Tag Archives: art

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided released recently and unsurprisingly, I have been spending some time with it. Admittedly, it’s hard to find enough time for it between being sick, playing Legion, replaying the Dragon Age series, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, and Paradox’s oeuvre, but I’ve managed to fit it in here and there. Anyway, my existential crisis over the inexorable progression of time is not the subject of this post. Rather, I want to talk about the presentation of oppression in Mankind Divided. Spoilers for the ending of Human Revolution will of necessity be front and center, so you may wish to stop here if you’ve yet to find out how that game ends.

So, Mankind Divided sees you return to the role of Adam Jensen, and he is as gruff and handsome as ever. What has changed rather dramatically is his status as an augmented person, and indeed that of all augmented people, in the world two years following the events of Human Revolution. Whilst that game presented a fairly shiny vision of the potential of augmentation, MD deals heavily with the fallout of ‘The Incident’, an event at the climax of HR which saw every augmented person on the planet, with only one or two exceptions, forced into an insane berserker rage. The casualties of The Incident are said to be in the millions or, according to one trailer, 50 million. Your very first mission, in addition, is in an abandoned hotel which was under construction with the aid of many industrial augs. The game wastes no time in impressing upon you that there were lasting consequences, and indeed those consequences form the core part of the game’s plot, at least as far as I’ve got.

Of course, I say this as though I wouldn't run a store that says "Elves Only"
Not an uncommon sight in 2029’s Prague.

Once you return home to Adam’s apartment, in Prague, you soon see this in an unabashedly upfront manner. Prague is presented as a place which had previously heavily encouraged augmented employment, development, and The game’s designers had no qualms about making this a central concern of their game, and are not shy about using some fairly heavy-handed means to display it. Augs are subject to constant harassment and surveillance. You live in a ghetto, essentially, and this is evident from the many signs of poverty, the beggers, people suffering from Neuropozyne withdrawal (’Pozy’ being a drug most augs need to prevent rejection; Adam is an apparently unique exception), and heavy police presence. The cops themselves are militarized, with their least heavy units looking like particularly tough SWAT members and only going up from there. They’re also almost completely disinterested in crimes committed against augs and turn a blind eye to anything up to and including someone impersonating a cop in order to run an extortion racket by demanding they buy forged papers at ridiculous costs. And this is the nice place, for augs with papers or sufficient resources to get forgeries; those who can’t or run afoul of the state police get shipped to the REAL ghetto, Golem City, which makes Prague itself look like a haven.

The game does not spare Adam most of these indignities. In fact it is entirely ready to push them into the player’s face. You will be stopped by police who will demand to show your papers. People will whisper “clank” as you walk past. You are expected to ride the subway in segregated aug-only carriages, and doing otherwise will get you look of fear, resentment, and disgust, as well as a stern dressing down from a cop when you exit. You get shit from your colleagues in Task Force 29 (A predecessor of UNATCO) who do respect your abilities, but aren’t that keen on your augmented nature. Alongside commonplace graffiti condemning augs, plenty of stores have signs that say “Naturals Only” or “Augmented Use Rear Entrance”, and you’ll hear customers complain about your presence and ask why the police are letting you go there, at least during daylight hours, should you ignore those. You also on occasion run into a person who will offer an apology for the way augs are being treated, which was genuinely a little touching the first time it happened.

This does not go unanswered, with the Augmented Rights Coalition attempting to push back against this oppression. Inevitably, when terrorist attacks take place, ARC is the prime suspect and it quickly becomes clear that many people responsible for investigating the matter have made up their minds before any evidence is in. So, another parallel to the real world.

One area in which the game succeeds, in my eyes, is in creating a sense of helplessness. You can in principle whip out some guns and start laying waste to these prejudiced assholes, but on the higher difficulties at least (Sidenote: the top difficulty is called “I Never Asked For This”) this is often going to lead to a quick death for you. In order to actually progress through the game you more or less have to suffer these slings and arrows in silence. It’s… effecting. In real life I have nothing that is obvious to a stranger which marks me as an ‘other’, so I have the privilege of passing as a member of the empowered in almost every way; white, male, cis, etc.. Mankind Divided is a surprisingly affecting look at the other side of that, one where even with the fantastic strengths and skills of Adam Jensen, there’s not a lot to be done about the state of the world.

What a shame.
The original DX means their victory is basically foregone.

So the game is not subtle, and it earned some ire by using phrases such as “Mechanical apartheid” and “Aug Lives Matter”. And perhaps the most important failing is that the Aug Incident was real, and wreaked tremendous devastation across the entire world, so the parallels between in-game and real-world minority movements and issues of oppression runs into some problems. But, with that said, the game is not just trying to use current affairs to sell itself. This is a genuine attempt to explore, or at the very least highlight, real issues. The extent to which the game succeeds is entirely up for debate, and I am not trying to herald it as some kind of eye-opening watershed that will change the real world. I don’t propose that the game can really let me know what it’s like to be, say, a young black man in America today. Even if it was perfectly able to do so I always have the luxury of turning it off, after all. Still, it does create at least a facsimile of the sheer frustration that comes from being part of a disfavored minority, and the sense of helplessness that comes from being forced to silently suffer all these indignities.

I have been filling this post with caveats about how important or impactful this might be. As I said, I don’t think this is some kind of world-changing media product. I do, however, think it was made with sincerely good intentions, and if we ever are going to get a meaningful number of games that provoke thought or say things about the world, we need games like Mankind Divided to push and explore how to do that. That is after all at least part of the job of creative works as a whole. Even if limited and imperfect, it’s a step in the right direction, and I do respect that and encourage people to engage with it.

Dishonored. Also a TV show.

Apologies for our lax updating lately, Pike and I have been completely engrossed in WoW’s Mists of Pandaria expansion. Contrary to our prior cynicism about WoW and Blizzard’s direction, and our nostalgic view of the Burning Crusade era, MoP is quite honestly the best WoW has ever been. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, that’s just an excuse for being lazy.

In between long stints in Pandaria I’ve been putting some hours into some other games; XCOM I’ve already talked about, and I’m going to write something about The Walking Dead soon having just got it last week on the advice of my bro Barry Manilow, but today’s topic is Dishonored.

In Dishonored you are Corvo Attano, the strikingly handsome personal bodyguard of Empress Jessamine Kaldwin and her daughter Emily. Within a few minutes of starting the former is killed in front of you and the latter kidnapped, with Corvo arrested and thrown into prison for the foul deeds. So begins your career as a nightmarish magic assassin. Now, do you guys remember BioShock? Remember how it was hyped as a game with a huge variety of possible playstyles, but which really turned out to have only a tiny handful of situational options and tended to be very samey? Well, Dishonored is everything BioShock was promising to be; you truly do have a good array of tools and abilities to play with, and you can play in some dramatically different styles. Stealthy thieving pacifist, stealthy and precise assassin of your target and nobody else, stealthy murdered of everything, noisy murderer of everything, using or not using any of a half-dozen neat abilities. It’s a really neat mix.

What really sells it though is the world and level design. Both on the aesthetic level and in the literal “how things fit together” manner, Dishonored is a tour de force. The world works perfectly with your skills to let you explore in a way that never feels forced. When you use your skills in some creative manner you feel like you’re clever for figuring it out; routes are generally shown and/or hidden sensibly and you feel sneaky when you find them. The city of Dunwall, where the game takes place, recently underwent a whale-oil fueled Industrial Revolution, and is filled with all manner of devices relating thereto. It’s also beset by the “Rat Plague”, which is carried by the creatures and causes massive hemorrhaging. Upwards of half the city is dead of it, and when you see mounds of corpses disposed out, and entire districts abandoned, it’s a truly grim vision. All but the very wealthiest experience the troubles arising from this – you’ll see peeling paint and cracks in the walls of all but the most important buildings and those belonging to the very richest. It’s one of the most immersive and unsettling dystopian settings I’ve ever explored.

It’s also Asshole Simulator of the Year, for my money.

Now, to step away from Videogames for a moment, even thought Pike won’t give my head peace once she sees it. There is a TV show I would briefly like to mention. It is a show about superpowered people. But it is a show which is not about the powers, it is about the people. The powers are things to be dealt with, with realistic constraints that never seem like forced efforts to hamstring people but rather clever and logical downsides. The characters are amazing and you want to spend time with them, the show is witty and hilarious a lot of the time, but also dark as fuck at times. The show is called Alphas, and I would really quite like to see them make a Season 3 so if you like great TV go watch it and talk about it!

Gamer? Hardcore? Enthusiast? Buff?

Today’s topic is about how we see ourselves, in terms of being gamers. Obviously (really REALLY obviously) everybody’s identity is a unique and complex thing, and the things important to one person might be incidental to another. To some extent this is, I suspect, where the hostility of “in-groups” like hardcore gamers or early adopters of new bands to newcomers stems from, but that’s a tangential topic so we’ll put it aside for now.

Pike and I both identify as “Gamers”, in the sense that we play a lot of videogames, think about them a lot, talk about them, and read about them both on and offline. Oh and I guess we write about them too! We’re at the far end of the spectrum, where it’s not just another thing we do for fun but an important, perhaps even central aspect of our identity. Just as a lover of books like my mom spends a huge amount of time reading, collects books, and has filled every room in her house with stuffed shelves and numerous stacks of books on the floor, Pike and myself are the same with games. But the terms surrounding this identity are strange and nebulous things with some very different connotations to different people. It would be absurd for someone to call themselves a “reader”, but we would accept a “connoisseur” of books much more readily. Everyone watches movies, but a “movie buff” is a different creature.

Pinkie Pie is a connoisseur. Of you.

So does “Gamer” really work as a label? Sure we play games, but so do enormous numbers of other people. “Hardcore”? It’s probably a bit closer, and we are indeed both tremendous neckbeards and deeply cynical of the direction the industry is going in, but it’s not like I don’t love a good round of Plants vs. Zombies and Pike does little else besides play Angry Birds these days. [Editor’s Note: I DO NOT I PLAYED IT LIKE ONCE IN MY LIFE. ~Pike] “Connoisseur”? Perhaps that fits a bit better in that we are, after all, interested in gaming as a whole medium and are fascinated with it beyond just playing the things. It was easier when we could just insult the people playing the other side’s console because SEGA was far better than Nintendon’t.

So, time to open up the comments! What sorts of terms do you readers use in this regard?

Mass Effect 3 to get ending DLC

You’ve most likely already heard about this, but I thought I would share some of our thoughts about the situation anyway. As you may recall I’ve written at some length about the endings as they stand, so I won’t retread that here. And it wouldn’t be a revelation on the scale of Saint John’s to say I hope they do it well, though I am somewhat skeptical as it sounds like they are just adding to the cinematics rather than doing the work that I suspect needs to really be done in order to fix this up properly.

Still, there is something about this all that is very heartening. There has been a lot of talk about “artistic integrity” and whatnot in relation to the ending – that BioWare shouldn’t change the ending because of fan dissatisfaction. To some extent this is a fair point, as otherwise we would no doubt have all kinds of nonsense like Square trying to make games more like FFIX instead of, you know, good FFs. Nonetheless the attitude that fans are ‘entitled’ is bizarre, for a great number of reasons. First, yes we are. We’re entitled to getting our money’s worth and if a product, for whatever reason, doesn’t deliver that then we are perfectly within our rights to demand improvement. Maybe not to expect it, but to want it, certainly. If I buy a car and some aspect of it doesn’t function properly it’s not unreasonable to want that to be fixed, whether it’s something trivial or vital to the car’s functioning. Second, and our dear Pike can elaborate on this with far greater insight and expertise than I can, it is a pretty well-established notion when you create a creative work and put it out for people to consume, it becomes the property of the consumers. I’m a writer. I dread the idea of someone taking my work and finding it so thoroughly flawed that they want big changes made. But if that does happen, I sincerely hope I have the humility and integrity to sit down and consider the complaints on their own merits – and if they do indeed have merit, to see how a solution can be incorporated. When Pike first explained that to me I was somewhat horrified. “It’s mine!” I cried, “I can do what I want with it!” Well, yes. I can. That doesn’t make it wise to do so, and it may demonstrate great disrespect for the people who are sharing this work with me.

This has nothing to do with anything, but tell me that's not the most metal England you've ever seen.

The more interesting aspect here is that they’ve been willing to do this. To whatever extent they do make changes, to go back and change a fictional work once it’s done is fairly unusual. Yes you have, say, director’s cuts in movies when they’re out on DVD, and remixes of music tracks, but those aren’t really the same thing as making a change to the canonical version of the thing itself. The only real precedent I can think of, and Pike and I tried for some time to come up with something, was the Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3. But even that was a small change, a simple “Oh you survived after all” and the ability to carry on after finishing the main quest, as it should be. And it was paid. The ME3 DLC is to be free, and at least has the potential to make significant, even sweeping, changes to the canon of the series.

What are your thoughts on this, readers? Are you hopeful, or do you despair about BW’s caving to angry mobs? Does this bode well or ill for the industry? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Gaming’s New Paradigm

I had an interesting thought the other day and I’m going to try my best to turn it into a blog post, although I make no guarantees on my success.

Anyways, think back to the 8-bit and 16-bit generation of games. These games offered a form of “art” that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Where were you going to find pixel art? Just video games. Where were you going to find chiptune music? Just video games. Sure, you had an emerging demoscene that was beginning to play with this stuff outside of gaming, but this particular minimalism– this style of visuals, this style of music, and this style of art— was what one thought of when one thought of video games.

We’ve reached a point now, though, where the art that video games offer can be found somewhere else. The music is orchestral and symphonic, or rock, or electronica. The visuals have stepped right out of a computer-animated film. We have cutscenes, we have storylines, we have characterization. We have art that we can find not just in games, but in movies, or books, or iTunes, or orchestral concerts.

Is this necessarily bad? Oh no, of course not. I love when games have a good storyline or good music or what-have-you. But it speaks of a paradigm shift in gaming that occurred relatively recently.

But if gaming is coming closer to other forms of art… what, then, do games have to offer that is truly unique?

I imagine it’s the gameplay itself, and various aspects of it. The micromanagement. The options. The user interface. All those comforting elements and building blocks that have been in games since the beginning. This is what is unique about games today and this is what they offer that other forms of entertainment do not.

A normal day for Pinkie Pie

Now at this point I imagine you’re thinking “What the heck, Pike, where are you going with this?” And truthfully, I’m not 100% sure myself. It’s something that’s been floating around in my brain for a few days and I’ve been trying to mold it into a blog post and I’m not sure how much success I’m having. And so I leave this post open-ended. Maybe people look back fondly on pixels and synthesized music because there was a point where those things, combined with gameplay, formed a trinity that epitomized what video games were, and we don’t really have that today? Or maybe I’m overthinking it and it’s just nostalgia goggles?

The world may never know, but if you have any thoughts, toss ’em at me. I’m all ears!

Little Big Adventure

It may surprise those of us with… stereotypical views of the place, but the French have made some really amazing videogames. In the 90s they were at their peak; Delphine and Adeline were putting out such leading lights as Flashback, Another World, Moto Racer, and the subject of this blog post, the LBA series. (Incidentally Adeline ended up becoming No Cliché, which made one of the most overlooked games of the Dreamcast, Toy Commander. But that’s another story!)

You should listen to this while you read the post.

Only two games were made, a third has been rumored on and off over the years but nothing has ever come of it. Still, these two games are true gems; they are beautiful, whimsical adventures that truly revel in taking the player into them. The first one is isometric whilst the second introduces 3D sections, and they blend puzzle, exploration, and action very handily. But the solid gameplay is only the base on which the real thing is built, and that thing is just the beauty of all the locales, the places you visit, the characters, all these sorts of things. When you went somewhere remote, you felt isolated. Somewhere oppressive, you felt oppressed. Somewhere safe, you felt welcomed – if on edge due to the omnipresence of Dr. Funfrock, in the first game, or the Empire in the second.

I’m failing you as your blogger here, because I’m really having trouble pinning down exactly what it is that makes these games work so well. I would have to say it’s the general aesthetic that is built from design, graphics, soundtrack, and the myriad characters you will meet. It is a world that feels genuinely solid and whole (I overuse the term “solid” and for that I apologize), and it is at heart an absolutely joyous adventure that really goes to what adventures should be about, which is exploring worlds that are sometimes surreal, sometimes a little intimidating, and where the love that went into crafting them shines through every pixel.

LBA 1 and 2 are available on GoG.com for a few bucks apiece and I heartily recommend taking a look if you’ve got a free weekend at some point!

The second one also has one of my favorite endgame credit sequences ever, which is a small thing to get excited about but given how readily we skip those, finding one worth watching is rare!

Tales and Tropes: In Which Pike is Melodramatic

As you may have noticed if you’ve followed us for a little bit of time, we here at the Android’s Closet Incorporated subscribe to the theory that video games are a valid form of artistic expression. Not everyone agrees with us, of course, and that’s fine– but Mister Adequate and I are pretty heavily biased in that direction. We’re both writers, and we’d both like to think that we can recognize and appreciate a genuinely good narrative in any form. Hence why we’re big, big fans of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Because not only was the gameplay solid, but the story– worthy of placement along side the best of science fiction novels– blew us away.

As it turns out, our initial assessment of the quality of the game’s story was accurate. Too accurate. SMAC’s story, you see, was a Herbert novel long before it was a game.

This one, specifically.

I didn’t know this until yesterday when I randomly ran across a reference article somewhere pointing out the game’s inspiration. At first, I thought it was an interesting little tidbit– lots of media homages other media, of course, not a big deal– but the more I read, the more I was shocked and then the more I was genuinely bothered. The game pretty much pilfered the book’s plot wholesale, even down to borrowing a couple of names. Oh, and those amazing tech quotes you get as the game progresses? Guess what book had similar quotes before every chapter?  Yup.  Suddenly, the game that I’d felt I could hold up as a paragon for originality and storytelling in video games was actually just taking it all from an existing novel.

My face, most of last night.

The Five Stages of Grief promptly followed:

  1. Denial: “But… but… it was just an homage, right?  They aren’t really that similar… right?”
  2. Anger: “WHAT?  How could you guys do this to me, Brian and Sid?  Why didn’t you tell me!”
  3. Bargaining: “Oh Gaming Gods, can’t I please just go back to my blissful ignorant existence beforehand?  Back when SMAC’s story was the best original story in video games?”
  4. Depression: Mostly in the form of unintelligible IMs that I sent to Mister Adequate for about an hour.  And that brings us to…
  5. Acceptance:

See, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve realized three things.  Firstly, despite the many, many similarities– the game did make a few fairly notable changes to the plot, most obviously in the ending, which diverges wildly from that of the book, at least as far as I can tell (I haven’t read the book; I’m going off of Wikipedia here).

Secondly, the whole discovery did not change how captivating the game’s story was to me the first time I played.

And lastly, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the very fact that the game is so very heavily inspired by an existing work of art merely cements its status as art. I have long been a proponent of the theory that the best artists are not just the people who invent tropes, but also the ones who take existing tropes and rearrange them or retell them in a new and interesting manner. Everyone’s done it, the best authors and filmmakers have done it (note how this book also inspired the movie Avatar), and heck, I’ve done it– the book I’m currently working on pilfered so much from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that it’s silly– so who am I to talk?

So in the end, I can live with this. What Alpha Centauri did was take the deck of cards that was an existing story, shuffle those cards around a bit, and present them to the audience through the unique prism that is video games. By doing so, they were able to bring the audience into the story in a way that a book alone couldn’t do. Shakespeare did something similar when he breathed life into old legends and had the resulting plays performed for the masses. I’m okay with that analogy.

Also, SMAC is still a damn fine game, and you guys can all expect a Let’s Play on it soon.

Video Games are Art. Yours Truly, the U.S. Government.

The debate about whether or not video games count as art is one that has been raging for quite some time among not just players themselves, but in certain academic and professional circles as well. Well, I’m pleased to announce that the Games-as-Art folk have now got a pretty big trump card in the way of a new change in the guidelines of the National Endowment of the Arts. Namely, the NEA now considers video games and other interactive games to be artistic projects eligible to receive federal funding.

In other words, the U.S. Government just said that video games can be art.

Pretty awesome if you ask me. I’ve always been in the art camp of this particular debate– maybe it’s because I consider myself to be a creative person and tend to see “art” in pretty much anything, but I honestly can’t quite grok how a medium that combines storytelling, visual art, architecture/graphic design, music, animation, and frequently scriptwriting and cinematography (in the form of cutscenes) to be anything but art of the highest order. But then, I suppose it’s all subjective, isn’t it? That’s how art works. It’s why you have people mounting broken toilet seats on a canvas and selling the result for millions of dollars (true story).

Perhaps, then, all the proof we needed about video games being art is the fact that people have been debating it for years.

Regardless, it does feel good to say “suck it Ebert” right about now.


The trouble with reviews

Right then, now that we’ve warmed up let’s launch straight into the pretentious overestimation of my own abilities and talk about videogame reviews and analyses, shall we?

There’s plenty to say about the business of reviews, but something I’ve been thinking about lately is how shallow they are. I don’t mean this in the most critical sense per se, but rather that they are oriented towards only the typical gameplay issues, graphics, that sort of thing. Rarely do they delve into the more complex things such as tracing a lineage of a genre and understanding the influences of things, or really picking apart what a game is saying, except in the examples where it cannot be avoided.

This is not difficult to understand. At the cynical end, it’s because reviews are about getting sales for the reviewing body (Or in this day and age, online advertising revenue) and keeping publishers happy. I think this is a factor but it does seem rather overstated. At the more generous end of the scale, it’s because reviewers are simply talking about whether a game is worth your money and time, which is a perfectly reasonable stance to take, and pursuing this concept means that criticism isn’t fair because different kinds of analyses are not within the reviewer’s mandate.

Are these things contradictory, though? Can you provide a review of a game as fun and at the same time consider its place within gaming, and impartially assess what the game is doing in a more abstract sense? After all, if we are thinking about games as a form of creative expression beyond simple entertainment, or at least with the potential to be, surely we need to investigate the bad and the mediocre with as much depth and critical thought as the greats? For my own part I don’t think these are contradictory goals. I do however think they diverge somewhat, and to expect a review to take both angles is to ask a reviewer to cover a very broad subject. In terms of games themselves, not everything has to try to be Casablanca. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a dumb shooter which exists solely for ridiculous fun; despite this, there are plenty of efforts at making the things more emotionally engaging, more narrative-oriented, &c. And some games are starting to make use of their unique possibilities to make points that cannot be made in other mediums (BioShock springs to mind here).

Games also present a relatively unique problem for this kind of thought. Unlike other mediums, which see very occasional shifts in their presentation and, with the exception of sound for movies, don’t generally endure particularly revolutionary advancements, gaming (like computing as a whole) is part of a very rapidly advancing field in purely technical terms. We’ve all seen it on consoles; games towards the end of the console’s life are much more impressive than those at the beginning. But then the next generation comes along and we’re so worked up (understandably so) over what the new tech can do that we don’t play such close attention to other factors. The new tech opens up new possibilities, of course. You simply couldn’t do Dead Rising on a pre-current tech and have it do the concept justice. I do suspect that it serves as a distraction both on the part of designers and on the part of those who think about games.

So there seems to be a dearth of the more analytical review, or perhaps essay, outside of a few select places. What I’m thinking of is really more an analysis of what a given game or series or genre is, how it has evolved, where it got its ideas from, that sort of thing. On there narrative side of things there are obvious parallels to other mediums; you can find more than a few things discussing what The Road means and symbolizes and so on. And games have plenty of scope for things like that; consider how much mileage you’d get out of thinking about the messages of the Metal Gear Solid series. But what is there about the clever use of things like game mechanics, outside of simply noting that there is a clever use of game mechanics?

I should say, I know there are people out there talking about that stuff, and I don’t want to diminish what they are saying by acting like it doesn’t exist. It absolutely does and is very much worth finding and reading. Nonetheless it seems to be quite plain that there is a lack of a coherent body of thought on game criticism, in comparison to the thoughts on film or literature. And I think that ultimately, this harms the whole medium. As entertainment, games have things figured out pretty well. As vessels for communication, they’re still falling rather short. Games are expensive to make, especially compared to a lone alcoholic takking out The Old Man and the Sea on a typewriter. It is understandable and forgivable that many are made with profit uppermost in mind. Nonetheless many of us in the gaming sphere are all too ready to dismiss things as “just games” – which they might be in some contexts, but it makes it hard for them to develop into anything more if we don’t credit them as something more and start thinking about how to evolve them.

Hopefully as time passes this will change. The best way to ensure change is, of course, to bring it about.