Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Mind Forever Voyaging review

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I want to start by saying I have mad respect for Dylan Holmes. His politics are forward thinking and he’s a genuine critical thinker. These traits are pretty rare in people and should absolutely be celebrated, even by bitter old men like myself. Of course that I’m starting a review by praising the author is rarely a good sign for the review. Clearly I’m trying to contrast my opinion of the person with my opinion of the work. This is almost true. In reality, I just want to say where I’m coming from with this review, with respect for the author and not with flippant disdain for him or the subjects that are important to him.
This is also not a typical review, or rather it’s the sort of review that I find interesting and worth reading but not the sort of review that gets a place in your local newspaper dailies. If you’re wondering whether I think you should buy this book, the answer is yes absolutely! We need to show publishers that there is definitely a market for these kinds of discussions about games so that more of them can get published. Do I think it’s worth reading? Yes absolutely, even if I disagreed with every word in the book it’s a definitely valuable addition to the canon. The reading level of the book is (I think) around late high school-freshman year of college and there’s a fairly extensive glossary of videogamey terms if you’re new to games in general.
I’m going to assume that most of the readers of this review haven’t read the book, so I’m just going to go ahead and reproduce the description on the back cover here, which covers the gist of the work:
“An engaging and entertaining read for veteran gamers and curious newcomers alike, A Mind Forever Voyaging traces the evolution of interactive video games by examining 13 landmark titles that challenged convention and captured players’ imaginations worldwide. Alternative gaming blogger Dylan Holmes focuses on games that tell stories in innovative and fascinating ways and examines the opportunities—and challenges—presented when players are given the ability to direct how a story plays out. From the text-based adventure of Planetfall and the interactive cinema of Heavy Rain to the one-act play of Façade and the simulated world of Shenmue, Holmes showcases the diversity of video game stories that have emerged in the last 30 years. Along the way, he addresses such questions as:
  • How did the introduction of moral choices in video games change the playing field?
  • What film techniques have enhanced (or detracted from!) the gaming experience?
  • Can video games aspire to be art [Hint: Yes!]
  • What are the benefits, pitfalls, and unintended consequences of players’ “right to choose”?[sic]
  • Will the robot Floyd make you cry?
Critical analysis, historical perspective, and a gently opinionated personal touch make A Mind Forever Voyaging an enlightening read that captures the best that video games have to offer.”
So right away we have some problems, but I really only want to highlight the one. In fact I already highlighted it and then pushed ctrl+b and it’s right up there in slightly darker lettering. This book and this author are a part of a semi-recent cohort of individuals that are attempting to wrest control of the public conceptualization of video games and re-engineer it as a respected medium full of all of the value and cultural respect they feel other media has. This book in particular is aimed at promoting a more academic discussion of narrative in gaming and is to some degree an attempt at a genealogy of narrative storytelling. This concept is in actuality quite opinionated and the book throughout takes shots at a number of perceived norms while establishing a very specific hierarchy of importance. It’s gently opinionated in the sense that the author never particularly tells the opponents of his viewpoints to burn in hell, but it’s far from positionally neutral.
Oh and before I forget again here’s the list of games he covers:
The Secret of Monkey Island
Ultima IV: the Quest of the Avatar
System Shock
Final Fantasy VII
Metal Gear Solid
Deus Ex
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Dear Esther
Heavy Rain
This is not a bad list. I’ve played through seven of these thirteen games and all of them are solid games with some measure of contemporaneous ambition. It’s still an arbitrary list, especially with the book’s central goal of asserting that games are a valid medium. I’m not kidding when I say he’s a part of a cohort. Everywhere you look these days there are publications and conferences with that goal in mind. For a quick answer why: video games are now a broad part of the childhood of nearly every middle class person born in the late 80s to early 90s. These kids are in their mid-twenties and either going through or just completed college educations where they (hopefully) learned to critically examine their surroundings. Hence we’re at critical mass (28, Yi Jing) here and the gates are being battered.
The problem I have, and the problem I keep insinuating, is that I feel like the necessary ingredients for an academic examination or appreciation of games is already there and has been generated by this broad array of publications. That “unsophisticated” or “vulgar” venues for discussion of games is largely irrelevant. Look at other media. Books, for example. There’s a huge academic branch about the creation and usage of the novel form to express things. Most people don’t interact with this branch at all. They read Game of Thrones or James Patterson or whatever is popular and critics in local news book sections offer milquetoast ratings based on how well the book helped them ignore their suicidal tendencies.
This is a whole section of “casual” “dabblers” who are “dilettantes” who would describe themselves as major “geeks” for reading Game of Thrones in public. In the meantime Serious Scholars ignore things like GoT sheerly for its popular value and probably for the fact that it’s really not particularly ground-breaking in any of its writing. Long books?  Done all the time. European epics? Like white dudes write anything else. Books with sex in them? You’re fucking kidding right?
The same goes for television, which has been unanimously voted a complete waste of time since, what, the sixties? Movies have always been respected as little more than pornography, only truer in the last five years of nonstop sequels and remakes. Music has had a longstanding habit of huge disrespect for newer styles in favor of the old, from the devil’s music rock to rap to dubstep and Justin Bieber. True respect for all of those mediums comes only from a certain subset of the people who enjoy that medium, the same people who are now busily practicing the sort of evangelism that this book does.
So in many ways I’m set against the premise of this book. I think games have already achieved legitimacy and they’ve achieved it with the people who matter, those with years of practical experience with games and the necessary enthusiasm to formulate obscure arguments about the narrative importance of game x over game y. That I’m sitting here and writing this review is the principal evidence of this. But fortunately that’s not the only goal of the book and I’m more interested in the genealogy established.
At the start of the book, Holmes introduces handful of ideas that he’s working off of. He’s interested in a definition of narrative games that include games with a specifically designed and overtly presented story (some would describe it as being grafted to the mechanics) and not necessarily games that feature relatively little story and are instead vehicles for mechanics. This is the difference between games like Super Mario brothers and contemporaneous text adventures, or Zool and Final Fantasy 4.
This is an important distinction here, since one of the stronger claims of games design is that the mechanics should influence the narrative. A story about the passage of time should feature some changes based on time. A story about overcoming impossible odds should find some way to express their impossibility in gameplay. Things like that. The original Mario was set up with an idea of freedom of movement and it expresses this through the tight controls and bouncing mechanics, as well as the colorful and varied worlds.  Stuff like that. It’s more apparent in modern indies like Braid or Fez or some other critically acclaimed darling. Larger games are more tied to what they expect people want than necessarily a creative vision.
Anyway this distinction forms the basis behind what Holmes refers to as a division between narratology and ludology, which Holmes characterizes as the difference between being interested in the way games present stories versus only being interested in the elements of games that separate it from other media, chiefly the gamic mechanics. Like most academic distinctions, the best approach to this is a holistic embracement of both viewpoints, since they’re both interesting and valid conceptualizations. However like most academic distinctions, they form a sort of intellectual umbrella to huddle under with peers that agree with you on this point at least. Academia is kinda messed up.
This being a “soft” narratological book and not a “hard” ludological book, Holmes feels comfortable using a somewhat reflexive style, inserting himself and his life into the chapters that he writes. I’m a huge fan of this approach. Most science is subjective interpretations of gathered data and it’s of utmost importance that the particular subjective point of view is revealed in itself so that the works are contextualized. This includes being able to recognize things like “Oh, I see, he included this game because it’s important to his early life” or “his viewpoint was strongly influenced by this significant event in his life.” It’s moments like these that provide the qualitative data needed to comprehend a worldview, or if you’re more interested in approaching objectivity, it’s these sorts of things that expose the biases we have and make a work more intellectually honest.
In Holmes’ case, they’re well used, adding a personal voice to what potentially could have been a dry affair. They’re well used until the chapter on Final Fantasy Seven, that is. Holmes really likes Final Fantasy Seven. He really really likes it, so much so that he spends not only its chapter extolling its praises, but the following two chapters include comparisons and more praise for the game. It doesn’t become much of an issue until he starts making some pretty broad claims about the impact of FF7 that cross the line from analysis to blatant fanboyism in a cavalier and apparently unselfconscious way. It’s pretty jarring, given the relatively serious and muted tone of the rest of the book.
This sort of thing is one of the major issues I have with this movement in general. Games are a corporate enterprise above all else and boosting a more seriously look at games means legitimizing what are ultimately products designed to be sold en masse to people with a great deal of disposable income. At the end of the book Holmes includes a section on suggested games to play that explain how to acquire the games both listed in this book and those he finds tangentially interesting. All of them require the purchase of the software, in some cases along with the console required to play it. As a bibliography it’s shockingly expensive and it’s in an industry that does not have significant library support. You’re looking at shelling out at least $500 for just the games in this book (unless, of course, you already own a PS3 and PS2 and Dreamcast), only more with the suggested additions. Games are products of a capitalistic system of entertainment first and foremost, with the increasingly relevant but still marginalized indie movement notwithstanding. So boosting games as serious works of study and attempting to establish academic discourse inevitably sound like attempts to boost the system that creates these games, an academic lobby of the Entertainment Software Association. It’s an awkward position to be in, but it’s the crux of why games haven’t been readily accepted as important cultural artifacts. They’re not produced as important cultural artifacts, they’re produced as a consumer product. They’re still ultimately cultural products, but of a tainted, dishonest sort where they frequently show their colors as only interested in your $60 with a vague story about American values tacked on. It’s like an endlessly recurring series of Dan Brown novels.
I’m not sure Holmes understands this, but honestly I’m not sure any gamers under the umbrella of this movement understand this. Ultimately Holmes is writing a book about people perfecting the craft of tacking a narrative onto games, chronicling a series of iterative and reiterated trends in a homogenous environment.
The ardent exceptions to this are the two Metal Gear Solid games listed. As Holmes correctly notes, both games were designed from the ground up to create a narrative experience that smoothly flowed into the gameplay. Much of this has to do with Hideo Kojima’s creative control and directorial sense. Later games in the series lost touch with the ambitions of the first two as the usage of cutscenes ballooned while the gameplay remained mostly static. There’s an interesting discussion to be had somewhere about the differing philosophies between development studios regarding individual control or talent. Kojima games are Kojima games and they’re always identified as such. Miyamoto is the creator of Mario, Schafer of Psychonauts. Who made the last Call of Duty?
I hope this doesn’t sound too negative. This book is pretty good and interesting and I’d love to see more things like it. I’m just skeptical of the aims of the book for reasons outlined above. I appreciated Holmes’ FAQ section and overall enjoyed the amount of research put in. This is a field that I’m very well versed in, so I can’t say there were many surprises here, but it was presented well and I think it achieved its goal of being an introductory book to narratology. I would happily use this as a text for an intro class to that sort of thing.

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