on Wednesday, September 16, 2015
This "Notes on Morrowind" series of posts will be brief remarks on small topics related to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Game of the Year Edition (dev. Bethesda Softworks, dirs. Todd Howard & Ken Rolston, 2003 [original game release 2002]) for PC rather than a holistic game analysis. All posts refer to the unmodded, version 1.6.1820 of the game played with maximum graphical and AI quality settings, a 1280x960 resolution, and all other settings at their defaults.

The Elder Scrolls series has prompted the creation of thousands of user-made game modifications ("mods"), and this community-driven development has become so prominent that it has become a major identifier for the franchise and selling point for the PC editions of the games. One of the more notable collections of mods are those by the TES Renewal Project (retrieved 2015-03-17). This team produces mods that recreate older Elder Scrolls games within the game engines of relatively newer Elder Scrolls games. For example, they host (although they didn't originally create) "Morroblivion," a mod that attempts to recreate Morrowind within the game engine of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. "Skywind," which is under active development, attempts to recreate Morrowind within the game engine of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

The off-kilter Seyda Need lighthouse.
As others have noted (retrieved 2015-03-17), such endeavors are less like recreations and more like complete reboots or reinterpretations, owing at least in part to the dramatic changes in gameplay mechanics that they represent. As such, it should be obvious that they neither act to historically preserve of the games nor do they act as replacements for any purposes the original games serve. Nonetheless, as with similar projects for other games (e.g., Black Mesa, retrieved 2015-03-17), it is common to see online recommendations that players new to the Elder Scrolls series wait for "Skywind" to be released to "play" Morrowind, and perhaps even the developers of "Skywind" see the project as serving this purpose to a degree. Aside from the aforementioned problems with this line of thinking with respect to changed gameplay mechanics, I want to highlight another type of problematic whitewashing of past game releases that occurs as a result of these sorts of projects and their desires to adjust the graphics of past games to present standards. To be very clear, when I call these issues "problems," I do not mean that it is a problem that projects like "Skywind" or Black Mesa exist in their present forms; I merely mean that these issues are problems for understanding the historical context of their source material when a large portion of player-base assumes a one-to-one mapping of the two texts. Really, I am just attempting to illustrate that these remakes are distinct texts by different authors that require new criticism relative to their source material. I'll illustrate this phenomenon by focusing on one small change to one particular building in "Skywind."

Interior bracing of lighthouse.
One of  the more memorable buildings in the game world of Morrowind is the Seyda Neen Lighthouse (retrieved 2015-03-17). Though not particularly notable from the perspective of the game's narrative, it is one of the first distinct buildings that the player is likely to encounter upon beginning the game because of its position in the starting town and its involvement in two minor quests. The lighthouse is peculiar for its architecture. It is built with simple, rough stone braced by interior wooden beams, and strangely, it is apparently off-balance and misaligned. The portion that houses the lighting element at the top is substantially off-center compared to the bulk of the structure, and the exterior stone staircase adds a further element of apparent instability because it hangs awkwardly off of only two sides of upper-half of the structure. Taken alone, this strange design might not be considered especially notable, but the lighthouse has the additional peculiarity of not matching any of the other architectural styles in the town or, indeed, the rest of the game. The bulk of Seyda Neen is populated by architecture in the style of the Imperials, who evidently colonized the region relatively recently, along with a handful of poor, makeshift wooden huts for underprivileged locals. The lighthouse, however, stands alone.

Imperial buildings near lighthouse.
The developers of "Skywind" recently detailed their redesign of the lighthouse in a blog post (retrieved 2015-05-18; redesign image backups: 1, 2, 3, 4). Citing the architectural inconsistency, they propose that it seems most likely that the lighthouse is of Imperial origin within the games narrative. This assumption, along with influences from other lighthouse designs, is used by the "Skywind" developers to create a new version of the lighthouse that visually matches the Imperial architecture of Seyda Need, and they thus homogenize the buildings of the region in their reinterpretation of Morrowind. It's worth noting that all graphical assets used in a project like "Skywind" are redesigns, but some assets are redesigned with different goals than others. For many, or perhaps most, the goal is to recreate the assets by guessing what the original designers would have done had they merely had access to more powerful graphics processors and memory. This approach involves inventing new details that are below the polygon or texture resolution thresholds of the source assets. It is a rewriting of the game's narrative only by addition, in that it tries to avoid editing the parts that were put into place in the original text. But other redesigned assets, such as the Seyda Neen lighthouse, have different goals: they are disagreements with the original designers, and they are active, deliberate rewritings of the narrative presented in the game.

Dunmer shacks near lighthouse.
As I've previously noted, Morrowind is deeply concerned with the nature of history. It is interested in the contrast between the small changes in the world observed in daily life as contrasted with the vast changes to the world that occur on larger historical timescales, and it frequently highlights how these changes are deallt with in memory, prophecy, politics, and historical record. The remnants of history are everywhere in Morrowind, evident in the damaged landscape, the racial tensions perceptible in dialogue, the texts in books, and even in the architecture, which is our primary concern in this post. Seyda Neen  is a key port controlled by the Imperials, and the Imperials have a vested interest in asserting their control in Morrowind, a once-foreign land that is now part of the Empire. This attitude is suggested by the uniformity of the bulk of the buildings in the region: their architecture asserts Imperial dominance over the land and the local culture. The player thus sees this dominance immediately upon beginning the game: the Imperials are self-evidently far more powerful that the player and seemingly in control of their surroundings.

Close-up of lighthouse fire.
But upon exploring the town and its surroundings, the player just as quickly discovers that the reality is more subtle than that. Seyda Neen is not a bastion of Imperial dominance. The swamp creeps in on all sides, the first resident of Seyda Neen that we encounter doesn't get along with the Imperial guards (retrieved 2015-09-16), and the most important building in the town, the lighthouse, is the one that cannot be made to submit to Imperial design sensibilities. It raises the question of why the lighthouse's architecture was never wrangled under control by the Empire. Perhaps the lighthouse predates Imperial control of the town, and they could not afford to ever take it offline for fear of interrupting port activities. Seyda Need certainly predates the Imperial presence, as indicated by information seen elsewhere in the game (retrieved 2015-09-16) and in The Elder Scrolls Online (retrieved 2015-09-16), so perhaps the lighthouse does, too. Or perhaps it has become a symbol for local denizens, and the Imperial colonizers lack the cultural clout to unseat its cultural significance - maybe that is why the structure has an alternate name, the Grand Pharos (retrieved 2015-09-16). Or perhaps the bizarre architecture is mere Imperial failure to build a stable structure in the unstable swamp, resulting in structural reinforcements being added haphazardly over the years. The precise history of the building cannot be determined from the information presented in game, but the unusual structure nonetheless raises questions which teach the player about the subtleties of history and power structures within the game. Indeed, the questions surrounding the building can lead players to construct quite detailed speculative histories (retrieved 2015-09-16) and related fictions (retrieved 2015-09-16) about that locale.

Alternate view of lighthouse.
The messiness of the environment is thus one of the great strengths of Morrowind. That occasional incoherence allows the game to both teach the new player about the nature of the world into which they have stepped, and to explore themes of history and memory, time and change, politics and power, in more depth than a more easily digested and less ambiguous game world could. Alterations of the sort undertaken by the "Skywind" redesign of the lighthouse reduce the impact of these themes. In a sense, such a redesign fulfills the in-game goals of the Imperial characters in Seyda Neen, because it gives them complete dominance of the land. The player is no longer prompted to question the implicit histories presented by the game, but instead the player is encouraged to accept the status quo presented by the characters that they encounter.

Alternate view of lighthouse.
The lighthouse at Seyda Need is a remarkable illustration of the caution we must exercise when critically discussing projects like "Skywind." With any one small change, the thematic implications of a text are altered, so no remake or remaster of a game can be used as a one-to-one replacement of its source material in critical discussions. The lighthouse is one among many details in a game as vast as Morrowind; as critics, we should spend more time reading how the small details function with games, and we should be cautious of growing as prescriptive towards them as the "Skywind" developers have.
on Wednesday, May 20, 2015
This "Notes on Morrowind" series of posts will be brief remarks on small topics related to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Game of the Year Edition (dev. Bethesda Softworks, dirs. Todd Howard & Ken Rolston, 2003 [original game release 2002]) for PC rather than a holistic or fully-researched game analysis. All posts refer to the unmodded, version 1.6.1820 of the game played with maximum graphical and AI quality settings, a 1280x960 resolution, and all other settings at their defaults.

Citizens disbelieve even very recent history.
Morrowind is a game deeply concerned with the nature of history and prophecy, as well has how one becomes the other. History, and its various different interpretations, are presented directly in the extensive writings that can be found throughout the game world, and numerous characters are happy to discuss their knowledge of history. In many cases, such as those that lead to the events of the main quest of the game, differing knowledge of history leads to differing interpretations of prophecy, which the player is then left to disentangle by enacting a path for the player character, thus transforming nebulous prophecy into precise events and back into nebulous history. This effect of time on knowledge is occasionally made explicit, such as when the player is unable to convince other characters of the deaths of the gods Almalexia and Sotha Sil after the events of the Tribunal quest. It is perhaps strange, then, that Morrowind, with its temporal obsession, so deemphasizes the passage of time through its mechanics. Though many of these aspects at least partially result from technological and development cycle limitations, they nonetheless suggest some of the priorities of the game.

Much of the presentation of the game world suggests a static nature of time. NPCs are primarily unmoving, always to be found at the same locations, always willing to give the same responses as if you had never met them before. The land rarely evolves, with no seasons, growing plants, or evident geological processes, though a quest as epic as that of the main quest story must have taken months or years to complete. There is no urgency to any quests, which can be completed at the player's leisure, with the exception of a few that have delays built in to force the player to do other things first.When the main quest stories are all complete, the world still exists just as it was (with a couple few changes to dialog, weather, and enemies), for the player to continue exploring.

Moons, stars, and clouds move
relative to each other.
There are rare exceptions to this static world, however. Most obviously, the game has a clock in its user interface which records the date and time of day in the game world, and the world becomes light and dark with blue and red atmospheric hues according to time of night or day. This notion of daily time is enhanced with changing weather (though not seasons), which varies among sunny days, ash storms, and rain, among other climate conditions. Even the moons and sun move across the sky, but they do so in a physically impossible way. The star-field is static with the moons moving across it, suggesting that the planet on which the player-character stands does not rotate on axis or orbit its sun. Instead, it must be that the planet is orbited rapidly and impossibly by the moons and sun, suggesting an unreality to this universe or, perhaps, direct intervention by the gods that seem to roam the land. The moons themselves maintain an unlikely static and photogenic configuration relative to each other that defies orbital mechanics. Astronomy seems to have a impossibly dual nature in Morrowind, in which time is static on some scales and moving on others. (The within-narrative lore of The Elder Scrolls series has a complicated cosmology that is beyond the scope of this post. For further reading, see this page with general information on the planets (retrieved 2015-05-19), the cosmology section of The Imperial Library website (retrieved 2015-05-19), and the astronomy page at UESP (retrieved 2015-05-19).)

Other exceptions include certain locations, such as Holamayan (retrieved 2015-05-20) or the Cavern of the Incarnate (retrieved 2015-05-20),  which can only be accessed at dawn or dusk. This again suggests a connection between time and the god-like beings of Morrowind, in this case the major character Azura, because these locations are holy places dedicated to that being. By associating some of the few aspects of the land that are dynamic in time with god-like beings, it suggests the limited scope of history seen by humans in comparison to beings who operate on larger time scales. The predictability of the opening and closing of these locations further associates them with prophecy, suggesting its validity within the game world when it is originating from reliable characters like Azura (and this in turn suggests her reliability).

The final major time-sensitive aspect of the game is construction. The construction of a handful of buildings and other structures can be triggered if the player undertakes certain quests. These structures include the Great House strongholds (retrieved 2015-05-20), the Shrine of Boethiah (retrieved 2015-05-20), and the Raven Rock colony (retrieved 2015-05-20). Notably, these building projects are one of the few ways that the player can directly impact the physical layout of the land in Morrowind, whether by choosing which quests to complete or by making actual construction decisions in the case of Raven Rock quests. However, construction of the projects does not proceed in real time. Upon initiating a construction project, the land and building change in phases, moving from no progress to discrete levels of construction in quantized leaps forward. This progress always occurs when the player cannot see the building site, giving a slight illusion of time continuity. Taken in context with game's themes of memory's interplay with history, this phenomenon seems to be an embodiment of people's tendency to remember things in terms of discrete, important moments leading to important events that changed history, rather than being able to simultaneously perceive the ensemble of small, continuous events that lead to change. The players view of construction is distorted and artificially discrete, and this warping of perception reflects the distorted perspective of the history of the region that the player encounters in books and conversations throughout the game. (The discreteness of the player's journal entries also serves this purpose.)

Straddling the seemingly conflicting themes of static time and moving time are the minor enemies, such as animals, that populate the game world. The player can clear an area of these enemies, and for a time, that area will be safe. Eventually, however, the enemies will respawn and repopulate the region. The player's efforts to eliminate the enemies are thus nullified on larger timescales than a typical play session, suggesting the difficulty of enacting lasting change on the game world and relative equivalence of different points in history. This contrasts with how the game treats NPCs from intelligent species. There, the game enforces the permanence of actions, removing the character entirely if the character is killed and potentially removing the ability of the player to access certain quests and items. Because this seems to occur only with intelligent characters, it suggests an importance that lasts in time to decisions that the game deems moral decisions.

Taken as a whole, the odd way that Morrowind presents time dually, as static and flowing, couples with its narrative emphasis on history and prophecy in interesting ways. The player is made to observe the difficulty of trying to enact lasting change on the world, which lends weight to the main quest's narrative. The player is made to understand that the faulty ways that time and history are remembered has made the player's understanding of the narrative suspect, and whatever the player achieves within the narrative will be, inevitably, misunderstood and misremembered by the future inhabitants of the game's setting. How all of this relates to prophecy is left unclear, perhaps because the player's perspective is too limited compared to beings such as Azura. Though many of these time-related aspects of the game's mechanics are likely related to limitations of the technologies upon which the game was built, their integration with games themes plays a large role in the success of Morrowind.
on Tuesday, March 17, 2015
In academic writing, citations of books, articles, films, and even webpages are usually fairly precise. Printed media is referred to by specific printing or edition, while webpages are usually specified by both URL and retrieval date (though the archiving of webpages is still an area in need of improvement). Most publications with electronic editions, such as academic journals, are even completely uniquely identified by their digital object identifier (DOI). Games criticism, too, usually follows these conventions at least moderately well. Peer-reviewed journals, such as Game Studies, usually follow something like APA style for their citations, which is fairly comprehensive in identifying books, articles, and the like. The increasingly-important critical discourse that takes place on blogs and gaming websites is naturally more varied, but usually URLs and book editions are provided.

Strangely, however, games themselves are rarely uniquely specified in citations. Take, for example, the citation guidelines for Game Studies (retrieved 2015-03-15). The most comprehensive possible citation for a game as described in the style guide must follow the format,
Developer. (Year). Title. [Platform], Release City and Country: Publisher, played month day, year, .
In practice, many Game Studies papers simplify this style, as in this example from an article by Paul Martin (2011, Game Studies, 11, 3):
Bethesda Game Studios. (2006). The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. 2K Games.
I'll use this example throughout this post, but please note that I don't mean to pick on Martin or his excellent paper; I chose this example merely because it cites a game conducive to this discussion. This citation format is woefully inadequate for any critical or academic writing, but it is usually simplified even further outside of peer-review journals. Most game blogs and websites merely mention a game by name and leave it at that.

The above example of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is instructive as to why this citation format is a problem. Perhaps the most obvious issue is the lack of a version or platform specification. Naturally, gameplay varies among platforms for which the game was released, but issues such as patches make the problem far worse. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages identifies (retrieved 2015-03-15) at least six officially release patches for Oblivion. Other potential patches certainly exist, such as versions used internally at Bethesda Game Studios. These patches sometimes make changes that could potentially impact the arguments presented in Martin's article. The behavior of NPCs is modified in some cases, and the level of detail in the rendering of the environment is modified. Surely one could find even more severe examples of software updates having aesthetic consequences, now that many games are released to the public (and written about by critics) while still in early development, thanks to distribution platforms such as Steam's Early Access program.

Beyond just patches, Oblivion, like many games, allowed the player to purchase content that expands the software. Oblivion's most notable such expansion is The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles, released in 2007. This expansion pack adds a new storyline, an entirely new region of the in-game world, numerous in-game items, many characters, and several tweaks to systems such as the user interface. Although originally released as an expansion, it was also bundled built-in with later editions of Oblivion. As Martin makes no citation to Shivering Isles, we must assume that the experiences he is writing about are based on the un-expanded Oblivion only, although given that he was writing years after the release of Shivering Isles, it seems far more likely that he was actually using one of the more common expanded versions.

Because Martin works at an English university and writes in English, it is perhaps safe to assume that he is referring the the original, English-language, unlocalized editions of Oblivion. If he were corresponding from a different university, however, this might not be obvious. Oblivion has a wide array of localizations, complete with translated text and different voice acting, both of which have aesthetic consequences. This problem can also affect games played in English, as many games, especially Japanese-developed ones, are localized for the Western markets. These games often have even more dramatic departures from their original versions than mere text translation and alternate voice acting. Yakuza 3 (dev. Sega, dir. Daisuke Sato, 2009), for example, saw many of its minigames removed (retrieved 2015-03-17) for Western localizations. Choice of localization can therefore have a substantial impact on the interpretation of a game. Just as criticism of literature would not refer to a translation without being very clear about what is being discussed, games criticism should not be ambiguous about the effects of the localization used by the critic.

We can take this further. Presumably, Martin is discussing only versions of Oblivion released directly through the publisher, 2K Games, but this is not necessarily true of all authors. Many games, including entries to franchises like The Elder Scrolls and The Sims, are heavily dependent on community-made modifications ("mods") to extend or patch the games. The Oblivion section of Nexus Mods (retrieved 2015-03-17) alone hosts over 26,000 mods for that game. These sorts of modifications can have nearly any effect imaginable, ranging from bug fixes to graphical enhancements to complete reworkings of the game. Even something as simple as a change to the graphical engine's rendering distance has a huge aesthetic impact on the player (for an extreme example, consider how a change to the fog distance in a game like Silent Hill (dev. Konami Computer & Entertainment Tokyo, dir. Keiichiro Toyama, 1999) changes the whole feel of the game). It is thus necessary to be very explicit about the mods (or lack thereof) used in preparing a piece of games criticism.

Finally, even the settings used to play the game are important to most pieces of games criticism. Even if a piece of game software is unambiguously identified as the text used for a piece of criticism, it is unlikely that the author of the criticism is referring equally to all possible configuration settings within the game. Except for pieces explicitly discussing particular difficulty settings or the like, this is almost never addressed in games writing. Difficulty setting may change entire characters or accessible levels, audio settings can entirely change the aural information available to the player, and control settings can impact the experience in a wide array of ways. Graphical settings can have a dramatic impact as well. Choice of aspect ratio or field of view settings change composition and framing, while overall graphical fidelity changes the visual information available to the player. These sorts of decisions need to be made explicit when referring to aspects of games.

The above list of variables that need to be represented when citing a game is potentially quite large and complex. Perhaps academic writing needs to move away from exclusively citing games the way that books and articles are cited. An article might address this complexity through the inclusion of a "Games Methods" section that, like a methodology section in a science or social science paper, describes in great detail the methods for obtaining and using the games that are cited. This sort of detail is especially necessary if games criticism is to continue to be useful years after it is written, because the default mode of interaction with a game can change dramatically over time. The Half-Life 2 (dev. Valve Corporation, 2004) of 2004 is not the Half-Life 2 sold on Steam today; today, players are using a version with a dramatically updated game engine that affects the whole experience. Will these subtleties be remembered in fifty years without accurate and comprehensive game citations? The games writing community as a whole, at all levels of formality and professionalism, needs to make a conscious effort to improve the specificity of citations to games.
on Monday, March 2, 2015
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on Monday, October 20, 2014
A while back, I wrote a short review of the scientific results on whether "brain training" games like the Brain Age (devs. Nintendo SDD & Nintendo SPD, various dirs., 2005-2013) series have any cognitive benefits beyond mere entertainment, as their marketing strongly implies. I argued that while it is possible that cognitive decline might be mitigated in certain populations by playing such games, the effect was poorly established and no better (and possibly worse) than other mental exercises, whether they be more traditional activities or any other video game. This question is clearly one that is on the minds of many consumers; search results leading to this post are one of the largest sources of traffic to this blog.

Recently, a group of scientists has issued a statement through the Stanford Center on Longevity that summarizes the current scientific thinking toward such games. The statement, "A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community," is available online. It largely agrees with my assessment, arguing that there is no evidence that these games are better than other activities in reducing cognitive decline. It, however, offers new and different citations to the scientific literature that my post did not have access to at the time, and it is written by experts in the field. Please give it a read if you are interested in this topic.
on Monday, July 28, 2014

  • Developer: People Can Fly, Epic Games
  • Director: Adrian Chmielarz
  • First Person Shooter
  • Release: 2011-02-22 (US)
  • Platforms: PC (version played), Xbox 360, PS3

Wuxia cinema is a genre of film that is a variant of the martial arts film. It typically focuses on a martial arts hero's adventure, usually in a melodramatic historical setting and often motivated by an honor code of some sort. In some ways, the genre's characters are analogous to gunslingers in the American Western genre. Stylistically, however, wuxia films of the last few decades have diverged from related genres in their elaborate and extremely extensive use of highly choreographed fight sequences, which often use some combination of complicated wire-assisted choreography, CGI effects, or slow-motion camera work. Its earliest examples date to the 1920s in China (e.g., The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, dir. Zhang Shichuan,1928), and its fighting choreography style developed into its modern form in the 1960s (e.g., Dragon Gate Inn, dir. King Hu, 1967). Today, the genre is internationally popular with examples from Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) and Zhang Yimou (Hero, 2002; House of Flying Daggers, 2004) becoming influential worldwide blockbusters.

The integration of lengthy combat sequences with a feature-length narrative is a problem that both wuxia cinema and certain video game genres, such as shooters, must tackle. Historically, the dissonance between narrative and combat in games has been troublesome, with jovial characters like Nathan Drake of Uncharted (dev. Naughty Dog, dir. Amy Hennig, 2007) discussing moral qualms and cracking light-hearted jokes before massacring hundreds of men. Ken Levine, director of Bioshock Infinite (dev. Irrational Games, 2013), brushed this issue aside by comparing it to the musical genre from film and stage:
The shooter part is [...] tricky because like you say it is kind of an odd thing, where all of a sudden all this combat's going on. I think of it sort of like musicals, you know - like you have this story and then all of a sudden everyone bursts out into song.
But this comparison neglects the non-literal function of the musicals' songs to express character development and motivation by controlling the audience's emotional reaction to the score. The music serves thematic, narratological purpose in a metaphorical, non-literal way and is thus necessary to understanding the text. In most shooters, no such essential meaning is created by each violent action required of the player. While the action sequences may convey a vague sense of tension or achievement in the player that is analogous to that felt by the avatar character, they rarely move beyond such simplistic identification.

Though the use of violence in a variety of films, such as the work of Quentin Tarantino, is instructive when considering its implementation in games, here we will focus on the wuxia example. A number of wuxia films have elegantly used combat as a non-literal, expressive tool that is essential to the films' thematic meaning. Take, for example, Zhang Yimou's Hero. The film recounts a variety of past occurrences from several subjective points of view. The elaborate, unrealistic fight choreography teaches the viewer of the unreliability of the narrative, while highlighting that the essential aspects of these memories may not be the historical veracity. Instead, emphasis is placed on the motivations for the fights, with the beauty serving as a stand-in for their nobility of cause. The fights inspire a sense of wonder and inevitability in the viewers, while also contrasting how such honorable actions have inherently contradictory aspects of beauty and horror. The viewers come to understand that these subjective tensions are the true story of a people's history. This construction of thematic meaning is similar to how music functions in the musicals of Levine's analogy, but it is a good deal more sophisticated than a typical first- or third-person shooter.

It is here that we come to Bulletstorm (dev. People Can Fly & Epic Games, dir. Adrian Chmielarz, 2011), which seemingly has tried to implement the lesson that wuxia teaches about meaningful, non-literal combat. Much as in a film like Hero, Bulletstorm's frequent combat sequences are outlandishly unrealistic and, in a sense, choreographed. While most shooters ask the player use the avatar to kill other characters, they typically do so in such a way that encourages optimization of killing efficiency. The best weapons available should be coupled with the safest tactics to ensure progression through the game via the quick elimination of enemies. Bulletstorm still asks for optimization of a sort, but it asks for the maximization of an arcade-game-like score. The score is increased by finding interesting ways to kill the enemies, such as through particularly gruesome wounds or combinations of various tools, such as environmental hazards and a lasso-like leash that the player controls. On the surface, this stylistic gameplay initially seems more closely related to games like the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series (various devs. & dirs., 1999-2014) than to the most popular forms of shooters, such as the Call of Duty series (various devs. & dirs., 2003-2013), that Bulletstorm nominally calls its kin.

Bulletstorm is not the first shooter to center its premise on score maximization through killing technique, but it does notably diverge from past attempts. The Club (dev. Bizarre Creations, dir. Martyn R. Chudley, 2008), for example, attempted something similar, in which a score was maximized by maintaining a combo meter that only stayed active if a consistently quick pace of killings was maintained. This sort of score-earning structure, however, largely results in the same sort of optimization motivation that a standard, narrative shooter encourages. The player both scores well and progresses through the levels by quickly and safely eliminating all enemies. The aesthetic effect is the same old vague sense of tension and achievement. Bulletstorm achieves something different from previous score based shooters by asking the player to improve killing style rather than killing results. In this way, the combat becomes choreographed, with the player acting as a choreographer with the assistance of the the game's list of possible combos.

This style-optimization goal is further removed from result-optimization through several related design choices. The points scored by the player serve a secondary purpose of being a currency that can be used to purchase new abilities for the various weapons. Most of these weapons and abilities, however, are side-grades rather than upgrades, and points are accumulated quickly enough that all options can be easily afforded in a short amount of time. The abilities therefore serve primarily to increase the player's repertoire of moves available during fight "choreography" rather than to strengthen the player such that progress can be made.

The function of the leash is the second major design choice that encourages thought about the aesthetics of the kill. Notably, it is the one "weapon" that is incapable of directly damaging an enemy. Instead, the leash provides the opportunity to manipulate the positions of enemies such that environmental hazards, melee attacks, or weapon fire can be more elegantly combined in the enemies' destruction, especially when the melee kick attack is combined with the leash for more precise enemy positioning. Further, time slows for all game elements except the player avatar when the leash is in use, allowing complicated combinations of attacks to be executed while the leash and kick rearrange the enemies. The types of kills that these mechanics encourage are not the optimal kills from a purely narrative or game progression stand point; they are typically more complicated, riskier, and slower than a more standard direct confrontation of weapon fire would be. Our choreography of the combat therefore shifts our interpretation of the game and introduces new ways of relating to the game's characters.

The characters and narrative interact with these mechanics in a number of interesting ways. On the surface, the plot of Bulletstorm is fairly typical of other shooters in that an action hero player-avatar, Grayson Hunt, must defeat the bad-guy, General Sarrano, before escaping the war zone. Hunt, in command of a small squad of soldiers on board a small spaceship, initiates the plot by drunkenly attacking the spaceship commanded by Sarrano, Hunt's former commander, to attempt revenge for Sarrano's past actions. This attack results in both ships crashing to the planet below, killing most of Hunt's crew, except for his friend Ishi, who is maimed and converted to an unfeeling cyborg during an interrupted surgical procedure. The two soldiers, along with a woman named Trishka that they meet along the way, hunt down Sarrano hoping to defeat him and to use him to get back off the planet. The planet itself is an apocalyptic, abandoned amusement-park city, with several aggressive and monstrously deformed species of inhabitants that make up the bulk of the combat enemies throughout the game.

As we saw in Hero and other wuxia films, consideration of choreographed combat in a subjective, non-literal sense can reveal aspects of character perspective and motivation that may not be immediately apparent from a surface level interpretation of this rather standard plot. Indeed, Hunt's character development is fairly nuanced. Prior to his falling out with Sarrano, Hunt held a highly skilled, difficult, and important position as the leader of his squad. His self-worth was reaffirmed by society and peers through his work performance. But upon defecting from his position under Sarrano's command, he was made aimless, grasping at meaning through an ill-conceived quest for revenge. By resorting to alcohol, he creates a surrogate for his lost mechanisms for creating self-worth. He drinks because his skills as a soldier are of no further value in his everyday life. Increasingly, he his seen as incompetent by squadmates, which Ishi continually reiterates once they are on the planet. The artistic killing, then, acts as an escape and restatement of self-worth for Hunt. It now functions for Hunt much like the alcohol does; it is an ecstatic release that brings past achievements back to the present, affirming Hunt's value to himself. Hunt seems to recognize this aspect of his skills. In Act 4, Chapter 3, he gleefully shouts, "Badoom! Killing as an art form!" Ishi notably is unable to recognize the aesthetic achievements of Hunt's kills, perhaps partially because of Ishi's new cyborg form, but, luckily for Hunt, time slows during these kills, providing a respite from Ishi's criticism. (We might also read this divide between Ishi's and Hunt's perspective as a small statement on the valuation of non-technical skill in society. Ishi fails to see value in the beauty that Hunt can create with his combat skills.) By positioning the player as choreographer of Hunt's maneuvers, Bulletstorm is able to leverage the escapist nature of many video games as a way to induce empathy with Hunt's need for a way of dealing with his changing position in society.

It is hard not to also read Bulletstorm as a statement about how its genre can function as art (recall Hunt's exclamation: "Killing as an art form!"). It seems to want its audience to consider whether games can achieve the same level of meaning through combat that wuxia cinema has, or whether we must resign ourselves to brushing it aside as Ken Levine's statements seem to suggest. From the outset, Bulletstorm calls explicit attention to the common trappings of its genre and its own position as part of that lineage. In the midst of the earliest tutorial segments which introduce the standard controls of all modern FPSs, the dialogue ramps up to a hyper-masculine, crude, violent, and ridiculous register - an obvious pastiche of the similar language presented with deadpan sincerity in series such as Call of Duty. The game even threatens to continue in that direction, soon dropping the player into a flashback in a far more conventional FPS setting, complete with military-esque dialogue and a colorless office building setting, before it aborts that thread and brings us back to the bizarre planet on which Hunt is stranded.

That planet is a giant caricature of popular shooters. Within the narrative, it was once a resort planet, practically one giant amusement park. We see the abandoned rides, entertainment devices, and concession stands everywhere. All are either non-functioning or functioning in a pointless way, like the newsbots who spew news to no one. It is a visual metaphor, suggesting the state of this genre - a defunct amusement that longer functions in a useful way. (Yet this planet is also full of gorgeous set pieces, perhaps suggestion its aesthetic potential.) The savage enemies that Hunt and Ishi encounter are mutated humans that once lived on or visited the planet, and now fall into three distinct factions. These factions seem to be playing out their own shooter-game amongst themselves, as they can frequently be seen to be fighting amongst themselves. Their fighting is chaotic, inelegant, and perhaps without any purpose, in stark contrast to Hunt's ability to move among them through the use of highly choreographed fighting.

Other shooters, such as Spec Ops: The Line (dev. Yager Development, dir. Cory Davis & Francois Coulon, 2012), have questioned how a shooter can function thematically as art. But while Spec Ops merely points a finger at the questionable aspects and potential failures of the form, Bulletstorm suggests a way forward. By suggesting the use of stylized combat to functionally create meaning, much like the way that combat functions in wuxia cinema or song functions in musicals, Bulletstorm creates a cohesive thematic depth that exceeds that of most of its peers. Perhaps it doesn't go far enough, however. In the late levels of the game, Bulletstorm seems desperate to increase its difficulty in line with the typical difficulty curves of other shooters. It does so by throwing large number of enemies at the player, requiring more optimally and quickly executed kills and thereby removing much of the aesthetic freedom that it built up so carefully throughout the game. Perhaps if the Bulletstorm had committed just a bit more fully to its central conceit, eschewing any attempt at a typical difficulty curve or a sequel-bait ending, it might have drawn a bit more critical attention and had a bigger impact on the state of the genre. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most important formal experiments in the shooter genre to date.

For reference, a (probably incomplete) critical bibliography of the Bulletstorm discourse follows. If you can point me to other discussions, I would love to include them.
  • Richard Clark used Bulletstorm as an example of an indefensible depiction of violence. As one can probably guess from my discussion above, I strongly disagree with this interpretation.
  • The same author took a similar view in an opinion piece at Gamasutra.
  • Craig Wilson notes the relationship (archived version) between Duke Nukem Forever's (dev. 3D Realms, Triptych Games, Gearbox Software, & Piranha Games; dir. George Broussard, 2011) ostensible style and the mechanics of Bulletstorm.
  • G. Christopher Williams discusses whether Bulletstorm sufficiently telegraphs its irony and camp elements to warrant a serious interpretation that relies upon them.
  • In comments made prior to the release of Bulletstorm, Gus Mastrapa observes that it could potentially function in a way akin to film's Starship Troopers (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1997). 
  •  Over at The Mediocrity Codex, a piece discusses Bulletstorm's emphasis on score. I don't think this reading goes far enough. It identifies how Bulletstorm kinda pulls the rug out from under the concept of score, and in doing so reveals how standard FPSs work, but the author never notices that in doing so the aesthetic potential of the game is liberated.
  • Most mainstream video game review websites wrote about the game, and the ensemble took a generally positive stance toward the game. Though their commentary is typically fairly shallow, they represent an important record of social opinion toward the text.
on Thursday, December 5, 2013
Jeff Wheeldon recently published an article entitled, "Video Games, Texts, and Interpretation," over at Push Select. Its central thesis argues that the fundamental frameworks that we use for thinking about artistic works other than video games do not apply to video games because games cannot be treated as texts (where we are using the word "text" in the literary sense of a coherent set of signs original and inherent to an object of analysis). His argument wanders through Francis Watson's non-standard usage of the terms "work" and "text" and touches on the role of authorial intent before winding up at the main crux of the discussion. Wheeldon asserts that "a video game puts the player, the reader of the text, into the shared role of authorship." (Emphasis his.) Ultimately, he claims, this essentially renders the game non-static among players, and it thus cannot be treated as a text in the traditional sense.

This argument makes little sense. Indeed, the very act of aesthetic analysis implies a text that is the subject of the analysis. That statement, however, perhaps avoids Wheeldon's point, because one might better phrase his argument as saying that each game player is analyzing a different text due to their subjective experience arising from their "shared role of authorship." Such a claim, however, is really just an appeal to complexity. Wheeldon is mistaking the variable aspects of the subjective experience of a text, which exist when experiencing any sort of medium, for changes to the text itself, merely because there are a larger number of variables in the subjective experience of games than in certain other media.  This difference is perhaps easiest to see by way of examples in some of those other media.

Consider first linear, primarily narrative media such as feature films and novels. Wheeldon seems to easily identify these objects as texts when they are the subject of analysis. In these cases, the text is the synchronized and sequenced images and sounds in the case of the film and the sequenced characters and words in the case of the novel. All viewers and readers are attempting to identify meaning in these well-defined sets of symbols. Their experiences of these symbols, however, are not necessarily uniform. There are many obvious potential differences.  Viewing or reading locations may differ, changing the physical  and emotional state of the audience, or past knowledge and experiences may change what information can be gleaned from the text. Technical details like lighting conditions, font size, book bindings, screen size, page-turning speed, etc, will affect emotional impact. Though such experiential differences may affect any one audience member's ability to produce an analysis of the text or the emphasis of such an analysis, these are, for most purposes, clearly distinct from the text.

The scope of these experiential differences can be even larger for other media, though. Consider sculpture or architecture. The viewing patterns for these objects vary wildly with each viewing. In addition to many of the aformentioned complexities of the linear narrative forms (lighting, etc), we have 3-dimensional space with which to contend (note the similarity to many video games). Still, traditional criticism has had little difficulty analyzing such texts. We can enumerate endless other examples (music, poetry, performance art, etc) with their respective difficulties, but in all cases we have little difficulty identifying a text for discussion.

The same is true of video games. In this case, we have a system of rules, video assets, and audio assets as our text, and the player interacts with that text just as the audience does in the case of any other medium. The veneer of agency that most games offer is not far removed from the other experiential differences that we have discussed. One explores a 3-dimensional game world as one would wander around a sculpture (imagine, for example, walking through Sandy Skoglund's "Fox Games"); one chooses levels or scenarios as one might choose the order to view a series of paintings (like, perhaps, Monet's Haystacks series). In all cases, the rules and assets were put in place by a developer as a set of signs that convey meaning to the player -- the definition of a text. That text is static among players, and it is the subject of analysis that we discuss when writing about video games.

It is curious that Wheeldon has chosen to argue against this paradigm. He mentions several times The Stanley Parable, which (in both its incarnations, the 2011 mod and the 2013 game) takes the non-agency of game players, and by extension the textual nature of games, as one of its central themes. Campster, over at Errant Signal, recently described this theme eloquently:
Players in game systems aren’t free, they’re exploring a text with rules put there intentionally by an author.  The Window Ending, for example, references how players will eventually explore both paths to consume all of the content: [example] The Stanley Parable posits that thinking a player’s choices signify free will in a game is like thinking fictional characters have free will over their own actions when the whole text is already written out before them.  Your choices in games aren’t decisive in nature, but instead they’re exploratory; you’re not making lasting decisions but you’re choosing a branch of possibility space to examine.  You don’t have the freedom of choice, you have the walls of rules and mechanics that give shape and meaning to the game even as they confine you.
As in all novels, films, sculptures, and other art, this is true of all games. Even the simplest games are texts quite dense with information, so it is easy to mistake the variables that create experiential differences among players for an authorial agency. But it is indeed a mistake, and games are texts like any other. Games criticism must integrate the unique aspects of these texts in a way that has not been done for other media, but it is an extension of other aesthetic theory, not a break (an idea that I have tangentially touched on in the past).