Irish Travellers and American Blindspots

PAL testcard

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I’ve written several times in the past on what it’s like to be Irish in the midst of the loose amalgamation that is the culture of videogames. I’ve tried to emphasise my surprise and suspicion that comes in hearing an Irish voice, an Irish character, in a game, and my delight in finding something I feel sincerely speaks to Irish narratives or identities.

What little cultural background I gave usually came in the form of brief anecdotes about how little we see Irish folk in games, which of course is proportionate to the country’s contribution in the grand scheme of the industry. Through negligence I withheld the more substantial context of the lack of presence of Irish identities in media beyond that of only videogames. Since today I’m writing about ethnicity and whiteness and representation, and I’m writing from a perspective that I’m increasingly learning is distinct from the bulk of my peers, this context is kind of necessary. Continue reading

Two Minute Game Crit – Weapon Degradation

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Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

Weapon degradation. Lots of people hate it. This whole business of weapons having a durability stat that you have to monitor in order to stop them from shattering into a billion pieces. And this is considered disruptive. There’s the sense that, when weapon degradation is working it interrupts what videogames are normally for, which is hitting things with other things. And when it’s not working it’s because you’re putting in the busywork to keep the game from annoying you.

This is not universal. There are plenty of games that are remarkable for their use of weapon degradation, like Fallout 3 and Dark Souls and The Last of Us. You can see the trend there that these have narratives which centre on survival, and the world being banjaxed. We can tell when needless busywork or additional stuff contributes to a game on a whole or takes away from it. As always it’s all about what the stuff says in the respective context.

One of the best games with weapon degradation, one of the best games in general, is Vagrant Story, a wonderful, incredible jrgp dungeon crawler Square did between Final Fantasies once upon a time. It’s got this great big cast of characters but the protagonist, a peacekeeper named Ashley Riot, spends most of time alone as he’s a solo operative.

Instead of friends, he has weapons, lots and lots of weapons. Your life is consumed by the introspection of inventory management and stat planning.

For our purposes, look at the two bars on the top left here, DP and PP. DP is Damage Points, which decrease as you wear out the weapon, usual durability stuff. PP is where it gets interesting. These are Phantom Points, and they increase as you use the weapon. The higher both of these bars, the more damage the weapon does. When Damage Points reach zero the weapon becomes kind of a dud, but you can spend a weapon’s Phantom Points to repair its durability.

The narrative of Vagrant Story is all about themes of body and soul, balancing identity and power through self-sacrifice. So Ashley’s weapons are building up a phantom, a ghost, an identity, but the more of a sense of personality they get the greater the risk to their strength. They grow fragile.

This all contributes to the weapon’s other, highly important stats of class and affinity, which also change through use and also build up in each weapon a sense of character. And then you can make your own weapons out of parts and give them their own name to call them by. ‘Wand’ might not be the best example of that though.

So, Vagrant Story. A great example of how to do weapon degradation.

God’s Work

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Today over tea, Laura picked from my head with uncanny intuition the question most bothering me this week: “why do you write about games?” She didn’t need to clarify the peculiar thing about my writing about games, specifically that I only write about games. I don’t write about books or movies or cats even though I also enjoy these things, even though I am probably fully capable to that end. If cornered I call myself a media critic—sheepishly, because people expect it’s a euphemism—but the truth is, I don’t write broadly enough to encompass the generality implied. I write about one specific type of media.

I don’t know why, I said half-honestly. I could write about films, but I don’t want to. I like to talk about films the way I write about games, but that’s as far as it goes. I hope someday to actually sit down and write that article on Return to Oz that’s been in my head since 1986. I don’t exactly know why I relegate my writing to just games other than I enjoy writing about games.

The best proper answer I can come up with is that when I was very, very young, my Dad confided in me the secret cause of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s huge arms was from having played so many videogames (which he enthusiastically demonstrated with thumb movements). This might also account for my silly interest in Schwarzenegger movies, disproportionate to their quality. I was impressionable, so it was impressed on me that games were wow amazing.[1] Continue reading

Two Minute Game Crit – The Absence of Is

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Hi this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne.

What can the act of dying tell us about the afterlife? This is the question underpinning The Absence of Is.

Spoilers, by the way.

You play as one of a team of researchers experimenting with recording the images that fill a mind as it edges towards death. The images come from your colleagues, and them locked in vats in the laboratory. It’s your job to sedate them right to the brink of death so your machines can do their thing.

When you play back the initial footage, it shows a kind of ‘life flashing before your eyes’, highly-symbolic near-death experience story. As the sessions go on, the visions veer farther and farther away from reality and become more abstract and hostile. Objects representing trauma – a door, a monument, a desolate home – recur as motifs and eventually consume each person’s mind.

So they all end up dead but even at that there’s a little trick going on here, because I think this game is actually more cynical than it lets on. It’s much more interested in themes of unknowability than themes of discovery.

Take its use of mechanics – you’ve to flick switches to alternately sedate or revive your teammates. It’s dreadfully cheesy and seems inconsistent with the game’s otherwise sombre tone. Like its just there to introduce the sense of challenge and a failstate.

But when you consider that the game‘s not interested in answering what seems to be the central question and instead leaves everyone else dead and you still no wiser for it until some unrealisable tomorrow, then the possibility of accidentally killing a colleague too early is valuable in highlighting the loss, and your inadequacy, when you hit the inevitable dead end.

It’s a framing device, and sure on a whole, The Absence of Is is framed rather oddly. It’s supposedly based on an unpublished novel of the same name written by one of the developers.

So players who want to look into the game’s underlying message have to pine after this inaccessible, perhaps non-existent source material. It puts them in basically the same place as the research team. Albeit, hopefully, a little bit more alive.

Snakes and Ladders

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[Minor spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 3, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments.]

Before I talk about Sherlock Holmes, I’m going to talk about my favourite moment in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It’s the most lauded game in a series a dozen titles long, each one full of the maddest stuff you wouldn’t believe. Comedy ghosts and philosopher warriors and soviet space magic. And the best bit is when Snake climbs up a ladder while music plays.

If you’ve played the game you know what I mean, but for those who haven’t here’s the story. You’ve just finished up this immense sniper battle with The End, the oldest and weirdest of the foreshadowed boss characters. It was spread across several densely-packed forested areas, each one enormous and scattered throughout with viable sniping spots that both you and the old bastard cycle through in vying for an upper hand. You can win in any number of ways – you can poison him, stealth him, outwit him, track him, goad him, outwait him, or snipe him hours before the battle even begins and bypass the whole affair. It is the perfect ‘systems’ moment where all these mechanical aspects thread together in one beautiful tapestry from which the player traces their own narrative of strategy and improvisation.

Once it’s done, the forest exit opens up and you can progress to the next area. You know you still have two more foreshadowed bosses to go, plus the three major antagonistic characters, plus the mechanical behemoth Shagohod that is ostensibly (but not actually) the story’s McGuffin. The End was exhausting and invigorating but, finally, you’re halfway there.

So you enter this small room and there’s a ladder. Continue reading