Tacoma Review: The Actor is Absent

Hello all, to commemorate the passing of (almost exactly) a year since my last videogame review I’ve returned with another packet of spicy word-powder that should help to further cement my status as the best paid and most widely recognised games blogger ever.

You might notice from the getgo that I’m really rather shaking things up this time, shaking it up like a sex martini, in that I’ve dropped the usual ‘Mega’ from the title. Yes, dear readers, the age of the ‘Mega Review’ is behind us, ushering in a new format of ‘(x) Review: (Relevant Subtitle)’. The reason for this? I’m always revisiting and reviewing my old pieces in hopes of improving anything I’m currently writing, and while I appreciate that the 16-year-old me saw the word ‘Mega’ (from Greek megas– ‘great’) as an appropriate descriptor for my review-bits, it can only come off to me now as self-aggrandising. There isn’t much ‘Mega’ about what I was writing back then.

End of the day, mate, I’m just writing a bloody review… to separate it linguistically by shoving it in a category above a normal review is to suggest that every review that isn’t mine is a less-than-‘mega’ review. Perhaps if my reviews were more Mega than Smeg-a then I’d be happy to call them ‘Mega’, but I am in fact a diagnosed smeg head so it’s out of the question.

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Anyway… to begin the review, after my few hours playing through Tacoma, the second I.P by indie darling The Fullbright Company, I was mostly confused.

I was confused about why I did not like the game as much as I thought I should given that its methods of storytelling were virtually identical to its seminal predecessor’s. For a day I was just mentally rummaging through my time spent in Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma, trying to battle with the cognitive dissonance I convinced myself I had for feeling markedly underwhelmed by this game but really rather liking Gone Home, and it’s only been very recently that I’ve come to understand why it’s okay that I’m not really in love with Tacoma.

On Succeeding A Throne

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It is perhaps unsafe to say that Gone Home permanently changed the way modern developers consider environmental storytelling, but to my judgement it is at least safe to say that the advent of Gone Home permanently changed the way critics choose to assess methods of environmental storytelling in the wider sphere of discourse. For the past few years and into the foreseeable future we live in the post-Gone Home side of history, where comparisons will invariably be made to that now-criterion of ludic-diegetic success.

At least in my eyes, the sometimes rather forced comparisons to that game have only ever sought to ask the question, of Firewatch or Life is Strange, of What Remains of Edith Finch or Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture: is it as good as Gone Home? The problem with placing this comparison within the discussion or review of the game that follows Fullbright’s title is that, at least to my mind, we often look over the discussion on the other side of the wall: why is Gone Home as good as Gone Home?

And, if you’re a returning reader, you might know that I think the actual discussion that took place during the appropriate time after Gone Home‘s release was kind of poor. To a lot of people, the critical response to Gone Home was more than a farce, and indicative of collusion between journalists and developers. I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but if we have established Gone Home as the immediate critical standard for any attempt at environmental storytelling in modern game narratives, don’t we owe it to the wider discussion to examine why that is the case?

This is just one of the thoughts I was having as I was repeatedly headbutting my bedroom wall trying to get to grips with myself and my unexpectedly apathetic response to Tacoma. But, on reflection, I think it’s the most crucial question of all in understanding why Tacoma is just okay, it is the most crucial task of all to deconstruct the game’s better if we are to understand the latter’s faults.

On Diegetic Stalking

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The entire premise of Gone Home is essentially gamified stalking, the objective is to snoop around a house and discover as much as you can about the actual people who live there while they aren’t home. The player character’s involvement in the actual plot is simply an abstract and is of secondary importance to the reality of the player’s invasive enjoyment. The idea that so many game players and critics would end up aligning themselves with this kind of personal invasiveness is not so surprising when you consider that… broadly speaking… most stories, or at least most methods of storytelling, harbour some element of personal invasiveness.

In the foreword to the book I’m currently reading: On The Road by Jack Kerouac, it is mentioned that Kerouac was first drawn to fellow Beat Generation writer and lifelong companion Neal Cassady after he wrote Kerouac a detailed letter of a very personal account. Kerouac spent two hours in a cafeteria nursing over this letter, which detailed an incident of Cassady being interrupted in the act of sex with a girlfriend, Cherry Mary, after the mother of the girl Cherry was babysitting arrived in the house unexpectedly. In response to the letter, which detailed how Cassady had to somehow manoeuvre through a very unaccommodating bathroom window several feet off the ground, Jack ‘thought it ranked among the best things ever written in America’. The disclosure of personal episodes and personal information is the most integral step of any kind of storytelling if you want to retain the attention of an audience. Leasing off, through pages or cameras or videogames, the experiences that belong to you onto the people for whom they don’t is a kind of narrative contract that has proved effective since Chaucer’s England. The essence of this idea, however, begins to change when we change the format of the disclosure from non-fiction to fiction.

In the case of Kerouac and Cassady, the contract of trust that was being formed was between the person for whom the experience truly belonged and the known recipient. In the instance of fiction, the nature of that contract changes invariably. The contract is between the character and the reader, the unknown recipient, and there is no such dynamic of trust between the sharers of any one experience. In essence, all fiction in which the characters are unaware of being read naturally renders the reader a kind of diegetic stalker, and before the kind of narrative possibilities videogames offered storytelling in media, the keyhole through which an audience would reach these experiences would be in the form of words or through the borders of a television screen.

It is all well and good to say that, while an audience experiences a piece of fiction, they are fully aware of the artifice and that the personal experience being shared is always accompanied by an innate awareness that the personal experience does not belong to the characters but to the author, but this is an idea that fails when tested against simple notions of suspension of disbelief, and the idea of simulated memory in storytelling.

To borrow an example from Ian Danskin in his video essay on The Beginner’s Guide, Samuel R. Delany in his book About Writing says that:

“It looks like the writer is telling you a story. What the writer is actually doing, however, is using words to evoke a series of micromemories from your own experience that inmix, join, and connect in your mind in an order the writer controls, so that, in effect, you have a sustained memory of something that has never happened to you”

If we take this idea about literature we can see elements of its truth in other media. In any given popular action movie, most cinematography is rendered spatially so that the audience member retains throughout the experience the illusion of having partaken in the actual content of the movie. The audience member views the events from a cinematic angle that is close enough to the characters to simulate active participation in the filmed situation. We do not remember the experience as a passive spectator, but as an active participant. Otherwise, how could we possibly be affected emotionally by these movies in any capacity? If we were constantly self-aware of our position as an audience member, the harmlessness of the material never suppressed, how could we possibly be scared, moved, have our heartbeat raised by something that is just a movie? These media may be known only through words or pixels, but they manifest themselves in the minds of audiences as memories that are emotionally indistinguishable from the truth.

As readers and as audiences we are all diegetic stalkers, useless to and unacknowledged by the plots of the media we consume but active participants in the experiential memories formed therein nonetheless. When Gone Home was released in 2013 it tapped into the kind of joy that any lover of fiction harbours as a natural diegetic stalker. Prior to the advent of videogames, you could not be given a book and have successfully sustained the memory of exploring a whole house and have known the personal experiences from its owners, you could not have been given a DVD of a person exploring a house and afterwards have the sustained memory of you yourself having personally learned about the journey of emotional maturity for the household’s youngest member through your own exploration.

On top of audiences’ joy in being natural diegetic stalkers, something which Gone Home fully utilised like no other game before it, I believe Gone Home found success in its apropos setting.

On The Domestic Museum 

What Remains of Edith Finch (5)

The title What Remains of Edith Finch, released this year, found similar success in either the tried and tested or, more likely, natural setting for a narrative in Gone Home‘s style, the abandoned house.

There is no place conceivable that is more rich in personality or personal history than the abandoned house. The simple amount of trust a homeowner places in a house is significant and often overlooked, an idea explored in Kitty HorrorShow’s Anatomy. We all trust our houses to maintain our privacy and to keep us safe at night, we trust our houses enough to spend a significant amount of our lives sleeping within them. The relationships we form with our houses, improving them and entrusting them with our most cherished items and loved ones, are often permanent.

To many, a house is not just a living space, and in games like Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch, the house you as a player occupy serves not only as a testament of personality to the inhabitants, but as a Museum of artefacts and memories for everyone who has been a member of the household.

Certainly, Gone Home posits very obvious moral prescriptions by the end of its tale but, perhaps by accident, at the end of Gone Home and at the end of What Remains of Edith Finch I ended up asking myself a question for the first time: were I to leave a house to my children, what would I want them to inherit?

Spending an evening wandering through an abandoned house will put these questions into your head. As well as the experiential memory of doing something (at least, to me) as novel and daring as exploring an abandoned house, the takeaway from Gone Home and What remains of Edith Finch are the wider questions of inheritance. Only the best games can drive you to consider these kind of questions, and it is only in such a setting that these questions can be asked.

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It is a shame, then, that the followup to a game that really knew where to tell its story doesn’t have the same kind of ideas behind its chosen environment.

Nothing about Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma screams, speaks or even whispers personality. It might be built from scratch but everything about the environment is entirely familiar. Screenshots from the game exhibiting the space station to me could easily be from a number of games released over the past few years and it certainly wouldn’t strike me as a place of creative toil.

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The most interesting screenshots shown before release and publication delay have proven that the least generic architectural environments just… are not in the game anymore. When your primary gameplay mechanic is to simply observe and explore, a mostly dreary space station with plenty of reused assets accompanying that experience does not make for a gratifying journey.

On The Absence Of Actors

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Perhaps the most irksome thing about Tacoma is its, I believe, creatively misguided decision to strike a third way between including actual character actors in the game and providing character exposition only through audio and artefacts.

The effectiveness of the latter method was already proven in the success of Fullbright’s previous title and the first way would have been a welcome addition by a team of developers that have created already a very good narratively driven game, but to instead choose to have… half characters is incredibly jarring.

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These strange teletubby people in lieu of real character actors perpetually feels reductive, rather than enriching to the overall storytelling. The simple fact is that these coloured blobs of exposition will never be able to be sympathetic characters… I’m looking at a f***ing teletubby. It just looks stupid.

The narrative situations that these blobs find themselves in exhibit moments of real intimacy that would have been served well by actual people: they kiss when they think they are about to die, they attempt to dictate the last letter they will ever write to their loved ones but break down… but this is not what you see, this is what’s implied instead by an coloured oval where a face should be.

The emotion in Gone Home was mostly translated through the evocative voice acting of Sarah Grayson, and the more emotionally resonant writing. Tacoma has a notably larger cast of characters, 6, and it appears that the emotional intensity for the character of Sam in Gone Home was divided by a such a number here. None of the teleblobs say or even do anything truly subverting of your expectations. I agree with wordsaboutgames.net when they say that they wish the A.R data recording mechanic was better spent on a better story.

On Bathos

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The expected coda of a story simply ceasing to exist can often be frustrating, as was explained in some reactions to Campo Santo’s superior I.P Firewatch. As I’ve mentioned, this is excusable in the case of Firewatch because instead of simple bathos as a result of the ending, the reality of the coda served to speak volumes for the characters themselves. There was a certain profundity in that Campo Santo managed to craft a story where the characters change a great amount emotionally against a diegetically and physically immutable environment, all the while remaining an engaging experience.

The emotional payoff was in the personal arc of the characters. While the world of the game remains mostly as it was when you entered it, as a player you leave the experience with the knowledge that, in the extrapolated narrative, characters Henry and Delilah will return to the world and profoundly change the way they live. The same even remains true for the characters of Gone Home.

On the other hand, the ending of Tacoma is simply bathetic. Nothing changes within the characters, nobody makes mistakes and learns from them, no profound realisation is reached, and I’m not even sure if any intended question from the developers is posed. In the spirit of Seinfeld, it really is “no hugging, no learning”. Well there is some hugging… between coloured jellyblobs.

Goethe’s 3 Questions

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What is the creator trying to do?

Create an engaging interactive narrative about a small space station crew whose lives are threatened.

Was the creator successful?

In crafting an interesting storytelling gimmick through the A.R system (explainable only through experiential play, really) Fullbright have done something commendable, but they remain unsuccessful seeing as the teletubbies’ narrative is much more shallow than the tale of Fullbright’s previous title.

Was it worth creating?

While I wish the narrative gimmick was better spent, you cannot mourn a story that has never existed. No.

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Why Am I Playing ‘House Party’ In The Club Right Now?

The OGs reading this who have been with me since this site’s unfortunate inception will know that this glorious online powerhouse was founded on a massive hatepost about a game I didn’t even own (pause, sunglasses flare). My vicarious randy anger on behalf of Assassin’s Creed: Unity owners (obviously too advanced in critical assessment and efficacious as a literary tingle-fest to draw in a mainstream audience) started my website off on the right foot, and since that day (16th of November 2014, currently petitioning to canonise as a holiday) I’ve sent forth waves, nay, legions of my word-hate into the online sphere, I have sprayed a veritable haze of incendiary uzi-fire all over mainstream and independent game developers, all of whom I assume are so intimidated by my magniloquence and blogger-clout that they refuse to return my calls.

But, token lady and gentlemen, I am here today to hold up to the light (which is not the morning sunlight, which has no magnificent beams, but which is the nauseous, humming electrical light from the bathroom of a 3-star Yelp reviewed chicken shop owned by a sweaty miscreant) a game that is undeniably dung, which as an object of reason is an affront to God, that harbours as much creative success as Harambe’s death, but which nonetheless I have completely committed myself to these past few days. Paid female viewer and gentlemen, may I present to you Eek! Games’s debut title House Party:

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Where to begin? How to summarise In Search of Lost Time? The Bhagavad Gita? In Eek! Games’s own words, their first IP

“is a throwback to adventure style games like Leisure Suit Larry” – @EekGamesLLC

You know, those seedy yet questionably popular 80s and 90s games with the loveable protagonist you would totally sit next to on an otherwise unoccupied subway carriage.

me

leisure suit larry
If chlamydia was a face

But the days of pixelated pseudo-women are over and done with, and Eek! sEek to carry on Larry’s legacy of ludic virginal excitement with a game that admittedly entranced me through and through. Having first seen footage of the game on YouTube, its glitched-up glory immediately had me, when I saw characters Frank and Patrick engaged in a fist fight through coffee tables and banisters I immediately knew I was destined to play this game, the ridiculous physics of those rounds of fisticuffs next to the lunar gravity of the female characters’ breast physics had me absolutely ensnared. I very rarely experience a piece of media that is so bad it must be good, that inebriates me in the same way as Wiseau’s The Room, where my suspension of disbelief can only ever be shafted and the line between unintentional shambles and tongue-in-cheek lunacy blurs. This type of thing, this type of wondrous experience, is so rare to me and I couldn’t resist sinking into the game entirely.

The game is so poor as an erotic simulator that my delight can only bloom, the situations you are landed in as a member of the house party are so unforgivably contrived towards assisting the girls in removing articles of their clothing. I am increasingly amazed at the girls’ willingness to strip down in front of you, whom 20 minutes prior was a complete stranger.

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My clothes are wet. Why don’t you, faceless male stranger, assist me in removing them? This is the obvious solution. You assisted me in this needless task? Commence intercourse.

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Do you see that, loyal reader? She loves me!

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Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,

I know that it’s a bit of an easy move to throw a decidedly downward punch at what is essentially a gamified porn storyline, but I must assert that this game is a particular case of unintentional hilarity. It is not only the gleeful reprehensibility in its portrayal of young women through its earnest attempt to be an erotic simulator that tickles me, but in its attempt to provide the player with the opportunity to wreak sexual havoc at a house party it actually becomes quite endearing.

To the teen with a blog about videogames, at least in the earlier years since blog-inception, house parties were a very awkward place for me and my friends of a similar situation. They were place in which mild sexual experience and underage alcohol consumption is levied as a basis of success, a criterion that usually battled both my complete personal inexperience and my recognition of the fact that these situations were almost always factories of regret for the people I’d talked to. Going to your first set of house parties in your teens is a social thunderstorm and anyone who denies they ever felt such apprehension is just lying. These parties for me were at an awkward age where I had to accept that unhealthy decisions that elude my experience or understanding will simply be made if not by me then by someone I wish wouldn’t make them, and the fact that I could not leave and must participate in this arena of moral shitshow starring teenagers, alcohol, and music I don’t like… it could be nauseating, and I’m sure you can all relate or have a story about your first house party.

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So for me, in a moment of simulated depravity where I simply whipped it out and had a bit of a wank, I think that I experienced the most intense catharsis of any story I have ever experienced, and it was profound. The idea of completely disregarding the social codes and entirely shafting internal/external pressures to impress people at a house party is almost inconceivable, and I could not have possibly visualised what that would be like were it not for House Party. The fact that there is a hotkey to expose yourself on command is nothing less than glorious and I feel that more AAA developers need to catch up with this stuff.

It is this chaotic element of House Party that, for me, secures its greatness. You can topple over speakers, remove all your clothes, tamper with the hostess’s personal belongings, irk every single member in attendance, start a fight et cetera, all with a kind of blissful effortlessness.

It is this ease of social anarchy that Bakunin would be proud of that earns this game, this awful creation, this sexist bullshit, my coveted Seal! of approval.

Seal Of Approval

What am I doing with my life…

No, Your Game Is Not ‘Lynchian’

Hello you heinous bunch of caterwauling reprobates, I have returned from my hiatus as an A Level exams candidate and then Briton-in-America for a short while, and after an intensive diet of bagels, hot dogs, pretzels, reuben sandwiches and french fries I have landed back in England with unprecedented levels of carbohydration, providing me with more than enough metabolic energy to get on my Imperial Leather soap box and return to the good old days of online hate-posting posed as critical discourse!!! Aren’t you a lucky lot? I’m BACK baby!

Now, what ludic shit has turned up on the bottom of my shoe today? Well, with the announcement of a Life is Strange prequel AND sequel in the pipeline (thank you Dontnod for keeping me in a job) coinciding with the rerun of my beloved Twin Peaks, I thought I’d take this opportunity to chat about something that particularly irks me in the field of gaming discourse, that, on a personal level, really gets on my gamer-tits (which incidentally have rather filled out after my trip to the USA!). Behold:

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Behold: the critical insistence to shove cultural iconography as comparison into analysis where none such comparisons belong. Admittedly… this is a very small thing to be so irked by, but I personally believe that there is real damage done by this type of lazy criticism that seeks to deepen understanding of a game by fabricating similarities to something already much more understood by the critical sphere. More than this, it is the compression of this false comparison into the neat critical misnomer ‘Lynchian’ that makes me so uncomfortable, that gives me the critical willies.

Look, to draw an appropriate comparison to help explain myself, a similar phenomenon can be found in critical discourse when someone unreservedly refers to a piece of work as ‘Kafkaesque’ without sincerely understanding their own comparison. ‘Kafkaesque’ is the only appropriate comparison to ‘Lynchian’ I could conjure, the use of the term ‘Kafkaesque’ soared in the critical sphere around the late 20th Century after the publication of Franz Kafka’s works (source: Google)

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‘Shakespearean’ or ‘Orwellian’ might also be apt comparisons but I believe that the similarities in Lynch and Kafka’s works makes this comparison best. In the Guardian blog, Alison Flood posits the idea that the term Kafkaesque has been so eroded by use that its original meaning has lost all essential effect. I have to agree, and I worry that a similar paradigm might soon appear in the gaming sphere for the term ‘Lynchian’ upon the advent of our two new Life is Strange IPs. It is both the terrible mobility of the concepts of ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘Lynchian’ allowed by their compressions into one word, and the keenness of critics to invoke a wider scope of understanding in their writing that has brought about this deficit between implementation of the terms and the understanding and appropriate use of them. It has become so easy and so tempting to affect an understanding of Lynch’s or Kafka’s work by simply showing knowledge of the terms themselves, so much so that the terms are becoming detached from their original place in Kafka’s and Lynch’s work.

The fact that the mobility of these terms has brought about a small culture of pretentious, asinine writing in the games sphere is not what annoys me most, it is the fact that writers using these terms wrongly is a betrayal of these artists you would think the writers are ostensibly trying to praise through the terms’ usage.

Take these gaudy ascriptions of ‘Lynchian’ aspects to Dontnod’s Life is Strange, these ascriptions seem to be based off of the fact that Life is Strange bears some resemblance to the series Twin Peaks (which, as Ian Danskin points out, is the developers’ insistence whereas more resemblances can be found between it and Donnie Darko). We must assume that these resemblances are to be found in the fact that the stories revolve around a high school, that there are seemingly supernatural elements at play, and that a murder mystery is at the centre of the plot’s allure.

But, to see these similarities and to call them ‘Lynchian’ betrays David Lynch as a creator in so many ways through this asinine use of language. Even if we are comparing such a game to only Twin Peaks out of Lynch’s whole catalogue, to call it ‘Lychian’ is so to reduce the identity of the original Twin Peaks series to something that has none of its tongue-in-cheek charm, none of its mesmerising dancing midgets that speak in reverse, and none of its crazy supernatural subplots. To the unknowing reader, Twin Peaks as a concept might be reduced so much by this false comparison to something that is, well, worse as a creation. Beyond this, to compare Life is Strange to Twin Peaks is to speak of only one of Lynch’s works. Prithee, if Life is Strange is so f*cking ‘Lynchian’, if Virginia (and you know how I feel about Virginia… VIRGINIA!!!) is so dog-gammed ‘Lynchian’, then what resemblance does it bear to Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive?

This is what I mean by betraying the creators: using the terms ‘Lynchian’ and ‘Kafkaesque’ falsely is to rob the creators’ works of an identity. Of course, Life is Strange bears no resemblance to these works, to try and force a comparison would be foolish, but because the catalogue of Lynch’s work and the complexities that lie therein can be reduced to one word: ‘Lynchian’, it has become so easy and so tempting to insert the word into criticism of these games as a signpost of understanding.

If you are a critic or fellow blogger reading this, I implore you, if you are to review the upcoming Life is Strange games, please, please, I beg you, DON’T use the word ‘Lynchian’ to draw an inevitably false comparison or I will personally blacklist you and you will be refused entry to my numerous orgies.

Why Are You Not Posting? Are You Dead? Have I Been Left In The Will? Who Will Carry On Your Great Legacy?

Hello chums,

I thought I should just do a little post seeing as I’ve been very withdrawn from the community lately and I don’t want it to seem as if I’m shying away or that I’ve stopped liking all your content on a personal level. Which is true, but there is another reason as to my absence.

The truth (can you handle it?) is that in about a weeks time I’ll begin taking my A2 level exams, which are the ones that will decide my place at York to study Interactive Media. I really do want to post on here despite that priority but I find that I haven’t enough time to play games let alone discuss them.

I should be back around the end of the month, and maybe sooner if I find myself needing to take a break from revision, but unfortunately I’ll be popping my head in less for a while.

I still love you all heartily and fervently.

Fly, fly my pretties,

Vahrkalla xooxoox

Gaming as Addiction

This post has been sleeping away in my drafts for quite a few months, and I only started to really think about writing it a couple weeks ago. The beginnings of this motivation start with me viewing a TEDx talk by a man named Cam Adair. Cam Adair is a reformed gaming addict and founder of GameQuitters, a YouTube channel aimed at helping people overcome their addictions to online gaming and eventually quit cold turkey. The TEDx talk I viewed is pasted below:

I don’t know what it was. I just started watching these videos and, out of some inexplicable reflex, was brimming with lava-rage. I was simply furious at my laptop screen, immediately defensive and audibly miffed. I dismissed the videos for some time as some kind of Bible-belting, self-flagellating, sadist nonsense. I even skimmed over the thought of that irritable man ‘Cam Adair’ in my mind during the following days. With his arse-pube haircut and wholly eviscerable face. How could this man advocate the voluntary abstinence of video games, let alone draw up his little sheeple following to boot? He’d have them believe simply grasping a controller gets your teenage daughter pregnant, pregnant with an ethnic baby. Pray to God, little ones, pray that your yungins can avoid the devil, Satan, in the form of a compact laser disc. What a veritable bum.

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Of all the contradictions of the self that we slowly come to confront, one of the hardest to face up to is an entirely emotional response. This was surely one of them. I only recently started thinking about why this impostor ‘Cam Adair’ (well, Mr Adair… A-dair YOU to fisticuffs in my abode) came to make me so angry.

I suppose one of the reasons is because I shall always defend video games as an art form. Even as I type, the nature of media consumption is perennially changing, and the methods used today by creators to achieve lasting and emotional responses are becoming more digitally refined. I guess I’m just used to rebuking someone- anyone- who condescends to reduce this idea of videogames that I have come to know: one of a sound and profoundly advanced medium that has proven the ability to elicit kinds of responses in me equalled by the most extolled literature.

I’m just so sick of the out-of-touch pensioners, the swathes of Jack Thompsons that still exist somewhere sleeping upside down in caves, who preen their dogma day by day convinced that their Grandson would have made it into Brown or Cambridge had they not played so much Grand Auto Thief on their Nintendo. I’m so sick of these people that I’m merely used to reflexively wincing at anyone saying anything that could be construed as harsh about our shared medium.

It took a while for me to understand and deconstruct my emotional response to Sarkeesian’s work, but in the end I finally understood how childish I was. And I understand now that my emotional response to Cam Adair is similarly just as immature.

Cam Adair’s work is actually very noble and sensible. I’ve never experienced true gaming addiction so my understanding is inevitably condensed and myopic, but from what I understand, some gamers begin to play online games not out of desire but out of desperation. They start playing even though they don’t want to, late into the night and early morning.

This relegation of my dear medium to the sordid level of online gambling, pornography or friggin’ Diazepam (Snake?) is what initially miffed me. Of all these items, gaming is obviously sticking out amongst the others. There is no artistry in gambling, no passionate creative vision in pornography (unless we’re talking about the Shunga or something) there is no shared love between creator and consumer in the purchase of painkillers. How can something so artistically superior be set amongst these ranks?

But that’s the nature of addiction. It is not determined by the substance, anything that rewards the brain can be addictive to certain personalities. My knowledge of marijuana addiction as a reality for some doesn’t negate me advocating its regulation and legality (wake up, sheeple). But there’s no art in something such as marijuana. There’s nothing… lasting.

But thinking about it now, is there anything really lasting or creatively transcending about the kinds of online games people get addicted to? Do people really get addicted to Gone Home or The Wolf Among Us, the kind of games I’m used to defending? Have I just avoided the addictive MMOs all my life?

But I guess I’m demonstrating the thing that I ultimately want to caution against in this post: denying the reality of addiction in the face of genuinely vulnerable people who cannot escape it. There is nothing to be achieved by denying the fact that games, or at least certain types of games, are a crucible of addiction to certain individuals. The longer this discussion is denied, the further we engender those addictions as we assure the individuals that nothing is wrong. Humility and sympathy are key if we are to help those people who do need it, and I think that we may all know one or two.

Some Pixel Art

Hello chums!

A while back for my interview at York University I had to conjure up and present an idea for my very own videogame. I thought of a game called Damsel in which the player is confronted with the problems of the ‘damsel’ trope, and experiences the game as a scrutinised participant.

I withdrew the project from being assessed as a formal EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) so there’s no danger in sharing my conceptual designs online now.

Hope this adds a lil spice to your day,

Lots of love,

Vahrkalla xoxo

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Comedy In Games

Sitting here, mulling over the events of this past week, I am now so certain that I have fallen in love.

With Borderlands 2. It’s very rare that I’ll cross that mental boundary into absolute obsession for a game, but lately I’m constantly placing myself into that cel-shaded universe of cartoon chaos whenever English revision feels so dreary. I felt it last with the first Dishonored (my fingers quiver with rage as I have to skewer the proper British spelling of Dishonoured) game, as is on record, and I’d have thought it at least a year before I could become as enamoured of a game as I was back then. Give it time, that’s what people say after relationships, isn’t it? It appears my heart is larger than I’d thought, with room aplenty. And, by extension, it appears that I have a heart indeed.

As an amateur games critic/author/artist/blogger-extraordinaire, I’ve come to a kind of realisation recently when it comes to the critical analysis of merit. I’ve given up hope completely of trying to justify taste when talking of a game’s merit, the limitations and critical filters that come along with personal tastes are positions that escape your decision entirely. You can’t choose your tastes, your sense of what is ludicly or aesthetically attractive, and so any of the critical syllogisms that may follow from them are only as strong as any assertion can be. ‘This game system/this art style is good because…’ must necessarily be followed by ‘because I say so’. This is quite tangential to the post as a whole, but I’ve recently come to realise how strongly games criticism relies on pandering to intuition and the reason-vacuum of ‘taste’. It will always in a sense be ruled by assertion. One such assertion I would make about Borderlands 2 is that its cel-shaded art style is breathtaking.

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I couldn’t explain explain whyonly that it is. There’s something quirky, perhaps even Telltale-reminiscent in it. As a backwards-compatible port for the Xbox One, its relatively dated graphics quality is redeemed by the artistry behind it. This comic-book chaos aesthetic quality is what distinguishes it from other RPGs that I could be procrastinating with. Unlike Destiny, unlike The Elder Scrolls OnlineBorderlands 2 has a kind of charm in its character that can’t be found elsewhere. It’s what keeps me coming back.

That, and the thing’s addictive as shit. I didn’t think myself an ol’ loot farmer. I’m not down with the kids. I’m not playing friggin’… Overwatch. I like indie games. You morons. You plebeians of art. I’m not *belch* grinding out *inverted commas hand gesture* League of *inverted commas hand gesture* Legends. I like a nice, proportionate *pisses self* ratio of inputs and outputs, I like a good experience for my hours *sneezes* spent. These freaggin’ *defecates* kids with their MOBAs.

But, drunken rant over, the game absolutely relishes in its wea-porn levelling system. Wherever you are in terms of progression, the game trickles you incrementally jaw-dropping weapons so that you are never too far away from that ‘hell yeah’ sensation owing to that problematic, phallic power-fantasy of gun-slinging. You are constantly amazed by what’s on offer, just when you thought you couldn’t feel any more powerful the game ‘roids you up level after level.

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This is my darling. Oh, the cruelty of it. That I have to tap here at my keyboard, instead of running my hands over the curves of her. To trace my fingertips over the heat of her… The impressions of her. To squeeze her at the teenie tip of the tongue of her trigger and… oh… back and forth in my grip, back and forth, back and…

Oh… I’m writing gun erotica. But that’s the kind of affection that Borderlands 2 evokes, the love of weaponry. Gun-rections.

I could wax lyrical about the game in general (for first-time readers: a 600+ word tangential intro is customary for all posts) but there is one thing I want to talk about in particular when it comes to Borderlands 2 and games in general is (can you tell what it is yet?) comedy.

Playing Borderlands 2 has sparked a wider discussion within me as to the ‘funny’ game. It was the perfect game to start that discussion given how hit-and-miss the comedy is. Upon taking a quest for Sir Hammerlock, in which he describes a certain species of monster as ‘bonerfarts’, I had a moment of existential dread. Look, I’m not bashing the game’s comedy as a whole, but in that moment I could feel my skin crawl. The comedy in the game can be so low-brow that it narrowly skirts the descriptor of ’embarrassing’. And then I thought, when has a game really made me laugh? When has a game really given me bellows, gales, fits? Firewatch is peppered with charming moments of comedy, all of which is observational against the events of the game. The Stanley Parable is packed with satire about the artifice of games, Kevan Brighting’s luscious tones frequently tickling the funny bones throughout.

But it’s just… not Louis C.K funny. In my whole history of playing games, I can’t ever remember really laughing. Is it just me? Have I been playing the wrong games? Perhaps it owes to the fact that laughing, really really laughing, is a spectator sport. True comedy is about timing, watching, patience, the antithesis of the kind of active participation which playing games promotes.

If you’re a regular reader of mine, you’ll know that I’m the first to burst open the courthouse doors, papers in hand if some cultural reprobate rattles their mental sabre at videogames being called ‘art’. But… isn’t the difficulty of implementing comedy in games a major artistic drawback for any creator? With games we can animate perfectly horror, war, adventure, (arguably, at least) romance, tragedy and history all with titles that define these items. But… do we have a definitive comedy game?

When people talk to me about ‘funny’ games, then taste has a large part to do with the conversation. I truly… truly detest Sunset Overdrive, and while I appreciate much of the comedy in Borderlands 2, if we were to laud the title as the canonised ‘funny game’ to an outsider, they might squint, hear the neologism ‘bonerfarts’, tilt their head, and then re-read a particular Ebert article. The ‘funny game’ appears to me a unique challenge, to take the spectator sport of comedy and implement it into a art form that requires participation, one that I look forward to observing and commenting on as games become a larger part of popular culture.

Maybe I’m just a bitter old flatulent, though. Is there a game you’ve played that’s made you erupt with laughter? A particular moment? I’d like to hear!

In Pursuit Of Frivolity: What Makes ‘Importance’?

I’ve always been hesitant about making this kind of post. I guess it’s because I’ve always disliked the constant displays of self-validation that come along with being a ‘gamer’, a kind of simulated minority that’s increasingly becoming less of a quirky identity. Maybe now it’s even a non-identity. I’m talking about the kind of people who play games and take immeasurable offence when told “aren’t you going to grow out of these things?”, the kind of people who post a picture of Link from The Legend of Zelda next to Cristiano Ronaldo and caption it ‘You have your heroes, I have mine’.

I’ve always tried to balance my defence of games as a legitimate art form with a kind of humility about the seriousness of the industry as a whole. More and more as I go into studying games full time, and then hopefully developing them, I have to distinguish between what games can be and what they are perceived as. The former is what I really want to explore and push the boundaries of as I get older, and the latter is what I have to have a kind of humility about to remain sane. No game blogger, maker or player can sanely say that they’d expect games to be seen as something serious and culturally important to the average person. I’m going to have to accept that, as I get older and I’m sitting around the kitchen table of an older relative, telling them ‘I work in video games’ might spark an image of 14-year-olds calling each other motherf*ckers on Xbox Live. I have always accepted that, whilst this may negate an individual’s idea of videogames as ‘important’, I know what I am doing and why I am doing it. I’ve always thought that importance is measured by honest conviction when it comes to any profession.

But, recently I saw something online that made me question this concept: of something being important as weighed by the convictions behind it. It’s going to sound stupid, but I saw an article about Wonder Woman not having any armpit hair in the new Justice League trailer, and the apparent controversy surrounding this. I had the nerve to think to myself: this is so miserably unimportant. There is a drastic deficit of basic democratic human rights for women in some countries, and this is what online feminists are busying themselves with. Nonexistent hirsute armpits.

But then a few hours after having guffawed at the article I began to think: why is this not important? If I tell myself that my own vocation is important because I have an honest conviction behind it, then the people writing arm-ticles about Wonder Woman might also genuinely believe that this is a pressing social issue and have just as strong a conviction as my own. And that’s not an unbelievable idea. But with that in mind I still can’t make myself truly recognise any importance here.

By the same standards, though, a more pressing social issue that I can recognise as important, like the threat to womens’ democratic rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it just doesn’t inspire the same response in me as… videogames. If importance is weighed by the strengths of my own convictions, then it’s not as important to me. And that… sounds kind of really awful. But it’s not genuine. I have the humility to recognise that women having basic democratic rights in third world countries is more important than the thing I’m going to pursue for the rest of my life, but I don’t have as strong a conviction for it. It sounds awful when you put it in words, but everyone participates in the same kind of mindset. If you’ve ever bought an iPhone or Nike shoes, then at some point in your life, the self-gratification of owning one of these items was more important to you than children not having to work underpayed, in severely unsafe factories.

So this all just made me realise that importance can’t be measured by the strength of my convictions towards something. I’m a firm believer that language is one of the most difficult barriers to overcome when expressing what you mean when you talk about something, and that a word is powerless without its context. Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is an example of a short story that explores this problem. I think that, when talking about things like ‘importance’, clarification is necessary in all cases. Up until reading that article about Wunder(arm) Woman, I’d always thought that ‘importance’ was simply weighed by whether I felt strongly about something, but that’s obviously not the case.

As someone who recognises the relative frivolousness of my own vocation (a necessary kind of modesty for anyone blogging about, playing, or making games), this small incident has changed my whole perception of the concept of ‘importance’. I think what I really mean when I talk about, or even think discursively about ‘importance’ is whether something justifies dedication. Issues such as threats to human rights of course justify dedication in order to establish democracy, of course they are important. Exploring narrative possibilities in videogames? Of course that justifies my dedication as something culturally and personally relevant. The same principle applies to someone who treats me well, of course they justify my dedication to them, making them important to me.

It’s an interesting experience to just, at any time, sit back and explore why something is as important to you as it is. It can tell you a lot about your own prejudices and perceptions.

I’m Glad That ‘Layers Of Fear’ Was My First Horror Game

If you’ve been rummaging through my web-trash for a while now, you might already know that when it comes to horror games I have a strict ‘no, no, no, no, NO!’ kind of policy. Even when I was playing the now released Resident Evil VII game-demo, I had to have my best friend at the wheel throughout. Although I am extremely (borderline unreasonably) masculine, as is evident in my collection of online poetry, I have never been comfortable trudging through a dark, damp, digital hallway all by my jittery self, especially past the crucial hour of 4pm. I can watch, I can give running commentary in the presence of my friends doing just that, but I have never been able to commandeer those perpetually asthmatic, flashlight-wielding horror game protagonists all alone.

UNTIL NOW! Well… almost. I had my mother by my side for a short time while playing Layers of Fear until she got a long-enduring motion sickness as a result… and I might have been listening to the Cox n’ Crendor Podcast for company when she was absent… but APART FROM THESE MITIGATING AIDES I DID IT ALL BY MY BRAVE LITTLE SELF. 

Layers of Fear was available for free on last month’s Games With Gold scheme, and after some initial hesitance I big-boy’d the download button and prepared myself for all the

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That was to ensue. As I was initially losing my horror game virginity (I’m worth waiting for, videogame developers) I began to appreciate just what goes into making a digital horror experience

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And all the developmental factors that therein lie. Audio, by far, was something that Layers of Fear mastered, a veritable catalogue of domestic heebie-jeebie noises were on display, from the creaking of a rocking chair to the inexplicable Gah! of a door shutting behind you abruptly. The domestic setting itself is key to all the

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That are experienced when playing Layers of Fear. Chris Franklin did an excellent video explaining the idea of domestic horror in Anatomy, and the horrific domestic setting ties in well here with Layers of Fear‘s domestic narrative themes too.  The implicit narrative style also helps in providing the player some

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Examinable domestic artefacts are wielders of character-exposition-nuggets, but much of the story is told visually, in the impossibly arranged hallways of our protagonist’s home, in those contorted corridors that disappear behind you as the psychosis of your character begins to betray visual and spatial logic.

Layers of Fear is fantastically eldritch, seeping with the ghoulish and the unearthly.

It gets the first ever Vahrkalla’s Video Games Seal of Approval!

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