Monday, March 10, 2014

Some Advice on the Eve of Dark Souls II

Before you tear into your midnight release copy of Dark Souls II, consider this:

You will only be able to play this game for the first time once, and that no matter what, a certain magic will be lost for all the subsequent playthroughs.

No doubt the game will have much to reward players with in their second, third, and fourth runs. But, as the cliche goes, there's nothing quite like the first time.

For this reason, I encourage you to take it slow. Test unusual pathways, search for hidden depths, attempt unorthodox strategies. Do not try to rush to the finish line.

I've been noticing the large number of people with advanced copies posting about finishing the game. The fact that they couldn't have had it for more than a week shows me that, in their frenzy to brag about beating the final boss, they squandered the chance of losing themselves in the mysteries of a strange world.

Don't let this happen to you.

Like fine meals, great games are meant to be savored over time. Try to keep this mind when you put that game disc in the system later today.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Kojima's Finest Moment: The Snake-Raiden Affair

In my mind, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, represents the high-water mark of the series. Not only did it constitute a tremendous technical leap over its predecessor, Metal Gear Solid, it engaged in a level of narrative and ludic experimentation yet to be truly rivaled by any other game. Kojima wanted to make a statement with MGS2, and he pulled it off with panache.

Perhaps no moment in MGS2 captures its ambitions more effectively than its most infamous one. After completing an opening prologue in which the player once again takes control of the super soldier, Solid Snake, he or she finds out that for the rest of the main game, he/she will actually be playing as a slightly effeminate and utterly unknown rookie, codenamed Raiden. The move was a total bait and switch. Kojima had carefully concealed the new character from all promotional materials and previews of the game. Many fans of the first installment were outraged, others were simply baffled. It was the memorable character of Solid Snake that had made so many of them fall in love with the first game, and they fully, and reasonably, expected to reprise that role in the sequel.

I don't think it's at all a stretch to say that Kojima castrates the gamer by making him play as Raiden. His notable femininity (long, flowing hair, wide hips and narrow waist, soft voice and smooth skin) all point to an essential unmanning of the player. The same can be said for the introduction of Raiden's girlfriend, Rose, as part of the mission team. She calls Raiden on the codec to discuss relationship issues as often as she calls for mission support. The emotional talk, like Raiden's body and demeanor, has the effect of making the player feel like he is losing control over the situation.

The strong reaction of so many (mostly male) players to the switch supports this reading. The guys did not like having their "Solid Snakes" taken away from them, only to be replaced by what they perceived to be an inferior and androgynous "sissy-boy." They were angered and frustrated because their power trip was stolen from them before it even got started.

The sudden introduction of Raiden in this way, however, wasn't about trolling players, nor was it merely a plot device to make Solid Snake an even more larger than life figure, as a recent Edge retrospective claims. The point was to disrupt the identificatory link between the gamer and the game, to create a critical distance between the player and the "information machine."

The discovery of Raiden was immersion breaking in the extreme. As an act of castration, it severed the player from his connection to the game. Suddenly, he is pulled out of the immediacy of action and pressed to contemplate the meaning of the moment. Amidst that spell, the player is presented with a host of themes and problems to begin to consider.

For instance, riding that elevator up to the top of the Big Shell, each and every player had ask him or herself, on some level, who is this new character?

As it turns out, Raiden represents the player's self as a gamer.

Raiden has no real combat experience. All of his training comes from VR simulation. Like the player, he is the mere image or reflection of what Solid Snake is in actuality.

Although we learn these details over the course of the game, during that elevator sequence, we actually experience their impact for ourselves in real time. We too are mere simulations of heroes, dreamers who forgot momentarily that they were in a dream, and the revelation of Raiden was like a bucket of cold water thrown in our faces.

We don't have to imagine how Raiden feels in relation to Snake because we have already undergone the same realization in relation to the game itself. And so right from the get-go, by cutting us off from the self we invested our egos in, the game involves us in the search for identity that is  the center of MGS2's narrative.

The conversations about the dawn of the internet, VR, meme theory, and genetics that will follow all attempt to approach this concern from different angles. But the switch to Raiden is perhaps the moment in which the issue most powerfully impresses itself upon the player, even if for some it remains latent or unconscious.

This moment of having the rug pulled out from under player was clearly something Kojima felt passionately about. MGS2 was, without exaggeration, the event of the PS2 era. It was the mega-blockbuster console exclusive to end all mega-blockbuster console exclusives. Thus, the financial stakes of the game were immense. Such scenarios are not ones in which game makers and producers are wont to take chances. It would have been easy enough not to rock the boat and just give players more of the Solid Snake they were looking for. But Kojima defied them, and consequently risked alienating them as well as severely undermining the series' future, for the sake of creating a powerful moment to frame a narrative journey that would continue to the game's end.

Kojima did this at a time when hardly anyone was taking video games seriously as aesthetic objects. Consequently, through MGS2, he contributed greatly to the currently developing appreciation of the medium as more than mere entertainment. For this reason, it marks one of Kojima's and the series' finest moments.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

VaatiVidya's Corporate Partnership

A great deal of controversy concerning the revelation of a partnership between the well-known Dark Souls commentator/youtuber, VaatiVidya, and videogame retailer, Gamestop, has flared up in recent weeks. The partnership was leaked through the appearance of a video, authored by VaatiVidya and "powered" by Gamestop, on the company's website. Suffice it to say, the surfacing of the video surprised a lot of people in the Souls community, including VaatiVidya himself, who apparently did not know that Gamestop was going to release it in this manner. More significantly, the video sparked a substantial backlash within the community, enough that VaatiVidya felt compelled to clarify his position both on the reddit forums and on youtube, assuring followers that he was not paid for it and that he had not "sold out."

Let me be perfectly clear and say that I am not persuaded by VaatiVidya's explanations and re-assurances. His claim that he is not being "paid" is disingenuous and misleading. More importantly, his account overlooks the more glaring problems with his corporate partnership. He seems to think that he can go on making Souls videos in an unbiased manner, despite being joined to entities representing the financial interests of the game. This is just wrong and the signs of it are starting to show.

First, it is important to note that VaatiVidya didn't actually come clean about his relationship with GameStop until he was outed by accident. His explanation was more like damage control than genuine transparency, and if we look backwards, we can see that this was something he was doing before the revelation too. Running up to GameStop-gate, people had noticed VaatiVidya's videos beginning to take on an unusually promotional tone, including links to GameStop pre-orders in the "relevant links" section. Many, understandably, were a bit taken aback by this. It became a topic of discussion in the community. Some even posted comments about it on VaatiVidya's youtube channel.

VaatiVidya's response to these criticisms was simply to delete them from his website.

You might say he was just annoyed and decided he wasn't going to let such comments stand. But the fact is, VaatiVidya gets hundreds of comments everyday, some kind, some not so kind, and this hasn't seemed to bother him in the past. The suggestion that he was being less than 100% genuine apparently touched a nerve. Prior to the GameStop incident, one could interpret VaatiVidya's actions in a number of ways. But after the revelation of his partnership, it becomes extremely difficult not to see what did as a kind of covering up

VaatiVidya's apologia posted to youtube and reddit might be said to be equally dubious. On reddit, he made the following statement:

these videos were allowed to be hosted on GameStop's channel and webpage. I don't think it's completely fair to even say they were made FOR GameStop, because i'm not getting paid for them and these are videos I plan on making anyway. I was the one who pitched the concept for each one.

Saying that he is "not getting paid" for these videos is a misleading equivocation on his part. It may be true that neither Namco-Bandai nor GameStop is paying him money for these videos. But they are paying him with content, which VaatiVidya subsequently monetizes. Through his partnership, VaatiVidya receives footage of Dark Souls II that no one else has access to. This access has value, financial value, and the proof of this is in the sky-high number of views he is getting (two to three times more than his videos usually get).

There's nothing wrong with someone getting paid for his or her creative work. It's a labor like any other.  But VaatiVidya's partnering with GameStop and Namco-Bandai constitutes a different case. In legal speak, we have a "conflict of interest."

By partnering with the distributors of the game, VaatiVidya has tied his work to its corporate interests.These interests have the profitability of the game as their and first and foremost concern. All other considerations are secondary. Through his partnership, this set of values becomes his as well. It works like this: Whatever content VaatiVidya creates will inevitably be framed by his own knowledge that his special relationship with Namco-Bandai and GameStop, and the exclusive content it gains him, depends upon his work aligning with the priorities of the corporations. If, for example, he were to decide that he didn't think DSII was as good as the first game, or had serious complaints about major design decisions, and posted a video about it, Namco-Bandai certainly wouldn't provide him with any early access in the future. VaatiVidya knows this and the knowing of it can't help but affect his assessment of the game, even in ways that he might not be conscious of. Saying something that might negatively impact the game's profitability could cost VaatiVidya real financial gain, and there's simply no way that this situation wouldn't have some bearing on his work, even if on an unconscious level. Thus the corporate interests in the game, the interests that place profit above all else, become VaatiVidya's interest, whether he wants them to or not.

As a gamer and fan of the Souls series, I of course have a different set of interests (as am sure you do too). While I certainly wish From and Namco-Bandai well financially, I do not place their bottom line above my own appreciation of the game as an aesthetic object. Accordingly, I feel free to critique the game (positively or negatively) as I see fit, with no ulterior motives about profit influencing those judgments. By partnering with Namco-Bandai and GameStop, however, VaatiVidya has lost that ability by making profit one of the deciding factors for his critical appreciation of the game. Consequently, he will have to judge the game according to a metric that is alien to the pure enjoyment of the game as an aesthetic object. For him, it becomes a commodity to be sold, and when he speaks about it, he does so with this condition in mind.

The upshot is that VaatiVidya has severely compromised his own capacity to evaluate the next and future Souls games in an unbiased manner.

Believing that VaatiVidya could just go on making the videos 'he wants' after partnering with Namco-Bandai and GameStop is just wishful thinking. His own assertions to the contrary are naive at best. The fact of the matter is, he has bound his work to the outlook held by the money-making side of Souls series and as a result, his work will have to incorporate that outlook into his own.

There's a reason why we don't want a judge to decide a case involving members of his family. It's the same reason you don't want a journalist reporting on a company in which he is financially invested. Bias is unavoidable in such situations, and bias unavoidably taints people's perspectives.VaatiVidya has tainted his relation to the Souls series by partnering with forces that value its profit above all else. His opinions will be informed by theirs. And as a result, he can no longer speak to the community simply as a fellow gamer. Instead, he now represents the corporate arm of the Souls series, and all the values that come with it. Take that as you will.