Thursday, 13 August 2015

Nostalgic for Nightmares: Funny Animals and Creeping Horror in The Night of The Rabbit

Today's post is a submission for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table feature. This month's theme is "Nostalgia".

Copyright Daedalic Games 2013
I was listening to an audiobook of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows last night (hat tip to Librivox) and I did so with some actual trepidation. Why? I associate Grahame's book, as well as its Disney adaptation, with my many odd and overwhelming childhood fears sprung from children's books and films (including, for example, the concept of eternity--I'm looking at you, The Neverending Story). As a result, I've never actually read the original text. But I took my shuddering discomfort with Mr. Toad in hand (ear?) and gave the book's first two chapters a try.

While I was listening, I was reminded (in a somewhat backwards fashion) of Daedalic Games' The Night of the Rabbit, a 2013 point and click adventure game written by Matthias Kempke. The game follows the adventures of Jerry Hazelnut, a human boy and wannabe magician, who is soon apprenticed to the rabbit of the title, the mysterious Marquis de Hoto. Jerry is tasked to save Mousewood, a village of tiny, anthropomorphic animals (and probably also to save the fabric of reality). The Night of the Rabbit is clearly indebted to many Funny Animal stories, including Beatrix Potter's work and Grahame's book. There are adorable mammals in waistcoats all over the place. There's a frog postman on a bicycle, for God's sake.

But one of the several things The Night of the Rabbit is spectacularly good at is capturing the creeping horror children are so similarly good at finding in children's fiction. Underlying the beautifully illustrated world of the game is a real. growing menace that infects the beauty of Mousewood. The threats in the game are kept very shadowy at first and their reveals creep into the narrative. We hear of another magician, The Great Zaroff, whose posters, tacked up around the village and surrounding environs, exhibit a threatening stare. We eventually meet creepy lizards wearing wooden human faces who talk of modern progress and promise to be "the solution" for the village. It's unsettling and it's meant to be. And best of all, the unnerving mix of cheeriness and creepiness, to my eyes, feels so very similar to the feelings I had as a child of reading a book or watching a movie intended for children (often colourful, often sweet) and seizing on a particular concept to have nightmares about for weeks.

Most of these texts, like The Night of the Rabbit, had explicit threats, too: Mr. McGregor in The Tale of Peter Rabbit or the weasels (I think?) in The Wind in the Willows. But the particular talent of children is to find horror in the seemingly innocent parts and characters of these stories: say, the incongruities of size and human presence in Grahame's book, or my own fear of the Caterpillar in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. These personally-mined fears often have the most lasting power in our imaginations: I can list a small collection of excellent family films I wouldn't watch today if you paid me. Though you could certainly make an offer.

But sometimes these fears turn into fascinations--things we long for, things we miss. I distinctly remember being terrified of the movie Labyrinth after seeing it once, then trying to watch it a few years later with the hope of overcoming my aversion. Instead, I found other things from the film to obsessively worry about and it wasn't until my teen years that I watched the film for a third time and my childhood fear of David Bowie turned into consuming lust -- but that's really a topic for another post.

The Night of the Rabbit weaves the creepy and the antiquatedly adorable to produce that feeling of fearing the things you're not supposed to fear, things an adult might wave away as silly. If T.S. Eliot will show you fear in a handful of dust, Matthias Kempke will show you the fear waiting behind each beautifully painted, seemingly idyllic scene in Mousewood. He'll remind you how you once saw these things.

For me, one of The Night of the Rabbit's many successes is its ability to leverage our nostalgia for childhood nightmares. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go hide under a blanket.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Mistakes Were Made: Hideous Agency and Catharsis in Fallout 3

This post was written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table August - September 2014.

In the final year of my undergraduate degree (2008/2009), I took a reading course on game studies with the professor who would eventually be my dissertation supervisor. At the time, I was dealing with some fairly rudimentary ideas about immersion and play and, like many new and isolated game scholars, I could have really used a copy of Frans Mäyrä's Introduction to Game Studies.

But in addition to my relative innocence to the field and my boundless enthusiasm for thinking about play, I did have a small concern. Historically, my ability to aim and my experience with games in which you have to aim specifically at things have been very, very poor. The need to accurately target something in a limited time sets off my anxiety disorder something fierce. To this day, my characters in Skyrim don't use bows. First person shooters remain one of least-played genres in my game library. The dog in Duck Hunt haunts me.

At the same time, young me recognized that I wouldn't feel like I was entering the field in good faith without widening my playing experience to include some of the genres I still don't particularly enjoy. Nowadays, I would thoroughly roll my eyes at the idea that one must play certain genres to have scholarly legitimacy, but actively trying to widen my experience proved useful at the time.
It also provided the most intense moment of abject terror and horror I've ever had in a game. Allow me to explain.

I decided to further investigate Fallout 3, particularly due to the fabulous in-game set-up of being born into the world. But as I played through the escape from Vault 101, I accidentally shot Butch's mother. Not used to the game's targeting system (which is easily brought up, provided you know which button to press), I responded to my childhood bully's panicked begging for me to save his mother from rad roaches by firing wildly and killing her. The roaches survived and attacked me.

Upon realizing what I had done, I panicked further and shut off my XBox 360, overcome with horror. I sat there alone in my house, not wanting to even touch the controller. I felt physically ill at what I had done in the game. I had intended to save Ellen, despite the fact that her son was a bully, but her screams and his panic compounded  my own nervousness about aiming and suddenly she was dead. If I hadn't shut off the game system, I probably would have killed Butch, too. ...The roaches were relatively safe, all things considered.

I didn't pick the game up again. Because I had immediately shut off the game, if I restarted from my last save file, it would never have happened. Problem solved, right? But no. I had killed Ellen and for me that was an immutable fact, whatever the game did or did not register. The next time I returned to The Wasteland, it would be because a jerk in a bad suit shot me in the face. Maybe it was sympathy with the long-dead Ellen that brought my particular Courier back from the grave.

Perhaps the worst part of the feeling at the time was that it hadn't been some moral choice I was troubled by, but it was just an accident, one that confirmed my anxieties about my ability to handle a fairly common game mechanic. It simultaneously sparked a panic attack and more broadly fed into my insecurity about wanting to pursue game studies but feeling somehow inadequate as a player and scholar - because I can't aim, because I panic under pressure. For a moment, I had killed Ellen and proven all of those idiotic misogynist steroetypes about girls and games true.

 Hell of a thing to happen because I didn't know to press the right bumper.

Often the ability to provoke an emotional response is a mark of a game's strength, but in the case of Fallout 3, the anxiety kept me from playing the game again. At the time, I wasn't getting any kind of treatment for my anxiety, so it was something of a perfect storm of personal and professional anxities and just plain bad luck - both for Ellen and for me.

At the same time, I look back on this experience as something of a watershed moment for my academic practice. Nothing since - no imposter syndrome, no poorly received conference paper, no taunt on the internet - has ever been as bad as that was. Being medicated has probably helped, but the fact remains that I already experienced the worst anxiety and self-doubt my beloved object of study could muster in me. I had done my worst. Killing Ellen in Fallout 3 freed me to play and study in ways that worked for me, not for some imaginary standard to which I could never measure up.

A happy accident? Not entirely. But like many accidents, powerful.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Sunless Sea: Adrift and Loving It?

Provisions and Some Background Information

I'm a shameless fan of UK company Failbetter Games and have been since discovering their best-known product, the browser game Fallen London. Fallen London is a story-driven game, characterized by clever, dark writing and the occasional tentacle. Based on the premise that Victorian London was sold to the shadowy Masters of the Echo Bazaar, and the city thrives (if that's the word) under the earth's surface, the game is a treat for players who enjoy immersive storytelling and, well, lots of text. After I passed on Failbetter's Kickstarter for Sunless Sea, an exploration and adventure game in the Fallen London world, I regretted not giving them my money.

I picked the game up as soon as it was available to non-Kickstarter backers and, though it was incomplete, sank a great deal of time and brave adventurers into the depths of Sunless Sea. It uses some roguelike elements (permadeath options, for example) and is not as text-based as its predecessor, but I would characterize it as still being primarily about story and the exploration of a dark sea (or correctly, zee) full of terror and opportunity. But mostly terror.

Aye, Aye, Captain?

As ever, I greatly enjoy Failbetter's inclusion of a non-binary gender option. At the beginning of the game zee captains choose a form of address  (Sir, Madam or Citizen) and a portrait to represent them. Delightfully, whatever form of address you choose doesn't affect which portraits are available to you. It's an open-ended approach to gender that I wish more games would embrace. Similarly, the option for a harbour romance with a Likely Lass or Dapper Chap isn't limited by your gender.This inclusiveness is typical of Failbetter and I wish more games would emulate them.

The Early Access release means that Sunless Sea is in something of an extended beta with a shifting list of upcoming updates. Some updates have been more encouraging than others - the introduction of map shuffling before all the of the map sections were complete was a frustrating addition. Depending on your map configuration, some destinations might be across empty sections of placeholders (think "Here be monsters" but with nothing). In a game where food and fuel are precious commodities and your terror meter is almost continually rising, these empty map sections significantly impact play.

Additionally, the introduction of the map shuffling worked against some of the game's efforts to balance the difficulty of early stages of the game (a lucrative, early-game only trade route may be simply inacessible to a nascent seadog). In-game grinding can be a bit of an issue, necessitating following particular trade routes ad nauseum, though I suspect that additional content (particularly that of random events) will strengthen the sailing experience.

Mutiny on the Zee

Watching Sunless Sea's progress, particularly through its Steam community, has been a lesson in the benefits and dangers of having customer input be such an intimate part of the beta process. In response to vocal player concerns, Failbetter is dramatically rehauling the game's combat system. This effort has pushed back other content updates, delaying the final release of the game.

While Failbetter's responsiveness to player input is laudable, I have to admit I'm more interested in their vision of the game than the version of it rejiggered to please Early Access players, particularly those who might rather be playing FTL. Don't get me wrong - I really like FTL, but the Fallen London universe deserves an adventure game that suits its unique flavor.

Is it completely naive to sigh and mourn the artists' vision(s)? Probably at least a little, particularly given that I assume the folks at Failbetter are quite happy to make a product that their customers enjoy. Having the Early Access option shows their interest in fan input and let us not forget that writing "Don't listen to me. Don't listen to anyone. Do what you want" is still a kind of input.

Final Ship's Log

I have to admit that as a player who didn't mind the old combat system, but hungers for new content and better balancing, that my voyages in the 'Neath have been fewer lately. I am, however, looking forward to the game's final release, currently slated for early December.

I might just hang up my sou'wester and penchant for cannibalising my crew until then, though.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Cross-Pollination: Friendship and Creativity in Arts and Criticism

I recently had a Twitter conversation about the ridiculous demand that critics and artists shouldn't be friends, or that these friendships should be reported, scrutinized, shamed and generally treated as somehow unethical. Unsurprisingly, this brief conversation took place in the context of the ongoing campaigns of harassment largely directed at female game developers and critics. A great deal of incisive and excellent analysis of this parade of hatred masquerading as concerns about ethics has already been done so I won't attempt to add to that body of work.

However, I'd like to talk about friendship.

I was particularly struck during the exchange by the reminder that some have claimed that friendship between artists and critics (or artists and artists, journalists and academics, et cetera) is wrong, that it is some kind of breach of integrity.

Don't make connections, some individuals have said, don't be friends with each other. If you must have a friendship, treat it as a moral lapse. Be alone. Feel alone. Feel alone and all the more vulnerable to the harassment we are aiming at you.

Friendships come in a staggering range of types with so many areas of overlap that 'types' isn't really the right word at all. The sheer variety of the positive human connections possible when people like each other is astounding. There are so many ways to like and love, to be liked and to be loved. And they are deeply powerful.

The things that have really changed me for the better in my life have consistently been my shared affections with other people. And while not everyone necessarily finds friendship so important and transformative, many do. For some of us, our friendships (in all their variety, with partners and family members and chums) have kept us alive.  To devalue that, to attempt todefine it as something wrong shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of affection. Friendship is not cronyism or collusion. Friendship is the extending of care and respect to others that sometimes we can't muster for ourselves. It is often the best of us, shared with the people we care about.

And friendship is powerfully creative. Friendships are to creativity what pollinators are to flowers. When you positively engage with someone, when you know someone this way, you share ideas, inspirations and challenges.  You open like the petals of a flower. You make new things out of what your friendships give you, or sometimes what they take away (friendships aren't perfect). A comment from a partner inspires a game. A concern about a friend prompts a blog post. Friendships enhance our creative output. To demonize friendships is an attack on not just the personal health of the people who take strength from them, but it is an attack on creativity.

And while creativity is pretty much everywhere, in areas like game development and game criticism, creativity is absolutely essential. The demand that you stop connecting with other people in your field or that you must view your relationships through a lens of shame is an attempt to hold you and your creativity hostage.

So, here's my pitch. Make more friends in gaming. Cultivate  more positive connections. Be proud of your friendships, whatever form they take. Explore the possibilities of shared affection by engaging with people you admire and people who admire you. Find strength and inspiration in your connections. Give it right back to the people you care about.

Make art. Make essays. Show them to your friends.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Changing Scholarly Altitudes : DiGRA 2014

Early this August, I attended the 2014 DiGRA conference near Salt Lake City, Utah.  It was my first time attending a DiGRA event (I watched the 2013 Atlanta conference deadline pass by with a sigh).  A more personal account of my experience might follow in another post, but this one is about a critical response to DiGRA 2014 and I hope to see more of the conversation by other participants.

The games criticism power duo of Zoya Street of Memory Insufficient and Andrew Grant Wilson of Silverstring Media have been publishing a series of insightful letters in response to the conference on the Silverstring Media blog and while I can't provide the same level of critical eloquence, it's a good reminder that we should respond to our conference experiences and, when needed (and it's pretty much always needed) offer critiques and, when possible, solutions.

I was absolutely thrilled to be accepted to the conference. Six days in Utah meant meeting new colleagues and hearing great ideas. To this day, I remain very happy that I applied. But there are other aspects of my experience beyond my nerdy joy that deserve explanation. I don't blame the organizers and volunteers for some of the problems this year. These folks made huge commitments of their time and energy and did a great job. But I do think we need to speak out about concerns of cost, accessibility, diversity and other areas in which we can improve.

After being accepted, my DiGRA experience began with massive sticker shock, delivered via my credit card, in continuing and frightening instalments. In my situation, the combination of DiGRA membership, early conference registration, air fare, hotel fees and food costs are probably somewhere slightly above $2000, and I write this as someone who largely subsisted on the food offered during breaks and a substantial collection of energy bars, fruit bars, and other foods in bar form, purchased in bulk in Canada. Over six days, I spent money at the in-house restaurants twice, motivated by the really excellent company. And despite leaving my room's garbage cans filled with enough wrappers that I worry the cleaning staff will think I was nesting in them, I spent that minimum $2000, only $300 of which I might be able to get back from my department. In a strange note, I'm actually one of the very lucky ones this time - I won a copy of Unity Pro I might be able to sell to cover the rest of the cost and maybe more. But not everyone is so lucky.

The choice to situate DiGRA at the Snowbird Resort is an understandable one. The location offers conference services and simply staggering views of the surrounding mountains. An included ski-lift ticket took me up the mountain and for a moment I genuinely forget how much money I had spent. But using a resort location drives up prices and raises the obstacles for persons who want to participate, to share their work and energy. It immediately makes it harder for the voices we need the most to join in the conversation. We have an ethical and professional responsibility to mitigate the costs of attending DiGRA in the future.

And accessibility more broadly is an important issue. The Snowbird resort itself had some significant physical accessibility issues and may actually have been designed by M.C. Escher. Anyone with difficulty handling stairs and barriers was immediately, if unintentionally, sent a message that their needs were not a priority. A space being technically navigable does not mean it is truly accessible. We have to fight for welcoming spaces at conferences and similar events. Cost and physical barriers are major factors in whether our events are welcoming, or even accessible period.

Diversity and a plurality of voices and perspectives are key to the success of conferences more generally. But they're also essential for the integrity and ethical responsibility conferences should strive for. That DiGRA is an academic conference in the first place raises barriers for potential participants, that ignore the worth of their work. And we should keep that in mind when we create the conditions of our next conference. And every conference.

At the DiGRA Fishbowl on Diversity in Game Studies, it was noted correctly that 'we can't accept submissions we don't get' but what that leaves out is that we have a responsibility to create the conditions to encourage and enable those missing submissions - from people of colour, from trans and genderqueer people, from women, from activists, from people living and working in poverty. DiGRA needs to solicit and listen to advice and criticism from the people under-represented at its events and recognize that we are responsible for the submissions we don't get.

Another important comment was made by Dr. Gillian Smith during the Diversity Fishbowl, namely that people who point out problems are not the only ones responsible for organizing efforts to deal with them. The people likeliest to notice problems - missing voices, for example, or instances of sexism or racism in an organization - don't always possess the resources that the ones least likely to notice problems do have. So, if we at DiGRA actually value the input of the people pointing out problems, we need to offer help to address that input. Time, effort, money, coverage, encouragement - the people to whom these resources are readily available have an ethical responsibility to share them. Sympathy is not enough. We need resources and help.

DiGRA President Dr. Mia Consalvo said something that resonated with me, that "We are DiGRA," that the people in the room, at the conference are part of the organization with the resources and responsibilities that entails. I am very happy to be a part of DiGRA and I want change. I want to know who else wants change. It's important to talk solutions, but it's also important to share concerns, to express anger, fear, and hope. The more we meaningfully converse with each other, the better.

So here is a starting set of principles I think DiGRA should adopt. (It's only a start and I encourage interested folks to critique it.)
1) A commitment to lowering the monetary barriers to involvement in DiGRA and its events;
2) A commitment to radical inclusivity (similar to the one discussed at the 2014 Canadian Game Studies Association Conference); this includes:
     a) genuine physical accessibility at conference venues
     b) creating the conditions to welcome submissions from under-represented contributors
     c) exploring other areas of improvement in dialogue with members and non-members of DiGRA
3) A commitment to ensuring the acknowledgement by members of DiGRA with access to privilege and power of their ethical responsibility to help with the problems affect fellow participants in games studies and criticism

And I formally suggest that we try out the idea of a Game Studies and Criticism  Camping Trip series, as suggested by Zoya Street here.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Don't Wait, Get Help Now: A Year in Review

Rather than posting a picture of my weaponized adorableness as a child for Throwback Thursday, I thought in light of a recent editorial I got to do for First Person Scholar, it might be useful to take stock of the last year. It's been roughly a year since I finished my dissertation prospectus, fell entirely off the academic (and blogging) wagon, and eventually clawed my way back to productivity. In part, this post is a celebration of the personal and professional difference a year made for me.

Continuing to deal with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder made this year tough and while I made really important strides, it necessitated a break from my professional and volunteer work this summer. Sadly, the 'official' break came after several months of stalled productivity, but even admitting I needed time off helped enough that said hiatus was remarkably shorter than I expected. My mental health might be the best it has ever been and while there's still progress to make, I am genuinely optimistic about the trajectory of my life for the first time in a long time. I may not be able to leave my house every day yet, but the yet is here heavily emphasized.

My professional life this year feels remarkably shaped by my involvement in First Person Scholar. Though I also backed off slightly from that area of my work for a short period, it's one of the parts of my professional life that's always engaging and energizing. I have to thank the editorial board and other attached folks there from the depths of my pixellated heart container for being amazing, inspiring and understanding.

Since joining the staff in August 2013, I've been involved in the behind the scenes editorial work of FPS and I've put out short publications starting with a commentary on interpellation in Journey in September, one on charmed circles of sexuality in Mass Effect in November, an essay on spectacular mortality in January, an interview with Christine Love in May, a two-part interview with Merritt Kopas in June and most recently the editorial in July that is in some ways the much more professional version of this blog post.

For many reasons, contributing to FPS was easy because it was part of a team effort, frequently operating on a quick turnaround, and yielded positive responses (and Tweets). And sometimes it was the only thing I felt I could get done. Attending to other projects was harder because it was often done solo with an eye on the long-term and rather hounded by my own negativity. But I also had the pleasure of presenting as part of a panel on death in video games at the May 2014 Canadian Games Studies Association Conference. I also successfully applied to the 2014 DiGRA Conference and I am really excited to go this August. (I ordered business cards! Ask me for one if you need a small rectangular thing to write on!) I've made some really exciting connections with other scholars and these connections fundamentally changed how I view my working process.

And if all goes well, in a week I'll be handing in a draft of my first chapter of my dissertation to my supervisor. Basically, this one chapter took a year to produce and I am hoping like hell that the others can be produced in much shorter order because I'm entering my fourth year in my PhD program and I am dead-set on completing it.

In some ways, the stops and starts of my productivity this year are an endorsement of actively taking time (and time off, if necessary) to deal with health problems while in graduate school, rather than floundering. I wasted some of my time and my supervisor's time this year. If I had faced my need for comprehensive treatment earlier, I may have saved a lot of effort and distress. In light of that, I strongly recommend that anyone facing mounting health or personal problems while trying to finish graduate work do their best (within the financial and chronological limits they have to deal with, which can be substantial) to get help. It might feel embarassing or like a show of weakness or just straight-up impossible to take time or time off to seek help, but I can't recommend it enough.

Also, don't blog too much when you have a chapter due in a week.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Surfeit of Skyrim

Recently in our household, we had been revisiting Skyrim, which we do periodically. Because we're not in a position to afford the most recent consoles right  now (which is a post in itself), my brother and I have been going back to games we haven't touched in a while. As I write this, actually, the age of Skyrim has passed and Matt's been replaying Dead Space while I've been playing the 360 version of Tales of Vesperia. These returns to and unceremonious abandonments of Skyrim happen with some frequency and if you ask us why, we'd frankly have some trouble explaining.

Personally, I don't even enjoy Skyrim that much. I don't get a lot out of its writing and I tend to ignore the main quest, let alone the myriad side stuff. If I'm in Tamriel, chances are that I'm picking alchemical ingredients and killing dragons. That's really my jam in Skyrim. I have a frankly excessive amount of blue mountain flowers and a bug that means every time I return to my Hearthfire expansion home, I'm greeted by the corpse of a dragon I killed ages ago and accidentally fast-traveled with in tow. I like to imagine my in-game child uses it as a playground climber.

So why do I play, when even by my own admission, I'm not particularly doing much?

For me, playing Skyrim is a kind of a reflex action, when I don't feel like researching and I feel like playing something I don't particularly have to pay attention to. Play itself has a value, but it feels wasteful to have all that programmed possibility in a game and all I really want to do with it is wander and kill anything that looks at me funny. For me, playing Skyrim is a lot about virtual body memory and relying on that to keep my character moving. It's almost meditative - I have danced this dance before, I know the steps.

So, when I return to Skyrim, I find I have the same problem I did the very first time I picked up the game. Quests pile up, both the major and the grocery list of to-dos in my miscellaneous file. There's absolutely tons to do, but none of it feels particularly pressing or even important. Contrast this to Dark Souls, another game that evokes the use of virtual body memory, particularly on re-runs through areas where knowing the steps keeps your character alive. In the early levels of the game, it doesn't list your tasks in stark relief, but the game feels desperate and even your wandering feels like part of a struggle. There's an obvious difference between the two games in terms of difficulty and yet that isn't the only reason why I find that playing Dark Souls feels essential (if frequently unpleasant and frustrating) and Skyrim feels bloated.

Perhaps there's such a thing as too much content and I say this as an RPG fanatic. I love sinking hours into games. But I find myself irked by having too much content with too little sense of any of it mattering. If I'm not just playing for the sake of playing, I want a sense that my efforts have import. I don't find that in Skyrim. I just feel glutted with options I'm not invested in, like someone getting to the end of their Halloween hoard and eyeing the crappy caramels because the mini Kit Kats are long gone, if indeed they were ever there.