• "So, given this [zero-button, move and look] interface, whence interactivity in Dear Esther? I say: from an understated but deadly-precise sense of attention design through spatial design.

    You walk along the beach; a path goes up the bluff, another along the strand. You go one way or the other. There are no game-mechanics associated with the choice, and a plot-diagram analysis would call them "the same place" — you can try either, back up, and go the other way. But this misses the point. Precisely because the game lacks keys, switches, stars, and 1ups, it has no implicit mandate to explore every inch of territory. Instead, you want to move forward. Backtracking is dull. Worse: given the game's sedate walking pace, it's slightly frustrating. (They left out the run button for a reason, see?) Moving into new territory is always the best-rewarded move, and therefore your choice of path is a choice. You will not (unless you thrash hard against the game's intentions) see everything in your first run-through." Cracking writing about immersive, environmental storytelling in Dear Esther, and why it's clearly a game.

  • "…he still remembers his frustration at encountering "sliced-up ghettos of thought" – sculpture, architecture, fashion, embroidery, metalwork, product and furniture design all in separate departments – "which I don't believe are absolute. It's just the way we categorise things and the way we chose to educate people."" Quite excited to see the Heatherwick show.
  • "Super-simple baseline .mobi templates. Here ya go."
  • It's basically a satellite that's an external Android peripheral, and they're chucking it into space with a phone attached. Impressive.
  • "My main point brings me back to Pretending Apps. Because there are lots of other things you can steal from games, many other aspects of gaming that people find appealing and some of them might be more easily and usefully extracted." Yup. This was one of my main beefs with the whole "let's make everything playful/gamey!" trend that kicked off a few years ago: "game-y" was associated with "having points", and really, that's not what makes a game at all. (Other things that make a game: pretending, as Russell mentions, and visible mechanics, as I think I have to write about soon).
  • "There seems to be some sort of consensus that the highest form of play is fully immersive, interactive live theatre. Well not for me. The rhetoric of these things is often about people making their own choices, being free to act, creating their own narrative, etc, etc. And I always end up feeling like a piece, a pawn." Totally; not for me, either, though I'm not totally into "Social Toys" either – but Russell's points are perfectly valid and sensible. (I do like theatre, though). Probably ought to write more than a few hundred characters on this.
  • Solid illustration comedy gold, mainly from the 70s and 80s.
  • "Economics has been defined as the science of distributing limited means among unlimited and competing ends. On 12th April, with the arrival of elements of the 30th U.S. Infantry Division, the ushering in of an age of plenty demonstrated the hypothesis that with infinite means economic organization and activity would be redundant, as every want could be satisfied without effort." Remarkable article; fascinating for its subject matter, when it was written, what it describes, and the patterns that hold up inside such a regimented economy. A must-read, really – can't believe it took me so long to get around to it.
  • "Our attempts to bridle the player's freedom of movement and force our meaning onto him are fruitless. Rather, it is a distinct transportative, transformative quality– the ability of the player to build his own personal meaning through immersion in the interactive fields of potential we provide– that is our unique strength, begging to be fully realized." Some great Steve Gaynor; reminds me of Mitch Resnick's "microworld construction kits" all over again.
  • "It's an easy, irresistible, almost childish pleasure: the ground meat dissolved into a dark blood-red sauce until they are one and the same; no hacking, slicing or cutting needed; a slurpy goodness; the oily bolognese hanging on to the slippery pasta; guaranteed joy in a world that's just ruled it out." Recipes for ragu.
  • "Suddenly, instead of Pong, Nolan Bushnell unleashes a stark, monochrome rescue challenge on the world. AVOID MISSING PRINCESS FOR HIGH SCORE burns itself into the brains of a generation. A couple of sequels expand the world of this strange new hero and, keen to bring its popularity to bear on the 2600, Atari execs strong-arm Warren Robinett into populating Adventure with mushroom monsters and making the green dragon friendly." Delightful alterna-history from Margaret in her Offworld column.
  • "Soon enough, amid the daily grind of his obsession, he would see in the game itself a way out of the bleak hole he had fallen into. He would take a clear-eyed, calculating look at what he and his fellow players had been doing all those months—at the countless hours they'd given over to the pursuit of purely virtual but implacably scarce commodities—and he would recognize it not just for the underexploited form of productivity it was but for the highly profitable commercial enterprise it might sustain." Fantastic article from Julian Dibbell on IGE, the massive real-money trading operation.
  • "We will both have to take responsibility for our consumption. A product that keeps working for longer uses less-resources in the end. The key ingredient to all this is quality. To make something well, you know, the best you can do. To go the extra mile that it takes to do that. Every stitch, every zip, every little feature considered. The weakest points made strong. Then, and only then, have we made something that will last the test of time. Guaranteed for a minimum 10 years. Each product will come with a hand me down contract. You will sign who you want to leave the product to. This is legally binding."
  • "Trust begins when I can see the design intention of an application." Great stuff from Rands on how sync should work – namely, in the dumbest way possible – and what building trust into application design looks like.
  • "Throughout most of the year, gaming is distraction and entertainment. November separates the proverbial patriarchs from their upstart offspring. In November, the Gamer! and the With Job! blur. I spend my ill-defined work hours thinking, talking and writing about games. And the time I'm playing games become a form of work – a struggle to keep up no less frenetic than that of the clock-manager in Metropolis." This year's November release schedule was crazier than most, too.
    (tags: games writing )
  • "the brains behind the siduhe bridge decided to ignore all those options and break another record instead. they attached the 3200ft cables to rockets and accurately fired them over the valley, becoming the first people to do so." Woah. The photographs are awesome.

Paul Ferenc’s pistol

23 November 2008

Far Cry 2's Africa

Paul Ferenc died today.

I met Paul in some ex-pat bar by a lagoon. He had work, and I needed a friend – or the closest I could get to a friend in this country. He used to be in the IDF; now, like the rest of us, he was a gun for hire in this mess of a country, his hair bleached by the African sun. We worked together on quite a few jobs. But our relationship was mainly characterised by absence; I’d not see him for days at a time, only occasionally bumping into him at safe houses when he had work. Always doing push-ups; I never understood how he didn’t go mad in there on his own.

I think we all might be mad already.

He saved my life countless times; dragging me to safety, covering me with gunfire whilst I reset dislocated bones, yanked slugs out of my arm with my multi-tool. And I returned the favour; often, I’d see the blue cloud rising from the smoke grenades he carried with him for emergencies, and run to his aid.

He was a tough guy. Nothing a syrette or two of morphine couldn’t sort out; always back on his feet in no time.

Today, I was off to destroy some compressors in a scrapyard; Paul reckoned we could cause more havoc if I got him a timetable for fuel convoys to the junkyard. It seemed like a reasonable deal. Most of his schemes weren’t too bad, but I baulked at the time he seemed to be financing retiring to Thailand through my sweat.

I got him the timetable, even if it did involve destroying half of a fuel depot out north. He suggested I meet him after I’d made a mess of the junkyard.

With the compressor gone, I headed northwards, ducking the machine-gun fire sputtering through the jungle. Through my scope, I saw Paul, shotgun blazing. Clearly, the convoy was well guarded. I lost sight of him, distracted by two mercs with RPKs; by the time my private gunfight was over, I couldn’t see Paul.

Then I saw the blue smoke.

I darted over to him. He looked in a bad way – he always looked in a bad way, to be honest – and I had morphine to spare. I gave him a shot, waited for the glint in his eyes to return and for him to spring up. Nothing. He asked for another, and I yanked the cap off with my teeth, drove it into the vein in his neck. Nothing. His eyes began to roll, vacantly.

It looked bad this time. I could probably spare him another syrette, but I was going to have to keep some for myself. The grip of his pistol jutted out of his jacket, and I began to thing about alternatives to just leaving him here.

One more shot, straight into the neck. His eyes rolled back for the last time, and he was still. No need for the pistol; no need for any more morphine. I closed his eyes.

There was nothing much else I could do. Life ends out here bloody and quickly, and I had to get back to the town. He’d been a good buddy, if not exactly a friend. I dropped my Russian-made pistol and took his large Desert Eagle from his waistband. Something to remember him by.

The gun was corroded, practically mud-brown; no wonder he’d gone down in the firefight at the convoy. But it was all that was left of Paul, now; I squashed it into my holster and drove towards Pala.

On the way there, a small group of mercs opened fire on me. Leaping from my jeep, I opened fire with the .50 pistol. Three shots and the rusty gun jams. I duck behind the hood, slapping the gun with my other hand, racking the slide to clear the jammed cartridge. No-one would come for me if I went down; my only backup was lying dead in the jungle, full of lead and morphine. All he left me was this gun, and it was likely to get myself killed.

The stuck cartridge cleared, and I opened fire again.

I arrived at Pala a while later. Paul Ferenc’s pistol lay in the dust at the cockfights, its slide half-locked with rust, its last victims a few feet away.

I went looking for new work, a new friend, and a new gun.

I’ll be writing something more substantial about Far Cry 2 in the near future. It’s a world that’s immersed me far more than I’d imagined it ever could, and documenting this morning’s events seemed like a good way of starting to move towards talking about it.

Killing Jeff: Epilogue

04 June 2008

It only seemed appropriate to post an update to my tale of morality in Liberty City, given that Jeff is now dead. It’s also appropriate, this time around, to talk slightly less in the first person.

Once again, the player bumps into Jeff on the street – a small blue icon on the map. Niko bumps into him; he’s staring through a pair of binoculars at a house across the road. Niko is really unenthusiastic about meeting Jeff again, which I was pleased about. One trend that emerges throughout GTAIV is that whilst Niko has no hesitation about doing dirty work, that’s all very dependent on the reasons behind it. He’s angry that Brucie made him kill people simply because Brucie was hopped up on steroids, for instance; he’s less angry about crimes that fit within his moral spectrum.

Niko is really angry with Jeff. This made me feel somewhat relieved, if only because it felt like this was going to pan out a bit better. It turns out that Jeff has remarried (an instance of GTA’s somewhat liquid attitude to time) and is sitting watching his wife meet her ex. Of course, he’s decided this is a bad thing, and he wants Niko to kill her.

Niko’s having none of it, and gets quite angry with Jeff. Jeff starts yelling; Niko is “just like all the others“, it seems, and Jeff crosses the road to do the deed himself.

At this point, I’m thinking: is this where I get to kill Jeff, right? This is where Niko gets to demonstrate a wider spectrum of his morals.

And then a supercar piles down the street and runs Jeff over. He bumps over the windscreen, scattering the contents of his wallets, and lies splayed on the pavement. A lawyer-type leaps out of the car, gets on the phone, starts telling the police he’s had an accident. Jeff is still, splayed in the road.

Jeff has been killed in an accident appears, as a legend at the bottom of the screen.

I’m glad; I’m disappointed; I’m chastised. I’m glad he’s dead. I’m disappointed I didn’t get to kill him. I’m chastised for thinking about murdering a civilian.

The Jeff arc is a tiny, optional, three-mission plot in GTAIV, and I’m sure many players won’t experience it. I’m not sure it does much for the game’s misogynist reputation, which is something I am still sitting on the fence about – I have issues with some of its characterisation, for sure, but am not convinced of all the criticism thrown at the game. At the same time, it addresses an interesting issue that hasn’t really come up in the series (even in San Andreas, where it might have been an obvious fit): namely, the gap between criminals and civilians, and also more objective viewpoints of “good” and “bad”. The game is so heavily based upon subjective morals that it’s a really interesting shift of perspective.

Whilst the Jeff missions were presented as a real arc, rather than a series of disparate events, I’m still totally frustrated by the lack of freedom offered in the second Jeff mission, which was really quite unpleasant and made me genuinely angry. Still, I’m glad I played through to the end of the arc. For what it’s worth, there was a sense of closure.

Killing Jeff

18 May 2008

Update: I mistakenly called Jeff “Phil”. No idea where that came from. My bad.

Jeff should be dead.

I met Jeff on the street. He was just a blue blip on my minimap, to begin with. I’d seen him around for a while, but I was now passing right by him, and I was on foot, so I thought I’d head over to see what the blip was all about. And then Jeff started talking, and he wouldn’t shut up.

Jittery, paranoid. Babbling about how his wife’s cheating on him. Kept calling her bad names – bitch, whore. Not cool. But I listen. Anyhow, Jeff wants me to follow her when she leaves the apartment one day, and see where she’s going. Seems like an easy buck, and if he’s wrong, he’ll be glad to know that, right?

So I pull up outside the apartment, and watch her leave. Red Feltzer coupé. Very nice. Tail her for a few blocks, and she pulls up at a café.

I head inside, see her talking to some guy. Smart, suit, smells like a lawyer or something. Anyhow, I keep my distance, a few blocks over, snap a few pictures on my phone. I mean, if Jeff knows the guy, this all might blow over, right? Can’t help but listen to them. And, sure enough, there’s nothing sinister – not yet, anyhow. Just her, talking to some guy she knows – work colleague, maybe – about how jittery and paranoid Jeff is. How it’s driving her nuts, she’s not sure what to do. No affair, no cheating. Just jittery, paranoid Jeff.

I message him the pics, and he flies off the handle and hangs up. Not exactly cool; let’s just hope it all blows over.

Jeff calls me in the night. I’ve just bought a suit for this interview I’ve got tomorrow, big-shot law firm. Need to look the part. Anyhow, I need some sleep, but Jeff’s just yelling at me, screaming, telling me he needs to see me. He’s in a parking garage near Roman’s new apartment.

Parking garages never bode well.

And there’s no option to say no. No conversation branch, no choice; I picked up the phone and I got landed with Jeff – much like when I wandered up to him and he threw me into a mission. Already, I’m sick of Jeff.

So I go to the garage, pull up inside, and there’s Jeff, jittering about, holding himself. Things aren’t good. “Jeff made a mistake,” he tells me, not realising that talking in the third person is a dead giveaway for crazy. Tells me his wife’s had an accident. What kind of accident, I say. Jeff shows me.

The body is in his nasty little hatchback.

I have met many bad people in Liberty City, but Jeff is the worst. Jeff is not a criminal. He doesn’t deal drugs, he doesn’t rob banks, he doesn’t traffic people. He’s your ordinary-decent-citizen. Jeff’s wife is blameless in all of this. And yet he killed an innocent, decent woman, for no apparent reason, and he keeps talking about her like that, and I can tell that Niko hates Jeff, and feels a bit sick, and I hate Jeff, and feel a bit sick.

Jeff gives me the car keys, and sits on the tarmac, crying. He wants me to dump the body.

I’ve never intentionally killed civilians. No joke. Maybe the odd auto accident, but no shooting. Everyone who’s died by my hand has been cop or crook – somebody who was shooting at me, or who would kill me later if I didn’t kill them now. Those are the rules, right?

Anyhow, Jeff is sitting on the pavement in front of me, and I’m thinking that I don’t want his phonecalls in the night, and I don’t want his guilt, and I don’t want him dragging ordinary, decent people into the kind of shit you shouldn’t even choose for yourself (and heaven knows I’ve tried not to), and I realise that a moral decision is presenting itself to me. And there’s only one moral decision I can make in Liberty City.

I pull out my piece and put three rounds into Jeff. He doesn’t even look up when I draw the gun, he’s too busy crying. Sure, he’s not well, but he’s also gone too far, and I don’t want to have anything more to do with this. He rolls back on the ground, must have hit him in head and torso. I hate, you Jeff.

A black-and-white lights up behind me; must have been prowling the parking garage. I leap into Jeff’s car and head for the river. Doesn’t take much ducking and diving to avoid the single patrol car and lose the heat. Now I’ve just got to dump this car and dump the body. He didn’t even put it in the boot; it’s lying around on the backseat, and I can’t avoid seeing it as I’m driving. Still gives me that lump in my throat.

Towards the river, must be barrelling along at about 40. I lurch off the road, head straight for it. It’s hard judging distance at speed, and I throw open the door a fraction too late, because rather than rolling out onto the grass, I end up leaping out above the water. The car goes headfirst into the river as I dunk myself in it.

New interview suit, soaked already.

Jeff’s dead. Jeff’s car’s in the river, along with Jeff’s wife’s corpse. Poor Jeff’s wife. Wish I’d never met him.

I clamber out of the river, and head for home; time to catch some sleep before the big interview.

My cellphone rings.

It’s Jeff.

Jeff should be dead. He was dead to me the second he showed me the corpse in the back of the Blista; he was deader when I shot him, watched him crumple. And now he’s on the phone to me again, like nothing’s happened. I can’t describe my anger; all at once, I’m furious.

And the city fades away and the game wells up over me and I want to scream at Jeff, and scream at Rockstar, and empty my pistol into Jeff, tugging on the joypad trigger again and again until the virtual gun clicks dry, so that he can never come back again, never hurt anyone again. I made a choice – a valid choice in the game world – and for the first time in this game it had no repercussions. I’d have taken any amount of heat just to put Jeff down. But the game wouldn’t let me. The game thought he deserved to live. Saddened, I turn the 360 off.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a wonderful game; it resists any tarnishing with terms such as “fetch quests” and “escort missions” by virtue of the solidity and coherence of world it presents. It rises above the stereotypes of previous games and attempts to create genuine characters, however simple or cartoonish. Few of them are truly evil, few of them can ever be redeemed; they all tread the awkward line between survival and violent death.

Jeff was different; Jeff was the first time that I’d met a character I (and, indeed, Niko – the player’s character) found distasteful. For the first time, the game gave me no choice but to take his missions the second I approached him or picked up the phone. I could have coped with Jeff if I felt like I’d had the opportunity to do something – anything – about him. The game gave me that opportunity, and took it away, and it shouldn’t have done that. Not if it wants me to take the “freedom” it offers me seriously.

I’m going to keep playing, but every time my phone rings, I’ll pray it’s not Jeff, and if it ever is Jeff, I’m going to remember what I want to do to him – and why I want to do that to him – before I hit “reject”.