Monthly Archives: January 2015

January 29, 2015

Machinarium (2009)


developed by Amanita Design (Prague, Czech Republic)
self-published October 16, 2009, for Windows/Mac/Linux, $19.99
[website — an in-browser playable demo, comprising the first three scenes of the game. Go for it.]
~350 MB

Played to completion in 4.5 hours, 1/28/15.

[80 min. video in 8 parts of a complete playthrough (sorry about the occasional stupid superimposed text, but the other options weren’t high resolution)]

Third of the five “Humble Indie Bundle 2” games retroactively added to my “Humble Indie Bundle 3” purchase on August 3, 2011.

First things first: how do you pronounce Machinarium? In a Czech-language interview I found on YouTube, the designer pronounces it “Mah-khi-NAH-ree-oom” (with a soft palatal “kh”). In this talk in English, he pronounces it “Mash-in-AIR-ee-um,” so that’s how I’ll be pronouncing it. This information is not easily googled! You’re lucky you have me.

This is more like it! I said games are good for the mind because fantasy is good for the mind, and this is such a fine fantasy. Care has been put into exactly what counts about games: the touch, the feel, the sound, the space. Machinarium is an adventure game and it’s entirely traditional as such (its clearest antecedents are The Neverhood and the Gobliiins series), but its aesthetic roots are in the world of art animation, stuff in the Annecy Festival / National Film Board of Canada / Academy Award For Best Animated Short tradition — which I think is a pretty great tradition: very comfortably neither high nor low, just art.

The nature of animation is so painstaking and intensive that it takes serious institutional power to make animation that isn’t loving and personal. That’s why basically all cartoons prior to around 1950 are pretty good, and almost any artsy Annecy-style short is at least interesting. Video games used to be the same way! Making them was too difficult, and too much of an adventure into the unknown, for the product not to have soul. This I think is the source of a lot of the “remember the good old 80s?” gamer nostalgia: those 80s pixels had feeling to them because they each cost; feelings really had been invested in them. For a nostalgist now to try to imitate the pixels but not the feelings, in this era when pixel-handling is simply beneath the authentic level of attention of a designer, doesn’t work.

But by going the handmade animation route, Machinarium manages to keep real feeling in it: the loving artistry of its materials can be nothing but exactly what it appears, could be made no other way. We live in a time when the technical side of a game about a cartoon robot is available prepackaged, so the only thing to care about is not the gadgetry of the game, but the cartoon robot itself. And this game cares! It’s a good cartoon robot!

Sometimes at the bookstore I like to go to the new children’s picture books and flip through them, solely because the continued show of attention to aesthetic experience is heartening. They’re not as good as they used to be — the design and typesetting side of things is frequently clueless and ugly, and a lot of illustrations make it to the stores that wouldn’t have been considered up to snuff, 30 years ago — but the spirit is still alive, there.

Adventure games and their design are one of my standard subjects for compulsive internet reading, so even though I hadn’t played this game until now, I had a pretty strong sense of it already. I was thus rather surprised not to have heard anywhere about the ingenious hint system, which I’m about to go on about.

The game is languageless in a classy internationalist way; characters express themselves only in speech bubbles containing images or cartoons. At nearly any time, there is a “give me a hint” option available, which immediately results in the protagonist issuing a speech bubble containing a hint image. That isn’t itself so innovative, though there’s something satisfyingly indirect about seeing a hint in picture form, which makes it less humiliating than reading a text hint (and less humiliation means less occasion to resent the game).

What’s really brilliant, I think, is that in addition to the hint, each screen of the game actually comes with a complete solution/walkthrough — depicted, also wordlessly, as pages in a Codex Seraphinianus-like book drawn in a charming Da Vinci notebook/alternative comics style — and access to this explicit walkthrough is available at any time… but in order to look at a page of it, one must first beat a stupid, tedious, unrewarding minigame. This strikes me as a completely ingenious solution to the spiritual (yea, spiritual!) problem posed by the need to make answers available for puzzle games. With this system, one no longer has any temptation to break out of the game and resort to the internet for answers, because attractive and official answers are always within arm’s reach, inside the confines of the game itself… but one is genuinely reluctant to seek them because it’s annoying.

Previously the only reason not to flip to the back of a puzzle book to read the answer as soon as one felt stumped was so-called “self-restraint,” which I have come to feel is actually a destructive force in the world, since it diminishes the integrity of the self and leads to resentment. If one is posed a problem, one wants to be able to throw one’s whole self into solving it! That is the pleasure of being a whole self. When the answer is right there for the looking-up, one has to partition off the part of the self that knows it, because “that’s not the point; that’s not how I’m supposed to solve the problem.” Those aren’t genuinely self-interested motivations; they’re in bad faith. (I know I’m sounding like Ayn Rand here but don’t worry it’s almost over.)

What’s wonderful about Machinarium‘s system is that it offers a completely self-interested disincentive — namely, that the process of unlocking the solution is tedious — so that one never needs to leave the zone of authentic motivation. Conquering the problem in any way you like is now organically more likely to mean actually solving it. In beating the game, I twice resorted to the walkthrough, but I felt an unashamed integrity about doing so, such as I’ve never felt before in looking up an answer. I only resorted to it when my own personal cost-benefit analysis tilted in that direction, and since the game had chosen exactly the terms of that analysis, I was able to feel that it approved of my choice and that I wasn’t being cheated — or cheating myself — out of any amount of satisfaction. “If trying to solve a puzzle without help becomes so frustrating that you feel tempted to play through the stupid walkthrough-unlock minigame, feel free to do it! We never want you to be that frustrated.”

Gauging the exact level of lameness and tedium of that stupid minigame so that this would all work out required great sensitivity on the designers’ parts. I think they did an excellent job. The minigame demands one full minute of vigilance, and offers next to no aesthetic gratification — only just enough that it uses the game-playing part of the mind. It calls on one’s memories of playing badly-balanced, irritating LCD games. Nobody wants to do that, but everyone knows they can if they have to. The decision about whether to peek becomes not “do I really want to look up the answer,” but “do I really have to play that damn game.”

This don’t-peek-at-the-answers thing has been a problem my whole life, and these guys finally solved it! Why isn’t everyone else doing this already?

The game is a Best Animated Short dream, with only just enough plot to give a sort of musical shape to the proceedings. For this reason it is able to incorporate true abstract puzzle-puzzles (sliding block, etc.) in a way that is done in lots of adventure games but usually feels much dumber than it does here. Here it makes simple aesthetic sense: this world is a game and a puzzle, so of course there are games and puzzles in this world.

The selection of what kinds of puzzle-puzzles to include has been done with taste; or, I should say, with taste that corresponds to mine. The designer is clearly like me a fan of

In googling to see if anyone else had pointed this out, I came across this tweet from Andrea Gilbert, the puzzle designer behind, saying, basically, that Machinarium infringes on her intellectual property.

It’s a little bit of an unpleasant subject for me to think about ownership of such things, since a great part of the appeal of abstract puzzles is that their rules feel objective and necessary, like nature, like math. I have always enjoyed that the head-to-head social element of puzzle solving is beneath the surface, that the designer’s presence is discernible only from mysterious indications, like a ghost. Having to acknowledge that the surface rules are themselves not natural at all but overtly the designer’s doing — are arbitrary and social, and copyrighted to a single person — kind of cuts against that.

Of course I want the world to validate the makers of things I like for doing what they do. But it just feels good that puzzle types should be free, that sudoku should be free or crosswords should be free, the way it feels good that the game of baseball is free, or the idea of “brunch” is free. It gives me a good feeling of human brotherhood, and that ends up extending to the feeling I get from the cultural stuff itself, in this case puzzles. Is the vigilant defense of exclusivity rights the only way to be a part of a society that gives Andrea Gilbert “her due”? Does inventing, say, BoxUp puzzles (as seen in Machinarium) really need to give her exclusive authority over the future of BoxUp puzzles? Isn’t it simply that she has birthed something good into the world and thus deserves to be treated well by the rest of us, who benefit? And isn’t it natural for us to want to? And aren’t there many ways of treating a person well? Of using that natural fellow-feeling as the source of our social decency, rather than enforcing that decency by prohibitions on our enthusiasm for taking up one another’s work? (Am I starting to sound like a communist? I thought you said I sounded like Ayn Rand! Make up your mind!)

It’s a complicated subject, at least for me, and that it arises in a sweet-natured game like this accentuates the difficulties. The pleasure of a work like Machinarium is in entering a mystically asocial space, in which the benevolence and hostility of the world needn’t be described in terms of interpersonal misunderstanding but are simply facets of individual subjective experience. Abstract puzzles, as I said, fit nicely into that existential mode. It is very important to me to hold to the idea that this innocent world of sensation is compatible in its substance with real life, and doesn’t simply need to be shuttled around like currency, defended by professional lawyers.

Of course, I say this because Machinarium is a nice game, made well. Meanwhile there are thousands of quick-and-dirty clones of original puzzle designs to be found in the iOS App Store, and those do seem to me exploitative and unworthy. To be an idealist is to be irrational, and I accept that. My irrational gut tells me that Machinarium has a couple of BoxUp puzzles in it because BoxUp puzzles are and should be free; whereas meanwhile a direct clone of Andrea Gilbert’s BoxUp app is sleazy and she deserves protection against it. And my irrational gut will not be denied, because it is me and I am it.

The soundtrack is great. This is the first game since L.A. Noire where I came away actually wanting to sit and listen to its soundtrack album.

In these entries about games, I haven’t been talking about the music, even though incidental music is one of my fixations. It just happened to work out that way. Half-Life has effective enough scoring in a “kick ass and rock out” style, but nothing really interesting to me on its own terms, and then Opposing Force and Half-Life 2 and its sequels follow in the same vein. Crayon Physics, as I mentioned, had just three pieces of weak-tea music. Hammerfight‘s soundtrack is 8 minutes of eccentric homebrew Slavic exoticism; not bad. Steel Storm‘s soundtrack sounded like what I would have written for it had I been given the assignment in college, which is to say, a conscientious amateur impression of Star Trek music; it’s okay, though it doesn’t exactly blend with the action. Cortex Command has very competent, confident “post-nostalgic/post-chiptune” indie game underscore that, like Half-Life, wisely hangs back so as not to become irritating but thereby also never really becomes interesting.

Which is fine, of course. Movie music tends on the whole to be more independently interesting than game music because it only has to accompany one moment at a time and thus can make stronger choices; game music has to withstand being heard hundreds of times under varying dramatic circumstances, so generally it can’t afford to have too strong a profile. If you’re the type who deliberately chooses music for its mood-altering function, game music is a pretty rich area to explore.

Anyway, I think Machinarium has a superb score (by Tomáš “Floex” Dvořák). It consistently worked both ways for me: as something carefully crafted and interesting to listen to, and as effective mood-altering background. The game is its atmosphere, and the music is fully half of that. Its catchier passages work with musical ideas that have been hip in the past 15 years, but this Prague hipsterism never gives me a sense of posturing self-portraiture, the way so much Brooklyn music in the same vein does. Nor does the, shall we say, “philosophical” ambiance of the Thomas Newman-derived stuff feel spiritually contrived, the way it usually does to me when I hear it in movies these days. I think Europeans are just generally less anxious as people and as artists, and somehow the purity of the intention comes across. There’s a classical mindset underlying the vibe, which makes all the difference to me.

Here’s a version (missing the last track) on SoundCloud and on Spotify, where unlike the composer’s store page above, the whole album will play continuously once you start it. (Or here’s the fullest possible version, on YouTube.)

Design and Direction: Jakub Dvorský
Graphic Art: Adolf Lachman
Music: Tomáš ‘Floex’ Dvořák
Animation: Václav Blín (with Jaromír Plachý)
Programming: David Oliva (with Jan Sušek)
Sound Design: Tomáš ‘Pif’ Dvořák

That’s basically it. Good show, guys! Thanks for a lovely 4 hours. And then a less lovely 4 hours grinding out this entry, but that’s my fault.

January 27, 2015

Cortex Command (2004–2012–)


Cortex Command
developed by Data Realms (Phoenix, AZ)
public alpha/beta releases since September 5, 2004
“1.0” self-published September 28, 2012, for Windows/Mac/(Linux), $19.99
~120 MB

Played until declaring myself done for the foreseeable future, having successfully completed only the tutorial, in 1.5 hours, 1/27/15.

[15 min. video of the intro and tutorial level]
[17 min. video (with “Let’s Play” voiceover) of one the levels I spent time on]

According to my records, I bought “Humble Indie Bundle 3” at 8:18 AM on August 3, 2011, at which time it had six games in it. Four hours later, they announced that they had added “Humble Indie Bundle 2” to the ongoing deal, meaning that five more games were retroactively included in my purchase: Braid, Cortex Command, Machinarium, Osmos, and Revenge of the Titans. Braid I had already owned and finished, and Osmos I played to completion very shortly thereafter. The other three have waited, untouched, until now.

Yes, I only played an hour and a half, but it’s enough.

It’s a pure system game — a “sandbox” game — rather than a game with a direction. But it’s a dishonest sandbox game, in that it purports to be goal-oriented: defend your base, destroy the enemy’s base, etc. In fact those objectives are just the excuse for the only real point, which is the boiling bubbling chaos of the little dudes blowing each other up, flying around, digging holes, getting squished, etc. etc.

In theory that’s fine with me — all form is just an “excuse” for content — but this game has been developed with no interest at all in form, which is to say even less than what little it claims to have. There are hundreds and hundreds of options for weapons you can buy and bunkers you can build and ways you can have the little guys bash into each other, into which a decade of labor has clearly been poured… but when it comes to what you’re actually supposed to do, there’s suddenly an impression of schoolwork being grudgingly, minimally done: “yeah yeah, I know, the game needs to have some missions or something I guess. So, I dunno, how about these. Can I go now?” If this developer designed completely from the heart, I think he would admit that he doesn’t actually think it needs missions. He’s been poking at this game for more than a decade, and in all that time, he never made it his project to give meaningful form to the game. Form obviously isn’t something he believes in; he believes in options: Here’s the system; design your own fun. It’s very clear that that’s where he’s coming from. And it’s okay! To each his own. It just means accepting the limits of your appeal.

For the purposes of the general public, this isn’t a completed game — the developer says as much — and it’s not clear that it ever will be. Behind his words, I sort of sense him offering his fans a secret handshake: “if you’re the right kind of player, you’ll know that this game is complete. I just can’t admit that openly because this is a big project and I’m trying to take it, you know, all the way. I don’t know what that means exactly but I know it means impressing the people who aren’t impressed yet. So for the record, let’s say I’m going to continue developing it indefinitely.”

There’s something called “campaign mode,” but unlike every other game, there’s nothing linear or directed or narrative about the “campaign”; it’s just a layer of meta-strategy. Then there are a bunch of preset battle scenarios, but they’re really just open-ended prompts, rather than strict challenges, considering the vast catalogue of freedoms the player is given.

Also, none of it works quite predictably or perfectly. The chaos is really and truly chaotic; amusing at first and then frustrating as soon as you try to stake something on it.

It’s a game by and for people who love the particular stuff it’s made of, and are happy just to be provided with a pile of such stuff. Maybe even happier than if it had been provided in non-pile form. There are such people, I know.

I’m not one. I saw the stuff of this game — buy weapons! build bases! blow everything into tiny pieces and watch them flop around! — and felt sure it wouldn’t appeal to me, which is why I hadn’t played it before. But my idea now is to give every game a chance and let it make its case. The problem is that Cortex Command simply refuses to make its own case! It doesn’t want to tell me what to do, or how, or why that might be fun. It’s just there. If I have anything in mind to do with it, I’m welcome to. After an hour and a half I’ve run out of ideas. It was a blind date; it’s nobody’s fault. But if I wasn’t initially attracted to you and you’re not going to talk, then why drag this out?

Once again, my antisocial biases are probably the reason I’m responding as I am. I think the developer’s vision was to make a game for people to blow each other up while sitting next to each other. I don’t have a pal here who wants to do such thing, probably because I myself don’t particularly want to do such a thing.

Multiplayer videogaming has just never been as natural for me as it seems to be for many people. My fascination with computer games and my pleasure in other people’s company are at nearly opposite ends of my brain. At least now they are. I think earlier in my life it seemed more intuitive to me that they could fit together, but over many years I was gradually retrained to expect otherwise. My various private fascinations repeatedly came up against a lack of like-minded interest from the world around me, and that included computer games. There consistently just weren’t takers, so eventually I filed that away as a fact of life, so that I’d stop having to be lonely and frustrated about it. As a result, now I feel a kind of pre-emptive embarrassment and/or resentment thinking about trying to coordinate such things with other people. What other people.

Obviously, that’s all a shame, and it would be better if those parts of my brain were acquainted with one another once again. And I aspire to that. I just don’t think Cortex Command is gonna be the way.

But that’s me. If a reader wants to prove me wrong by proposing we play Cortex Command head to head, you know where to find me. (I can be reached most days at “Comments (0)“.)

“Data Realms” is basically just the one guy, Daniel Tabar, plus long-distance collaborators, principally Arne Niklas Jansson.

January 26, 2015

Best Original Screenplay 1946: The Seventh Veil


Winner in the category of WRITING (Original Screenplay) at the 19th Academy Awards, presented March 13, 1947 at Shrine Civic Auditorium.

The other nominees were:
The Blue Dahlia – Raymond Chandler
Notorious – Ben Hecht
Road to Utopia – Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Children of Paradise – Jacques Prévert

Screenplay is not accessible, to my knowledge.

First lines in film:

— Thank you. Some place where we can talk?
— This way.
— She never attempted suicide before?
— No, never.
— I see. What is her occupation?
— She’s a well-known concert pianist; I’ve heard her play several times.

[We are again joined by MRB, who had watched the movie approximately one month earlier. This dicussion is 100% spoilers.]

ADAM I liked the idea of a thriller that’s driven by themes in classical music.

BROOM Would you say “thriller” was the genre?

ADAM Well, yeah, kind of. “Melodrama.”

BROOM It was a funny genre that existed at the time, “psychology equals thriller.”

BETH Like Rebecca.

BROOM I guess, but that plot actually has secrets. Here it was just that her story needed to be told. It was all a secret at the beginning: “Why did she try to kill herself?” “Oh, because of her story.” But then they just told her story. It didn’t have a mystery to it.

ADAM It’s true. I sort of assumed he was going to have some kind of dark relation to her that would be revealed in the end, like, “he’s actually not her second cousin.” But no.

BROOM I was certain that something even earlier in her life was going to be revealed. Because they made a point of having that teenage friend character. The first sequence from her past is that the friend is able to boss her around, and she suffers for it. And then the friend recurs later and we see how agitated she gets at the friend’s presence. It seemed like they were saying that by that age, she already had become someone who for some reason let herself be bossed around… so I thought we were ultimately going to go into her earliest childhood, something with her parents. But no. There was no mystery. I mean, it didn’t make any sense. Once you get to the end, the psychology didn’t make any sense. It seemed like it was going to.

ADAM It didn’t make any sense. But it was pretty engaging, anyway. I actually enjoyed watching the whole thing.

BETH I enjoyed it.

BROOM I enjoyed it too, sure.

BETH It just had different ideas about—

BROOM I was on the edge of my seat wondering whether it was going to turn out to be…

ADAM …to make any sense.

BROOM Whether it was going to turn out to be psychology that we would recognize today as psychology, or not. Because there were sequences where it seemed like it was.

BETH I expected it not to. I really didn’t think that it was going to make sense.

BROOM I mean, they went so far into showing how he ruined her life that I thought, “this can’t turn out to be the Jane Eyre ending where she marries her guardian.” And then when they got there, and the final shot is them as the smallest possible figures they could be on the screen, embracing…

BETH It was pretty bizarre.

MRB I’m really having trouble remembering much about it. Is the last scene where she has to choose between somebody and somebody, and she chooses her psychiatrist?

BROOM No, she chooses James Mason. We rewound it to confirm.

ADAM It would be better if she chose the psychiatrist. That would be a more shocking ending.

MRB Who’s James Mason again? I’m sorry.

BETH The benefactor.

BROOM Yeah, he’s the controlling second cousin, who she lives with.

MRB Oh yeah yeah, and sits in that chair.

BETH And has the cat.

ADAM “Would you like to stroke it?”

BROOM I was thinking, “you could write a whole…”

BETH … thesis on this?

BROOM Yes, a whole master’s thesis on “the sexual politics of 1945 Britain as seen in The Seventh Veil.

BETH I’m sure someone has. It’s so meaty.

BROOM It’s so contorted! I thought about how whenever you write those theses, or read them — I personally don’t write them or read them! — but those things always observe how what you see in a movie was always a certain kind of code that was in place at the time, and that certain things that couldn’t be said would have been understood through code. I’m not saying that there were specific one-to-one decodings to be made, but I do have the sense that this ending was to meet some kind of subconscious necessity. The character was a very independent woman in a lot of ways: she proposed marriage to that first guy, she speaks all these languages and is the head of her class, she’s a major artist… She has all this self-confidence, at the same time that she’s being pushed around; she shouts in people’s faces… And then at the end, for her to get completely clean inside and then freely choose the guy who’s been pushing her around the whole time, felt like some kind of hedge. “We can’t go all the way and admit that she wants none of them.” I thought the real ending should be that she wants none of these dudes.

ADAM What was the ending to… that other movie about the independent woman who has a controlling husband, who’s Spencer Tracy…

BROOM Yeah, that one too!

ADAM And then she has to make him eggs at the end?

BROOM That’s exactly what I’m saying. The studio added that sequence where she makes a fool of herself, to make the movie more palatable. It too got more sexist at the end.

BETH Woman of the Year.

BROOM I mean, in Woman of the Year, the whole thing was pretty sexist, because it was about how she was too man-like for their relationship to work. But they were working out the same kind of issues, and it ended up in the same place, where you felt them pulling back: “we can’t really follow through with this.” Like, “Trust us, audience! The end of this is not going to be that a woman has her own agenda. Don’t worry!”

BETH Yeah. About this character: you were saying she’s confident and she yells at people — but she’s also timid and sort of antisocial. The American dude developed a crush on her for absolutely no reason.

ADAM Yeah, she was a huge weirdo and so were all the men in her life. Everyone in this movie was a huge weirdo. Including the psychiatrist.

BROOM That’s right. But she was psychoanalyzed throughout the movie, and they addressed it, as “well, she’s shy.”

BETH But that was it! She liked music, and she was shy. And she, weirdly, proposed marriage after going to the movies once.

BROOM And when people would boss her around, she felt like she needed to get in line with their demands to make things go smoothly. And the movie seemed to be saying, “That is her problem, and her feisty independent nature is not her problem.” And it seemed like the psychiatrist was going to lead her to a place where she separated those cleanly. But then it all turned into a puddle, at the end, and none of that worked out.

BETH Do you think this might have had an alternate ending where she comes down the stairs and…

ADAM …sweeps past all of them?

BETH And they had to put them so far away because it’s not actually James Mason, because it was shot later? I don’t actually believe that.

ADAM But I like your fanfic alternative.

BROOM I would be willing to believe it. Anything could have happened when she came down those stairs, and it would have been wrong. When he said, “She’s going to pick the one that she truly loves,” I said, “There’s no way this is going to work out! Of these four guys? No way!”

ADAM No no no, “the one she truly loves” was Peter; that’s why the camera lingered on him first. And then “or the one she was happiest with”…

BROOM Oh, that was an “or”? “The one she was happiest with” was the painter…

BETH Ohhh! You’re right!

ADAM “Or the one she can’t live without; or the one she trusts the most.”

BETH And “trusts the most” is James Mason.

ADAM No, that’s the psychiatrist.

BETH Oh, I see.

BROOM “The one she can’t live without” is James Mason, and that’s who she chooses.

BETH Yes, that’s right.

ADAM I mean, I agree, it’s not a satisfying ending.

BROOM It doesn’t mean anything!

MRB I think my thought at the time was that psychoanalysis was like a new fad. It was very interesting to talk about being psychoanalyzed, in the 40s. I guess the war was over and they could think about other things. Like Spellbound. I don’t know what year that was.

BROOM During the movie we asked about Spellbound too. BETH said she thought it was ’43.

BETH Let me just confirm that.

MRB I can’t think of any others, but I bet someone who’s writing one of these theses could come up with a bunch of movies in the 40s that are about “exploring your real inner personality, because you’re screwed up.”

BETH ’45.

MRB Freud died in what, ’40 or something, right?

BROOM I don’t know. [ed: 1939.] Spellbound was 1945, the same year as this movie, says BETH.

MRB See? It was a big year for psycho- stuff.

BROOM It was hot!

MRB So I think it didn’t even have to hang together. It was just, like, so cool that people were talking about psychology.

BROOM So this is like the psychology equivalent of The Net. Like, “Eh, it doesn’t really need to be about the real internet, it just needs to be branded that way.”

MRB That’s right. “Ooh, she’s talking to a psychiatrist!

BROOM “You’re going to have to go into the Virtual Reality!”

BETH It seemed like James Mason had fun.

BROOM I enjoyed young James Mason. He must have been like 30, right?

BETH Maybe a little bit older, but yeah. [ed.: 36]

BROOM Well, that’s young for James Mason.

ADAM He seemed coded a little bit like [friend from college].

BROOM Okay, say your thing now about homosexuality.

ADAM MRB, did you think he was coded as a homosexual?

MRB I’m sorry I don’t remember it better. You mean with the cat?

ADAM Yes, the cat, and the limping, and the male servants, and the “women disgust me!”

MRB Yes. As much as I remember, because mostly what I remember is him sitting in the chair at the beginning when she first comes. Yes.

BROOM With a cat on his lap, and then the camera points at it and then tilts up to his face and he says “would you like to stroke it?”

MRB I do remember.

ADAM “Turn around. No, all the way. You, with your straight back, and your sanctimonious disposition…”

BROOM I said earlier: I think this comes from the era where people who liked to fancy themselves sophisticates, serious psychology-thinking types, thought, “You know, the theory is that homosexuals are men who’ve been so turned against women, who behind their seventh veils hate women so much…”

ADAM Right, “and are huge narcissists.” Which he also clearly was.

BROOM To be a homosexual and to be crippled were not just associated through some kind of stereotypical bias; they had consciously thought this stuff through: “He has a limp because he has been scarred by his mother leaving the family, and that’s why he would prefer men. But then ultimately he’s able to realizes that he actually prefers the young woman.” I think it has very little to do with their experience of actual homosexual people in their lives. Also, they being British, it’s all different over there. It’s not like they were in Hollywood hanging around with out gay guys. It was a very British movie, and it had all kinds of weird British ideas. I loved the American character who only sits backward on chairs.

BETH Did you see, when the doctor came to visit him, he stood with one foot up on a chair?

ADAM Yeah, none of it made any sense, as I think about it. But it was very engaging for odd reasons. Even her personality didn’t make any consistent sense throughout the movie. Why did she suddenly get so flirty with the portraitist? And he was so awful!

BETH I thought he was gay too.

BROOM He was German, BETH. That’s a third category.

ADAM “I’m going to rub your neck now. You are very tense… and I love you.”

BROOM Yeah, their weird flirtation scene. Where she plays the music loud.

ADAM “Would you like it if I were up on a dais, in a funny posture, posing for you?” “I would like it very much.” “Well I shan’t.”

BROOM And the painting that he ultimately does is so twisty and awkward. Yes, it was all very strange. But it did have some good runs of dialogue in it. I understand why it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

ADAM And won.

BROOM Well, I at least understand why it was nominated.

ADAM It was as entertaining as anything we’ve seen so far. It was more entertaining than…

BETH Most of them.

ADAM I mean, what have we seen so far? The Great McGinty, Woman of the Year, that Swiss Holocaust movie…

BETH Which I liked.

ADAM Citizen Kane

MRB Wilson!

ADAM And the American Presidentress…

BROOM Princess O’Rourke. It was as good as any of those that aren’t Citizen Kane.

ADAM The Great McGinty wasn’t bad.

BROOM It was also super-weird but had some good bits of dialogue.

BETH I thought Woman of the Year was very entertaining.

BROOM That’s right. I liked the sequence in this with the American, even though it was showy dialogue writing, when he says “You gotta take it easy,” and she says, “I like working,” and he says, “I like ravioli, but I don’t eat it all the time,” and then after they’ve gone through their whole schtick, they meet again in the restaurant, and he orders two raviolis, and she says “I don’t want any,” and he says, “They’re both for me.” I thought that was funny!

ADAM So, like The Great McGinty and like the Swiss one, these are all weirdo movies that don’t fit in genre categories.

BROOM I had that thought: to say “they don’t make ’em like this anymore” doesn’t even begin to touch what they don’t anymore, about this movie. Every idea that is a foundation of this movie is not used in movies anymore. And sometimes I’d be saying to myself, “well, this is a grown-up entertainment, and it’s intelligent and interesting, and even if I think that the sexual politics of it are all wrong, they’re interesting…” but then I would think, “it’s all such dead, dead, dead stuff.” Could you ever bring any of this back? What would be the modern-day equivalent?

BETH She was the only woman in the movie, by the way.

BROOM No: Susie. The horrible friend.

BETH Oh, of course.

ADAM What was that movie where Winona Ryder’s in a mental institution?

BROOM Girl, Interrupted?

ADAM Yeah. How is this any different from that?

BROOM I don’t know, I didn’t see it.

BETH I didn’t see it either.

BROOM I imagine nobody marries their ward at the end.

ADAM No, but I’m sure we could find something that’s “psychologically intense” that’s actually just as wrong and disturbing as this is.

BROOM Shine did borrow the “finish a piano concerto and then go BBBBBRRRBLONK on the keyboard” sequence. This movie did have a fair amount of classical performance in it.

ADAM Which was actually kind of suspenseful. That’s what I was saying about a classical music thriller. When she was playing that piece: was she going to pass out in the middle of it? Her playing of it was psychologically engaging, in a way that was interesting.

BROOM And she did a very good job faking playing. More than most people who have to play a concerto in a movie. So when I first looked this movie up, months ago, when we first started thinking about watching it, I found a lot of older people online saying that, like, it’s so sad that this movie has fallen out of favor because it was such a big deal at the time, especially for the British film industry. And that it was their favorite movie when they were younger, or their parents’ favorite movie. This used to be a beloved, classic, psychological melodrama. I don’t think it can be that to me, but I found it diverting.

ADAM Yeah, I Googled it and I think I found that it was one of the “most-watched British films of all time,” or something.

BETH That’s fascinating.

BROOM I guess the answer is “it just hasn’t aged well,” but it doesn’t feel so much like it’s aged… I mean, the movie itself held up, it’s just that…

ADAM All the concepts…

BROOM Yes, all the concepts have been rolled on their head since then. And it felt a little like they were already rolling around on their heads at the time, and that it wasn’t a very good time to make a movie about this stuff because they didn’t really know what they were talking about. It felt like a time when talking about this stuff was very sophisticated, ambitious, adult, and yet these sophisticated ambitious adults didn’t have a coherent concept of it. It’s like reading old New Yorkers or New York Magazines, which are always putting across that “this is the sophisticated thing right now,” and it only takes a couple years for all those Jules Feiffer people to seem ridiculous.

ADAM As you probably know, I was in a production of “Feiffer’s People” when I was fourth grade, and I didn’t get any of the jokes. They were so weird! I got, like, one joke.

BROOM This had the same “sophisticate of that particular moment” feeling. I can still appreciate that it was sophisticated in style, if not any longer in meaning.

ADAM What was that movie that came out a year or two ago about a girl in London in the 40s, and she goes…

BROOM Paddington?

ADAM “Did you say marmalade?” No, and she’s Jewish, maybe, and it was the debut film of that British girl.

BETH Yeah, you’re talking about that movie where she falls in love with an older man.

BROOM An Education. We saw that.

MRB Carey Mulligan.

ADAM That’s all. It reminded me of that, vaguely.

[We read the New York Times review. Discussion then proceeds at some length, on adjacent topics, but includes no further direct comment on the movie until:]

BROOM I can’t think of more to say, other than that it was confusing and interesting in the ways we’ve mentioned. We didn’t really prompt you, MRB [and spouse], but what was your mood upon finishing this strange movie, a month ago?

MRB Right, we don’t remember very much, but I think what we said afterwards was, “That was stupid.”

BROOM I mean, I’ll grant you that.

ADAM The ending is deflating, certainly.

MRB We didn’t like it and we didn’t have much good to say about it. But like you said at the beginning, it was entertaining enough to watch, because it seemed so out of our time, a thing from another era.

ADAM Can you imagine Don Draper and Betty Draper seeing this movie?


MRB I think I did think about Betty Draper and her psychology while I watched it.

BROOM That’s true, Mad Men definitely has an element of the old fascination with therapy. But here it was really extreme, like with the big injection that begins the process. Or the total sexualization of therapy at the beginning — not just to compare it to Salome, but for him to say “No one will drop their seventh veil in front of anyone… but a surgeon has to strip you of your clothes before he can operate.” There was something filthy and adult about what was going to happen. They were trying to titillate you just to think about this doctor’s field of expertise. And his weird Peter Lorre quality.

MRB Do you know who Herbert Lom turned into?

BROOM I just know the name. Was he like a Peter Lorre type?

MRB Well, in the Pink Panther movies, he was the annoyed detective that had to deal with Peter Sellers. He was exasperated all the time. But he was sort of a buffoon, instead of the brooding whatever he was here.

BROOM Was the American character a British actor doing an accent? [ed.: Yes.]

ADAM I have no parting thought.

MRB BETH, at the beginning, in the first scene where she jumps out of her bed in the asylum, isn’t she wearing a really complicated nightgown, or whatever she’s wearing? Maybe I’m not remembering, but I feel like there were a million buttons down the back…

BETH I don’t remember that. At some point I remember she was wearing a nightgown where parts of it were satin and parts of it weren’t, and it was wrapped around her back in a weird way.

MRB Maybe that’s it. ‘Cause at the very beginning of the movie it’s not clear where she is, it just looks like a room in a house. Anyway, I just thought her hospital gown was overly coutured. But that’s the 40s. Okay, I’m done, you don’t have to include that part.

BETH Eh, why not.

MRB It’s valid.

BROOM Everything is valid.

Last lines in film:

— Are you trying to tell me she—
— I’m trying to tell you she will want to be with the one she loves, or the one she’s been happiest with, or the one she cannot do without, or the one she trusts…
— And who is that?
— It would hardly be fair of me to say.


I can’t find the radio broadcast of the 19th Academy Awards in a clean file by itself, but all two-and-a-half hours of it can be heard in this podcast (40 MB download), if you skip past the intro. Whereas I have previously recommended the entertainment value of listening to the ceremony, here I will warn that the presentation is rather drab and inflated and tedious. Interesting for period flavor, I suppose, but not a lot of fun. The postwar era has begun!

Writing awards begin at 1:06:12, presentation by Robert Montgomery. Best Original Screenplay is at 1:09:00–1:10:37. For the first time in a while, we have a speech! Though it’s not clear who’s making it. Presumably it’s either producer J. Arthur Rank, or director Compton Bennett. I’m going to guess it’s J. Arthur Rank, since he offhandedly praises his own movie in a way a British director would probably consider inappropriate:

I should explain that I’m not Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Box. [audience laughter] Unfortunately they’re back in England shivering in the cold, while we’re enjoying the California sunshine. However I do thank on their behalf the Academy for giving us this great honor, for our great little picture. I think Ann ought to be up here really as well; she’s down in the audience. [chuckles]

Perhaps more interesting, for our purposes, is the Academy’s explanation of the distinctions between their three confusing writing categories. Here is what Robert Montgomery says:

First, the best Original Motion Picture Story: this award covers only originals written for the screen, not previously published or produced in any other medium.

Next, the award for the best Original Screenplay: the writer or writers of the screenplay must also have been the sole author or authors of the original.

The next award is for the best written Screenplay, whether developed from published material or an original by some other writer or writers.

Got that?

Well, at least they tried.

January 25, 2015

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution (2011)

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution
developed by Kot-in-Action Creative Artel (Del Rio, TX)
self-published May 11, 2011, for Windows/Mac/Linux, $14.99
~930 MB

[YouTube video of complete playthrough in 25 segments, 1 per level]

Played until declaring I was done, having completed 9 of 22+ levels, in 3.5 hours, 1/22/15–1/25/15.

The sixth of the six games in “Humble Indie Bundle 3” at the time of purchase on August 3, 2011.

Remember how I said I was gonna be quick about these entries? I still want that.

The game: an interesting genre mix that doesn’t work and thus isn’t actually interesting. Steel Storm combines the monotony of scrolling shooters with the monotony of first-person shooters, without the compensations of either: like Xevious and its many descendants, you face the same couple of dull enemies over and over and over, but without the trancelike momentum that makes those games work; like Wolfenstein 3D and its many descendants, your goals consist of a lot of dull lock-and-key busywork and backtracking, but without the atmospheric “what’s gonna be around this corner” tension that makes those games work. Not to mention without the compensation of any compelling narrative or meaningful progression of any kind. It’s a bunch of very old, basic, tried-and-true video game ideas, mixed and matched in a way that doesn’t have any intrinsic logic or reward.

There’s a functioning game here and it’s perfectly playable (barring a few irritations). There’s just no reason to play it; it has no identity other than the sum of its parts, and its parts are all old.

I get the impression that the ambition behind this game was status-seeking rather than artistic. That is, the creator’s driving vision was that he could be a person who made computer games. This is not actually a vision of computer games, and so has nothing to offer. I certainly know the feeling: the ambition to have written a novel, or a movie, or whatever, and thus be a person who can be proud of himself. This feeling stems from self-esteem issues/social anxiety and so can only propose form, never content. Filling out that form while keeping one’s eyes on the prize thus has to be done with no feeling for content, only for the social expectations placed on content. (Using the word “content” to describe the stuff of art is already symptomatic of this attitude.) This mindset accounts for the vast field of student films and student novels and student theatrical productions that show off elaborately without being anything.

Very occasionally this kind of thing ends up being successful all the same: either because a stopped clock is right twice a day and it gets lucky (I’m thinking of M. Night Shyamalan happening to make The Sixth Sense), or because the aesthetic somnambulism of anxiety-driven art generates something exceptionally strange and fresh — which is what “outsider art” is. Things like The Room or Manos: The Hands of Fate become beloved because they’re so thrillingly unattended by the conscious mind at the level of content, the conscious mind having been exclusively occupied with issues of self-esteem management. Outsider artists aren’t actually “artists so bad they’re good,” they’re non-artists whose ego-ideologies compel them to go through all the motions, including the ones that generate art. Anxiety makes pod people, and sometimes pod people make interesting objects.

But Steel Storm: Burning Retribution isn’t that interesting an object. It’s not surreal or unexpected or revealing or “so bad it’s good.” It’s very ordinary in all respects, and its pod-person egoism manifests itself in fairly ordinary ways. Among them the title, which is as good as parody — four words and one punctuation mark, none of which can be sensibly related to any other. The individual levels all have similar names, e.g. “Snowflakes Tempest: Numb Steel.”

The logo of “Kot-In-Action Creative Artel” is all ‘tude, a mega-badass cat with a mouse in its teeth. When you quit the game, the “are you sure” window always contains some slightly garbled trash-talk, such as “Don’t be a wussy!” The empty defiance of ‘tude is the hallmark of this kind of art I’m talking about — emotional expression as a status symbol, not a signifier. Kickassery is always something envied in another, and then affected. It’s not an actual feeling.

Kot-In-Action Creative Artel — I feel embarrassed just typing that — is really just one person, Alexander Zubov, who seems to be a Russian-American living in Texas. His Twitter self-description is “just an awesome indie game developer :)”. A lot of first- and second-generation immigrants carry the feeling that they have something to prove, which, as with The Room, is the path to missing the point. It is very clear from his postings on his site and around the web, regarding this game, that Alexander Zubov has plenty to prove, which is exactly why I don’t want him in charge of my entertainment.

Two other people are credited with Game Design: Clay Cameron and Forest Hale, and then a bunch of minor contributors.

I put in 3 hours. I get it. I wish Mr. Zubov luck with his next endeavor.

January 22, 2015

Hammerfight (2009)


developed by Konstantin Koshutin (Vologda, Russia)
first published September 19, 2009 (in English: October 28, 2009) by KranX Productions, for Windows, $9.99
~120 MB

Played to the end of the story in 5 hours, then the other game modes for 1.5 hours, then declared I was done, 1/14/15–1/21/15.

A complete 2.5-hour “Let’s Play” video (i.e. with player commentary) in 5 parts.

(There is unfortunately no uncommented playthrough video of this game on YouTube. I deemed the woman linked above to be the most earnest and thus least distracting of the four available, though you can decide for yourself. She’s also the only one of them who takes the time to look at all the text and dialogue. She calls herself “AsperGamer” — take that as you will.)

(Hm, seems that she lost about half an hour of video in the middle, so I guess it’s not complete after all. But it’s still my pick.)

The fourth of the six games in “Humble Indie Bundle 3” at the time of purchase on August 3, 2011.

My initial dive into this game gave the impression of having been thrust into the mind of an unbalanced person. The insanity level felt high.

Okay, okay, it’s really just a very idiosyncratic private vision. Its bizarritude is built up in layers, none of which is itself absurd. But the combination is pretty damn weird.

The core of the game is the control scheme, wherein you swing a virtual flail with your real mouse. Centrifugal Thwack: The Game. In an industry constantly in search of the most satisfying possible thwack, that’s a pretty significant and inspired idea. (Here are some comments thereon from one of the organizers of the Humble Bundle, who may well have personally picked it for inclusion.)

Since the thwack is the game, here’s my review of the thwack: I occasionally found it somewhat satisfying, but it always paled in comparison to the much greater satisfaction of a real thwack, and the game kept that comparison alive in my mind the whole time. It was difficult to distinguish frustration that my foes were defeating me from frustration that the game wasn’t responding just the way I’d want, in that deep part of my brain that feels physics. The game’s selling point is that it offers compelling physical interaction with your input device — much more so than any of those “haptic feedback” games that buzz your controller — but your input device is just a mouse and this isn’t really what mice were meant to do. No matter how well you calibrate the sensitivity, you’re up against the fact that your hand, twirling a flail, wants to be dancing in sync with the centrifugal tug, but of course there is no such tug to respond to. Your hand feels like it’s floating free when it’s supposed to be laboring against a powerful weight.

“Feeling the heft” of things in a game is a strange illusion that is a very important part of the player experience. Especially in fighting games. I’ve never been much for fighting games and now I’m wondering if it’s because I have a harder time than most in experiencing the illusion of real physicality. A few years back when I played that Batman game because the reviews were so overwhelmingly good, it seemed clear to me that the heart of its appeal was in the thick plasticine oomph of its characters, who punch and are punched with a meaty fullness. I could recognize what the developers had achieved there. And yet, as always, my “sense of bulk” still found ways to be dissatisfied. It seems like the more it’s stimulated, the more it demands.

I think the “sense of bulk” really is a distinct perceptual sense. When I have a high fever or am in some other semiconscious state, it very often gets distorted independently of other spatial senses: my pinky or my eyeball will feel enormously bulky, or my leg will feel spindly thin. These impressions have nothing to do with shape or position, only with bulk. This is the same sense that is invoked by much of the art of sculpture. And other arts. Paintings like this feel very specifically aware of the sense of bulk as a perceptual mode unto itself.

I also feel like the sense of bulk is the actual source of the sexual responses that are customarily considered to be visual, and I think Picasso agreed with me on this, as did Modigliani. Certainly all those cheesecake pin-up painters did: the image is first and foremost a means to the perception of substantiality in its own right. Perhaps this is what I always mean by “pornographic” when I use it to describe how things look: that the sense of bulk, rather than the visual sense, is being addressed. (Or the sense of surface texture, which is sort of the city cousin to the sense of bulk.)

For me, the sense of bulk is more primal and irrational than other aspects of my spatial awareness (in the way that the sense of smell is more primal and irrational than the sense of sight), and thus yields more emotional rewards if it can be stimulated. Many 3D games want above all to stimulate the player’s impression of substantial matter, and offer as many cues as they can, visual, interactive, auditory, etc. If the player can accept those invitations and let his/her sense of bulk turn on, a whole world of deeper satisfactions opens up.

(I know, it kind of sounds like I’m saying that my personal resistance to the “pornographic” quality of something like the Batman game — or of any bulk-on-bulk fighting game — could be seen as a symptom of repression. For the present let’s say that’s too far off topic even for me.)

All this talk about “bulk” might seem sort of inappropriate for Hammerfight, because this is a purely 2-dimensional game. But I think more or less the same sense is in play; it’s just even harder for me to access completely.

The question of what stuff it’s made of, so basic to the functioning of video games (as it is to animation), is just as valid here as in a 3D game. Where Batman was made of wet plasticine, Hammerfight is made out of some kind of crumbly stuff that is simultaneously dry and squirmy, brittle and flexible. It is not quite welcoming. Though it can be impressive. The designer seems to have a thing for tininess — all the text in the game is miniscule, as are the human figures in the gameworld — that feels like a deep unconscious proclivity, dug up from as weird a level of consciousness as my bulky pinky.

As I was saying, the control scheme is the core of the game, and then from there, layer after layer of very weird choices have been onioned on. There is so much crap popping up on the screen at all times, some of it informational, some of it atmospheric, some of it inexplicable, much of which can easily obscure your view of your own character. Then there’s the crazy story and the world it takes place in. Then there’s the polished, aggressively-overdesigned style of the interface. Then there are the weird little insets of pre-rendered character faces. Choice after choice after choice feels boldly eccentric, and not all in the same direction. This is the only one-man indie game I’ve ever played that has the confused mishmash feel of a half-baked studio production, where the doofy little faces would be one guy’s pet project while the distracting smoke effects would be another’s. But here it’s just one guy’s multiple personalities clamoring for the spotlight, gradually accumulating and thickening the weirdness over the months and years of development.

On the other hand, maybe some of that visual clutter is just another one of those devices I personally can’t feel at the deep-down level where it’s supposed to work. In traditional 2D fighting games of the Street Fighter 2 mold, it seems like a big part of the way “heft” was conveyed was by splashes of overstimulation at the moments of impact — bolts of energy and shock waves and flicker effects radiating from every punch. That stuff never really did it for me, but I think the idea was to impart a sense of substantiality by a kind of metaphor, and apparently this works for enough people that it became standard. A variation on the same theme is the even older effect of having numbers and icons and coins and other doodads come exploding out of events in the action. Every moment of contact is its own piñata. You can just feel the bulk of a stick hitting the bulk of a piñata, when you see the point value come shooting out of an enemy, can’t you? Well, yes, I can sometimes, but it has to be done exactly right. My sensation in this game was more often that someone was tossing confetti in front of me while I was trying to play. Oddly enough, it was the very person whose game was being obscured.

A one-man game is an amazing thing. I feel like I’m supposed to be just impressed, not that astounded by the achievement, but I am that astounded. It’s inspiring (or intimidating, depending on your temperament) that all this is the work of one man. A game is a cathedral in itself, to a religion of the developer’s own invention. To enter it as a stranger is, as they say, going down a rabbit hole. And there are so many rabbit holes! I mean, Hammerfight isn’t even all that famous a game. Look at all these zillions of even more unknown cathedrals that keep coming out of people’s heads! They don’t stop!

When I was growing up, I understood the fullest extent of solo creative capacity to be that one man could, for example, build a whole house. Or paint a picture with many figures in it. Or write a whole novel with intersecting stories. Somehow making a whole computer game feels beyond that. The guy made the picture of the thing, and the sound of the thing, and what it does, and how it does it, for every thing? In this whole world that I spent 7 hours in and could easily have spent more? I remember the achievement of Tolkien, world-creator, language-inventor, being held up as a very special scale of wild ambition. In the world of video games it’s every man his own Tolkien, and we just shrug at it.

The craziness of the storyline — a certain amount of steampunk boilerplate is of course obligatory to make sense of the helicopters-with-flails premise, but then the game goes way, way beyond that — shares its character with all Tolkien-esque undertakings, which are not essentially shareable. Certain types of kids have always filled notebooks with stories and comics and sketches of “their characters.” The true meanings of those worlds cannot be conveyed. As with the girls in Heavenly Creatures, there can be something a little spooky about those private realities. But that’s just one angle on it; it doesn’t have to be scary. I associate that kind of fear-of-someone-else’s-fantasy with my fear of travel to exotic places, a fear I can probably stand to get over, at least somewhat.

By spending all this time in the world of Hammerfight, have I gotten closer to or further from feeling this stuff the way Konstantin Koshutin feels it? He really seemed to feel that people would care about the fall of the house of Gaiar and the house of Melka and the house of Kadish, when in fact most people online, like me, seem to have found all that stuff nearly incomprehensible.

Note that the title is actually The History of Hammerfight, which, besides being awesome, shows just how much the developer believed in his wackily earnest middle-school-notebook storyline, which it seems most players just clicked through as fast as possible. Somewhere behind all that overwrought dialogue, I feel certain, was real feeling. Maybe I got a sense of that feeling between the lines, but I can’t be sure. Probably those were just my own feelings.

This is one of those games where you name your character and then other characters call you by that name. I understand the idea — a very old idea — but is there anyone who doesn’t think this is silly? I ask sincerely. It’s supposed to bring you into the fantasy, but it does the opposite: hearing “your name” actually takes you out of the game because you know all too well how the program came by that one token bit of personalized information, and how little else about you it knows. Plus in almost every case, people use it as an opportunity to goof around. I named my character “Bradworst.” While I was competing in the Jarghanian Tournament at the port of Melka (or something), the eager onlookers shouted: “The one who overcame his foe is… The one whose name is Bradworst!” And: “Brought down his foe… A man famous as Bradworst!” I was amused, but at it rather than with it, I think. Why would a game set itself up that way?

When you’re done with the story, there are various other things left to do: go on monster hunts, play hammerball, fight tribal wars, or, above all, prove your gladiatorial mettle in the arena, over and over, earning new crap as you go. There are plenty of weapons and gems and banners and titles and whatnot to aspire to; hours upon hours of such stuff, I guess. Declaring that I was done goes against my desire to “do it all.”

But then I reflected. My old feeling for games, as a kid, was that they were as people: one grows bored or irritated with them, or simply doesn’t see them for a while, but one cannot exhaust them. Nowadays my feeling for games is more of a desire to complete. But one cannot complete one’s experience of a person. “Reaching an end” is another matter. For that matter, one cannot complete a movie, only watch it. We say “I finished the book” when we really mean “I finished what I set out to do with the book.” This has a customary definition but not a necessary one.

I like games better as people than as assignments. They retain so much more of their genuine depth and value that way. When I was a kid, even the simplest Commodore 64 game felt inexhaustible; to suggest that it could be “completed” would be a category error. This attitude lightens my mind. I can easily declare myself done with Hammerfight because obviously I’m not done, just at an end. For all I know, some day I’ll have another visit with Hammerfight, chez Hammerfight. Or not! Auf wiedersehen.

Is it really by one guy? He really did all the music, all the graphics? I don’t know. The only credits in the game are a splash screen at the very start that acknowledges resources, but not people.

Here’s what I can tell you: Vologda, Vologda Oblast, Russian Federation is very far away and very different from where I am. It’s a wonder this game didn’t seem more foreign. Let’s consider this experience to have been a few hours of stimulating cultural exchange.

January 14, 2015

Crayon Physics Deluxe (2009)


Crayon Physics Deluxe
developed by Petri Purho (Helsinki, Finland)
first published January 7, 2009 by Kloonigames (= self-published), for Windows, $19.95
[well, technically, first published as licensed iOS port by Hudson Soft, January 1, 2009]
~50 MB

Played until declaring I was done, having completed 64 of 76 puzzles, in 4 hours, 1/12/15–1/13/15.

[official trailer]
Video of the game, including solutions to all the levels, is linked in the entry below.

On August 3rd, 2011, the “Humble Indie Bundle” was brought to my attention by a Facebook post. Specifically, Humble Indie Bundle 3 was on at the time, offering six games for “pay what you want”: Crayon Physics Deluxe, Cogs, VVVVVV, Hammerfight, And Yet It Moves, and Steel Storm: Burning Retribution. I already had VVVVVV, but I had heard of Crayon Physics, Cogs, and And Yet It Moves and was at least a little interested in all of them — plus the whole idea of “pay what you want” for any bunch of games was very exciting to me. The page suggested a donation of $5. Sounded great to me! I paid $5 and got 6 games.

As it turns out, during the remaining week of the sale, they would retroactively add 6 more games to my purchase. Thus a total of 12 games at $0.42 apiece, two of which I already had; so, if you like, $0.50 apiece for 10 new games.

Of the first five new games listed above, I immediately played Cogs and And Yet It Moves to completion — both of them fairly short games — and did give Crayon Physics a very quick look but didn’t really dig in. The other two I’ve still never touched.

So here we go. First up is, as you can see, to do Crayon Physics for real.

Well: I put in the time and attention and care, so it’s definitely been done for real, but I didn’t get to the end of the game. And I didn’t ultimately change my first impression of it, formed three-and-a-half years ago.

Crayon Physics is a Rorschach test for players. It is what you bring to it. Whether it works for you has mostly to do with you. Admitting that it doesn’t really work for me is embarrassing, because I’m not proud of the reasons why. But the reasons are real for me; there’s no way to just will myself to be different so that I’ll have more fun with this game. This entry will end up with me criticizing the ways the game is flawed, but I’m saying now: I already recognize that any criticisms I have are just manifestations of my own issues.

Of course, that goes for anything: complaints reveal only the state of the complainer, since the universe simply is. But games aren’t just any old things in the universe, they’re a social exchange, so it’s my prerogative to assert my perspective, just as the person who made the game is asserting his. Even if my perspective is an unfortunate one.

The reason this game doesn’t work for me:

The game poses problems (“move the ball to the star”) and then wants you to have fun designing, creating, engineering their solutions. Sounds great, but I am completely thrown off by the fact that the specific constraints of each problem are not themselves a spur to fun. That is, every problem in the game can be solved in dull, unrewarding ways. Which is not to say that every problem can be solved easily; some do require a bit of thought and/or experimentation. But even the hardest puzzles do not actually determine or demand interesting responses; solutions are still very likely to be inelegant and self-similar, if you let them be.

Essentially every puzzle can be solved by either 1) pushing the ball to the star with a weighted seesaw; 2) yanking the ball to the star with a pulley and counterweight; 3) glitching the ball around by abusing the game engine, which will snap things into position to prevent newly drawn objects from overlapping with old ones. Not to mention that a good many of the easier screens can simply be solved with 4) a ramp.

If you just do these things — as I found myself doing (well, not the glitching; I have principles!) — you will find this game very boring and unrewarding after the initial conceptual charm wears off. If, on the other hand, you find other things to do that delight you, you will be delighted.

I am not unfamiliar with the impulse to make things up that delight me. That attitude and that state of mind is very important to me, and I am touched by the invitation to do so that this game offers. My problem, and it is my problem, is that for me problem-solving and imagination are distinct, nearly opposite states of mind. That’s not how it should be, but it’s how it is.

Being given puzzles and asked to solve them is a prompt not to my whimsy, which moves in any and all directions, but to my determination, which moves in one direction, driving toward its goal. Though sometimes it might seem outwardly like I am a “creative problem solver,” actually whenever I’ve come up with a clever “lateral thinking” solution to a puzzle, it is always because I conducted such a thorough hunt for solutions that I even checked side alleys; not because I marched blithely to my own drummer.

This is a terrible state of affairs and one that I want to improve! Being able to be whimsical, imaginative, blithe, self-delighted as a response to a posed problem would change my life for the better in every possible way. But I am what I am right now, and right now is when I gave this game a shot.

My psychology is such that I could recognize exactly what the game was encouraging, but deep down I still wanted to be forced or seduced into being kooky and creative, not just invited. I recognize how unhealthy that is.

The game looks like crayon drawings to remind the player of the emotional freedom of childhood; the game has wistful dreamy music to remind the player of the wonder of the imagination; the game is full of silly doodles to remind the player of the pleasures of being loose. The game begins with a screen that says “It’s not about finding any solution. It’s about finding the awesomest one.” The puzzles are defined very simply and are full of blank space in which to be creative. You can even doodle on the map screens that organize the levels.

None of that does the trick for me. “Okay, sure, I get all this, I get how it’s supposed to work,” says my mind, fixated on the idea of finding out how things are supposed to be, which is at odds with inventing my own way. “Well, if I wanted to be creative my own way, I wouldn’t turn to a computer game! I’m here to engage with someone else’s vision, solve someone else’s puzzles,” says my mind, fixated on keeping a complete opposition between being on my terms or someone else’s. I just don’t know how to share this space, even with someone as thoroughly unassuming as Finnish indie game developer Petri Purho. It is a social problem as much as a motivational one.

Crayon Physics makes me face the fact that I come to games as I come to so much of the world, looking for an opportunity to be good at handling things rather than doing things. I want it to change but I have to find my own way there; that’s the very nature of the problem.

Now that I’ve acknowledged all that, I’ve cleared the way for the unseemly complaining.

Because… I very much want to say that I’m actually not so far from the right state of mind as all that. That, in fact, this game makes some missteps that had a serious impact on my willingness to play along. In fact I can’t see how they wouldn’t affect everyone’s experience of the game. It’s the game’s fault, I say! Not me! The game!

First of all, the dreamy tone is sweet and all, but the connotations are, for me, wrong. The foofy sad music and the wind blowing clouds of yesteryear through the menu screen all buy into the mindset that a child’s world of play is a fragile, evanescent thing. No it’s not. Kids’ crayon drawings are bold and assertive; they put everything they’ve got into them. And if I’m going to put everything I’ve got into this game, all my wild whims and notions for crazy machines, I should be put in the mindset a kid is actually in, which is anything but wistful and fragile; it’s the feeling of love of life. The music and the design are nostalgist, which is always an aesthetic error. (Watch for this to be a recurring theme in my comments on indie games of the last decade!)

(Also: the aforementioned foofy music consists of only three tracks, two of which are passable and one of which is quite inept, totaling 11 minutes 8 seconds. They play in a constant endless loop. That’s just not enough music! The food is terrible and the portions are too small. It gives a strong sense of amateurishness to the whole game that could very easily have been corrected with more tracks and more taste.)

Second of all, the game design does attempt to prod the player’s ambition, but in the wrong direction.

The game awards a single “star” for the first time each problem is completed, but then awards a second star once the problem has been solved in ways that satisfy three different criteria: “Elegant,” “Old School,” and “Awesome.” An “Elegant” solution uses only a single object. An “Old School” solution uses no interconnected objects (i.e. no ropes or hinges). An “Awesome” solution is simply one that the player is proud of, delighted by: once you have solved a level, you are free at any time to check this box and confirm on the honor system that what you did was in fact awesome.

Unlocking the final level requires accumulating 45 more stars than there are levels in the game, which means getting the second star at least 45 times. Setting aside “Awesome,” that makes “Elegant” and “Old School,” the two game-imposed criteria for ingenuity, very strongly endorsed as ways of applying oneself to the task. In theory these might sound like good criteria for rewarding creativity, but if the object of the game is to be a venue for lively invention, they’re not! Trying to use only a single object, or use no interconnected objects, rewards not creative exuberance but rather tedious finessing of the game’s finicky engine, trying over and over to build the same old long weighted hook-lever thing just just right so that it happens to bump the ball as intended, or dropping blob after blob on the back of the ball, trying to get it to just roll forward, dammit.

As for “Awesome”: while being rewarded for a self-elected, purely subjective achievement of awesomeness is a nice idea, it really grates against my polarized attitudes (as described above) for it to be the third thing on a list wherein the first two things are these rather mercilessly objective hurdles where you’re graded by the computer.

I’m not the only one who finds this hard to swallow. There’s a kid on Youtube who does a “speedrun” of the game (14:14) but first explains that his standard for completion omits the final level because it would require embracing exactly this subjectivity: “As long as you say a solution is Awesome, it’s counted as Awesome. And you can get stars by that. And I just don’t like the idea of this game just needing you to do that. Like… no. That’s just like people liking their own pictures on Facebook. That’s… no. Can’t do that. That’s bullshit.” The game encourages him to offer himself love, and he rejects it. That’s bullshit. Only other people determine whether I am worthy.

This is what I mean about the Rorschach. I’m no speedrunner, but I’m enough of one at heart that I sympathize. I’m either going to be proud of myself subjectively or objectively. Can’t do both. That’s… no.

But I’m aiming myself at yes.

Third of all — third complaint, remember? — the game engine just isn’t reliable. Yes, it looks friendly, but it doesn’t act so friendly. The ball doesn’t always sit right on the lines; things get stuck on each other sometimes; very tiny variations in how something is drawn have big repercussions for how it behaves. Yes, that may be how physics works, but a crayon is not a precision instrument, and a mouse imitating a crayon really isn’t. Creating approximately what you have in mind is easy, but creating what you actually have in mind is hard, and that’s what the game will demand. Drawing a smooth curve — so important to many “Elegant” solutions — is extremely difficult to achieve, and not in a rewarding way.

It’s possible that I would have enjoyed the game far more on a touch screen with a stylus, which I think is how it was designed to be played.

And also! It makes you redraw everything from scratch if it fails, so you can’t make careful tweaks! And also! And also I have more complaints about the game but let’s move on.

For all that, many people loved this game exactly as intended and threw their creative selves into it. Why? Maybe because one wants to believe that this innocent attitude is whole and returns us to a state of pure play, even if by virtue of the design it doesn’t. It indicates a very pure game that it isn’t quite. Many games back in the old Commodore 64 days of my youth were the same: mediocre designs, strictly speaking, but very compelling as indicators. In fact many works of art are; they are sufficient to create their intended irrational impression but not to be considered rationally. When one sees Crayon Physics for the first time, one immediately and strongly gets it and believes in it. That can be enough, if you don’t have special emotional needs like I apparently do.

Art is the having of a vision and then creating something that conveys it. Such “flawed but indicative” works absolutely do that; I can see the designer’s vision. That kind of work could in turn conceivably infect some audience members with the urge to do what hasn’t yet been done, which is to not just pass on the vision but render it functionally real.

There are enough games out there that one is free to dismiss games that don’t work both ways — both as visions and as machines — just as one is free to dismiss movies, books, paintings: no need to settle when there are so many. But that can also build up a habit of “passing judgment,” of deliberately looking for what might be lacking, and that habit will always tend to devalue things that feel right but don’t “work,” and overvalue things that “work” but don’t feel right. Both halves at once is best, but each half alone has something to offer.

I like what Crayon Physics suggests; I enjoyed the fact that playing it sparked my imagination to think how great it would be to play such a game as it.

That’s different from thinking it’s actually great, but it’s not nothing. However you can get essentially the same spark by watching other people play it on Youtube.

There are a zillion playthroughs of this game available on Youtube. It is an interesting game to watch people play, because it reveals a lot about personalities. Many people, you’ll see, have the same divot in their minds that I do — they just want to solve it any old way and aren’t able to take pride in their work because that would be a different mode of being. I’m not linking to those because there are so many and who needs it.

Videos like this one and this “Elegant” response (of a custom-built level; the game comes with a level editor) suggest an exuberant and inventive way of playing that I wish I could attain. But, as I’ve now said at length, I can’t.

This guy likes using weighted cams that push the ball. His solutions all have a certain panache.

Here, to satisfy my intention to post complete playthroughs, is one guy’s complete set of solutions that satisfy both the “Elegant” and “Old School” requirements at the same time (30 minutes total). He made his own highlights reel if you want to just watch that. I assure you that, having been playing the game, these are astounding and the guy must be some kind of savant — it’s like watching someone making free throws blindfolded, over and over. The fact that they won’t look like anything special if you haven’t played the game, is, I think, a sign of what’s wrong with the game. Also be aware that he probably had to do these many many many times before they worked.

The game is by just the one guy, with menu graphics by his friend and music borrowed from other people. He’s one of these indie game dudes who makes quick prototypes lots of little experimental ideas (or used to, anyway), and this originated as one of them, called Crayon Physics, which is why he felt the need to call the commercial version Crayon Physics Deluxe. This game made a considerable splash back in 2009 and, I gather from Youtube comments, became common in schools as a quasi-educational activity. I don’t go in a lot for “things that make you feel old!” but I can’t help but be struck by the fact that a lot of these kids are commenting about how watching the videos makes them nostalgic for the good old days when they used to play Crayon Physics in high school.

It just goes to show what I’m saying: my pile of games is too damn big. Okay, that’s another one down.

January 13, 2015

Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007)

HL2EpisodeTwo-cover HL2EpisodeTwo-steam

Half-Life 2: Episode Two
developed by Valve (Bellevue, WA)
first published October 10, 2007 by Valve, for Windows:
as part of “The Orange Box,” $49.99; by itself (online only), $29.95
~2.9 GB

Played to completion in 6 hours, 1/11/15–1/13/15.

[Video of a complete 4-hour playthrough in four parts: 1, 2, 3, 4. Once again, please disregard the subtitles.]
[trailer 1, trailer 2]

The fourth of the five games purchased 11/28/10 in “The Orange Box” for $7.50.

This very collection, incidentally, is how the game was first released in 2007, offering three new games and two old for $50, a brilliant bit of marketing that basically ushered in the “bundle” era. At the heart of this idea was the fact that for the first 6 months after release, the three new games (unrelated to one another) were not available separately, except on Steam. I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of why this is an inspired sales tactic; suffice it to say that it introduced the idea that, at least in the video game market, suddenly dropping the price so shockingly far below the perceived value that any customer aware of the deal simply must buy turns out to be profitable in the long run — and, if you can bundle the right games together, potentially even in the short run.

In other words, “The Orange Box” is indirectly responsible for me having 197 games.

(Actually, I’m afraid it’s 198 now. On Christmas Day, GOG made the ancient 1980 RPG-by-a-high-school-student Akalabeth available for free, so of course I was compelled to add it to my account. I couldn’t help myself! It showed up in my feed and said “free!” I don’t think I’ll be able to bear actually playing that one through to completion, but we’ll just have to see when I get there, which won’t be any time soon.)

Half-Life 2: Episode Two is the subject.

I’ve gotten so accustomed to these games that I was able to slide through this final one with no friction at all. That’s the mark of a terrific achievement on the part of the developers; it stands as the ultimate compliment to the game’s flow, which I keep saying is the main objective. But, seen another way, it means that my aesthetic experience is diminishing: no friction means no truly new meanings, just refinement and redelivery of the old.

Of course, the developers are pretty explicit about their intent in that respect: these last two games, though they do represent incremental deepening of technical and dramatic resources, fall under the category of expansions/extensions of the original Half-Life 2. They are, exactly as advertised, “episodes”: a serialized format.

Serial formats have a different mode of consumption from standalone works. Like I said last time, at their best they’re like a room we keep returning to, in which different things are always happening, but the space stays the same.

This of course is only a metaphor, but it’s a resonant one, at least for me; my feelings about space are deeply meaning-making, at least as much so as my feelings about narrative. In reflecting on the ways I perceive my own life as meaningful, those seem to be the two main ones: in terms of a story that I’m living, and in terms of spaces past, present, and imagined.

Meanwhile, another running idea in my comments here is that what video games give us above all is imagined spaces, that they’re the real meat of the experience. Which means that in a serialized video game there’s a peculiar juxtaposition: of the imagined spaces of the game and the imagined metaphorical space that the game series as a whole represents. The game both as a series of rooms and as “a room.”

That might sound like pretentious sophistry but it’s something I really experience in the playing, as a kind of new tension in answering the basic questions “where am I? who am I? and what am I doing?” When I was playing the original Half-Life a few weeks ago, I was first of all me in my apartment at a computer pressing keys, and second of all me-slash-Gordon-Freeman in some dark scary elevator shaft deep underground, trying to figure out where to go next. Whereas now that I’ve become an old hand at Half-Life and Half-Life has become an old hand at itself, there is a third zone, between those two, in which I am neither the real me nor Gordon-Freeman-me, but rather “Half-Life-receiving me,” and the place I am is “in the Half-Life zone.” This is a very real and distinct space that I feel my body to be in, a genuine psychological state of being, the existence of which accounts for most of “fan culture.”

If you go to some Comic Con dressed up as Half-Life, you are not certainly not living the dream of being Gordon Freeman — you know very well that you’re a geek in a costume, standing in front of the Toronto Congress Centre. The dream you are living is of being Half-Life-receiving-man and being in the Half-Life zone, and the premise of Comic Con is that all such dreams are equal.

I have spent my whole life being ambivalent about whether I am a nerd or not, and though the roots of that ambivalence are currently undergoing renovation, nonetheless the habit lives on, and it hones in on exactly this middle self, the one that is neither real nor fully imagined, the one that steps away from the physical world to play a role but then steps back to categorize and name and claim that act of role-playing. This is the zone of nerdiness, or at least this is the zone where my anxiety about nerdiness applies.

When I was in middle school I thought Monty Python was funny but I was wary about expressing that, because I really didn’t like the way the other people who liked Monty Python talked about it and quoted it: always with the same rushed/overeager cadence in their voices as if they were bragging defensively, or sending up rescue flares. It seemed desperate, coded, not what it claimed to be. “What does Monty Python itself have to do with this widespread urge to make awkward noises about it?” was more or less the way I formulated the question to myself at the time. It’s a very complicated question and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it has taken me 25 years to answer it. I think I have, now. In one way or another, every entry on this site is about that answer. Given how much I repeat myself here, I will in this instance have the restraint to leave it as a problem for the reader.

My point for the moment is only meant to be this: when I find myself shifting into that space of brand-cued audience-ness that precedes and subsumes all specific content, where I am neither in myself nor in the game world, my old worries about nerdy disconnection flare up. “What does the content of the game itself have to do with this thing I’m doing in playing it?” Maybe not enough, anymore. “So then what am I doing? Where am I?”

Even though that worry may be needless — it is — it’s still a sign that it’s time for me to be done here, and having finished this one, I am.

The collaborative-NPC ideas from the previous episode are here expanded, with a whole sequence where your companion is not Alyx but a Vortigaunt, a sort of a Yoda/shaman character who makes all his utterances in “wise” intonation. To my mind, this makes for a far more natural companion relationship than Alyx. Since he’s a philosopher, he can talk above the mere interpersonal “hey pal” level, which is where my anxieties about Alyx would get caught. Everything the Vortigaunt said, I was able to take or leave as I liked, and most of it I liked. Instead of relating to the problematic nonentity “Gordon Freeman,” he relates to the player. How pleasant, to be related to!

“What next in the parade of constant obstacles?” he asks wistfully at one point, clearly referring to the form of the game as a whole. This makes him my friend, because this is what I’m asking too. Whereas Alyx’s warmth and affection was always specifically for Gordon and I felt awkward about overhearing it. Can you imagine the look on her face when she finds out that her best friend is actually just a hollow avatar for a game-playing dude? She’ll be traumatized, to say the least. The Vortigaunt, on the other hand, probably already knows it. Back in Half-Life 2, there’s a secret room containing a Vortigaunt who just spouts wisdom, and one of the mystical things he says is: “Something secret steers us both. We shall not name it.” I’m pretty sure he’s referring to me, the player. Or at least to Half-Life 2.

The special ironic/claustrophobic rightness of the original 1998 Half-Life just isn’t coming back, so setting that aside and accepting the new “everything bagel” approach: this last episode is probably the tightest, slickest single thing they’ve done. It has a dense succession of strongly varied environments, challenges, surprises, and hardly any fat left on the bone. The crazy packing problem they’ve been working on (Pixar + Alien + shoot-em-up + rollercoaster) is being solved to greater and greater degrees of precision.

Actually, come to think of it, they do return to several scenario elements that hadn’t been in play since the original Half-Life. Maybe some of that special claustrophobia can come back after all. I felt it particularly in a sequence in a missile silo, toward the end of the game.

Watching gameplay videos on Youtube — of this game I just hours ago was playing myself — drives home just how spectacularly lavish this thing is, both in terms of its visuals and its enveloping embrace as an interactive experience. “Wow, just look at this thing!” I think. “Was it really this amazing when I was playing it? How was I not marveling the whole time?” Good question! No friction, is the answer. It works too well to marvel!

Some part of me feels like that’s a waste. I want that dream of finally getting the ultimate toy to be alive as I’m playing with it. I want to eat my cake and have it too — and I mean really have it, big time.

I guess that’s just another form of the agita of discontent-dependency. Under renovation! Watch this space!

At this point, it turns out, the discontent-dependent in me gets plenty to work with. After announcing a three-episode series, setting up a very clear plan for what episode three was going to be about, with plenty of internal foreshadowing and teasing, and then ending episode two with a big old shocker/cliffhanger… Valve just stopped talking about Half-Life. And that was eight years ago.

There is no question that Half-Life 2: Episode Three was very much in development, back in 2007, for an expected 2008 release… and then all these years have passed without official word, and there’s simply no way of knowing what was or is going on behind those closed doors. Some degree of embarrassment, I suspect, and I know all too well how embarrassment can end up doubling or tripling or squaring the lateness that it purports to take a stand against.

Based on the very very few hints that are discernible, I actually speculate that what’s gone on is: somewhere in 2008 or 2009, while the game was suffering delays for various ordinary reasons, Valve’s increasing corporate obsession with social! multiplayer! online! found its way to infecting this project; something like: “You know what would be really cool would be if you could play collaboratively not just with these NPCs but alongside other real-world players! Which we do have the architecture to implement…” “Yes, but how would we create a scripted story-based game like Half-Life as a multiplayer game?” “I don’t know, man, but if we solve that one we’ll have the biggest thing ever.” “Okay, cool, let’s try!” Now cut to a year later: “Guys, it turns out this isn’t working and is messing up our game; we should just go back to what we had before.” “No! Single-player isn’t what we do anymore! Get with the times!” Then unrest in the ranks leading to a new balance of power on the project, necessitating a partial “fresh start.” Then ugliness because there’s no longer any unified point of view, and Valve prides itself on its managerless structure, or at least used to. Also because the ideal of a multiplayer scripted story game is, in fact, an unsquareable circle.

That anyway is what I picture. And/or who knows what else. The upshot is, it’s eight years later and, though Valve is a bigger and more powerful company than it’s ever been (or, as I’m suggesting, very likely because of that), there still ain’t no Half-Life 2: Episode Three, and there may never be, even though we were right in the middle of a damn story. And there ain’t no Half-Life 3 and there may never be, even though the world clamors for it daily: on any given day, do a Google News search for “Half Life 3” and you will find a recent article with no substance. It’s a clickbait perennial.

I will here venture a geek prediction: Yeah, it will come out, eventually.

That’s my prediction!

By 2007 Valve had gotten to the point where it was listing 120-some names alphabetically in the credits, which starts to be silly, though I guess the developer commentary feature sort of makes up for it. In this case, I haven’t listened to all of it yet because, you know, there were some hard parts of the game and I didn’t feel like doing them all again right away. Also, there’s a file in the game directories with transcripts of all the text in the game, so I was able to read all the commentary there. This doesn’t give me access to the occasional visual demonstration they do, and I do like hearing the voices, but I got the gist. It’s very similar stuff to last time. In sum: “After observing our playtesters, we ended up simplifying/being extremely explicit about/giving the player downtime instead of…”

The fifth game in “The Orange Box” is Team Fortress 2. This is a very popular online multiplayer game. Online multiplayer games give me the willies, as I’ve said before. I did consider that maybe I’d dare this one, but then I watched some videos of it on Youtube and got scared off. It looks like a chaos inhabited by teenagers, and I haven’t yet found the part of me that doesn’t mind. That’s the only part of me that should be playing. Like I’ve said, I have nothing to prove.

So, as with Team Fortress Classic, I’m going to set it aside for now out of timidity, and proceed on to the stuff that comes next on my list. Very very different stuff.

January 11, 2015

Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006)


Half-Life 2: Episode One
developed by Valve (Bellevue, WA)
first published June 1, 2006 by Valve, for Windows, $19.95
[original site, current site]
~1.6 GB

Played to completion in 5 hours, 1/9/15–1/10/15

Video of a complete 2.5-hour playthrough. Once again, disregard the subtitles.
The official trailer.

Also purchased 11/28/10 in “The Orange Box” for $7.50 (divided by five games = $1.50).

What is a “puzzle”? Game designers and reviewers and players are always talking about the “puzzles” in action-adventure games, but usually that’s the wrong word. For something to be a puzzle, I feel like it needs to have a certain degree of abstract intricacy. The kinds of obstacles that occur in these Half-Life games just don’t have enough variables for “puzzle” to feel right. I’m almost embarrassed when a game tells me I’m solving puzzles, when what I’m actually doing is hunting around to find the only thing available for me to do, and then doing it. “There don’t seem to be any exits from this room… Are there any switches to flip? Any breakable doors or gratings? Any way to jump from platform to platform and work my way to a higher level? Anything I can push or pull into a more useful position?”

Those “now what?” moments are very effective dramatically (though perhaps “drama” isn’t quite the name for the aspect of gameplay I mean, which is why I keep using the awkward word “dramaturgy” instead). They — those moments — give variation and tension to the player’s flow. The action drops from noisy combative certainty to quiet observational uncertainty, and then back again, which feels like one of the basic dramatic rhythms of real life. But that’s all those moments are; they never actually require switching all the way over to an analytical puzzle-solving frame of mind. The commentary makes it sound like playtesting kept leading the developers away from any such genuinely tricky problems. Players want and need very explicit guidance at every point or they stop “having fun.”

The developers kept talking about “fun,” as observed in testers moment by moment. How do they determine this? How do they define it? Do playtesters grin and guffaw and shout “awesome!” when they’re having fun? If the developers were watching me, with my deadpan expression, dutifully gunning down enemy after enemy in their game, would they know whether I was having fun? Because I certainly don’t know! Does what I’m doing when I play this game count as “fun?” What is “fun?” Is it the same thing as “flow?” As “gratification?” If someone came up to me in the middle of watching a movie at the theater and whispered, “How much fun are you having right now, during this particular scene?” I would have no idea what to say.

It sure seems like the point of these games is the primal satisfaction that certain people get from shooting bad guys and watching them flop over. The game has certainly made all the audio/visual/tactile elements of that experience as tasty and catchy as possible: everything about using guns to shoot bad guys goes whoosh, blam, thud, clack, with perfect correctness. To the degree that I can appreciate it, I do, but my satisfaction only goes so far, and it’s always mixed. I don’t particularly want to be shooting anybody. I think of shooting bad guys as just the price I pay to see the rest of the artistry on show here. I always thought that put me slightly on the outside of the target audience.

To my surprise, though, the commentary paints a picture of a process completely open to learning from players what the point of the game is… and maybe it’s the stuff I like after all. The developers say stuff like “People seem to like watching the NPCs interact with each other,” “People seem to like the big pet robot,” “People seem to feel fatigued after a lot of continuous combat.” A good majority of the commentary is about how playtesting guided the team to emphasize various things that aren’t shooting bad guys.

The thing that makes a Hollywood blockbuster seem cynical is its condescending singlemindedness: “A sells, B doesn’t, so do A, period.” These Half-Life games give just the opposite feeling: the developers know how to do all kinds of things very well, but they don’t know what their goal product is other than quality and audience satisfaction. Like I said last time, the amount of attention lavished on the story and characters is so incredibly disproportionate to its gameplay function that it creates a kind of stimulating confusion about the nature of the game as a whole: what manner of thing is this? Now that I’ve heard the developers talking about it, I get the sense that they don’t know what manner of thing it is, either. They just know it’s something that they have tested and tested and can feel confident that people will like, because people seem to like it. It’s an everything bagel. It’s got a little of this and a little of that, but not too much of any one thing, because they found that when they put in too much, people stopped having fun.

This kind of process of uncoordinated ambition can result in a unique and stimulating and uncategorizable product, and I think that’s what’s happened here. But such journeys toward the unknown can also be pretty risky, at least as far as deadlines are concerned. Maybe this might have something to do with why Half-Life 2: Episode 3 is mysteriously about 7 years late at this point. More on this next time.

Almost all video games have some degree of everything-bagel-ness about them. They are the least formally-determined of all popular arts, comparable only to “high” contemporary museum art, it seems to me, in their freedom to work however the hell they want. But without any pretension. They are the ultimate “lively art,” in the Gilbert Seldes sense.

This particular installment is all about working in partnership with “Alyx,” Half-Life 2‘s premier NPC (“Non-Player Character”! Come on, people! I said I wasn’t going to explain this stuff!). She covers you, you cover her, she tags along, she leads the way. She jokes with you and flirts with you and gets emotional and gets embarrassed. She’s a good shot, she says things that are appropriate to the situation, she reacts to developing battles in a believable way, and she mostly knows when to step aside if she’s blocking your way. They did such a great job with all that impressive technical stuff that I can take it for granted. The real question left to me as a player is who she is as a person, or a friend, or a sidekick, or whatever’s going on here. What is going on here, Valve?

From a feminist perspective I am always more uncomfortable with “she’s a strong independent woman wink wink” than with an out-and-out vapid buxom damsel. Alyx — for all that she’s got a Y chromosome in her name and has post-apocalyptically patched her leather jacket with duct-tape — certainly does look at you and brush her hair behind her ear with sheepish delicacy a lot. And let’s not pretend that the tiny tiny glimpse of her purple underpants built into her clothing texture is just a sign of the developers’ meticulous and unbiased attention to detail. She only consists of a finite number of data points, and this happens to be one of them. So is her slightly visible midriff. Being strong and independent are just two more data points.

On the other hand there is certainly some kind of weird relationship one inevitably develops with these puppets who exist only as an assembly of a few telling details. That’s what characters in novels are too, after all. But unlike characters in novels, you can prod these game puppets and interact with them, and they will still only consist of a finite amount of information, which gives them a weird quality of being both more and less available than we’re used to. Alyx clearly has some kind of mild thing for you, “Gordon Freeman,” and there’s nothing you can possibly do that will make her cool. Or warm, for that matter. She has about 10 pixels of purple underpants on show: no less, no more. What does it mean to be in a friendship with someone who is completely unaffectable? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? This is a real question, because the whole idea of this game is for me to develop some kind of sense of rapport. I really don’t know whether it succeeded because I don’t have a strong sense of what that entails. In real life either. Computers that play at social games tend to call up rather uneasy questions about the nature of all social experience.

The designers say it’s crucial that the player “like” Alyx. Well, I can at least say for certain that I didn’t dislike her. When I would be alone in an elevator with her and see her winding up to start performing some dialogue, I would get a nervous feeling: “uh-oh, is she about to do some crushing/bonding/emoting?” And hey, that feeling’s not so different from the one I have felt around real women (and men) in the same situation. So… is that “mission accomplished” for social realism?

I get the feeling that what I was really supposed to be doing in relation to Alyx was role-playing, and that if I were more of a geek I would just know the role, I would know what trope I had been asked to inhabit.

On the one hand, the game has a sense of humor, or at least of shared bewilderment, about the silent void at its center that is the player-slash-Gordon Freeman. “Good thing you you know what you’re doing!” says Alyx as you are sent into the reactor core to stabilize it, because of course the player doesn’t, has no idea.

And yet the game also wants this to be socially engaging, to actually work somehow. What goes on for me is that I genuinely feel that sense of non-belonging, of being an impostor, for the whole first playthrough. On second playthrough, there’s no joke at all, because now I do know what I’m doing. Then again, I know far more than Gordon Freeman could: I know which machine will happen to break, which girder will happen to collapse. And I know, what he doesn’t know, that my pal Alyx will always be much, much less than a human being. Just some sound files and texture maps and behavioral algorithms.

It’s very easy for me to pity a puppet for being a puppet; always has been. So once that emotional link has been established, you’d think it would be easy for me to love it and trust it too, but that’s harder. I’m working on it with a therapist.

I have played all the preceding games on Easy but this one defaulted to Normal and I didn’t notice until I was most of the way through. All I noticed was that I felt subtly more frustrated and ashamed by my combat skills. The game just feels more vindictive, stubborn, angry, on harder difficulty levels. I have nothing to prove to anyone, least of all a game. I have no use for “normal!”

The commentary is locked until you’ve completed each level once, but playing the whole game again just to hear it turned out to be perfectly pleasant. (And incidentally confirmed my suspicion that I can proceed at almost twice the pace when it’s my second time around and I know where I’m going.) The main thing I took away from hearing the commentary was not the design thinking itself, because that stuff’s all quite apparent already (“This arena is meant to be the culmination of this sequence, calling on all the skills the player has acquired throughout this map.” Duh.) What I got from it was just the shift of attitude that comes with being able to hear all these ideas originating in plainspoken real people, rather than in my own analytical observation, which has its own skeptical lonely flavor. I enjoy being relieved of it. Yes, when you’re down there in the dark fighting zombies alone with Alyx the puppet, you’re actually in the company of all these real people.

Then again, have they failed me if I didn’t feel that company already? That’s a big question; the big social and artistic question. I dunno. I think nobody is failing anybody. I’m grateful for the time spent with this game.

Playing these games well entails developing a very quick, mercenary kind of rhythm to your actions: “what’s in here nothing grab that ammo uh-oh soldier switch to shotgun headshot headshot check back there no gotta go up here then shit okay more soldiers duck headshot headshot.” It’s not that I’m exactly horrified by seeing myself behaving this way, just dismayed that I haven’t been able to assert my own style and rhythm in its place. If you want the game to make sense, you are simply obligated to let this kind of burrowing, urgent expertise come over you, and I have.

The original title of this thing was going to be Half-Life 2: Aftermath, which is what it is — a short expansion and continuation of the big tentpole game that preceded. But then Valve had the idea of continuously releasing episodic content, and so instead gave this game the absurd title Half-Life 2: Episode One, which of course is not what it is. It should be Half-Life THE SERIES THAT COMES AFTER 2: Episode One or something. Of course, they only managed two of them so it hardly matters.

As with Opposing Force in relation to the first Half-Life, I appreciated that greater compression gives a greater sense of cleverness, even when most of the materials are old. If you’re only going to have this much story, five hours seems like a fine game length to me.

The opening sequence, picking up from the cliffhanger ending of Half-Life 2, felt like a step even further up into storytelling: “We’re really doing this for the story. Listen to this story!” I am, guys! I’m listening. After the 50-odd hours I’ve spent in your world, I’ve gotten to the point that I genuinely want to know what The Combine is going to do now that The Citadel has been destroyed. Bring it on. Tell me.

I sure have played a lot of Half-Lifery in the past couple weeks. What am I getting out of returning to this weird little limited story space over and over? It does definitely have something to offer, if not quite everything I’d want in a fantasy home base. Heading back into The Citadel in this one reminded me of the childhood feeling I’d get watching our videotape of Star Wars over and over and returning to the Death Star, always nominally infiltrating the enemy fortress but really just doing that thing we do. When the gang would hole up in that control room and argue about what to do next, and Han Solo would put his feet up on the panel, it would feel like a cozy little apartment party to which I had once more been invited. Yup, here we are again. All’s well.

This game offered at least that much. Yup, here’s all the stuff again. A couple entries ago I asked if Blue Shift was all old hat because we’re supposed to pretend that it isn’t, or because it’s developed into a ritual. This is a third way and it seems like the best option: it’s not old hat, it’s a space, a room that you can keep re-entering. You can make it your room. Welcome back to your room.

I still don’t quite know why there are zombies in my room, but Habit is doing its work and even their edges are softening. It’s just zombies, after all, and I have the shotgun, which goes clack just the way it should. Yup, here we are again.

Now we’re up to 2006 and Valve’s credits are listing 100 employees. The commentary features about 40 different people, which is probably closer to the actual number of contributors to this game. I believe I am correct in saying that exactly one of those 40 people was female. Turns out she’s whip-smart and independent and athletic and dresses really funky and is sarcastic and has a crush on you and her midriff is showing.

Only one left before we’re on to other things!

January 9, 2015

Half-Life 2: Lost Coast (2005)


Half-Life 2: Lost Coast
developed by Valve (Bellevue, WA)
first published October 27, 2005 by Valve (online only), for use with Half-Life 2, free
~400 MB (+ some amount of Half-Life 2)

Played to completion in 28 minutes (and then 19 more for the commentary), 1/8/15

[Video of complete 30-minute playthrough with all commentary: this link should take you to timecode 1:11:00, where Lost Coast starts. If that doesn’t happen because of an ad, click it again and it should work.]

I didn’t buy this and it’s not really a game. It’s in my Steam catalog because it comes free with any purchase of Half-Life 2, so I’ve had it since 11/28/10, when I guess it must have just appeared silently.

If it’s not a game what is it? It’s a scenic little bit of deleted Half-Life 2 terrain, reworked into a “playable technology showcase,” the kind of thing developers might put together for their table at an industry convention. Yeah, there are enemies you have to shoot (about 24 dudes, 3 spider aliens, and a helicopter), some gaps you have to jump, and a “break the machine” task you have to do, but that’s hardly even par for the course at this point. It’s just to make the tech demo involving.

So what’s the tech? The main thing on show is High Dynamic Range rendering, (“HDR“), which is basically the old photographer’s trick of dodging and burning to make distinct areas of the same image each have high local contrast. Since what constitutes “distinct areas” is perceptual (rather than anything to do with the physics of light), rendering this in an aesthetically satisfying way, especially on the fly in a videogame, is fancy business.

They also show off a simulation of iris-adjustment in moving from light to dark areas. They brag a bit about the sophisticated tricks they were already doing to render water and translucent materials, and how now they’ve build HDR into those as well. They say they’ve further refined the textures of the character faces and skin. And maybe other stuff? I think those are the main things.

The graphics are the point and the graphics are very lovely. It’s 10 years later and things have come a little ways further, but not that much further. From 1985 to 1995 to 2005 are all pretty huge leaps. From there to 2014 (there’s not enough 2015 yet!) undeniably shows progress but just doesn’t feel like quite as significant a move. That’s probably because this naturalistic ideal is a dead end tunnel, the back wall of which is already well in view.

Why are we trying to make video games look like photographs, again? Nobody can remember. We’re just doing it. Because we can. I guess the point is: yes, we can! We already can. Have you seen that game with Kevin Spacey in it? Kevin Spacey is in it! So that means we’re done here, doesn’t it? That’s like when the computer finally beats mankind at chess: we can stop trying already, right? Some 40 years ago, a bunch of pioneering computer engineers said “We swear to climb this Everest: one day, 15-year-old Kevin Spacey Fowler will be inside a computer.” And huzzah, the day has at last come, and it is as wonderful as we had always hoped. Great. Now let’s please agree to move on with our lives, and bring our games with us.

It’s not going to happen that way. That’s okay, there’s room enough in games for all types. What I bemoan is not so much that those games exist as that they eat up literally billions of industry dollars (and, perhaps more to the point, equivalent skilled man-hours) that could have gone into developing other more interesting (and more interesting-looking) games. This is the same reason that the Hollywood equivalent conservatism is depressing: it’s not that Transformers: Age of Extinction is bad so much as that its budget takes the place of so much else. It’s that producers think that making a $200 million movie with no content and internationally viable explosions is a safer bet than making ten diverse $20 million movies or a $200 million movie with a point of view, and there’s nothing to stop those same producers from making that same safe bet over and over and over again.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare starring Kevin Fowler likely had a similar budget to Transformers: Age of Extinction, and I’m actually willing to bet (based on no knowledge at all beyond the trailer) that it has more interesting stuff in it. It undoubtedly provides more hours of entertainment. I’m just skeptical about producers’ low esteem for gamers even moreso than Hollywood’s for moviegoers, because the dumbing-down isn’t based on averaging out international tastes (exploding robots being the one thing American and Chinese moviegoers enjoy absolutely identically), it’s based on condescending to 14-year-old boys. Yes, 14-year-old boys tend to like football, basketball, guns, and cleavage, but they like other stuff too, and the people producing this stuff should know that. I can excuse their treating foreigners like aliens and dishing up whatever crap they seem to buy, but children are not aliens. We have some intuitions we can call on, right? Some human insight? There are very few expensive games rooted in human insight.

Feels too risky! I can relate.

Anyway, Lost Coast is just a tech demo in game form, but instead of just bringing it to some expo, they gave it to all their customers as a freebie, and added some Criterion-style commentary, accessed (if you turn it on) through floating speech bubbles strewn surrealistically through the game world like Magrittean litter. At the end, the boss says “This has been an experiment on our part to see if our community would find it interesting to learn more about our development process. … If people like this, we’ll keep producing this kind of content for all of our games going forward.” I was reminded of Unca’ Walt Disney using his TV show to tell us all how the magic is made, because he intuited that technical transparency is actually good for brand loyalty, and good for the culture generally. As I’ve said before, I really admire that, and I admire the similar insight on Valve’s part to see that compared to the movie business, video games had barely scratched the surface of behind-the-scenesery, and should get in on the act. Video games are really interesting machines to see inside!

Unsurprisingly, people did find it interesting and Valve did end up producing this kind of content for all of their games going forward. So get ready for some.

This little thing has no credits. The commentary is by Gabe Newell (managing director), Viktor Antonov (art director), Randy Lundeen (artist and level designer), Robin Walker (level designer), Gary McTaggart (graphics programmer), Chris Green (graphics programmer).

Man, this is a lot of Half-Life. How much more Half-Life is there? The answer is two, two more Half-Life.

January 8, 2015

Half-Life 2 (2004)

HalfLife2-cover1 HalfLife2-cover2 HalfLife2-cover3 (Collect all 3 covers!)


Half-Life 2
developed by Valve (Bellevue, WA)
first published November 16, 2004 by Vivendi Universal Games (retail) and Valve (online), for Windows, $49.95 [original site, current site]
~3.5 GB

Played to completion in 17 hours, 1/3/15–1/6/15

[Video of a complete 9-hour playthrough in five parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Unlike me, this guy has turned on subtitles, which you should ignore.]
[The 1-minute official trailer]

So now that I’ve gotten “The Half Life 1 Anthology” out of the way, I can go back to the beginning of my list, to 11/28/10, when I purchased “The Orange Box” on sale for $7.50 because I wanted Portal and figured the other games couldn’t hurt. That was five games at $1.50 apiece. The other four of which I am only getting to now.

On all the “best game ever” lists, Half-Life 2 is right up there.

At first blush, the reason is obvious: this is a truly incredible advance on what had ever come before, an astounding masterpiece, oh my god you have to see this. And then once the game is done, it can be that again, because one has learned exactly what it is and isn’t, and can get to work on loving it the way it wants. In between comes the business of actually wrangling with it, as it presents itself to you for the first time. That should be what counts most, shouldn’t it? I don’t know, maybe it shouldn’t. But that’s what I took notes on. Here they are.

This first note is something I already said about that lavish remake of the original Half-Life. Now I’m going to say it again at greater length:

Games with lots of detail feel like they’re chiding me for liking the senses too much when a given detail turns out to be inconsequential or false. “Hey, look at those beautiful rocks, let’s go see if we can climb on them… oh, seems like they’re not really meant to be looked at up close. Oops, I guess I was wrong to get so enthused about this; I was supposed to see it as mere decoration. But hey, look at that beautiful tree!… oops…” A rationalized/formalized/computerized model of the world that purports to incorporate all sensory richness, but only as a kind of fancy-dress makeup, is a much more distressing formalism than the barer, more primitive models that came before. The autistic abstraction of conceiving of human endeavor in terms of HP and XP is far more palatable in the abstract spaces of a tabletop game than when one is exploring a fully visualized world. The philosophical gap of the nerds becomes more treacherous the more of the human experience they have it devour.

Games today (and computerizations generally, which one could take to include Facebook et al.) bite off more than they should chew, or, to put it more frighteningly, chew and swallow more than their fair share of existence. There is a beautiful sunset in this game, but only in the set-dressing sense. What about everything else that a beautiful sunset is? The game and its programmers say, “Quantify that, kid, and we’ll eventually try to put it in. If you can’t quantify it, it doesn’t exist.” Ouch!

I’m someone who rejects that philosophical line, so this game and its many progeny (i.e. the entire past decade of increasingly photorealistic 3D environments) fall into a philosophical ‘uncanny valley,’ for me. The old puppet-show mimesis hasn’t changed, it’s just been tarted up with a tinsel naturalism that is seductive yet overwhelmingly empty. You can always see so much more than there is. Look but don’t touch. Or, in this game’s case: Touch (“Oh my god, you can pick up and move any object in the game world!”), but don’t feel (“Oh my god, all these diverse and evocative objects are identically useless hollow shells!”)

It all gives me the feeling of being right on the knife-edge between welcome and unwelcome. It’s kind of a subtly seedy feeling, like Pleasure Island; the mixed messages of a surly carny: “Come one come all! Have a great time! All your fantasies come true! Hey! Get your dirty mitts off that, kid! Scram!” I guess that’s overstating it; it’s not that this game ever says “Scram,” it just gets sort of shifty and uncommunicative when you start to stray, even though it seems to be inviting you to stray.

Put another way: where Half-Life felt like a warm invitation to see the show they were putting on just for you, Half-Life 2 has an underlying spirit of showing off. Which is a little more of a rigid, brittle thing to encounter, socially. (But, like I said, once you’re done and have seen the whole thing, you’ve learned its needs, and how to get its forgiveness. “Yeah, it was silly of me to want to climb on those rocks! That was out of line; I totally agree, game. Let’s make up! I promise never to doubt you again, you amazing queen bee, you.”)

Under all the lacquer, it’s the same game as last time, and the dramatics have not been advanced on. I said that Half-Life‘s strength was that it was what it was. This is less consistently what it is; the watching and the doing are less synchronous than they had been. The seductive ambition has here somewhat outstripped the dramaturgical ambition; these are the same storytelling devices, just given new flash. But luxury — and this game is undeniably luxurious — is not a substitute for rightness. When you (“Gordon Freeman”) are being welcomed back by friends, brought into the fold of an underground resistance movement, sent on desperate rescue missions that other people plan and describe to you in advance, there is a real social gap between what the player is doing and what the drama says is going on.

I wrote the preceding paragraph when I was about halfway through the game. Now that I’m done I must say that later in the game it gets much closer to the mark. For the last third of the game (or so), you’re put on a meandering cinematic path through a landscape of chaotic urban warfare, while a battle gradually progresses around you. This section is, like the first game, splendidly congruent with the player’s experience: I must make my way through this dream as it unfolds. The four hours I spent in that sequence were the highlight.

Now, if you had described the various chapters to me in advance I would never have guessed that I’d like the military action bit most of all, because that’s just not my thing. And yet I did, because it had the most flow. Flow above all; flow outweighs content.

My enjoying these games at all is fair evidence of that, because they continue to be full of content that I find unappealing. This time, in addition to continued zombie gore, I have big-picture doubts too: Is this depressing end-of-the-world scenario really any fun? Are “fight the power” “big lie” dystopia stories really so enticing? (Does Katniss Everdeen shit in the woods? (Yes.)) Luckily, unlike, say, Snowpiercer, this game doesn’t really have any political ideas up its sleeve; it’s just shuffling the genre deck to give us a ride. That’s bad because it means nothing rings particularly true or false, but good because I don’t actually have to argue with it. When we get to the payoff and finally see inside the alien tower, I felt a suitable sense of excitement at having earned my way to the zone of elite revelation, without having to give any meaning to that revelation. Whereas when whatsisname got to the front car of the Snowpiercer, into that same space of rarefied ultimateness, inner-sanctum-ness, endgame, I felt the space burdened with a lot of resentment. Here it was just, you know, stuff borrowed from The Matrix, which by 2004 everyone had seen. Nobody hesitates to take the red pill when they know it’s just for fun. I knew all this War Of The Worlds bleakness was just for fun, even though I probably wouldn’t have ordered it.

While I’m on the subject of endgame, I want to note that the bad guy in Half-Life 2, Dr. Breen, is really nicely written and performed, well beyond the usual videogame standard. He’s confronted in person at the end, but seen and heard throughout the game on video screens. The character looks and sounds like Dennis Hopper so I figured that’s who it was, but it’s not; it’s in fact Robert Culp (with the face of just some guy). So kudos to Robert Culp, for his class and intelligence in bringing a weird computer fantasy puppet person to a surprising semblance of life (even though he does pronounce “fungi” as “foon-jee,” which seems wrong to me). And RIP. (You too, Dennis Hopper.)

The storytelling generally is in that awkward middle space, somewhere between serious investment and gleeful indulgence of cliché-as-cliché, that characterizes and hobbles so much “genre fiction” in my view. The first game, as I’ve said twice already, fell almost entirely in the category of cheerful, almost parodic familiarity, and was stronger for it; this one has almost no note of parody. It seems to want to feel genuinely eerie and grim, which in places was hard for me to wrap my head around. This is all just a goofy excuse to play a game, right? Maybe that’s just another form of being a brittle show-off. But I think it stems from deeper questions of worldview; this is by and for people who take a lot of that grimness for granted and know exactly what emotional slot to put it in.

I can say at least that the horror of being in an alien tower of steel is more meaningful to me than the horror of being in a fleshy womb that the last game offered. So many possible hangups to exploit! I think my ideal endgame would be a horrifying stack of homework with a teacher alien yelling at you to do it faster.

There is one chapter of this game that deliberately feels like it’s from another game entirely: a full-on horror-movie sequence of zombie slaughter that lasts for a couple hours. Zombies aren’t really my cup of tea and I was glad to get out of there.

I’m able to appreciate Halloween-y scares even if I don’t relish them. But there is one thing to which I genuinely object: the zombies cry out in anguished demi-human voices as you slaughter them. To me, the least healthy aspect of the zombie-mania of the last decade (which is finally waning?) is the emphasis on mercy killing. If, as I said a few entries ago, blowing up horrors in a game is the performance of repression, then mercy-killing pathetically human horrors is self-congratulation for ignoring the pain that it causes. These zombies scream like people in pain so that you’ll feel sickened, and then confront your reservations with resolution: “Well, the fact is that it was too late for them; I put them out of their misery. That it is upsetting to hear their screams is what makes this the gratifyingly hard work of an adult.” This translates to repression of doubts about repression: “Yes, that part of me cried out ‘I’m innocent, don’t repress me!’ when I went to repress it, and sure, that’s hard to hear, but that’s what makes me truly mature, that I steel myself and do it anyway.” Instead of “if you love it, set it free,” this is “if you love it and you’re a man, kill it quickly.” This is a long-running motif in pulp culture and I really don’t approve.

The game may seem very open but it’s actually a lot like a “rail shooter,” one of those light-gun shooting gallery arcade games, where the camera moves are fixed and unstoppable (“on rails”) and the player progresses through the story automatically as long as he/she manages to hit all the pop-up targets, which is the only actual task. Yes, obviously Half-Life 2 differs in that it affords you full control of your movement and all sorts of other freedoms, but it’s stage-managed the same way those games were, it has the same kind of story flow.

In light-gun games, the story was always a flimsy pretense, but at the same time it was also the entire form of the game and served as its driving force. Again I think of Disney rides. The principle is the same as with, say, the Indiana Jones ride: you don’t really pay attention to the ride lore, the quasi-story about the curse of the Temple of the Forbidden Eye; everybody understands that stuff to be weak obligatory hokum… and yet everybody also willingly registers it, because it is crucial to the premise of the ride experience, which is that something is happening while you are on it. Likewise, I say, Half-Life 2 doesn’t offer real drama; it is just offering you something that is happening while you play it, an obligatory pretense for the shooting gallery. It just so happens that what it offers as its pretense is so exceptionally cared-for and intelligent and three-dimensional, goes so far beyond the call of duty, that one can become confused about what one is dealing with. And that confusion becomes a part of the experience of overwhelming impressiveness. But ultimately the only way I found of enjoying it unequivocally was just as an astoundingly fancy ride, slightly monotonous, filled out with astoundingly fancy ride-lore hokum.

This somewhat answers my itchiness about the level of detail. Those rail shooter arcade games are all very pure dreams, where, exactly because there’s no freedom, it’s clear that everything apart from the targets is mere atmosphere, wonderfully so. Those are incredibly decadent games. So is Half-Life 2, but only on the second time through, when one knows exactly what’s what.

Having a character tell you “You’re going to have to take the dune buggy up the coast now!” makes perfect sense in a pre-ordered dream-logic sequence, a kind of sense that it doesn’t make to me as an individual with freedoms. Maybe that’s only because I’m personally too nervous to accept the flow and trust it when it’s so lightly imposed. I’m very happy with its flow until I lose the thread, and whose fault is that? Seems like that’s exactly the game’s responsibility. But maybe I’m only losing the flow in the first place because I’m such a worrier. I carry these same anxieties with me everywhere, after all.

Maybe if I were a more trusting person, it would never have occurred to me to want more out of a rock or a tree in the scenery because I would have been so in the zone, socially melded with the game. Maybe all that “look but don’t touch” angst about the stuff on the periphery is really just a product of my issues with distrusting the game whenever it comes out and says “touch! touch this! it’s great!”

I tend to worry about missing stuff as I go through games, always looking around to make sure I’ve got all the information before I make a choice, rather than going with the obvious and gobbling up what’s right in front of me, despite the fact that this tends to break the chain of communication between the game and me. This is the same form of unacknowledged anxiety as the impulse to save the most appealing food on the plate for last, which I have done since childhood. Eventually that habit developed an additional kink, so that I would save the last bite of the most appealing food for later but not for absolutely last because that was itself too on-the-nose. Instead have it nearly last. And then further kinks on that, always seeking the periphery instead of the center.

I am certainly not the only game-player with these sorts of anxiety problems, though, and to my dismay Valve directly feeds the flames: there are “achievements” built into this game, which is to me a hateful way of bundling OCD into the thing itself. It’s one thing for people to make up their own games of crazy missing the point, but for the game itself to say “We have a badge for you if you can do chapter seven standing on your head!” cuts directly against its duties as a game. There are marketing reasons for online gaming platforms to have such stuff in them, but not internal aesthetic reasons. It’s like if you went to see a new movie and as you were taking your seats, the usher handed you a pamphlet that said “Can you count the number of times that people say ‘Fred’ in the movie? Write your answer here for a prize!” Dammit, you just ruined the movie.

So in this respect the game has a note of unhealthiness in it. But I am deepening my conviction that games are generally good for the mind. Fantasy is valuable because the mind that fantasizes can only be our true self. Being our false self in investing in another explicitly false self is simply too hard, like Mel Blanc doing Bugs Bunny doing Daffy Duck, a clip that I cannot find at the moment.

About two thirds of the way through the game it struck me that areas that ought to be dark weren’t really very dark and that I hadn’t used my flashlight in a very long time. I googled and found that there’s some kind of bug that’s been in the game since an update in 2010, where after a certain point the game starts rendering by default in “fullbright” mode. There was a simple fix for this that I immediately applied. Turned out that where I had seen the top image, I should have been seeing the bottom:


Yikes! That’s some 8 hours of gameplay that I had to reconsider. I was struck by how completely this difference in lighting affected all my opinions of the game. My issues with detail and flow seemed in part answered by all the cues I’d been missing in the lighting design (e.g. that the shore across the water is bathed in yellow sunset light makes it far clearer that it is merely scenery and not to be explored. The spots of sunlight catching on the rock outcropping at left call one’s attention to the gap between it and the building, which is in fact where one needs to go next.) I felt a little cheated. Did I need to go replay those whole sections of the game again? That would be a lot of game to revisit!

Then again, in the zombie section I had seen the top image, instead of the bottom:


I had thought the creepy flat lighting was plenty scary, when in fact I was supposed to be making my way through a thick midnight darkness. See that zombie lying against the porch, who will later get up and surprise you? Not in the real lighting, you don’t! That settled it for me: I wasn’t going to replay.

But again, note what a huge difference in meaning there is just from the application of lighting to the same exact game content. “Meaning” in a game is very holistic; there’s no separating the essential from the inessential. While I might sound like I’m talking about “gameplay” choices, or “graphics” choices, I’m really always talking about everything at once, mutually interacting and combining in ways that nobody could ever completely plan or name. That it looks just so while sounding just so and reacts just so makes for a certain just-so-ness that transcends any simple creative intentions. This mysterious synthesis is what computer games offer so particularly richly.

To return to its “greatest game ever” status: Yes, this is a very very luxurious piece of computer-gamery, designed to impress, and it absolutely did. At times it gave me a touch of the thrilling feeling that I had a game better than I’m supposed to have, like in childhood dreams where the toy I most wanted turned out to have been in a cupboard downstairs all along. This is a cool-kid game for cool kids. But if you’re nice they’ll let you play it anyway, as long as you agree to say that it’s the awesomest.

Where Half-Life credited 30 people, this one credits 84. As far as I can tell, the core staff is almost exactly the same, with the addition of art director Viktor Antonov, whose contribution is pretty substantial.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes article that parallels the one from Half-Life. Various in-house presentation slides can be browsed here, including some of technical and some of general interest.