Getting all sentimental – my takeaway from the course

As we reach the end of the semester, the time comes to look back on our courses as a whole and reflect upon the greater lessons we’ve taken from them. And with the ‘Real World’ looming over our heads with the impending task of trying to enter the job market or graduate school or whatever, it’s always important to consider the more practical value taken from each course as well.

With this course specifically, it might be easy to discount it due to the subject matter – the fact that it’s a course about video games definitely does not sound especially applicable to any sort of real-life job; however, with any and every job market influenced and connected to technology or media in some way, some of the skills and themes from the class will undoubtedly crossover into our future employment. Despite how hackneyed this ‘ubiquity of technology’ mantra has become, it really does ring true, remaining relevant to any discussion of this sort.

For me specifically, I know that any sort of familiarity and work with digital media will augment any sort of resumé or interview I might someday tackle, as I am looking at going into some sort of marketing or advertising, specifically within the music industry. This industry especially is one in which the digital realm and digital media consumption has become integral to its continuing operation. So in spinning the lessons and activities from this class to fit my pursuits, I would definitely play up the concepts we discussed involving the online building of cultures, the separation of online and offline identities, and anything and everything we discussed involving copyrights and creativity.

Still, the ultimate takeaway lies not in any specific skill or lesson from the class, but from just being able to look at media critically and intellectually – something I would definitely say I am now better able to do than I was the start of the semester.

– Logan  W

Is borrowing content necessary for artistic innovation?

In class this past Thursday, we had a very interesting discussion on copyright laws and how they frequently limit creativity rather than encourage it. In our reading of T.L. Taylor’s Whose Game Is This Anyway? we looked at how the community of people who participate in a video game often play just as big of a role in the creation of the game’s culture and identity as the game designers themselves. Through the players’ and fans’ reapproriation of the game’s artifacts into things like fanfiction, they are building this culture. I even have a friend who got fairly well-known by recording vocal covers of popular video game songs.

While the idea of content ownership in gaming is really fascinating, I find myself more interested in how incredibly intrinsic the idea of borrowing and building upon others’ work has been in shaping the course of music history, as this is an area about which I know much more. We talked about music and sampling a bit in class, but I think it’s important to look at again, especially a few of the most seminal examples, as this is generally how entire new genres begin to form.

One of the first and best examples of how this borrowing of previous work has allowed creativity is in the 1979 song “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.

The song began when someone was playing another 1979 song by the funk & disco band Chic called “Good Times”. One of the members of the Gang began rapping over this bass line, and a hit was born. Not long after, rap and hip hop began to emerge as a dominant force in music, with a huge amount of the beats from this era produced via old vinyl records of funk artists.

Later, in the mid-90s, a lesser-known but similarly seminal work was spawned by producer DJ Shadow that went on to influence the creation new genres and styles. His album, Endtroducing…, is an instrumental hip-hop album created entirely by samples.

This album not only borrowed from its predecessors’ works, but was entirely composed of them. It managed to create something new and inspire more to produce their own sample-based music. Another similarly influential and innovative sample-based work was The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, released in 2000.

Said to contain over 3,500 samples, drawing from 1960s and 70s disco and pop music to just about any other genre, the album built its own narrative while also pushing the limits of what sample-based music can accomplish. They were able to take the works of their predecessors and take sampling in an entirely new direction outside of hip-hop, paving the way for later pop music to dig into its musical ancestry for inspiration. In the past few years especially, we’ve seen a huge number of artists become popular through remixes and mashups who later go on to make their own original pieces. Electronic producer Shlohmo is a good example of this.

So while of course it’s necessary to allow an artist to retain the rights to their own music, it’s important to understand that innovation typically does not and arguably cannot come from nowhere. Artists necessarily do not and cannot work outside of historical context, so in many ways, this borrowing is incredibly important — if not necessary — to the evolution of an art form.

– Logan W

A Portal into….. nah I’m not going to be that cheesy

While I had played the first installment of Portal before, I chose this game (and its sequel, Portal 2) as the what I wanted to study for a few reasons – firstly, I’m a huge fan of puzzle-based games, and Portal is definitely one of those. Each level presents a (usually) clear beginning and ultimate goal, so it’s up to the player to navigate the level and determine how to solve it in order to move on to the next challenge. While the levels are fairly simply presented, with each one clearly delineated as being its own level, they still can be quite challenging. Secondly, I wanted to look at Portal because of its very unique and intriguing game mechanics. Again, it’s a very simple game, but out of its simple mechanics emerges a variety of challenges along with a fairly interesting narrative (more so in Portal 2 than 1, however).

Although I had played Portal before, I found it very interesting to go through the first levels of the game again having already known the basic mechanics. Rather than actually trying to figure out what was going on, I could focus more on how the game introduces and teaches these mechanics and skills to the player. There are no formal “training levels”, but rather levels that allow you to figure out the mechanics on your own and to learn your skills through very simple challenges. Eventually, you progress to levels that are much less guided. Here, the game forces you to begin having to really think in order to solve the puzzles and advance. I always find these levels, however, to be the most rewarding.

While I haven’t played Portal 2 myself, I have seen a friend play some parts of it, and I definitely remember it being much more narrative-heavy than the first one. In Portal 1, the player is guided by a narrator with a robot-voice through this testing facility of some sort. I don’t remember the ending, but overall it’s a rather simple storyline. In the original, it seems that they were much more focused on introducing their very unique mechanics and gameplay as opposed to focusing on the story. In the sequel, however, since most players were already familiar with the gameplay, they could expand, adding in new challenges and a more complex story arc. I’m definitely excited to see firsthand what all Portal 2 offers and how it builds upon the very successful original, especially in regards to how it handles narrative.

– Logan W

Video games and poetry – are they really all that much different?

As dorky as it is, I’ve got to say that I probably get excited when our class is assigned a poem more than any of the other forms of media we have been studying this semester. While we can a gather a ton of insights from any of the works we have looked at so far, picking them apart and analyzing them into the ground, I have always felt like poetry has been the classic and most clear-cut example of how the artist (and yes, I am including game designers in this category as well) uses form to reflect, enhance, or even alter the work’s meaning and content. At the same time, however, we can use this way of looking at poetry’s usage of form and content to think about movies, games, and of course novels to bring out even deeper insights that we might otherwise pass over when thinking about their content alone.

One of the core foci of our course is to look at how different media operate to present their content. Going a bit deeper, even, we can look at the various tools each medium has at its disposal in order to achieve the most effective presentation of its content (or narrative, in the case of most of what we’ve been studying). While I could write a whole paper about how this applies to each of the different works, I’d like to mainly draw parallels between how poems–at their most basic level–and games try to synergize form and content.

In the poem we read most recently, John Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad, we see Keats employ a variety of poetic devices to match the ideas of a sort of grim fading away to his eminent death. He uses a very short line length, expertly placed line breaks, and even small devices like the em dash to convey the kind of rushed fading that the knight (as well as Keats in real life) is experiencing.

On the other hand, video games contain multitudes of devices like this as well, though most of us likely are not accustomed to looking at them through this lens (I know I sure wasn’t when I began the course). But after thinking about them more critically, paying attention to how games operate and try to advance their content, it becomes apparent that nearly every feature of a game works in some way to achieve something (whether or not each feature is effective is, of course, up for debate and why we have game reviewers). Like we discussed in class, everything from camera angle to the presence of a narrator is an inherent part of the game that serves to present its content in some way or another. Tom Bissell discussed this in Extra Lives with his experience playing Resident Evil, maintaining that the perspectives presented in the gameplay played a huge part what made the game so terrifying, along with every other aspect it used to build its scary atmosphere.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that there is an endless amount of crossover and parallel between any of the various media we have studied – not just in their usage of narrative, but also in the way we are able to think about each medium and how it operates to present its content. The effectiveness in doing so, however, will remain for us to decide.

– Logan W

LOTRO: A Test of Patience

While I revel in the ability to run around for hours in a virtual environment while still convincing myself that I’m being productive, I must say that it has gotten to be a bit tiresome at times. My one biggest complaint about LOTRO is that there is just

I picked up the controls to the game very quickly and I have enjoyed juggling the various quests I taken on; however, again and again I find myself just running back and forth between the various areas in this vast world of the game.

Now, I do appreciate how that adds to the experience of the game as well as contributes to the narrative. It enhances that sense of journey–of being just a tiny figure in this massive world. It goes along with the long and tiresome journeys we read about in the novel. With this being said, my patience runs rather thin when it comes to video games and I would rather not spend a significant portion of the time just running from location to location.
I did recently learn about the auto-run key, so that along with riding horses has eased my frustration on the matter, though the quests are still often more a test of my patience than anything.

I’ve only come across one quest so far that was even remotely challenging. I had to sneak around these goblin-like creatures and pick off one or two at a time in order to finally reach and kill the Goblin Chief. I later realized that this quest was definitely meant to be conquered with a partner or team, but I still enjoyed the challenge of taking it on by myself. Other than that, my quests have mostly been a matter of taking the time to run and find or deliver various objects or creatures. But maybe I just need to get to a higher level first.

All in all, I’ve enjoyed exploring this enormous world; however, I’m just hoping that as I progress, the challenges and quests will become much less wearisome than they have been thus far. I also really look forward to being able to work with the other players on quests and toward a shared goal, as I have yet to experience that.

– Logan W

King of Kong – Can a Fistful of Quarters Buy Friends Too?

At the very beginning of the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the characters and the world of the movie come off as absurd. How can the lives of these grown men revolve around something as juvenile as arcade games? Isn’t that a bit pathetic? But after the film takes us further inside this social sphere of competitive gaming, we can see that their social circles and the people in them don’t operate that much differently than any other sects of society. Sure, their interest and focus might be far outside what mainstream adult society would deem “normal”; however, the players make up a community that–like any community–place a certain social value on their achievements, judging and accepting each other based on this value.

In the world of competitive gaming, we see that high scores operate as their central “social currency”, if you will. When the players gather, they are known for their best scores at each of their respective games. The most elite players are those with the world records of each game, and we can see in the movie how they tend to congregate and form a rather exclusive social circle.

Steve Wiebe, however, is an outsider trying to break his way in. We see this very clearly at the scene in the restaurant when Steve and one of his friends show up to dinner and are pretty openly excluded by the group of veteran world record holders. He is the challenger, trying to attain his own social value, or “currency”, by gaining the new high score in Donkey Kong. Billy Mitchell, the current record holder of the game, is portrayed throughout the movie as willing to do anything to keep his title. This title is his primary source of value. It’s what gives him a sense of fulfillment and belonging, as it is the foremost judgement of worth within this social sphere of competitive gaming.

So while the obsession of attaining a high score in such a juvenile game as Donkey Kong might seem absurd on the surface, we really have to consider the incredibly different social setting in which these players live and socialize. We must take into account the fact that these high scores are what give these players worth and value when they might not be able to attain that in any other aspects of their life. So while mainstream society chases more traditional symbols of achievement, such nice cars or houses, those in the world of competitive gaming chase high scores and world records. With King of Kong, we can see that on the most basic level, the rivalries between these players is really not that much different than, say, rivalries between athletes or between bankers on Wall Street.

– Logan W

Braid: A New Take on a Familiar Design

First of all, you must be aware that I would not consider myself a ‘gamer’ by any means; however, I did spend a considerable amount of time in my childhood playing around on various flash video game websites. Most of these games were simple and easy to get the hang of, requiring minimal commitment on the player’s side. In opening the game Braid for the first time, I was immediately reminded of those ephemeral and ultimately forgettable games from my middle school years. But Braid stood out significantly from any of these other simple platform games in that it took this familiar concept of moving through a two-dimensional world with relatively few controls or abilities to maybe like four or five new levels. It both poked fun at this game genre while simultaneously achieving within the genre new feats that I myself had never seen before.

Braid’s most obvious spin on this old genre is the loosening of the representation of time within the game. The player has the ability to manipulate time itself and uses this to help the protagonist progress. While this player ability might seem rather trite, Braid incorporates it very elegantly in a way that kept me constantly intrigued with the advancement of each level. It reminded me a lot of the game Portal in that a ton of challenging puzzles come out of a rather limited set of rules and game mechanics.

Additionally, Braid’s use of narrative to enhance and complement the gameplay itself further indicated a mastery of the genre. While I do think that the narrative was a bit cheesy, I think we have to give the writers a bit of a break considering how small of a scale with which they were working. Braid put forward quite blatantly the themes of passage of time, forgiveness, ‘magic’ in a relationship, and wanting to undo past mistakes. However hackneyed or possibly even vapid these themes can be, I was still astounded by how the narrative and gameplay complemented each other so well, as I had never really seen that done in a game before. These themes are evident in the game from the very beginning when you first realize you are able to undo mistakes with the simple press of a key.

With its countless nods to the game’s ancestor Super Mario, Braid seems to be incredibly aware of its place within the narrative of video game history while at the same time pushing its genre to the next level in very interesting and intriguing ways. While acknowledging how little I know about the whole of video game history, I still was pretty blown away by what Braid accomplishes when compared to other games of its type.

– Logan W (logangaming)