Thursday 12 November 2009

Digital Archaeology; OR, A personal history of embarrasing comments

So I had this weird idea the other week. I wanted to go back and look at (read: poke fun at) some of the really old comments I’d left on Michael Abbott’s blog The Brainy Gamer. Follow the digital paper trail, as it were - do some digital archaeology. It’s interesting because it’s a piece of my personal history as a games-writer of varying description and it’s there for all to see.

I got my start at forming and articulating something resembling a cogent opinion on things related to games in those early, heady comment threads back in late 2007. Going back through them, the seeds of the author I've grown into are all present in those comments and it’s revealing to see those beginnings and following the threads back to the present day.

As an exercise in seeing what posts by Michael captured my attention enough to provoke a response, it can also somewhat acts as a tour guide for those that weren’t around at the very beginning of The Brainy Gamer. For a long, long time I read every single thing that Michael Abbott posted on TBG and while I still pay very close attention to everything he posts, I get the feeling it’s become increasingly difficult for him to come up with a steady stream of posts that, to my mind at least, for a while captured the essence of games criticism and discussion. He wasn't just capturing the zeitgeist, he was the zeitgeist. Being on sabbatical and having the time to devote to the blog probably played a big part in what I have come to think of as ‘the golden era’ of The Brainy Gamer. Every post was new ground, every idea was fresh, yet fully formed.

Anyway, onto the somewhat awkward comments that I posted on The Brainy Gamer in the heady days of late 2007 – here displayed in chronological order, from first to last, every single comment I ever posted on a Brainy Gamer post in 2007 (yes, I checked them all) copied and pasted, including time stamp. Please consider following the links back to the original post to see other gems and the original post that inspired me so.

A post called ‘Girls Play Games’ wasn’t the first post I ever read at TBG, but it was the first I ever commented on and here’s what I said,

Ben Abraham said...

Brilliantly put! I'm so tired of other guys who think that they have some God given right to comment away on issues that (lets face it guys) we really have very little of anything new to say about.

Lets toss the discussion over to some people who actually have some knowledge or experience in the area of girl gamers.

Thank you for such a well-rounded informative post!

October 16, 2007 at 02:04 AM

It’s an interesting comment from myself, and looking back on some more recent events I wonder if I shouldn’t have just stopped there and quit while I was ahead. Note that the hyperlink on my name links to my (now very long abandoned) Myspace music page. At this point SLRC was just a twinkle in my eye. Another interesting thing to turn up in the comments section of this article is a link to an Iris Network Directory of women videogame bloggers. It seems crazy to me that I didn’t know this existed until I found it again here, despite it once being in the very same comments thread as myself.

Moving on – the next post I commented on was ‘In praise of empathy and good teaching’ which was a look at Half-Life 2 and how Valve subtly teach the player about the game world without a tutorial. A million-and-one people have made this point since, but Michael was one of the first, making it all the way back in 2007. To call him a game criticism pioneer doesn’t even come close to doing him justice. In the comments,

Ben Abraham said...


This is a really insightful analysis of an element of HL2 I've never really thought about before... If you don't mind, I'm bookmarking this article for reference in my honours thesis next year.

October 20, 2007 at 03:58 AM

It didn’t get directly references in the thesis I completed almost 10 days shy of one year to the date of that comment, but it was at the very least played a part in shaping my thinking about games. The next post to attract the dubious honour of a comment from Ben Abraham was ‘Zelda, Meet John Ford’ which introduced readers to Abbott’s love of cinema and the western. Here’s how I responded.

Ben Abraham said...

Yeah, bad idea. Wouldn't want games to become too much like a movie now would we? :P Now... who mentioned something like that just recently...?

Now, if you WERE going to turn a movie into a game, you'd have to pick a David Lean film. I mean, Lawrence of Arabia or Dr Zhivago MMO anyone? I'd love to faction grind the Arabs to get them to attack Aquaba!!! Now THAT'S EPIC! :p

October 31, 2007 at 06:33 AM

My comment, in hindsight, feels like someone else speaking out from across the ages – am I really advocating that games should be more like movies? And if so, in what regard? I hazard a guess that it was in regards to videogames treatment of serious fare, which, FYI, many games still aren’t all that crash hot on. However we’ve seen a bit of movement in that direction from the indie game sector, so don’t colour me completely disappointed. Also – I’d still totally play any videogame that managed to capture the essence of a David Lean epic.

The next post to receive my attention was ‘Are game reviews culturally biased?’ to which I deigned to respond to someone called ‘Simon’ who posted a comment before me.

Ben Abraham said...

Hi Simon and Michael,

Simon said:

"The only thing a reviewer can be certain of and speak with any genuine authority on is how a game affects him/her and him/her alone."

This we know to be true, because we agree that opinions and tastes are subjective - BUT if we accept this, then reject the entire notion of a review (and particularly score based reviews) entirely, as any score the reviewer would give are entirely different from a score you would give.

Okay, I see the point that we find reviewers that share similar tastes to us, but the key is that they are *similar* not the same, so again, any judgment that the review would pass wouldn't automagically be at all relevant to us.

That said, there is obviously a place for review if for no other reason than because people want it - they don't want to trust the publisher / developer that their game is more worth their $120 (and yes, here in Australia that is the RRP of a new release Xbox 360 title), so we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.

November 06, 2007 at 07:15 PM

Look, look! The SLRC URL finally makes its appearance in the hyperlink on my name! I doubt I had anything useful to say as yet, since my first ever post worth reading was the April ’08 entry into the Blogs of the Round Table, but still. The seeds were well and truly sown. The comment also displays my early reliance on the subjective nature of experience as a focal point for much of my thinking and writing, a trend that continues to this day. New Games Journalism didn’t know it yet, but I was coming for it and I wanted it bad.

My next Brainy Gamer comment was on a post Abbott wrote about the ultimately forgettable Blacksite: Area 51. In a post called ‘Blacksite: Where's my subversion?’ Abbott asks where the much touted ‘subversive’ part of the game was to be found, and laments its notable absence. I weigh in with my two cents,

Ben Abraham said...

Gamasutra had an interview with the guys from Army of Two just a little while before the Blacksite interview came out. THAT game has my hopes for the kind of politically aware shooter that you have in mind. Although I fear it could easily go the same way... I desperately hope not. We've got enough shooters, how about some morally interesting/challenging ones?!

Thanks for they update on Blacksite, as well. I was as intrigued as you, but I know I'm probably never going to get the chance to play it. Now I know I don't have to.

November 16, 2007 at 10:07 PM

And as far as prescient statements go, that one was pretty spot on – I never played Blacksite and Army of Two came and went without getting my dollars. I did however go looking for a video of Blacksite on Youtube and it really did look like it belonged in 2007.

In ‘Face time with Mass Effect’ Abbott notes that he wants to try and experience the game sans-pre-release hype. He also notes that his theatre background makes him particularly interested in how the acting and dialogue is handled. I added,

Ben Abraham said...

Michael said

"My training is in the theatre, so I come to video games with a strong predilection for vivid characters and well-told stories."

And yet... you don't think games should become more like movies. Okay, fair call that telling a good story doesn't automatically make it a movie, but I still think that it's interesting.

Don't get me wrong though, the more I think about it and the more I read about it, the less and less I want games to try and become cinematic. I also think that comparing them to movies, and analysing them in cinematic terms does games a disservice, so I guess I'm just playing Devils advocate here.

It's an interesting question that George poses too... how to tell a story with a lousy actor. I guess there's plenty of other ways to do it in film, though - camera angles and stuff. Hmmm. I dunno. Just thinking out loud.

Happy holiday season (as it apparently is for you Northern Hemisphere folks).

- Ben.

November 23, 2007 at 07:19 AM

What was I smoking in November of 2007? Did I really want games to become more cinematic? Did I even know what that implied? Or was I perhaps envisioning something like the more recent Call of Duty games or Uncharted 2 with their sweeping set pieces and roller-coaster ride experience? It’s quite amazing how much my taste in games has changed since November 23, 2007. That’s almost two years yet it feels like no time at all. At least I was showing signs of progress towards seeing that games are not like movies.

The next comment was on a post interestingly titled ‘Mass Effect: The game that wanted to be a movie’. Now what would Ben-Abraham-who-wants-games-to-be-movies have to say about this, given his predilection for cinematic game experiences? Funnily enough, nothing about the actual merit of Mass Effect’s cinematic approach, rather I chose to read far, far too deeply into the relationship between blank, unresponsive on screen avatars and blank, unresponsive gamers. Quoth myself,

Ben Abraham said...

Try this for a second. Think about how the camera and Shepherds actions, about what Duncan mentioned, lack any "reaction shots" and how everyone stands there passively swaying a bit - doesn't that seem to mirror *very* closely what we the actual PLAYERS are doing? That seems significant to me.

I wonder if this could possibly be why we can generally accept this kind of action from 'our avatar' - because we are doing essentially the same thing.

Think about it, we never really let out an audible gasp when a 'shocking plot twist'(TM) is revealed in a game, do we? Or maybe you have, but I know I've never had this kind of experience. I'm not really sure what kind of an implication this would have on the cinematic/non-cinematic debate, but maybe it represents a different type of engagement with the medium from film. (Seems self-evident perhaps, but then again, plenty of game designers seem to be arguing the opposite) For example, movies can make us jump in our seats and they can make us cry, which no video or computer game has ever done to me before.

*sigh* It could come down to simply being in the same room as a 50 other people all sharing the same/a similar experience, but I think that I could go on forever about this and I've got to end my comment somewhere... might as well be here.

Oh, and also, thanks a bunch Michael for taking the time (just about ever time) to answer and respond to our comments! Not every blogger does so, and it sets you apart! Here's hoping you never get swamped with a billion commenters... then again... you might like that. :)

November 25, 2007 at 07:34 AM

I certainly ask readers of my comment to ‘think about it’ a lot. I wonder what that said about me at the time. Think about it.

No really – please do. I assert that I’d “never really let out an audible gasp when a 'shocking plot twist' [was] revealed”, which was probably true at the time. But have I since? I rather like to think that I very well may have, but whether that’s to do with games actually improving or my choice to engage with games improving I have no idea. It’s certainly something that writing the Permanent Death story has forced me to think about – is Far Cry 2 the greatest game ever or is it just because I made it that way with my own efforts and attentions? And does it even matter? Also: note to self, if I ever use “maybe you have, but I haven’t” again in a sentence take it as a sign that I should probably stop talking from inexperience.

All these questions must remain unanswered for the time being, because it’s time to move onto the next comment, which as it turns out is about “listening to artists talk about their work”. In ‘That one big idea’ Abbott highlights how Super Mario Galaxy creator Yoshiaki Koizumi talks about one simple idea influencing the game in a profound way.

Ben Abraham said...

Wow. What a simple idea. And yet, so profound. If you think about it, the concept of a "flat" world is pretty foreign and artificial to us, as we ourselves inhabit a spherical world, and there are no walls to run into.

Neat stuff Michael, thanks for posting.

December 05, 2007 at 08:17 AM

The flat/round distinction is an interesting one and I wish I had a Wii to play Super Mario Galaxy on and experience first hand.

Next on our merry trip through time we come to a post about the general lack of original stories in games. In the plainly enough titled ‘we need new stories’ Abbott suggests some non-standard stories that game makers could use to avoid the Space Marine / Fantasy / Apocalypse tropes. Mostly it just boils down to games exploring stories about people other than hulking space men, but the comments thread takes off, running long and deep.

Ben Abraham said...

This is a long argument, so I'll try and keep mine input short,

I agree with Chris and Michael. If game dev's want their games to be taken seriously as an art form, then geeze, they bloody well had better get cracking on working to expand what their audiences expect from games. And the only way that I can see that happening is to make some mistakes while they experiment and do things exactly like Michael said.

I also wonder as to why you have made the arbitrary distinction between 'indie' developers and 'propper' developers, Simon. I just don't get it. Sure there are differences in team size, budget, etcetera, but they are both making games, right?

To bring it back to the original argument, that we should be encouraging the game development community to try telling some different stories, I would only like to say that I wholeheartedly agree that the current imbalance in storytelling is detrimental, but it probably will straighten itself out. I'm not an expert on art history, but I believe that with most new media forms, like film and television (and dare I include novels too? Perhaps turn of the 19th century Sci-Fi pulp novels, ala Jules Verne) that one success tends to send off a frenzy of copying and imitation. However I thing that, over time, it evens out. Here's to hoping that the gaming community matures as well (as we certainly are doing) and wakes up to the situation.

Up until recently Rock Paper Shotgun were saying on their 'Hey, developers!' page that the "Chance of the next annoinced MMO not having Elves: 3.062%" or something similar. :)

December 11, 2007 at 08:33 PM

Who is this contentious Simon fellow and where ever did he go? I’m presuming it’s not the same Simon as Simon Ferrari, but if it was that would be cool (let me know, eh Simon?). There was never a hyperlink in said persons’ name, so it’s entirely possible we may never know. I’m a bit yucked out by all those spelling mistakes; sadly I don’t think I’ll ever completely get beyond making those. Other things of note in the above comment: My love for Rock, Paper, Shotgun remains unabated to this day, in addition to being still just as interested in making future predictions based on past experience.

Next we actually have another comment on the same post – I would hazard a guess that it was one of the very first lengthy comments conversations on The Brainy Gamer. Somehow, everyone else gives up before I do and I pipe up at the end of it all with this comment,

Ben Abraham said...

Gosh this post is getting a lot of comments. And it's getting one more.

As to what Chris Stubbs said about emotion driving the games of the future, I can't help but wonder if current attitudes towards emotion are rather underdeveloped in the industry. Emotion is not simply an action/reaction response. We generally are quite unable to predict how one person will emotionally respond to something. Case in point being music. While we can make distinctions about the 'mood' of a piece, i.e. whether it is upbeat, sobmre, etc, we have no definite way of knowing how a person will emotionally respond to that mood, other than by projecting based on how we respond (a rather hit and miss kind of method).

The relatively young field of music therapy has established a general pattern, however, that if music 'meets us where we are at' emotionally, then once it has our attention, it can take us in to new places. The primary way that this is applied in music therapy is to calm down over excited patients, many of who have mental disabilities prohibiting normal verbal communication.

How would one apply this idea to gaming? I would propose that a game that wants to 'emotionally' reach me, would need to be able to somehow establish where I am 'at' before I could be taken anywhere, emotionally. At the moment, I think we have to put ourselves into the position that the game is assuming we are going to be in, and I would like to see that change.

Example 1: Valve's player monitoring stuff - they have the technology built in to examine how well or not we are playing a game - why not do things like dynamically change the pacing of the game according to our performance. Change the music, lighting or other aspects, depending on time of day. And that's not taking into account any kind of actual biofeedback systems such as pulse rate monitoring or anything. We can do so much better!

December 14, 2007 at 09:05 AM

Wow, I’m bringing music therapy into a discussion about emotion in games? Way to go 2007 self. Notice how my staunch belief in the subjective nature of experience rears its head once again. In hindsight, I can kind of see an unmentioned third approach to engaging player emotions – that the player chooses to engage and makes it so. Is it enough, however, to reach the theoretical heights of complete emotional involvement? Probably not, but either way I don’t think it happens without it, so it’s a bit of a conundrum.

The same day as the above, I also commented on a piece called ‘In search of narrative, character, and empathy’ which was an announcement that Michael was going to replay A Mind Forever Voyaging and Planescape Torment and write about them Game Diary style. I fondly recall both series. My own comment was this innocuous request for clarification,

Ben Abraham said...

I'm sorry, I wasn't entirely clear on this, are you actually going to go back and play these games? If so, sounds good! I look forward to hearing what you've got to say about games that I've never played before! :)

Growing up gamer in the 90's, I never played anything pre... maybe.. '98? At least, not in the sense of playing them the minute they came out.

December 14, 2007 at 08:41 AM

Which is true – I didn’t really play very many games, and certainly never on Day 1 of their release. The ‘Vintage Game Club’ that Michael would later establish in 2008 would do similar things with classic games of yesteryear, and I participated in a number of the first few playthroughs.

We’re coming up on the end of the 2007 year and the end of our little retrospective. On December 19 Abbott started writing about Planescape Torment. Picking up on something about NPC characters, I added this gem of a comment…

Ben Abraham said...

What about Murray from Monkey Island 3? He is still my favorite, lovable disembodied head from any videogame! :D

December 19, 2007 at 09:00 AM

It’s true. Murray remains my favourite, lovable disembodied head from a videogame.

Next, on ‘Day Three’ of his Planescape playthrough, Michael Abbott decided he wanted to slow down his playing, take more time and be a little more thorough. In response, I quoted Radiohead. As you do.

Ben Abraham said...

To quote the chorus of a song by a famous British rock band,

"Hey man,
slow down.
Slow down.
Idiot slow down,
Slow down."

Enjoy your leisurely stroll through Planescape.

December 22, 2007 at 09:03 PM

I was very much in the grips of a swooning addiction to the delicious ear noise of Radiohead. This is another thing I may possibly never get over. Also of note is Abbott’s philosophy that games are best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, with the slow motif would coming back with his memorable use of the ‘Chew your food’ metaphor a year later.

The second last comment I would make in 2007 was on a post called ‘A plea for journalistic integrity’, which was a discussion of the tragic death of Zoe Garcia. If you recall, Garcia was killed when her older brothers allegedly tried out “Mortal Kombat” moves on the girl and abused her until she died. Amongst this is a discussion of how games had, and have, become easy targets for meadia beat-ups, and I posted this comment:

Ben Abraham said...

I really think that gaming is *just* about at the tipping point where so many people now play and have first hand experience of video games that, surely, public opinion will recognise this kind of story as exactly you have said it to be, a sensationalist, headline grabbing story, and that sooner rather than later, prominent media outlets are going to be left with egg on their face. Most people know better than this, and it is only destroying the media's credibility in the public eye.

So, don't get too worried about it - we'll get there.

December 26, 2007 at 11:56 PM

I’m beginning to think that we experienced the tipping point for this phenomenon in Australia perhaps just a week or so ago. Melbourne’s The Age Newspaper ran a sensationalist story about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and the leaked footage of a terrorist attack level. The piece was clear sensationalism at its disgusting best, and yet the comments thread on the article was full of commenter’s ridiculing the piece as exactly that. I can’t see this sort of level of awareness going backwards anytime soon, so I think we may be on the downhill run to wider game acceptance. Of course, game literacy and experience will get us only so far, but it’s certainly a start. Like I said in 2007, “we’ll get there”. Hey, that was another of those prediction things.

Last post for the year of 2007 was this, on Abbott’s “Don’t trust the skull: Final Thoughts on Planescape Torment”:

Ben Abraham said...

Spoiler warning might be a good idea. Then again... it is such an ancient game.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm intrigued by the game, especially its Momento like elements (I thought that was one of the most convincing movie twists of all time!) I think that your experience with the interface is a similar sentiment to one expressed by Leigh Alexander when she talked about 'going soft' in terms of difficulty in the Castlevania series of games. She found incredibly hard one particular reissue of an older one.

Is PST abandonware yet?

December 31, 2007 at 02:40 AM

No, Planescape Torment is most definitely not abandonware, younger self, it’s apparently about to be re-released by Interplay for about $15.

That was the year of 2007 according to Ben Abraham and his comments on The Brainy Gamer blog. Was it good for you too? This little retrospective-meets-introspection thing was good fun for me and If you’re trying to read (too much) into it you might care to make a prediction about the future of SLRC. From this navel-gaze of a post and the general quiet here in recent weeks, you would not be far wrong to wonder if I was contemplating something rather final.

In case that’s too much ambiguity for you, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with respect to SLRC. I guess it rather depends on what happens before the end of the year.

Also, you patient readers deserve an update on the Permanent Death novel-thing – I swear, it’s still coming and hopefully soon.


Simon Ferrari said...

Sadly, that was a different Simon. I've noticed there are at least two or three other Simons who comment on TBG, one of whom I assume is Simon Parkin. All the Simons are divisive and cynical, so whenever I see that one has posted I feel no need to add more Simon to the mix.

I just hope I'm the only American Simon trolling Michael.

Daniel said...

Well, for what it's worth, Ben, I think you need an individual outlet for your writing. Not everyone is on twitter, so they can't necessarily get access to your personality and interests, and that personality and interests are an integral part of this community!

So whether its here or somewhere else, I hope you continue to have a individual outlet, Ben. :)

TheGameCritique said...

Well that was a nice trip into navel gazing territory. No in all honesty I can't fault you for it, especially given some of post from a month back. It is always a worthwhile excursion to examine oneself, especially if you are a critic. A critic without doubts is not one worth listening to.

As for where you will go with SLRC, if you do leave it behind I hope you'll stay within the community. You are always a pleasure to read and one of the need to read bloggers. If you do leave it behind can I suggest So Long Righteous Comrades.

Ben Abraham said...

Damn, that's such a name that I may have to throw in the towel just for an excuse to use it.

In all seriousness though, I was really just wondering if SLRC as a project was coming to it's conclusion. Whatever else happens I'll be around but I just might make something else somewhere else instead. I dunno, I'm still mulling it all over, and it very much depends on what happens before the year is out.

Michael Abbott said...

That was quite a trip, Ben. You and I have sustained what amounts to one long conversation over the last couple of years. I hope you know how much it's meant to me that you've been there from the beginning.

Eric mentioned navel gazing, so I'll pick up on that to say that I see the evolution of BG differently than I think you do.

I suspect what you see as the "golden age" of BG has less to do with me than you. Granted, I haven't been able to sustain the 5+ posts per week I was able to do during my sabbatical, but the 3 or so I do now (in my totally non-objective view) address a more wide range of topics than they did in 2007.

Back then, I focused almost solely on game design and closely related issues, which seem to be your particular cup of tea. I still write about design, but as I've gained a broader perspective on games (and a readership interested in other topics), I now also write about the industry, gamer culture, etc., and the podcast has opened up possibilities for me to explore the work of people like Suzanne Seggerman, Mary Flanagan, et al.

I think what you describe as me breaking ground with fresh ideas was really more about you discovering these things at a transitional time in your life and diving into these conversations head-first. I'm much older than you, but I was going through a similar transition and everything seemed fresh and new.

But it wasn't, actually. I was learning and piggy-backing off the work of many other people, and BG was just a reflection of that. If there was a zeitgeist, it was your and my own micro zeitgest with a few other folks along for the ride. Suggesting otherwise presumes an inflated sense of my presence in the community that simply wasn't the case in 2007 and still isn't the case today. That's not false humility. Just a realistic snapshot of the actual size of this wonderful, but still relatively tiny community you and I love so much.

Jorge Albor said...

I for one am glad to consider you a games blogger compatriot. Don't think TGC's nifty acronym will get you off the hook that easy.