandondorf and the Princess as the real villain of the whole thing, the divinely-backed King of Hyrule, marshals his forces and eventually the Gods themselves to stop you from dethroning him.

Roughly sketched, the trailer looks like this:

Fade in, to the sound of ZREO’s version of “Farewell Hyrule King”, from “WindWaker” In the old eight-bit Legend Of Zelda arcade font, the screen reads: “We’ve fought for centuries.”

Quick, pulsing cuts of Ganon’s introductory scene from A Link To The Past, Ocarina and
WindWaker

In the purple “Link To The Past” text style: “Over and over again.”

More fade-in-and-out cuts from the final fights in Ocarina, WindWaker and Twilight Princess.

“Ocarina of Time”-look: “Hundreds of years.”

We pan over the world maps from Link To The Past and WindWaker.

“WindWaker”-look: “Thousands of miles.”

Style: Twilight Princess. “.. and all that time, I’ve never lost.”

Music fades out, at the end of the slow part of Farewell Hyrule King, and closes
with the skittering-over-stone sound of a dungeon door closing.

“And all that time, I was wrong.”

Three heartbeat clips of Ganon’s face from different games.

“And now I have to go back.”

“Through the long years and distant lands.”

More clips of Link as he walks towards some of the iconic architecture of the series.

“To recover the ancient powers,”

“To summon my old enemy one last time.”

Style: Something new, light-grey on black, understated.

“To face the gods that have savaged our land,”

Slow pans around devastated landscapes, islands from the dark-worlds from A Link To The Past and Twilight Princess blurring into Hyrule. Broken ruins of the castles from various games.

“that Power, Wisdom and Courage might stand together at last,”

“… and set the people of Hyrule free.”

We now see Link walking into a small shrine, clearly built around the statue at its altar, a kneeling Ganon looking skyward. The Master Sword still embedded Excalibur-like in his skull; this is where he was last defeated, at the conclusion of Windwaker. Link brushes him off, as gently as an old friend, before putting two hands to the hilt of the sword and drawing it out. A thin shell of the stone crumbles away, and Ganon sags for a moment, and then rises.

He looks at the raised sword, and then to Link, and a voice that rumbles with scratching subsonic echoes asks, “You have woken me, here? Why?”

Link answers: “To end this. To give you everything you want.”

As previews of the gameplay, the trailer concludes with some exploration of canonical past environments by Link, but we also see Princess Zelda carrying a bow and a fine rapier, dressed as Shiek and creeping, Thief-style, through the rafters of Hyrule Castle at night, and Ganon parting a phalanx of armored pikemen with the same casual gesture you’d use to part a bead curtain.

Shortly we see Ganon, walking into Zelda’s room as she stands on her balcony, overlooking the kingdom. The princess knows he’s there, and doesn’t even turn around, smiling sadly. “Again, Ganon? And so soon?”. He shakes his head, and she turns around, looking quizzical as he replies “No, Princess, not this time. The Hero is Awake.”

“At last.”

A clip of Ganondorf, arm extended, levitating Zelda up to the back of an enormous arachnid creature, as she grabs on with one hand and pulls her rapier with the other. King of Hyrule snarling “You will not defile my kingdom” as an army of knights marches forward.

We close on a close up of Link, looking down briefly at the shield on his arm, emblazoned with the Crest of Hyrule. He smiles, tossing it to the ground and drawing the small Kokiri shortsword from his belt, Master Sword in his other hand. We pan back from that to see Link standing on a green hilltop, backs together with Princess Zelda, bow drawn and eyes narrowed, and Ganon, nodding to himself while his hands smoke with a green, burning-copper fire. As we pan further back, we see the hill surrounded at the base by thousands of soldiers, armored knights on horseback and snarling monsters in shining armor plate.

We fade out over the Crest of Hyrule and the title: “The Legend Of Zelda: Divine Kingdom”.

And then we fade to black.

I mean, sure. Almost pure fanservice, in a sense, but I think the idea’s got potential. The hard part is designing cooperative gameplay that makes sense for the very different character-roles involved, but I think that’s solvable.

Anyway, there you go.

June 12, 2012

Ideas For Games For Gamers With Kids

Dear Ubisoft –

I’m a longstanding fan of your work but like a lot of long-time gamers my life’s moving ahead. I’ve got a family now, but even so I’d like my kids to be able to share my hobbies as much as anyone who’s ever collected a stamp or oiled up a baseball glove. And I know I’ve asked you for some impractical things in the past – I know, I know, as much as my daughter has loved riding the fancy horse around in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, that adding penguins and giraffes might not be feasible – but hear me out here.

I really enjoy being able to play big, free-running open-worlds games with my daughter. She’s smart, attentive, and understands where things are and what we’re trying to do in these fictional spaces; it’s a joy as a parent to have her interested in my pastimes, for however long that lasts. But most of the games I play to unwind aren’t particularly content-appropriate for her, if I’m playing them strictly as intended.

Take the Assassin’s Creed series. Running, climbing, jumping into the water with a big splash and swimming, horseback riding… they’re all great; we can watch Ezio jump in and out of haystacks like a fool together all day. Looking at things, watching people go by, just watching the ebb and flow of the city, it’s terrific. Fist fights, sword fights, picking pockets and shanking people unexpectedly before you toss the body off a building, somewhat less so.

But there’s just a ton, a ton of wonderful architecture in those games, as you well know. Wonderfully detailed buildings and elaborate historical notes about people, places and events that are better than anything I’ve seen in any other game, and beautiful in their own right. Italian cities, a Rome and a Constantinople that I honestly believe would be wonderful to explore and learn about on their own in a stripped down, accommodating and non-violent game.

So let me rephrase that: if you do take away the aggro guards, the various threats, fights and malfeasances, and you keep the historical notes, artifacts and characters, what game do you have left?

I think you might, with some judicious writing, have “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego”, as set in the most beautiful rendition of the middle ages ever made.

All the parts are there – you’ve got the engine, you’ve got the world, you’ve got the art assets and the tools in the can already. I never want to say “just” when it comes to a software product – I know how dangerous that word is – but the temptation here is strong. But the opportunity here for a same-couch, cooperative game that kids can play with parents, puzzling things out and doing a bit of historical exploration in the process… Not only do I think that some great writing could tie it into and move along the series’ (great) ongoing narrative, but I think it could be a genuinely new, genuinely fun game in its own right.

You’d have to keep the horse, though. The horsey is important.

Please and thank you,

– Mike Hoye

June 4, 2012

Baby’s First 3D Platformer

Filed under: arcade,awesome,interfaces,life,parenting,Uncategorized — mhoye @ 1:17 pm

If being a parent and gamer has taught me anything, it’s how critically important it is to start working on those platformer skills early.

It’s a shame I accidentally cut this off just as she was asking if Carter wanted to give it a try.

May 31, 2012

The Pre-emptive Machine-Vision Horror Trope Needs A Better Name

Filed under: arcade,awesome,doom,future,interfaces,lunacy,toys — mhoye @ 9:27 am

That’s a game called StarForge, a kind of minecrafty farm/build/survive game that looks pretty promising. Trading off the eight-bit charm of Minecraft for a lot of FPS aggro, it looks like a boots-on-the-ground, shovels-in-the-dirt revisiting of classics like Dune II or Command And Conquer.

There’s a moment in there at about the thirty second mark, though, that gave me a surprising amount to think about; it would have been interesting to see a longer buildup to this, maybe with an explanation of the world and some more examination of what the player’s built up, leading up to the alone-in-the-dark moment where the turrets suddenly spin up and start grinding through ammo before the player can even see what’s coming. From a gameplay perspective this is a great demo; you can tell by the way the entire internet is trying to turn his poor server into one of the smoking craters you see in the video. But from a human-experience perspective, there’s a new thing on display here.

We have tools now that can see a lot further into the dark than we can, make decisions about what they find and then act on them immediately, deploying an staggering amount of force with remarkable precision. It’s sudden, and there’s a good argument to me made that it has to be as sudden as possible – the delay of a warning, a supervising authority or even just a human interaction might be an unacceptable delay, a burden the selection pressure of a technological arms race will quickly discard. Often, in fact, the best-case scenario there is that these tools leave enough of an audit trail that a complex situation might be understandable in long hindsight. But more often you’ll have a few thousand spent casings, a few dozen empty rocket tubes, the burned out shells of a few smoking buildings, the charred husks of their residents and no way to reconcile that with justice or conscience.

So now there’s this moment, that a human can be alone with their anticipation in the crowding dark, when machines we’ve built whose judgement we don’t really trust suddenly act with incredible violence on things we can’t see for reasons we don’t understand.

It’s really a perfect moment – the visceral panic of survival horror, that existential sense irrelevance that lives at the periphery of monstrously outsized forces, the deep-seated, voodoo suspicion of incomprehensible tech… “Your support tools or personal network suddenly goes insane” is going to be the spring-loaded-cat of the 21st century, I think, and for good reason.

I really need an “overthinking” tag.

April 3, 2012

“I ain’t in this for your revolution and I’m not in it for you, Princess.”

Filed under: a/b,arcade,digital,doom,fail,hate,interfaces,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:54 am

Zooming

It’s an old joke, with that wonderful undercurrent of bigoted misogyny that so many old jokes have: some creepy old dude propositions young woman by asking if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars, which she concedes she would. He follows that up asking if she’d sleep with him for a nickel; she replies, of course not, what kind of person do you think I am?

“We’ve established that”, he replies. “Now we’re just haggling about the price.”

The sort of horrid old joke told by horrid old people, to be sure, but there’s a tiny kernel of capital-T Truth in there: we should be honest with ourselves, at the very least, about when we’re talking about matters of principle or when we’re dickering over the price tag, and what that means about us.

Exhibit 1: George Lucas testifying before Congress in 1998 about copyright and the importance of artistic integrity.

“The destruction of our film heritage, which is the focus of concern today, is only the tip of the iceberg. American law does not protect our painters, sculptors, recording artists, authors, or filmmakers from having their lifework distorted, and their reputation ruined. If something is not done now to clearly state the moral rights of artists, current and future technologies will alter, mutilate, and destroy for future generations the subtle human truths and highest human feeling that talented individuals within our society have created.”

“[…] People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society. The preservation of our cultural heritage may not seem to be as politically sensitive an issue as “when life begins” or “when it should be appropriately terminated,” but it is important because it goes to the heart of what sets mankind apart. Creative expression is at the core of our humanness. Art is a distinctly human endeavor. We must have respect for it if we are to have any respect for the human race.”

“These current defacements are just the beginning. Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tomorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new “original” negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires. The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control. In order to reconstruct old negatives, many archivists have had to go to Eastern bloc countries where American films have been better preserved.”

“In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be “replaced” by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.”

Exhibit 2: Dancing to “I’m Han Solo”, in the Kinect Star Wars video game, a rewritten version of Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo”

I’m feeling like a star,
You can’t stop my shine.
I’m lovin’ Cloud City,
My head’s in the sky.

I’m solo, I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo, Solo.

Yeah, I’m feelin’ good tonight,
Finally feelin’ free and it feels so right, oh.
Time to do the things I like,
Gonna see a Princess, everything’s all right, oh.
No Jabba to answer to,
Ain’t a fixture in the palace zoo, no.
And since that carbonite’s off me,
I’m livin’ life now that I’m free, yeah.

Told me to get myself together,
Now I got myself together, yeah.
Now I made it through the weather,
Better days are gonna get better.
I’m so happy the carbonite is gone,
I’m movin’ on.
I’m so happy that it’s over now,
The pain is gone.

I’m puttin’ on my shades
to cover up my eyes.
I’m jumpin’ in my ride,
I’m heading out tonight

I’m solo, I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo, Solo.

I’m pickin’ up my blaster,
Put it on my side,
I’m jumpin’ in my Falcon,
Wookie at my side.

I’m solo, I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo.
I’m Han Solo, Solo.

Possibly the worst part being that this is actually an inoffensive, blandly-rehashed second-order derivative of a parody MC Chris did better.

March 27, 2012

The Banality Of Angry

Filed under: arcade,digital,interfaces,life,parenting,toys — mhoye @ 11:16 am

(Updated May 25, 2016, see below.)

Zooming

I asked some people on the intuberwebs about good iOS games for kids, and I was a little surprised to see Angry Birds come up. I’ve played through it; it bothered me quite a bit, and my knee-jerk reaction to the claim that it’s a kids game was scowling incomprehension. “Are you people nuts? Did we even play the same game?”

Maybe I’ve overthought this. And maybe Angry Birds isn’t worth the sort of analysis I’ve put into Portal 2, but I believe in the medium of video game as art. Games merit reflection. And reflection is where we are revealed to ourselves, whether we like what we see or not.

Christian Thorne has written a bit about Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds that you should probably read, particularly if you enjoyed that movie. It’s quite well written – read the whole thing, for sure – but to give away the punchline, Thorne makes a compelling case that Tarantino is calling you, the audience member laughing away at his film, a fascist.

So why does Tarantino hate us so much? He hates us for liking his movies the way we do; he hates us because he can so easily bring us round to enjoying the sight of people being gathered into a closed space so that they can be exterminated. He hates you for how easily you can be pushed into the Nazi position, as long as the people getting killed are themselves Nazis. He hates you because you are the fascist and you don’t even know it.

Todd Alcott has written something very similar:

The movie doesn’t merely use violence, it’s about violence, particularly violence in movies, or in popular culture anyway, and the way it can be used to manipulate an audience, or a populace. It repeatedly gets you longing for violence and then, by the time it shows up, it’s not what you wanted or expected it to be. The movie as a whole doesn’t offer up easy answers, rather it asks extremely uncomfortable questions.

Angry Birds starts out by giving you a pretty simple motivation. Eggs missing, pigs responsible. You knock over pig structures and kill pigs, with volleys of particular kinds of bird. Cute noises are made, points are earned. All is well, except that the kind of things you’re knocking over changes a little bit at a time over the course of the game.

I might as well give away the punchline, too: you start Angry Birds knocking down the forts and castles of your enemies, the pigs. Halfway through, you’re destroying infrastructure: railways, power stations, airports and farms. By the end of it, probably without thinking about it all that much, you’re sending your troops to destroy hospitals, apartment buildings, churches and schools.

I’ve been surprised to see that Rovio have completely gotten away with this, too; I’d have thought that a video game you can’t win without killing everyone in a school would have caused some sort of outrage, but a veneer of cute is apparently all the stealth technology you need to stay off the culture-war radar. Even though all the magic video-games-are-evil-think-of-the-children words are right there, ripe for their ritual sanctimonious media abuse, Angry Birds is far and away the most popular portable game franchise in the world, and somehow that’s all overlooked.

If you take a step back from it, and think about what you’ve been participating in, Angry Birds starts to look a lot more like subversive social commentary than cutesy entertainment – to borrow from a line that describes Steven Spielberg’s work in much the same terms, for all its simple gameplay and ostensibly trivial narrative this a complicated, bitter game, with a deliberate sugarcoating that makes it commercially palatable.

It’s not a bad game, not at all. But the fact that it’s addictive and fun and that we keep playing as it gets darker and meaner (both morally and graphically, as day turns to night later in the game) without questioning or apparently even noticing it says something real and maybe important about us.

I don’t think I want that to get said to my kids just yet.

Update: Looking back on this post from 2016, I’d really like to know what the secret backstory of that first version of Angry Birds was. I strongly suspect that it was intended as a sort of Guernica-style antiwar art-protest game before it took off, one that people just didn’t get. But then suddenly it’s the must-have app for every platform and licensing revenue makes everyone involved so much money that all those sequels were inevitable. I wonder if that’s true; that there was a moment where everyone at Rovio realized that history had to be rewritten and nobody could be allowed in on the original joke. That not getting the gag had become the central part of their financial success.

November 26, 2011

It’s Hard To Overstate My Satisfaction

Filed under: arcade,awesome,digital,life,parenting,science,toys,want — mhoye @ 1:39 pm

A while back, I sent some email to Valve suggesting they should make a shirt commemorating Portal 2’s “Bring Your Daughter To Work Day”.

They did.

I love Valve a little bit more all the time. So awesome.

(Also, the date given – 08/05/85 – it is… very interesting.)

October 17, 2011

Shooting Holes In The Story

I don’t think I’m actually done this, so just pretend it’s a late draft. I might try to tighten it up later, but here you go; I hope you’re interested. Yeah, this is still about Portal 2, so bear with me. It’s not like Gears Of War deserves to be dissected like this, you know?

I’ve been spending some time chasing this idea around in the bowels of the Aperture Science facility, taking copious notes as I wander through the middle bits of Portal 2 again. There’s some important context here that it may help to be familiar with, but just playing through Portal 1 and 2 should be plenty.

It’s probably because I’m sentimental, but to my mind an important thing about Quest- or FPSRPGs that doesn’t get much attention, at least as far as video games is concerned, is that you actually are playing a role. Video games differ fundamentally from most narratives (and are closer to real life, in this sense) in that you are being allowed to shape a story and participate in a universe that you don’t fully own, and can’t fully command; the character whose role you play predates your presences in that space, and has a story that is in some sense theirs, reaching forward and back beyond your brief manipulation of their limbs and choices. Sometimes you need to take the time, wherever your character finds themselves – a dungeon, a running firefight, a ruined building or an open field – to do something that’s not relevant to your goals, or even to you personally, just to do some justice to the character you’re playing.

I found a lot of the “Rat Man’s Dens” on my first playthrough, being the sort of person who looks for the seams. Specifically, I found that corner of the facility where one of the radios, rather than playing the tinny Aperture-marimba, is playing The National’s “Exile Vilify”.

Did you find it? What did you do, then? It occurred to me as I sat there that this is the first piece of music we’ve really heard, in-game. But maybe, and maybe worse, there’s a decent chance that this slow lament about the burdens of alienation might actually be the only song Chell has ever heard.

I wondered what that might do to a person, how suspicious they’d be to have found that thing in that place, and how they’d react. Is it even possible to guess how somebody might feel in that situation? I crouched down to stare at the radio, listening to it all the way through before going back to finish that test. It seemed appropriate. I doubt it had any effect on the game at all (but who can know, with Valve?) but I have a sense that my participation in the game was improved somehow by it, and it’s hard to argue with that metric.

Anyway, let’s get back on track here.

So apropos of nothing, or at least it was at the time, a few months ago I wrote about the implications of the cave in Plato’s well-known metaphor having its own agency. It’s odd that the idea would find some traction in a discussion about the plot of a video game but, I guess, where else?

The idea of immortality which appears in syncretistic religions of antiquity was introduced in late antiquity. The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases, the “descent” (loss), the “search” and the “ascent”, with main theme the “ascent” of Persephone and the reunion with her mother.

– Wikipedia on the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Here’s a question for you: how many protagonists are there in Portal 2? Chell, GlaDOS and Wheatley… three, right? And you’re resurrected in the midst of Aperture Science’s protracted decay, to be dropped into this forgotten, sealed off subterranean wing of Aperture after a GlaDOS and Wheatley’s first confrontation, to struggle back up the mine shaft and restore the status quo ante.

That’s the game, to a certain superficial approximation. And all of that has to be wrong; there are hundreds of little details in-game that put the lie to it. Portal 2 isn’t a simple or superficial game, not at all.

Though Demeter is often described simply as the goddess of the harvest, she presided also over the sanctity of marriage, the sacred law, and the cycle of life and death. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon.

– Wikipedia on Demeter

The first problem is, as I mentioned earlier, is all these little things that are where they really shouldn’t be. At the very bottom of Test Shaft 09, as you’ve passed Abandonment Seal Zulu Bunsen and entered Aperture’s antechambers, you start to see the signs that these sealed off and abandoned facilities aren’t nearly as sealed off or abandoned as you think. All the lights are still on, doors are still powered and they’re still controlled by devices with clean, white lines and modern-era lens-blade Aperture logos on the side. Likewise the hazmat warning labels on the pipes and vats as you ascend from the depths; with modern warnings and modern logos, this isn’t the long-abandoned a facility it seems to be at first glance.

There are other problems, like: in the last room before you ascend back through the containment door to modern Aperture, what activates that lift? You don’t. There’s no switches, no panels; the door just closes and up you go. The same thing happens in the moments before you meet Wheatley again; there’s stairs everywhere else but here, for no architectural reason, a lift you don’t actuate yourself hoists you up to the entrance to the next chamber.

You can see where I’m going with this by now. There aren’t three protagonists here; there are four. Portal 2 doesn’t make sense unless you consider the Aperture Science facility itself as an agent in its own right.

And it gets weirder, because it seems likely that the Aperture facility is the manifestation of its creator, Cave Johnson.

When Wheatley slams you down the shaft that drops you into the bowels of Aperture, it’s worth asking: why is that shaft even there? There’s no structural reason for it, and when you get to the bottom of it, there’s nothing else down there with you. It has to be something else. Another question worth taking a good hard look at is, what are you actually doing while you’re down there?

In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld. In ancient Orphic sources and in the mystery schools, Tartarus is also the unbounded first-existing entity from which the Light and the cosmos are born.

Wikipedia, “Tartarus”

It’s pretty well-established that GlaDOS is the electronic (and likely the very much unwilling) reincarnation of Caroline, Cave Johnson’s personal assistant. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Chell is in all likelihood Caroline’s daughter, and that likely by Cave. Indeed, partway through your ascent, you get a disturbing glimpse of Chell’s backstory when you come across a slew of science fair projects: the one with the hugely overgrown potato (whose shape bears a more-than-passing resemblance to that of GlaDOS, with its roots threading up into the ceiling) has two noteworthy details, one being the line that it involved a “special ingredient from daddy’s work”, and the other being that it’s signed “Chell”.

“For the record you are adopted and that’s terrible. Just work with me.”

– GlaDOS to Chell, Portal 2.

The chronology here is ambiguous, but Chell would have to have been between about six and ten years old to have made the potato battery project. Cave Johnson’s last recorded message in the Aperture Test Spheres said unambiguously that “If I die before you people can pour me into a computer, I want Caroline to run this place. Now she’ll argue, she’ll say she can’t – she’s modest like that. But you make her! Hell, put her in my computer, I don’t care.” If Bring Your Daughter To Work Day was when everything went wrong it’s likely that Caroline, forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, has already been a victim of that process. GLaDOS stands for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System; it’s not clear what being forced to be that genetic component entails, but the fact GLaDOS physically resembles a bound, blindfolded and gagged woman is I think telling, and an important part of the story.

“Sorry boys, she’s married – to science!”

– Cave Johnson, introducing Caroline in his first recorded message.

The timing seems wrong – Chell is clearly a lot older than 10, likely in her mid to late 20s in-game and it’s not clear when Cave Johnson died of the moon rock poisoning he suffered. “Daddy’s work” seems to imply that Chell’s father was still alive at the time, but it’s possible it means “from the place my Dad worked” or “created”. Either way, it’s pretty clear given the chronology that Chell really was adopted, but not by any other parents; she was adopted by Aperture. And Aperture is in a very real sense, with its vast, relentless complexity, advanced technology including “brain mapping” and its mad genius CEO, both a deity and a place.

One day they woke me up
So I could live forever
It’s such a shame the same will never happen to you.
You’ve got your short sad life left,
(That’s what I’m counting on.)
I used to want you dead but now I only want you gone.

– lyrics from Want You Gone, Portal 2’s concluding song, sung by Jonathan Coulton

What you’re really doing as you ascend through the history of Aperture from the bottom of Test Shaft 09 is resurrecting Aperture itself; resurrecting Cave, and reconnecting him to Caroline again, forever. And even though Cave ordered Caroline forcibly decanted into GLaDOS, he may not have wanted the same for his daughter, and now that the reawakened Caroline knows who she really is and who you are, she may not actually want that either.

And that’s why you’re ultimately sent away, and why Portal 2 is a weirder, creepier game than it first appears; while you’ve been solving all of these puzzle-tests, you’ve also been resurrecting your doomed parents to their respective (terrible, captive) immortalities, in the end being sent away so that “the same will never happen to you”. You made the last ascension serenaded by the facility itself; they’re left alone together as you emerge from the facility to a blue sky and a field full of tall wheat. It’s sometime in early autumn – harvest season – and you’re off to see the world, with your scorched old Companion Cube as a last going away present from your parents.

September 21, 2011

It’s The Little Details

Filed under: academic,arcade,awesome,digital,documentation,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 1:15 pm

I’m really interested in video games as narrative, and the possibilities virtual spaces open up to be examined through the lenses and terminologies of the various schools of literary criticism that are content to call anything that hits them in the eyes a text. There’s a lot of ground in that field to cover, and some of the best games are happy to give you a glimpse of the scope of the worlds they’re embedded in and the forces that shape them, a larger sense of who the protagonists are, and hint at the broad brushstrokes and hidden grammars of a story you’re barely a part of.

Portal 2 is great for this.

If you’re paying really close attention, there’s a few interesting discontinuities in Portal 2. Some of them are… maybe more obvious than they should be. The low-hanging fruit come when you’re fighting through Wheatley’s tests in the latter third of the game. When you first meet back up with her halfway up Test Shaft 9 Glados tells you that she “literally doesn’t have the energy to lie to you”; she later on she reverses herself on the claim that she didn’t stockpile test chambers when she’s called on it. Another one that might just be a continuity error comes up when you emerge from the last of the Test Shaft 9’s pumping rooms; the walls below are marked “1982”, but stepping through the door leads you to a vitrification order dated 1961. Continuity seems pretty clear, at that point, so, maybe this is nothing?

But maybe it’s something, or a hint at something. Because at the very bottom of the mine, in the doorway out of the fifties-era Aperture Science offices where the first picture of Cave and his runner-up contractor-of-the-year awards are, the sliding door is apparently controlled by a little white device, with little square lights. And if you look closely, you’ll see it inscribed with, not the 50’s era Aperture Science logo as you’d expect, but with the most recent lens-blade Aperture Science logo, the one we all know and love.
There’s no hint that I can find anywhere else in the narrative that this has any right to be there but there it is, and the implications for the story, both main- and back-, are pretty large.

I do like me some understanding a good story so self, I said to myself, why not just ask?

So I sent some email to Chet Faliszek asking him: is it there on purpose, or is that an oversight?

And I got some email back just now from Erik Wolpaw and Mr. Faliszek saying:

Mike,

As you probably know, the answer to that seemingly innocent question would necessarily include partial answers to several even bigger questions. Nice try, though. Glad you liked the game!

Erik

I don’t know that I expected anything else, but there it is, and my slow-clap processor is running pretty hot right now. Whatever it means to the story, there’s functioning, modern-era Aperture Science technology deployed at the very, very bottom of Test Shaft 9, making a sliding door work.

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