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Op-Ed

Direct to You: A Farewell to Satoru Iwata

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Direct to You: A Farewell to Satoru Iwata

I found myself a lot more affected by Satoru Iwata's death than I thought I'd be.

Earlier that night, before I heard the news, a friend of mine joked that people I'd met but didn't have any personal affection for might as well have died, and I'd feel nothing, because I didn't consider them part of my life. He wasn't wrong. Just a few hours later, after hearing about Iwata's death, I was told about a few deaths of people related to people I knew. Not that any of them were close to me, but beyond the general pang of sadness you feel when you hear about loss, it didn't really affect me. Iwata's death affected me. Honestly, it fucked me up a little.

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Op-Ed: Arkham Knight Has the Best Bad Camera

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Op-Ed: Arkham Knight Has the Best Bad Camera

For the most part, Batman Arkham Knight is a game that lacks confidence. It can't quite commit to a representation of Batman that feels unique, and its Gotham is drawn from so many sources that it feels more referential than essential in and of itself. But there is one place that Arkham Knight feels not only confident, but genuinely innovative and interesting. Arkham Knight has some of the most interesting camera work I've ever seen in a game, but at every step it leaves me cold....

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Op-Ed: The Thing About the Holodeck...

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Op-Ed: The Thing About the Holodeck...

The thing about the holodeck is that it's not a game anymore.

All spaceships will have patriotically red white and blue-themed control consoles. It's only American.

All spaceships will have patriotically red white and blue-themed control consoles. It's only American.

It's the elephant in the room whenever people talk about VR, but in order to really get into what it means, let's go back a couple decades, to early on in gaming's modern history. It's 1979, and Atari is releasing Asteroids. The cabinet is pretty similar to its contemporaries'- the monitor is recessed into the unit, with walls on either side to block off the sights and sounds of the arcade around you. The control panel is designed to look like the controls of an imaginary spaceship. It's not just a facsimile of the ship's cockpit, designed to be a cute amusement. It's deliberately put together to make you focus in on the game and immerse yourself. Even from what is ostensibly the beginning of modern interactive media, the desire for immersion is present. Games aren't necessarily where the idea of virtual reality was invented- Pygmalion's Spectacles, a short story from 1935 was the first science fiction story to theorize on the subject- but they certainly awakened something in people. Video games held (and still do, to a certain extent) held promises of entire virtual worlds waiting to be escaped to.

Think of art as a machine. Books, games, movies, music, it's all a bunch of machines that are static, unmoving until we interact with them in some way. Specifically, imagination is the fuel, the force that turns their gears and makes the worlds they want to create pop out at us. Some machines, like books, need more imagination to draw the worlds out of them. Some, like movies, have more engaging visuals and sounds that build the world with very little imagination necessary. Not to say that these mediums are more or less creative than the other, but in order to get the most out of a book's world, you really do have to work your imagination harder than you would with a film. Games though, are a bit unique as an "art machine", they occupy both the high and low ends of that spectrum. Like a movie, all the visuals and sounds present the world to you automatically, without much need for the fuel of imagination to make it reveal itself. But like a book, the more imagination you pour in, the more detailed and deeper that world becomes.

Project Holodeck used motion tracking cameras with the Oculus Rift to try to simulate a Holodeck-like enviroment.

Project Holodeck used motion tracking cameras with the Oculus Rift to try to simulate a Holodeck-like enviroment.

Unlike a film, games allow you to poke around the world and discover things, to use your imagination to flesh out what is left unexplained. Sure, you can put more thought into a movie than just what it presents on the surface, but that doesn't build a deeper world so much as deepens your understanding of one already there. So games rely on that imagination to breathe as much as they don't. It's a weird thing to say, but if you've stuck with me this far, your reward is that we're finally getting back to that Holodeck thing.  See, the promise of the holodeck is an amped-up version of the promise of today's VR. It's absolute and total immersion. It's pure simulation. You aren't controlling Gordon Freeman, you ARE Gordon Freeman. Star Trek presents the Holodeck as a near-perfect simulation. The goal of its programs are that the user is never able to discern that it's not reality. In fact, that's the only real difference between the Holodeck and the Oculus Rift. The Rift, due to technological limitations, can't create a visual environment of the resolution it would take to be thoroughly convincing without using a headset. But above that, the Holodeck also has the benefit of impossibly (for now at least) clever computers.

Project Holodeck became Survios, which is developing a full-body motion tracking unit that eliminates the need for too much camera tracking. The trade-off is that for now, you look insane wearing it.

Project Holodeck became Survios, which is developing a full-body motion tracking unit that eliminates the need for too much camera tracking. The trade-off is that for now, you look insane wearing it.

The Holodeck is smart. Smarter than any computer that's out there right now. On a dime, it's able to react to anything its user does, within the confines of the simulation programmed into it. It uses Star Trek's fictional replication and force field technologies to create physical objects for the user to interact with as if they were real. In that sense, the Holodeck is not a virtual reality, but a virtually-made reality, rather than the realities made virtual that we experience via the Oculus Rift. The first writer to theorize about a holodeck-like system was Ray Bradbury, in his 1950 short story The Veldt. There, the playroom in a family's new automated home has the ability to generate any object or environment that its occupants imagine. Without going into the story itself too much, it's interesting that Bradbury, the first person to write about the concept, already singled out the virtual-reality space as a "playroom". Even from the very moment it was theorized, the Holodeck was always, at its very best, an entertainment space despite its boundless possibilities.

Wesley, pictures here either pondering old sci-fi, or generally being a twat. Hard to say.

Wesley, pictures here either pondering old sci-fi, or generally being a twat. Hard to say.

A virtual reality room that can be programmed to have little-to-no consequence would be unimaginably influential on entertainment sure, but imagine what it would in other places. On-site job training, practice for surgery, driving lessons, education, sex work- it'd be just as revolutionary outside of the entertainment world as it would be in it. So what's this obsession with entertainment, and games specifically? It's possible that because games have, for the last few decades, been the entertainment medium most closely linked with technology, but I have another theory, and it comes back to all that "art machine" nonsense I wrote up a few paragraphs ago. If games are a machine of potential then the more of yourself you put in, the more you get out of them. Now imagine if you had to put all of yourself into the experience every time. Imagine being plopped down in a world you can see and touch and affect in ways that become more detailed the more imagination you put in. All of a sudden, it's not about putting more imagination into a world to get more out of it, it's a very tactile exchange of using more imagination to explore the world in an even deeper way. You touch an object, and all of a sudden it's real, as opposed to finding that object and thinking of what it would be like if it were.

Microsoft's RoomAlive might be our first step into a functioning Holodeck, but the fact that it isn't means we have a long way to go before we get to Holonovels.

So why isn't it a game then? Well, because there aren't really mechanics. The way Star Trek presents Holodeck simulations (and I apologize if i'm not 100% accurate, I'm not the biggest Star Trek guy and like many non-fans, I'm drawing off of my generally osmosed pop culture knowledge) is as just that, simulations. Sure, they're simulations of what it would be like to be in a scenario, much like games are, but games can't react in every single way. You could definitely play games in a holodeck scenario- if I'm not mistaken, there's a scene where Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton play cards with Data, but its express purpose is always a form of interactive entertainment that lacks the abstractions of game mechanics. When you die, you die, there are no health meters, no quests, and, well, no "goal". Games are often defined by that whole goal thing. They have a defined loss state. We've discussed this before, but it's interesting to think how VR is probably the space for all the stuff currently roped into games that defy a lot of the traditional definitions of games. Those games focused on creating immersive worlds to pour ourselves into, worlds designed around the player as an explorer poking around, they're the perfect fit for the eventual virtual veldt of Bradbury's imagination. Microsoft is showing off how they can use projectors in tandem with Kinect to display a game all around the room you're in. But it's not a reality. You're looking over an army marching across your coffee table. It's a virtually made reality, but not a reality you can only access virtually.

Well, that's not quite it, but nice try?

Well, that's not quite it, but nice try?

Does it really matter that it's not a game anymore? No, not really. Our definition expands and gets broader all the time. But all the people designing games around mechanics and goals are going to be left in the dust when the holodeck takes over and makes environmental design and storytelling king. Nothing we know about traditional game design will carry over, to the point where “videogames” and “holdeck games” might just be two totally dissimilar mediums. The Gone Homes, the Dear Esthers of the world, those are the beginnings of the "holonovel", those are the games that are taking us into gaming's potential future, and I for one welcome our virtually-crafted overlords.

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Op-Ed: E3 Shows us that 2014 is the Year of Stagnation

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Op-Ed: E3 Shows us that 2014 is the Year of Stagnation

There were more severed heads in trailers at E3 this year than there were women on stage. 

That's a frightening statistic, but let's be honest here, it didn't surprise you, did it? It's E3 after all. Sure, no one made a rape joke on stage this year, but across the four major shows (Microsoft, Sony, Ubisoft and EA) there were five women presenters. Counting Nintendo, which had none, that averages out to one women per show. Meanwhile, the number of severed arms, heads and other appendages probably tallied somewhere in the 50s by the time all was said an done. Hell, outside of Nintendo, individual presentations had more gore than women every single time. Nintendo went zero for zero by the way, but they're something of a special case. Not so special though that they didn't have more women playable characters on screen than every other presentation combined. 

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Op-Ed:  We Need To Talk About Budgets

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Op-Ed: We Need To Talk About Budgets

Yesterday's EA conference bugged the hell out of me. Not because of the constant deluge of sports games, I'm used to that. That bit where they called bothMadden and Fifa football in the span of like 20 minutes was pretty annoying, but I got over it. There was a good 5 minutes there where they were using Bruce Lee's digital corpse as a puppet to shill UFC games, but that didn't annoy me so much as make me deeply uncomfortable. No, the part that drove me insane was when they showed four games that looked to be in varying stages of pre-beta development. Criterion's new, currently untitled, action sorts game, DICE'sStar Wars Battlefront 3, as well as their Mirror's Edge prequel/sequel/reboot and Bioware Montreal's Mass Effect 4. 

Every one of these games was prefaced with plenty of text telling us about how the footage we were seeing was nowhere near final, and, in the case of Battlefront, that this was merely a test of what the engine could potentially achieve. Hell, Bioware announced a new game that didn't have a concept, just a fancy season changing system. 

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Op-Ed: Americanizing Ace Attorney Was a Brilliant Idea

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Op-Ed: Americanizing Ace Attorney Was a Brilliant Idea

Anything you've ever liked in an Ace Attorney game is a result of its localization. Every clever joke, cute pun, and witty line of dialogue was a product of the localization team taking the original script and reworking it to fit an American audience. Sure, the localization team has no control over the mysteries they're handed, or any particularly offensive character designs, but other than those things, Phoenix Wright is pretty much all text. Which made it sort of a revelation to me which it came out. I'd played adventure games before, but never anything as visual novel-styled as Ace Attorney. My computer wasn't really up to snuff, and from my perspective, most of them were R-rated hentai games, which I was terrified of my parents catching me playing. But Ace Attorney was something different- it was well written. In fact, so well written that nothing about it really screamed "Japan" at me. I'd watched a bunch of anime at that point, so I was catching the art style, and the various seinen tropes it drops, but other than that, the first Ace Attorney doesn't seem really seem out of place in its Los Angeles setting. It’s a game about lawyers with wacky clients, a plot that could have easily been transposed onto a TV series, or movie, or book. But outside of that, every character had been renamed with a usually goofy, but never grating, pun, cultural references to Japan had been totally relocated, and characters cracked jokes based on American idioms and pop culture, but never in a way that felt like someone just checked a Wikipedia page and based their goofs off of that.

Cultrual differences: In Japan, that "Victory" text was in Japanese, and that ghost was a werewolf.

Cultrual differences: In Japan, that "Victory" text was in Japanese, and that ghost was a werewolf.

There’s a saying that the best localizations are the ones no one notices. That a light touch is best when it comes to bringing something over from another country. It makes sense, if you beat someone over the head with any Americanisms it’s going to seem pretty obvious that it wasn’t American in the first place. Ace Attorney 1 hits that sweet spot perfectly. It might as well have been an American-developed game from my perspective playing through it for the first time. There are some weird Japanese things left over, like the string of flags on one character’s souvenir stand, or a popular Tokusatsu show being filmed in an LA studio, but those just sort of make sense in the inherent weirdness of a world where magical spirit channelling exists and is totally admissible as evidence in court.

To be fair, some of those cultural references are uhh...uncomfortable.

To be fair, some of those cultural references are uhh...uncomfortable.

Just as an example, there’s a bit in the Japanese version of Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations where one character spills curry on a picture of the spirit channelling master. In Japanese, her orders are to put a “splendid end to the head of the house.” Being a kid, she misreads some of the Kanji involved, getting karei, or splendid, confused with kare, which means curry. She also gets indoh, which is the word for giving someone their funeral rites, as indo, which means India. So she spills Indian curry on the picture. Of course, that pun doesn’t make a lick of sense in English, but the localizers were stuck with the picture being covered in a brown foodstuff. Her orders in English are to “gravely roast the master,” so she dumps some gravy from the night’s roast on the picture instead. The event doesn’t change, but her misunderstanding makes sense to an English speaking audience. It’s a perfect crossover, and until someone pointed out that the gravely/gravy and roast/roast connection doesn’t exist in Japanese, I never noticed it. It’s the deft, light touch or a good localization. Sure, the fact that she mixed up those words is a little goofy, but it’s equally goofy in both languages, and makes perfect sense in the moment. There isn't really anything lost by changing the food items, other than a bunch of Americans not getting the joke, because curry isn't particularly popular here.

Of course, for a series that lives by its localization, it also dies by it too. So sometimes, when an Ace Attorney game falls flat, it’s probably the localization’s fault. Ace Attorney Investigations is a pretty boring game. It has hysterically simple cases that last forever because of dozens of filler interrogations you have to sit through before you can actually get your hands on the culprit, but that’s the fault of the game’s developers. The localizers instead have to shoulder the blame of the bottom of the barrel puns (the sports-loving Jacques Portsman, the victim known as Died Mann) and the monotony of Edgeworth, Gumshoe and sidekick Kay having exactly one joke each. Some of that might be attributed to the fact that because of the game’s core conceit, you aren’t really ever doing anything of purpose, just wandering around trying to find someone who will be arrested and eventually dragged to real court, but there’s certainly space for a localization to have spiced things up. It’s too light a touch for localization.

Just gotta something!

Just gotta something!

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, on the other hand, actually suffers from a very noticeable and problematic localization- it’s full of typos. There’s actually a tumblr dedicated to cataloguing some of the incredible spelling mistakes. Most of them are small ones, “any” instead of “an”, “statute” instead of “stature”, nothing that seems totally crazy. But then they spell one of the game’s primary locations three different ways and you realize they didn’t hire an editor. It makes the whole thing look amateurish for a high-profile release from a major publisher. It also totally destroys a lot of your immersion when you have to stop every few textboxes to gawk and marvel at the latest unbelievable error.

Vale/Vail/Veil/Village/Vermont/Vermillion

Vale/Vail/Veil/Village/Vermont/Vermillion

And while Ace Attorney 1 benefited from the westernised script, Dual Destinies stumbles over it. Where the Los Angeles setting made for a more welcoming atmosphere for a new player than Tokyo would have, Dual Destinies leaves players looking for semblances of American culture cold. The game features two Japanese villages that somehow relocated their entire populations from Japan to Southern California, brought over their ancient sealed demons, and somehow used their images to sell a popular wrestling show. All of that is crazy, especially the wrestling bit. 

Now, that isn't necessarily Dual Destinies' fault, considering they were stuck in LA to begin with, but they really could have done something about the incredibly problematic third case, which features a very Anime-styled legal academy, a prep-high school for law school, which is presumably what allows people in the Ace Attorney universe to pass the bar at 13. At the school, you run into a young man who was born female and lives life as a man. Of course, once you reveal this in court (which is kind of gross in and of itself), the character admits the truth by pulling out a pink high heel and staring at it longingly. You need to make them admit this because you need a reason for them to have stolen and worn a dress. Even though the proof is there, there is somehow no way they could have done it unless they were secretly actually a girl. Also, after the big reveal, the character becomes very stereotypically girly, teasing characters, doing over-dramatic fake faints, and putting their hands on their hips. It’s sort of crazy offensive, and the kind of thing that probably could have been worked around a little bit by the localizers. To be fair, I don’t know if it was worse in the Japanese version. This was, after all, the series that had an enormous, flamboyant French chef talk about how he was a “woman on the inside” and leave it treated as a hilaaaaarious joke.

He also smokes a feather, but that's not a Japan thing, it's an Ace Attorney thing.

He also smokes a feather, but that's not a Japan thing, it's an Ace Attorney thing.

Dual Destinies takes a pretty light approach to the whole localization thing outside of a handful of cultural references here and there. Prosecutor Simon Blackquill is a walking ball of Japanese cultural references that don't track unless you're familiar with a whole host of Japanese tropes. He's a samurai, but dresses more like court nobility, he calls everyone -dono at times, an antiquated Japanese honorific used to denote respect, the list goes on. To be fair, the localizers did a decent job of making him speak British English to reflect the more archaic Japanese he used, but there's no halfway here. he came off as strange, and sort of jarring. No one is going to argue that Dual Destinies is a well localized game. Part of that is partially because being stuck in LA renders a few of the cases and characters impossible to localize, but the rest of that burden sits on characters like Blackquill mixing Japanese and English tropes, along with the complete lack of editing in the game's script. 

Dual Destinies manages to have a localization that isn’t just offensive and confusing, but also completely unreadable at times. It sort of ruins the game, in the same way that Ace Attorney 1’s spectacular localization saved it from being “too Japanese” for a wider audience. It was a visual novel that didn’t really feel like one, and opened the floodgates for me personally. I really fell in love with the visual novel concept, all because Ace Attorney was so well written, and so well localized. I’m pretty sure Dual Destinies won’t accomplish the same for anyone. It might even scare them off of the genre as a whole, considering how little it tries to make things palatable to a western audience. Someone yells YOLO once, and I’m pretty sure that’s the sum total of the cultural references I caught. A good localization is very important, and in Ace Attorney’s case, it’s literally the difference between a good game and a bad one. In my case, and I’m pretty sure for many others as well, it’s the difference between being introduced to a new fantastic genre, or being chased even further away by typos and uncomfortable Japanese attitudes to sexuality.

But also the typos.

But also the typos.

Some might argue that Ace Attorney goes too far in its localization, that it erases the original Japanese intent by retrofitting the script to work in America. But the problem is that if it was left as a Japan-centric game it would have never found the popularity it did in the West. A good localization change things around to better suit the culture its being brought to, and in Ace Attorney’s case, that meant playing down the Japanese element to it, which was honestly not terribly important to its core plot. As the series went on, it got out of hand, sure, but there’s no denying that it was the best decision that localization team made at the time. Of course, some games need different localization choices. The Persona games wouldn't make any sense at all if they were westenrized to the same degree as Ace Attorney. In fact, that's often one of the major complaints people have with Persona 1. A good localization is one that takes both the needs of the game as well as the audience into account, and a bad localization is one that fails them.

A good localization also won’t put in a “this is Sparta” reference, but we’ll let Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations slide. It was 2007, we were all making mistakes.


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Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

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Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

Games make me laugh all the time. Not usually on purpose, but they do it anyway. I laugh when I die yet another stupid death in Dark Souls. I laugh when an Animal Crossing character asks me to deliver something to the guy standing next to them. I laugh when my character in Persona gets away with two-timing every girl in the city, because that's insane. My being a part of these tiny worlds lets me laugh at them in some way. When something insane and ridiculous happens in a movie, it's either a brilliant on-purpose joke, or campy nonsense that drags down the film for most viewers. But when it happens in a game, I did it, I caused the insanity, I'm the one who broke the fifth wall of seriousness and turned this whole world into some elaborate joke.

I'm the comedian, and this whole game can be mined for jokes.

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it THE PAIN?

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it THE PAIN?

Everybody's seen the clips from the Wicker Man where Nic Cage yells about being covered in bees, or the Judge Dredd clip where Dredd is the LAWWWW, and outside of the context of a full movie, those clips are hilarious. But inside the theatre, for the people who paid to sit and watch these movies, those are the things that break the flow of a film, ridiculous, awkward scenes and stilted dialog that break our brief immersion into whatever world we're trying to be a part of. Games however, no matter how hard they try, can never really be immersive as a medium. It's sort of impossible to be mechanically driven and also immersive. There are games that choose to put aside mechanic complexity in favour of serving a deeper interactive narrative, which is a totally rad prospect, but those aren't, and probably won't ever be, the majority of games. As countless smarter people like Merritt Kopas and Darius Kazemi have said, games do what they do best by letting a player explore their systems. Systems and mechanics stacked high to the ceiling, bursting from a game to be able to convey a message or a story. It's what makes games a unique medium, our ability to interact with them in a deeper way than say, books or movies.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

But systems aren't terribly immersive. When you see the way the sausage is made, it doesn't quite seem like a sausage anymore, and the less abstract your systems are, the more of the sausage factory a game is showing. Heads-up displays, like health bars and ammo counts immediately come to mind as something that tips me straight out of the immersion. Some games do a better job of presenting that info diegetically; Halo puts ammo counts on the backs of it guns as tiny LED displays, and Metroid Prime portrays your HUD as part of Samus's visor, occasionally fogging it up in intense heat, or showing a reflection of Samus's eyes if there's a flash of light. But even diegetic info doesn't feel quite right at times. The fact that I have health in the first place is sort of weird, and at the end of the day, I'm separated from the game by a screen and a controller. During a movie, I'm part of a captive audience, sitting in a silent room with mostly motionless people, all staring at one screen. There's something to be said for the immersion you can achieve when the outside world is locked away. Movies can do that, mostly because they run in controlled environments and last 3 hours maximum. Games are usually played at home or on the bus, where there's noise, movement and getting up to go to the washroom. In fact, a pause button is totally unimmersive. Movies don't stop when you need to pee, the characters' lives go on. In a game the world stops for your every whim. You're god, and being god isn't a terribly immersive experience.

The point is, you can't be ridiculous and immersive all at once. But that's an advantage that games have, and can use to tell better jokes than pretty much any other medium. The first time you die in Dark Souls II is guaranteed to be a stupid, ridiculous death. You can die in the tutorial zone, you can mess up a jump, you could fall off a cliff in the starting town. Anyway you slice it, your first death is going to be careless and stupid. Which is why the game rewards you with an achievement called "This is Dark Souls". It's a great joke. It plays off your expectation that you're going to die in this game famous for being hard, teases you for dying so stupidly, and then makes a nice little point about the game that you shouldn't really worry about death, because you're going to die a lot. Interactive jokes are sort of like a knock-knock joke in that way. One side opens the joke, the other side fills out the middle, and then the first side delivers the punchline.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

A joke can be made funnier if you let the audience in on it. There's a really great joke in Moshe Kasher's stand up special where he has a member of the audience give him people and things to mime. Of course, the audience member is comedian Brent Weinbach, and they've rehearsed the bit, but for the audience, seeing the comedian react to what they think is one of them and play off of it seems even funnier. It looks like brilliant improv, or at the very least shows that Kasher has some great reactions. There's an element of surprise there. Jokes are all about surprising the audience with something they never thought of before, and letting them fill in a bit of the joke makes their expectations more solidified. They don't expect something, they know something, and playing off of that is even funnier.

Similarly, games with interactive jokes work off of flipping around what you thought you knew. At one point in Jazzpunk, for a split second, your damage indicators and noises turn into those from GoldenEye. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of thing, but it works. It plays with a mechanic you already know and understand. I mentioned the frog joke in this month's primer, but it's really my favorite joke I can tell without spoiling the whole game. A frog asks you to help him get to other side of the road, which turns the game into Frogger. Then, when you inevitably fail, the frog is bandaged up and wounded. Every time you try again, he gets more and more injured, begging for you to stop hurting him with your awful Frogger skills.

I don't know what happens when you win, but I don't care. The initial joke was having to play Frogger all of a sudden, then I filled in the middle by playing it, and the punchline was that the frog was reacting properly to my failure. For that moment, I knew the game was frogger, which brought a whole new, different host of expectations from knowing the game Jazzpunk. And then it blew the whole thing out of the water by whiplashing me back into Jazzpunk. It's a great joke! I thought it was hilarious! I ruined a poor frog's life!

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

We tend to like things more when we can participate. In a slightly weirder way, shooting someone in Call of Duty is more visceral and powerful than watching the same scene on youtube, or even in a movie. Action gives us something. It’s one of the reason spreading jokes through memes is so popular. Having a joke template allows someone else to dictate the terms of the joke, ie. the format, concept and context, and allow the other person to fill in the punchline. It’s funnier to us because we had a hand in its creation. There’s a lot to be said for the power of interactivity, in learning, in entertainment, and even in comedy. If someone learns better when they do instead of read? Why not laugh more when they tell part of the joke, instead of just hear all of it?

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

Of course, that style of humour isn’t for everyone, and the kind of singular focus and clever writing required for a game with comedy as its primary gameplay element (read: an adventure game) pretty much automatically means any comedy-genre game you’ll ever play will be an indie game. But between Jazzpunk, Goat Simulator, and even simpler concepts like Don’t Shit Your Pants, we’re living in a comedy game golden age right now.

So let’s get cracking on that knock-knock joke simulator, huh?

 

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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

The other day, Warner Brothers announced that the next Batman game, Arkham Knight, was not going to be handled internally, like the tepidly received Arkham Origins, but instead returned the reins to the developers that made the series famous, Rocksteady.

Rocksteady, now the prodigal son of the Batman: Arkham Noun games, worked on Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was hailed as the best licensed game ever, and the the inventor of the coolest new genre: Batman Simulator. Their follow up, Batman: Arkham City was similarly well-received, though some fans found the new open world mechanics to miss the point of the fantastically well-directed, almost metroidvania style approach that Asylum took.

Origins, of course, upped the ante with a bigger world, but it was also a buggy mess, and now that there's a proper heir to the throne, people are beginning to toss out the now-evident pretender. So, what do Rocksteady and WB choose to highlight with their announcement? What does the prodigal son's return bring to the fans?

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Well, a pretty slickly produced CG-trailer, which had to cost at least a million dollars, two and a half million, tops. They aren't messing around with this, Batman is their money maker. Which means they also have their pre-order DLC lined up in a row. "Buy early and you can play as Harley Quinn," they yell, like some sort of demented carny barker trying to fleece you out of your hard-earned dimes. "You've gotta pay extra if you buy the game used!"

Other than the fact that the game's budget is likely pretty high, when you factor in that trailer as indicative of their marketing budget, and the cost of the Batman license (if WB has to pay it at all). The game is expensive, is what I'm saying, to the point where they have to sell you a feature-missing version of the game if you buy it used. The only other thing we know about the game is that it will feature the "entirety of Gotham City."

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Expanding the world is a logical choice, all things considered. Arkham Asylum featured a small island to explore, which was ramped up to a slice of walled-off Gotham in Arkham City, and now, finally, we get the full Batman experience, swinging across the rooftops of Gotham and driving down the streets in the Batmobile. The problem is that Arkham City was already sort of empty and boring at times, what happens if we make it even bigger?

You could almost think of "bigger is better" as the adage that drives AAA gaming these days. Assassin's Creed started with separate levels, then moved to an open world, each one having to be exponentially larger than the last in order to justify its existence. At a preview event, I played Assassin's Creed IV on a ludicrously sized television, and the map was still so huge it boggled my mind. Of course, it was mostly water, but that's still size. When you have an open world, the easiest way to tell consumers that your sequel is going to be better is to tell them the world is going to be bigger, and that's exactly what WB and Rocksteady are doing.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Far be it from me to throw them any shade on this though. I loved both of Rocksteady's Batman games, and even though I preferred Asylum, City's open world was a pretty cool idea to toss in. And, of course, "bigger" is what moves copies. I will throw shade on ALREADY having pre-order DLC, but that's an entirely different article. But, the bigger-is-better mentality behind Arkham Knight is not only worrying, but indicative of a larger problem in modern, AAA game making.

Every game features an open world these days, mostly because Grand Theft Auto sells well. Assassin's Creed went open world, Tomb Raider went open world, Saint's Row's entire existence is proof that "crime focused open world game" is a genre distinction now that GTA is the most popular thing going. In fact, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grand Theft Auto sells well, thus more games feature open worlds, thus more open world games sell well, which makes publishers think that open world means good sales, thus more sequels with open worlds are developed and so on and so forth until the heat death of the universe.

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

Of course, that's not only true of open worlds, but when you make a game in the other most popular game genre going right now, first person shooters, you can't really rely on having "more guns" as your big sequel sales hook. A bigger world is a tangible thing people always want, without necessarily worrying about the consequences. If open worlds are your jam, then of course you want a bigger one. More places to explore, more ways to get around, more NPCs to brutalize in new, unexpected ways, it's pretty much everything you want from an open world sequel.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

The problem is that most of the time, they just end up diluting the formula. If the core gameplay, the moment-to-moment things you're doing in a game is like chocolate syrup, you want a glass of chocolate milk. There needs to be some milk in there, so you aren't just pouring syrup into your mouth. Think of the milk as the world, the details that embellish a game. The game does need to be a little deeper than just a core idea, after all. But when you start adding too much milk, you start to lose the flavour. You can barely taste the chocolate syrup anymore, and all you really have is vaguely brown milk. Then you add even more milk and the cup overflows and you've just made a whole mess of the kitchen. Clean this up, right now.

I may have lost the thread at the end there, but the idea is, the bigger your world gets, the less likely it is to properly highlight the core gameplay of the world, and the more likely it is to feel bland and empty. When there’s so much negative space between missions and side quests, you find yourself just running between things, doing a whole lot of nothing for minutes at a time. The Batman games have a pretty neat grappling and gliding mechanic, but even that gets old. Saint’s Row IV let me leap over buildings, run faster than any car, and BASE jump to my targets from the top of the world, and I still got bored of getting from point A to point B. I suppose that it makes me appreciate it more when I’m actually playing the game, but that’s like saying it would be harder if you chopped off my thumbs, it’s illogical. The best excuse for an open world, in my mind, is atmosphere. I love Shadow of the Colossus’ big empty world because it’s so eerie and beautifully designed, not because I have to spend 10 minutes running from the central temple to the Colossus each time I’m itching for a fight. But, the bigger your world is, the less time and money you have for details. Saint’s Row IVs city is huge, but it’s also sterile. The same billboards show up again and again, building interiors, for the ones that even have such a thing, are bland and boring. Most of the skyscrapers and houses are the same stock model with slight alterations. You don’t notice it, because you don’t really slow down to look at the world at all, but take a look. It’s not because the developers are lazy, it’s just a symptom of having such a huge world to develop. They can’t make a million unique houses, they don’t have that kind of time or money. No one does.

It's a big city...

It's a big city...

...and a bigger world.

...and a bigger world.

Well, Rockstar does, considering GTA V took five years to make and cost more than $150 million after you deduct advertising costs from the budget. But they’re the glorious exception. They can have huge detailed worlds because they have both the time and the money that no one else could even dream of. Look at Shenmue. That game cost $47 million in 1999, making it the most expensive game ever developed at the time, and ninth on Wikipedia’s list of the most expensive games ever developed. Shenmue’s open world was tiny, but incredibly detailed, with little things like drawers you could open, and other tiny, almost unnoticeable background features. Of course, GTA III came out just a short while later and blew it out of the water with it’s comparatively massive world. It was cheaper, bigger, wasn’t delayed nearly as many times as Shenmue, and far more successful. Bigger is better. Detail is the enemy of budgets and release schedules.

But bigger isn’t better, is it? The world is big but empty and lifeless. The world takes hours to trek across, but those are hours you aren’t actually playing the game. The world is bigger than ever before, but every building looks the same, and the NPCs mull about pointlessly like they always have. A bigger world isn’t a bad idea per se, but if it’s your priority over actually making the gameplay more interesting, or the existing world more detailed and interesting to explore, you’re just feeding the problem. There’s no innovation in getting bigger, you’re just diluting the chocolate milk. And eventually, it’ll get to be so bland that no one’s going to want to drink it.


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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

I think I hate games.

Not because I don’t like them, I’ve been playing games my whole life, and video games for longer than I remember at this point. I have a few moral objections to things in the gaming industry, but nothing that really makes me want to stop playing them forever. No, I think I hate games because I’m almost always destroying them.

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

Recently, I played last year’s Tomb Raider reboot. In it, Lara massacres the population of an entire island, almost single handedly. She kills an animal or two as the plot demands it, but most of her time is spent slaughtering the hundreds of beardy goons who get in her way. This is a far cry from the original Tomb Raider, where Lara was more interested in climbing and jumping around ancient ruins than fighting the four human enemies she comes across. Of course, the shift can be explained by realizing that modern Tomb Raider is inspired by Uncharted, which is in turn inspired by classic Tomb Raider, but I digress.

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Tomb Raider has always featured that sort of destructive relationship with the world. The title even admits that Lara is a thief, a Tomb Raider, and, like Indiana Jones, she’s a scrupulous hero at best. You might ask why a name matters, but when you look at the titles of our most popular games today, you start to get a picture of the problem. Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, all of them pretty squarely place your relationship with the world as an antagonistic one. You are a soldier, at war, a career criminal, an assassin. These are the fantasies we want to play out. We want to destroy.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. People need release, power fantasies sell, and with good reason. It caters to our instinct to lash out, to get even with the world and work through our frustrations in a safe environment. It’s fun to crash a car into a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto because you’ve been annoyed at pedestrians before. It’s fun to kill a cop because you get to thumb your nose at the authorities. You’re the underdog, using the game as a way to fight back .

But there is a severe imbalance.

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Throughout my tenure as a person who plays video games, I’ve depopulated kingdoms, rendered entire races of mystical creatures extinct, and beaten the ever-loving crap about of Ken Masters like a thousand times.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

But I can count on one hand the games where I feel like my love for existing in the world was proportional to my having a positive relationship with it. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon come to mind, sure, but even generally family-friendly Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda are about nothing but destroying the world and its inhabitants. The plot of the first two Metroids is literally Samus committing genocide.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

It’s not hard to see where this destructive impetus comes from. Games tend to have a winner and a loser, and the distinction usually involves the winner triumphing in some way over the loser. Winning makes us feel good, especially when it means we beat someone else. In this case, that someone else is the computer, or in a more immediate sense, the game world.

I’m not calling for an end to video game violence or something like that. Games have violence like movies have violence. The recent crusades against violent games are the same crusade waged against rap, cartoons, movies and rock and roll. And personally, I sort of like violent games. Not always, and not senselessly violent games, but I’m not above playing Saint’s Row and kicking someone so hard in the balls they fly across the street. I’m not above feeling satisfied that I got a really clean headshot in Uncharted. I’m not above feeling that adrenaline rush that comes when you’ve accomplished something challenging, even if it involves killing a few dozen fictional dudes. Because they’re just that: fictional.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Games come from a tradition of winning and losing, but their key strength over board, card or playground games is showing you your moment to moment progress. A video game can always make you feel like you’re getting better. The easiest way to do that is have you complete multiple tasks, or in the now-common gaming parlance, “beat them”.

You beat a game, you rarely finish it, and you never end it. You beat it.

You assert dominance over it by completing every task it asks you to accomplish. The simplest task for someone to understand is defeating someone else with similar tools. Think about football. The core actions you do in a game of football are easy to understand because they’re just basic actions. Throwing, catching, kicking. You’ve known how to do those things since you were a baby. Video games on the other hand require you to press certain buttons and move sticks around to manipulate a 2D or 3D plane. It’s hard enough wrapping your brain around the actions necessary to make your on-screen avatar do anything at all, let alone trying to explain some asinine set of rules you’ve layered over those actions. Imagine if football never existed as a sport, and only as a video game. A newcomer would have to not only figure out how to control the game and manipulate it as a player, but also figure out its many, many rules on top of that. It’s hard, and would make people stop playing pretty quickly- the last thing any developer wants.

So, our games give us tools, explain how to use them, and then ask us to beat someone up. That person is hurting you, use your tools to hurt them more. Use your tools in conjunction, develop strategies, but make sure you kill them before they kill you. It’s easy to understand, caters to our natural instincts, and best of all, it’s fun.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I love Harvest Moon, but it is an incredibly complicated game for being “just” about farming. Chulip, a game about love, suffers because its goals are poorly communicated and abstract. Visual novels and dating sims are derided because all you do is read. You can’t win. In order to make a complex goal, you need to simplify the game, which doesn’t sell. In order to have a complex enough game, you need to simplify the goal, which makes it easier to lean on destruction, because that does sell.

Love is complicated, love is hard, we’ve always known that. Which is why hate sells so well. We want to feel powerful, and it’s easy to feel powerful when you’re constantly proving yourself superior to everything else in the world. Eventually you become the most powerful thing in the world. Destructive power fantasy is easy. And though it’s hard for me to say it, I like it sometimes too. It’s fun to feel powerful.

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

But, It’s also fun to feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the world. It’s fun to feel like I’ve made people’s lives better in the Ace Attorney games, or changed the world a little bit in Harvest Moon, all without hurting anyone or destroying anything. Even destructive games that aren’t about violence, like Katamari Damacy or Portal are rare creatures these days.

After finishing Tomb Raider last month, I decided that I wasn’t going to play another game this year where I was doing nothing but shooting people. It’s a small gesture. I’m still going to end up playing things where I have a negative impact on the world, or primarily interact with things though violence, but I want to put down the guns at least Just as a symbolic move. I want more Harvest Moons, more Ace Attorneys, more Catherines. I don’t want to want to have to hurt a single digital soul to get them.

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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

Every time I write the word "videogame", I get this weird squiggly red line under it in word. It means the word is wrong. It means videogame is not a word, even though I see it used on occasion over its proper alternative- video games. “Videogames” is a proper noun, versus “video games”, an adjective and a noun. So why the distinction? Both words mean the same thing, even if one technically doesn’t exist. Why have both words in the first place? Surely we should be able to just choose one at this point. Why do semantics even matter when talking about defining a game? At the risk of admitting how pretentious I am, it does matter to me, at least a little bit.

80864d98b6c60d0e85bb5ce3b77a4788.jpg

Let’s think about the term “video game” for a second. It’s two words, technically. Video, which refers to visual content, and game, something people do for amusement. So it’s a visual amusement, or specifically, a game where the visuals are on a screen. It’s a simple definition, and it doesn’t really offer too many problems. If it isn’t visual, it isn’t a “video game”. Taken on its own, game more commonly refers to an amusement played along set rules, usually with the possibility to win and lose. Video games pretty much always have rules by nature. Even in games like Minecraft, which lets the player do almost anything they want, they are still trapped in the confines of the world. There’s an internal logic to a game world, both from a narrative perspective, and a technological perspective.

Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Technologically, games can’t account for infinite possibilities. Programmers and game designers can only do so much, and that’s why you can’t develop superpowers in the middle of Call of Duty and start flying around, melting people with laser beams. Sure, they could have done that, but they put their resources and efforts into making a different kind of game. One where that doesn’t happen, and can’t, because the developers didn’t code that in. Narrative-wise, every world has rules. In Star Wars, Luke doesn’t suddenly defeat Darth Vader by turning into a giant and crushing him underfoot. The story has established Luke can’t do that. He has some pseudo-magical powers, but we all understand their limits. On the flip side, that means everything that does happen in a narrative happens for a reason, even your own personal narrative of playing the game, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Take THAT, cel-shading.

Take THAT, cel-shading.

For now, we understand that any game does technically have rules. You can only do what the game allows you to. However, we run into a problem with that idea. Sure, the world has established rules, but what happens if I break those rules? Speedruns often involve clipping through the game’s architecture, or glitching out certain segments to make the game go faster. Link can’t usually pass through locked doors without a key, but Wind Waker speedrunners can make him slip right through. But they’re still playing the game, they’re just playing for a different goal, with different rules. That’s part of what makes video games so great, often, you can take an existing set of rules, and layer your own over them for a totally different experience.

So rules are a bust, at least in the traditional sense. You can’t just suddenly start playing a heavily modified version of tag while everyone is playing hide and go seek, you’d be breaking the rules. Sure, you’re playing by your own, but the existence of communally agreed upon rules means you’re not the playing the game everyone else set out to, and that means less to some jerk who really care about defining games by their rules. Video game rules are inherently malleable, since, at least in a single player context, there’s no one to tell you that you’re playing incorrectly.

My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

What about win/lose states? Does a game have to let you win or lose? There is no traditional winning or losing in say, Animal Crossing, which goes on forever, with or without the player being involved. There are tiny win states when you pay off your loan, but those don’t end the game or anything. But what about a game you can’t win at all, like Pac-Man? You don’t “win” Pac-Man, you just go as long as possible. You do, however, lose Pac-Man. Not “can”, but “do”. You will eventually lose Pac-Man, because you can’t win. You can hit the kill screen, but that’s not a win state, it ends the game destructively, in an unintended way.

The same win/lose problems come up in playground games. You don’t win jump-rope, for example. You just go as long as possible until you lose. So at the end of the day, games by nature have to have a win or lose state. Even most playground games technically have win or loss states, because they are, by nature, multiplayer experiences, and it’s hard to have those in the real world without forcing a win in some way. So the “game” part of “video game” differs from its traditional definition. Malleable rules and non-traditional victories that don’t involve another player make up the backbone of video games. The “game” portion of the word is different than the one we based it off of. Why not come up with a new word for these kinds of games?

Merriam-Webster says that the first known use of video game was in 1973, which makes sense. That’s one year after Pong, and right when video games were hitting it big in North America. They were still simple enough that they could sort of be defined as anything. It was easy to call it a game, because that’s what it was, and it was played on a TV screen, so video. There. But there’s a weird issue here, both words come from other mediums. Video referred to video screens, like computer monitors and TVs, while game was referring to the fact that, at the time, video games were a lot like games that already existed. Pong was ping-pong, everyone knows what ping-pong is.

Game. Or not. It's up to you.

Game. Or not. It's up to you.

It’s actually a lot like movies. The word “movie” comes from “moving picture”, which means movies are just a series of images flashed before your eyes. Kind of demeans the experience right? Aren’t movies supposed to be about combination of the acting, the music, the directing, the cinematography and everything else? I mean, if movies are moving pictures, then are .gifs movies? Are viewmaster reels? Movies are also called films, but that just refers to the thin layer of chemicals spread on photographic plates for developing film reels. Defining a medium by its physical presence isn’t the worst idea in the world, but it does offer some issues when it comes to video games, which are becoming increasingly digital, and began life as discs and cartridges. Can we just call an NES game a ROM? Is that the same as calling a movie a film? I don’t really have the answer, but common sense says we don’t because no one else does.

The best way I personally have to define a video game is by saying that it’s interactive entertainment. You watch movies, you look at art, you listen to music, but you play games. That verb distinction is important to me. It changes how I experience the medium, how I ingest it. You look at art, because it does not move. You watch a movie, because you have to observe the motion. You listen to music, because you use your ears. You play a game, because your actions have influence over the experience. That’s the distinction, and that’s the definition I like. The win or loss matters only when you start dissecting the “game” part of the word, and that's for another time.

It’s hard to be mad that we use a word. We’ve been calling them video games since the ‘70s, and we won’t really stop anytime soon. Video game rolls off the tongue a lot better than “interactive entertainment”. And it’s truly incredible that we’ve come to the point where calling something a “game” defaults to a video game, rather than a board, card, or playground game. I’m not looking to change the way we write the word out, it’d be silly to. This isn’t a crusade, I just prefer videogame over video game. As a proper noun, the word has a transformative power that pushes it just a little further from its two parent words.

This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

Sure, it’ll always be stuck there, since most video games are still games in the traditional sense, and almost all have some visual element. That’s why keeping that parent word DNA at the fore is still important. I don’t think the word even separates the conversation. Personally, I don’t want to let games that are less visual, or less game-y get brushed off as “not a video game”, but honestly? That doesn't happen that often. I think I just want to combine the two words, make them inseparable, as their own concept. A proper noun that shows that these aren’t like two other mediums. That video games aren’t a combination of video and game, but something greater. They can’t be viewed in the same lens as movies, nor like traditional games. They’re inherently comparable, but that’s because they’ve evolved from them. They’re something bigger than video games They’re videogames.

And also, I’m pretentious. But that’s a given.

 

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