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maura @ 3:00 pm
I am trying to get back to videogames this summer. It seems weird to have to make a plan to do something I ostensibly enjoy, something that’s very clearly a leisure + fun thing, but here we are. I think I fell out of the habit of playing games kind of gradually over the past decade as my job really turned into my career.* Being on the tenure track for sure makes it easy to work lots and play little, and by the time I had tenure and was all the way promoted I was also library director which is a not un-busy job. The games I tend to like best are often long and rely on accumulated knowledge and skill, which is not necessarily conducive to intermittent play. Also I was listening to my favorite podcast Secret Feminist Agenda not long ago and in the episode on videogames they made the point that in our late capitalist era it seems like even hobbies have to be productive in some way. Like why is knitting held in higher esteem than playing videogames? Does everything we do have to result in a product? Even reading, which I adore, “makes” something in that you’re learning when you read, right?
*Not that that wasn’t always the plan, because it was, but it still has come as a bit of a shock, I think in part because there seem to be fewer and fewer actual careers now (in any occupation) than there were in the past. Plus the whole problem of contingency in higher ed, declines in funding for public institutions, etc. just makes everything feel very precarious.
Anyway, that’s a drag and videogames are fun, phfffft.
Right now I’m playing the latest game in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series: Breath of the Wild. It’s the first fully open world Zelda game, and it is also super gorgeous, I have to say. I’ve always liked the Zelda games — they’ve been aesthetically pleasing and have long had a huge expansive landscape feeling even though they weren’t truly open world (meaning that you mostly progressed through the world on a predetermined path, plus diversions [called side quests]). I’m finding gameplay in the open world to be both intoxicating and distracting. At first I didn’t realize that you really can go anywhere — the visibility of the map is activated by visiting a tower in each map section, and I initially thought that I had to follow the overarching game quest to get to each section. Which would work, I assume, but once getting past the initial training level (which requires you to earn a paraglider to get down to the other regions) it’s also fine to just go wherever you want to.
I’m still nearish to the beginning of the game, despite having played on and off for about a month. I’m probably moving more slowly through the game than is absolutely necessary, in part because I’ve been captivated by the cooking mechanic. Instead of cutting the grass or smashing pots to get life hearts, like in other Zelda games, in this game you find plant and animal foods (and can hunt animals as well) as you travel. You can eat any food raw, but you get more hearts and sometimes other special powers (stamina, strength, cold resistence, and others) if you cook the food first. There are cooking pots scattered across the landscape and whenever I come upon one I’m generally unable to resist cooking at least a few things. I’ve also been collecting rocks and weird monster body parts and apparently there’s a crafting mechanic too, but I haven’t done any experimenting yet to see what I can make.
I’ll admit to having some trouble with the inventory process, which I think is also slowing me down a bit, especially when fighting enemies. As is common in many games (though not in prior Zelda games I’ve played), items like weapons and shields last for only a set number of uses before they break. Generally it’s been fairly easy to find weapons around the landscape or in treasure chests, and also when you kill an enemy you can take its weapon. But you can only hold a set number of weapons, and not every weapon is useful for every enemy (and also some things, like the sledgehammer, are needed to smash rocks to get flint and gems, so I’m hesitant to use them as weapons). Mostly the problem for me is that my weapon will inevitably break in the middle of a fight, and I’ll have to jump into the inventory and choose a new weapon quickly. Which is fine — the inventory screen is basically a pause — but I’m not supercoordinated about it and often get flustered and die (sometimes I also forget that I can replenish my hearts by eating food when in the inventory). I also get flustered fairly often with the range of buttons on the controller, though that’s not a new problems for me.
The other thing that’s slowing me down is that it’s Just. So. Pretty. The landscape is mountains and meadows and forests and rivers and lakes and snowcovered peaks and ruined medievalish buildings and broken mosscovered vaguely steampunk robots. There are animals and birds and fish. There’s wind and rain and snow and lightning. The sun rises and sets. The mountaintops and towers have a realistic and genuine feeling of tallness, so much so that as a person who’s afraid of heights I sometimes I feel the tiniest bit woozy when I’m standing on a mountain looking out over the terrain.
With all of this I’ve been meandering through the game, taking my time to explore different places even as the little indicator of the main quest that I’m supposed to be on is blinking at the edge of the map. Producing nothing other than immersive enjoyment for myself, even despite weapon-related frustrations. (And producing nearly a thousand words about my experience, too, apparently.)
maura @ 11:55 am
I realized the other morning that even though my sabbatical is in theory not bound by the same academic calendar constraints that my regular worklife is, in practice I’ve ended up aligning to those semester-based rhythms even when on leave. It’s true that I did have to interview students for my research project during the semester, because that’s when they’re on campus (we do have summer classes but enrollment is significantly lower than during the year). But looking back now I’m struck by how much my time in February, March, April, and May was fairly regimented during the week.
The regular academic year finishes up at the end of May, and this month I have relaxed my self-imposed sabbatical schedule somewhat, too. Especially over the past two weeks, when the kid’s been out of school more than in (thanks but no thanks high school regents exams). Our apartment is big by NYC standards, but even so I find that I can’t work well for long chunks of time when all three of us are here. I have a spot in one of the study rooms at the NYPL that I typically use about once/week, though with the evermore erratic behavior of the subway system I sometimes don’t want to make that commute into the city. Sometimes I use the Brooklyn Public Library as a workspace too — a much shorter (and walkable) commute.
But this month I’ve also been letting myself do less research work overall. As someone who sometimes worries that I’m not getting enough done, when I look back at the last four months I have crossed lots of sabbatical goals off my list, so a little relaxation is not so scandalous, right?
All of which is just a long-winded (very long-winded!) way of saying that recently I played a game! From start to finish! That had been sitting around unplayed since I got it for my birthday 2 (?) years ago! And it was delightful.
The game is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and is a good example of the kinds of narrative games that I like more these days, less about button combo skillz and more about using a game to get somewhere interesting or tell a story. The plot is that two brothers are on a quest to find a magical ingredient to save their dying father. The game world is fairy-tale like with relatively straightforward puzzles as you leave the doctor’s house and travel through the town, up the mountains, and farther afield in search of the cure. It’s also very pretty. I especially liked the inclusion of benches at various locations along the way when the game wants to show you what’s ahead, which also served as a very real analogy to when you’re on a hike or long walk and want to stop for a brief rest.
While I’ve been known to gripe about the 2 joysticks on the PlayStation controller, I admit that for this game the physical mechanics are pretty neat: the left joystick and button control the actions of one brother, and the right joystick/button the other. Sometimes you need to have the brothers do the same action together, and other times they need to work together but doing different things. Figuring out the controller action was fun for some of the more interesting puzzles — my favorite was a climb up and into a castle on a rocky precipice that required tying a rope between the two brothers to connect them as they climbed and swung between handholds.
What seemed like a fairly standard-issue quest through a vaguely Medieval-European-ish world gradually took a pretty weird and ominous turn. First there were bloody streaks in a river you had to cross, followed by dead giants strewn along the path who looked to have died in a battle. You suddenly come upon a scene of small men with beards and spears who look to be about to sacrifice a girl, and after scaring them away the girl leads you further up into the mountains past an invisible snow yeti. Once you survive *that* she gets a little flirty (!) with the big brother and leads you both into a creepy tunnel — I should add that the little brother doesn’t want to go, but the big brother insists. (Also, the northern lights along the path to the tunnel were beautiful.)
Aaaaand then the tunnel ends up being a spider’s nest and the girl transforms into a spider with a girl head. There’s a boss battle to escape, and while both brothers finally defeat her, the girlspider stabs the older brother just before she dies. A brief and limping walk bring the brothers to the location of the magical healing liquid to cure their father, which the younger brother has to climb a tall tree to retrieve. But by the time the little brother comes back down the tree, the older brother has died. The little brother then has to *bury* the older brother — seriously, the game makes you dig the grave — and returns home to save his father, all of which is a little weird because not only is it sad but also you’re now only using half of the controller. There is a spot near the end when the ghost of the older brother comes back to help the younger brother and you’re made to use the whole controller again.
The game ends on a melancholy note with the now-cured father and younger brother kneeling at a memorial for the older brother. While sad, it was definitely worthwhile, and I’m so glad I made the time to (finally!) play.
maura @ 5:09 pm
Wow, what happened to May? It’s been a while since I’ve missed a whole month here. Since last June, in fact. Blame it on the kittehs — I’ve now collected nearly all of them and have the house expansion and 2 of the 3 additional room skins. There’s still more to do since not every cat has given me a present yet, but I’ve collected enough fishmoney (without spending real money! go me!) that I’ve been able to buy lots of toys, and have started going for theme arrangements, like putting out pillows and hammocks and cushions to try to attract lots of napping kittehs, or all of the spinny/small mouse/feather kinds of toys for playing kittehs. Good times.
I took the day off today and am trying hard to really have a day off, no chores or work or anything nonleisureish. Last night was commencement (hence the obligatory confetti shot, above). After a few cold + rainy days it’s amazing out today, high 60s and sunny and lovely. I took a walk in the park which was delightful, if occasionally muddy. I read the Whole Entire Paper over coffee in the morning (typically I only have time for the front page, and have to catch up on the rest at night). I spent some time with the book I’m reading, took a short nap, caught up on twitter, sent some email. Okay, okay, I *did* check my work email, but only twice and only to see if there was anything urgent.
I also played some Never Alone, a game that I got for my birthday. It’s new to me to play games on my laptop, but that’s the way this game comes and it’s gotten terrific reviews and seems right up my alley so I jumped in. I don’t know why I’ve traditionally been so resistant to games on my laptop — maybe the laptop seems more worky or serious than other platforms? Really I prefer gaming on a console and the TV or a handheld gaming system (we have Nintendo DS’s because we’re mostly a Nintendo family), because I’m an old, I guess, though I don’t mind gaming on my phone and, less often, my ipad. I think it’s a controller thing more than anything else — I really don’t like keyboard controls, though I know I could plug in a controller (yes, of course we have USB controllers). So far the keys in Never Alone have been okay.
I *don’t* like how hot my laptop runs and how loud the fan is while playing. But on the other hand, it’s nice to have a game with me all the time on my computer, just in case I ever need it. And while I’m probably worried that I’m going to slide down the slippery slope to playing too much if I have a game on my main machine, realistically it’s been ages since I’ve done that. Just not enough time, really.
I read something recently, can’t remember where, about playing games as resistance to the cult of productivity and busy-ness that’s so prevalent right now. That may not be the best paraphrase, but I’m going to go with it.
maura @ 9:57 pm
We are all having a bit of an obsession here lately in casa mauraweb over Nekoatsume, which Jonathan discovered via Boing Boing last week. It’s a game in which you collect cats. Sort of a loose definition of “game,” really — it’s kind of like Pokemon without the fighting, or like those Tamagochi that you had to take care of intermittently all day.
It’s a cute little cartoony game in which you have a yard outside of a house and try to attract cats with toys and food. Capitalism is the rule — the better stuff you have, the more cats swing by to play with your toys and eat your food. Then the cats pay you in silver fish and gold fish which you can use to buy more toys and food. Typing it all out here now I’m reminded of the Sims — why have the simple cardboard box when you can have the fancy cardboard house?! It’s hilarious because all of the stuff to buy is cat stuff: balls to play with, pillows to sit on, paper bags or cardboard tubes to stuff yrself in (see photo below). Good times.
Right now we’re all playing on the free mode which basically means that we wait to earn enough fish to get more stuff. I’m jonesing the most for an extra room, because the yard only holds 5 small toys or 3 small 1 big, so you max out on what you can have out for the kittehs to play with. Of course there’s leveling up too — if a kitteh visits you enough times she brings you a present! You can take pictures of the cats too, natch. They are really, really cute, especially when they’re scratching on the scratching pad or jumping to get the butterfly toy.
I don’t want to buy more fish, which of course you can use real money to do (duh, it’s the internet). But I reeeeeeeeally want an extra room.
maura @ 10:29 pm
Last weekend we went to see the Indie Essentials videogame exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. It was a great exhibit — I played lots of games I’ve been curious about as well as lots that were new to me. It’s open for another month or so and if you’re in/around NYC it’s *totally* worth a trip.
At some point I’m going to write up a review for the CUNY Games Network blog, so I don’t want to talk too much about the overall exhibit right now. What I do want to think on is what happened with my spawn and his pal. They were drawn immediately and inextricably to a cabinet multiplayer game called Killer Queen Arcade, and once they were sucked in they were hooked for the practically the entire two hours we were there. It’s a five-on-five team-based game that looks and plays a bit like the 80s classic Joust. There are three win conditions and several different kinds of characters to play, each with different actions and weapons. It’s loud, fast, and busy.
I know that’s a pretty weak and colorless description of the game — in truth I didn’t actually play for very long. I have to admit that I kind of hated Joust. I wasn’t very good at it, no matter how hard I tried, and back in the day it could represent a significant investment in quarters to get good at a game you naturally kind of sucked at, which I didn’t really have the patience for. I was much more awesome at Tempest and Centipede so those machines got my quarters. I did try to play Killer Queen with Gus and his pal, but I just couldn’t muster the reaction time to make a significant contribution in the time we had.
Though jeez, the boy loved it. LOVED. It was a great example of flow, because OMG the time we had available to spend there just flew by. I think the three different win conditions kept the game fresh and interesting; that many ways to win allowed players to try different strategies for each game and not simply try to memorize the patterns or game space. Since this was a museum gallery there were folks coming in and out of the game as they walked through the exhibit, which also added novelty and kept things from getting stale.
But I was also struck by the way in which a game that was at its core a team-based competition was actually *not* super-competitive. Yes, the game ends when one team wins, pretty much the basic requirement for competition. But the game doesn’t keep track of points either in each contest or cumulatively. And that seems to have created gameplay in which the players cheered their wins and moaned their losses, but only for an instant, really, because then it was on to the next game. The ways that cooperation and competition meshed in the game were fascinating, and I’m sure that’s a huge part of why folks found gameplay so compelling.
Wish we’d had Killer Queen back when I had the reaction time of a 12 yr old.
maura @ 10:37 pm
Not too long ago for family movie night we watched Wreck-It Ralph again (we’d seen it in the theater last xmas). It’s a surprisingly good movie for a Disney not Pixar outing: contemporary enough for today’s videogame kids to find it fun and funny, with lots of nice touches for us old people who actually used to play games in arcades, too. Plus the extended meditation on homonyms duty and doody — what 11 year old (and his parents) wouldn’t find that hilarious?
Ever since then I’ve been thinking about one of the central features of the movie, in which the heroine, Vanellope van Schweetz, spends most of the movie as a “glitch” — a character who is literally unhooked from the main codebase of the game and hops around in the gamespace every time she glitches. Not to give too much away (spoiler alert!), but in the end she triumphs and regains her status as a fully-enmeshed game character (in fact she turns out to be the main character of her game, Sugar Rush). But she also decides to retain her glitch, pointing out that her glitch gives her power that the other characters don’t have, power she can use to her advantage as she races in the game.
I’m sure there are
millions dozens of academic papers being written on Wreck-It Ralph as we speak — it really was a fascinating movie on lots of levels, plus fun to watch. What I’ve found myself chewing over since we watched it again is this idea of the existence of a “glitch” in videogames. I hear Gus and his friends talk about glitches and glitching all the time, and the fact that Disney included the concept of glitch so prominently in a major movie suggests that videogame enthusiasts likely all know and understand the term.
What does a glitch mean to gamers? Usually when I hear Gus and pals discuss glitches they’re annoyed or even angry: something in the game hasn’t gone as they expected so they exclaim “ah, the game glitched!” In my observation the “glitch” is used to characterize both unexpected game behavior and the occasional player mistake — sometimes “it glitched!” really translates to “I didn’t mean to do that!” I’ve come to wonder whether the existence of glitches in videogames isn’t a bit like saying you didn’t get the email. It’s 2013 — really, most of the time the email goes through, I’d wager only a very small number of emails truly get lost in the ether.
The temptation to blame player error on glitching is strong, I know. Jonathan, my brother and I play Carcassonne on our phones, and of course you sometimes make a move you didn’t plan to, or forget to put a meeple on your tile before ending your turn. It’s easy to get distracted with a turn-based internet game played on a phone in the odd moments of the day, easy for a finger to slip or for the best place for a tile to elude you until it’s too late. Sometimes I too curse “glitch, glitch!”
I’ve been wondering whether the existence (and prominence) of glitch is a way for players to reconcile themselves with the distance between the player and the gamespace required of videogames. With a board, card, or other analog game it’s not only obvious to the other players when there’s a player error, it’s also recoverable: if all players agree to it, the error can be erased and the player can have a do-over. In turn-based multiplayer videogames a do-over is usually not possible, and it’s sometimes not possible in single-player games either (though you could consider the opportunity to play the game repeatedly as a do-over of sorts). The only do-over in a multiplayer videogame is a complete restart, which the other player(s) might not be willing to agree to. The barrier for do-overs is much lower in meatspace — there’s (potentially) not as much impact on the other players.
So maybe that’s the ultimate role of the glitch: a way for players to save face when they make a mistake in a game that they cannot correct or undo, to give themselves agency in the face of aspects of the game they can’t control?
maura @ 10:38 pm
Last weekend I finally got back to Journey, one of the Playstation 3 games we got for xmas (along with the PS3 itself). I played most of the way through on Saturday night then finished it Monday. It was amazing, incredible — the reviews are all spot-on, the awards well-deserved.
You play as a gender-neutral person (yay!), plopped down in a desert with a huge mountain in the distance. The game essentially involves walking through what you gradually realize is a ruined city to get to the mountain. There are small challenges to figure out along the way which allow you to progress, but the game is more about the atmosphere — visual, audio, your movement — than solving puzzles. It’s absolutely gorgeous: time progresses from morning to night throughout your journey and the colors shift accordingly. You can walk along the sand (or slide down hills, which is delightful!) but also, sometimes, fly — the amount of time spent flying is determined by how long your scarf is. Finding glyphs on each level lengthens your scarf, and flying cloth creatures of various sorts, some incredibly playful, recharge it.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Journey is that the Playstation’s network pairs you up with another player in real time if enough other people are playing (though you never encounter more than one at a time). I knew about this feature beforehand so it didn’t surprise me when it happened, though it was interesting to see what happened to *my* gameplay when it did. The first time I encountered another player, yo was nearly to the end of solving a puzzle to activate what was needed to move to the next level. I found myself slightly annoyed — I hadn’t had the opportunity to move about and explore everything on that level, and I wanted to hit some of those switches too before moving on. So I exited out of the game and came back in, then progressed through the level the way *I* wanted to. As it turns out, another player joined me again, but this time I’d been in that space for long enough that I was ready to move on, and we crossed to the next level together.
The random other person in your gamespace but not in your living room mechanic is so interesting. It’s a highly meditative game, and even with another player there’s no way to talk or really communicate. I won’t spoil anything by saying that there are times in the game when it’s really, really helpful to have someone else there, when it’s advantageous to be paired rather than alone. But Journey begins, and ends, with solo play. A nice touch at the end is that before the credits run the screen displays the usernames of all of the other players you encountered during your game.
In many ways the real measure of how much I like a game is how soon I think about playing it again once I’ve finished. I think Journey is the first game ever in which I knew I’d play again soon even as the credits were rolling. Throughout your travels the game gives you little clues about what’s happened in that place, though I found them to be fairly opaque on my first playthrough. Gus started playing almost immediately after I finished, and watching him has made many things clear. I’m absolutely looking forward to playing it again. It’s beautiful and sad and amazing, really pushes videogames (especially console games) in some interesting directions.
Lest we leave this post on too much of a reverent note, a funny story: of course the very next day Gus had found the Journey wiki where he could do all the obsessive research he could stomach, just like any child of a librarian/academic would. Jonathan suggested he ask a question on the wiki’s forums about the lyrics for Open Arms, which had both of us old folks giggling while the youngster looked confused. And then we had to remind Gus that Journey is the music playing at the beginning of Tron Legacy when Flynn’s son powers up the video arcade. And then we felt really, really old.
maura @ 8:51 pm
I finally read Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. Maybe you’ve seen her TED talk, which is 20 pretty enjoyable minutes; I recommend it. The book, which is well-written and fun to read, expands on the basic themes of the talk: lots of people spend lots of time playing games, games make us happy, how can we channel that energy and repurpose that time into solving the big hairy problems facing us and our planet today? The strategy she suggests is to figure out how to make games that can save the world, so we can all spend lots of time playing games and saving the world.
Okay, I’ll grant that I just wrote a really, really simplistic summary of the book. In fact, it’s fairly well-argued and cited, and full of details. And I’m glad I read it. But am I convinced? As you may remember, I’m kind of a fan of games. I should be easy to convince, right?
But I feel like Mulder: I want to believe, so much. But something about it just doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s all of the positive psychology research included in the book. I think of myself as a fairly optimistic person, but I just read something (which of course I can’t find now) which asserts that too much optimism (a strangely American condition?) can actually be bad, because inability to seriously consider the bad things that could happen means that you’re less likely to be prepared if a bad thing does happen. So I guess I feel like it’s good to be optimistic, but not too much, and which makes me less willing to buy in to positive psychology.
I’m also uncomfortable with the corporate ties and funding that such big, giant, world-changing games are almost guaranteed to require. McGonigal’s developed lots of games, some with corporate backing, and some not. I’d rather play a game that grapples honestly (if whimsically) with what’s required to be a global corporation like McDonald’s than play a big game sponsored by McDonald’s.
Unfortunately, finally reading the book reminded me of the negative press it got last summer when it was released. My CUNY Games Network colleague Carlos Hernandez wrote a post about it on our blog, which hits the high points well. Lots of that negative press was pretty sexist, which bugged me at the time and bugs me even more now in our arguing-about-birth-control world. The sexism inherent in the game development industry (about which this is only the most recent piece I’ve read) hardly a secret. But I can’t help but wonder, would the press have been so dismissive if McGonigal were male?
maura @ 9:23 pm
I’ve been trying to convince myself not to write about Gus on here anymore. He’s getting older and it just feels less like something I should do. After all, this is my blag, I should be blagging about me, right?
But then we have a day like today and how can I not blag about it? Thanks to falling back he was up at 6:15am even though there was no school today. (I was up before 6am because that’s how my insomnia rolls lately.) I started in getting ready for work and a bit later he ran into the bedroom to excitedly tell me: “Mom! I just added a wiki page!”
He’s fairly obsessed with a new Kirby videogame that’s just come out for the Wii, and has watched countless YouTube videos and played it at a pal’s house last weekend. Apparently there’s a Kirby wiki out there — who knew? Which Gus found, discovered he could edit, and then wrote an entry about a boss called Water Galbaros. All before 7am. I couldn’t be more proud! He’s been working on that page and others on and off all day, and the page now has images too that other folks have added throughout the day.
Then I went to work, only to come home to the news that Jonathan and Gus had bought a small frying pan (with an egg on the handle, like this!), and that Gus could fry his very own egg. Which he proceeded to do, right before my very eyes. He even sprinkled salt on it from the salt cellar like a proper chef. (And then he ate the egg, also right before my eyes.)
I’m trying not to get all mushy and sentimental but lately I’ve been, well, all mushy and sentimental. He’s just such a great kid, and it’s all going so fast I can’t stand it.
maura @ 10:52 pm
Yeah, it’s a phoning it in kind of evening. But hey, I wrote a (so very short) blag post over on the CUNY Games Network blag about the article that I wrote that just came out yesterday, so that counts, right? Right?