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Column: The Magic Resolution

COLUMN: "The Magic Resolution": I Love You Just The Way You Are

August 17, 2010 12:00 PM |

gsw-the-void.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a regular GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. This time: how some games shine not through the elegance of their construction, but through the imperfections which give them soul...]

Back whenever it was released, I wrote a review of Gears of War 2. It was the first time, I think, that I was presented with a real critic’s paradox, and the first time I started to seriously think about how games operate and how they affect me personally.

Gears of War 2 is, undoubtedly, an enormously well constructed game. It’s pieced together with real precision, the action is as tight as anything, the production values sky high. As a traditional games reviewer, I felt compelled to award it a high mark. But as both a player and a critic of a form, I didn’t like it. I enjoyed myself, but I didn’t like it.

Blasting the Locust hordes was fun, sure. But there was something cold and distant about its unrelenting competence. It felt like a mechanical construction, something created by a sort of games development machine, purposefully built to churn out high-durability action fodder for the masses. Which, of course, it is. And there’s a place for that. But I still came away from Gears 2 disappointed, having just spent several hours in the company of a game completely devoid of character or soul.

I’ve been thinking a lot about imperfection in video games over the last few days. Specifically, since Deadly Premonition was confirmed for a European release. I’ve never played Deadly Premonition, but everything I hear about it makes me desperately eager to do so. As a game, people say, it’s broken beyond belief. But as an experience, there’s nothing else like it.

COLUMN: "The Magic Resolution": We Can But Dream

August 8, 2010 12:00 AM |

gsw-inception.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a regular GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. Lewis went to see Inception recently. He wishes video games had dreamt up the idea first...]

This might be a slightly unorthodox way to begin an editorial about video games, but to hell with it: today, I’m going to review Inception.

I went to see it the other day, at long last. Christopher Nolan’s new film is a meticulously crafted blockbuster, tense and exciting but thoughtful and complex. I loved every second of it and I didn’t want it to finish.

I’ve heard various complaints about it, almost all of which are ludicrous. “It’s too complicated to follow,” screech several reviews. I’ve no idea what those critics were watching: if anything, I’d say Inception veered in the direction of having too much exposition and spelled out more of its mystery than was necessary. It’s plot is an elaborate one, but presented with such beautiful clarity. I was never lost.

COLUMN: "The Magic Resolution": Sequel Syndrome

July 13, 2010 12:00 AM |

gswbioshock2.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a regular GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. This time: sequels, the problem so many of them face, and a game to keep the idea of brilliant follow-ups alive.]

Do you know what was a dismally unexciting game for me? I do. It was BioShock 2. BioShock, for all its quirks, was for me the greatest first-person shooter of the last decade (and I’m not including RPGs with shooty bits in that category, since Deus Ex was clearly better). Its sequel? I keep having to remind myself there even was one.

Yet in a great many ways, if you want to be all silly and “objective” about it, BioShock 2 was the better game of the pair. Its world was crafted with just as much meticulous detail as its predecessor, the script and voice work were equally wonderful, it didn’t get confused and start narratively flailing two-thirds of the way through, and the combat was most certainly tighter. In contrast with the games’ fiction, if BioShock was the prototype Big Daddy, BioShock 2 was the real metal deal.

But - and go on, be honest here - it was basically rubbish, wasn’t it?

COLUMN: "The Magic Resolution": A Private Matter

June 3, 2010 12:00 PM |

privatesgsw.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a regular GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. And reading about them, it would seem, as this week, he's been considering a feminist approach to Zombie Cow's new game.]

I'm still not quite sure what I make of this article, posted on Hoyden About Town. It's a blog, according to its header image, about "life, laughs, science, progressive politics and foiling diabolical masterminds." What that roughly translates as is: a feminist blog which touches on several other topics, one that's nicely written and picks up on some decent issues.

It's by no means a blog about games. But one author, going by the name of Lauredhel, noticed something untoward in a press release for Zombie Cow's new sex education game, Privates. From it, she deduced that "no matter how much we try to make excuses for them and work to find the positive aspects of this sort of game, the developers are dead set on regaling us with their hatred of women."

I feel it's important to establish something rather firmly before I go any further. While I wasn't previously familiar with Hoyden About Town, I have browsed the archives, and it appears to be smart stuff. The comments thread on the article in question, while scattered with nastiness from both sides of the arguments for the first 50-or-so comments, eventually developed into an interesting discussion. The author herself has been largely absent throughout the aftermath, but other writers on the blog have been keen to engage in debate. And, most importantly, I absolutely agree with the core message that emerges from the discussion: that certain language, whether intentionally misogynistic or not, can subtly perpetuate sexist ideas that have become engrained within our society.

So, Privates. It's an upcoming game from Zombie Cow, of Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please! fame. Both games are absolutely offensive and equally hilarious. Privates is the result of a commission from UK media outlet Channel 4, who have spoken at a number of conferences recently about their desire to reach teenage boys as part of their education remit. The game itself features an elite squad of condom-hatted commandos who invade the unmentionable areas of various STI-infected characters, attempting to stamp out those infections. In other words: it's a game promoting safe sex to teenagers who'd usually tune out during scientific and impersonal sex education lessons. That can only be a good thing, right?

COLUMN: "The Magic Resolution": Being Somebody

May 15, 2010 12:00 PM |

beingsomebody.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a regular GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. Following a trip to GameCamp, Lewis has been pondering the nature of player characters in games, and the extent to which we really become these characters while we're immersed in their worlds.]

To what extent do we embody the characters whom we play as in games?

That question was on my mind at last weekend's GameCamp in London, at which 150 attendees spent the day discussing, debating and theorizing video games. With sessions run by a variety of games industry veterans and interested outsiders alike, the event sparked a series of enlightening conversations between a group of people fiercely passionate about the medium.

This question in particular emerged from a session on video game narrative, chaired by Rock, Paper, Shotgun editor Kieron Gillen. During the discussion, Kieron invited me to speak about "context as narrative", and the ways in which I attempted to utilise this method while creating my Half-Life 2 mods, Post Script and Nestlings, which I've written about on these pages before.

The idea: to experiment with the nature of video game storytelling by removing as much as possible of what is traditionally considered to be a "game", leaving just basic movement interaction and a meaningful world to explore. In both mods, I attempted to construct a vivid and detailed world in which to exist, and played with ideas of character and event ambiguity -- in much the same way as University of Portsmouth researcher Dan Pinchbeck did with his revered creation Dear Esther.

The initial response to my few minutes in the hotseat, then, was this: "So, like a gallery?"

COLUMN: "The Magic Resolution": Doing It For The Kids

March 23, 2010 12:00 AM |

CVG editor Tim Ingham['The Magic Resolution' is a regular GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. Are violent video games 'corrupting' our kids? We've heard that debate before, but perhaps not as obnoxiously as this...]

"Hearing the floor manager tell the octagenarian crowd to 'really let your feelings be known if he says something you don't agree with' seconds before filming was pretty disconcerting. I hope you noted the targeted 'he' in that sentence. I certainly did."

Tim Ingham admits he didn't expect anything less, though. As you might be aware, the CVG game website editor recently appeared on UK television's The Alan Titchmarsh Show, as part of a feature on the dangers of violent gaming to children. Hmm. Where have we heard this before?

Even if you didn't see the clip, you can guess where this is going. Titchmarsh, who made a name for himself in the clearly game-related profession of celebrity gardening, chaired a debate which asked the age-old question: are violent games corrupting the minds of our young? Thoughtfully, he turned to the expert first.

"I was fully aware that I wasn't going to be the most adulated guest of our green-fingered host," Tim tells me. "It would have been foolhardy to think that the core audience were anything but retired Daily Express [a British tabloid, with a certain reputation for conservative hyperbole] devotees, and that's the mindset I arrived and departed with."

It's a shame, though. In a section on gaming, one might expect the editor of a leading games website to be allowed to speak for more than a few seconds at a time, before being interrupted and shouted over by a hyped-up audience and the frankly reprehensible squeals of the lady sitting to his left.

COLUMN: "The Magic Resolution": Waggle The Left Stick

February 21, 2010 12:00 PM |

gsw360pad.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a regular GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. Having played the PC version of From Software's Ninja Blade, Lewis discusses console to PC game conversions, and what can go horribly wrong.]

I recently played the PC version of Ninja Blade. The Xbox 360 original released around a year ago, and the PC version - launched in North America late last year - finally hit the UK last week. The day I spent reviewing it became one of my least favorite of the year so far.

Ninja Blade is an insane game. It's generic and predictable, but you almost suspect it wants to be, and it magnifies those genre quirks into something utterly overblown and ridiculous. I'm not really into that anyway, and even without the impenetrable wall of PC-specific problems, I still don't find Ninja Blade to be anything above utterly mediocre. That's fine, though - a lot of people will be okay with the game's approach. It's okay for players to disagree over a game's quality.

Except, I must admit to being completely dumbfounded by the handful of positive reviews this PC version has received. That's because, as a PC game, I found it to be borderline unplayable. With a 360 pad plugged in, it basically works - aside from a couple of controller glitches here and there. But to what extent is it acceptable to release a game for one format, while essentially demanding you use the controller from another one?

Just as a quick guide to what we're dealing with here: when you create a new save file at the start of Ninja Blade on the PC, it warns you not to "turn off your console." Yes, Ninja Blade is one of those conversions: not so much converted as made to perfunctorily run on a different machine.

In-game, you're asked to press A, B, X and Y in various sequences as part of Ninja Blade's extraordinary abundance of quick-time events. Whether you have a 360 pad plugged in or not, the game captions these button icons with text describing the PC equivalent controls. Only it doesn't always do that. Sometimes, you're left staring at a giant, pulsating, green letter A, and no idea what to do with it.

COLUMN: "The Magic Resolution": It's Not All Fun And Games

January 8, 2010 12:00 AM |

gswesther.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. As we enter a new decade, a small new trend seems to be emerging in the indie scene: the removal of interactivity. Are we entering an era in which games no longer have to be games?]

When is a game not a game?

I've spent the last few minutes trying to think up a witty response to that question, but actually, it serves more of a purpose to leave it unanswered for the time being. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately: is there a magical line somewhere that separates games from other forms of "interactive" media and, if so, where exactly does it lie?

A couple of years ago, it might not have been an issue. Games could, for the most part, be easily defined by their inherent interactivity. Attempts to create narrative experiences that dismissed this interaction had, in the past, been less than successful. The interactive movie flailed about and quickly imploded, and interactive fiction's few attempts at pure narrative led to most people suggesting they might as well read a book. For a vast majority of gaming's history, the medium has been about doing. But now, as we enter a new decade, is there a chance that could change?

In 2008, Dan Pinchbeck, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, released a Half-Life 2 mod called Dear Esther. Part of a research project examining novel uses of first-person game engines, it removed all agency from the player, casting him or her as an unidentified figure exploring a desolate island. Randomly triggered audio clips spouted the memoirs of a dying man, and letters to the mysterious Esther, whose presence seems to be felt on the island in an unusual and abstract way.

Dear Esther seems to have spawned a new trend in indie development: the game that isn't a game. Since Esther, we've seen Judith - a low-fi walk around an unsettling castle, a retelling of the opera Bluebeard - The Path - Tale of Tales' controversial and heavily symbolic version of Little Red Riding Hood - Small Worlds - a pure-exploration game, in which the player slowly uncovers a collection of snowglobe-esque environments - and now a couple of my own pieces. My ongoing Half-Life 2 mod project Post Script is an attempt to see how little interaction you can get away with in something that's still ostensibly game-like. Nestlings just gets rid of the game altogether, and simply uses the Source engine to tell a short story.

COLUMN: 'The Magic Resolution': No Girls Allowed

November 13, 2009 12:00 PM |

nowomenallowed.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. With the release of Modern Warfare 2 and the surrounding airport scene controversy, Lewis is surprised to see a more alarming discussion of the game's potential ills - and those of the entire medium...]

It seems that I, and the entirety of the male gaming population, should be on-guard at the moment. According to Telegraph writer Hannah Betts, “an army of women” is about to argue with us.

In a fascinating piece of writing - which I'd like to think is tongue-in-cheek, but really struggle to believe that's true - Ms. Betts clings onto various gender stereotypes for dear life as she attempts to assign her frustration at the male species to the evils of video games. And with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 this week, she appears to have found her perfect opportunity to do so.

Writing for the Telegraph, Ms. Betts begins by describing the game’s launch as “something momentous [for] The World Of Men, something that those living in The World of Women – that is, largely, The Real World – may yet be unaware of.”

This is an astonishing article, one rooted in traditional male/female values and behaviours. They’re assigned behaviours that gender research has attempted for years to disprove and dissipate, her language the sort that critical linguistics has battled against for almost as long.

The notion of gaming being a male pastime is one that’s existed for many years. It’s become engrained in a sort of folk-sociological culture as a boys’ sport, a no-girls-allowed club, and it’s been subject to much discussion. Heather Chaplin’s rant at this year’s Game Developers Conference, in which she accused mainstream gaming of being deeply embedded in “guy culture”, is but one notable example.

Column: 'The Magic Resolution': Hope Through Homelessness

October 24, 2009 12:00 PM |

aliceandkev.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. This week, Lewis looks to another writer to showcase just how thought-provoking even mainstream games have become. Enter Robin Burkinshaw's 'Alice and Kev'...]

When I started my column earlier in the year, I had a solid idea of the sort of thing I wanted to write about. So often is the gaming press focused on picking apart and observing the mechanical specifics of a product that, frequently, the very nature of the experience gets lost in communication. And that's a shame because, at their very core, video games are about giving in to infinite possibilities, letting go and allowing yourself the pleasure of intense human reaction.

I assumed I'd be talking about plenty of games. I didn't expect to be talking in any great length about a piece of writing about games. But Robin Burkinshaw's Alice and Kev is one of the few accounts of a gaming experience that wholly captures that magic, and demonstrates just how intense people's reactions to video games can be.

Alice and Kev is Burkinshaw's online diary of his time playing The Sims 3, during which he guided a homeless man and his daughter through the various stages of their lives. It's at once poignant, hilarious and disturbing, and it just recently finished.

It was an ambitious project for Burkinshaw, who originally updated the blog daily but, by the end, simply couldn't keep up that momentum. Still, he didn't need to. By that point, the story already contained a vast number of chapters, and new readers were arriving every day.