zeropunct

Zero Punctuation: The Lester Bangs of Video Gaming

Way, way back in 2006, in the esteemed pages of Esquire magazine, Mr. Chuck Klosterman threw down the following journalistic gauntlet: “there is no Lester Bangs of video game writing.”

In a footnote to a later version of the same article, he fell all over himself qualifying that statement, noting that “Whenever someone wants to bemoan the state of pop criticism they immediately try to exhume Bangs’ mildly overrated corpse, and I dislike that tendency as much as everybody else”. Despite his annoying lack of the courage of his own convictions, though, Klosterman’s larger point remains salient.

We all know that video games have become a major arena of cultural production, significant enough that they’re pooching vast swaths of attention from the hoary old film and TV industries. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting either an aging academic vainly trying to keep in touch with what the kids are doing these days (present company included) or a blogger shilling for freebies from the industry who’s producing writing about video games. But: why hasn’t a gaming critic emerged who’s capable of becoming what Klosterman calls “the idiom’s definitive voice for the mainstream world”?

When I think of exemplary rock critics, in addition to Bangs and Klosterman himself, Greil Marcus, Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Christgau, Michael Bracewell, Martin Popoff and Chuck Eddy all come to mind. So: if we were to grind these scribes up in a blender and then use a cyclotron to extract the messy essence of rock journalist goodness to inject into a hitherto unfertilized video game critic embryo, what would that look like? Well, there’d be intelligence, insight, obsessiveness, and a remarkable facility with profanity.

Also? I suspect that the resulting person would be (or at least would appear to be, by virtue of their public persona) an asshole. I’m not sure why, exactly, but in an essay called “How to be a Rock Critic & Here’s How,” Bangs presents a convincing hypothesis:

Maybe most critics are pompous assholes, but rock critics are especially — because they’re working in virgin territory, where there’s absolutely no recognized, generally agreed on authority or standards. Nor should there be. Anything goes, so fake ’em out every chance you get. Rock ‘n’ roll’s basically just a bunch of garbage in the first place, it’s noise, it’s here today and gone tomorrow, so the only thing that can possibly trip you up is if you begin to reflect that if the music’s that trivial, can you imagine how trivial what you’re doing is?

Which actually is a good attitude to operate from, because it helps keep the pomposity factor in check. Half the rock critics in the country, no, 90% of the rock critics in the world have some grand theory they’re trying to lay on each other and everybody else, which they insist explains everything in musical history and ties up all the loose ends. Every last one of ’em has a different theory and every last one of the theories is total bullshit, but you might as well have one as part of your baggage if you’re going to pass.

In 2009, the Prophesied One finally appeared in the form of an Australian-dwelling British game designer and writer. His name, which is almost as unlikely as “Lester Bangs”, is Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, his bailiwick is an online video series called “Zero Punctuation,” and, yes, he’s kind of an asshole. In the best possible way.

Like most of us nerds, Croshaw was watching a lot of YouTube videos in 2006. It occurred to him that it might be interesting to make a video using only still pictograms accompanied by a voiceover. In July 2007, Croshaw uploaded his first two videos to YouTube, one reviewing The Darkness demo for PlayStation 3, the other, Fable: the Lost Chapters for PC/XBox. Video game site The Escapist quickly offered Croshaw an online home, and Croshaw returned the favour by quadrupling the traffic to the site.

Croshaw claims that the breathless, acerbic speedfreak delivery which gives “Zero Punctuation” its name (and, to my mind, hearkens back to Lester Bangs’ all-exclamation tour-de-force essay “Sham 69 is Innocent!”) was an accident. Like Christian Bök (another virtuoso of verbal velocity) always says, the best performers make their liabilities into their assets. Croshaw has done just that, shaping a lumpy grab bag of eccentricities into a personal aesthetic that is, as Bangs might say, pure punk.

Machine-gun delivery aside, Croshaw’s prose is funny and trenchant, enough so that a small army of devotees has been diligently transcribing the “Zero Punctuation” monologues onto a wiki, line by line. The review of Valve’s instant classic cooperative shooter Left 4 Dead, for example, begins “It’s my observation that zombies are second only to ninjas, pirates and monkeys in the list of things nerds like and need to shut the fuck up about.” ‘Nuff said.

The illustration style of “Zero Punctuation” (basically a series of stills) also transforms what might be a liability in lesser hands into an asset. First, the relatively static quality of the images creates the illusion that the monologue is faster than it actually is. Second, as animating the monologues is incredibly time-intensive, using a series of stills is likely part of what makes it possible to produce each new episode in a timely fashion. Third, as Scott McCloud has argued convincingly, verisimilitude in cartooning is fine, but it isn’t always either necessary or desirable. What matters is the creation of a tiny, consistent world with its own logic … a logic that is capable of both parodying real events and creating compelling narratives of its own. I’ll take Rocky and Bullwinkle over highly rendered anime jailbait any day of the week.

Croshaw’s reviews also regularly and reliably perform the two actions that Klosterman finds lacking in most video game reviews. “Zero Punctuation” not only explains what playing a given game feels like; it also provides some context about what a given game means in a context that’s larger than the workings of the game itself. The following comes from the “Zero Punctuation” review of Double Fine’s Psychonauts, a game much beloved by critics but not particularly coveted by actual consumers:

Psychonauts seems like a rather polarizing game in that some people seem to think it’s the kind of thing Jesus would make if he was alive and wasn’t a pussy and some other people feel it’s a chunky vomit milkshake severely overhyped by the people in party A. Which group you’ll fall into depends on whether you’re the kind of misty-eyed games-are-art hippie who can allow things like excellent storytelling and charming artistic direction (excusing a few gameplay issues) or if you’re the kind of twitching Ritalin-popping XBox owner who falls into a narcoleptic coma when they go without killing something for forty-five seconds.

The larger point here is that it’s not just video games that have room to grow beyond their current promising but underachieving stage. Game criticism too can aspire to be something other than a peer-reviewed essay or glorified advertising copy. As Klosterman concludes, “If nobody ever thinks about these games in a manner that’s human and metaphorical and contextual, they’ll all become strictly commodities, and then they’ll all become boring. They’ll only be games.”

The reason that we need to think about this issue is that, as with rock music beforehand, no one who ever began playing video games has ever really stopped. As the demographic for video games continues to broaden, we’ll need as many ways to think and write about them as possible. If we straight white guys weren’t so good at being pompous assholes, it’d all happen a lot faster.

Originally published as “Alienated 13: Zero Punctuation,” in Matrix, spring 2009.

uncanny

Adventures in the Uncanny Valley

On November 19, 2008, Microsoft relaunched the XBox Live Network with a brand-new (bearing in mind that with Microsoft, new is always a relative state of mind) avatar-based interface, and the XBox-based portion of my online identity received an extreme makeover.

“Your avatar,” writes Microsoft, “is your game face throughout the New Xbox Experience and represents your personality, whether you are serving as an Xbox LIVE Party host, playing a game of Scene It?® Box Office Smash, or chatting with a friend.” Never mind that I liked the Blades interface better; it’s gone like a Spice Girls lunchbox is gone. So let’s come to grips with the notion that an ostensibly adorable, vaguely asexual and notably creepy digital puppet now “represents my personality.”

As the pictures above (snapped off my TV) demonstrate, the best that the XBox avatar construction kit can do is to make me look like a virtual Pinocchio. Like the original, pre-Disney wooden boy, who was, by all accounts, kind of an asshole, this Mini-Me is not particularly pleasant. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this little avatar is a full-fledged citizen of the uncanny valley.

First postulated by Masahiro Mori in 1970, the Uncanny Valley is an hypothesis about what happens to human emotional response as robots become increasingly lifelike in appearance. For Mori, our positive emotional response to anthropormorphism peaks just before resemblance to the human becomes accurate — with stuffed animals and Wall-E, for example. After that point, though, as resemblance becomes stronger, there’s a noticeable change in perception. Revulsion sets in as machines become too lifelike. If you graph this relationship, the fall-off in positive emotional response to increasingly lifelike machines forms a trough, i.e. the aforementioned Uncanny Valley. As Slavoj Žižek has noted, too much life is a bad thing — the Uncanny Valley is populated with zombies, vampires, Terminators and other nightmares that have no business being alive. The little monster capering around my XBox interface is no exception.

Evidently, though, Microsoft is successfully backfilling the more worrisome trenches of the Uncanny Valley and tamping it all down nice and smooth. Gamasutra reported in early December that since the launch of the New XBox Live Experience, sales have tripled. In paricular, the game A Kingdom for Keflings, one of the first games that gives you the choice of playing as your avatar, registered the second-best debut performance ever on the service.

Other than the blatant attempt to pooch Nintendo’s look and feel in the interest of interpellating you directly into the XBox brand instead of relying on external (possibly unlicensed!) products to establish your sense of subjectivity, I can see little rationale for the new XBox avatars. Mimetic realism in video games has no relationship to fun; in most cases, it usually inhibits playability. The recent reemergence of classic arcade games like Tempest, Missile Command and Galaga, usually in both “classic” and “rebooted” form, plus the astonishing success of the Geometry Wars (“Retro Evolved”) franchise, feels like a lesson that’s been entirely lost.

Mimesis in video games seems to culminate with two highly rendered figures hammering away at each other in a close-quarters, button-mashing frenzy (viz. Soul Calibur IV or any other descendants of Street Fighter). In other words, when the emphasis falls on rendering rather than gameplay, the experience of a virtual world narrows down to a bloody ring drawn on the floor of an arena. Or, alternatively, it might be an alien hooch-club stage populated entirely by dancing penis monsters, which is amusing in the short term, but ultimately just as tedious.

I’m not advocating a return to Pong, mind you. You’ll have to pry my copy of The Orange Box out of my cold, dead fingers. But I would like to leave a little something about the way I present myself to the imagination. Why can’t I be a robot, a bug, a fish, a superintelligent shade of the colour blue? The easiest way to do that is with a humble, two-dimensional portrait in the corner of the screen.

Jonathan Coulton

Jonathan Coulton: Blinded with Aperture Science

Marshall McLuhan was fond of observing that the content of a new medium is always an older medium. He would likely have taken a certain amount of satisfaction out of the notion that the job of popular music in 2008 is largely to serve as the content for cell phones and video game consoles. Legal downloads of digital songs from the iTunes Store alone outsell most traditional record stores. Downloads of ring tones for cellular phones regularly outsell the singles on which they’re based.

Yesterday’s major musical dinosaurs (we’re talking about you, Axl) pin their comeback hopes on the exclusive launch of new singles in video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. How will the hordes of bespectacled, androgynous Jesus-looking indie rock boys staring back at us from their MySpace pages cope in such a harsh, unforgiving market-driven digital realm? In the words of Jonathan Coulton, you just keep on trying till you run out of cake.

Last year, Coulton wrote “Still Alive,” sometimes called “The Portal Song,” the near-perfect end credit theme for Valve Corporation’s near-perfect video game Portal. The lyrics are only a fraction of the story, but here they are, as they appear in Portal‘s old-school ASCII credits:

This was a triumph.
I’m making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS.
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.
Aperture Science
We do what we must
because we can.
For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.
But there’s no sense crying over every mistake.
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake.
And the Science gets done.
And you make a neat gun.
For the people who are still alive.
I’m not even angry.
I’m being so sincere right now.
Even though you broke my heart.
And killed me.
And tore me to pieces.
And threw every piece into a fire.
As they burned it hurt because I was so happy for you!
Now these points of data make a beautiful line.
And we’re out of beta.
We’re releasing on time.
So I’m GLaD. I got burned.
Think of all the things we learned
for the people who are still alive.
Go ahead and leave me.
I think I prefer to stay inside.
Maybe you’ll find someone else to help you.
Maybe Black Mesa
THAT WAS A JOKE.
HAHA. FAT CHANCE.
Anyway, this cake is great.
It’s so delicious and moist.
Look at me still talking
when there’s Science to do.
When I look out there, it makes me GLaD I’m not you.
I’ve experiments to run.
There is research to be done.
On the people who are still alive.
And believe me I am still alive.
I’m doing Science and I’m still alive.
I feel FANTASTIC and I’m still alive.
While you’re dying I’ll be still alive.
And when you’re dead I will be still alive.
STILL ALIVE

For those who somehow missed the chance to experience Portal, despite its availability for PC, PS3 and XBox 360, this is how it works: you play a cyborg test subject attempting to navigate, and eventually escape from, a series of fiendish puzzle rooms housed in an abandoned scientific complex controlled by (what else?) an insane computer. Your only tool is the Portal Gun, a device which temporarily connects two surfaces via an extra-dimensional tunnel, allowing you to access locations in the complex that would otherwise be inaccessible. Throughout the game, the computer coaxes you onward with the promise of a party at the end of the tests, complete with moist, delicious cake. About the time that you discover the phrase “The cake is a lie” scrawled in blood in one of the darker corners of the complex, you begin to have some serious misgivings about your situation.[/box]

Portal is a sophisticated implementation of gameplay ideas that first appeared in a 2005 video game by Nuclear Monkey Software called Narbacular Drop. Created by students from the DigiPen Institute of Technology, it featured as its central character a princess without any knees who therefore couldn’t jump (I’m not making this up) and thus had to escape her imprisonment in a dungeon by dropping through a series of magical portals. As in Portal itself, gameplay in Narbacular Drop often requires the player to carry a crate along with them through the dungeon. Released as a free download, Narbacular Drop won a slew of industry awards and still has a loyal audience who develop and post custom maps for it. Significantly (if only for the purposes of ending this digression into the ubergeeky subfield of video game history), the success of Narbacular Drop also resulted in its entire development team being hired by Valve.

A former barista and software programmer, Coulton’s music has always skewed significantly toward nerd topics, as song titles like “The Mandelbrot Set,” “Todd the T1000” and “Flickr” make abundantly clear. At one point, Popular Science magazine even made him their Contributing Troubadour. In 2006, Coulton was tapped to write the Portal theme after playing a show in Seattle that had Kim Swift (one of the members of the original Narbacular Drop team) and several other Valve developers in the audience. After sitting down with Erik Wolpaw, who wrote Portal (as well as dialogue for Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and the amazing Psychonauts), Coulton came up with results so impressive that Wolpaw subsequently told a reporter from MTV’s Multiplayer blog that “We had a choice between [Coulton] and Ben Folds and we feel we made the right choice.” A bold assessment, considering Ben Folds made an album with Captain James T. Fucking Kirk himself.

Even separate from he remarkable circumstances of its production and circulation, though, “Still Alive” is a pretty solid pop song. Written from the perspective of the insane computer, then sung by Ellen McLean, the voice actor who plays the character in the game, Still Alive” is pushed into the Uncanny Valley (the nebulous interzone between people pretending to be machines and machines pretending to be people) by just the faintest hint of computer processing. The final version has a foreboding quality similar to the Cardigans’ cover version of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” If I had to really pin it down, I’d say it’s a lot like listening to a battery-powered Cabbage Patch Doll singing a little nursery rhyme about how it’s going to kick the shit out of you.

Since its release, “Still Alive” has become the most famous piece of music to emerge from the world of gaming since the Super Mario Bros. theme. As of this writing, the version of the Portal end credit sequence on YouTube has had 2,065,375 viewings. The acoustic version of the song, performed by Coulton himself, boasts over half a million views. YouTube also hosts a slew of cover versions of “Still Alive,” including one sung in Japanese, one played on classical piano, one played on an 8080 computer, and another in Mario Paint Composer, which has received almost as many viewings as Coulton’s own version (remember what I said earlier about ringtones?).

Like any proper postmodern cultural narrative, this one inevitably ends up consuming its own entrails. On April 1, 2008, Harmonix, MTV Games and Valve released “Still Alive” as a free download for Rock Band. If you spend a little time browsing through the YouTube video covers of the song, you’ll eventually find footage of Coulton and his touring band doing “Still Alive” on their XBox as an encore. The bar separating guitar heroes from Guitar Heroes just got a little bit lower. I wonder if Axl will make it over the top?

external links

Portal homepage

Jonathan Coulton homepage

Portal credits with “Still Alive” on YouTube

Originally published as “Alienated 11: Blinded with Aperture Science” in Matrix 81 (fall 2008): 46-47.

brown_zombies

Zombie Parables

We all know it but someone has to say it: zombies are the new vampires.

Vampires had a lovely sort of fin-de-siècle decadence about them that perfectly suited the mood of the late 20th century. Rising gas prices, the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism, neo-liberal pundits running the world markets into the ground with all of their dot-com bullshit about a “weightless economy,” 9/11 looming on the horizon, boy bands … the party was coming to an end, and, deep down inside, everyone knew it. So why not emulate the monster most likely to eat the other guests (and do so with a modicum of style, at that)?

Style exacts a stiff price, though, even among the undead. Pancake makeup takes a long-ass time to apply smoothly, and all of that black leather, velvet and lace is expensive, heavy and difficult to launder. This is the real reason that the only people interested in dating vampires and their gloomy kissing cousins, the goths, were other vampires and goths: vampires are the ultimate in high-maintenance girlfriends. By the time the beautiful and spooky actually finish dressing and are ready for a night on the town, most of us are pretty much looking for breakfast.

Enter the zombie: the ultimate low-maintenance monster. Crumbling, shambling, moaning, driven only by the neverending search for more brains to consume, the zombie has become the cultural mascot of the early 21st century.

Why? I think it has a lot to do with the failure of our collective longing for transcendence to actually pay off in any sort of immediate and gratifying way. Vampires were symptomatic of a massive cultural delusion that it was possible to escape the inevitable aging and crumbling of the flesh, to be young and beautiful forever. Cyberpunk fantasies about escaping the meat by uploading one’s consciousness into the antiseptic infinity of cyberspace were just a chrome-dipped retelling of the same old story.

Zombies, though, are a walking (okay, shuffling) reminder of the inescapability of decay. You can try to break the shackles of the physical, to rise above the meat all you want, but your mindless, rotting body will catch up with you eventually. This is the horror of the slow zombie: it never ceases to remind you that at some point, you will tire, and it will not. And then, of course, you’re fucked.

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I spent a lot of time (too much time) last year mulling over the problem of fast zombies, when I could have been thinking about other important matters, like, um, the environment. With the introduction of horror video games and their movie spinoffs (Resident Evil being a case in point), all of a sudden, zombies came in two flavours, and the first question that you as a viewer had to ask yourself when renting a new zombie movie was, what kind of zombie were you dealing with? Fast, slow, or, worst of all, the dialectical resolution of the two — zombies that *seem* slow until you let your guard down and they actually turn out to be fast?

My working theory is that fast zombies are actually a kind of hybrid: equal parts zombie and Frankensteinian flesh re-animated with the aid of the very technology that confounds and frightens us on a regular basis. The zombie Dobermans from Resident Evil are a case in point: if you missed the news, evil US Army biology nerds have actually been able to make those since 2005. Take a puppy that’s been dead less than three hours, pump it full of ice-cold salt solution, then give it a blood transfusion and a little electro-shock, and you’ve got a zombie Frankendog that is fully capable of chasing Milla Jovovich in her little red minidress across the empty post-apocalyptic landscape (it should not surprise anyone that the empty post-apocalyptic landscape is, inevitably, Toronto).

The loveable video-game playing zombie chained in the shed at the end of Shaun of the Dead is the closest thing that I’ve seen to a domestication of the fast zombie. If your XBox skills are so poor that you need to have a zombie n00b as a punching bag, your sorry ass deserves to be eaten.

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Zombies are, by their very nature, parodic. And yet all too often, businesses and cultural institutions seem to think that they can simply guarantee their own hipness by dropping a zombie or two into their product line without stopping to consider the unsavoury connotations that associating themselves with the living dead might create.

In the latest in a series of what can only be described as spectacularly bad advertising campaign decisions, the City of Toronto’s Live with Culture program has commissioned indie cartoonist Chester Brown to draw a series of strips about a lonely zombie who actually appreciates going to art galleries, bookstores and movies more than eating brains. You can get the whole thing on the City of Toronto’s website as a webcomic.

It’s pretty great, crammed full of all sorts of nasty in-jokes. In one episode, the zombie and his girlfriend go to the Royal for a screening of Bruce McDonald’s never-completed adaptation of Brown’s Yummy Fur (Ed the Happy Clown). Onscreen, the characters are alluding to the fact that Ronald Reagan’s head has been grafted to the end of Ed the Happy Clown’s penis … which is actually kind of awesome, when you consider that three separate levels of government have just paid for you to see that.

A little more problematic is the fact that this selfsame advertising campaign positions you, the citizen “living” (even “living dead”) with culture, as a damned soulless corpse whose only possible redemption lies in the wonderful events and artifacts that our various government granting bodies choose, in their beneficence, to fund. Really, though, they’re just being honest: as I mentioned at the start of this messy little series of meditations, our monsters are us.

Besides, if I have to choose between whether my tax dollars go toward the creation of spiteful, insulting little funnybook narratives that infer that I’m some sort of ghoulish parody of a human being, or yet another magic realist novel about mother-daughter relationships and the painful wisdom of growing old, I’ll take the zombies every time, thanks.

First published as “Alienated 9: Zombie Parables.” Matrix 79 (spring 2008): 52-53.