Monday, December 19, 2011

The Music of Mass Effect 3 - Preview

I've got Mass Effect 3 on the brain bad, guys. So bad. I had a dream about it a few weeks ago, that's how bad.  (It was a sad dream.  Shepard had to choose between two populated, thriving planets to save and she was really upset, talking to Garrus about how she was just one person and couldn't be everywhere at once, and didn't know what to do.)

I've been avoiding watching any leaked footage or reading anything with story spoilers, because I want to go into it fresh.  (These weeks are worse than when I was neck-deep in the Lord of the Rings fandom a decade ago. At least I already knew how that story would end!)

But when there was that ME3 leak on XBox Live, some kind soul created an edit of just the soundtrack music available in it, without any dialogue or visuals (spoilers!) to go with.  I listened to it once, thought, "Good, Mansell's definitely on the right track," and then the next morning woke up mildly obsessed with it.

There's also this:

Which was just followed by this link (non-Facebook version), to a snippet of ME3 soundtrack that Hulick wrote. 

I wsa going originally to do some intelligent total guesswork analysis on the snippets from the video, but right now I just need to get some completely irrational fangirling live.  Any game series that puts its hero's theme in 7/8, even for just the middle game, is a series that has me forever.

(Related: The Music of Mass Effect part 1 and part 2.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Holiday Shopping

It's the second week of December, so here in the USA at least nearly everyone's out buying something.  Hanukkah and Christmas have a tight overlap this year, and in my circle of friends and family there are a surprising number of birthdays between December 24th and December 31st.  Half the internet is all about gift guides, and Game of the Year voting and arguing rings more in the air than "Jingle Bells."  When the big Steam Holiday Sale lands, I, like many others, will find myself stockpiling games to last me through all of the next year.  In short: 'tis the season for consumerism.

There are studies out there showing that actually, money does buy happiness.  To anyone who's gone an extended period without any money (and for me, those were years 1-28 of my life), this is no surprise.  Being poor sucks and surely, the opposite is better.  But one piece of information keeps catching my eye: studies by various psychologists say that if you want your money to buy you happiness you should spend it on experiences, not on things. Do something amazing!  Go to that concert!  Take that vacation!  Throw that party!  Go bungee jumping!

Play that video game?

I was mulling over my Christmas and entertainment budgets blearily in the shower (where all good thinking happens) one recent morning and realized that generally, I put games in the "experiences" category.  Except that literally, video games are things: $5 or $20 or $50 worth of bits and bytes, sent virtually or pressed into a plastic and aluminum disc, a consumer good through and through. And they are a consumer good.  One look at the structure of game studios, at the sheer amount of money involved in creating a AAA game, at the opening-week-sales race, or at the marketing structures around gaming leaves no doubt about that.  But if my $20 buys me 30 or 50 or 100 hours' worth of an emotional journey, is it really just a thing, anymore?

Being pissed off at Anders is definitely an emotional journey.

This year's Thanksgiving sale on Steam allowed me to send several gifts.  To the two friends who received Audiosurf, I thought I was sending the stomach-dropping thrill of that moment when the music soars and the track bottoms out from under you while hanging a sharp right.  The gift to them was of flow and motion.  I wanted them both to be granted the singular experience of finding their favorite music take color and form before their eyes, to ride it and feel its shape in a way different than even the most trained musician's ears do.

To the friend who received Fallout: New Vegas and all its DLC, I was hoping to grant a hundred little experiences of exploration and understanding.  I was giving that moment of stumbling across Chance's map, the shock of discovering Christine, the puzzle of history left behind in a hundred audio logs and forgotten pre-war relics.  I was giving him the chance to choose a future for New Vegas, a chance to look at anarchy and government and war and decide what, if anything, changes.

To the friend who received Bastion, I was giving the gift of Zia's song and the soothing tones of Rucks's narration.  He was granted the history of Caelondia to explore and the tangled, tragic dreams of three people to uncover.  I gave ruined streets to walk and he received a chance to give survivors and a society hope in the face of pointless destruction and damnation.

The first experience: waking up...

To each friend, I hoped to be granting the feelings of discovery, victory, joy, defeat, mastery, color, flow, awe, decision-making, and so much more.  Four people received Steam codes through the ether, but none of them were given "things."

I have always felt that, at their core, games are experience.  The heart and soul of every game is about the players being able to tell themselves, and each other, a story.  Whether it's the immediate, quickly-forgotten, short-term thrill of getting the long block at just the right time, or the strategic thrill of building a city with good infrastructure, or the grim tactical deathmarch (deathsail?) of eliminating the Spanish navy in a 4:1 firefight before your ship is boarded... all are experiences and stories.  A deeply strategic toppling of your opponent, a frenetic scramble to a goal, or something in between; a fairy tale about two brave but not always bright young Wardens; a jarring exploration of an unstable cop's awkward investigations; a chance to be a badass space marine... all stories.   

So: pastime, or thing?

The truth is, it's an unfair question to level at games, or at least to level at games alone.  It's the core of the human experience with art.  If every time I watch the Lord of the Rings DVDs I feel the passion and the pull of that story all over again, if I feel the hope and desire and pain and faith I felt when they were in theaters during a vulnerable time in my life, when I needed them most -- have I bought an item, or an experience?

If Neverwhere and The Hunger Games and The Sun Also Rises and Macbeth and and The Book of Three and "The Sound of Thunder" each make me feel a certain way when read them, if I feel thrills and joy and despair and excitement as I revisit them, and if my readings change as I age and mature and experience my life -- am I holding paper, or am I holding experiences?

It's a trick question; the answer is "both."  Art, I think, was ever thus.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Golden Days

It's a balmy spring day in New England, almost certainly in 1988.  It's late April, probably; the air smells of mud and grass and growing things and we unruly kids have been sent to go play outside.  I'm at Tommy's house, on the next street over from mine, and some other kids -- one each of our two neighborhood Matts, Brians, and Corys, and Brendan (my later first crush) -- are there too.

We're on the swing set, playing Ghostbusters until we get bored and someone announces we should play pirates instead.  I pick up a well-balanced stick and give my mightiest "ARRRR," until one of the boys says: "No, you're the princess.  Girls can't be pirates!  We need to rescue you."

I hit him with my stick for a while and claim it's "fencing."  Eventually a truce is reached and a compromise made: I'm the Princess Pirate.  Childhood harmony temporarily restored, we take to our "ship" with gusto.

You know what "princess pirate" gets you by the time you grow up?

(Not even close to the most risqué costume image I could have chosen.)
Also sometime around 1988, these friends started to get NES systems as Christmas and birthday gifts.  (I got mine in very late 1993.)  One day, I asked for a turn at Mario after one of the boys botched a jump and had to restart his level.  It was a no -- but rather than "it's my turn still" I got, "Do girls even play Nintendo?"

Well, this girl would have.  And years later, when I could buy my friend's used NES for $25 with my saved-up babysitting money, I did.

This past month has seen a lot of social justice talk in the broader, mainstream game-sphere.  Kotaku, whether through a desire purely for pageviews or through a desire actually to engage with the world-that-is, has (re-)published must-read, knockout pieces by Denis Farr, Leigh Alexander, and Mattie Brice that collectively have stirred up nearly all of the bottom-feeding muck and slime to be found in the gamer community.  On top of all that, this week writer Tom Bissell is in the news, first for having been offhandedly sexist for no reason and second for having issued one of the better public apologies I've ever read.

Naturally, there's a lot of push-back.  Any discussion of gamers who are female, any kind of queer, any race other than white, or indeed any other non-dominant population tends to kick up a fuss.  Some of it just goes under the heading of trolls, or "haters gonna hate."  But what's most disappointing and frustrating to me is when gamers who could, in theory, be allies say: "Why don't we just talk about the games?  Whatever happened to having game sites just be about games already?"

A selection of Kotaku comments

It's not necessarily done as an intentional derailing tactic (though it is above), but the effect is just the same.  In short, it tells a whole set of players that our experiences don't matter.

For clarification from Dennis, see below.

Because for many of us out there who aren't the "right" sort of gamer?  It has never, ever been "just" about the games.  From age seven, in second grade, when the boys in my class asserted that girls don't play Nintendo.  To age seventeen, in high school, when despite using a girly alias and telling everyone I was a girl, the guys all called me "he" when I won science-fiction trivia games.  To twenty-seven, when I started to understand that just because my Lone Wanderer looked female, didn't mean the game's design treated her that way.

"Can we just play the video games?"  Sure.  As soon as conscious and unconscious sexism vanish from the stories, the art, and the reviews.

Culture exists, and we all must live in it.  Our culture means that if you're the girl at the party, you might have a really hard time getting the guys to let you in on GoldenEye.  It means that if you're the girl behind the counter at the GameStop, you have to deal with a constant level of leering and commentary that your male co-workers never get.  And if you're the girl, it means that any time you try to talk about the uphill battle, you're going to get smacked right back down.

The end result is exhaustion.  Swimming upstream against culture is tiring.  And journalist Tracey Lien is right: it's not just one incident, or just one joke.  It's every last one of them.  For many of us, life is a pile of these.  There are no "simpler days" to go back to.


The ability never to be alienated by the games we play or by the people who play them is the very core of privilege.  Bust out that p-word and gamers get riotous, but there's no way around it.  Despite all of the crap that's been handed to me over the last three decades, I have privilege by the metric ton.  I'm as white as white can be, identify perfectly well with the sex and gender I was born with, and have almost exclusively heterosexual attractions.  In those senses, I'm pretty thoroughly represented in game worlds, plots, narratives, and characters.  Further, I have two good hands, two good eyes, and two good ears -- so I'm pretty thoroughly catered to in terms of game mechanics, audio-visual design, and control schemes.  For a number of my friends and peers?  The layers of crap to deal with just never end.

The golden days of everyone being able to "just play a game," if any such days exist, are ahead of us still, not lying dormant in some sepia-tinted past.  They are the same as the golden days of all our other pop culture and pop art: lying in a society that's come to terms with understanding sex, gender, race, and a whole lot more.