Hey, I finished an album. Here it is:
I’M STILL ALIVE and in my living, I bring you this: my “Best Things I Ever Read in 2014” zine, which you can read and/or download here. Relatedly, here’s a link to the seminal art-rap classic Beat Bop.
Why didn’t I link this earlier? Why did I wait until the middle of 2015 to fully make this thing public? Because of normal human frailty.
I wrote an essay! It’s about Wolfenstein (2014), The Filth, 2001, knees, work; all sorts of shit! You can read it on ZEAL.
I went to a big hoopla a year ago
The Time I Went to GDC 2013 and Thought About the Relationships Between People and Ideas
Greg’s Amazing Journey
I’m sitting in an airport at 1:38am to catch a 6am flight, and it seems as good a time as any to update this woeful blog with all of the things that I’ve been playing, all the thoughts I’ve been having, and my fascinating opinions about various digital entertainments. I know, I know. I’m too kind.
I’m dubbing 2013 the year of the indie because, if memory serves me right, it’s the year that Steam initiated its Greenlight program and I called the guy who made Thomas Was Alone a capitalist pig (or something to that effect) on his blog. His support for the $100 solution to the Greenlight fiasco was particularly surprising to me, considering how he made an indie platformer that used two-pixel-tall blocks to represent the game’s characters. One would think that kind of decision would have something to do with his personal economics not allowing him to pay an artist, but I guess one benefit of the indie revolution is that even economically stable people can now get away with making games that have hard to like graphics.
Unless that was last year, in which case it was the year of the indie because it’s the year that I went to GDC for a day, for the awards show, where it was officially announced that it truly was The Year of the Indie.
I meant to write up my GDC trip at the time, the March before last March, but felt like what I had to say was pretty besides the point, and also generally known and understood. Looking at my notes, I see an entire page about hairstyles (general trend was a highly stylized & manicured form of sloppy/unkempt/could-use-a-cut, which was then followed by men in their mid-thirties with faux hawks), and a second page about pants (boot-cut or skinny-legged). The bulk of my notes are just descriptions of the company booths:
- Some mocap booth – huge open stage where a lady of slight build in a body-hugging black suit covered in ping-pong balls dances seductively. Lot of middle aged guys standing around the stage, watching her. Her face is somewhere between expressionless and angry
- People working the Kixeye booth wear a shirt that says “hiring bot” on the back. Cheekily dehumanizing. Would love to “intern”
- Riot Games has a strength-test-for-swag booth. Punch a punching bag that has a “strength meter” attached, get swag. There is a very long line for this. Bet everyone trained all year for their one chance to rumble with the bag in the Riot Octagon. The Riot Games Event That Made A Man Out Of *(insert local male with lingering masculinity issues here)*
- Long, very long line for Valve. Valve also has the most no-frills booth. Just a plain sign that says “Valve” in Calibri or something, & one guy taking applications. No decorations at all, just a black curtain. Guy is wearing plain jeans and a black polo. Bet if I stand close enough he’ll smell like a new car
- Crytek is marketing a very generic military shooter named Warface. Or is it WARFACE? The tagline is THE FACE OF WAR HAS CHANGED!!!!!!!!!! (Emphasis mine.) Plays like any given CoD/Battlefield. Not sure what their angle is, since CoD puts out a new game every single year.
- This booth has a giant plexiglass touchscreen that is exhibiting a game about molesting/poking an anime woman. The employee working this is female. Boy howdy, what a place-to-work/job-to-have. Also this giant touchscreen display is more interesting than the game. Is this a social experiment? To see how many people will molest her inappropriately on a giant screen in front of a woman? I can switch the anime women out and replace her with an anime dog, which is much more pleasant to harass. Zoiks. The associations this company is making.
Nothing really cohesive. Just the ongoing lowest common denominator branding and community building that goes on when “the industry” tries to manifest itself as a collective presence. The actual awards show is not really worth discussing. It was held in this cavernous concrete room and involved blue and purple lights, and a lot of dubstep. There was finger food and free booze. I got drunk with Andrew and convinced him to pilfer abandoned, half-full wine bottles from other tables so that we could get drunker. I intermittently heckled Tim Schafer for something like twenty minutes until I realized he was Tim Schafer, at which point I stopped.
Going on in the background of all this was the awards show itself, a huge pageant in which “the industry” was constantly being invoked, usually in the context of its transition from economic powerhouse to ground zero of an emerging artistic medium. As if this were a new idea, mind you. People have been arguing for the artistic viability of videogames for decades, and many have been succeeding at it handily. Interactive fiction is the most obvious and blatant example, but there are games from any generation on any system that embody aspects of what a Great Work in videogames might be like. This belief in the power of the medium is common knowledge for people in the industry; indeed, the romance of the medium and its artistry are pretty much the only things that keep them working in those sweatshops. So who gives a fuck, right? Why do a bunch of insiders need to be reminded of what they already know?
My feeling about GDC as a whole was that it was a metabody for “the industry,” a place where it could attempt to define itself on a professional level, beyond the inane image that it presents at the more outward-facing press expos. By inane, I mean the picture of that poor guy sandwiched between a Halo-branded Mountain Dew cardboard cutout and a bag of Doritos, looking like he’d just been told his dad had died moments before the photo was snapped.
A kind of dreaming of its own existence, one where its major players can suggest all the things that could be true in the business–the things that all you dreamers out there think should be true–without ever discussing how they could actually end up happening. Is anyone really this naive? Sure. Yes. Dreams are an all ages, all stages phenomenon. Why, just six months ago, I moved to Alaska for the dream of pursuing an MFA in creative writing, with further dreams of teaching people important things and maybe getting some of that magical MFA fairy dust to rub off on me and my work. At age twenty-nine, this has been the culmination of a lifetime of dreaming. And now, after realizing that dream led to little more than the slim chance that I’d have a future of dragging the minds of a bunch of uninterested freshmen through basic thinking exercises in hopes that they too could appreciate the joys of writing, I’m leaving and wondering if I should shape my resume more towards barista or Taco Bell. I have that kind of work history–versatile.
I’m not trying to piss all over GDC. Not exactly, at least. As a manifestation of collective desires, what its curators are using the platform to promulgate are generally nice things. Up with personal visions, up with artistic integrity, up with games like Cart Life, Dys4ia and Little Inferno, up with humanity. If you follow your dreams, the market will follow you.
This was perhaps best symbolized in Journey‘s sweeping of the awards show, where it won literally every award it was nominated for. This was something like 5 awards, with more and more people walking up to the podium each time, always quietly surprised at their good fortune. More and more people showing up, until they went up for the last time and it became apparent that little Journey, the accessible, intimate and quiet game about wandering around and wordlessly interacting with people online to solve puzzles and explore a mysterious world, was made by something like thirty or forty people. This isn’t including administrative staff, marketing, janitorial, or any of the other jobs that are part and parcel to running an entertainment company: this was thirty people who only worked on generating material assets and functionality for the game, thirty people who received “multiple millions of dollars” from entertainment supergiant Sony to materialize their vision.
But let’s back up a bit.
From what I understand, which consists solely of the things that happen to me while I try to keep a lid on my social anxiety, Journey was one of the most hyped games of the year. In 2012, I would walk into the gaming rooms of people’s houses–houses that I’d been invited to, naturally–and would immediately be engaged in conversations about the game. I hadn’t even heard of it, but apparently Journey was neat and quite the experience.
And I do like experiences.
After several weeks of this, I sat down to watch someone play for a few minutes, which consisted of them sliding down sand dunes and jumping on pieces of decrepit, fallen architecture. Eventually a second player showed up, and the person I was watching and the stranger from over the internet proceeded to hop around and look at each other. There was something about using your avatar’s scarf to manipulate objects or create magic bridges or something, but I’d lost interest at that point. “Looks pretty cool!” I said, hoping to God that the dark opinions that reside inside my cold, dead heart could stay hidden, and then I got up to get a soda and pretend to get engaged in a conversation with someone else. Suffice to say, I didn’t find watching someone play a casual puzzle game with good graphics and sand dunes particularly interesting. Whether this is a knock against Journey I can’t say, since I haven’t played it and don’t intend to.
What I mean to say is that for a game that I don’t think is particularly interesting, a lot of people I know seem to find it immensely so for reasons that aren’t very clear to me, and so I chalk it up to the hype machine. The beast. 666. Sony’s marketing department, and its icky fingles that slither alongside the hearts of videogame writers and writhe, giving them funny feelings that are both erotic and deeply frightening (in a job security/don’t-go-against-the-grain sense), and so they say this crazy new game where you solve puzzles and can’t talk to your online coop partners is great and mysterious and has some very radical vibes that will appeal to ‘core gamers and casuals alike.
Even if the game was worth a damn, I don’t think I’m off base in saying that it’s suspicious when a piece of art wins every award that it’s nominated for. Outside of Thriller, nothing is that good. So then why bother putting on an awards show if you’re going to just give every award to the same game? Why nominate all those games, rent out the hideous Moscone Center (the interior of which looks like the kind of place you’d line up and execute volunteers at some art show circa 1990 while this and a laser show play in the background), invite all those designers and press and their friends, pay for hors d’ourves and booze so yahoos like me will be motivated to leave their hovels to attend and bear witness to a ridiculous bit of industry theater, in which everyone is told and reminded over and over again that “indie” is the future, and that Journey was the best “indie” game to come out in 2012.
One of the stories that was trending around last March was the increasing likelihood of a second videogame crash. In short, the industry had gotten into a cycle of spending way too much money on producing mediocre games that were held together by little more than their art and marketing departments. At this rate of expenditure, AAA games could expect to make a 3% profit if the game was a hit when there was only room enough for 3 or 4 games a year to be hits. If a game failed (i.e. did not sell several million copies), there was the potential that it could literally destroy not just its development studio, but the entire parent company. This constant razor-thin profit margin has been a truism of the industry for the better part of the new millennium, and has been the leading reason behind the increasingly conservative gameplay being paired with lowest common denominator design decisions. In the long run, this escalation of broad strokes popcorn gaming at the expense of focused and potent design has an easy-to-imagine potential of shrinking their market even further as consumers at the edges of the target demographic (14-22, male) increasingly lose interest and take their money elsewhere, thus making it that much more critical for a developer to dominate what core market remains. On and on, until Ubisoft or EA or THQ wake up to find a once cohesive demographic has splintered and been gobbled up by a hundred niche developers and Zynga clones, who can scratch the same itches of aesthetics, distraction and fun at the same time they scratch their own assholes, because they have smaller budgets, work from home, and are thus able to do so without any workplace ramifications.
What Journey is, in all of this, is a potential out for AAA companies. Hire some star indie designer and give them a team, encourage them to continue to trade on the aesthetics of indie games while keeping things strictly casual (if you need a manual, you’re doing it wrong, and probably alienating whatever crossover audience you’re hoping to capture with a $15 game on a $400 system. Who this might be is loosely defined and hard to understand, since what they probably mean is the Wii/Wii U’s target audience, i.e. people who wouldn’t spend $400 on a gaming system. Judging by how well the Wii U is doing at the moment, you can make an educated guess as to how real this audience might currently be), and let our world-class marketing department work its magic. This costs less money, entails less overall risk, and helps build brand prestige. There’s a reason The Chinese Room is set to make its first actual game (as some commenter on Kotaku once pointed out, Dear Esther is a tour-de-force by a guy they contracted to single-handedly do a complete graphical overhaul, (and if you want my capsule review of Dear Esther: it’s a story that is primarily told through its graphics, and the narration simply serves to explicate their power) and A Machine for Pigs is… well, let’s say I did not enjoy it enough to consider it a viable part of their oeuvre) a PS4 exclusive. That Chinese Room is not doing it just for the money, but also the marketing muscle, the exposure, and the lack of a sinking indie-qua-indie market.
And by sinking indie(-qua-indie) market, I mean the growing expectation that an indie game be cheaply priced, see discounts early, and wind up being sold for peanuts in a Steam sale/Humble Bundle within six months. For a prime example of this: the only game I bought at launch in 2013 was The Stanley Parable, and that’s because I’d somehow confused it with Elevators: Source. Had I known that Elevators: Source was the game I wanted to play, I’d probably still be waiting around for TSP it to hit the peanut economy.
This is fine for games that get a lot of press, as the variable price point taps different markets and makes it easier for someone who isn’t overtly interested in, say, an art game about walking around (Dear Esther/The Stanley Parable/most Tale of Tales games) to catch it on sale for $3 and buy it in a flight of fancy. Or in support of the arts. Maybe against their better judgment. Whatever the case, the die-hards will pay launch price, and then the game will descend through the sales intervals to hit up all of the constituents in its potential retail base before hitting rock bottom, where unscrupulous scoundrels pay zero cents for the indie bundle.
Games without the press/marketing advantage will more than likely lie fallow until that magic $3 (or less) sale happens, at which point the consumer will lightly consider whether a night of dining from the dollar menu is better than that game. The tragedy is that so many will opt for the double hamburger, chicken sandwich and small fries. This is the tragedy that innumerable small developers face every single day, regardless of the high quality or visionary etc etc you know what I’m saying; regardless of how good or interesting their game is. I don’t have to complete this thought.
So where was I? Ah, GDC. Economic collapse, enticing the young into slave labor with promises of the dream factory, the coopting of aesthetic and economic movements by huge corporations for the sake of raking in the big bucks. Year of the Indie. Right.
Is selling out bad, though? Isn’t that the dream, to an extent? Unless you become a fabulous success like Team Meat or Team Stanley or Team Garry or Team Mojang–where you and some guy you met over the internet suddenly make a bazillion dollars via some combination of marketing verve, quality design, and luck–selling out is pretty much the only way to not wind up living in a ditch, where you spend hours at a time trying to get a fucking Raspberry Pi to stop choking to death long enough to compile your new masterpiece. Or at least feel like that’s what you’re doing in a day-to-day sense.
This is of course the plight of artists forever. For every Ryder Ripps, there’s a hundred maybes still toiling away in their respective mediums and niches, and a thousand might haves that gave up and got a job making someone else money in some other field. You can tell the pressurized gurgle of an espresso machine is doing something horrible on the inside of my skull as I write this, wheezing and gasping and slowly pissing hot mud into a tiny cup on a tiny plate, while someone yells at me for not knowing anything about coffee beans. In order to afford moving to Alaska for grad school, I spent two months working for a man who seemed like he was going to punch me at any given moment. Five days a week, four hours a night, I drove out to his compound in West Oakland, where I would do menial office tasks that he barely understood while being browbeat and vaguely threatened if I showed anything less that complete psychic synergy with his very will. My rage would rise and crest every two weeks, where at the peak I had to bite down on my tongue until it bled, lest I jettison my future for the pure satisfaction of telling him to suck my fucking cock you fucking racist bag of shit, after which he would in all likelihood have punched me a few times before firing me. I would quell this rage with the dream that once I reached grad school, I’d be done with that part of my life. There would be problems, there would be labor abuse and long hours, but at the very least there would be the kind of job security and workplace propriety that precludes the possibility of anybody punching anyone else in the face.
I say this to remind you that there are horrors out there with which I know you are deeply accustomed, and from which we all run. With this in mind, it’s hard for me to outright condemn GDC 2013 for its disingenuous abuse of dreams and dreamers, because it fundamentally wants what anyone else does: if not freedom from suffering, then at least a limit.
Whether this is worth the kind of rhetorical manipulation of ideas about art, truth and indie that leads people like me to spend a lifetime pursuing a mirage, I can’t say. I guess it depends on whether I can start making a buck off of things like this.
Four months now after I sat in the airport writing, but thirteen months ago, the night at GDC ended in a mix-up regarding invitations to a party (in which I stood in line behind Leigh Alexander for a minute and had a desperate moment of sadness where I considered introducing myself as “oh hey, I’m the co-author of that book you liked“), which led to the final denouement in a bar. Three of us had not managed to become part of anyone’s guest list, so we walked down to the Mission and settled in. I an aspiring writer of some sort, Steven an aspiring game maker of some sort, and Rich who was an aspiring game producer of some sort. Of the three, Rich seemed like he was most on track. Fresh off of quitting a depressing job where he coached content producers for a video site on how to maximize their audience and ad revenue, and in the process making them think that their content stream would be lucrative enough in the long run that quitting their day job/wrecking their lives would be a good idea, he was in the midst of preparing for a big job interview re: producing games. He was reading books, researching production, just putting a whole lot of work in. An unimaginable amount of work, it seemed to me, for what was a job interview that probably required multiple years of experience and a long list of credits.
It is indicative of my own job psychology that I find it insane to prepare this much for an interview, particularly one that seems like a long shot, and is likely the reason that a future in customer service is not an unfounded fear of mine. Some people want it and go for it, and then some people don’t. But perhaps I digress.
Steven was working a misery job, the kind that you commute long hours to and don’t get paid much once you’re there. He was an artist of no small talent, although he hadn’t hit that point of no return yet, a moment in life that Jonathan Hickman describes as a redemption of your artistic self, where you finally decide whether to let it get snuffed in the endless hellfire that is art in the market economy, or to jump in and do whatever it takes to save it.
As for me, I was living at home, working four hours a week for a family friend (not the man in West Oakland, mind you), unable or unwilling to write, and slowly melting down with the kind of agoraphobia that leads one to not leave the house more than once a week; the kind that makes standing in line at the store a socially arduous nightmare, and which turns applying to a job into a catalog of exactly how unsuited one is for society, how much one has failed to accomplish in the four years since graduating college. Grad school was somewhere on the horizon and had come to represent that final redemption, a last ditch attempt at avoiding the pit of despair that aspirations seemed destined to expire in. Let’s say I was a mess, at least moreso than now.
We sat in the bar and made awkward conversation. Rich did most of the talking because he is Type A and somehow manifests the kind of social courage and interest in everything that marks an engaged and successful life. Or at least would signify it. He told us about Crusader Kings II and how it reminded him of Henry VI, Part 2 (or one of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, at least. Damned if I know), in which the agony of deciding to assassinate his inept and stupid son for the good of the kingdom–for the good of the lineage–was dramatized and made plain. The intervening millennia between the middle ages and 2013 pinched closed, and for two minutes a man in his late twenties was able to fully consider how courtly tragedies occurred, and how the scales of kingdoms were sometimes balanced. That this relied on his knowledge of history, his exposure to a piece of literature, only compounded the odd poignancy.
What is good work? Is Crusader Kings II good work? Would good work have made this more clear, have dramatized it more purposefully, instead of embedding it in a relatively dry simulation about medieval succession? Is good work mythology? By mythology I mean historical, fantastic, unreal. Perhaps emanating from the collective unconscious, but at least so storied, so embedded in culture that it seems as if it had always been there. So in other words, is good work something that seems like it’s always been there, in some way, on some level, just waiting to be reformed, reworded or embodied anew?
Steven and I had a train to catch, the last one out of the city, so we parted ways with Rich. I don’t know about other trains in other cities, but taking BART late at night always has a special thrill for me. The cars are quiet but the tube under the bay is extremely loud, and when I surface in West Oakland it’s like a tiny birth, like I escaped something that had been hounding me through the night. I asked Steven what his story was and he gave it to me, outlining details that reminded me of Kane Webber (last name not real. Much to my chagrin, I never could remember it), a friend I’d met online when I was fourteen and who probably killed himself ten years later. I say probably because who knows. He sent me a cryptic email once that said he was going away for awhile and not to worry, to which I replied “better not be killing yourself, I got money on this.” Some stupid cruelties just ring forever. A year later, my emails to him began to bounce and that was that. Back to the ether.
Steven was more stable and had become ensconced in a community to some degree, so that wasn’t what I thought about him. More the history of loneliness, the drifting, the barely buried fear of the future. These are common things for most people to feel at some point in their lives, but for them to be consistent themes stretching beyond mere years into decades…there was a familiarity there that I didn’t want to touch. My brother picked us up and drove him home, where I bid him a good night and parted ways. I wouldn’t see him again until the 4th of July, where oddly enough we would again be party to a similar social malfeasance in which we wound up sitting around together, making the most of it.
But that’s a story for another time. Instead, I told my brother about Journey‘s wild success, about the year of the indie, about Rich’s synaptic shock of recognition with Crusader Kings II, about the touchscreen lady and the ping-pong ball lady, the giant Modern Warfare 3 tarp they’d draped over the exterior of the Moscone’s North Hall, the abandoned NOS party square that was attended by two women in short shorts and some muscular guy in wrap-around shades who was pretending to be the DJ, the old bum who tried to con money out of me, the guys jamming on their Gameboys in the street, the bags and bags of useless swag, the kids in their 20s and purple skinny jeans getting excited about cream-filled pastries from Beard Papa, or who sat amidst the Yerba Buena’s grassy knolls with neon hair and laughed and talked about Starseed Pilgrim because they were finally alone together in public on a sunny day in San Francisco with the only people they knew who truly understood what lay deep inside their still beating hearts, dormant but woken now and risen amidst the huge halos of light and advertising that floated above the booths to announce their presence and import at this, the most important five days of 2013 anno domini: Game Developers Conference 2013, and everything there that transpired.
As he parked in front of our parents’ home, he nodded and said he was too tired for all this now, but maybe in the morning. Maybe after he got some sleep. Maybe then.
The first moment in the game (beyond the publisher’s, developer’s, graphics card’s, 3rd party software’s and the game itself’s splash screens) is a disclaimer about controversial content, something like WARNING: THIS GAME CONTAINS A MISSION THAT MAY BE CONSIDERED CONTROVERSIAL OR OFFENSIVE. ARE YOU OKAY WITH BEING CONTROVERSED OR OFFENDED? Y/N.
Is it possible to say no to this kind of question? Did people go to vaudeville geek shows, only go, “excuse me!? He’s going to hammer a nail into his head? I, sir, would like my money back!” Did grindhouse cinema turn away any of its core audience with these kinds of spine-tingling warnings? Has this kind of warning ever been served as anything more than an appetizer, something to get an audience salivating? Are there people who play a military FPS who aren’t interested in seeing some shit? I’m going to make a blanket statement: if you are interested in pseudo-realstic morally-justified murder for fun, then you are also probably the kind of person who is always in the mood for seeing some “real shit,” in which real is defined as something so unreal that it actually is real. You feel me?
I do. I feel me all the time, so I said yes. I’d read so much about No Russian — the airport, the civilians, the <rainbow>massacre</rainbow> — and was curious to see how the game would go about convincing me to go along with the whole thing, perhaps hoping that it had found meaning in the situation, that the developers used their years of craft to take it from digital transgression to something more substantial, that the endless piles of corpses would come to mean so much more than their basic elements of applied blood decals and simulated aggression.
But there was some unknown quantity of gameplay to get through first. The game proper began with a long and unskippable cutscene that recapped the action of the last game. Sort of. It was all pretty abstract: people’s faces float by, yelled something, some credits were displayed. The most I could get out of it was that some guys wanted to kill some other guys, but then a third group of guys got involved and things turned out in some particular way. I suppose it all worked out, but not too well or I wouldn’t have been sitting there playing the sequel.
It should be noted that even though the cutscene is ridiculous in how uninformative it is, the production values are exquisite, which is something that holds true for the rest of the game. The voice acting, map design, texturing and cutscenes all pop off the screen and out of the speakers in a way that goes beyond mere simulacrum and approaches holographic memory. It was surprising to see how much care was put into the game’s interstitial levels; where they might have been cutscenes in other games, if not skipped entirely, here they were fully rendered little set pieces.
It is this kind of generosity that informs the best of the game’s content. Most impressive were the cutscenes between levels, which are told from the point of view of several orbital satellites transmitting the voices, blueprints, photographs, surveillance footage, chat windows, and battle plans that comprise the game’s plot. The sheer density of data is thrilling, like I’m being entertained by a cyborg historian that is searching for, collating and presenting the huge amount of raw data that collectively describes the game’s history. Except its approach is even more than that. It is the stream of reality being corralled and condensed in real-time, converted from a torrential rush of unrelated personal, public and political fragments into something that approaches a cohesive whole, such that the their interrelated truths become apparent, the cracks between them are sealed, and a coherent world is born before my eyes.
The game’s approach to its material even resembles that of a history. It makes no judgments, draws no conclusions, and seeks to create no internal framework beyond finding an organized way to convey all of the facts in their logical order. In its combination of man-on-the-ground reporting (via the actual missions that are played), a viewpoint that watches everything from a global context (the cutscenes) and a presentation that finds a way to make all of this easily digestible (the collective effect of the game), it suggests the potential for a new way of processing a history, one that allows for a deeper, richer understanding of the material.
I should note that these implications are also a farce, the wild dream of the storyteller who is compelled to make the sum total of facts accrue to more than simply a record. To quote Guy Davenport, “One difference between history and imaginative literature… is that history neither anticipates nor satisfies our curiosity, whereas literature does.” Make no mistake: the rigorousness of its nods to the real world and its own just-the-facts-ma’am approach to everything that occurs within its walls has made Modern Warfare 2 a work of fiction in which all of the allusions truly are incidental, coincidences coincidental, and potential meanings more the product of an active imagination than the collective drift of anything contained therein.
In any case, the first actual LEVEL of the game fades in and I’m in the desert, standing under a tent and in front of a folding table that has a rifle and some grenades on it. My name is something like Pvt. Joseph Campbell. In front of me is a sergeant telling a bunch of rookies to stop firing from the hip, because it’s way less accurate than using the iron sights. Behind this clusterfuck (how did these guys get through basic without learning how to use a gun? More importantly, why doesn’t the game just ASK me if I want to play the tutorial? It’d be like the DO YOU WANT TO SEE SOME CONTROVERSY question, except it would say DO YOU WANT TO SEE SOME TUTORIAL?) are a couple of guys shooting hoops with the b-ball. A desert wind blows. The sergeant is rambling, asking me to demonstrate how a REAL private shoots a gun, so I pick up the gun and try shooting him. The screen fades to white and says something like DON’T SHOOT ALLIES. I respawn and try to shoot the rookies. I respawn and try to shoot the b-ball jammers while one is in mid-dunk. I respawn and try to shoot the b-ball itself, but the bullets just pass through and the ball continues its scripted trajectory to the backboard.
After I suck it up and play the tutorial, in which I am briefly introduced to the General Shephard character and am told that “he’ll be watching my performance,” I’m sent to the front line of an unnamed middle eastern country (probs Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, or Yemen tho) to shoot some dudes and get my feet a little wet. The conventions of the game revolve around using iron sights or a scope to steady my aim & zoom in, and then doing a little strafe dance while I pick off the AI from a distance. Confrontations can be deadly, but usually only at close range or on maps that have too many points of entry to cover simultaneously.
The most memorable parts of the game are distinct: the defense of a very large suburban strip-mall/parking lot complex, and the defense of a two-story house in the woods. The former had me bouncing back and forth between chain restaurants across sprawling parking lots as wave after wave of guys parachuted in, were reinforced by APCs, helicopters did flyovers, and my squad was slowly whittled down as we tried to protect the president of the united states of america. I’m getting a little teary-eyed by how awesome it was. The latter was a pretty similar scenario but scaled down for a house, so I had less area to defend, less people on defense, and was more susceptible to getting popped from simply not being on top of the situation.
The link between these two scenarios is that the scale and persistence of the combat work all of the game’s advantages: the mechanics are basic but well-tuned versions of realism-lite, the AI is deadly cannon fodder, and the production values are high enough to make a cascade of bullets flying through a Burger King storefront feel both tense and exciting.
The last axis of the game’s fun is derived from special-case spectacle, the success of which probably has more to do with the player’s personal tastes than anything else. After the middle east mission, which goes from SNAFU to HOOAH in the span of fifteen minutes due to me being a robust PC shooting a bunch of frail AI, Pvt Campbell gets General Shephard’s notice and is recruited to Taskforce 141/the CIA (i.e. a bunch of rootin’-tootin’ sons of bitches). The perspective then changes from Campbell to Gary “Roach” Clip. Roach is on the ground in some snowy, blizzardy, mountainous place and he is with his good buddy Soap, who is there to hold Roach’s hand throughout all of the coming set-pieces. First is the ice-climbing sequence, where I alternated left mouse and right mouse to simulate alternating arms that are reaching, hooking and pulling their way up an icy escarpment. After that is the silenced-SMG-heartbeat-sensor-sneakaroo-in-a-blizzard, where I sneak around a base during a blizzard and pick guys off with the help of a motion tracker. We get discovered (by the entire base) at some point, which kicks off a brief segment of unadulterated AI shooting before returning to the spectacle parade; by which I mean we hopped on some snowmobiles and raced a bunch of other guys on snowmobiles down a mountain, Roach driving with one hand while he used the other to burn through clip after clip on an automatic pistol until we jumped across a fucking gorge and made it to the escape chopper.
I enjoyed about 2/3’s of that level, finding the whole escape sequence to be, by turns, rote and zany. Which isn’t to say that there is anything in particular wrong with it; one person’s zany escape is another’s zesty escapade. More important to note is that it is the last thing which occurs before the main event, No Russian.
The mission ends with HOOAHs all around, and I’m switched back to the perspective of Joseph Campbell, who is now posing as a CIA operative undercover as Aleksi Ruskanovich. General Shepherd gives a pretty high fallutin’ speech about doing the right thing, and how it might not feel like the right thing, but it’s more right than some other things that might also be the right thing. What he means to say is that I’m supposed to do whatever is necessary to get in with Makarov, a Russian ultra-nationalist who is posed to cause a whole heap of trouble if I don’t get my eye on him pronto. Fade out.
Black screen. Ominous sounds of heavy fabrics being zipped, guns being loaded and locked. The humming of heavy machinery. Fade in, and I’m standing amidst a group of men in suits and kevlar vests, each holding a SAW. Makarov is there too! And he’s saying some stuff, but I can’t remember what…and then his last words are, “And remember: no Russian.” What does that mean?? The elevator opens… and there’s all these civilians… and the guys I’m with raise their guns… and ohhh noooooooooooooooo…. they’re shooting everyone!! What do I do!?!? I… I can’t shoot them… can I? Should I? But what would Papa ShepShep think? Dare I… gulp betray him? Dare I do the right thing?
I mean, I guess that is my condescending version of what my reaction was supposed to be to No Russian. My real reaction was what I assume is also the normal one:
I turned and fucking shot Makarov and his pals, ejecting several pounds of hot hitscan lead into their skulls. I said fuck this and made a fucking decision for the good of humanity, that no duty to god, country or hypothetical father figure could be worth a terminal’s worth of fictional innocent lives. I weighed the rhetoric versus my personal values and voted yes to life. I tried to kill the bad guys.
They in turn revealed that Infinity Ward had graced them with invulnerability. After flinching a few times from the bullet impact, they shot me. Fade to white; DON’T SHOOT ALLIES.
Allies? But… what? I reload and try it again only to get the same result. This must be a mistake. I reload and try running ahead to fire some warning shots to get the civs moving, but find that my run button is broken. Great time to take a fucking walk, Campbell. I try to jump on a table of books for the sole purpose of jumping on a table of books, but apparently Campbell has also decided that jumping would be too much as well. Meanwhile, bullets are flying and civilians are screaming. Some kind of gated bassline with an LFO + sound design is playing. It sounds like a more serious version of this. Ah, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MH-XNuxmxlI. It’s all pretty serious seeming, which I guess is the point. Can’t take a massacre seriously without a Hans Zimmerman score in the background, or some goofus horsing around, running and jumping all over the airport bookstore, shooting the bad guys. Right?
Oh, and the end of the mission has Makarov shoot Campbell during an in-game cutscene. See, it was all a plan to start World War 3 by pinning the massacre on an American. One telltale dead American terrorist means that Russia will retaliate against the US and invade. No Russian is thus the genesis of the game’s entire plot, and raison d’etre for the remaining six hours of gameplay.
When something is so catastrophically broken, does it even matter anymore? Is it fair to pay attention to it when it is so obviously oblivious to the words coming out of its mouth? What if that something is the crux of a work’s very existence? Does Modern Warfare 2 ease to exist if I don’t accept its entire reason for existing?
No, it continued merrily on its way with nary a word towards it railroading me into allowing the plot to happen. And god help me, I kept playing. It didn’t hurt that there are some pretty fun segments in the rest of the game, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was immaterial, a divergent timeline predicated on the entire universe colluding against me, willing this history into existence by dint of royal fiat.
The end of the game features a betrayal by General Shepherd, where he shoots the main protagonist you’ve been playing and another good guy because he wants to prolong the war for the purpose of “earning his men the glory they deserve,” which to me implies that he had a direct hand in planning the entire airport shooting. Shit, he’s probably the dude who gave Joseph Campbell rubber bullets and implanted the chip in his brain that debuffed his intermediate motor skills.
Is General Shepherd a metaphor for Infinity Ward???
…you know, the whole thing reminds me of Garth Ennis’ 2001 run of Fury. The Cold War is over and Nick Fury is a relic being bounced out of SHIELD by a group of newbloods who are too soft and two-faced for their own good. He meets up with an old Russkie nemesis in a bar, where they lament the passing of the good old days: Russia vs US, agent vs agent, secret plot vs secret plot. In a lull of conversation, Yuri Gagarin turns to Fury With a glint in his eye and asks, “what if we could do it all again, Nicky?”
Cut to a pineapple republic being toppled, a Gagarin-backed nuclear threat, and Fury leading a team of crack US youngbloods to take the island and stop the whole thing from spiraling out of control. Blood, guts, sacrifices and explosions escalate until we’re at the climax, and Fury is strangling Gagarin with his own innards against a background of exploding bombs while screaming, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? WHY WOULD YOU FUCKING DO THIS?”
Gagarin: I did it for you, Nicky! I did it for us. One last battle, Nicky.
Fury: YOU FUCKING PSYCHOPATH! strangle strangle
Gagarin: Admit it Nicky. You love this. You wouldn’t know what to do without it.
Fury: FUCK YOUUUUU super strangle, Gagarin dies
Gagarin and Shepherd and Infinity Ward are right, of course. Players need things worth shooting, otherwise what are they doing? Being the assholes they wished they could shoot.
The emerging layers of role-reversal and mirroring (from player to bad guy, Makarov as Shepherd in micro, Shepherd as allegory for Infinity Ward, and Infinity Ward’s entire design philosophy being summarized in No Russian, in which the player is railroaded-via-action-rollercoaster and lead by the nose through certain activities under the premise of potential fun) are mere analytical games at Modern Warfare 2’s expense, of course. From the outset, the game has let us know that the only real way to interpret it is as a contemporary history of a fictional universe. It has no interest in the player’s curiosity, let alone in providing a real platform for it, or in being about anything more than what it depicts: the events leading up to a fictional world war and its first seven days.
At best, the game illustrates that for the top countries in the world, modern warfare is reminiscent of a videogame, something that would be an indelible strength if Infinity Ward were interested in it for any reason beyond how much faster it makes their rollercoaster go. But by being a work of fiction that completely denies its potential for meaning of any sort, Modern Warfare 2 sacrifices its ability to endure beyond its epoch, relegating itself to the fate of most histories: to dust.
Fresh off of the collapse of Testicles, our Grecco-Roman JRPG that we’d overdesigned and didn’t want to do any real work on, my brother and I were in dire need of funds. Real funds for serious business, which at the time included eating $5 rice plates and cherrypicking games from Steam sales. This is where lolzparade.com came in.
Of all the stupid, underpaying jobs that I’ve had after college, working for a clickbait site was probably the best. While it only paid $12 a list and a list took about 90 minutes to put together, I could at least do it from home and not deal with crazy Bay Area people. And what’s more, I could split the working time in half if I worked with my brother.
At the end of that first day, we looked at what all we’d accomplished and hung up our keyboards. We were tired, and frustrated by constantly negotiating our works with group of editors who grew increasingly wary of our tendency to snipe primo topics and ruin them with over-the-top verbiage, and who constantly warned us to stay on the straight and narrow in fear that we would offend the religious/moral/slavering-celeberity-worship desires of their financial backers and audience, and who were just generally committed to telling us to stop fucking up their lame linkbait site. And not only were our efforts to undermine and mock their jobs unappreciated, it was really boring work. It’s mind-numbing to look through thousands of Ryan Gosling pictures and find 15 that are different enough to warrant a Top 15 of the guy.
It’s been a couple years and lolzparade.com has gone through the inevitable series of transformations that all internet companies do, splitting some of its content across mylikes.com and/or likes.com, and deleting a number of our top 20 lists. It’s hard to say exactly what happened/what’s left, as lolzparade wasn’t that interested in publishing the authorship of its lists, which makes figuring out which of literally hundreds of “Ryan Gosling Hottest Pics” google results is ours a matter of remembering an exact phrase we used in a caption.
Actually, the same problem extended to remembering the name of lolzparade itself:
(20:57:56) cleaverdarkness: do you have links to our buzzfeed articles?
(16:18:29) ebimcdonalds: i might have them in an email
(16:18:36) ebimcdonalds: what was the site called?
(16:18:37) cleaverdarkness: k
(16:18:39) cleaverdarkness: idk
(16:18:41) ebimcdonalds: it was something really stupid
(16:18:46) ebimcdonalds: like iheartmemes or something
(16:18:51) ebimcdonalds: or lollists
(16:18:58) ebimcdonalds: lolmemes?
(16:19:03) cleaverdarkness: that sounds right
(16:22:51) ebimcdonalds: memeparty?
(16:23:00) cleaverdarkness: sure
(16:30:11) ebimcdonalds: memetown?
(16:38:06) ebimcdonalds: do you remember any key phrases or wordings?
(16:38:12) ebimcdonalds: i can’t remember anything here
(16:38:59) cleaverdarkness: nope
(17:01:28) ebimcdonalds: ryan gosling baby duck?
The following are the few that survived. I remember our “Top 20 Faces of James Franco” and “Hottest Kate Uptons” (nee “Sexiest Kate Uptons”, lest the investors be offended by the statement that Kate Upton’s sexualized body is sexy) being a couple of our other more successful lists. If you should happen across these while navigating your own personal clickbait hell, drop us a line. We’d love to see them again.
Picture credits go to whoever we poached the images from, text by us.
15 Cutest Ryan Gosling Pics
Nicki Minaj: Fashion Icon or Disaster
15 Most Hilarious Dilbert Strips
I should note that this list was the last we did, where we were so desperate to stop that we just took the first 15 random Dilberts from dilbert.com and captioned them with whatever the first person to speak said. I mean, after “fuck”, “shit”, “fart” or “what the fuck is this.”
Top 20 Faces of James Franco
Hottest Kate Uptons
Welcome to the offices of Sid Meyers’s as they stand today. On the right, you can see the sales figures for our latest game, Joystick Madness. It is our first flight sim and potentially will go on to be the best selling flight sim ever.
As you can clearly see, we’ve been in business for almost 59 years and have earned close to 2 billion dollars, all while remaining independent of publishers and releasing games almost exclusively for PC. Yes, we are titans of industry, but from humble beginnings…
FRAGMENT FROM AN UNFINISHED PLAY
Lit by a dim spotlight, Bill Gates raises his absurdly large revolver and empties all six chambers into the Xbox One. Behind him, 3 giant screens flash black and white, cycling through phrases like:
FUCK THE INTERNET
BILL GATES: (screaming) I’M SOOOOORRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY
My other topical joke is:
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER AN XBOX ONE
1. Turn one degree and walk away.
This is so perfectly from another era of cross-promotional movie-to-game cashgrab magic. Everything about this is just so totally not right, from the way the morality mechanics seem to work, to the voices, to the one-liners that are both terrible and non-sensical and longer than one line, to the placeholder HUD elements, to the chintzy new age jazz.
Which isn’t to say it’s bad. Even the inane can triumph from time to time.
update: Nightmare Mode went down, so I’ve reposted the essay here.
Hey, I wrote an essay about Modern Warfare 2. You can read it here: http://nightmaremode.net/2012/11/call-of-duty-6-modern-warfare-2-ass2ass-gif-23274/
It is titled:
CALL OF DUTY 6: MODERN WARFARE 2: ASS2ASS.GIF
It is safe to read at work.