This Week I Read: PAX is bad and other things are good

It says “this week” but I’m dropping links for the past few weeks. My course came to a head on Thursday with a magnificent workload, hence my recent negligence. But rather than simply dumping everything that’s sent a sparkle to my eye, I’m going to parcel them out into Gone Home and non-Gone Home related texts. I hope to write a bit on Gone Home in the near future so I’ll hold off on the former until then.

Let’s start with Austin Walker’s take down of Bioshock Infinite‘s Elizabeth. Walker argues that Elizabeth has nothing in the way of any personal agency, and I agree with him. Mechanically, there is nothing Elizabeth does that is not a command by the player. Irrational’s attempt to make her ‘useful’ (self-plug 1) has the result of only making her convenient, as little more than an accessory for Booker. She is a hat with a 20% chance of recharging your health, a Vigor that lets you open tears, the glint of a nearby coin that signals its presence. Outside of mechanics, at the extent of her agency she is a narrative device, channelling you down a level or making you chase after her from A to B. Although she is functionally less frustrating than Ico‘s Yorda, she is equal in agency to that useless damsel.

It’s rather unfortunate that Elizabeth was touted as being the next coming in NPC buddies and this non-entity is what we got. It’s more unfortunate that she was collectively lapped up, so I’m delighted to see other critics knuckling down hard on Infinite.

Can you guess I’m vehement? I wrote a thing about agency and autonomy some weeks back – if you’re a publisher who wants to see it, give me a buzz.

Haha, animals

A million years ago (February) Kris Ligman wrote about ambient conversations in Mass Effect 3. It’s very important for a gameworld to feel contiguous without the intersecting presence of the player-character, otherwise it succumbs to the solipsism of player empowerment. Little snippets of lives outside of your immediate vicinity give credence to the feeling that this fictional universe exists, not just contingently.

I suspect this is a large part of why the earlier worlds of Final Fantasy felt cohesive to fans, whereas FFXIII faltered by stripping out the bulk of random citizen encounters. You barely witness anyone in FFXIII talking about anything other than their immediate situation (“We’re trapped by monsters and I’m scared”), while in the other games people kind of talked about whatever – their routines, their expectations for dinner, their romances, broader political events, rumours of a mysterious something-or-other from afar (self-plug 2). To this day, I still clearly remember two NPCs in the same section of a Midgar slum marketplace – one commenting on how she always keeps her eyes cast downwards since you never know what you’ll find on the ground. She later changed her tune to upwards after the plate crashed down, and then again on realising she was missing what was right in front of her. A trite moral perhaps but it helped give life to the area. The second was someone commenting on a man fallen to Mako poisoning, foreshadowing later story events. Likewise, I’ll remember the girl and the security guard at Dock E24, and the traumatised Reaper survivor pleading for a gun in Huerto Memorial, long after I’ve forgotten Mass Effect 3‘s fetch sidequests.

Alois Wittwer thinks the language of critics needs to change and you know what, that’s right. I don’t know if Tim Rogers is a good example because I’ve always gotten bored before I see any point he makes, but I’m all in support of finding new ways to expand our lexicon. I’d hazard the past stasis of games criticism is partly down to the limiting perspectives made available by limited language – with a broadening critical sphere, I’m hoping we’ll see new terms with which to discover the concepts already there but buried in our minds. Though I wouldn’t know why “enchanting boredom” is unacceptable and “sticky friction” is considered descriptive.

And I realise that clashes with the desire to lean away from jargon but you know, let’s get ourselves in order, too.

Onto the subject of classism, Maddie Myers wrote for Paste on accessibility and classism. This is largely why I oppose digital distribution on moral grounds – it’s useful for wee developers to spread their games to the usual buyers but it restricts who is a buyer based on ever-increasing criteria. Although many contest it, ‘having an internet connection’ is additional criteria. The unwillingness to realise that not everyone has high-speed broadband reflects how ‘everyone’ is only ever taken to mean ‘me’ and ‘us’, dividing through ill-conceived ‘unifying’ language. If you thought gaming was insular beforehand, wait until digital distribution gating techniques are in full swing. And that’s not even talking about how difficult PC gaming is.

Mattie Brice addressed the same subject two million years ago (2012), focusing on the sense of prestige that comes with belonging to an elite, inaccessible videogame clubhouse. I like to think we’re on the verge of seeing classism become A Thing in collective consciousness, at least regarding this medium (self-plug 3). With it, I hope new routes open up for disadvantaged, decentralized groups.

On Tiny Subversions, Darius Kazemi explained why he left the IGDA last March. I believe he mentioned at the time it wasn’t only because of the incident at GDC, and now we know why: he likens the organization’s ethos to imposed austerity, in that fiscal conservativism usurps all purpose. It becomes a self-perpetuating machine devoid of any sense of civic duty. A parasite on its members, much like an austerity-minded government fleeces its people for the political body’s own continued existence. Better to cut loose and start afresh elsewhere than to help perpetuate the redundant, destructive organisation, he says.

His words echoed the concurrent sentiments of many others towards Penny Arcade and PAX. Elizabeth Sampat called for a boycott of PAX following founders Mike Krahulik’s latest bout of Being Horrible and Jerry Holkin’s silent consent of him. You probably won’t find as concise an outline as to why supporting PAX supports Krahulik than there. I mentioned yesterday in my blog about intent and malice how flippant, underlying meanings confirm the subconscious values of hundreds of millions of people – I can’t think of a better example than that PAX theatre roaring in support at Krahulik’s voiced misogyny.

Three Fingered Fox analysed Krahulik’s (and indeed many of those who self-identify as “gamer”) behaviour within the framework of Hegelian philosophy. You can look at that as the formative process of a “beautiful soul”, uninterested in anything outside of its narrow perspective, but what particularly interests me is the tremendous value placed on social interactions. Krahulik still sees himself as a guy who makes stuff on the internet – he doesn’t comprehend the magnitude of his audience nor the effect of his content. He’s so single-minded on his own position, he utterly fails to consider what he does, what he says, outside of his field of vision. For all the defenders of PAX as a social event, so few want to contextualize human beings as social creatures. Instead, Krahulik’s a starving artist – they’re all starving artists, deprived by the ‘big bad world’, inconsiderate of how they unknowingly propagate it.

Games

Speaking of misunderstood underdogs, I’ll wrap this up with something a little more light-hearted: Kim Jong-un’s Glorious Missile to Liberate The Nations. I can’t get past level three so if you do, leave me a comment and tell me if he saves the world.

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