blarg?

arcade

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.

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 FPS-RPGs 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.

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.

Geordie Tate writes:

“As you learn more, you’ll understand more, in the same way that a budding engineer might gradually grow to understand a complex blueprint. If your first instinct when you hear the word “feminist” is to say “those man-haters want equality, but they still want me to pay for everything, hurf durf!” then you currently have as accurate an understanding of feminism as a confectioner would have of a Titan II missile schematic. You know those congressmen who say that Grand Theft Auto IV is a “crime simulator” that is “training new felons?” That’s you, and feminism.

“I know you can do better.”

… as part of a much, much longer and quite excellent post. Read the whole thing.

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve been grinning like an idiot since noon, so I’ll tell you.

I had an idea today, and it seemed like a decent one so I emailed it to Gabe Newell.

Sir –

My daughter, who is all of two and a half years old, has asked me if I can get her an Aperture Science Turret for Christmas. I told her that Santa wasn’t likely to bring her a turret, but I would see if we could get her a companion cube, and she seems OK with that.

I thought that it would be perfect, though, if there were kids’-sized shirts in the Valve store commemorating Aperture Science’s “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day. There don’t seem to be, though, and I thought I should bring that oversight to your attention.

Thanks for everything,

— Mike Hoye

An hour later I got an email from Arsenio Navarro, in charge of Valve’s merchandising, which read in part:

Hello Mike,

Thank you for your email – and excellent t-shirt idea.
We will correct this oversight and offer a design at the Valve Store. [...]

Cheers,

Arsenio

I haven’t been that giddy about something in my inbox since I got an email from Don Knuth. I’m sure that most of you are aware that Valve Software, and Gabe Newell in particular, are 100% awesome. But for those of you who were not, let me assure you: that is the case.

Everyday I'm Bustlin'

This came to me the other day when a friend of mine was talking about some acquaintances of theirs who’d driven across Africa, including through the Sudan: some people in some places really, really need a GPS that talks to them like the Fact Sphere from Portal 2.

“The situation you are in is very dangerous. Turn left in 200 meters.”

“Proceed straight for 500 meters. The likelihood of you dying within the next two kilometers is 87.61%. You are about to get me killed. If you proceed along this route, we will both die because of your negligence. The Fact Sphere is not defective. Its facts are wholly accurate, and very interesting.”

“The route you have chosen spans three kilometers of elevation and two war zones. This is a bad plan. You will fail. Violently. Turn right in 100 meters. If you continue on this road at this speed, you will be dead soon.”

“The situation is hopeless. Take the next right turn. You could stand to lose a few pounds.”

The Door

I alluded to some fictional future tech the other day, specifically ARM-powered Macbook Airs. My reasonings, let me show you them.

  • With OSX 10.6, Apple announced Grand Central Dispatch, a framework for managing multithreaded programs across multiple cores, which they released, surprisingly, under the Apache open-source license. This gives programmers who take advantage of it an easy way to take good advantage of multi-core processors without the usual agonies of threading. You might not think this is a huge deal when we’re talking the usual two- or four-core processors on most modern machines, but
  • Apple is one of the very few licensees of Imagination Technology’s SGX543MP2-16 ARM chips. In terms of performance, the cutting edge there is not quite as fast as your current Atoms, but there’s sixteen general-purpose GPU cores in those chips, plus a pair of 3D GPUs and 2d and crypto acceleration thrown in for kicks.
  • One of the neatest thing about these chips is that you can actually power down individual cores to save power, and fast enough that you can do it between frames of playing video. Relatedly, this is something PA Semi was also very good at before Apple bought them – aggressive power management on ARM-based systems. In terms of pure processing power ARM is not as fast as the best processors that Intel has to offer but in per-watt terms x86 doesn’t even come close. That plus 16 cores plus GCD is going to be a hard act to follow for anyone in the portable space stuck in Intel-land.
  • Microsoft has asked Intel to produce a 16-core Atom chip, it was reported earlier this year, despite the fact that they’re pushing towards ARM as well.

… and Apple has their annual World Wide Developer Conference coming up in June. My predictions are as follows:

  • Apple’s next generation of laptop hardware will run ARM chips, likely starting with the Airs. They’ve pulled this switch off before in their move from PPC to Intel and their insistence on total vertical control of the development environment is what lets them do it; the App Store model is only going to make that easier. They’ll announce this at WWDC, and it will look a lot like the PPC-Intel move did – if you’re using XCode, the next version of XCode has a checkbox in it saying “ARM” that you’ll click and be fine. If not, you’re basically 100% fucked.
  • At some point late in the year we’ll learn that Adobe doesn’t develop for Macs with XCode. They’ve got their own proprietary thing, because that’s the sort of thing they’d do.
  • Windows 8, definitely ARM support and probably all of it, is going to ship late. Microsoft is going to be in a lot of trouble in the laptop space late next year, because without ARM support they won’t be able to sell a product with competitive battery life.
  • In the longer, vaguer term, processing power per watt is going to be the most important computer metric of the next decade. Virtualized services running on ARM blades are going to displace everything that doesn’t require screamingly fast sequential computing as close to the bare metal as possible, which is to say “almost all of it”. In two years your more expensive 2U servers will have several hundred processor cores in them, consuming less power than your beefier 2U servers to today.
  • Steve Ballmer will lose his job by 2012 or Microsoft continues its long slide into irrelevance.

We’ll know in a few months!

plzthx

I’ve just fought my way through the last of Reach, and… Yeah, it’s Halo. At this point I suspect you either own Reach or never will but for whatever it’s worth here’s what I thought.

Every now and then you hear people debating whether or not video games are art. Some people adamantly say no, others insist yes; I doubt I’ll be tipping my hand much by saying I have long asserted that nobody whose soul is properly wired to their eyes and thumbs could play through Myst, Ico or Shadow Of The Colossus without admitting that whatever it is about art that speaks to us can be found there. But it’s equally true that video games are a new thing. You can cultivate a full and rewarding appreciation of the Mona Lisa, King Lear or the Moonlight Sonata without ever once having to press X to not die, for example. There’s an inclusiveness to video games that forces the audience to shape the experience in a way that other media just doesn’t – you’re not often called up from the audience to shank a Capulet yourself – and that’s not something that’s on the typical art-appreciation curriculum.

The other side of that is, of course, that there are some terrible video games in the world, but that’s equally true of everything else ever labelled art. But video games are a confluence of so many fields of artistic endeavor – narrative, performance, graphic design, gameplay and music, among others – that there are a shocking number of axes on which a video game can fail. So I’m increasingly of the opinion that video games are art, but that many and maybe most of them are in some respect bad art.

And usually the part that tips everything over is the narrative, so… yeah, what was I talking about? Halo, I think?

Under A Grey Sky

There were a number of odd quirks in the gameplay that irritated me throughout, mostly having to do with choices I thought I’d be able to make but couldn’t. I’m a member of an Elite Group of Space Marines, but I don’t get to pick my tools? That’s disappointing, but OK, I guess. All this extra armor I can buy doesn’t actually do anything, really? I wouldn’t have thought that Elite Space Marines were all about cosmetic upgrades, but OK, sure, whatever. And then I climb into a helicopter with a carefully-selected DMR and my beloved SRS 99, and when I get out, for no reason at all I’m carrying a slingshot and a bag of jujubes. Thanks guys, thanks a bunch.

Worse, sometimes when you’ve wandered a bit afield a countdown timer appears on the screen saying “Return to the battlefield”, and if you don’t go back to the designated in-play area in ten seconds you just die for no reason. Shit, guys, you want to respect the continuity just a teensy bit?

But that wasn’t the worst of it – the worst part was the story.

Now, Halo is Halo, and Halo: Reach is definitely more Halo than Halo. It’s got the alien spaceship level, it’s got the waves-of-bad-guys level, it’s got the city level, it’s got the military-base level, and you’re Noble Team member #6, grinding your way through all the above with the same old guns you know and love. It seems kind of puerile to deride a game that says Halo right there on the box for not being different enough from Halo, doesn’t it? But that’s pretty much where this is going; there’s a lot of places where the gameplay changes just enough for you to think it could grow up to be fascinating, and then that gets taken away and we’re back to what might as well be Halo 1 HD. In a lot of ways, oddly enough, Reach reminded me of Douglas Adams’ “Mostly Harmless”. Clearly in the same vein as its predecessors, clearly the best technical work of the series and just as clearly secretly and quietly hated by its creator. It’s beautiful, a lot more challenging and has a lot more variety to it, but it never really has the courage to draw that novelty out to anything close to it’s potential, and despite all that it’s still difficult to get through. Halo has always been about a largely mute, almost entirely solitary soldier butchering his way through questionably-armed alien opponents, and for the most part that’s about what you expect from even the best plot-on-rails shooter. But there’s a lot of little details in Reach that make it pretty disturbing if you’re paying attention.

A Church

As per usual in Halos you need to suspend a distressing amount of disbelief, particularly if you know the first thing about military logistics and tactics. And I’m not talking about an “able to manage the logistics of a carrier battle group deployment” sort of understanding, either. I’m talking at the “If we run out of bullets, we should have a way to get more bullets” level. Because in Reach, as in every single other Halo, nobody has thought that far ahead. And that’s fairly low on the list of things that could, to put it mildly, use a little clarification. The worst example might be the point where you shake off a fall that started in geosynchronous orbit, but there’s a bunch of these jarring little moments scattered through the game, forcibly reminding you over and over that that’s all it is.

Worse, it’s made very clear that both sides of this war are really, really dumb, bad at war in every respect except manufacturing firearms and then leaving them lying around. That was true in the original and increasingly-poorly-named “Combat Evolved” (Tactics? Logistics? Covering fire, air support? Fuck all that, charge!) and you spend about as much time as Halo-usual picking up guns you find lying around. But in Reach a typical deployment scenario for your space marine of 2550 is to be dropped in the field with a popgun and a q-tip and hope to stumble across whatever fell out of the pockets of the last ten or fifteen sorties that got sent out before you did.

And find them you do; you don’t just run into stashes of stuff anymore, you find piles of dead marines or locals, lit with nearly-spent rescue flares, and you pretty much need to shake out their pockets for enough ammunition and first aid to get through a level. In retrospect the only thing that’s kept the Covenant from a sweeping, lopsided victory in this series is forgetting to pickup after themselves. If they just sent out a few dozen of those idiotic grunts of theirs out to clean up all the weaponry that the humans left lying around, you’d never make it more than halfway through the first level. Nevertheless, scrounging from the bodies of people who have covered all this ground before seems obviously symbolic and, wow, pretty harsh.

The other thing that’s different about Reach is that you spend a lot of time in this game watching civilians get killed.

You can’t yell at them, tell them to get out of the way or hang back, anything, because you’re some sort of mute, but that wouldn’t matter anyway, because they’re dumber than the scenery. But at one point you’re ordered to stand your ground and defend your position, and even if you manage to keep a dozen of them from getting killed the very next thing you do is jump into an elevator and abandon them to their fates. You’re occasionally given similarly incompetent, unusable soldier NPCs to assist, who are just as mute and just as dumb. You get a little roster of them, where they each flash red and then disappear as they get killed. There’s no reward for saving, or even way to save, any of them.

In hindsight I should add that it was a more than a little irksome that everyone on your team is accorded a noble, self-sacrificing death with the exception of the team’s only woman, who gets shot in the back of the head in mid-sentence while questioning her orders. That was particularly classy, and I wonder who she actually represented.

But it’s the final chapter of the game that really drives it home; you’re dropped, with no transition and no explanation, into ruined shell of a military base under a burning sky. There’s nowhere to go, you don’t know how you got there or why, and you can’t do anything but fight endless waves of aliens until you run out of ammo, at which point you are summarily slaughtered.

Did I mention some harsh symbolism earlier? Anyhow, you can run off the edge of that map too, because we can’t pass up this one last opportunity to curb-stomp your suspension of disbelief again.

So is it art? It’s Halo, and maybe even a little bit more than Halo. It’s awfully pretty, and fun. But as much as it is, it’s not everything it could have been, and seems to hate itself in a lot of ways that surprised me. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that at the very end you’re actually playing through the eyes of a developer, and not our hero Noble 6. It’s hard not to like Reach. The multiplayer is good, often silly fun, the graphics are beautiful, and what it does well it does very well. Every now and then it even rewards some patient, cautious sneaking around in the attic, where I’d find somebody has graciously left a fully-loaded sniper rifle in the rafters for somebody just like me. But I’m pretty happy there won’t be another one, and despite the series’ loose ends I strongly suspect the people at Bungie are too.

Noonish

I’ve just wrapped up Assassin’s Creed 2, and my goodness.

(There’s some spoilers here, but nothing severe.)

If you’d said to me a few months ago, you know Hoye, Parkour seems like a lot of fun, but you know what would make it even better? Stabbing your way through a Templar conspiracy in Renaissance Italy. With a heavy dollop of science fiction spooned over the top. I would have said, that does sound kind of neat, but I don’t see how those things could possibly go together?

And I would have been wrong! They are terrific together, and AC2 is a great game. There’s running about, there’s the sneaking and the stabbing that I love so and you periodically get to punch minstrels just for being minstrels, which puts a small-minded, mean-spirited smile on my face every single time. So much so that even though it advances the story not a whit, sometimes I just wander around Venice, seeing the sights and looking for minstrels to punch.

Maya doesn’t play this game with me, incidentally, but when the time comes I will tell her that even though you shouldn’t hit people even if they’re asking for it, unsolicited lute-playing definitely constitutes asking for it.

The ending is pretty weak, though in principle it doesn’t seem like it should be; honestly, what could be bad about a fistfight with the Pope? But it does feel like the game betrays itself in a number of ways in the last hour; ending a beautiful open-world stealth-and-free-running game by pushing you down a long hallway is bad enough, but having to butcher your way through a bunch of stand-up fights you’ve been explicitly trying to avoid the whole game, culminating with a boss fight? It’s really too bad, particularly considering it resorts to the old, put down-your-weapons-we-do-this-like-men cliché to give you a boss fight that’s a lot more like punching a fat minstrel than anything related to the core gameplay.

Without giving too much away though it’s right about here that the narrative decides to play the long ball, something good enough to forgive a bit of lax design in the gameplay. So I’m going to pick up AC3 when the time comes, for sure.

I should tell you though, the bigger and prettier video games get the more distressed I am that all these huge, glorious open-world environments are essentially one-off, unrevisitable, single-use things; there’s no way revisit Rapture, for example, no matter how pretty it was, without being assaulted by the same locals again. The lost wastes and huge castles of Ico or Shadow Of The Colossus, the magical brass-and-oak detail of Riven, the blown out dystopias of the Fallout series or the shiny, polished futurism of Mass Effect and Halo, they’re just built, used once and abandoned; there’s no way to build on those enormous efforts, to curate or extend or even just revisit existing virtual spaces.

Which is just horribly, horribly sad, I think.

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