Jul. 28th, 2014

elana: (squishy)
I was linked on Twitter to this very interesting video by Brendan Keogh, an Australian PhD student in Media & Communications, running analytical commentary on Call of Duty 4:

I'm most of the way through the first instalment, and I have "hm!"ed more times than I can count. I love his approach, and I love that he's made such astute and careful observations on this game. I really enjoyed this game when I played it, but it was when I was in undergrad and hadn't gained experience thinking about the types of questions that he answers here, i.e., how is this piece of media constructed to engage with you? All I knew was that the game was very effective at making me have strong feelings.

One of my favourite questions about video games (and objects in general, really) is how they relate to human agency. What he has pointed out about Call of Duty is very interesting, and sort of obvious, but in that profound way where once you see it, you can't un-see it. Call of Duty is a military first-person shooter whose mechanics and storytelling are predicated on the player following instructions at all times. That is so many layers delivering a message of obedience, of being a cog in a larger military machine, but not in a heavy-handed way: just premise, narrative and game mechanics reinforcing each other. It's just excellently done, when you appreciate it in that way.

I can almost see the video game industry as divided into two camps: Call of Duty providing its cultural trope-driven linear narratives where you jump behind the eyeballs of numerous faceless, voiceless protagonists and "play" as an "actor" (as Keogh puts it) in this scripted action film; and Bioware, whose games are completely about agency, about playing as an individual that you have personally constructed in every detail, and making difficult choices that shape the narrative as it goes.

It's amazing how much you can just not notice about design decisions while playing a game like Call of Duty. I remember almost every scene in the game—it is full of very memorable bits—and while I understood that I was switching between playable characters, I didn't really appreciate the way (and how often) the designers were literally flinging you across the world into different eyeballs, into different people. Some significant proportion of the time, these characters cannot control their environments in any way. On two occasions, they die. I didn't spare the time, while playing it, to think about what that really meant.

In discussion of other media that pass a snob-test to be categorized as 'art', we might talk about the artist's 'intent', or the richness of a work that leaves it open to many-layered interpretation. As an archaeologist, I always want to see every human-made thing receive its due analysis, from the most highly-valued intentional artwork to the humblest functional object. Video games deserve far more thought-time than they've received, because there is just so much intention that goes into the creation and consumption of them.

I love that this is a field of research. It makes me so happy. I hope that someday, my doctorate in art will give me license to ignore departmental lines and collaborate with people studying video games.
elana: (squishy)
I'm still working my way through Brendan Keogh's formal analysis of Call of Duty 4, and we're getting to the part where there's a downed helicopter needing rescue.

I really want to know if he says anything about the pilot being female. I don't remember if there are any other female voices in this entire game.

His analysis has been on a mostly formal level, with some nods to the really obvious cultural statements in the game (the way it hammers on Western technological superiority, racist vagueness about these "Middle Eastern" ethnicities) and pointing out some cool circularity in the game's relationship to realism, but I wonder if sexism is as difficult to talk about on the scholarly side of video games as it is on the industry side. Idealistically I'd say probably not, but sexism is not a non-problem even in anthropology departments. (Mine, of course, is a utopia, and I say this with absolutely no sarcasm, cross my heart.)

My memories of this game are several years old, but I think it's notable that the pilot is female. I have no idea if it's realistic to have this proportion of male to female soldiers in a war like this. Her dialogue (and delivery) is interesting, asserting her authority and skill. But then (as I recall) she needs to be rescued, which is an unfortunate trope for the sole female character.

I write this about 28 minutes into the following video:

I look forward to seeing where it goes.
elana: (squishy)
Brendan Keogh linked to a friend named Zolani Stewart who has been doing critical let's plays of Perfect Dark. He's even more formalistic in his approach, and from his language and observations, my brain immediately thought, "art critic!" Turns out that is what he calls himself in his bio.

It just makes me so happy to hear someone discuss stuff like use of space and the deliberate feeling of 'closeness' or 'openness' in level design, the way games can imply a living world outside the boundaries of the playable areas with locked doors, or settings whose layouts adhere to functions that are incongruous to the act of shooting and killing (office buildings, beach houses). I love that he took time to discuss the fence that was built into the Chicago level design to integrate the cutscene of the character's arrival, and that you can peer around the corner to see that the alleyway continues, implying the entirety of a complex urban landscape. He coined the term, "the Nintendo 64 aesthetic", to describe a look and feel that "prioritizes shapes over lighting effects" without making a value judgment based on technical shortcomings, so that he can talk about how the designers of Perfect Dark worked within that aesthetic to great effect.

This whole world of analytical discussion of video games is terribly exciting to me, if you couldn't tell. As an archaeologist, it sometimes seems like we get more permission to study something the older it is—which of course means the greatest loss of precious context and information. I'm excited to see this temporal collapse where other departments and fields have no compunctions about studying very contemporary things.

elana: (squishy)
I was just musing on how much I like the voice acting on Joanna Dark, protagonist of Perfect Dark. Her voice is quite beautiful, I think: elegant and delicate, uncompromisingly feminine. It's so pleasant to hear a gun-toting special agent in a video game be strong and skilled without needing to affect masculinity.

I looked up who did the voice and discovered that she is better known as a composer! She did the score for Donkey Kong Country!!

Is there a feminist who's who of the history of video games?
elana: (squishy)
Obviously I would do one of Mass Effect 2 & 3 (I don't feel as close to the first one). But then I would need a capture device and a lot of time and willingness. And also I don't think anyone would care or watch. The Call of Duty critical let's plays are interesting because those games have been so written off as jingoistic trash. The Perfect Dark ones are interesting because that game is a sort of historical artifact now. Mass Effect is still so closely contemporary and yet already excessively studied. I'm pretty sure it's already course material in university classes.

Really I don't need any more platforms to gush over how much I love the damn games.


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