Saturday, February 28, 2009

Adventure! Excitement!

I have it on solid authority that the Jedi crave not these things. But boy hardy, I shore do.

Thus: I have been invited to present at a conference on horror video games.

It's organized by Ludicine, a research group with the University of Montreal. They are hoopy froods, who really know where their towels (collectively) are. The conference has its own theme song, so you know it's legitski.

Because do you know who else had a theme song? That's right: Batman.

I'll be blogging on my general topic in the weeks to come, in order to scare up some ideas, and to get me in the spirit of things, and also to Frankenstein's Monster.

Hmm. Looks like I plumb ran out of puns, there. Quick! To the Puncave, to recharge!

- Rook

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part Six: The Six Million Dollar Gear

I don't mean to suggest that the scripted plot points and boss fights in the Metal Gear Solid franchise undermine the "proper" form of the game, or that somehow these games are somehow in a more pure form when you're lurking about and garroting faceless thugs. A large portion of what makes these games memorable occur within boss environments: The grandiloquence of these cartoonish villains, the defiance of physics in no-holds-barred supernatural brouhahas, the sheer weirdness of it all.

Even admitting that Metal Gear is always pretty weird, these are the moments that crank the weirdness to eleven.

Well, it's one weirder, isn't it?

Being spaces that function with their own internal logic, the boss fights are often locations where new sorts of play rules are imposed. There is the player-referential fight with Psycho Mantis, where through mental manipulation the game is manipulated through psychic hoodoo. Mantis would make the screen blank out, as if resetting the game, activate the controller rumble, and would taunt the player based off of other Konami games on the save file. In MGS3, there are easter eggs like letting an antidiluvean sniper die of old age by leaving the game file alone for enough time. And then there is the gauntlet of metatextual weirdness that is the final chapter of MGS2, in which a simulated reality system breaks down, trying to convince the protagonist that he is, in fact, just a character in a video game.

Hideo Kojima has a keen understanding that at these moments the game exerts complete control over the play experience. Notions of play choice and option management, staples in a game like Metal Gear Solid, disappear completely in favour of a singular, cinematic viewpoint. This exercise of control is put to use several times, to various effects. However, there is one point in the series which deliberately brings together the experiences of both aspects of gameplay, to elaborate an experience of play violence

In the nearly final confrontation in Metal Gear Solid 3, you square off against your former mentor, appropriately titled "The Boss". Though you assume that she is a defector, after besting her, she admits that she has been working as a double agent. Throughout the game, the sub-bosses that she sent to kill you were sent, by her, to die - thus internalizing and repurposing the sensation that it is not the player who kills these figures, but the game - and now, in order to further maintain the secret of her affiliation, orders you to kill her.

This is done via cutscene, but as you are ordered, the camera pulls back, and everything stops. It is here that the player realizes that it is not the character of Naked Snake being ordered to kill "The Boss", but the player themselves. Here, rather than defer any emotional ascription of the act of killing to the cinematic impulses of the game, the player's play experience intrudes into the scene. In order to proceed, the player must hit the "shoot" button, shooting "The Boss" at point blank range in the head, killing her instantly.

As a play experience, it is painful and unpleasant. Kojima, who has attempted through the course of his games to draw attention to the player's complicit role in the experience of playing a characer, here forces the high signification of violence sphere of play atop the high mediation cut scene experience upon which the player has come to rely. Doing so not only kills "The Boss" as a boss, but as a character - and it is the same act that metaphorically kills Naked Snake, now destined to become a non-player character and seeming villain for the remainder of the series.

In the same way that No More Heroes is a game about video game violence, rather than simply a violent game, Metal Gear Solid 3, and to an extent the entirety of the series, are not just games in which the player lacks control, but games in which that lack of control is thematized and made central.

I don't mean to equate this level of manipulation to directly positive gaming experiences, only notably different ones. It's precisely this reason that Metal Gear Solid 2 stands in my mind as one of the most skull-smashingly bad experiences I have ever had playing a game. I would rather brush my teeth with a straight razor rather than sit through the whole thing again. I think it's fair to say that it fails as a game, but succeeds as an experience. As to what kind of experience, who can say? For me, it succeeded as an experience of hating, hating, hating it.

So that may be something.

- Rook

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part Five: Insert Number Based Movie Reference Here

Are we at the fifth installment of this digression already? How time has passed! I can remember, dimly, a time before all of this, when mediation and signification of violence in video games weren't graphed against each other and considered in turn. A simpler time. How we sung! How we danced!

BUT THERE'S NO GOING BACK NOW, PEOPLE. Because here we are, at number five. That may not sound like a large number by itself, but just consider: By the fifth Rocky movie, Rocky had brain damage. By the fifth Harry Potter movie, the child actors had aged to the point that they looked darn-near thirty. And by the fifth Saw movie, no one in their right mind cared anymore. On the other hand, "Five Easy Pieces" was the best one in the epic "Easy Pieces Pentalogy." So it's sort of a toss-up.

When last we left off, your humble narrator was outlining the degree to which certain games exhibited some dramatic shifts of both mediation and signification of violence. In Diablo 2, this happens when gameplay is moved from the standard mode to "Hardcore Mode" which introduces an element of permanent death. In No More Heroes, certain editions were heavily edited, and the result is a game environment that represents violence very differently. I illustrated this latter case by linking to a game clip including a man with weaponized nipples.

"Are those guns grafted to your vestigial man-mammaries, or are you just happy to see me?"

But in both these cases, the shift in how violence is mediated and signified occurs outside of a play environment, as either a shifting of game mode, or through a jump from one version to another. As a final example, I'd like to consider the degree in which a game can be said to move about these fields during play. So, once more I light the incense and begin the unholy chanting that will summon forth to this world... "The incredibly small chart."


As you can see, though the first two examples tend mainly to the right side, being games with medium-to-high degrees of play mediation, The Metal Gear Solid Series' shifting draws it from a place of low-mediaton/high-violence-signification to one of extremely high-mediation/moderate-violence-signification. Where in the latter two cases small changes are made to play mediation that, in turn, reflect upon the signification of violence, the examples here reflect a dramatic shift along both axes.

While playing through the bulk of the game, your objective is to kill as little as possible, and be unseen. You are provided with the tools to remain undetected, and from a gameplay standpoint, every skirmish you do get into represents a failing on the player's part to avoid conflict. The result is a sandbox environment that weighs killing against nondetection, similar to the Grand Theft Auto games.

All these options laden your actions with significations of violence: Since you may choose to skip conflicts, it is an option you actively exercise, or are forced into. Since it typically occurs during moments of increased conflict and stress, your usual toolset is compromised and often the acts are represented as desperate ones. The bodies of slain men stick around, and must be lugged about so as not to draw attention. And, finally, the many realistic ways you can dispatch your foes only adds to the sensation that these are weighted acts of violence.

All this changes when play moves away from the chiefly play-oriented environment of the world to the highly narrative environment of boss conflicts. Gone are the sandbox elements of nondetection and combat evasion: In these circumstances you are confined to a usually small arena, and must fight until the boss is dead. Entire bodies of gameplay are abandoned in these places for a new bag of tricks involving efficient boss killing. It helps that Kojima's bosses aren't just your standard villains, but cartoonishly exaggerated uberbosses. They don't just chew the scenery: they devour it whole, then shoot flaming hunks of it back at you, all the while minging about their sad childhoods in Kurdistan, or outer space, or whatever.

It's one thing to hold up some nameless grunt, shake him down for information, then accidentally hit the wrong button, slitting his throat. It's quite another to go head-to-head with a man who spits BEES at you, while helpfully shouting "GO, MY BULLET BEEEEEES."

Trivia: In French, his name is "THE BREAD."

Though you might imagine that killing a character with a name and personality would increase the degree to which violence in signified, the opposite is true: These function as plot points. Since killing these figures is mandatory, the player is absolved of anything that they may do. No game highlights this better than Metal Gear Solid 3, in which if you do take the crafty route and tranquilize rather than kill the bosses outright, they will fall down, go through the same death-spiel, then EXPLODE ANYWAY.

The point is made that it isn't you killing these figures - it's the game. By forcing you out of the sandbox and into the gladiator's pit, by letting its villains rattle of their speeches beforehand and gargle out their dying breaths afterwards, most signification which would link your behavior to violence is scored away: Suddenly you aren't in a game. You're in a movie, one that is possessed of it's own tautological morality. James Bond can kill with impunity because he is JAMES BOND. For Solid Snake, killing is avoidable and stealth is preferable, except when they aren't. And when they aren't, it's okay... because he's not Solid Snake anymore.


I mean, I know he has a license to kill... but does he have to be so darn smug about it?

- Rook

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part Four: THE GOBLET OF FIER

In the last three posts in this series I looked at the degree to which violence is signified in games, the degree to which play experience is mediated, and how these two factors may affect the experience of the game. Specifically, I've discussed:

- Violence in terms of "interactivity": How mediation affects what you can do in a game.
- Violence in terms of signification: How acts in games are signified or not signified as violent.
- The intersection of mediation and violence in video games: Complete with lame-o chart work!

Most recently I plotted a handful of games in terms of both play mediation and signification of violence. In some cases, a single change could affect a game's standing along both axes. I mentioned then that a game would likely not be a fixed pint, but could vary in its position according to the changing values of a game. Here are two examples of games that do just that.

Once again, my chart is freakishly small. Click on it to see it be freakishly medium-sized.

1. No More Heroes: US versus Japan and EU releases

It's uncommon to encounter a video game about violence... stranger still to come across one about violence in videogames. It follows a otaku-turned-assassin, who goes from idolizing wrestling and anime to living in a world of this sort of stylized violence. Like any good satire, No More Heroes isn't afraid to get its hands dirty. When the main character, Travis, kill an enemy, it spews both an impossible fountain of blood and a handful of coins.

The vicious gouts of blood are taken directly from anime drawn from seinen manga, who have been stylizing this types of hypergore for decades. The coins, of course, are pure video-game stock and trade... a coin of the realm, as it were. To have both erupt from a target is a surreal effect. As a game devoted to systematically killing through a swath of foes, it is decidedly two ways about its homicides. There is a high level of violence signification, on par with other games explicitly about violence. But in coaching the violence inside the signifiers of retro-gaming, it functions as a clear statement: "Forget what you have seen. This is what a violent video game looks like."

The irony is that since its thematic statement is predicated upon the excessive use of the exact same violent images that other games boast so carelessly, No More Heroes has, itself, been the target of censure. In the Japanese and European releases, the violent surges of blood were removed altogether. As well, corpses disappear quickly after being killed, rather than remaining on the ground.

A youtube poster, xserothx, has done an excellent job providing comparisons of the death scenes from both the US and censored versions.

As you'll see in the original, Destroyman is vertically bisected by the final attack: a common, if improbable fate in samurai movies and manga. He falls to the ground, his chest-weapons still clacking away like some ridiculous rigor mortis. Though his body is dead, he continues, feebly, as a weapon, mirroring the fashion in which becoming a professional killer (as well as one who cosplays a super hero of his own devising) has rendered him inhumane and incomplete.

Faced with the apparent difficulty of censoring a man with guns for nipples getting cut from stem to stern, in the censored version he just... disappears. At the point of the final bisected shot of the original, players are treated to a long, poignant shot of the floor. There is absolutely nothing on the screen, save a little smudge of dirt on the ground, Perhaps that's the moral, here: That being a professional killer is untidy.

In the censored version, play mediation increases only slightly, due to the fact that, in helpfully erasing those killed from screen and existence, the game acts as a automated clean up crew. But in moving from one extreme pole of signification, including gouts of blood and permanent corpses, to another, in which death is only a symbol for defeat and bodies are spirited away without fuss, the game is radically transformed.

This is not a solely aesthetic concern, but a thematic one. In a world full of hypergore and morbid death, Travis' nihilism makes sense: He is a video character aware of his role in a violent video game, who is fated by design to proceed to perform increasingly grisly acts. Just as Pac-Man must eat dots and run from ghosts, Travis must commit murder again, and again. But in a video game where character spew coins but not blood, where enemies disappear in a puff of smoke, his bleak attitude and behavior are unwarranted. Why brood over stomping on a goomba?

2. Diablo 2 versus Diablo 2 Hardcore mode

I did an image search for "hardcore", and this was the only picture that didn't include ladies.

If No More Heroes is a game explicitly concerned with its killing, Diablo 2 is one that doesn't care one bit. Its violence, though graphic, is couched in the same gaming standard of carnage for the sake of carnage. You hack your way through foes, each of whom die with a few mouse clicks in a fashion that is gory, yet still somehow tidy. Since you're killing demons and undead, you proceed with impunity. These types of hack and slash games derive their fun from exactly that: hacking and slashing. Since it is the act of fighting that the game is based upon always inured in a swarm of monsters, are always click-click-clicking through a stew of rancid demon flesh.

Despite its name, Hardcore mode is not simply a change in difficulty, but a dramatic alteration of the rules of play. If a hardcore character dies, even once, it is erased: Death is death, and one misstep can ruin the dozens of hours you've put into your character. Though this is, to some extent, a play anomaly - games that have implemented permanent death tend to be few and far between - the change in relationship between play and character extends beyond, to the game world.

No longer are the countless imps that populate the game world there for your amusement, to be splatted with impunity. In Hardcore mode they are real threats, each of whom has the potential to undo you. In this given context, any killing done is given freight due to the increased risks of the mode. In shifting the experience away from a light environment of mindless slaughter to one which has major play consequences, the very nature of violence signification is changed.

The level of both games' mediation changes in a like fashion, moving further right as more 'invisible rules' are introduced that govern the play environment. Just as in No More Heroes, the changes in the game affected to the spiriting away and dissolving of Travis' vanquished foes, so the additional mediation in Diablo 2 is enforced as a superscription: It may be a goblin that kills you, but it is the game that erases you from existence.

What's of note is how for two games roughly equal in mediation, making a roughly equal change in mediation offers dramatically different changes to the way in which play violence is mediated. Of course, these cases are variants of games, rather than changes outright within a play environment. On Thursday I'll be looking at the Metal Gear Solid games, with a focus on Metal Gear Solid 3, to examine how much certain games can vary even moment to moment.

Oh, right. The thing I said about this post being the last one in the series? That was one big trick. It will never end. Because semiological discussions of violence in video games is SUPER FUN and NOT AT ALL BORING and FREE ICECREAM.

All right, fine. That bit about free ice cream was a lie. But the rest is true.


- Rook