A Day in the Life: Deus Ex

iPhone vs Android. PC vs Mac. Coke vs Pepsi. Xbox vs PS3. McDonald’s vs Burger King. Pizza Hut vs Domino’s.

Already we live in a world dominated by brands. We support the products we love just as we advocate the politics we agree with. The corporations that make these products have gross incomes that rival national governments. It is no stretch to imagine a corporation which exerts power the same way a government does: there have already been such companies. Usually these are broken up by federal antitrusts, but why? These corporations take care of us just like governments do: we are their precious customers, their loyal citizens.

The meat of Deus Ex seems to be in its bioaugmentation: this is much of the ethical dilemma the game wants the player to confront. However, there are many more underlying themes. A fascinating one is the direction of capitalism.

In Deus EX corporations exert an unbelievable amount of control over the world. As corporations grew in power governments became weaker. Unable to resist the monetary influence of corporations, governments slowly ceded power to the largest ones until they gradually began to dominate the lives of citizens more than the governments did. People lived in corporation-built homes, used corporation-built tools, and worked at corporate jobs. People became attached to corporations just as we currently are to governments.

This is the world I would want to live in. Sure, bioaugmentation would be awesome, but the majority of average citizens don’t have access to the cool ones. The ethics of the situation, though interesting to consider, would probably be dull to live through: just like with the major issues of our time, the average citizen’s opinion does not really matter. But to live in a corporate world, now that would be fantastic. It’s hard to imagine one corporation taking care of all your needs, from housing to eating to entertainment and occupation, but I would love to experience a world like that. Not because it would be better, but because there is a sort of magic to corporations that is currently limited by their scope. Mac vs PC can be pretty intense and bitter, but what if we lived in Apple or Windows homes and ate iFood or FoodXP? Now that I have to see live.


Illustrating Nothing

In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphics must tell what dialogue cannot. Excessive narration would kill the flow of the story, and overly mouthy characters would feel out of place. It thus falls to the illustrator to create images that add to the reader’s understanding of the story and characters in a way that is also amusing.

A most fascinating character is the Invisible Man. He should by all rights be the most difficult character to properly illustrate: he’s not even visible. However, the illustrator does a fantastic job of giving the Invisible Man character and of supplementing his humorous dialogue with complementary images. That is, at least, in general: sometimes it seems as though the illustrator lets the Invisible Man just be invisible, passing up an opportunity to add to his character/the scene in favor of a simplistic ’empty air’ approach. Here is an example.

You can tell he cares deeply

Having just killed a man in cold blood, the Invisible Man turns to his companions (presumably) and casually makes idle conversation. There is only one indication of this: the sword, and this is an example of where I feel the illustration slightly fails. The words here do all the work: they are what is funny about this scene. In later scenes the Invisible Man is better represented: he leaves fingerprints or interacts with his environment in a way that reveals his appearance, contextually. Here, however, there is nothing. This happens a couple of other times in the graphic novel, and I feel the illustrator could have done more in this scenario: show something leaning under his weight, or have him wipe the sword with a piece of cloth, anything besides making a sword float. It is to both the narrator and illustrator’s credit that the Invisible Man is one of the best and funniest characters in the whole book despite being an invisible man, but where in every panel other characters appear something about them is being expressed facially/via body language, some panels of the Invisible Man seem sadly wasted.


(Movies vs Games)=Art

Movies and games have a lot in common: the genres are largely the same (action, horror, thriller, etc.), the quality varies enormously on a case-by-case basis, and typically the costs to produce the final products are enormous (the time, effort, and number of people involved). A major distinction, however, is that movies have long been considered to be an art form while video games remain controversial, which seems rather unfair. When movies first appeared as a media the films were just things you could see in person but recorded so they could be viewed by anyone: that is not art as we know it, just copying and pasting. It took a long time for directors to develop the tools to engage an audience. In the same way the video game industry up until now has been occupied with making games that perfect mechanics, not with engaging players and leveraging the unique aspects of video games as a media to create a truly enthralling experience. Only recently have games like that begun appearing, and they are still infrequent. Regardless, video games will soon be art just as movies are, and while there will certainly still be bad games designed to make money just as there are bad movies designed to make money, the number of video games that are art is sure to rise.

An important distinction to make is artistic and art: artistic is a style while art is a product. I will elaborate on this with an example. Fable 2 (or even Fable 3) is an artistic game: the designs are varied and just out-of-reality, the story is well crafted, and the whole universe is woven into a grand experience. However, the game is not, as I understand it, art. The experience is riddled with annoyances that take you out of the experience, like an inventory and health bar system. The character interactions are incredibly limited (compared to real life, anyways), and the combat is repetitive. The concept is great and amazing but the execution is only average, and thus it does not feel like art. It just feels artistically done.

Geometry Wars is, by contrast, an impossibly simple game with an incredibly simple idea: stay alive. You play as a shape and shoot at other shapes which chase you. There is no plot, no characters, just mechanics and graphics. However, the controls are fluid, the experience is intense, and the whole game is incredible clean: it just works. It might not be artistic (despite the pretty colors it is still just a bunch of shapes that follow your shape), but the game is art. It is refined, brings a concept to life incredibly well, and is a blast to play.

For a game to be art, like a movie, the experience must be great. Unlike a movie, however, the experience is composed of more factors, including mechanics, graphics, gameplay, etc., and not all of these and the movie factors have to be great for the experience to be incredible: games can be great with just mechanics and graphics, gameplay and plot, or any other combination of factors. This is my conclusion: games can be art, but the industry needs time to understand how to make games that are art. It is similar, but not the same, as movies. The experience is still what matters, but the formation of the experience is so much more complicated when making a game, but the possibilities are, appropriately, much greater.


Competing with Kong

Competitive gaming remains a niche market. Tournaments held for games now have prize pools of millions of dollars, but this is nothing compared to the stakes of athletic competitions where professional players make millions yearly regardless of whether their team wins. This is the result of a huge number of factors, but several very important ones are illuminated in King of Kong.

The competitors in King of Kong are not the most charismatic: compare them to an athlete and anyone could tell which is which. This is a small part of the problem: society at large pays athletes so well partially because the athletes are admired. It is much easier to admire an athletic and charismatic athlete than a socially awkward gamer whose athletic skill lay largely in his (her?) fingers.

Another noteworthy obstacle to competitive gaming that exists in King of Kong but is not focused on is variety. There are so many games (even 20+ year old arcade games!) that interest in gaming is far too divided for gamers skilled in only a couple games to make any serious money. There are many high-paying competitive sports: maybe 10 that make a lot of money. In King of Kong a tournament held at Funspot has competitors playing in over thirty games. It would take an impossible number of competitors to fund professional gamers (people who play games for a living) for all these games, and nowadays there are far more games in which to compete.

A final problem is time. This problem will obviously solve itself, but in King of Kong it is obvious that more time was needed for a true competitive environment. Needing to show up in person to compete, for example, is a problem that has now been mainly solved: final rounds are still often done in LAN settings, but at least qualifiers can be done through the internet. Cheating  through hacked gameboards is long gone: games are too complex now for that, and cheats are usually incredibly obvious.

Finally there’s the problem of making the games interesting to watch. Donkey Kong is clearly a competitive game, and the intensity with which it was played was interesting to watch in King of Kong, but only a select group of people could sustain interest in watching every second of every playthrough in the movie: it would be grueling. Games need to be appealing even to those not especially familiar to the game itself, just as anyone can watch and be amused by a game of soccer.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the day is not far away when professional gamers will garner as much attention and money as athletes. It will just take time and a shift of the industry, with lessons taken from sports and even, perhaps (but unlikely), from King of Kong.


My Favorite Game: Crackdown

Awesome title, I know. Anyways,

I’ve played a lot of games, but the vast majority of time I have spent playing has been in multiplayer games, and usually whichever is the most popular competitive one at the time. If I was selecting my favorite genre of video games, I would have to say FPS, simply because I dumped so much time into them. I went from Halo 2 to Gears of War to Team Fortress 2 to Modern Warfare and so on. I’ve enjoyed all these games a lot, and even many competitive games not in the FPS genre such as DotA, mainly just because I like the purity of the competition. However, much as I liked all these games at one time or another, none stands out as my favorite game.

I’ve played a lot of single player games, especially big-hit titles like Bioshock and Fallout 3. Usually I finish the campaign once as fast as possible and then never play it again, and that’s for games that are considered excellent by gamers at large. I like playing these games through one time, but it never feels worth exploring further. It’s thus surprising to me that my favorite game of all time is one that was mainly singleplayer, received mediocre reviews, and did not have a deep story at all: Crackdown.

Crackdown was a superhero game. Unlike most superhero games, the main character was insignificant. Throughout the game he is known as “Agent”, he has no personality (literally says nothing), and makes no choices: the game has only one ending that can be reached in only one way, ultimately. Though I say that, the game is completely open-world. You can complete the mission objectives in whatever order you choose, and there is no time limit. The only thing that made it similar other superhero games, then, is that as you “upgrade” the Agent (who starts as a normal human) can jump several stories, lift/throw trucks, and practically break the sound barrier when driving.

Depending on whom you ask, this game had it all or it had nothing. It had a difficult aiming system, but it also had a lock-on system that obviated aiming. It had a rich leveling system, but there was no reason to specialize in anything; you could be max rank in absolutely every category. There were tons of enemies, but the enemy diversity was weak and it therefore had very little combat variety. Much of the time in the game is spent finding and collecting orbs (which also level your character) and climbing buildings. These are things I find exhaustingly boring in other games. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever focused on collectibles in a single game besides Crackdown.

But Crackdown got me in a weird way. Just as something someone says can click with you in a deeper-than-expected way, Crackdown’s mechanics really hit the gaming nerve for me. I loved feeling superhuman in a world that was a weird mixture of surreal and realistic. I loved it so much, in fact, that I absolutely beat the game: I got every achievement and perfected a completion of the game.

There’s not much of a lesson here for others, but if there had to be one, it would be this: there is much we know about ourselves, but far more that we do not. Explore new things, not because you will like everything you try, but because you might someday find one thing you love, even if it’s just a meaningless game.


Final Frontier of Skill: Video Games

I initially wrote about how my friends, parents, and peers reacted to my playing video games, but I did not have much to say (or in other words, it was incredibly boring to write, and certainly to read). Instead, I’ll be talking about an aspect of gaming/life that Gamer Theory 2.0 touched on a little bit, and that’s competition (better to write, though probably as boring to read). Naturally, Gamer Theory covered what it did practically as well as possible, in terms of why life is just a game and why the game is, in many ways, superior to life itself, so instead I’ll talk about why the video game, in particular, is superior to other types of game in terms of competition.

Competition is amongst the most natural of human behaviors- it is the basis of human life, and structures the most important thing to all of us: how we think. Competition is the foundation of our society and is what has led humanity to the rich world we live in today. Games are the future of competition-but why?

Since humanity progressed to society, outlets for competition have always been sought that eliminated outside factors and ugly solutions, whether by adding rules to form a game or taking competitions indoors. It could easily be said that as games get more complex and more and more outside factors are eliminated, we are approaching a more perfect competition. But let’s take it back a bit.

Regulated competition has been around for ages, and it has always been flawed in about the same way: it’s not fair. Competition is meant to measure skill- but skill is hard to define, and even harder to measure. In athletic competition variances in physical ability often determine the outcome, and even if all athletes were identical, much of the result is determined by luck (in that the factors were out of all players’ control). Skillful performance and mental abilities, while important, don’t matter as much as brute strength in, say, a gladiator fight, or a bad breeze in a match of table tennis.

Then board games were invented, games of logic. One could argue that this was a perfect competition; in chess, for example, the board is the same at the start of every game, physical abilities don’t matter, there are no factors outside of both players’ control… thus, it should be the perfect game!

Sadly, no. The mental aspect of chess is not perfect. Ever since chess became a competitive “sport”, people have found a way to “game” the game: memorization. By simply memorizing good openings, an advantage can be acquired against a “smarter” opponent who understands the game better, simply because, even if there isn’t a “perfect” response, there is a better one to be memorized than any human could come up with on the fly. This doesn’t mean that memorization is the be-all and end-all of chess. There are too many possible outcomes to memorize them all: at some point a player will have to think for him- or herself, so a better player could simply memorize the same openings and then win in the endgame. But is this not a flawed competition, where such ugly methods must be employed to win? Once again, we have brute strength (of memorization) as an important factor in a contest in which we want to test only “skill”. This is plainly evidenced by the rise of the computer (which is now far better than any human chess player), which plays chess not by thinking, but by pure memorization (essentially running through all possible moves to achieve the best possible position, where the quality of position is determined in advance by the programmers). We may see the day, where like checkers (which was actually quite recently, on a human timeline, considered a truly complex game), chess is defeated- an unbeatable series of plays and responses formulated. Again, is this not a flawed game?

But now, now we have computers. Computers are unique- the environment within a computer is devoid of the factors of the Earth (wind, surface texture (dirt vs grass), and even air pressure differences). Physical abilities matter almost not at all when the only inputs into a computer are mouse and keyboard/controller (and eventually, probably just the brain). Video games can combine the best aspects of both the mental and physical sports. They can eliminate luck and “brute strength”/preprogrammed solutions by creating environments too complex to win in this way. Already FPS’s have eliminated any hope of winning by “memorizing” advantageous moves (as there are none, just like most athletic sports), and other game genres are played in ways that require such inventive and creative though that computers simply cannot win, despite being many times faster and more precise (Starcraft, for instance). It’s not yet perfect- the winners of most games are determined by the precision of fingers or by time played- but the day is coming when we might see a perfectly competitive game, where only quick thinking and ingenuity matters.

It’s already seen in South Korea that Starcraft is a serious sport, where professionals live on what they earn by competing. Surely there is a future where video games are THE sport, where just as football and tennis draw different people but are both hugely competitive sports, some FPS and some RTS will attract totally different crowds of people, have vastly different metagames, be linked only in that both are hugely competitive video games. This is what we’re heading towards, because in a world where sports are just a test of skill, how can they compete with an environment where skill is the only factor?

~HungryRug (note that the arguments expressed here are made for the sake of argument only)