What constitutes a video RPG? Is there any actual role-playing involved?
Our audio editor Tyler Hislop rejoins hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss those video games that are supposed to make you feel like you’re contributing to the story, that your choices matter, in which you can maybe, you know, choose to wear a funny hat or just craft potions all day instead of advancing the plot. We compare solo vs. social games, compare video to table-top role playing, think about how we relate to the character we’re playing, and more.
We touch on Ultima, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Horizon Zero Dawn, Skyrim, Fallout, Outward, Death Stranding, Erica, Hellblade: Sakura’s Sacrifice, The Witcher, and more. Also from TV: Bandersnatch, The Guild, and that D&D Key & Peele sketch.
Erica Spyres, Brian Hirt, and Mark Linsenmayer are joined by Ian Maio (who worked for marketing for IGN and Turner in e‑sports) for our first discussion about gaming. Do adults have any business playing video games? Should you feel guilty about your video game habits?
Ian gives us the lay of the land about e‑sports, comparing it to physical sports, and we discuss the changing social functions of gaming, alleged and actual gaming disorders, different types of gamers, inclusivity, and more. Whether you game a lot or not at all, you should still find something interesting here.
We touch on the King of Kong documentary, Grand Theft Auto, Overwatch, The Last of Us, Borderlands, Super Mario, Cuphead, NY Times Electronic Crossword Puzzle, and more. Be sure to watch the Black Mirror episode, “Striking Vipers.”
David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Black Lodge/Red Room, the extra-dimensional space that is both an integral part of Twin Peaks and iconic in its set design, is a place most of us would not want to visit. Detective Dale Cooper got trapped there for 25 years and it was not pleasant. But that hasn’t stopped fans from wanting to create that space any chance they get, whether as a bar or place to sing karaoke. And when the final episode of the second season showed the lodge was an endless series of rooms connected by hallways, it wasn’t long until the video game versions started appearing.
Well, now you can really get lost in the Black Lodge with the slow unveiling of Twin Peaks VR, which AdWeek says will be available “sometime in 2019” on Steam for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Fans who follow the Welcome to Twin Peaks blog have been hearing about this game/not game since the beginning of the year, but it seems that the footage out there was only proof of concept graphics or some such attempt.
The first video dropped in January of 2018, and it’s er, something:
No doubt made by fans, this gives us a brief visit to the Red Room; a very strange and not particularly flattering portrayal of the Man from Another Place; a trip to the RR Diner featuring what I assume is Major Briggs; and a return to the frightening glass box somewhere in New York City first seen in The Return. The man playing the VR seems appropriately confused. “Is it future or past?” It’s your living room, man!
This second clip gives us a bit more of the Red Room and a dubious looking Audrey Horne. The Convenience Store, however, is well done.
But this is, we stress, nowhere near a finished version. It’s not even clear if any of this will make it into the final version.
A beta version premiered two weeks ago at Lynch’s Festival of Disruption in Los Angeles. AdWeek had the only real description of the five minute demo, which starts near the ring of saplings in Glastonbury Grove:
Immediately after the pool turns to blood, viewers are transported to the Red Room, an extra-dimensional space that’s been a key feature of Twin Peaks in both the original series from the 1990s and the modern revival that aired last year. (It’s also a location frequently visited by the show’s main character, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper.) Inside the room, viewers aren’t able to walk like they can in some VR experiences, but they’re able to teleport within the room as it rapidly changes in ways similar to what happens in the show itself. (One moment, a statue falls over before running around as a shadow on the other side of a curtain. In another, users can pick up a coffee mug that won’t empty until the second time it’s picked up.) The demo ends as a white horse appears in the room in the distance, surrounded in darkness but unreachable.
The best news is that the company developing the game, Collider Games, is giving creative control to Lynch, so hopefully the game won’t be like those terrible non-Lynch episodes in Season Two. Says AdWeek:
“[T]he more we show, and the more we progress with this development, hopefully the more [Lynch] will want to be involved,” Rassool said. “And the more we can do with maybe even some new narrative—because I’m not going to write new narrative for this. I’m only ever going to let David Lynch [write].”
Here’s to hoping Lynch doesn’t just give us a cheap VR version of what we’ve already seen. Instead, let’s hope he gives us something that blows our minds (and a reason to finally buy a VR headset).
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
If you haven’t played video games in a long time, you might feel a certain trepidation at the idea of picking them up again. So rapidly have they evolved in the 21st century that they now resemble less the electronic entertainments we once knew than full-fledged alternate realities. The sudden rise of the word immersive to describe the very kind of experiences they constitute says it all. If you enter one of the elaborate worlds built by modern video game developers, how do you extract yourself again — especially if the world is one as fascinating as ancient Greece, recreated elaborately and to great acclaim in this year’s Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey?
Even non-gamers will have heard of the Assassin’s Creed series, which began in 2007 and has had a major release (in addition to as many minor ones, as well as ventures into other media) each and every year since. It has previously taken as its settings such chapters of human history as Victorian England, the Italian Renaissance, and Ptolemaic Egypt, but its latest installment goes farther back in time than any other. Players will find themselves dropped “into 431 BCE in Ancient Greece, at the start of the Peloponnesian War predominantly fought between Athens and Sparta,” writes Hyperallergic’s Zachary Small. “For a video game that includes bloody mercenaries, extraterrestrial beings, and time travel, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is shockingly faithful to our contemporary historical understanding of what Ancient Greece looked like during its golden age.”
The very idea might startle those of us who remember the settings of video games as perfunctory at best, mere backgrounds to run past while we blasted enemies, jumped from platform to platform, and collected power-ups. Assassin’s Creed takes its historical world-building so seriously that the previous game in the series, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, even came with an “educational mode” that allowed players to freely explore ancient Egypt — a far cry indeed from the dull, purpose-built educational games of yore. But Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey takes it to another level, incorporating seemingly everything known about ancient Greece at the time of its development. “The Ubisoft development team behind the game even hired a historical advisor to help them recreate a meticulous version of the Ancient World,” writes Small, “one that includes hundreds of polychromatic statues, temples, and tombs.”
Though nobody claims that the game recreates ancient Greece perfectly in every detail — even apart from the gaps in human knowledge of the period, the developers seem to have had to cut a corner here and there to meet the series’ famously demanding release schedule — it succeeds in ways that no one Hellenically inclined, professionally or otherwise, had dared hope before. “I have played about 5 minutes of the game and I’m ready to cry from joy,” tweeted classicist Christine Plastow, a sentiment one can hardly imagine any academic expressing about, say, Golden Axe.
Once we could hardly imagine such things as video games. Then, all of a sudden, they appeared, though for years we had to go out to bars — and later, purpose-built “arcades” filled with video game machines — in order to play them, and we paid money to do so. When they came into our homes in the form of consoles we could hook up to our television sets, we at first felt only disappointment: these versions of Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Defender neither looked nor felt much like the originals into which we’d pumped so many coins. But only now that the technology in our homes has long since surpassed most of the technology outside them can we play faithful reproductions of all our old favorite games without going out to the arcade.
Not that many arcades still stand, although the Internet Archive has made up for that absence by building the Internet Arcade, which we previously featured here on Open Culture a few years ago. Having made it possible for us to play an enormous variety of classic arcade games free in our web browsers, the Internet Archive looks on its way to creating not just the largest arcade in existence but an infinite arcade, the kind that Borges would have imagined had he grown up in the video-game age. Just last week, developments in the software that powers it allowed Internet Archive to add more than a thousand new machines to the Internet Arcade, from games for which we had to wait in line back in the day to obscurities on which few of us have ever even laid eyes, let alone hands, before.
“The majority of these newly-available games date to the 1990s and early 2000s, as arcade machines both became significantly more complicated and graphically rich,” writes the Internet Archive’s Jason Scott, “while also suffering from the ever-present and home-based video game consoles that would come to dominate gaming to the present day. Even fervent gamers might have missed some of these arcade machines when they were in the physical world, due to lower distribution numbers and shorter times on the floor.” You can explore the new wing of the Internet Arcade here, some of whose most popular games include Puzzle Bobble (better known in the West as Bust-a-Move),X‑Men, Metal Slug 5, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, and Street Fighter Alpha 2. Maybe their sound and graphics no longer wow us as once they did, but the years have done nothing to diminish their fun factor — and for many of us, not having to spend our quarters will always be a feeling to savor.
Equipped with smartphones that grow more powerful by the year, gamers on the go now have a seemingly unlimited variety of playing options. A decade ago they relied on handheld game consoles with their thousands of available game cartridges and later discs, whose reign began with Nintendo’s introduction of the original Game Boy (a device whose unwrapping on Christmas 1990 remains one of my most vivid childhood memories). But even before the Game Boy and its successors, there were standalone handheld proto-video-games, “LCD, VFD and LED-based machines that sold, often cheaply, at toy stores and booths over the decades.”
“They are, of course, entertaining in themselves – these are attempts to put together inexpensive versions of video games of the time, or bringing new properties wholecloth into existence.” They also “represent the difficulty ahead for many aspects of digital entertainment, and as such are worth experiencing and understanding for that reason alone.”
So as you play, spare a thought for the developers of these handheld games, not just because of the dire intellectual property they often had to work with, but the severe technological restrictions they invariably had to work under. “This sort of Herculean effort to squeeze a major arcade machine into a handful of circuits and a beeping, booping shell of what it once was is an ongoing situation,” writes Scott. “Where once it was trying to make arcade machines work both on home consoles like the 2600 and Colecovision, so it was also the case of these plastic toy games. Work of this sort continues, as mobile games take charge and developers often work to bring huge immersive experiences to where a phone hits all the same notes.” And the day will certainly come when even the most impressive games we play now, handheld or otherwise, will seem just as hilariously simplistic.
The intersection of mathematics and art holds out great potential for not just endless discoveries but deeply memorable creations. The 20th-century visionary M.C. Escher understood that, but so did the Islamic artists of centuries before that inspired him. They’ve also inspired the Iranian game developer Mahdi Bahrami, whose newest effort Engare stands at the cross of mathematics, art, and technology, a puzzle video game that challenges its players to complete the kind of brilliantly colorful, mathematically rigorous, and at once both strikingly simple and strikingly complex patterns seen in traditional Islamic art and design.
“The leap from the bare bones prototype to it becoming a game about creating art was a small one, given that Islamic art is steeped in mathematical knowledge,” writes Kill Screen’s Chris Priestman.
“The visual flair of Islamic art also helps to further ensure that Engare doesn’t ever feel ‘dry.’ Yes, it’s a game about math, but there are no dull equations to solve. Yet, the same ideas that those equations belong to are approached in Engare, just from a different angle and one that Bahrami reckons can also evoke emotions. You can see this in mesmerizing action in the gameplay trailer just above.
“There are geometrical shapes that make us feel happy, patterns that make someone nervous/hypnotized, the tiling of a ceiling can make someone feel lonely,” Priestman quotes Bahrami as writing. He’s done this sort of emotional thinking about visual mathematics before: his previous game Farsh “had you rolling out Persian carpets in such a way as to create paths across the levels,” and his next one Tandis is “inspired by Celtic shapes, and is a wild and unpredictable experiment in topographical transformation.” If you’d like to give Engare a try, you can get it from its website or on Steam. When the 21st century’s M.C. Escher discovers Islamic art, will he do it through the medium of video games?
Video games have long attempted, to an ever more impressive degree of realism, to conjure up their own virtual realities. But then, so have filmmakers, for a much longer period of time and — at least so far — with more effective results. The most respected directors fully realize “virtual reality” with each film they make, and Stanley Kubrick stands as one of the best-known examples. During his almost fifty-year career, he immersed his audience in such distinctive cinematic worlds as those of Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket, leaving us in 1999 with the final, much puzzled-over feature Eyes Wide Shut.
The atmospherically uneasy story of a doctor who spends a night in New York City wandering into ever stranger and more erotically charged situations, Eyes Wide Shut both adapted material not well known in America, the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella “Dream Story,” and starred two of the biggest celebrities of the day, the then-married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman playing the married couple Bill and and Alice Harford. Kubrick made use of these qualities and many others to deal with such traditional subjects as love, sex, infidelity, and secret cults while, in the words of Evan Puschak, better known as the video essayist Nerdwriter, “making our engagement with these things one-of-a-kind.”
“Reviewers complained that the Harfords were ciphers, uncomplicated and dull,” writes Tim Kreider in “Introducing Sociology,” his much-cited breakdown of Eyes Wide Shut. “These reactions recall the befuddlement of critics who complained that the computer in 2001 was more human than the astronauts, but could only attribute it (just four years after the unforgettable performances of Dr. Strangelove) to human error.” He argues that “to understand a film by this most thoughtful and painstaking of filmmakers, we should assume that this characterization is deliberate — that their shallowness and repression is the point.”
Puschak’s video essay “Eyes Wide Shut: The Game” names those qualities, especially as they manifest in Cruise’s protagonist, as among the techniques Kubrick uses to make the movie a kind of virtual reality experience for the viewer. “You’re experiencing the night from the perspective of Bill, but not from a position of empathy — or even sympathy for that matter. Instead, the viewer engages in what philosopher Alessandro Giovannelli calls ‘experiential identification,’ in which the result of occupying Bill’s perspective while not empathizing with him is that the perspective becomes your own.”
What Kreider sees as ultimately part of Eyes Wide Shut’s indictment of “the capital of the global American empire at the end of the American Century,” Puschak interprets as Kubrick’s “systematic effort to swap you in for the protagonist” in service of “an ode to the experience, to the raw impression, of seeing something marvelous.” But both viewers would surely agree that Kubrick, to a greater extent than perhaps any other filmmaker, made something more than movies. One might say he crafted experiences for his audience, and in the truest sense of the word: like experiences in real life, and unlike the experiences of so many video games, they allow for an infinitude of valid interpretations.
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