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Archive for the ‘Crap Happens’ Category

This is a week of and for women. On the cover of Time is Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. The cover line: Don’t hate her because she’s successful. Sandberg’s new book, already number 2 on Amazon, is called Lean In. It’s a new feminist manifesto by the company’s chief operating officer, one for the social media age. Her tome comes on the heels of The Atlantic’s very popular article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.

So, in a time of feminist resurgence, we also were honored by a re-jiggered, re-imagined Lara Croft in the latest Tomb Raider game.  The Crystal Dynamics game was released by Square Enix on March 5th.

Last year when Tomb Raider was shown at E3, a lot of the online press went wild. They complained that the Lara Croft portrayed in a demo which took place on a vicious island wasn’t just a wimp. At every turn early in the game, she cried, moaned, screamed, whimpered. There were so many different kinds of sounds of distress, it stopped me from thinking about moving forward, about what was next, about her future on this mysterious island where the waters crash against the rocks like dynamite. Lara was made to groan and whine to such an extent, it was as if she weren’t scared so much as she was mugging for the gamers who would play the game. “Save me! Care about me!” she was imploring with each moan. It was too much.

Last year, writers said that this new Lara was perhaps the product of sexism on the part of game designers. The game designers simply said they wanted the player to want to protect Lara. And there was this thoughtful story from Circle member Jason Schreier.

When the game was reviewed this week and last, few complained about those opening sequences. How did they forget their harsh words? Why did they forget them? Was it perhaps all just a pre-release plot by marketing-oriented writers to get hits on websites?

Because the opening of the game plays the same. Early on, Lara doesn’t seem to be able to take pressure of any sort. She still cries, moans, screams, whimpers, shivers. And when she does finally make her way to find a kind of cell phone/walkie talkie that works, on the other end is some guy who has to guide her to give her directions.

My guess is that critics loved the game design, the long, action-filled hours of play,  and beautiful artwork so much, that they forgave the introduction. But the introductory hour or so is poorly written melodrama that’s without nuance. It’s all action and full of black and white, full of cliches, with no grays.

And it doesn’t have to be. It’s not like you couldn’t process a deeper story early on because of the incessantly wild gameplay with which you’re presented. There’s enough breathing room between action sequences for some tight dialog – story-telling with depth.

But there isn’t any such depth.

I’m the kind of person who needs a fairly believable story and/or compelling dialog fully enjoy a game. It could be like any of the chapters in L.A. Noire, or the overarching homages to Steven King and Ayn Rand in BioShock. Heck, it could be no words at all, like the emotional tale-telling in Journey. But I do need story, one that doesn’t screw up the plot points it sets up.

Others don’t care. A blogger at Forbes says that “the true evolution of Croft doesn’t involve her bust size. It’s about whether or not her games have been getting better or worse.” But he doesn’t say anything much about the story. Then another Forbes writer talks about how wonderful it is to see Lara Croft go from being weak to strong. I’d be happier if she didn’t need men to help her along during the weak moments at the game’s start. But after happily discovering a cell phone and having a man on the other end have to calm her down and have to give her directions on what to do really took me out of the story and the game. And while the game has some really compelling twists and turns even as you reach the 20 hour point, I still kept thinking about clichés that occur at the very beginning.

But again, writers didn’t seem to care.  After writing about how the new Lara is not so different from the old and that “few reviewers have mentioned that the new Lara’s tank top is cut lower than the combat vests she wore before,” The Guardian makes this weird leap to end a Tomb Raider feature by saying that Lara Croft is a feminist icon. What? How?

If you don’t care about story, just game design, you’re not going to care about how the game makers treat their action hero.  Generally, it’s a very nicely balanced gaming experience. But I still care about story. I care about every moment in a game. If you’re going to make a good game, make all of the game good. Elegance. Simplicity. Nuance. Story. Lara Croft doesn’t have to be Emma Goldman. Heck, she doesn’t even have to be Joan Holloway. But if you’re creating a dramatic arc through back story, don’t fail from moment one. Because you can’t get that failure back. Again: if you’re going to make a good game, make all of the game good.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder and Editor in Chief

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Last night, Nintendo’s Wii U, its newest game console, went on sale throughout North America. Many of our critics took the trek to Rockefeller Center to check out the event at Rockefeller Center. Without any fanboyism or favoritism, here are 10 things you’ll like and dislike about the Wii U.

1) Short battery life on GamePad is the worst of any console or handheld. Two hours was my minimum and three was my maximum.

2) The GamePad controller is too complex with buttons galore.

3) Not all apps are available on launch day. Where’s the promised TVii service, Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, for instance?

4) The GamePad is too heavy. It will affect your game play over time.

5) The GamePad takes a long time to recharge.

6) Games take a longer time to load than on the Wii.

7) Not all game music and audio comes through the GamePad when you use it without your TV.

8) It’s harder to set up and get going than was the Wii.

9) Software update takes soooooo long to download, well over an hour.

10) What an arduous process it is to move your old game profile and info – from the Wii to the Wii U.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder

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Last year at the Game Developer’s Conference, I bumped into one of the best known daily games reporters in the business. Like me, he is also an author. He  knew I had a book that was about to hit, and he kindly suggested that I get in touch with a French publishing representative called Jean-Marc Demoly.  The writer mentioned that Demoly would be publishing one of his books and that Demoly was looking for compelling tomes about videogames that were first published in the United States. The writer looked happy about the prospects, and had good things to say about the publishing professional he had recently met.

After an introduction via email, I got in touch Jean-Marc, and I suggested that he move quickly. After an excerpt appeared in Vanity Fair online, there was a small buzz surrounding All Your Base Are Belong to Us. In fact, another French publisher had made an offer for French rights. Jean-Marc, however, offered substantially more money. But the other company had a track record of publishing literary books and even had worked with my friend, Nick Tosches.

After reading the book, Jean-Marc seemed the most enthusiastic. To my agents, I said, “Let’s go with the house that knows videogames best.” In other words, “Let’s go with Jean-Marc.” My agent was wary because he’d never heard of MCES Publishing. He suggested that we add a line to the contract that stipulated all money be paid upfront. I agreed since I had never heard of the house, either.

Once Jean-Marc received the contract, his emails to me became less frequent, and soon, non-existent. Then, he wouldn’t respond to my notes, either. Via Facebook, I tried to contact the publisher himself. In a short note, he wrote that he wasn’t involved in the company any longer. And he said he didn’t know where Jean-Marc was.

It was completely frustrating, not only because I’d been scammed, but because this happened in the book industry. One of the things I consider when I think about book publishing as compared to print journalism and online journalism is that the people involved in books have often been more collegial, perhaps because there’s more at stake. A book could and should have a long tail. It should sell for years, not for just one month, one day or one hour.

What I didn’t know is that Jean-Marc did the same thing to my well-known writer friend.

Jean-Marc made him an offer.

And then he disappeared.

Who knows how many other authors have been fooled by this man?

Thankfully, my agents were savvy enough to curry interest again with the respected French publisher. They made a deal which, I’m told, should bring me royalties for years to come.

So what is the takeaway here? If even seasoned journalists can be fooled by a gregarious charlatan, how do you protect yourself when your tome is offered for sale around the world? The only thing to say here is to forget charm and enthusiasm when it comes from an unproven entity. Listen to reasoned arguments from your agents. And stick with the company with the proven track record.

-Harold Goldberg

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It’s a bit of a horror story, an American horror story, and I’m not talking about the new television show about to premiere on the FX network. In the past week, what can only be described as terror has struck fear in the hearts and minds of many videogame journalists. Here’s why.

*Yesterday, Future Public Limited Company, a U.K.-based publisher of many of the U.S. enthusiast magazines like Nintendo Power and the Official Xbox Magazine, rocked the investor world by suggesting that it may sell off its U.S. division entirely. Or, the magazines might go digital instead. Or the magazines could go digital and then be offered for sale. Future will explain more on November 24.

*Word is that another lauded but struggling game magazine is about to go bi-monthly, and it may go belly-up before June of next year.

*Russ Frushtick, one of our early members and the witty writer/editor for Multiplayer, the MTV game blog, was let go last week in a round of poor-economy-related layoffs that hit employees across Viacom. Russ’ smart freelancers were hurt by the decision as well.

*Some game magazines and web sites are not paying freelancers in a timely fashion. I spoke with a Critics Circle member who is fed up with payments that come months late. That member, a terrific writer and a knowledgeable gamer, is readying to leave the industry entirely.

*The cutbacks are harming the reputations of well-known videogame websites as well. At GameSpy, which recently went through a slew of firings, new editor Bennett Ring was taken to the woodshed by readers for writing a clueless preview of Blizzard’s latest entry in the lauded Diablo series. He made things worse by lashing back at the onslaught on Twitter. I actually sent him list of videogame books to read. Perhaps this was a move that bordered on the obnoxious. Nonetheless, he chose not to reply, not with vehemence, not with a thank you.

During one of the previous recessions, I wrote an opinion piece for Mediaweek magazine. I said I was glad to see a spate of consumer magazines bite the dust because they were either redundant in the market, poorly written, oddly conceived or just plain twee. And I said recessions end, and when they end, they give rise to new ideas for great new magazines. There was hope then, and there’s hope now.

Yet this particular recession feels different. This isn’t the end of print, as the nervous nellies are proclaiming. But what’s happening is indeed troubling. Smart media observers realize that the publishers and editors of print magazines devoted to the world of gaming have to kick things up many notches in order to stay in business as they vie against competition from websites and blogs. The editing and assigning has to be more thoughtful and more courageous and the stories have to engage readers in ways that they haven’t before. Marketing and sales departments have to be push harder to garner a mix of ads that isn’t videogame related.

The question is, how? The answer must come from the brightest minds at these magazines as they conceive and plan beyond the norm. They stakes are higher than ever before. If they don’t implement groundbreaking new ideas, they won’t survive. And both game journalists and game enthusiasts will be the worse for it. Those magazines themselves? They are, in some inexplicable way, transmogrified in our minds to become our pals. And as Flaubert cautioned, “A friend who dies, it’s something of you who dies.”

–Harold Goldberg

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On 9/11, there were no more videogames. On that morning with its molten-steel-bright sun, I stood with two neighbors, director John Waters and actor Tim Guinee, on 6th Avenue and 12th Street. It was just before the towers came down, and the NY1 report, still chilling, was that a small plane, perhaps a Cessna, had hit. So we stood there in awe, talking about movies. After all, it looked like a movie. It couldn’t be real. Then, a pretty rollerblader stopped near us. She stared at the towers and the smoke, and then at us, and then at the towers, and then again at us. “Maybe now the rents will come down,” she said. And she bladed away.

There were no games that day. And as we watched the towers turn to dust, as we watched the shell-shocked by the thousands parade up 6th Avenue, their clothes stippled in white dust, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about games anymore – or movies, or music, or books. What good could entertainment do? What good at all?

At Rockstar games, as I detailed in All Your Base Are Belong to Us, Sam Houser told me that he and his brother Dan were feeling somewhat the same.

There were no games that day:

But just as (Sam) began readying his fiery personality for (Grand Theft Auto III’s) launch, he and Dan watched the terrorism attacks from a Thompson Street apartment on September 11, 2001. In the early moments of the disaster, he feared the buildings might tip and cause a domino effect right into Soho and further up into Greenwich Village. For an intensely nervewracking two weeks during which the country as a whole was on edge, the Housers talked about bagging the game altogether. Like everyone in Manhattan at the time, they didn’t know if terrorism would strike again. Manhattan constantly smelled noxious, like chemicals were burning, and there were posters of the missing plastered everywhere. Sam told Dan, “This beautiful city has been attacked and now we’re making a violent crime drama set in a city that’s not unlike New York City. My God, I’m terrorized where I live and on top of that, we’ve got this fucking crazy game that is not exactly where people’s heads are at right now.”

Rockstar worked to change the game to make it work for gamers and society in a post-9/11 world. Many gamemakers did the same. At Entertainment Weekly, Noah Robischon and I were given the daunting task of writing about the effect of 9/11 on games for a special issue of the magazine. All the games that dealt with New York City were changing. Even Microsoft removed the Twin Towers from their popular Flight Simulator game.

It was weeks and weeks before I played another game. I moved away from entertainment for a while, writing a book about the science of serial killing with psychiatrist Dr. Helen Morrison. But, of course, I came back to games. I came back to entertainment. Because people need to play.

There had been so many court jesters writing about games. There still are. But something did change after 9/11. The better writers helped videogame criticism to come into its own as a potent form of journalism. The essays became more thoughtful. Writers went deeper.

There were no games that day. But games came back and many played better than ever. And the writers came back with a power and force that continues to grow to this day. That is evolution, and perhaps it has nothing to do with 9/11 at all. I happen to think it has more than a bit to do with that horribly shocking morning. And each time I put a finger to the keyboard or a pen to paper, I try to kick it up a notch. Because life is fragile. Because people died.

And I’m still here. You’re still here. You have to go on — better, if not tougher. You honor those who died that day. You honor those who didn’t get a chance to write or to express themselves in any way. You keep going; you keep playing; you keep winning, or at the very least, you keep trying.

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It woke me up. In the distance, the evacuation horn was sounding that dull, forlorn foghorn sound of danger. Stumbling around in the morning darkness, I noted that the power was still out. I threw on my one good raincoat and a fishing hat. Outside, the rain was pouring like it had taken a fistful of Adderall. It had been doing so since the evening before.

Slipping but not falling, I ran out down the muddy road about 500 feet to see the creek about to rise above our bridge. On the other side stood a tall, thin man with a grey mustache. He was lifting the car onto his flatbed truck, about to tow it. “Sheriff’s Department saw it and called me,” he explained. “They say it’s going to wash away in the flood. Move it to higher ground. You go, too!”

The water had already risen a couple of inches in the minutes it took to place the car elsewhere. At the bridge, it was a maelstrom of mud and water, roiling. I stood at the railing as hard-flowing waves crashed against it. The brown red water looked like earth rolling to the rhythm of a major earthquake. The sound was like M-80 firecrackers piped through speakers at an arena rock show. Yet it was hypnotizing. It called me to jump in and dance with it.

I turned around. Water was rushing down the mountain, carving out new streams as it cut out huge parts of the road. Back near the house, three new waterfalls began to spew where there were none before. They met to make the sitting area near the pond into a new lake. Trees bent as even heavier rain made me wonder if I should evacuate.

But I couldn’t. The water was now pouring over the bridge. It wasn’t merely beckoning. It was ready to grab and steal anything in its path. I didn’t know it as I stood there, but throughout the Catskills, the water was taking cars and tossing them into boulders and trees. It was taking houses, too. As the last bit of power left the battery-operated radio, I heard that Margaretville and Fleischmann’s were under water. People on their roofs were being evacuated by helicopters.

The sound of a branch. It cracked with a sickening din and fell with a splashy thump 50 feet behind the house in the woods. Again, I put on waders and the raincoat to check the bridge. It was raining so hard that Ralph Lauren’s coat couldn’t take it. I was drenched as I watched the bridge become submerged.

My life has been full of writing about popular culture and my thoughts are informed by what I’ve seen and written. Just before the towers came down, I watched the World Trade Center attack from 6th Avenue and 12th Street with director John Waters and actor Tim Guinee, We talked about how the disaster looked somewhat like various movies we’d seen, and then, when the disaster became one of epic proportions, I wondered why our talk wasn’t deeper, more serious, more salient.

In the case of this horrible and historic flood, all I could think of when I wasn’t outside in the muck was videogames. Before Irene came, I had been playing From Dust, the Xbox Live game made by one of the designers of the brilliant, landmark 1990s failure, Heart of Darkness. Both games have drama, momentous water drama. But “From Dust” features mammoth tsunamis that rush in to take away the tribe to which you’ve just given birth. They scream pitifully for help as they are washed away into the foaming ocean rages.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve felt that the best of videogames can mirror life even as they enhance fantasy. Game developers have always done well in imagining both fire and water. But From Dust is too clean to feel real. The surging water and the aftermath isn’t as dirty and muddy and haphazard what I saw in real life. And, with the way the waters of Irene surged and kidnapped all in its path, I don’t think I’d have had time to scream like the tribesmen of “From Dust.” Yet “From Dust” felt real, as real as escapist fiction, which induces thrills and not fear, can be.

Yet the way Irene’s waters moved, almost as they were alive, reminded me of another videogame, Ken Levine’s BioShock. As I describe in All Your Base Are Belong to Us, the water was a character, deep black as you swam through it in the opening moments. And when it crashed through to your creepy but dry environs below the sea, I worried about drowning, an immediate panic. To me, BioShock was a closer approximation to what I saw when dealing with Irene.

But, again, in real life, the panicked feeling of perhaps injury or even death slowly crept in and then grew. In games, I’m aware enough of being a player even when I’m absorbed in my surroundings. But I’m never “in shock.” With a real life disaster, the idea of “being in shock” is paralyzing and sickening. In games, I can walk away to do an errand to clear my head. There may be dreams or nightmares inspired by games. But there’s never that feeling of being unable to move or think.

Then, I thought about the chaos of the winter water levels in Killzone 3. Hermen Hulst and his teams created a seemingly maddened ocean water that was full of danger. It even seemed hateful. But in that case, the water was too big, the John Henry meets Paul Bunyan of a perfect storm, to feel real.

And the rain, the hard rain that fell, reminded me of Red Dead Redemption. That pelting rain in Red Dead was a lot like the hurricane rain in the Catskills. The rain seen while walking or riding through the woods as rebel cowboy John Marston also sounded real, and the look of it as it came down in sheets was a very close approximation to what I felt as I tread the water-soaked property and the mountain road that ultimately became a waterfall.

In any game, I feel angrier about dying than fearful of dying, angry that I screwed up, angry that I wasn’t aware enough, angry that I didn’t have the reflexes to survive. But you respawn or get up the gumption start again. You have the opportunity to turn your failures into successes. But in the Catskills, there were moments when I wondered if I would make it, if the mountain road would rush with a tsunami-like gusher and take me, or if the falling ancient trees would drop thousands of pounds of living wood onto my body as I slept.

No game has ever given me that feeling of impending death, eight of nine of the dictionary meanings of doom, yes.

But not ruin and not death.

For that, I’m really quite thankful.

This morning, there is new flooding and new evacuations in the Catskills, this time from tropical storm Lee. I might just stay away from games with wild water features for a while, if not for a good long time. It all hits a little too close to home.

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Despite a deep love for breakthrough technology and videogames, I’m still old school. If I spot a magazine I’ve never before seen, I’ll check it out with an enthusiastic curiosity. So it was as I approached a table far away from the concert at Summerstage in Central Park. I was flying from the visceral excitement of seeing Cults (A new band! One I actually like!). In a giddy almost-Austan-Goolsby-on-Jon-Stewart mood, I saw Moves magazine on the lower left corner on that table. (A new magazine! Maybe the rare one I’ll actually like enough to want to write for!) It turns out that Moves is a New York-based magazine that’s taken inspiration from Complex in that it’s split into two sections. Half is for women and half is for men.

But as I flipped through the glossy pages, I stumbled upon Hannah Simone’s ugly rant on videogames. My heart sank. It was decidedly the rankest, rudest takedown of videogames I had seen from someone without a vested political or corporate interest in slamming the complete industry.

In a nutshell, this very angry woman has been in a three-year relationship with a man who must surely be an addict. He seems not only to play games constantly, according to Simone, he also smokes pot…while he plays games. Simone was livid as she wrote. The vitriol. The cursing. The game playing (and I don’t mean bits and bytes). These partners are immersed in a regrettable cycle from which they can’t break free. She can’t quit him and he can’t quit games. It’s the stuff of which D-grade reality shows are made. She thinks the problem is him, not her. The reader, judging from the many responses from both sexes after I posted a link on Twitter, thinks it’s both of them.

Why do these seemingly dysfunctional folk stay with each other to continue this supposedly videogame-induced, Jersey Shore-type soap opera? Opposites attract, but in this case, opposites detract. Unfortunately, since the argument presented isn’t of the highest quality, we don’t know much about either woman or man, except for a couple of scenes. Simone makes blanket statement after blanket statement about videogames, but she only mentions a couple. She seems to firmly believe that Mature-rated console games are the only kinds of games available. She suggests that all women hide the power cord and threatens to throw the console out the window. “I don’t want to be his mother,” she says. “I want to fuck.”

Simone says that all games are wastes of time. But she hasn’t taken the time to educate herself because she wants to hold onto her beliefs. She just wants and needs to wail and moan, as if she had no choice but to stay with this addicted gamer. So she lets it all out in words, as if writing it out of her body can somehow help her mend this relationship.

Why get so down about this? It’s just one person in a small, quarterly that few have heard of. I guess my problem is less with Simone than with the editors who published the oddly crafted story in a fashion magazine that hits, according to their press kit, 250,000 people each quarter, each with supposedly an average household income of more than $150,000.

If their magazine is geared to both men and women, shouldn’t some guy have responded with his counterpoint? Shouldn’t Simone’s editor have asked her to address the idea that Simone is stereotyping everyone who plays games, men and women, old and young, alike? And who really has the grudge against gaming? Simone? Simone’s editor? The editor in chief who saw fit to make this the magazine’s first story? The publisher? All of them?

Part of the reason I wrote All Your Base Are Belong to Us was to explain to gamers and non-gamers alike how wonderfully artful games can be, how they fit, sometimes perfectly, into our American culture of entrepreneurs and artists. Then comes Simone, yelling from the balcony like a Juliet/banshee that all games are horrible wastes of time. One could utter the same things about fashion and celebrity lust, the stories that make up the bulk of Moves magazine. But I wouldn’t. Because everything written can have a useful purpose, everything can inform – if it’s well crafted and well conceived.

Yet though it’s not written about very much, addiction to games attacks a minority of gamers, and it attacks them as relentlessly as Zeus in God of War 2. If someone I cared about loved games or pot too much to the point of addiction, I wouldn’t embarrass them in print with haranguing. Instead, I’d suggest and then push for a doctor or a counselor. I’d suggest that I come along, too, if that’s what the significant other wanted.

It’s corny; it’s cliché. But it’s ultimately true: Life is a balance. Everything in moderation can make for an extraordinary compelling life. There’s little logic in Simone’s story and no balance, just the boom-goes-the-dynamite beginning of what appears to be the end. That’s sad, and it has very little to do with videogames.

 

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