Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Good New Days Are Over

For a couple of years, it was actually getting kind of good to be a media consumer. Digital distribution, thanks primarily to things like Netflix Watch Instantly for movies & older TV, Hulu for newer TV, or Steam for video games, was actually making it cheaper and more efficient to pay for media than before. Naturally, this is coming to a stop: Netflix is raising their prices on hybrid streaming/disc options, while Steam is fighting with EA, who are trying to set up their own distribution system.

And this here is the main issue - the distinction between publisher and distributor is blurring. This was most notable when Netflix announced that they were picking up a TV series, but it's also subtler in Steam's case - they're run by Valve, one of the great developers in video gaming, who can drive critical mass to Steam by making games like Portal, Half-Life 2, and Left 4 Dead. But Valve is also an underdog. They're one of the few companies which develops and publishes their own games - and the only company which also distributes them.

As an underdog, I think Valve understands what makes digital distribution work: it needs to be easy. The point of the exercise is to create an environment where you can type in a game's name, buy it, download it, and play it. This model can break down at several different points: if the game isn't available, if the game is too expensive, if the download is inefficient, slow, or broken, and if the game can't actually be played.

And - this is the most important point - those things have to work in order to prevent would-be players from jumping to the next-easiest option. The next easiest option is not conventional retail. It's not online retail. It's piracy. There, you type in the name of the game, download it, and play it. Steam can beat piracy by being more moral and having games that work without having to hack and crack. EA...well, EA is doing it wrong. They're still acting like digital distribution is an alternative to physical retail, half an alternative to piracy/retail, and half its own thing.

Likewise, while Netflix might still be a great deal, its recent price change combined with the pressure from Hollywood and the studios' attempts to get into the digital distribution game for themselves have started choking off Netflix's selection, or charging higher prices for it. The first results in frustration - as I and anyone following along with my Veronica Mars reviews felt last month - and the latter results in higher prices. Both make Netflix look like the bad guy.

Hulu, too, is losing its effectiveness in the face of "publisher" pressure. One side of FOX may have helped to found Hulu, but another side has rendered it more useless, moving its new streaming episodes from the day after to eight days after.

There's also the growing trend of ISP's trying to cap bandwidth, and behaving like it's a finite resource. This isn't just frustrating to the consumer, it's also frustrating to the distributor.

It's not like I don't expect growing pains in digital distribution. But I do think that this trend towards publishers and distributors (and creators and ISPs) merging is one which is likely to leave the people who benefited from low prices and digital distribution in a worse situation in a few years than they are now. Publishers are inherently conservative, trying to milk the most profit they can out of existing methods. Distributors have to be more experimental, trying to find and exploit new revenue streams. As long as they're underdogs, I'll root for them, but they're underdogs for a reason - the publishers have more power.

And the pirates, just outside looking in, are the ones most likely to benefit from this struggle for power. I think Steam and Netflix understand this, implicitly if not explicitly (, which sells old games for cheap but makes sure they work, is explicit). It's not going to be easier to be legal for quick media acquisition if this continues. Likewise, the consolidation of creation, publication, and distribution of media is a direct path to monopoly. And it's not just media, either, I think we'll see providers of services on the Internet start to become Internet Service Providers over time. It may be a few decades after it was supposed to happen, but the corporate cyber-dystopia of Snow Crash is looking more and more likely.

Monday, July 25, 2011

King's Bounty Reboots

There is a certain critically acclaimed, publicly tolerated subgenre of gaming which goes by the awkward portmanteau "Metroidvania." Based on the Metroid series of games, with an assist from a variation on Castlevania starting with Symphony of the Night, this subgenre focuses nominally on exploration and freedom. The idea is that you appear to have total freedom to explore, but difficulty and items which unlock areas - we'll call them "keys" but they can be more varied than that, like double-jumps or new spells - appear to open new areas.

In the Metroidvania style of gaming, these things tend to be fairly rigid. You explore for a while, and may note several obvious obstacles - this block clearly needs a new type of bomb, that door requires a key you don't have. There are a handful of options which are available to you, one or two of which expand the number of options. Go here, get the key, go there, get the double-jump. It's not quite fully user-driven and emergent, but it's not the linear experience that most games utilize. It is designer-created and fairly rigid, but offers both a small amount of choice but a large feeling of satisfaction.

Perhaps the most interesting and usually successful part of the 2008 King's Bounty remake, and its expansion/sequel Armored Princess, are that it adapts these Metroidvania concepts. However, since it does so in a strategy/RPG style instead of the platformer/RPG style of Castlevania, it invokes a similar feeling despite using very different mechanics. In many ways, it's better: King's Bounty only rarely uses keys, instead, it lets you choose your path by giving you information about potential opponents. It tells you what kind of enemies are in your way, as well as their strength relative to yours, allowing you to judge whether you're up for taking them on.

The gameplay, then, works like this: you get a few quests, which point you in the right direction to travel. In your way are several wandering or static enemies, which can be scouted. You can find multiple different paths, or do entirely different quests in a different area of the map, until you go up in levels, can hire more troops, and suddenly the enemies which had been rated as "Strong" are "Slightly Weaker" and can be cleared out, leading to more levels, more money, and so on.

The "Metroidvania" moniker is insufficient for describing this model, though it's closer than just about anything else to describe King's Bounty. I propose "organic exploration". It's not quite emergent narrative - though it's close - but it has the feeling of letting your knowledge of the map and game slowly expand with your character's power. It's something a little bit magical, like the aim of RPGs and many other games, but rarely ever actually achieved so directly.

With King's Bounty organic exploration comes problems, though. It's possible to fail. Not fail as in "you have to reload your last saved game". Fail as in "your strategy has failed. Restart the game." You can, quite easily, work yourself into a corner where you don't have enough money to recruit troops to replace the ones you just lost. But this is the flip-side to the organic exploration. The thrill of expansion is useless if it's not also balanced by the thrill of defeat.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Far Cry 2

I am only good for one thing: killing. Fortunately, I am in a place where killing is the only thing that matters. 

The fictional African country of Far Cry 2 has been destroyed by civil war, and that civil war continues. Why did it start? I don't know. Why does it continue? To keep mercenaries like me in business in the game, and gamers like me outside the game entertained. What does it mean? It means nothing. It is, simply, killing.

I never meet anyone who says otherwise. The representatives of the two factions in the civil war, the APR and UFLL, have no explanation for why all they do is kill. Their names might have meant something once. They don't now. Their leaders occasionally spout some Pan-African nonsense. They only care about power, and acquiring it by killing. Their second-in-commands, the ones who give me my missions? They're mercenaries just like me, and they know the score. If the war ends, no more work. Worse, an end to the war means a purge of mercenaries, so it's not just money they're motivated by, it's survival. Even when I'm working for one faction, its soldiers don't know it. 

Virtually everyone I meet tries to kill me, regardless of my loyalties. So I have to kill them back.
Such is true of my “friends” in Far Cry 2 as well. They will aid me, yes, so long as I aid them. But what do I help them with? Tasks of petty revenge or maintaining the war. All of my tasks are amoral. Sometimes I destroy medicine. Sometimes I assassinate villains. I shut down the national radio station. Someone told me it was all propaganda. It called itself the voice of truth. Maybe it was both. But it doesn't matter.

What does matter is that I'm extraordinarily good at killing, in a world where that can be difficult. At night, I take a silenced pistol and SMG, alongside a dart gun, and sneak to my objective. Or in the daylight, I pick up a small grenade launcher, a powerful sniper rifle, and a giant machine gun, subtlety be damned. And the things I do! A truck drives straight at me as I stand in the middle of the road. I hastily reload a rocket launcher just in time to fire on it, and barely, just barely, step out of the way of the flaming wreckage as it flies towards me. James Bond eat your heart out.

I should take one part of that back. There is one person in Far Cry 2 who talks to me about morality: The Jackal, the arms dealer whose death is the entirety of my motivation when I arrived in Far Cry 2. Everything I do, every alliance I make, every ally I betray, every blood diamond I find, every single thing is supposed to lead me to his death. But he's the only one who sees what I see, that this is a big, dumb, self-perpetuating war. That there is no room for anyone but killing machines like myself in Far Cry 2, but killing machines like myself are unwelcome anywhere else in the world.

Although I had nominal control over the choice of my character at the start of Far Cry 2, he remains entirely silent. Other than the occasional character calling me “China,” my character choice is totally irrelevant. The Jackal, my ostensible enemy, is a better “me” in Far Cry 2 than I am. He realizes that the country is a total disaster. He realizes that there's no solution in this brutal civil war between interchangeable factions. And he has a plan to end it. This doesn't explain why he sold the sides the weapons in the first place, but then, I don't know why I'm in this country to kill him in the first place, so we're even.

Morality has always played an integral part in open-world games. Back in 1985, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar solidified the concept of the open-world game, building on the burgeoning role-playing genre to create a game where the world existed outside of the hero and his or her quest. You were a part of that world, and could interact with it in myriad ways beyond following a linear path to its conclusion. Ultima IV may be the most ethical game ever made, demanding the player fulfill specific virtuous goals to be successful. So it is perhaps somewhat ironic that, as open-world games like Far Cry 2 have moved outside of the RPG genre, they've become known for their gleeful immorality.
Far Cry 2 initially seems to fall into that immoral category alongside Grand Theft Auto, but I don't feel like it's immoral – I kill no innocents in Far Cry 2 – I think it's amoral. I am amoral My actions are essentially meaningless in an ethical sense. Death and life are entirely utilitarian. But Far Cry 2 does more with that amorality – it uses it to make a statement. If it sounds repetitive and futile, it is. Far Cry 2 succeeds as a monument to the repetition and futility of war. 

There is a famous quote, attributed to Gillo Pontecorvo, director of The Battle of Algiers, that no film can depict war without glorifying it. This may be the case with film. Yet, while Far Cry 2 may revel in the glories of personal combat, it also frustrates my conventional gaming desires to heroically succeed through proper application of violence. I am not simply watching characters fight in this futile war. I am a participant – I am the most important participant in this idiotic war. And I cannot help but be unhappy at seeing what horrors my killing wreaks. My friends are all dead – many by my hand. My allies, who helped me out of many a jam and perhaps deserve my loyalty, are just as dead – many by my hand. Far Cry 2's glorification of war and violence becomes something more thanks to its commitment to amorality. It becomes tragic.