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Column: Chewing Pixels

Chewing Pixels: 'I Kill Children'

November 1, 2008 8:00 AM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, a look at Fallout 3 and morals.]

Washington D.C. is a bleak and difficult place to eke out an existence. From the moment you exit the relative safety of Vault 101 and take your first lungful of radioactive breeze, it’s clear that Fallout 3’s development team has created a post-apocalyptic capital wasteland of grim authenticity.

Indeed, if a player harbours any sort of perverse attraction to the idea of living in an anarchic, rubble strewn, radiation-soaked America, Fallout 3 soon dampens it. These streets, or what’s left of them, are relentlessly hostile. Every can of coke requires a chemotherapy chaser, every rival scavenger you meet while traipsing over the endless debris would put a bullet in your eye sooner than look into it.

This is an America whose dream died a long time ago; whose selfish, writhing instincts were revealed in full when the blanket of social responsibility and respectability burned up in nuclear fire. But while Fallout 3’s America is a bleak place indeed, it is still very much the land of the free.

You see, with anarchy comes a giddy sort of liberty. Despite the hostility of its geography and inhabitants, Fallout 3’s world is pregnant with opportunity. As with all contemporary open world videogames, you are free to be the kind of person you want to be. Should you so choose you can steal from the poor or help them; you can speak with unshakeable politeness or unflinching rudeness; you can make friends and share resources or make enemies and take them. Post-Christian as well as post-apocalyptic, the sum of your moral choices in Fallout’s world is then represented by a karma stat.
But, as with any open-world videogame, the opportunities, while wide and not always binary, are subject to their own limits and boundaries. These are the restrictions imposed by both technology and premise. Technologically, you cannot build a plane from scrap metal in Fallout 3 and fly away to a new, radiation-free existence as a sheep farmer in Australia, for example.

And the boundaries of the scenario mean that you could never be a pacifist in this world. Instead, the choices you have are whether to sneak past the shotgun-wielding leper or to take his head off with a fat boy missile. The basic need to survive in a city whose inhabitants’ existence depends on depriving others of resources is common to every player, whoever they want to be. To play Fallout 3 is to embrace violence: it’s a dog eat dog existence where cruelty and murder are an inescapable reality of the setting.

There is also a third kind of restriction on player freedom in the game, one that forbids a particular action both technically possible and narratively plausible.

In Fallout 3, you cannot kill children.

Opinion: Chewing Pixels - 'Death of a Gamesman'

October 14, 2008 4:00 PM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, a message from the future.]

One of the grandchildren is browsing my achievement points. It's a record filled with tens of thousands of entries, an indelible, almost embarrassing testimony to a life spent in games.

She looks round. “Grandpa, what’s your favourite videogame of all time?”

It’s always been an awkward question but these days it’s near impossible to answer truthfully. She might as well have asked about my favourite meal. Who can possibly remember every plate of food they ever sat down to? You know that you ate most days and you know that you must have been nourished to some extent or other, but the details of what was on the menu, how it felt in the mouth, what it smelled and looked like are all lost to time.

After a while games lose their definition in memory too. You know that you played most days and that you must have been nourished to some extent or other, but the details... A few stand out, for sure, but most slip forgotten.

It's been six weeks since I was told that I'm dying.

The problem with death, for the lifelong gamer, is its supreme familiarity. There aren’t hairs on my head to measure the virtual lives I’ve lost over a lifetime of play. So when you’re told you’ve three months at best, it’s easy to be flippant.

In my time I’ve fallen foul of countless mis-timed jumps, stray bullets, car crashes and drug deals gone wrong; I’ve flown fighter jets into solid ground at 300 miles per hour, fallen under the heavy tread of a London bus and watched incredulous as my space ship dissolved in the mute explosion of a sun. The blocks reached the top of the screen time after time.

Playing a videogame is to enter into a state of inescapable impending doom: they are the moments between leaping from the clifftop and hitting the rocks below. Games only become games when you’ve a Game Over screen to avoid. Lives, profoundly perhaps, only gain value when they can be lost.

In a way then, videogames are the ultimate preparation for life’s ultimate event: through them you’ve died a million times.

Yes. Death should be easy: it’s virtually all I’ve ever known.

Chewing Pixels: 'For Sale: Hero Shoes. Once Worn.'

September 26, 2008 8:00 AM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, he ventures into his MMO past to find out whether buyer's remorse exists, where virtual characters are concerned.]

“My total time played is 110 days, 23 hours and 11 minutes. See? No time at all compared to some!”

This is Lindsay Machin. For the last three years she has spent every day or so playing make believe in the magical kingdom of Vana'diel. It’s a lifestyle with which I’m familiar: battling monsters, earning gil, questing with friends and strangers into the early hours. After all, four years ago it was me who sold her the entry ticket.

Delve into the world of an MMO and you’re buying into more than just a video game. You’re taking on a new reality, one that makes almost as many demands of you to succeed as real life does. A year or so in to the first global console MMO, Final Fantasy XI and I needed out but, having imported a PlayStation 2, harddrive and copy of Final Fantasy XI from America at great expense, I also needed some recompense.

That’s where Lindsay came in. I sold her my MMO life via an Internet forum as a way out. Now, nearly four years later I’ve tracked her down to find out what happened when the experience left my hands and fell into hers.

I’m wary of MMOs; they steal time in a more relentless and vicious way than other videogames do. I‘ve see friends’ lives turned upside down by their unyielding intrusion. And the thought that I pushed something so potentially ruinous onto another human being has nagged at me for the last few years. I’ve some guilt to assuage.

“So, I guess my first question is…” I pause. "Actually, truth be told it’s probably my only question. Did I ruin your life?”

“Hehehe. You saved me a lot of money actually. Think of all the other games I would have bought if I wasn't playing FFXI every night. Actually, I did still buy a lot of other games, but I just didn't play any of them…” She seems sure. Too sure perhaps.

“Ok. Seriously, did I ruin your life? What's the stat for your character's logged time in weeks and days? Tell me you never lost a job or a boyfriend because of this game. Please.”

It’s a reasonable question. While we in the West are yet have any of those Korean news stories of withered boys dead at their screens after three straight days spent playing an MMO, Square-Enix still saw fit to put a warning at Final Fantasy XI’s start up screen. “Have fun in vana Diel,” the message reads each and every time you log into the game. “But don't forget your family, your friends, your school, or your work." Even the publisher’s aware that this is a videogame that can ruin lives.

“You did not ruin my life,” she answers, two parts smiling, one part annoyed now. “I have made real life friends who I love through playing FFXI. Some of us meet up every 6 months or so, but I’m in regular contact with three people who play, and through them have made even more real life friends, including some who I consider to be amongst my closest now.

Opinion: Guitar Hero Praise: What’s Wrong With The ‘Christian’ Videogame?

September 3, 2008 8:00 AM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, he attempts to understand why Christian-themed gaming is so maligned.]

Earlier this week gaming news outlets and blogs caught wind of a forthcoming, independent gaming release from hitherto little-known developer, Digital Praise.

Appropriating the form and function of Harmonix’s Guitar Hero series (itself perhaps inspired by Konami’s Guitar Freaks games) Guitar Praise offers the faithful - at least, those of the affluent, American, evangelical variety - the chance to play along with their favourite pulpit-rock acts, just as Jesus would have wanted.

In the game’s press release Digital Praise promise players that, once they lay down the $99.95 entry fee, they’ll soon be “rockin' with the best while praising the Lord!”

The gaming community greeted the story with exactly the kind of all-caps, spluttering incredulity one might expect. One droll commentator at Boing Boing quipped, “The game refuses to boot on Sunday mornings, so I hear.”

The story gained widespread coverage because, while there have been Christian-targeted videogames before, including such titles as 1992’s Joshua: Battle of Jericho for the NES, 1994’s Spiritual Warfare for the Gameboy and 1995’s Bible Adventures on the Genesis, such releases are still unusual enough to be ‘newsworthy’ when they do crop up.

The Evolution Of Games For Diverse Audiences

In part this type of coverage is a sign of gaming’s relative immaturity. Since the scales fell from Hollywood’s eyes following the financial success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, studios have been clawing over themselves to sign up blockbuster-size Biblical-themed projects in search of the Christian dollar.

But the older movie industry has always been adept at serving a diverse range of audiences, tastes and interests. Gaming is only just beginning to diversify in similar ways and we are unused to our hobby being appropriated by (or targeted at) minority groups as a way of spreading their word, exploring their history, espousing their worldview or promoting their agenda.

So when that does happen the news is reported in a way that the announcement of, for example, another Buena Vista Narnia film will never be.

It’s important to note that the seizure of cultural forms by minority groups, (be they Christians, homosexuals or even international terrorist groups) signals the maturation and diversification of a medium, not its stagnation or a scarcity of ideas.

In-Depth: 'Meet the Editors: The State of Game Journalism'

August 8, 2008 8:00 AM |

- [In a special version of his regular GameSetWatch column, British games journalist and producer Simon Parkin interviews editorial leaders from Eurogamer, IGN, and Edge Magazine to produce 'a snapshot, albeit partial, into the state of the specialist gaming press in mid-2008.' Oh, and the picture is how the games press are portrayed, not necessarily how they are.]

Few avenues of journalism are so dimly regarded as the specialist gaming press. Viewed as little more than hobbyists covering an adolescent industry, game journalists earn few accolades and command little respect from their peers in the older mediums. And readerships too can be vicious in their skepticism, accusing gaming websites and magazines of being fawning mouthpieces for the industry they cover, their writers rarely breaking real stories or offering anything approaching lucid commentary or incisive critique.

Poorly paid and overworked, a minority of game journalists continue to cover games full-time into their thirties, drawn away instead by more lucrative jobs in gaming PR, acquisitions, consultancy or development itself.

But despite this grim, stereotypical overview, the gaming press is far from an impotent one. The disrespect it attracts is more than matched by raw readership figures, which would be the envy of many a news editor in 2008. The biggest-hitting gaming websites attract in excess of a million unique hits a month, and even boutique-y publications, such as Edge Magazine, while boasting monthly ABCs of only 31,304 issues, exert a global influence on the industry and its consumers that few specialist publications manage.

As the games industry matures and diversifies, so too does the range, breadth and ability of its commentators, reviewers and critics. There are those who are writers first and gamers second, who love the games industry enough to be able to examine its products with white honesty, rooting out the real stories behind the precision-written press releases. And, of course, leading, coordinating and inspiring these writers to produce their best work, work that bucks the stereotypes, are the editors who steer the publications, define their tone and set their boundaries.

GameSetWatch directed a clutch of identical questions to five of western gaming journalism’s most prominent editors: Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell, IGN’s Tal Blevins (Vice President of Games Content), Kotaku’s Brian Crecente, Edge Magazine’s Tony Mott and Gamespot’s Ricardo Torres.

In the interview we ask each man (and they are all men) for their perspective and approach to game journalism, the relationship between advertising and editorial, what the most popular articles and posts are with readers and what advice they would give to young writers looking to get into the industry.

All five editors initially agreed to take part but only three actually delivered their answers. Their replies are presented here in full to offer a snapshot, albeit partial, into the state of the specialist
gaming press in mid-2008.

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels: 'Sex and Tetris'

August 7, 2008 8:00 AM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. Here's a story about games led him to and from vice city.]

One, two, three, four fingers uncurl. I don’t see them because I’m past her window by now, but I hear them in the reaction of the beery men stood around.

“400 Euros?!" “She must be kidding”, “F***ing princess”, “She’d be lucky to get 40”

Albert Camus described Amsterdam’s concentric canals as being like the circles of hell, the crimes becoming denser and darker the more you progress through them. If that’s true then this girl’s huge 1st floor window advertising space stands at the fiery epicentre. She leans in, back arched, hand on knee, lingerie-clad hind in the air, eyes masked heavy with makeup and affected lust; four fingers uncurled.

These brutes, these heavy louts, are as much her tormentors as prospective lovers. They mask their disappointment at her prohibitive cost with loud, retorting undervaluations.

Prostitution, at least, of the kind offered in Amsterdam, is a game whose stakes include, perhaps more than anything else, self-esteem. It’s legal here so sellers can refuse clients in relative safety. Prices are adjusted on the fly: raised sky-high for the repulsive, kept reasonable for the reasonable.

So when a group of boorish British men are quoted 400 Euros for twenty minutes funtime it’s as much an attack on their self-esteem as their consequent rejection of the offer is on hers.

“She will only sell herself to me for how much?”

“He wouldn't even pay that?”

Halo 3. It’s a press trip and I'm here to play Halo 3, not sex tourist. I have wife and child and my desire to keep everyone happy in those roles mercifully outweighs any baser instincts right now. But go sightseeing in Amsterdam and these are the sights you'll inevitably see.

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels: 'The Gamer’s Confession'

July 4, 2008 8:00 AM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This latest instalment gets right to the heart of ecumenical matters.]

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been longer than I can remember since my last confession. These are my sins:

I killed a man. No, too modest. On every continent and in all countries, across centuries, worlds and dimensions, in times of war and times of peace, my trail of dead is one frag short of endless.

I masterminded the genocide of countless Civilizations and annihilated every city on Earth each time I booted up Defcon.

I’ve committed patricide in Lego Star Wars, matricide in Final Fantasy VII, sororicide in Bioshock (little sister had it coming) and pesticide in Viva Piñata.

I colonised America in Anno 1701 and killed all of the Indians (but hey, if it works in my favour, I did help put an end to World War II around 73 million times).

I blew up a sheep in Worms. Come to think of it, I blew up a worm in Worms. I wiped out all of the ants in EDF2017, all of the bats in Symphony of the Night, all of the mice in Chu Chu Rocket and all of the light in The Darkness.

My Nintendog ran away.

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels: 'Touch Generations? Con Generations!'

June 19, 2008 8:00 AM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This latest instalment deals with Nintendo's marketing of the 'Touch Generations' series as something beyond games.]

“In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. Find the fun and… snap: the job’s a game! And every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake. A lark! A spree! It’s very clear to see: that a…spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the medicine go dowwwn, medicine go down”

Had Mary Poppins pursued a career in game design, rather than choosing to nanny rich kids in Kensington, she’d probably be working for Nintendo right now. Her assertion that every real life task contains an ingredient of fun that, if identified and emphasized, can turn a chore into a game mightn’t be original, but never before has it been so in vogue with game developers.

Nintendo’s ‘Touch Generations’ family of titles has helped define a new gaming market space: games that mimic those real life activities most people go out of their way to avoid. Mental arithmetic, dog walking, eyesight testing, exercise and aerobics all repackaged and re-branded by Nintendo as gaming’s brave new future.

So effective has the company’s work been in mining entertainment from the mundane that their spoonful of pixel sugar could probably make a game out of pulling pubic hair from a bath plug. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the premise of WarioWare.

Chewing Pixels: 'Video Game Review Scores: Pointless or Pertinent?'

June 5, 2008 4:00 PM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This latest instalment deals with video game reviews and scoring - the good, the bad, and the ugly.]

Last month a British games journalist reviewed Xbox Live Arcade’s Penny Arcade Adventures for two different publications. In one of the magazines the game scored 4/10 while, in the other it was awarded 68%. While it’s a discrepancy that caused some to raise their eyebrows, most commentators acknowledge that the difference simply reflects each publication’s own particular use of the numerical review scale.

Two weeks later Microsoft announced their plans to remove games with an average Metacritic score of 65% or lower from their XBLA service. If the decision on whether to keep Penny Arcade Adventures on the service were to be based solely on the judgement of this reviewer, its fate would swing on which review was looked at.

While a game’s Metacritic or Gameranking average score has often been used to dictate the size of a development staff’s bonuses, EA’s decision to use numerical scores as the criterion for dictating whether games can be sold on their service or not has elevated the numbers issue a whole new level of consequence.

Some argue that scores represent different things to different publications, one title’s 4/10 being another’s 68%. Others question why, when scores rarely tally with a game’s commercial success, we should use them to make commercial decisions? Always, the question behind the question is: do review scores actually matter and, if so what do they even mean?

At a glance, review scores seem to be the most harmless of things. While good critics will bemoan having to reduce a 1000-word piece of incisive criticism to a number on a 10 point scale (or, um, 19 point scale if you’re GameSpot), to the average consumer they offer a useful shorthand reference point with which to compare different titles and inform buying decisions.

Column: Chewing Pixels: '11th Hour Reviews: PR’s Dirty Little Game'

May 23, 2008 8:00 AM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time - an intriguing discussion of how limited access to Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV may have affected its initial reception.]

Judgments cast before they'd been adequately weighed; words sold before they’d been properly valued; shallow opinions that should have been presented as the first word in a conversation but were dropped with the clacking gavel pound of a conclusion. Yeah, every writer has regrets.

Four weeks ago in this publication I referred to Grand Theft Auto IV’s depiction of immigrants as being more nuanced and sympathetic than that demonstrated by the exquisite Baltimore-set television drama, The Wire.

The exact words were: “[Niko Bellic’s] portrayal should do more to warm viewers to illegal immigrants than any of the (nevertheless awesome) characters in, say, the culturally-acclaimed TV series, The Wire.”

While it seems like a harmless enough statement it was an idiotic comparison considering the heavyweight dramatic nature of the television series and the shits-and-giggles, tongue-in-cheek parody of the videogame.

But what’s really nagged and irritated over the following weeks is that, with a little distance and perspective, the bold proclamation was so obviously made, like so many from within our industry, with the aim of elevating videogames to the respectability of more established (read: accepted) media via bald association.

The opinion piece was written following a short weekend's playing of the game just prior to its release and, as I’ve played on through the rest of the story, the fault lines in that specific claim have become ever more apparent. While I adore the slow pacing of the first few hours, the way Nico starts off on the straight and narrow and is dragged into the shadows of the American Dream by forces of poverty and necessity, the game soon enough swings into full adolescent-posing-as-adult narrative fizz.

There’s nothing particularly unusual or wrong with that, especially when sat alongside Hollywood’s output, but claiming it has anything particularly meaningful to say about the immigration issue is stretching the game beyond its purpose.

More interesting than this whiny narcissism are the forces that brought about my (and ten thousand other professional) snap judgments of the game.