Escape to the Movies and The Big Picture have been cancelled

Bob Chipman, also known as Moviebob and the Game Overthinker, has been let go from the Escapist. His last video for the site appeared this week. The firing is pretty clearly connected to the closure of Joystiq and the firing of a number of other Escapist regulars—it seems like the video game newsmagazine format is not as profitable as it once was.

This is truly sad news. In recent years even the Zero Punctuation videos have begun to lose their sheen, and the main reason to go to the site was Chipman’s criticism in his articles and his two video series—Escape to the Movies, a weekly review series, and The Big Picture, a loosely formatted show that looked both critically and not-so-critically at pop culture.

Chipman has always been a rare breed—a critic well versed in pop culture and with an interest in the sleazy and cheesy world of science fiction and video games, but who has enough in-depth training in an art form that he can bring some intelligent, sensitive critical judgment to the table. When he agrees with the mainstream point of view, he always seems to go one further by stating his points more eloquently than others have. When he disagrees, he usually has an interesting point that others have overlooked.

It was through his shows that I was turned onto films like Cabin in the Woods, The Raid, ParaNorman, Detention—smaller movies I would otherwise never have heard of, let alone seen. If it wasn’t for his review it would never have occurred to me to take Michael Bay seriously enough to watch the astounding Pain and Gain. I believe his takes on the battles and blowups in pop culture criticism have more accurately and regularly captured the lay of the land than anything else, and his explanations of trivial comic book minutiae are always entertaining. The annual Schlocktober event has always been a great pleasure.

Even his misfires—his initial praise of Man of Steel, his mawkish review of Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, his incessant slamming on the beneath-contempt Sony Spider-Man movies—have left him looking pretty good over all. And this is saying nothing about his work on video games, with which I am less familiar (though I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen).

The loss of Chipman’s shows and column should come as a great blow to anyone who wishes to turn a somewhat serious eye to modern pop culture. While the Escapist has to do what they have to do, and Chipman will no doubt find some other outlet soon, one has to wonder about the strategic wisdom of firing the people who make the site worth visiting. Certainly the “journalism” there is largely worthless, and with the recent culling I have to say that the site is of considerably less value to the community than it was in its heyday, and I can’t imagine I’ll be visiting nearly as often as I used to.

Official announcements from Chipman can be found here and here. His site carries a PayPal tip jar for those so inclined, and he also has announced that he will likely be running a Patreon campaign in the near future.


Gaming, growing up, and time

Finishing the whole Demon’s Souls business (in however elliptical a form) this past summer was as relieving as exorcising an actual demon. Now I appear to have started the cycle again with a series on Splinter Cell, but I am less emotionally invested in it and I have no illusions that it may involve a wait of months between instalments.

Since I was quite young, video games and writing have been my constant companions. Until late in high school I had nothing resembling a social life. I played hockey but didn’t enjoy it. For a few years I had a web programming phase, but I eventually put away such foolishly practical skills and became a musician. All the while I continued to enjoy video games, and I wrote more as a way of exorcising demons than realistically preparing anything for publication.

Going to university changed that. It was the first time I really exerted myself in an academic setting. In my first year I would get home no sooner than 5 or 6 PM, which at the time seemed shockingly late. By third year I was routinely at school for twelve or more hours at a stretch, with a few hours of work to do once I got home. I’m in classes full time and working three jobs in the off-hours.

All this means that leisure activities are sidelined. I’m lucky if I can get fifteen minutes to read a book before bed, let alone time to play a video game. In the time I’ve been employed by the Manitoban (for which employment I am extremely grateful; don’t get me wrong) it has constituted almost the entirety of my writing output.

The sad fact is that when you’re a staff writer for a publication you sometimes have to write about things you’d rather not and you often can’t do what you’d like to. I can’t recall the last time I tried my hand at fiction, not to mention completing something and submitting it for publication. The kind of non-fiction I prefer to write goes here, but only when I have a large enough stretch of leisure time (articles need room to breathe, I’ve always felt).

A holiday used to mean an unfathomably long period of uninterrupted gaming (probably it was two hours at a time, but these things are perceived differently when you’re younger). Now it just means I get to choose in what order to do the million things I have to do. I play console games in short, infrequent spurts on some weekends. It occurred to me today when dealing with some computer problems that I cannot remember the last time I played a computer game (even my beloved Half-Life series).

Every so often I get nostalgic for those days—the games were better then, too. I hope against hope that when I finally finish school it will give me a little more leisure time, but I think what I miss most of all is a certain kind of innocent conception of time that is wholly lost to me no matter what I do.

I feel like there’s been an oddly shaped divot in my soul since I finished Dark Souls. I reach out to my readers, if they exist: what should I play next?

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

I have an on-and-off relationship with the Tom Clancy oeuvre. I think The Hunt for Red October is a legitimately great novel. Patriot Games is entertaining but annoying and disposable. The films are all excellent except for The Sum of All Fears (and possibly Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which I haven’t had a chance to see yet). There have been a number of successful video game adaptations, including the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series—basically less fun versions of Counter-Strike and SOCOM respectively.

Clancy gave up any literary aspirations early on and started writing hacky mass-produced novels while licensing his name like a fiend. Eventually he retired from writing and actually sold his name to Ubisoft. Most of the “Tom Clancy”-labelled stuff you’ve seen in recent years has nothing to do with him.

Sadly, he died last year. Looking back at his career it’s hard not to feel a sense of wasted potential—even considering everything he did accomplish, he had the talent to be more than just a brand name. And since the Jack Ryan movie was not a mega-hit and no one under a hundred went to see it, the future outlook for Tom Clancy-related stuff aimed at the general reader (as opposed to the multiple rifle owner from South Carolina with a front yard big enough to be called a “compound”) is not good.

Amid all this noise, there was one little chunk of Clanciana that developed and, for a while, maintained a unique, colourful personality all its own. This is Splinter Cell.

Splinter Cell began as a series of video games. There are novelizations, but they’re not by Clancy and I wouldn’t ask my worst enemy to read them. Supposedly a film is in development. The games are based around stealth. Not actual real-world stealth, the kind used in the SOCOM games—in Splinter Cell, you’re basically Batman. The idea is to infiltrate a building, find what needs finding, kill who needs killing, and leave the guards with nothing more than goosebumps.

The first game was fun but a little too clunky. The controls were in all the wrong places, it was practically impossible to predict whether the enemies would be able to see or hear you, it stuck you in awkward situations with only inelegant ways out, and the environments were too stylized and unrealistic for the technothriller narrative style. The second game, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, was better, but it kept some of the first game’s flaws and was pretty forgettable—aside from the playthrough I’ll be recounting below, it’s the one I’ve played most recently, but I couldn’t name a single thing that happens in it.

The fourth game was plagued by cross-platform problems and wildly varying tone, and the newer games have lost a lot of what made them unique. But for a brief moment in 2005, the series came very close to perfection. I speak of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Continue reading

Review: Dark Souls

During the course of the Herculean undertaking that this series has proven to be, I’ve found time to beat Dark Souls. It’s been a wonderful experience, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, always addictive. It’s easily one of the best-looking, most well-designed, and all around greatest games of the past console generation. It is everything that Demon’s Souls promised to be but didn’t quite live up to.

It’s not quite a sequel to Demon’s Souls, as it takes place in a slightly different scenario in a nominally different world, but it is in all respects similar. The controls and gameplay style are very much the same—though I note with enthusiasm that Dark Souls is designed to allow a greater variety of approaches to the game, so that its plethora of classes have actual distinctions between them. One of the innovations is a third class of magic (other than the traditional white and black) called pyromancy, which is available to all classes of character. This means that some low-level magic is accessible to anyone, which allows warrior and knight-type characters to use the spells they need without crowding in on the casters’ territory.

The promise of Demon’s Souls was difficulty and big scary bosses. It delivered on one of those things. For the most part the bosses were rather pesky pushovers, none of whom were very impressive-looking. In Dark Souls, you fight a massive demon within the first ten minutes of the game. There are a few lazily palette-swapped demons, but there’s a much wider range than before and they are so imposing in size that it seems scarcely believable that you can block their attacks.

Dark Souls is at least as difficult as Demon’s Souls, but in better ways. The enemies are too powerful to be taken on in several at a time, the way you might in a different game. But this means that it forces you to play intelligently. Instead of a hub world with very few checkpoints inside the levels, Dark Souls has a continuous world with checkpoints at regular (though often distant) intervals throughout. Each checkpoint restores your health and status, refills your healing items, and respawns all the enemies in the world. You can upgrade these checkpoints to increase the number of healing items you get, which allows you to venture farther in one go. This makes the sense of being at home in the world, of pushing forward and establishing camps along the way, much more palpable.

Another similarity with the previous game is that the levels are extremely well-structured, with a coherent sense of geography throughout. The innovation of Dark Souls is that it all takes place in one more or less continuous world. So the background scenery in one area becomes playable territory later on and vice versa. The graphics are also much improved, which makes for stunning visuals—the fantasy city of Anor Londo is by far one of the most remarkable-looking levels in recent gaming history. Continue reading

Some crazy shit

During the last week I’ve been dealing with auditions and organizational stuff and even found the time to be interviewed by the publication I used to write for. That, combined with the fact that I only use Twitter when I’m waiting at a bus stop and feeling morbid, means that I missed this sordid business. I am ashamed of but not surprised by it.

I sometimes wonder if these people realize how howlingly insane their antics look from the outside. And then of course the answer is obvious: they do know, but they think that for some reason conventional morality does not apply in this case. Galvanized by the illusion that shared appreciation of a consumer product creates quasi-familial bonds, they become dangerous radicals who might do anything when their “tribe” comes—or, as in this case, seems by some delusional moon-logic to come—under attack.

At this point all I can do is post a link to this old Nick Mamatas essay. I hope the affected people are staying safe and weathering the storm as best they can under the circumstances, because it is vanishingly unlikely that any of the perpetrators will see the social or legal repercussions they richly deserve.

More coverage can be found here, here, and here. Footage of Adam Baldwin being punched in the face can be found here.

Demon’s Souls: Sérénade mélancolique

I first encountered Demon’s Souls during an unhappy time in my life. Without going into details—it’s more a matter of conserving space than privacy—we’ll say that I was feeling down, I had a lot of free time and access to a pile of video games I had never played before, and I was on some level convinced that my thoughts were interesting enough that they were worth transcribing for the benefit of others. I had intended to play a number of games and write moderately in-depth critical articles on all of them. But Demon’s Souls and dark feelings both have a way of sucking you in, and the project absorbed my summer. What you’re seeing now is the culmination of that project, years later, after I cut everything I didn’t feel up to writing.

So for about two months, I had a comfortable but rather pathetic routine. Wake up, read a lot of articles on the Internet, eat, get dressed. Sometimes I practised; mostly I didn’t. At least once a week I walked. Sometimes more, if I could not resist my craving for junk food (you can imagine the junk food budget was tight, on this schedule). By late afternoon my will had collapsed and it was all I could do to lie there with a CD of Tchaikovsky blaring and play Demon’s Souls till the wee hours of the morning. Continue reading

Demon’s Souls: The Bane of My Existence

I never did quite get the NPCs in Demon’s Souls. For one thing, the world is supposed to have been taken over by the demons, and yet there are a surprising number of non-demonic people kicking around. You see them in the loading montages long before you meet them in the game, and this gives them an aura of mystery. This is intensified by the fact that the characters are all photographed from bizarre angles that distort their proportions, and some weirdness about character names (“Blacksmith Ed and Boldwin”, “Patches the Hyena”). Some of them are friendly and some of them are hostile, and it’s not always the same ones. You never know on approaching them.

Some of them seem to be completely superfluous—the apprentices, for example—and only serve to crowd up the Nexus, weaken the siege mentality, and make the player character seem even more insignificant than they already do. Some of them have a specific role but it’s not clear how you would discover this if the Demon’s Souls wiki didn’t exist, as must have been the case at one time in history. In general the NPCs tend to wander around the world, appearing seemingly at random. Their paths are predetermined, of course, but they are predetermined according to a set of rules that is mind-bogglingly complex and never adequately explained: World Tendency. Continue reading

Demon’s Souls: Class Warfare

A textual note:

In the summer of 2012, I played Demon’s Souls for a written Let’s Play that I never finished. We’ll call this Playthrough Alpha. I produced a few complete instalments before losing steam. This past summer of 2013, I returned to take care of unfinished business, in an ultra-quick run we’ll call Playthrough Beta.

Rather than pick up directly where Playthrough Alpha left off, which would be rather awkward, I have elected to make a condensed and heavily edited account of both playthroughs that incorporates some text from the original articles. Additionally, due to time constraints the straight playthrough articles were cut from the series, so this is more of a thematic Let’s Play. Each separate instalment focuses on a particular topic, rather than a particular section of the game.

Due to the temporally confused nature of the series’s composition, certain time-anchored references may be anachronistic.

Playthrough Beta was recorded in my audio notes, which I intend to publish in edited form later on. Some additional gameplay and commentary was provided by Doug and Ian Ingram.

The game’s third level is the Tower of Latria. The first section is the “Prison of Hope”, a clammy dungeon full of wailing undead prisoners. In the outdoor areas, you can see shadowy outlines against the night sky, hinting at something unspeakable above. Inside, there is not much floor space. Each cell block has narrow walkways against three walls and a bottomless pit in the middle. Anyone attempting to escape will have trouble eluding the Cthulhuvian sorcerer-guards.

These creatures are nasty, especially early in the game. Their magical attacks, which they can deploy quickly, will drain most of your health in one hit (except for the one that paralyzes you, opening you up to the other attacks), and at this stage in the game they take quite a few whacks with a sword before succumbing and descending into some slippery nautiloid hell. Getting off the first attack is crucial, and not letting the monster get a word in edgewise even more so. Not being seen is therefore paramount. The Tower of Latria demands stealth. This fact is a little problematic.

It has often been said that the stealth sections in otherwise non-stealthy games never come off well. This is because stealth as a mode of gameplay requires certain mechanics in order to work properly. You have to be aware of how alert the enemies are. You have to know, not just graphically, whether the game considers you to be concealed or not.1 The level design and other details need to follow suit: you have to provide a challenge without creating a level that is impossible to be stealthy in. Gadgets like Sam Fisher’s sticky cameras are also helpful.

More generally, your dominant mode of gameplay (melee fighting, shooting, stealth, avoidance, etc) is the star around which everything else orbits. Your levels, your mechanics, your character models, everything must serve this central concept. It might actually be impossible to make a good job of switching between modes. Certainly so much would have to change that levels involving different modes would not be recognizably part of the same game. Great games are usually highly unified in this respect: Half-Life is a shooter through and through; the Legend of Zelda games are strictly about hacking and slashing and suffer whenever they try to incorporate anything more than the crudest projectiles.

This level, so carefully designed to be a stealth level, will ultimately fail because the rest of the game is not designed to accommodate stealth. You will bumble through gracelessly until your character is strong enough to take out the mindflayers (as I later learned they are called) in one or two hits, at which point stealth is irrelevant.

Even more generally, the class system favoured by many RPGs might be flawed at a basic conceptual level. Demon’s Souls has a bevy of poorly differentiated classes that can all be grouped under familiar headings: warrior, thief, wizard, etc. But here’s the problem: each one implies a different style of gameplay. Even beneath these headings, there is a not inconsiderable amount of difference between playing as a knight and playing as a wanderer (as I did).

I learned this when I saw my brother playing as a knight. The reason that the knight enemies in the Boletarian Palace are so difficult is that they are designed to be fought in a certain combat style: big swords and shields, lots of parrying, long one-on-one fights. If you play as a knight (as the creators evidently assumed you would), then there is no problem. But if, like me, you positively relish the idea of being Fifth Business and choose a less-played class, you’re fighting an enemy that was not designed to be fought by you, and it just feels frustrating and senseless. Continue reading

GTA V: A brief review and some thoughts

Everyone has been playing Grand Theft Auto V lately. Though I didn’t get a chance to try it until this morning, and only for an hour or so, I’ve seen and heard quite a bit about it. It looks like they hit this one out of the park: GTA 4 was a colossal bore because it tried to go in a gritty and realistic direction that’s antithetical to what the series is about. The earlier GTA games were cartoonish. This new instalment appears to have struck just the right balance—realistic, non-stylized graphics and designs, but plenty of colour. It’s clear this is a world you’re supposed to have fun in.

So my abbreviated verdict on GTA V is: get it. That’s not what this article is about, though, because statistically speaking you probably have it already.

Earlier this week there was a conversation around the office about GTA V. One of my colleagues asked why anyone would want to play it. “It’s so violent and misogynistic,” she said.

“Of course it is,” goes the obvious answer of conventional wisdom, “That’s the point. That’s why people buy it.”

But why is violence and misogyny not just acceptable, but a selling point? I am aware of all the arguments against Jack Thompson, and I think we can consider the legal battle there largely won. But over time I’ve become increasingly aware that saying something is legal is faint praise. If playing GTA is legal, all that means is that armed men won’t prevent you from doing it. That doesn’t mean you should do it. Over and above the argument of whether violent games ought to be censored is the argument of whether we ought to play them at all, or whether we as rational and compassionate adults should willfully abstain from them. This argument is a great deal more complex and cannot be solved with slogans or preconceived notions. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to think.

There are two arguments that I think might have some merit to them, though of course I’d have to see them worked out in more detail to know for sure. One is that violent games are a kind of purging ritual. The deepest, darkest parts of ourselves—the parts that believe on some level it would be hilarious to steal a car and drive it down a crowded sidewalk—find an outlet in absurdly violent video games. We make the violence into a joke, something harmless and unserious, something that is clearly a little bit of play, not a part of ourselves. In this way we tame it.

The other is that the violence, at least in GTA, is in the context of a DeLilloesque satire of American consumer culture. The in-game advertising and branding (for just one example, there’s a Home Depot-like hardware store called YouTool, which is a joke that works on many levels) emphasizes the unreality and futility of the game world, and in that world it seems more or less logical to drive down a crowded sidewalk. The developers are trying to make a point—and this is something that’s clearly been going on at least since Vice City and San Andreas.

It seems instinctively true to me that violent video games are not insidious (at least in most cases). However, I have no rigorously argued justification for this feeling. This is something I need to think about more, and that I’ve been meaning to write about more for a long time. I’m trying both of these arguments on for size for now, but at this point I’m not sure.

Any thoughts or criticisms?

Demon’s Souls: Another attempt

Consider this take 2.

A year ago I had a plan to play several video games and write in-depth expositions of them. I never really got round to playing more than one game because around the same time I fell into a deep depression. The effort of mind needed to choose what to play next was beyond me. I still had the idea in my head that I was going to do a written Let’s Play of the idiosyncratically titled 2009 PS3 game Demon’s Souls, but it was going to be a more elaborate, multi-part deal.

If you have experienced a similar emotional funk, you probably know what happened next. I spent my mornings sleeping, my afternoons reading websites and wishing I was practising the clarinet, and the evenings drinking rum, eating jujubes, and playing Demon’s Souls. None of this time was spent writing, and I didn’t even take notes as I played.

Finally I broke down and spent a week away from home to collect myself. I had no computer and no Internet access. All I had was a stack of illicit CDs of classical music and a variety of pens and notebooks. I slept on a mattress on the floor and spent my days either reading books on CBT or writing. I finally finished the first two parts in my Demon’s Souls series, but it was long, pretentious, and poorly written. It was also disturbingly vague because by that point I had played through roughly half the game and forgotten a lot of my initial impressions. I continued writing the series, but it fizzled out some time around mid-October. As I write this the abortive attempt at Part 7 (of a planned 12-13) is open in another text editor tab (Notepad++, represent), and has been since that time.

Needless to say, I still hold out hope for the idea. I am not always persistent, but when I am, it’s usually in pursuit of something stupid. Consider this a manifesto. Continue reading