but thou must

New article up on Overthinking It today about video games and the categorical imperative. Excerpt:

You don’t need to question if killing everyone you see, stockpiling on shuriken and climbing cliff faces while birds fling themselves at you like meteorites (these damn BIRDS) is getting you closer to your end. You never stop and wonder, “Is any of this bringing me closure on my father’s death?” You just keep going. So long as you kill everything you see and keep your life bar full, you’re doing the right thing.

You’re on the path. And so long as you stay on the path all the time, you’ll get to the end. You’re following the categorical imperative.


this is not the greatest song in the world

Dragon Age: Remember when I said of Mass Effect that I’d almost rather read a novel set in that universe than play a game in it? With Dragon Age, I feel as if I’ve already read that novel.

Follow along: in a world where magic is heavily regulated by a religious order (Wheel of Time), a secretive order of knights defends against irregular incursions of demonic creatures (A Song of Ice and Fire). Our young hero sets off from the home he once knew into the unknown world (everything, really; it’s Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces monomyth, but just to keep to the trope I’ll pin it to Edding’s Belgariad) and meets exotic strangers along the way (The Lord of the Rings). And so on.

Dragon Age turns a genre convention from previous Bioware games into an outright, obvious flaw. I’ll explain by way of example: one of the lands you can explore is Redcliffe Village, a hamlet under siege from hordes of undead that pour out of its castle every night. Here’s how a talented production team with an eye for direction might have introduced you to this dilemma.

How It Might Have Gone

(The party approaches the village at night, fog wafting up from the canyon on which Redcliffe sits. Suddenly, a shambling figure bolts from the mist – a miller from the village, bleeding from many wounds!)

Miller: The … hordes … (dies)

(Suddenly, a bunch of skeletons show up. AWESOME FIGHT SCENE!)

(As the skeletons are dispatched, the village mayor, Murdock, runs up, his blade black with the ooze of the undead)

Murdock: Thank the Maker! Whoever you are, we’re in dire need of help. Walking corpses are assaulting our town!

(The party follows Murdock into the village, where skeletons assail panicked knots of spear-carrying villagers. ANOTHER AWESOME FIGHT SCENE!)

(Once the last corpse is put down, Murdock approaches)

Murdock: Thank you again for your aid. This was the closest battle yet. If any more of those creatures had come out of the castle, we’d’ve been done for.
You: Out of the castle?
Murdock: I’ll explain. For the last three nights, (EXPOSITION DUMP)

Fun, right? It puts you right in the heart of the crisis and starts the action at a good pitch.

How Bioware Actually Did It

(Heroes amble up to village in broad daylight)
Alistair (who’s in your party): By the way, when we get to the castle, there might be some awkwardness. Regarding me. You see, (EXPOSITION DUMP).
You: Ah. Well, thanks.

(Heroes walk another five feet)

Town Guard: Thank the Maker you’re here! Our town is under assault by the undead.
You: What, now?
Town Guard: No, at night. Every night. You see, (EXPOSITION DUMP).
You: Ah.
Town Guard: You should go speak to our Mayor.
You: Right.
Town Guard: And to Bann Teagan, who’s in the Chantry.
You: Right.
Town Guard: And to Ser Perth, who’s leading the defense.
You: Okay, got it.

And so on. There’s a minimum of twenty minutes of conversation – dialogue trees, running up and down hills, fetching and delivering items for NPCs – before you slay your first walking corpse. I don’t know why this didn’t bother me more in prior Bioware games, but it’s exasperating now.

Though the plot may be cliched, Dragon Age tries to innovate a little in combining MMORPG gameplay with console controls. But the result confused me more than it helped. Take crafting, for instance. As you level your characters up, they can learn how to combine herbs and make useful potions. So let’s say you’ve gathered a mess of herbs and want to start brewing healing salves. Do you click on an herb? No. Do you go to the Character Record screen and click on your Herbalism talent? No. Do you click on an empty flask? No. You open up the radial menu using the left trigger, select Potions, then select the Herbalism talent – oh, you’re already on a character who knows Herbalism, right? if not, back out and start again – and then pick the potion you want to brew. It makes a certain kind of sense, but why the designers felt the need to get creative was beyond me.

What bugs me the most is my lack of investment in the story. You start with one of six origins, depending on the race and class you pick. I was a Human Noble, schooled in the arts of war. I played through a little vignette where my noble father sent off a detachment of retainers to fight against some darkspawn. A Gray Warden, one of the knights traditionally charged with defending against darkspawn incursions, shows up at the house. When a treacherous relative betrays my family, the Gray Warden helps me escape, on the condition that I join his order. My father, with his dying breath, agrees. (You have enough control to decide whether to join reluctantly or willingly, but you have to follow this guy out of the house)

This backstory complete, I’m now thrust into the middle of a demonic invasion. I have almost no investment in how this turns out: the war sounds nasty, sure, but a traitor sits in my ancestral keep! And shortly thereafter, I’m given the quest to travel to various points around the country and draw more recruits for the Gray Wardens. But I’ve seen nothing yet to suggest they’re more capable of defeating darkspawn than anyone else.

All I know is that I have to go to these three cities because the game won’t progress until I do. Contrast this to Mass Effect, where I was getting evidence to bring in a rogue Spectre, or Jade Empire, where I was rescuing my kidnapped master, or Knights of the Old Republic, where I at least saw evidence of what the main villain was capable of in the destruction of Taris.

I’m only eight hours or so into the game, maybe 20% of the way through, so I’m not passing final judgment yet. But Bioware’s starting to remind me of Kevin Smith. We all got excited by Clerks: what a bold voice! what a creative talent! Then each succeeding movie grinds the shine off his reputation, until he’s producing unremarkable stuff like Dogma and Jersey Girl. Dragon Age isn’t quite Dogma-bad, yet. And, again, I haven’t finished the game entirely. But Dragon Age reminds me a lot of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: a whirlwind tour of cliches and genre elements, a series of entertaining moments with a threadbare plot to wrap them together.

that’s where I caught her eye

Hey all.

If you’re into console RPGs, like the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest series, then you should check out my Overthinking It post on what makes a console RPG an RPG. It’s pretty great.

Not big into video games? Check out some of our recent guest posts, like this article linking Batman and Dostoevsky in The Dark Knight. I didn’t write it, but I edited it, so that counts for something.

If you don’t like video games or Batman, I’m not sure why you read this weblog. Go home now.

the love is the liveliest, the life the loveliest

Three pieces of Overthink:

(1) I have a post up on the Fallout 3 soundtrack and its existentialist implications. It’s long but should be accessible even to people who haven’t played the game. Have fun.

(2) I’m sure you’ve all listened to this week’s Overthinking It podcast. If not, you can hear me stand my ground on the insipidity of the “celebrity death trifecta” against all comers. We also talk about Emmy nominations and the passing of Frank McCourt.

(3) So every now and then someone lands on our site (apparently) without reading the URL. Their comments on our posts invariably entertain. “hur hur u guys r so retarded its just a [movie / song / video game / comic book featuring Barack Obama] just hav fun wit it.” There’s no engaging these people, of course; explaining the schtick never makes it funnier.

I got one yesterday on my very first post for the site – in which I accuse Rick Springfield of advancing the mind/body dichotomy in “Jessie’s Girl”. Our dilettante wrote:

Actually I think I will say something as I am a loyal long term fan of Mr. Springfield’s and don’t appreciate his work or him being slammed like this. I think some of you need to listen to some of his later works rather than judge him harshly on only one song.

He has evolved considerably in his lyrics since 1981. On his latest CD, Venus In Overdrive, there is a song called “What’s Victoria’s Secret?” and no it’s not about the underwear. It’s basically the flip side of Jesses Girl and tells us men should look for what’s inside of a woman and not objectify their bodies.

There is another song on that CD, “Mr. PC” that has lyrics that sum up perfectly what I think of this specific article some of the negative opinions given:

On and on and on and on you go tell me Mister PC
Round and round and round and round you go preach it PC
You got a brilliant way of saying nothing at all

Given this anonymous poster’s instant lyrical recall of Rick Springfield songs that nobody knew existed, I can only draw one conclusion: Rick Springfield just trolled our blog. High-five, guys.

accidents mean no one’s guilty; ignorance means someone’s killed

This media blow might get political, but that’s no fault of mine:

The Lives of Others: Oscar-winning German film from 2007. Set in East Berlin in 1984, it follows a Stasi captain ordered to surveill a popular playwright and his actor girlfriend. The passion in their lives draws him in, until he finds himself bending the rules to keep them safe. Like The Conversation, but heartwarming and taking place outside of Gene Hackman’s head. Phenomenal – moving, funny and rich in historic detail.

(Note: National Review called it the best conservative movie of the last twenty-five years – which, coming from a magazine that’s spent hundreds of pages defending warrantless wiretaps and detention without trial in the last decade, ranks as one of the sicker ironies I’ve read in some time)

Half-Life 2: Acquired it with the Orange Box; finished it last week. I see what all the fuss is about! The grossout horror aspects don’t do it for me (zombies! ceiling barnacles!), but the shooting felt more intuitive and intense than any other FPS I’ve played in recent memory. The house-to-house urban levels (Anticitizen One and “Follow Freeman”) justify the sticker price – which isn’t much in 2009, so go get a copy.

And the in-game dialogue does not disappoint (as it shouldn’t, coming from the makers of Portal). Dr. Breen’s tired lectures to the troops at Nova Prospekt beat the writing in any given Michael Bay movie, hands-down. “This brings me to the one note of disappointment I must echo from our Benefactors …”

I started in on HL2:Ep1 but logged off pretty early. Given the cataclysmic ending of HL2, I figured that Ep1 would put you in control of Alyx Vance as she fled City 17. Now that would have been cool. But no, once again it’s Gordon Freeman, forced to invade the same Citadel he just spent several hours blowing up. I’ll pick it up again once time has cooled its memory, I’m sure.

Slan: Typical ’40s pulp – lots of action, lots of breakneck pacing, lots of pseudo-scientific talk. In the distant future, the human race has united into a single global police state, fanatically devoted to one end: killing the super-mutants called slans. Slans look exactly like humans, except for the golden tendrils emerging from their skulls that give them telepathic capabilities. That, plus their superhuman speed and reaction time, make them a threat to the human race.

The story moves along at an engaging clip, pausing only on occasion for lengthy lectures on the history of the current situation. In these lectures we get a definite sense of the time in which van Vogt wrote this novel: 1940, when the world hadn’t quite lost its fascination with fascism yet. Because fascism isn’t just jackboots and insignia (though those are essential). It’s any political system which treats culture, genetics and politics as different facets of the same machine, a machine that, if it were only tempered just so, could launch the human species at a lightning pace.

Still, it’s pretty understated. Get past that and you have a classic piece of sci-fi history.

Buffy: I haven’t forgotten you. A couple more episodes, then I’ll have my next batch of 5.

Black Summer: Superhero comics stem from adolescent power fantasies, and the passing decades have not matured that appeal much. Sure, comic books sometimes touch on political issues of the day, but almost always within their own limited language – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if a super-soldier punched Hitler in the face? and he had a sidekick who was my age?” At the end of the day, it’s still wish-fulfillment. And that’s fine. Indulging in wish-fulfillment gets the human race out of bed in the morning. But let’s call it what it is.

Black Summer is an independent comic series written by Warren “&%$#” Ellis and illustrated, sometimes too ornately, by Juan Jose Ryp. It tells the story that brings the Seven Guns, America’s only cybernetically enhanced vigilante team, out of retirement. Each of the Guns combines cutting-edge information processing nanotech with handguns of unequalled power – some can run faster than light, some can throw tanks at helicopters, some can see through every satellite or computer in the world. Four of them can hold off an Army battalion.

The series begins with the most trusted member of the Seven Guns, John Horus, killing the President and Vice-President with his bare hands moments before they’re scheduled for a press conference. He appears before the White House press corps and charges the (unnamed) President with a number of crimes, including but not limited to prosecuting an illegal war in Iraq and ordering the torture of enemy combatants. He demands a new election take place as soon as possible, and then flies off.

To Ellis’ credit, John Horus is insane. No one – not even his teammates – thinks that murdering the President will solve what’s wrong with America. As one of his allies puts it, John Kennedy was so unliked that he barely got elected, and now look what people think of him. So is Ellis saying violence won’t fix the system? That violence is an ugly but necessary first step? That the system can’t be fixed?

I don’t know that he’s saying any of those. I think Ellis took a dark idea that writers have been batting around since Watchmen (“what if someone truly invincible, and maybe a little bit crazy, were as mad at the President as I am?”) and ran with it. The result is an interesting, and brutally violent, little story. I don’t think it’ll change anyone’s mind on anything important. But, again, it’s a comic book.

’cause I’m as ill as the convict who kills for phone time

If you’re not already subscribing, you should check out this week’s Overthinking It podcast, in which four white guys and an Asian argue about rap music. We also sling terms like “racially normative” around and, at one point, call Mozart “soulless and technical.” It’s the most controversial podcast I’ve ever been on; don’t miss it.

# # #

Media blows monitor your movements:

Brazil: Tasha Robinson over at the AVClub gave Terry Gilliam a lifetime pass for directing Brazil, and I have to agree with her. With a savage look at the demoralizing effects of bureaucracy and the numbing balm of consumer culture, Gilliam depicts a world too plausible to be real. It’s 1984 with punch and savage wit. The puppeteering and other effects, dated though they are, work wonderfully: Jonathan Pryce as an airborne angel, the legions of hunchbacked baby-faced ghouls, etc.

Half-Life 2: Started playing this about a week ago. I can go at it for maybe forty-five minutes at a time before I get revulsed or frustrated. Either something disgusting leaps out of a corner and attacks me (oh fuck, it’s on the ceiling, it’s pulling me up into its mouth, oh FUCK) or I hit a repetitive stretch of gameplay and tap out. However, I can definitely see what the fuss was about: the controls feel smoother and the enemy A.I. smarter than any other shooter I’ve played in a while. And there’s such an obsessive level of verite in every aspect of the world – from the scraps of paper and graffiti to the periodic radio announcements from City 17 – that I almost don’t want to leave.

and you can’t find nothing at all if there was nothing there all along

And on the third day, they went to the media blow, only to find the stone rolled aside:

The Limits of Power: A book-length op-ed. Heavy on assertions, backed up by telling but sparse anecdotes, Bacevich’s new book on American imperialism likely won’t convince anyone who wasn’t one foot in the bag already. But for those of us who were, it’s a stirring call: an indictment of the view that American military presence is capable of bringing peace and democracy in “small wars.” Bacevich does a good job of separating Democratic rhetoric from the historical record. The wars that Bush started were hardly a break with American tradition: Presidents have been intervening in regional conflicts, starting wars on spurious pretenses, and expropriating foreign resources for domestic use since the late 40s. Hell, if you include the Louisiana Purchase, it’s been happening for centuries.

(I know that little blurb’s going to rile up readers on both the Left and Right, but I’m not really interested in debating it. If you want to defend American exceptionalism, take it up with Bacevich, not me)

Crank: I watched this on Sunday in anticipation of Crank 2: High Voltage this weekend. It’s vacant and dumb, but it’s well-paced. I’ve said this several times before, but Jason Statham can hold an action flick together with his tired, unshaven Everyman nature. He works best when he isn’t given zany one-liners – just a weary look and a bruised resiliency.

Despite its shallow appearance, Crank has a lot going on beneath the surface. Expect me to write more on that subject on Overthinking It later this week. We already touched on the Easter symbolism in Sunday’s Overthinking It podcast, which you should definitely listen to.

Xenos: In contrast to the decrying of fascism in Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, I read Dan Abnett’s breezy glorification of Sci-Fascism, Xenos, at about the same time. Abnett’s novels take place in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, known for its tabletop strategy games and online multiplayer RTSs. Xenos follows Gregor Eisenhorn, a gun-toting Inquisitor in the Church of the God-Emperor of Mankind. He jaunts from planet to planet with a retinue of psychics and gunfighters, hunting down twisted worshippers of the Chaos Gods.

Xenos is fun, mindless pulp. The body counts are high – over twelve thousand people die in the first three chapters (most of them all in one blow) – and every other chapter ends with someone kicking in a door with a gun in his hand. Abnett tosses around sci-fictionisms like “ceramsteel” and “data-slates” with abandon. A diverting guilty pleasure.

Mass Effect: Beat it this past Saturday. Rebooting after the first 5 hours and tinkering with some of the auto-target settings cured what ailed the game – I enjoyed it much more throughout. I’d still rather read a novel set there then play a game, but I’ll buy the sequel (eventually). My advice to the first timers:

  • Order of planets: Lissa, then Feros, then Noveria, then Vermire. Trust me.

  • Give everyone without the Fitness trait or the Soldier trait an armor upgrade that regenerates their health. You’ll save medi-gel, and mental effort, if you don’t have to worry about healing the other guys between combats.

  • Get comfy with the squad orders on the D-pad. If an enemy digs in, use the Up button to send your other two guys forward, laying down covering fire. If enemies are strafing your weaker engineers or biotics, use the Down button to tell them to dig in, then charge ahead with grenades and autofire.

  • Do as many side-quests as you can before visiting the first plot point planet (see order above). Also, visit as many other planets in the Galaxy as you can. Mineral deposits and random scavenging leads to boatloads of cash, and cash is only useful in the early game.