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Privateer’s Working Class Universe

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Open world space games are back. Post-EVE they’re multiplayer oriented. Elite Dangerous decided to drop its single player. Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky may have single player campaigns, but they aren’t out yet.

The last great space open world game was Privateer and it was its world that made it worked. Privateer succeeded where Freelancer failed because it was a different kind of game. It wasn’t just an open world Wing Commander. Instead you started out in a flying crate that couldn’t stand up to a single fighter. It was dirty and ugly. Getting by took running odd jobs delivering ore around a single backward solar system.

It should have sucked and sometimes it did, but it also made it real.

You weren’t a hero in Privateer. Until the end there were no big stakes. You were just a truck driver in space (that game was actually made and Dennis Hopper was in it) trying to get by. Everything was broken and everything cost money. Keeping your ship flying so you could get work was about stretching a tight budget even tighter.

You could eventually buy the big ship and the top of the line weapons, but only after a lot of sweat and toil. And it wasn’t just you. Your enemies weren’t Kilrathi, though they were in there. You were fighting petty pirates flying basic fighters or crazy retro fanatics. They were just as much at the bottom of the ladder as you. You were flying through industrial zones where militia in basic fighters fought it out with pirates trying to steal some cargo or smugglers moving drugs and slaves.

And you could become a drug dealer or a slaver too. It was an option.

Privateer was a bad neighborhood, a working class universe in which you could make good or bad choices, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. You could run cargo or hunt down pirates. Those are the same limitations you find in other open world space games, but here they were the character of the universe you lived in. They didn’t feel like bad game design, but like a matter of fact statement.

For the few glamorous fighter pilots, there was the opportunity to do something big and take on the Kilrathi in a war for humanity. Everyone else was just working a 9 to 5 job. They might be doing it in space, but it was still the same old.

Space wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t exciting. It was miserable and dirty. And it was amazing.

Star Citizen’s promos borrow from the same toolbox, but it will be interesting to see if it can capture that feeling. Freelancer didn’t.

Why are Gaming Journalists Such Angry Whores?

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Blah blah entitled gamers blah blah culture of misogynistic hatred blah blah blah toxic harassment blah blah GamerGate doesn’t exist blah blah Anita Sarkeesian attacked by ninjas blah blah blah gamers need to just die blah blah just let us do Bioware press and leave us alone.

It’s not the gamers who are angry. Some gamers are angry. They’re the ones who still read blogs like Kotaku, Destructoid, RockPaperShotgun, PC Gamer (online it’s just another blog) and are a little confused about why they’re indistinguishable from Social Justice Warriors Tumblrs.

Most gamers stopped paying attention.

Why even bother? How many people still subscribe to print copies of PC Gamer? How many people care about the previews carefully leaked to friendly gaming journalists? How many people care about an introverted culture of gaming journalists who want to promote the latest pixel art indie about transgender pirate cats as the future of gaming?

Most gamers have moved on. Most non-gamers have moved on leaving behind angry gaming journalists who try to shore up their journalistic creds after all their corporate shilling by attacking gamers as misogynists, because they can’t bite the corporate hand that feeds them.

They’re whores. GamerGate and Zoe Quinn are just tiny little reminders. Mostly the whoring is virtual. Nobody went to bed with anybody to get all star reviews for Dragon Age 2.

Probably.

If you spend your nights shilling for companies and their terrible products, you have to take it out somewhere, somehow. When you can bash a game safely (because it’s not a Bioware game) you do it. And the safest targets are gamers. Dirty, filthy gamers.

There are no gaming journalists. There are employees of gaming websites funded by game publisher advertising who navigate those financial relationships and are told which games they can pan and which games they have to praise.

They’re whores and they’re unhappy whores. They’re the poor whites of the gaming Confederacy. They have to treat someone else like dirt to feel better about what whores they are.

Because worst of all, their line of work is vanishing. Gamers have figured out that the difference between a gaming journalist and an Activision employee is that the former gets paid to pretend that he isn’t the latter.

And they moved on. They get their reviews from Metacritic, Twitch and YouTube. They’ll take rips of the latest exclusive magazine preview which will be on Reddit in five minutes without reading the source.

It’s game over.

Such articles appeared concurrently in Gamasutra (“ ‘Gamers’ are over” and “A guide to ending ‘gamers’ ”), Destructoid (“There are gamers at the gate, but they may already be dead”), Kotaku (“We might be witnessing the ‘death of an identity’ ”) and Rock, Paper, Shotgun (“Gamers are over”), as well as Ars Technica (“The death of the ‘gamers’ ”), Vice (“Killing the gamer identity”) and BuzzFeed (“Gaming is leaving ‘gamers’ behind”). These articles share some traits in common besides their theses: They are unconvincing, lacking in hard evidence, and big on wishful thinking.

quick glance at financials shows that “gamers” are not going anywhere. If “gamers” really are dying, no one told the marketing departments for these publications, which continue to trumpet their “gamer” demographic to advertisers. What is going on instead is projection. As long as these journalists held a monopoly on gaming coverage, they could maintain a dismal relationship with their audience in spite of the fact that “most games coverage is almost indistinguishable from PR,” in the words of disaffected game columnist Robert Florence, who himself wrote about corruption in gaming journalism before quitting Eurogamer. But all that’s changing with the rise of long-form amateur gaming journalism and game commentating on YouTube and Twitch.tv, the latter of which was just bought by Amazon for $1 billion as the gaming press was declaring the end of gamers.

Game companies and developers are now reaching out directly to quasi-amateur enthusiasts as a better way to build their brands, both because the gamers are more influential than the gaming journalists, and because these enthusiasts have far better relationships with their audiences than gaming journalists do. (Admittedly, most anyone does.) This week, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto signaled a focus on hard-core gamers, and Nintendo has already been shutting out the video game press for years. As Gamasutra’s Keza MacDonald wrote in June, the increasingly direct relationship between gamers and game companies has “removed what used to be [game journalism’s] function: to tell people about games.” Another Gamasutra article cited game developers saying that YouTube coverage had far more impact than all website coverage combined.

I generally don’t read gaming websites because I don’t like sifting through rewritten press releases and underage toothbrush incest anime coverage to find one or two genuine pieces of content. Instead I go to affable enthusiasts on YouTube and Twitch, people like Ryan Letourneau (Northernlion), Michelle (TheRPGMinx), Nick Reinecke (RockLeeSmile), Daniel Hardcastle (NerdCubed), and the unfathomably popular Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie), a 24-year-old gamer who has 30 million subscribers, the most viewed YouTube channel of all time, and makes $4 million a year off his channel by, more or less, playing video games.

It is understandable that online gaming journalists would be uncomfortable in this situation. The antagonism of the gaming press toward its audience stems partly from justified outrage at the horrible behavior of a small subset of it, but also from helpless resentment toward the entirety of the press’s shrinking audience—hence the self-defeating attempt to generalize the former into the latter. Rather than stressing that the vast majority of gamers are reasonable people who don’t harass women, hold reactionary, protectionist views, or start vitriolic online campaigns against the press, the websites trashed the entire term “gamer” and, to no one’s surprise, earned 10 times the enmity overnight.

Good luck guys, because your scam is past its sell by date.

I am a straight Asian-American male from a working class family. My family survived wars, political purges, and 3 different refugee camps just to be able to come to America. I consider myself politically a left-leaning liberal. I do support worker’s rights, women’s rights, gay rights, transgender rights, religious freedom, and oppose racism. Yeah, the whole deal. Hell, number of the writers and commentators that are vilifying me right now are people I used to enjoy reading and watching. It’s not as if I was always against everything they had to say all the time. I’ve often shared very similar views at times.

This is why the behaviour of the gaming media as of late sickens me. They use the causes and values that I sincerely believe in, and turned it into a shield they can hide behind to avoid criticism. As if claiming to fight for justice forgives corruption and general cruelty to others. They’ve weaponized these issues and values for their own cynical gain. The gaming media presents the narrative as if opposing their corruption and insanity would mean turning my back on the values and issues I care about. As insane as it sounds, this is deeply troubling to me; painful even.

Hope there’s room for more than one Anita Sarkeesian on Kickstarter or you’re all screwed. And not in a Zoe Quinn way.

Saints Row 4 Game Review

Saints Row 4 is an unusual beast. It’s an AAA game about gaming. It’s a top of the line meta game that goes meta on the meta with lines like “This is just like playing a game. Wink.” With the wink pronounced out loud.

SR4 begins with a Call of Duty parody and is based around a Mass Effect parody. And there are send ups of everything from Metal Gear “that lightbulb had a family” to the whole Saints Row series. Adding to that there’s a built in text adventure game, a mission that turns you into a character in a side-scroller beat-em-up and a whole bunch of jumping and racing games that are 3D versions of the games you might play on the phone to pass the time.

All that makes Saints Row 4 a lot cleverer than the GTA series thinks it is with its latest take on Organized Crime = The American Dream. An idea that was stale a few years after the Godfather and imitation mob movies finished beating into the ground. But that doesn’t mean that SR4 is good.

Saints Row 3 was a polished machine full of gags, missions that transformed into something more hilariously insane and a territory to explore. Saints Row 4 dumps you into the same city with a few small things switched around and alien gear everywhere. It also overlays the old drive and shoot gameplay with a whole bunch of superpowers so that the cars don’t matter.

SR4 feels like the DLC that it started life as. Its missions feel less polished and while a few match the brilliant insanity of SR3, there are so many filler missions that its own DLC, Enter the Dominatrix, jokes about them.

With everything from lightsabers to terminators to Roddy Piper showing up in the game, Saints Row 4 is trying hard to distract you with shiny things. Superpowers, moddable guns that can be turned into the weapons from Firefly, Star Trek and multiple other franchises. Jumping games, racing games, lots of unlockables. But what it’s trying to distract you from is the lack of gameplay.

Integrating superpowers into a drive and shoot game doesn’t go well either. The superpowers are neat, but the system for deploying and choosing them is awkward. The alien enemies are diverse, but few of them have superpowers. The Wardens who do are the worst thing about the game cutting the player off at a top notoriety level and forcing an annoying battle that ends with a notoriety reset.

That makes the whole superpowers thing feel like a played mod that wasn’t well thought out instead of the center of the game.

Once you’re dumped into the simulation, most of the game consists of going into the other simulations where the other characters are trapped to rescue them. And then fulfilling their loyalty missions. Some of these are surprisingly well written and well acted. SR4 does more with its ridiculous characters and goes deeper than Grand Theft Auto 4 ever did. Others are just filler.

SR4 balances out serious backstory and ridiculous gags. It wraps up its own narrative. But it feels unfinished. There aren’t enough missions and the ending is abrupt and awkward. And too many of the missions feel like pointless fetch quests to stretch out the time.

Saints Row 4 has plenty of great moments, but not enough of them and the closer you get to the ending, the more unfinished it feels until you’re looking at a credits sequence composed of concept art for what the Saints are doing in the real ending.

GTA5. It’s Big, But Is It Fun?

We can all agree that when it comes to making huge open gameworlds no one beats Rockstar. And I’m a fan of the sandbox, but like Bethesda’s Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Skyrim, the open world is impressive, but the gameplay is terrible.

The GTA 5 trailer reeks of huge open worldism but also of the same rigidly structured missions as GTA 4 and the same forced interactions with game characters that are playing your friends and family. And those are not good things.

It would be better if Rockstar had taken some inspiration from games like Saints Row 3 or Driver San Fransisco which put player experience first and were and still are really fun to play.

San Andreas was Rockstar’s most open 3D GTA game. It was a world where you could actually have fun. Since then other franchises have focused on fun gameplay in an open world, while Rockstar has tried making its games into movies and commenting on politics.

GTA 5’s version of LA will be neat, no doubt, but once the novelty of the open world and its goofy characters wears off, you’re going to be stuck in cars that are no fun to drive and missions that are no fun to play while Rockstar’s Scottish developers beat you over the head with what they think is insightful commentary on the American Dream.

Girlfriend Mode

So somebody at Gearbox, a company which made a game where you anally rape players with bullets, called a mode in Borderlands 2 designed to bring in inexperienced players into a game with you, the girlfriend mode. Cue panic, hysteria, outrage and outraged hysterical white knights setting things on fire while female devs explain how language like this shuts them out of the industry. The pearl clutching over this makes so-called game sites suddenly sound as crazy and alarmist as Jack Thompson out on a moral panic.

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Now that everyone is properly outraged… what percentage of multiplayer First Person Shooter players are female? And I don’t mean corporate stunts like the frag dolls. I’m sure they exist. I’m also sure they’re not the majority or the target audience for a Gearbox game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Borderlands players are not the target audience for The Sims Online. Neither of them are the target audience for a stats heavy flight simulator.

Did it become sexist to not pretend that female gamers are as likely to sit down with a round of Halo as any teenage boy. That’s not what sexist means. Sexist means assuming that because fewer women will play Halo that they’re incapable of it or that playing Halo is an absolute value that makes men superior to women. Do we have to also start pretending that men are as likely to read Twilight?

The outraged will rely on statistics like the ESA’s gaming roundup which says that gamers are 58 percent male and 42 percent female. But the ESA is an industry trade group and runs things like this because it makes gaming seem more mainstream. But the ESA defines games as playing Farmville. Those same statistics show that 47 percent of their idea of “online gamers”  play puzzle and board games online. Only 33 percent play actual multiplayer games.

There’s this study, which like most studies you can take issue with.

Reiss said this research also suggests that males have neural circuitry that makes them more liable than women to feel rewarded by a computer game with a territorial component and then more motivated to continue game-playing behavior. Based on this, he said, it makes sense that males are more prone to getting hooked on video games than females.

“Most of the computer games that are really popular with males are territory- and aggression-type games,” he pointed out.

But it’s just telling us what we already know. Games where the goal is to shoot a hundred people in ten minutes are more likely to appeal to men than to women.  The few FPS gender demographics that I have seen lean heavily male.

Back to Girlfriend Mode. The name can be read as a stereotype that women are worse gamers and need a crutch. But then it would be Girl Mode. It’s Girlfriend Mode because it lets players who wouldn’t normally play a male skewed game do a couples thing. Is it offensive? At least one romantic comedy told women how to get their boyfriends to come with them as part of their marketing. That was their Boyfriend Mode.

Sexism isn’t going to go away if we construct a magical universe where men and women like the same exact things and shout at everyone who says otherwise. It’s going to go away if we’re honest about boundaries and feelings. Pretending that there aren’t gender differences in style and gameplay doesn’t serve anyone.

Judgement at Proteus by Timothy Zahn book review

The cover for Judgement at Proteus calls it the Quadrail finale which sums up the downturn of the series. What could have been a perfectly entertaining open ended series unnecessarily became an arc that strangled the life out of the premise of a detective using his wits to solve mysteries on a train that runs between the stars.

Judgement at Proteus

The first 100 pages of Judgement at Proteus is borderline unreadable if you haven’t read the previous Quadrail book and it still dances on the edge of being unreadable even if you have. Still Timothy Zahn eventually recovers and Proteus Station eventually becomes the setting for some of the same logical games and switcheroos influenced by 40’s and 50’s spy and detective movies as the rest of the series. But it’s only when Judgement at Proteus leaves the massive alien space station and goes back to the Quadrail that it picks up properly and gets back into the flow of murder on the interstellar express.

Still the arc drags Judgement at Proteus down and the series suffers from the need for constant new revelations. The Modhri, a menacing pod people enemy who lives as intelligent coral that can take over any body is replaced as the series foe by the Shonkra-La a genetically engineered variant of the Fillies, who were once the master/slave race that ruled/destroyed the galaxy. And their main weapon, a telepathic whistle that can take over the mind of any race, except humans, is weak.

The Shonkra-La are basically equine Nazis, and Zahn manages to sell the idea, and even manages to make me overlook that the enemy’s big telepathic weapon can be defeated through the simple expedient of earplugs. Still the Shonkra-La, like the Modhri, is an enemy who would rather spend time gloating and entrapping Frank Compton in complex conspiracies, and only later charges at him with all its minions. And Zahn milks a certain amount of pathos out of the Mohdri’s transformation from a parasitic to symbiotic entity.

There are logical and plot holes in the Judgement at Proteus that you can drive a Quadrail through and it’s disappointing that Zahn or his publishers chose to end the series instead of continuing it as an open ended series. This book and the last have both been weak due to the arc, but I still have fond memories of a series that began with Night Trail to Rigel and offered a dose of classic Science Fiction with Asimovian mystery solving.

Art and Games

In a post at The Verge, Brian makes an important point about how seductive art or the illusion of it can be to game reviewers.

I think the reason critics fell for it was because they were perfectly set by the nature of their position as professional reviewers to be hooked by it. The game is (according to some, I’ve not played it) a poor execution on the mechanical level. The controls are poorly implemented and the game takes ‘real is brown’ to a ludicrous extreme.

Critics and reviewers, and I speak as one of the breed, want to talk about the meaning of things. We want to find the meaning of things. But often games are not about meanings, they’re about experiences. There are bad art games, the way that there are bad art films and bad literary novels, works that exist only to make some higher point while providing a miserable and unpleasant experience, but they have even less reason to exist because a game is an interactive experience.

Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops the Line fails mechanically as a game. It plugs that failure by referencing Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad and setting up an absurd cliched ending that most of us have seen done in movies before. But this blew away game reviewers, even ones who would have laughed off Spec Ops the Line as a movie, because it was moving gaming forward, in their minds, to some wonderful world where games would be deeper works of art instead of murder sims.

Unlike Day Z, there really isn’t much talk about Spec Ops the Line, even by those who like it, because there isn’t much to say about it. Unlike Day Z it doesn’t provide moral choices or a complex experience. It is just a student film cover for incompetence. But that cover makes people feel smart and critics like feeling smart.

The seduction of the critic is that trap of fake intelligence, whether it’s reviewing what a game should have been instead of what it is or reviewing a game positively because it made you feel smart, not because it was a good experience.

Shut Up About FemShep Already

At some point in the last few years it became fashionable for a small group of idiots to act like playing the female version of a generic character was like taking part in a civil rights movement. That somehow playing the female version of Shepard was a bold and important step and that EA and Bioware were suppressing their FemShep civil rights movement by not emphasizing the female Shepard as much as the male Shepard.

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Pictured. The Shepard that FemSheppers don’t care about

Richard Cobbett is one of the worst examples of this, going on incessantly about FemShep in an article calling the generic female version of a generic character the greatest SciFi heroine ever. In RPS posts he acts as if namechecking FemShep is some sort of statement. It’s only a statement of idiocy.

Fact. Both Shepards are generic hero characters with minimal development. Playing FemShep is no bigger than playing a female character in Skyrim.

Fact. Playing a female character is not a statement, it’s a choice. It doesn’t change how games depict women. It does not make you a better person. It does not mean that you are a woman by proxy and can natter on about being the victim of EA’s sexism against FemShep. Doing that is so stupid that the language doesn’t have the words to accommodate a proper description of it.

Fact. FemShep is no more overlooked than BlackShep. EA not using FemShep on cover art is not sexist, just as not using BlackShep on cover art is not racist. It’s just a choice. Few of the FemShep fanatics though dwell on BlackShep or any of the issues that come out of that. I don’t know why that is, but maybe it’s not hip to be a white male who talks a lot about playing BlackShep the way it is to be a white male who talks a lot about playing FemShep.

Fact. FemShep does not substitute for the lack of female characters in games, but most games don’t have characters of any gender with depth. It’s a function of gameplay. When characters have no character, it doesn’t matter how you tweak their skin color, gender or features. They’re just a projection of you. Playing a character of a difference gender or race does not mean that you are experiencing what life is like for them or that you can turn your game experience into outraged rants about your virtual suffering.

Please stop. Just stop.

Mass Effect 3’s Three Endings

Now was that so hard?

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mass effect 3 endings

There’s nothing all that great in the extended Mass Effect 3 endings. Lots of sad solemn music, mildly tinkered graphics and material that suggests the Bioware people are coming as close as they dare to mocking their audience. But all that stuff aside the three endings are… endings.

When you tell a story, it’s supposed to come with an ending. If you want to sell a game based on players being able to control the outcome, then your endings should be different, rather than exactly the same.

The three/four Mass Effect 3 endings actually clarify what happened and what effect your choices had. Even if you don’t think the effect is important, the “what the hell happened” part is.

The Destroy ending is straightforward. You destroy stuff. The end. Also Shephard might actually be alive in this version.

The Control ending looks a lot like the Synthesis ending, except Shephard is immortal and everyone in the universe isn’t a Borg. Also the Reapers make great construction equipment.

The Synthesis ending is everyone becoming a Borg. But it’s sort of neat in its own way.

The fourth ending is kind of interesting in its own way and dramatically the strongest. It also explains everything that came before.

It might have been better and simpler if there had been only two endings all along. The synthesis or the refusal. Become one with the machine or the cycle continues.

After Dragon Age II’s non-endings, it was nice to see players hold Bioware accountable over Mass Effect 3. With developers pulling Spec Ops: The Line type crap that gives players false choices and a miserable experience just to act out whatever the writers came up with, this is a reminder that the story has to serve the needs of the player first.

Sierra, Space Quest and Jane Jensen

It was nice to see Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy, the Space Quest team, reunite and get their Kickstarter funding, though it shouldn’t have been such a close call. It’s ridiculous that Jane Jensen had no trouble raising almost as much money for what, her “studio” and she did it with half as many backers.

Crowe and Murphy came to the Kickstarter quest late, when Kickstarter fatigue had already set in. But I can’t help thinking how many space questprojects could have been funded. Corey and Lori Cole could have gotten on board and funded another Quest for Glory game or something like it. There’s no mention on their blog that they’re in any way aware of Kickstarter. But there’s at least one Kickstarter game close to being funded, Quest for Infamy, that looks like a takeoff on the series.

Jane Jensen got in on the ground floor of this and benefited. And her Kickstarter humbly describes her as a “Master Storyteller”. Seriously?

To me, Jane Jensen, doesn’t represent what was good about Sierra, but what happened when it began to go downhill. KQ6 and Gabriel Knight were good, but after that came an FMV sequel, from when Roberta Williams decided the future of adventure games lay with bad actors reciting lines against green screens. Since then she’s done a bunch of “Click to Discover Stuff” games aimed at old ladies. Her new games will probably be more of the same, except crowdfunded, and there’s a ton of these games already. You can’t throw a brick without hitting one.

Here’s Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile, see how fast you can click through to find objects before the clock runs down. It’s as bland and unimaginative as you can imagine. I’m all for crowdfunding nostalgia, but that’s not what this is. It’s crowdfunding the work of a woman who was there when the Sierra ship went down and never really did anything notable in gaming.

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