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The Art of Gaming Intellectually

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Narrative Gaming

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“Don’t despair for Story’s future or turn curmudgeonly over the rise of video games or reality TV. The way we experience stories will evolve, but as story telling animals we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours… Rejoice in the twisting evolutionary path that made us creatures of story, that gave us all the gaudy, joyful dynamism of the stories we tell and realize that understanding the power of storytelling, where it comes from and why it matters, can never diminsh your experience of it.”

– The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall


After I heard this on a summer reading list from NPR, I was drawn to this idea of narrative and how it is viewed. Although I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, Gottschall seems to champion video games here as an evolution of how we tell our stories. The interesting part of this excerpt is the use of “curmudgeonly” to describe the old-world view of what the narrative is and what stories should look like – they should certainly not be experienced through video games, as if that would somehow degrade the art of storytelling itself.

But video games are not novels. We experience games distinctively, as both the audience and the author making the interaction idiosyncratic, rarely finding that blend in any other medium. Pieces like Heavy Rain and Shadows of the Colossus are heralded as narrative wonders of the industry. Beautiful though they may be, “quality” does not define content. Video games are more sensitive to subjective judgments like these because to be impressed by a story is rare in any form, but to be brought to tears by modern entertainment is almost unheard of outside of the gaming geek culture. To have a New York Times reviewer state that “no single-player game has made me feel as profoundly connected to the outcome of a story…” writing about Heavy Rain legitimizes video game story telling and it’s unique narrative form.

Yes, we have BioshockSilent Hill, and Final Fantasy that are engrossing stories that express emotion and narrative with depth and style. The art of video game story telling can be exciting for the player in action and in recollection of how it made him or her feel. And, yet…

There are still those who don’t see it that way, for whatever reason, and scoff at the idea. Literary elitist or technologically averse? Does content of Dead Space make it any more or less of a story than 20,000 Leagues under the Sea? Is it the audience or the marketing? Or just the curmudgeon’s futile dismissal of the narrative’s latest evolution?

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May 26, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Objectification in Pixels

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When I was around 14 years old, I played a game on PS2 called Bloodrayne. 

Although at the time I knew that feminine images in video games were more than slightly skewed, this game really rubbed it in the gamer’s  face. The titular character embodied the over-the-top indulgence of the game from her thinly veiled (if at all) innuendo to her gravity defying gymnastic style attacks – all clad in tight leather. Albeit blocky and pixellated, Rayne’s breasts were a jiggly extension of her overt sexuality.

Lara Croft

That's your fighting outfit?

But the game was fun and didn’t take itself seriously in any way.  I knew something was amiss with the representation of the female form, but I didn’t care and enjoyed it quite a bit.

The female characters in video games are almost always (if not always always) a vehicle for either direct or subtle eroticism. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor is it exclusive to the medium. The problem with women presents itself in every form of storytelling; women mostly tend to be extensions of the lead (presumably male) character in literature and she presents problems as a reminder of both sexual desires and the all but inevitable after effects of said desires: commitment, children, and an acknowledgement of mortality.

Take the dichotomy of the Madonna and the whore used and cited excessively in literature. It’s the basic idea that a woman is pure until she is not and represents itself in a myriad of ways from Desdemona to Lolita. This also plays well into the idea of the male gaze in film meaning that women are a reflections of the male lead, the male creator, and perhaps most importantly, the male viewer and their perceptions.

Now, take those two ideas and fast-forward to the age of the Xbox. Although the origins may not be as visible, the conceptions of femininity are still constructed quite tightly around them. We see a female character in a video game as either something to desire or protect (Princess Peach, we’re lookin’ at you) and the mere fact that they are women is cause enough for either.

There are some female characters that defy these conceptions, sure, but they are exceptions to a rule that the art of storytelling has made for us. Female protagonists seem to try to empower and titillate, contradicting themselves as action-oriented characters and objects of lust at the same time. However, being aware of these constructs, games like Bloodrayne serve as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the extreme and if you’re in on the joke, you can gawk intellectually.

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March 29, 2012 at 3:22 am

Perspective!

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I hate the fact that at the moment, I can’t go buy Fallout: New Vegas.

Can I pay student loans later, please?!

However, I’ve been suppressing my rage by playing Fallout 3 again and trying to get the worst karma ever… I’ve played through the main quest a few times and generally stick with the first person perspective, but this time I’ve been using the third-person view just to see if it’s as awful as they say it is.

It’s actually not… depending on what you want. I found that my sneak has improved in third person, but I find myself switching back to first person because it feels and looks better – as if the game were designed to be played from that perspective. From what I’ve gathered, it’s the same with New Vegas. Although the Fallout series has become an interesting mesh of FPS and Action RPG, most games designed from the first-person perspective have a tendency to focus on combat and the First-Person Shooter  is one of the most easily recognizable genres on the market.

It looks a lot like this:

DOOM

Halo: Combat Evolved

Bioshock

What do these screen shots have in common? What do you notice about them? (I noticed that DOOM’s Space Marine was left-handed.) Right off the bat, it’s obvious what the “S” stands for in FPS. Violence, for a variety of just and unjust causes, is the pivotal force behind these games.

Violence and war-like combat are staples of this genre, making the FPS a vulnerable target for censorship groups and parental advocacy organizations. DOOM, published in 1996 by id Software, has shouldered more than its fair share of condemnation during the Columbine tragedy and other teen-related acts of violence in the late 90’s. This was an unfortunate instance of scapegoating an already vilified media and has carried on to today in current legislation.

This shouldn’t suggest that violence is exclusive to the FPS genre. Game series like God of War, Resident Evil, Grand Theft Auto, etc have sold like hotcakes and will continue to do so with a “God’s Eye view” of the action. Does that make them any less violent? Of course not. But you’ll notice that these games have storyline objectives, versus Left 4 Dead for instance, where the object is to blast through zombies with extreme prejudice to survive. Resident Evil, a series which could be considered the heart’s blood of the survival horror genre, requires (or at least used to require) a certain level of skill to ration ammunition, solve puzzles, and find hidden objects to complete the game. Although several on-rails shooters have been made in the series, the third-person perspective is essential to the game’s overall atmosphere and entertainment.

It would seem that while the first-person perspective lends itself to action, the third-person could be more conducive to “sensing.” This line of thinking also coincides with theory of literary perspective.

Now, let’s think about two works of literature with different narrative perspective… To Kill a Mockingbird and The Hobbit. One is narrated by a young Southern tomboy and the other is a fantastic yarn reminiscent of early oral storytelling. Apart from the subject matter, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Hobbit are told from two different perspectives – one through the character Scout and the other from the eyes of an unnamed, all-knowing narrator. To Kill a Mockingbird is just as much a coming of age tale for the young Scout as it is a commentary on social justice, but we are meant to empathize through a child’s perspective – to feel for her. In The Hobbit Tolkien makes every effort to suspend the reader in disbelief in his world of fantasy by making the world around Bilbo tangible in our minds – to make us feel with him.

Is this a fair assessment? I understand that atmosphere is a huge part of the FPS, but I would argue that it is more important in games with the third-person perspective. To me, being able to put a solidified character in the context of a larger world is the core of a third-person gaming experience.

Please feel free to voice your opinions and experiences you’ve had with any genre! I can’t wait to hear your perspective… (See what I did there?!)

Happy Geekery!

-Rachel

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November 10, 2010 at 12:05 am

Ludology: Best Job Ever? (Hint: The answer is “yes!”)

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Hello again! I won’t bore you with the details, but I’m sorry for the embarrassingly long delay. After a hectic month, we’re back on track! And on with the blog!

I discussed in my last post my most dearly held work of literature as well as the video game to which I owe most of my nightmares. Strange mix, no?

I can’t really speak to why those happen to be close to my heart, but I know they’ve influenced how I view many forms of media and art today. I’d like to think they set my standards for what I enjoyed. This might indicate that I enjoy strange things or at least that I expect a different kind of enlightenment from the separate medium.

Sounds fairly reasonable. What we expect from the myriad forms of art varies considerably, and rightfully so. When the potential knowledge or entertainment or artistic enlightenment one expects to gain doesn’t meet our expectations, we may write that work off as a “bad” one.

Being a student of the humanities, I couldn’t say exactly what sort of sociological trait this is. Our perceived expectations dictate how popular art and media are advertised to us and limit the “avant-garde” creative expression to an indie fringe – never challenging the mainstream ideologies of said media.

What I’m very wordily trying to say is that our world at large has very specific parameters for different types of art and media. Those expectations are used to produce and market entertainment to us, often recycling conventions from formulaic genres and sub-categories instead of trying for true innovation. And so we see a cycle…

But where does this leave video games? Socially, certainly not on the same tier with traditional art and literature. No, video games are delegated somewhere below that – often seen as “base” entertainment. Because of this divide, video games may never be seen as a comparable “alternative literature,” limiting gaming to (from some non-gamers’ perspectives) a childish, inadequate form of media.

I suppose the question at hand is “Why?” Why have we subjugated forms of media to be accessible to one group, excluding others? Why did video games become the preferred whipping boy for the societal problems of the youth?

I can’t pretend to even know where to start with those questions, but if you have any ideas, feel free to comment away. A comment by “D” last post inspired this tangent and I hope that people keep discussing their ideas. I promise to reply in a timely fashion next time : )

Thanks for reading through the rambles. Next time, I’d like to discuss the importance of perspective in video games and how that relates to classic literature. Hope to see you there!

Happy Geekery!
-Rachel

P.S. Ludology is the study of games, play, toys, and video games. It also sounds like one of the best. disciplines. ever. Check out this awesome blog as well as this one.

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October 27, 2010 at 5:38 pm

My Favorite Pieces

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Hello, thank you for joining me again!

As I mentioned last post, I’ll be discussing some of my favorite pieces of literature and gaming and hopefully, relay to you how these are choice pieces of art. As a forewarning, this post (and others in the future) may contain spoilers.

I would like to start with my favorite book. Though it may not be an epic piece by any means, the English translation of  Antoine De  Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince was the first book I fell in love with when I was in 6th grade.

The Little Prince

The Little Prince is a “children’s” book that follows a pilot whose plane has crashed in the Sahara desert. He meets a little boy who both frustrates him and helps him uncover a better understanding of himself.

This book is one that I have read time and time again and never cease to gain something new from it. We see, through the Prince’s eyes, what it’s like to be a child. Through the pilot’s, we see what of that is lost with age. It is a timeless story of fantasy with a deeper understanding of human nature than its target age group would suggest.

Without a doubt, The Little Prince is one of the most beloved pieces of children’s literature from the past 100 years because its messages are universal and its appeal does not fade with childhood.

While childhood innocence lost is a major theme of this book, my favorite video game’s message could be more difficult to pin down.

Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2 is considered by many gamers to be one of the premiere examples of the “survival horror” genre for a myriad of reasons. Number one being it’s actually scary. The game manages to create an atmosphere of dense fog, darkness, and psychological horror quite unlike any other game of its time.

Throughout Silent Hill 2, James is confronted with very serious issues of guilt, taboo, and death and must face their physical manifestations in Silent Hill. We play as James, a widower who receives a letter from his long-since deceased wife Mary, claiming she is “waiting” for him in Silent Hill. Early in the game, James is introduced to Maria – a hyper-sexualized version of his Mary.

The atmosphere, story, and music of this game combine to make one of the most immersive gaming experiences I have yet to come across. I’ve played this game through several times and find myself noticing new aspects each time.

These two pieces have had quite an impact on my life and how I view art and literature in general. Both The Little Prince and Silent Hill 2 deal with startlingly core issues of human nature, albeit in very different ways. One might say that is one of the goals of art – to reflect our humanity back to us through fantasy.

Is this true? If so, would Silent Hill 2 or other video games be a part of that definition?

Please share your ideas, experiences, and thoughts on pieces of literature or video games that have challenged you in this way.

Also, thank you so much for all of your comments on my last post. It’s such a pleasure to see the ideas of my friends and peers! Keep ’em comin’!

-Rachel

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September 14, 2010 at 3:18 pm