Thursday, October 30, 2008

lol tournament - Thoughts on Professional Gaming

Something to clean up and expand on later. Pasted from an old Kotaku thread.

I think the big issue with broadcasting video game competitions - at least in America - is that there are so damn many of them.

When you have three full generations of males in the U.S. sitting down every Saturday for college and Sunday for pro football, they're all watching the same game. the same holds true for baseball, basketball, and so on - the rules are the same (or have minor alterations on a league-by-league basis) regardless of which iteration of the game you're watching. This doesn't work for gaming - I've never played DOA4, and thus have zero interest in watching a competition devoted to it. The same for Halo 3 (gasp!). I'd love to see a competition for Team Fortress 2, but how many Halo 3 fanatics and DOA4 pros even play it?

These things work in countries like Korea because they've based the major competitions on the same game - Starcraft. The ever-evolving gaming world changes so quickly that new "competition-grade" games come out every few months; some games, like the newest Command and Conquer, actually had a built in feature where you could not only spectate and broadcast the game, but be a damn announcer for it.

One of two things need to happen before game competition will really go either mainstream or truly profitable (even if only in the gaming community);

1. Technology must plateau so that graphics, and thus core gameplay mechanics, are able to stabilize and create a consistent platforms that become familiar amongst the watching base, and

2. A game is developed that people will be willing to use exclusively, or at least a large amount of time so it develops that "traditional permanence" that games like golf and football have. Although it isn't necessary for the first point to come about for the second, I don't see it happening - too many of us, particularly in this pseudo next-gen environment, are becoming too graphically driven to allow lesser polygon counts to sate us.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On the Use of Setting and Theme as Characters

In recent weeks, I've seen a couple of movies that seem to use inanimate objects as key characters in both plot and character development. This is something with which I have very little experience with; it's entirely possible that this is a phenomenon that is quite common in art house and indie films, but previously I'd never really been exposed to much of it.

The first of these that I saw was The City of Ember, based on a children's book. Although the primary characters, while occasionally interesting, were generally dull, generic and static throughout the work. However, the City of Ember, a city built far below the surface of the earth in an attempt to save a portion of humanity, quite succinctly fulfills the character and plot development void left by the script and the characters found within. The struggle of the children's movie revolves around the reactior of the city. Built hundreds of years ago and meant only to sustain the city for a specific period of time, the measures set in place by the Builders have fallen to the wayside and escape and repair measures forgotten. As a result, the reactor is failing, and periods of terrifying blackout are becoming commonplace.

Lina and Doon set out to discover a method to repair the faulty reactor and, barring that, an escape both for them and the other inhabitants of the city. The remainder of the plot isn't terribly relevant to this. Through their adventures in the main avenues in the streets of Ember, Lina and Doon encounter a variety of obstacles; a pipeworks in a state of quite serious decay, lights that fail at the most inopportune times (not that there ever IS a good time for this), huge squig/cthulu monsters roaming the pipeworks, a series of railings and darkness surrounding the city. The characters don't so much walk about the set pieces as normal actors would in a typical film, but are rather immersed and absorbed by them, and often their fate is determined by the seemingly random layout of the city. Although Lina and Doon are responsible for discovering the mechanism by which the denizens might be saved, it is Ember itself that provides directions for them; an old manuscript for functions is found, and when the proper .. dongles are aligned, a full-scale evacuation begins. The benevolence in this part of the movie is quite striking in a context to be mentioned in the next paragraph. The city, once begun, initiates the escape and leads them into their salvation.

However, the city also encounters a series of problems; the waterwheel, designed to raise when the lifeboats enter the river, grinds and destroys itself, due to a combination of design and human neglect. The only method of repair for this wheel is the sacrifice of a character that isn't even worth naming; although the city attempts to kill Doon and Lina, a human must intervene and shed blood of his own veins in order to save them – not from a terrible event, but from what appears to be the city contriving against them.

The city itself is beautiful, and a marvel to behold; the people that developed the graphics behind it deserve an award, particularly because it has made me want to explore Ember more than any other film previous to it made me want to be a part of it's setting. Sure, Moria seemed okay, and the mountainscape after the escape from the mines was beautiful, but it wasn't engaging – not nearly so much as the City of Ember. The sheer volume of mysterious passageways and secret ducts in the pipeworks warrant the sort of exploration only a little boy could possibly hope to succeed in. It's a shame I can't visit it, it being fictional in all.

The second film, Anamorph, handles the analogue of Ember in a different light; the only character development found throughout is the work of art by the antagonist serial killer of the film. Although the characters found within are believable, sad and warranting of sympathy, little care is to be bothered with them when held up to the glory that was the art. It's quite apparent as well that this is the emphasis the director and writer of the movie wanted to place. Through exposition, we learn what an anamorph is, and how it is used in art. To paraphrash, it's a work of art that appears one way – sometimes chaotically, sometimes beautifully – at one angle, and takes on an entirely different significance and meaning when seen in another. This is accomplished, for example, by the stringing up of a series of body parts, hewn from a man and gutted in gross and vile ways, and at the far end of the room a fish-eye hole on the top of a rusted rod. When the work is viewed from the lens, it becomes a terrifying demon monster thing that is genuinely disturbing. This further manifests itself in images taken at other crime scenes; an icon that is representational of the coming murder scene can be found in each photo, although these are only seen in, as the film did it, the reflection of a mirrored coffee mug.

They of course ultimately lead to the location of the killer, and all is more or less resolved in typical cop/mystery drama fashion, although the culmination of the villains art is quite startling. It's easy to say that it was painstakingly sculpted before the movie was written, but by employing a bit of suspension of disbelief, it's a disturbing climax (of sorts). The art functions as a character because the murders were initially all done in a fashion focusing on composition and lighting, and not perspective; but as the murderer – the artist – evolves, he begins to attain an absolute mastery of color, composition and true form. It's fascinating to watch the movie while taking note of these things, and although this certainly isn't a movie for everybody, it was absolutely great if you're into the analysis of imagery and symbolism.

The intentional lack of character development on the other humans in the film, while likely alienating many people, is what makes this movie shine; the entirety of the work directs your attention to the art, suggesting that art is the only worthwhile pursuit (at least in this context), and it succeeds dramatically, and almost painfully, and certainly gruesomly well. It' something I plan on seeing again in the theatre in the next few days, as I imagine that this work is even more fascinating the second time around.

I pray that developers in the future begin to use setting and themes as characters to be developed on their own, and any sense of morality coming from the work to be coming from those two things. It was quite refreshing to see that settings and themes aren't to be developed at the sole discretion and influence of the characters, and I was, in a word, blown away by its effects.

I think I've found a new love.

Ps: if you have any films or novles that employ this sort of development in them, please, please let me know – I'm going to quickly becoming desperate to feed this new longing of mine.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Interview (sort of) With Jim Rossignol of Rock, Paper, Shotgun

For a class I was told to interview someone in a profession that I wanted to go into, and the transcribe what we talked about in an essay format. It's supposed to be tough-style writing, which I suck at, but here it is anyway.

Although I have a great many interests and feel that there are a variety of career choices that would suit me, two particular subjects have been particularly engaging to me since I was a child. The first was video games. Although I find gaming in all of its forms to be fascinating, gaming in its relatively modern and present state has proven to be a stronger motivator for me than almost anything else. Although this field of interest developed in me at a young age, my drive to the written word took place later. It wasn't until high school that I realized that the written word could be so powerful of an instrument; although Greek and Roman concepts, plays and systems of government persist in a relevant fashion through today, their empires and kings have long since died out. With these in mind, I have decided to follow the path of the wordsmith with an emphasis on gaming journalism. I decieed to speak with Jim Rossignol, a freelance gaming/science/technology journalist that is one of the four primary contributors of my favorite blog: Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

I met Jim in a dark, smoke-filled bar in the lower-east district of Manchester, both because he's there and I read about its state during the Victorian era as an industrial hellhole, rampant with disease, trash and miserably oppressed proletariats. The prior sentence isn't entirely true; I am fascinated by Manchester and the UK in general, but I've never been there. Trans-Atlantic flights are difficult to justify on the budget of a student. I instead chose the path of email correspondence. Due to email being cold and digital, I have chosen instead to imagine our interview taking place in that same dark, smoke-filled bar in the lower-east district of Manchester. Since this is at least partially fiction, I feel absolutely no guilt by lying and saying that I picked up the tab.

Jim's upbringing, aside from having a mother with “an intense love of the English language” and living in the UK, was similar to my own. He was surrounded by books and had early, regular access to computing technology as it developed, and, being a boy interested in nerdy things, played games regularly. He received a degree in philosophy that, although not directly applicable to his field, he feels benefited him greatly; he claimed that his pursuit of philosophy granted him a wide base for understanding arguments and for the analysis of ideas presented both in his field and life in general. Although he claims that his degree was the correct one, he would “argue that knowledge of the subject and a passion for describing and analyzing it far outweighs the value of formal education”.

I found this to be highly motivating; Jim, between pulls from his pint and nervous glances at a table of shady-fellows nearby, had managed to validate the small selection of skills that I posses and value above most of the others. My younger brother refuses to go to the cinema with me anymore for fear that, after the movie, I'll analyze it to death and find so many faults with it that even though he enjoyed it during the actual screening, he finds that he no longer wants to like it. I thoroughly enjoy having this effect on people. I find few things in life more entertaining as picking apart various pieces of media and telling people why their enjoyment of a particular movie, album or television show is stupid, and Jim's suggesting that these are the necessary elements of his profession excites me greatly – I might actually be able to squeeze a living out of being a cultural elitist jerk.

There are, of course, to be downfalls. As Jim is a freelancer, the majority of his work is commissioned and dictated by his publishers and editors from a variety of print and online publications, and he has little time to do any personal writing. The vast majority of his time is taken up with playing games and writing about them – to the degree that he says it takes a great deal of willpower to remain motivated He also says that gaming journalism tends to pay less than traditional journalism, and that “the low levels of pay means we have to grind out a lot more words to pay our rent than the average mainstream hack”. I found his word choice of “grind” to be particularly interesting. In the type of gaming that I find myself spending the most time with – massively multiplayer online games (such as World of Warcraft) – grinding is a euphemism for spending a large amount of time doing one specific task with a goal in mind. Usually, this involved commiting genocide on a group of computer-controlled monsters to achieve some end or another. Using “grind” as he did places the profession into an interesting context for me, as someday I'm going to be grinding words to, as he says, pay rent – and that's a skill I'm already pretty good at and feel I can perform professionally.

Jim's favorite aspect of his job is simply being able to write and to be paid for it; this aligns with my personal goals quite well. In fact, one of the most validating experiences of my life was receiving a payment for being published in the school news paper. Although not nearly enough to cover rent – or even the tab that Jim and I were quickly building – it was proof that my word-grinding was actually worth something, and this was incredibly inspirational and motivating to me.

The primary message that I took from this interview has two parts. First, that I've chosen what seems to be the correct career, and promises to be sustainable and personally fulfilling. Second, that I am inexplicably, staggeringly, and bewilderingly already on the proper course. This is a new concept for me. Generally, I'm on the receiving end of grievous errors and am scrambling to fix them. For once, the path forward is actually mostly clear; there might be two of them due to the copious amount of English beer consumed, but I can at least tell which way they're going now.

Monday, October 6, 2008

God as a Desktop Commander

I wrote this for an exam in my Bible/Apocrypha class at university, and thought it might interest people. It's a brief examination of God as a gamer. The (Harris) bits are from the text book.

---begin transmission---

“All that human participants do, all that they achieve by war, conquest, or any other means, is explicitly ascribed to Yahweh's actions.” (Harris: 82) Of all of the attributes of Yahweh found throughout the Torah, few of them remain consitant. The trait which appears to be singular in that it is found throughout the actions of Yahweh is that of his drive to manipulate both people and the world to means only he at the time is aware of. In this regard, he has the mentality and capacity of what is jokingly referred to as a desktop commander in the gaming community. A desktop commander someone that regularly plays PC strategy games in which one assumes the role of commander (God) over legions of relatively insignificant characters (Israel) and, in most modern strategy games, a small selection of hero units with powers and abilities far and above the regular masses (Moses, Noah, Jacob and so on).

Yahweh, similar to most desktop commanders, plays a series of games with his people. The primary game, that of regularly testing the faith of Israel and punishing them for failure, is supplemented by his metagame, or secondary/game-within-a-game; that of placing people and things into motion and seeing what will happen as a result. Although the Judaeo-Christian concept of God (Yahweh) partially relies on his being all-knowing and thus being able to see future events, this aspect of the godhead is not realized in the Torah, as Yahweh regularly makes mistakes (the Flood) and is unaware of all evens simultaneously (Adam and Eve becoming clothed/eating the apple). This, too, corresponds with the struggle of the gamer; an impossibility to know everything, and the inability to be aware of the exact results of a series of events, regardless of how well planned they may be.

In the game Black and White (Lionhead Studios, 200x [hey, it's a take-home exam, not a research paper]), the player lacks direct control of the great beast that is assigned to him. The player is permitted to slap, feed, play with and point to areas where he would like his beast to go, and as the beast grows in power he also becomes more receptive to commands issued. This is similar to Yahweh's control over Israel; although he cannot directly manipulate people, he can suggest locations and provide for them when necessary, such as instructing Moses to lead Israel from Egypt. Although Yahweh cannot control Ramses II, he does provoke him into chasing Israel into the sea, where they are destroyed – according to plan.

The final goal of the desktop commander is not victory, although it often appears, both to the gamer and the observer, to be the case. The goal is the lead up to the coordinated movements of people and events, regardless of the outcome,although specific ones may be desired. In Black and White, players may at specific times unleash a series of cataclysmic events, such as fires or torrential rains, to see what happens to both their beast and the beasts of other gods. This is mirrored by Yahweh's placing of the Tree of Knowledge in the same place at the initial seat of humanity. One would have to assume that Yahweh is stupid to not question whether he'd considered the possibility of Eve eating the apple, and one would have to assume Yahweh was blind to not be in grave doubt whether Zedekiah would retain his faith and trust in the salvation of Yahweh or if he would choose in the strength of man.

Whether he's deliberately testing the faith of his people by commanding the devout among them to build an ark, or giving them vague directions across a desert and into enemy territory to subjugate it, Yahweh is constantly playing games with his people. None of his other attributes are to be trusted for their consistency; his benevolence of food and fruitfulness can be destroyed by a mistake; his great rage (the Flood) and animosity can be checked by regret and Covenants; his fairness to aliens (“Do not oppress the alien (Exodus 23:9) is negated by them being a nation outside Israel (kill everything on the other side of the Jordan). The singular trait that Yahweh exhibits in any consistency is his inalienable drive to manipulate, coordinate, and game the system which he has created.