Archive for November, 2011

Let it be known that I, Scott Alexander, am very excited about that fact that Serious Sam 3 has finally arrived. I am excited because I like to shoot hordes of teeming, ugly monsters with a credulity-straining arsenal that I apparently carry around invisibly. I am excited because I like the idea that I can wear a t-shirt into battle and never take cover. I am excited because I prefer picking up health packs instead of recharging my health through the magic of cowering from the enemy.

But the reason I’m most excited is that I wrote the script for this magnificently old-school lump of awesome. Which, of course, means I’m ever so slightly completely biased about it.

Now I am well aware that a good 98% this game consists of putting large amounts ammunition into large, fast monsters rather than having thoughtful, discursive dialogue with them about their interior lives, but in those few places where dialogue occurs, it is mine own. I cannot claim credit for the gameplay loop, the graphics or anything even resembling programming. What I did do was go toZagreband eat sausages and drink rakia and come up with crazy-ass plotlines and have Skype meetings in the middle of the night and try to please the crazy geniuses who made the original Sam games. I also threw some jokes in there that made me giggle like an 11 year-old in health class. I adored the original games in this series, and the chance to work on a new one, almost 10 years later, was an incredible thrill. The Croteam office is a truly unique and very special place, and it was a real privilege to see how they work up close. So now, I get to play a game I actually worked on. I’m just a little excited. I got involved in the game after working on some movie scripts with Mike Wilson, formerly of id, formerly of Gathering of Developers, formerly of Gamecock, formerly of many loony E3 parties, currently of Devolver Digital, the people publishing Sam 3. Gathering Of Developers published the original Sam games, but Croteam, as per GOD’s pro-developer publishing terms, retained their IP. When Mike approached me to see if I wanted to take a crack at Sam, I leaped at it. Not only had I played the hell out of the originals, I was guilty of that lowest of game critic traits, secretly harboring dreams of one day making games. I did pause briefly to consider the ethical implications of working on a game, while remaining a games journalist, but not for very long. Ultimately I decided it should not be a conflict so long as I strenuously disclosed my involvement and worked to avoid any situation that might compromise anyone’s integrity or credibility. In terms of promotional ethics, I was paid a straight fee to write the script, so I do not stand to directly gain or lose money from its success or failure (though, of course, success might help in getting more gigs like this, which is a benefit to me). Should I recuse myself from reviewing other shooters? Perhaps. But I’m not really in the formal long form review game too much to speak of. Most of what I write and broadcast is broadly consumer-facing. I’m of the opinion that most “normal” consumers don’t want to bog down in the minutiae of why a game got a 73 instead of a 76. They want to know if it’s fun, if it’s well made, if it sucks. I do a weekly spot on Playboy Radio, and commented on both Battlefield 3 and MW3 the weeks that came out. My comments were that they were both incredibly well made games, meant for different types of players. At the same time, I also disclosed my involvement with Sam 3. Which actually ended up being publicity for the game, of course.

To me, that passed the smell test, primarily because I don’t see gaming as a zero sum scenario. The gaming audience is a growing pool. Other games don’t need to do badly in order for this one to succeed. If anything, I think being an evangelist for gaming in general is the thing that’s going to do the most for this game. The more people play shooters, the more people might play this. Ultimately, of course, it’s up to the outlets I write for to decide whether they think my work on the creative side of the games industry, hurts my credibility with their audience. I made sure the Playboy Radio folk knew about the Sam situation before I sprung it on them on-air. In their case, they saw my involvement as a credibility booster rather than a liability. But it’s absolutely worth exploring and ethically belt-and-suspendering. I’m a big believer in the power of disclosure. And in being able to live with myself. I’m too much a lover of the medium to say a game is bad when it’s not (which doesn’t do much for the consumer, but is how I sleep at night). When I talk about Serious Sam 3, I make sure I put my disclosure out there before saying it’s the best-est videogame in the history of best videogames. I’m relying on my previous credibility with my audience at that point, and the fact that anyone listening to me (especially the gamers) know that I’m leaning into my deep bias for comedic effect. All of which is to say, you should go shoot many, many big ugly monsters with a credulity-straining arsenal while wearing a t-shirt, because Serious Sam 3 is the best-est game in the history of best games. (At least until the next one I help write.)

Critics Circle member Scott Alexander is the editor in chief of American Photo magazine. Previously, he was senior editor at Playboy, where he was in charge of game coverage for the magazine, among other duties.

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Back in April, I was scheduled to speak on a radio station located in a small town in the Midwest. Crown, the publishers of All Your Base Are Belong to Us, had arranged the interview, one of about 60 I did during that month. One of the questioners who called in asked about violence in videogames.

But that was merely a preface to what he really wanted to pose.

He queried, “Don’t you think that violence in videogames is a horrible thing?” And he went on for a minute, ending with “It’s because the government funds games like ‘Call of Duty.’ They’re responsible, too.”

I answered the first part of the man’s question with my ‘games are not too violent and when they are, they’re labeled as such’ theory. I ignored the rant about the government. About 15 minutes later, he called back and asked again. I said that, to the best of my knowledge, Call of Duty is not sponsored by the Army or by any government entity.

I’ve been writing about games for a very long time, and each time I meet with other journalists in the Critics Circle, we talk about a great variety of things. Some of it relates to our take on the news. Some of it surrounds gossip among journalists. Much of it is simple but passionate expression of our love for games.

But the government supporting a huge videogame company like Activision for Call of Duty? That has never come up. If it had happened, it would have been a topic of discussion on numerous occasions.  I daresay that it would be a great story for The New York Times or The New Yorker if it were true. But it’s not.

That’s not to say Activision doesn’t have paid consultants. Hank Kiersey is a retired Lt. Colonel who helps to make this series of games more realistic.

I mention this because the rumors popped up again, this time after I was interviewed about the best holiday games by one of my favorite shows, NPR’s Morning Edition. I wrote an accompanying piece for very literate NPR’s Monkey See blog. And there it was again – in the comments section. “Aren’t the Call of Duty games put out by the Army?” “Since this slick new military recruiting tool has just come on the market, does that mean we have a new war coming up?”

This time, I second guessed myself. I tried an internet search and, after that, I looked at Snopes.com as well. I still found nothing.

Some years ago, the government did fund a game called America’s Army. And that was indeed a recruiting tool. It was given out for free. One of the people who made that game is now an executive at Epic Games, the people who make the Gears of War games.

America’s Army, to my surprise, is still published and updated. It must be the vague knowledge of this free game that is part of the reason for the lingering paranoia, the panicky hand-wringing, about the military funding Call of Duty.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is not like real war. It’s a pseudo-real game that, in its single player portion, makes you feel as though you’re in an action movie. It’s certainly not for kids. But it never seems very real to me.

After all, in a real battle, when you’re shot, you die. In a real battle, what you see and do can affect you for life. In games, you live to shoot again. You might dream about a battle. You might think hard and consider strategies for winning in online multiplayer games.

But in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, one thing is certain. For the player, there will be no post-traumatic stress that spills over into his or her post-battle existence, no horrible plague of infinite nightmares that can end a marriage or make you want to end your life.

-Harold Goldberg

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