One of the points of tension or irritation or usability fail or whathaveyou of War Game has been its little evaluation sessions, particularly the 100 character requirement. (Actually it’s not a requirement per se, since I added the ability to just hit enter when you’re done.) There was often a feeling that 100 characters was too much, that people felt like they just had to keep pressing space until it went away, or that, most damningly, there was no real point to the typing bit in the first place. There was the idea that it didn’t really have an impact. Which is interesting.
I’ve been listening to these fantastic interviews between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock for the last while (you can get them here). It’s great for numerous reasons, from just being highly entertaining, to being informative, to being rather useful in improving my French (since the whole thing is conducted through an interpreter).
But the best thing about it, in many ways, is how informal and comfortable the whole interview clearly was. They were in it for the long haul (the tapes run to a bit under 12 hours) and so there are all these signs of life in the interview that I feel you don’t get in shorter pieces, where people are more composed and more like “proper” subjects.
For instance, there’s frequently the sound of what I take to be a match being struck. Presumably this is Hitchcock lighting a cigar. It conjures up a cozy setting for me, Hitchcock very much at home despite my base-level perception of him as a weird and awkward fellow. This comes through in his voice, too, I think, which sounds very comfortable in the interview process, remarkably giving and only rarely straying into a kind of “Great Man” talk.
The best moment of all, however, is when they’re having lunch while the interview continues. You hear the clacking of plates as the food is brought in, and all these little pieces of talk and murmuring about eating and so forth. And then Hitchcock declares he’ll have his melon first. After which we hear the smacking of lips on what must have been a pretty juicy piece of melon – I presume it’s a cantaloup.
And I stood there in the supermarket (where I was listening to this) thinking, “I’m hearing Alfred Hitchcock eating a piece of melon.” And then thinking, “this is great.” There’s something deeply charming, but also very grounding, in hearing this kind of audio. It’s like the whole “the queen goes to the bathroom too” kind of equaliser, but in a much more charming and innocent way. Hitchcock eats a piece of melon, makes eating sounds, enjoys himself, and we hear that and can identify with him much more deeply as a person, rather than as a figure.
This also leads me to wonder about the idea of writing about media other than video games from an experiential perspective. As with games, it seems like it could bring more unusual observations into the frame, while suffering from the risk of being “too personal” and thus potentially seen as irrelevant. Nonetheless, I can’t shake how important listening to Hitchcock eating that melon was, not just as a “ha ha!” moment, but as a communing with humanity and art and artists.
So, here’s to you Mr. Hitchcock, and here’s hoping the melon was delicious.
A brief thought about the specialness of games. My brain is somewhat dulled by the day, but it seems like video games are the only medium where you can say “you had to be there!” and have it make sense. Books, TV, film all provide you with a fixed context which you would naturally share with other readers and viewers. Although you can enjoy these media in diverse contexts (reading on a train, watching a movie on a plane, etc.), it doesn’t necessarily make a huge difference to the “meaning” of the book/movie/show.
But when we talk about the meaningfulness of game experience, the context of your existence inside the world of the game, the things you’ve been doing, the way you’ve been playing, the people you’re with, all combine to create what actually happens. It wouldn’t have been the same if you changed any of a myriad of factors.
Thus, when you’re walking through a Minecraft world, say, and your friend falls into a tiny, one-block body of water and starts drowning, the hilarity surrounding this is very contingent on a particular moment, your particular relationship with the friend, the context of your walk (perhaps you’d been marvelling at the sublime beauty of the environment moments prior). Importantly, while I can say to you “this happened” and try to describe it, including some of these contextual factors, it’s simply true that, to appreciate it, you had to be there. If you weren’t, you’re probably not going to have that particular special experience.
Naturally there are probably categories of special experiences in game – wonder at an open world, laughter at an emergent piece of gameplay – the individual experience itself, as felt by the participants, remains special and unique. When you play the game again, all is different, the same things don’t happen, your eyes don’t see the same world again. Again, while there’s some of this in other media, it relies on our reinterpretation of a static text (in the general sense), not on our actions and active experiences.
Or at least that’s my thought for this evening.
I played the demo of Backbreaker on the Xbox 360 this evening, excited to have the chance to play with a non-Madden version of football. Frankly, any kind of football that isn’t the real thing – where the Dallas Cowboys are one of the worst teams in the league – is good for me right now. I see from the internet that Backbreaker‘s been around for a while, which is fine.
The various reviews I’ve read since are all pretty accurate, I guess. Cool ideas, but a bit dead-eyed and not so featuriffic as we now expect football games to be, thanks to Madden. And, of course, thanks to Madden again, no NFL license means the ol’ “generic teams and players” curse.
With all that said, I was super impressed by the basic premise that the game operates on, which is to provide a player-centric rather than “game”-centric perspective of football. Backbreaker eschews the more clinical view of football as being made up of routes, blocking patterns, strategies, in favour of presenting a version of the blooming, buzzing confusion of actually playing on the field.
And that’s something I think they’ve done quite well, not that I’ve played football to gain a comparison. In my brief experience with the game there’s a delightful lack of understanding what the hell’s going on if you lose track of the play for even a split second. It did lead me to suck pretty bad at the game, but in a way that made me feel like I was sucking in similar ways to how I might in a real game of football. I lost track of the ball, I overran the play, I held onto the ball for too long and got crushed, I missed tackles, and on and on in a litany of incompetence.
Most of all, Backbreaker makes me think of how interesting it is to try and channel a sporting or athletic experience rather than a simulation of the game itself. In that way it reminds me of games like Call of Duty, which are fixated on recreating at least some of the freaky confusion surrounding war, including the dirt and ringing ears, etc.
I think it’s a winner, anyway.
I like how games can evoke feelings and experiences we have in day to day life. Common examples are in the vein of wandering out of the house and checking for good sniping spots, or looking for the best car steal, or hear game sound effects. Those are kind of hilarious moments. Maybe not necessarily deep or complex, but fun and funny.
Today, though, I realised that my experience of feeling like a stranger in Red Dead Redemption on entering Blackwater was similar to what I feel when I come out of the local park on my morning walks. Lately I’ve been trying out some kind of “mediation walk” which, really, just involves walking through the park while focusing on my breathing rather than having my brain jolt around thinking about stuff.
There’s a key moment of transition when I come out of the park and step back onto the street that leads to our house – it’s a a powerful (though not forceful or sudden) realisation of the difference between the greenery, trees, ducks and the asphalt street, the apartment buildings, the traffic in the distance. It’s non-intellectual, and it feels very important as something to experience.
Except that I realised this morning that in many ways this is exactly the transition I felt in moving from the prairies into the town of Blackwater in Red Dead Redemption. And, in fact, I realised that RDR’s evocation of this feeling was more powerful than my reality-based experience. I’m unsure as to why. It could be that the game presents the same basic experience (transition from one key state oriented toward nature into another oriented toward urbanisation) in more powerfully metaphoric terms than the morning walk does. To my mind RDR aims various powerful effects at this moment, such as the overarching narrative of John Marston, the key audio cues of a horse’s hooves moving from dusty earth to cobble stones, and the imposition of a grid on an untamed land. Red Dead Redemption presents this moment in an extremely effective way – better than reality does for me each day.
And that, too, feels very important as something to experience.