The New Metric

Increasingly I feel like the only number that matters in game reviews is not the Metacritic score, but the amount of hours the player can sink into the game. There are as many AAA heavy-hitters in this category as there are indie games. A game can have the most beautiful environments, the most intuitive gameplay, or the most thought-provoking story and a chorus of Dorito-scented wails will decry it as trash if the length is less than 20 hours. Conversely, a game can employ sprawling empty environments or horrible and unskippable dialogue if only it stretches the gameplay out enough to accommodate players who would grind out in the real world if their ass still fit through the door. I’m looking at you, Red Dead Redemption 2.

There was a time when the words ‘online’ or ‘open world’ sparked joy in my then-young gaming mind. I’d freak if it was both. But, more and more, this is sliding into strange territory. The industry is offering less experiences and more simulations. Unlimited, recurring play is creating frenetic lifetime customers. In any other game, especially if there’s voice chat, you would regard these people with the same type of wariness and separation from reality as you would the guy screaming at random people in the street. Maybe they were strange to begin with, but the ability to stay inside all day with an endlessly recycled slot machine experience is probably not helping. For instance, just let this sink in: There were players lobbying for Bungie to remove whatever feeble controls they’d put in place for Destiny 2 to prevent people from playing all day, every day. The idea of playing another game just never occurred to them, a fact that is pretty easy to track these days with the deployment of player profiles and playtime counters.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. You can come at this from so many different angles that your head will literally start to vibrate like a tuning fork. I don’t want to delve into the impending societal collapse making people want to stay indoors with fake realities or depriving them of the opportunities to do much else. Walk that road if you must. I encourage it. Neither do I want to get too deep into the idea that this manner of play creates a cycle of disassociation that feeds into itself and creates hostile, if not fatal, levels of community toxicity. I truly believe there is something emotionally wrong with a fair few of online/hardcore gamers, especially those who settle into one game for thousands of hours (yes, they exist); but there’s quite a lot to unpack there.

No, the simple thrust of my argument is this: length and scope, for the sake of themselves, do not a good game make. If you’ve substituted your real life for a digital one, I guess it makes sense to rate a game according to how long you can divorce yourself from life by playing it. I say divorce and not ‘immerse’ or (the always favorite) ‘get lost in’ because that’s not what these games do and not what these gamers are after. I wouldn’t be writing this article if I got immersed or lost in these experiences. Games like RDR2 and Kingdom Come: Deliverance are profoundly boring art projects. This only becomes apparent, of course, if you’re A) not paid to say otherwise or B) don’t have such a wealth of unallocated free time available that you can afford to ride a horse across a mostly empty landscape for thirty minutes. These games don’t provide immersive experiences; they provide expansive simulations that are a mile wide and an inch deep.

Armed with narratives tacked on to make use of the environments and that would put an angsty teen to shame with their quality and emotional resonance, these games certainly don’t offer anything in the way of compelling plots or characters. And don’t get me started on the gameplay. If it isn’t so stilted and clunky that you’ll die from hitting a tree going slightly faster than a snail, they present beautifully designed combat systems that you will literally never use. Outside the tutorial and first hours of the game, I can count on one hand how many people I’ve fought in RDR2 and Kingdom Come that I did not deliberately seek out and pick fights with. “You always have to do this”, you might say. And I’d call you a sad, pedantic fuck.

Skyrim, a game that I very rarely have any cause to praise, is overflowing with enemies to fight and tasks to accomplish that aren’t boring as fuck. Sure, there’s a fair amount of ‘go to cave X and kill bandit Y’. But there’s also more than a few detailed quest lines associated with multiple dungeons at many different progress intervals in the game. The plethora of sidequests I’m currently treated to in Kingdom Come? Some shit about a wedding, courting a miller’s daughter, getting a horse for some dude, etc. I have a quest to go box some people and another to clear out a bandit camp, but I know from prior experience that this will be it for some time. There’s simply nothing to fucking do.

And why? “It’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal of life in the Middle Ages/Wild West,” is a common refrain. People died all the fucking time in both time periods. The Crusades were started to get all the shithead knights out of Europe because they were killing too many peasants. Banditry was rife. The history of the American West is filled with some of our only “legends”, filled with racism and ethnic cleansing though they may be. Things happened is my point. These reproductions play as though someone designed a giant, avant-garde extrapolation of the play No Exit. And, assuming it’s an accurate portrayal to create a giant extrapolation of No Exit, what the fuck is the point? My answer: to waste as much time as humanly possible in order to distract myself from my miserable kissless virgin existence.

Scene Geography

Where things are is almost as important as the things that are being said. Oftentimes it is enough to address objects or terrain or the layout of a structure as these are met by the character who is moving through them; sometimes, it is even necessary. Detailing the scene in sum before the characters have started moving through it can lead to the reader getting lost among all the corridors and rooms that the movement has not reached yet. Conversely, the same hiccup occurs if a writer does not efficaciously—if not succinctly—lay out one of those rooms or corridors in a manner conducive to the flow of the narrative and the movement of the characters. I like to call this “scene geography”, which I’m sure someone else has come up with in a much more thorough and technical style.

Usually it’s a slip of the mind, committed in the first draft and corrected in the second, but chances are if you’re reading this: you might not know yet to look for it. So let me do your work for you. Let me live your pain.

I’ve run into this a lot while going through some old drafts the past couple months, and it’s left me chock full of examples for this kind of thing. In my own work, it often happens in passing. I’ll be in the thick of some bit of exposition—describing the movement of a character through an alleyway, say—and suddenly something appears.

But not in the way that you might think. I don’t mean a thug pops out from behind the corner or a cat darts into the gutter. I mean the character opens a door that they were not said to be looking for and steps through, takes or searches for something from the gutter that wasn’t shown to be there, turns that undescribed corner at random and gets plowed with a club.

These are instances where the geography of the scene was not sufficiently solidified before the action in the scene took place. Instead, highlight the cat running into the gutter and then show the character searching for something in it. Show the character keeping an eye over his shoulder, hurrying for the corner, then getting clobbered for watching behind him when he should have been more careful about his blind escape.

Scene geography is all about giving precedent to action. Your precedents act as highlights for forthcoming action in the scene. I’m not advocating to give an exhaustive rundown of every item in the character’s vicinity. But if there’s a knife on the table that the character will momentarily be picking up to stab an intruder with, then show me the knife. Show me the money, in other words. Then put it in your mouth. I guess?

Update 03: I’m Still Here

I’ve just been away for a little while, don’t fret. Things are moving. The tires are rolling. Yeah, they might be bald and the brakes are shot. But, let me ask you something: who’s stopping?

I set a lofty goal for myself this new year, to write 1 short story each week. We’re almost 12 weeks in, folks, and I’m pleased to report that I’m 11 short stories in or thereabouts. Have I met my quota? No. Am I close? Of course. And that’s pretty awesome considering the massive retrograde force I’ve been facing with regards to mental health and job stress. I’ve been writing and reading and submitting – wash, rinse, and fucking repeat.

In short, this is just a little note to say: I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve just been busy, and needed to give you a little reminder not to step away before I’m finished. You’ll be missing some Grade A, quality bullshit. Be patient, for patience is a virtue. And in the meantime? Please enjoy this gem until I return. No but’s. On repeat. Until I’m back.

Destroying the Rock is Worth the Wrath of the Gods

Pretty much since the day after Donald Trump got elected there were already articles popping up about self care and taking time off from being mad about the state of the world. Leave alone the fact that most of these people – the writers and passionate consumers of these articles – are totally insulated from the effects of our failing economy and crumbling nation-state. Let’s you and I speak instead about the fact that no matter how many marches you scream through, protests you paint signs for, nasty takedowns you rhyme through a megaphone, the only thing you’re accomplishing is either a) fulfillment via self-indulgent rage or b) wearing yourself straight the fuck out without actually effecting any change.

The only times marching or protests have fundamentally changed society have been when things are so utterly terrible that even Tom, Dick, and Harry are rioting because they can’t feed their kids. That or a foreign government is sponsoring regime change for whatever cryptofascist reason is hot that year. Systemic change is rooted in systemic resistance. Either you fight to get your hands on the gears of the machine, or you destroy the machine entirely and build a new one. This is lost knowledge. We think if we yell loud enough, someone in the ivory tower will listen to us. To that I will say only this: would Marie Antoinette have kept her head if being able to hear the screams of the populace meant anything at all? I can yell, but you don’t have to listen.

Things change when they’re made to change, either through political will or temporal force. We get to choose which; but, at a certain point, the one loses its value to the other and – as yet – the conditions that prevail today are not those under which material force will be favourable to us. This idea of taking the high ground, of not debasing ourselves to the level our enemies, is not just muddied by conversations of false equivalency and faux moralisations. It lacks a basic and intrinsic understanding of revolutionary history and the failures of the philosophies that often guide leftist circles to account for material realities. We are too ready to exchange strength for moral cleanliness – a moral cleanliness that is debatable in its actuality, no less – and hesitate for too long to accept the brutal truths of the past and of the present. This trail we are following has already been blazed, and been found wanting.

History won’t remember the blood on your shirt, shed shouldering the blow. The chroniclers of our future, whether they be for or against us, will remember our efforts thus far as feckless at their worst and those of blowhards at best. If these same tricks were going to work, they would have worked in past decades when our numbers were greater and our veracity more self-assured. Instead, the language became coded and the powers at play softer. We were content that nothing was being shouted anymore, that there were ample rugs to sweep things under and most of us were doing alright. Most of us. Doing alright. Getting by.

Is that all we want? To have most of us just doing alright, again? To fight to only preserve our claim to the fixtures of a system that was designed for the purpose of quietly degenerating into oligarchy? Our world must be a new world, down to the foundations. The pillars must go, the streets must be torn up. Time is running out, the clock is ticking, and the sun might already be setting on the dawn.

And I, for one, have no desire to imagine Sisyphus happy.

End the Cycle of the Saga Chronicled by the Archive

Since the reintroduction and consequent explosion of the Lord of the Rings in the United States during the 1960’s, the vaunted trilogy is something that has haunted the genres of fantasy and science fiction. It became almost a rite of passage. You weren’t a serious practicer of the craft if you hadn’t a trilogy to your name or some other long-running series. Forget duologies, tetrologies, quintologies. It was three or as many as it took for you to die of natural causes a la Robert Jordan, then someone else steps in to finish your dirty work. How many narratives were structured – naturally or purposefully – by this unspoken rule, none can say. We may say with some certainty, however, that the trend has definitely shaped the market.

Historically an affectation of the fantasy genre, the trilogy has started to parasitize science fiction as that medium starts to take on more and more of the tropes of its cousin. Indeed, the genres themselves have seemed to start blending together and not in the healthy and interesting ways that lead to crazed tales of cybernetic trolls and spell-flinging bounty hunters. More than anything else, they’ve become conventional distillations of the all the worst elements of genre writing with the simple backdrop of this or that loosely-related piece of technologic or magical fabric. That’s a topic for another time, though. Right now, we’re talking cheap gimmicks and marketing strategies.

The structure has limped along through the years, surviving on waxing nostalgia for its place as a hallmark of the genre(s) and by changing its terminology. These days, you don’t see Trilogy much anymore. And, if you do, it’s something applied after the fact by critics or the community. No, more common are its failed offspring that are much more egregious for also being overwrought: Cycle, Chronicle, Archive, Saga, etc. In addition to this being a nice and cheap ploy to map out butcher-paper knockoffs, consistent repeats of the narratives we’ve been reading for 50 years, it’s also an easy way to grab an extra $30 off a prospective buyer. Some might just grab the first volume and call it a day, choosing not to continue with the tripe. But I’d be a rich man if I received the sticker price every time I heard or read someone detailing the experience of reading this or that trilogy in such starry-eyed language as “struggled through to the end; started the journey, so I might as well finish it; skipped over the boring stuff and the good parts were pretty entertaining”, and so on. You get the idea. It isn’t hard to miss.

Is this really the standard we want to hold ourselves to as readers and, dare I say it, writers? Is our time really so cheap that we can afford to throw hours and hours away on something we feel compelled to skip through? The answers should come easy. We all deserve good entertainment for our time and money. Let’s be honest: we only stand to gain when hacks are forced out of the medium and into some other corner of the creative tent. Give them a SyFy original series to ejaculate over the airwaves, if wasting our time is the height of their achievement. Throw them the doomed run of a sideline superhero to rehabilitate. Make them come back for more, if they want more. Make them prove they deserve the keys to the city and, for the love of God, make sure they don’t know the doorman.

%d bloggers like this: