Fanon on the evolution of forms of exploitation

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For a time it looked at though racism had disappeared. This soul-soothing, unreal impression was simply the consequence of the evolution of forms of exploitation. Psychologists spoke of a prejudice having become unconscious. The truth is that the rigor of the system made the daily affirmation of a superiority superfluous. The need to appeal to various degrees of approval and support, to the native’s cooperation, modified relations in a less crude, more subtle, more “cultivated” direction. It was not rare, in fact, to see a “democratic and humane” ideology at this stage. The commercial undertaking of enslavement, of cultural destruction, progressively gave way to verbal mystification.

- Frantz Fanon, “Racism and Culture” in Toward The African Revolution, p.37

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The Beauty of Team Fortress 2

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Raphael Sfeir’s “Other Side”

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Other Side starts with two beings floating away from the player character, and after they’ve ascended, the player walks until she finds a set of stones. The stones light up, deliver tones, but very little else. The player wanders until she finds the way.

You can play Other Side here.

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Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, and deliberate action

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A few days ago Cara Ellison wrote a wonderful piece about Tomb Raider and the difference between the earlier and later games in the series. My experience with Tomb Raider as a kid was limited to buying it in a bargain bin and having a hell of a time trying to get it to run on Windows 98. My mother tried to help me, reformatting some drives and installing mods that purportedly made the game run properly (although I’m positive that one of them just made Lara naked, much to my mother’s frustration).

Ellison starts her piece by pointing out an often-forgotten (or at least rarely-discussed) fact about the first Tomb Raider game: Lara Croft is vulnerable.

Few AAA games today let the player feel vulnerable in the way that Tomb Raider allowed. The environments were vast, cavernous, mysterious. Unsettling. Lara’s body was spindly, looked gymnastic yet somehow frail. Her bare skin was showing. The ambient sound was sinister, echoing, quietly insidious. The environments felt somehow claustrophobic and vast at the same time.

In a piece for Rock Paper Shotgun from 2012, she makes a similar point in a different context, writing that

But what was more important to my young eyes was Lara’s frailty. She looked thin and incapable, those narrow gun-toting wrists like stems of a flower. Climbing seemed a labour. She stumbled on things, bumped into things with a dramatic ‘oof!’ Every animation blend glitch evidence to me that she was panicking, breaking. She was at the mercy of her environment. The fact that she had few supplies, little clothing, and nobody to help her: these made her task even more daunting.

[note: also check out this piece she did for Unwinnable around the same time. It is very good.]

We’ve papered over this vulnerability in the history of Lara Croft, and I didn’t really understand it. She’s a badass, gun-toting murderer who slays wolves and tyrannosaurs equally; I couldn’t intuit how that was held in balance with what Ellison calls her “frailty.”

So I went to my closet and grabbed Tomb Raider for the Playstation and played for the first time in nearly two decades. (sincere thanks to William for giving me the game and thus allowing me to write this piece.)

The second paragraph of Ellison’s piece is about Tomb Raider as it fits into the general design trends of the time period when it was released. She remarks that the first game was “full of tension” and “had more in common with Resident Evil and survival horror than it does with Uncharted.” Formally, this comparison is unbelievably on point. Lara Croft’s jumps have a feel to them that have never been fully captured by a game since; they’re unbelievably graceful. Flipping through the air frontward, backward, and sideways, she moves around a primitive polygonal world. At the same time, she controls like a tank, her body plodding forward or leaping backward at the smallest push of the D pad. This body, always in excess of itself and moving more than you want it to, has an entire control scheme dedicated to limiting how much it can get in its own way: a button to look around, a button to walk instead of run.

I played through the first stage. A temple, maybe, or something stranger in the Himalayas. The game is cagey about how much it tells you, but that lack of information is important as Lara makes her way into the darkness. The draw distance is short; the path in front of you is always dark. There are paw prints leading to and from that darkness, the remnants of the wolves who attacked Lara and her (now dead) guide in the opening cinematic. Lara chases or tracks them. I can’t really tell.

The jump button requires priming. You have to hold it down a half a second before you want to jump, just a small amount so Lara can bend at the knee and launch herself a full eight feet in the air. To leap between platforms, Lara has to patiently turn or sidestep to get into position. To grab onto a ledge she has to stretch her body forward in space; to grab it from below she hangs like dead weight until she decides to climb, performing an unbelievable pullup.

I’m not writing all of this to make some kind of response to Ellison, but rather to go one step further in thinking about what I’ve been calling “deliberate action” in games. I’ve played The Last of Us: Remastered recently for review, and because of that I’ve spent a lot of time in the (wonderful) multiplayer mode trying to understand why I love it so much. A big part of my enjoyment there is how deliberate everything the player does feels. When I craft an item, it takes time; when I throw that item, the character heaves it. The animation takes time, and during that time I am vulnerable.

Part of this has to do with limiting arbitrary risk. You cannot be shot five times in a row with nothing lost other than some health bars. Every encounter has to feel like it might be your last. TLOU‘s multiplayer does this by only allowing a player to be shot a couple times before death; Tomb Raider does it through sound design and enemy AI pathing. We know that Lara can kill the wolves, but when the wolves run around in a circle, lunge at Lara, box her into a corner at any time, it doesn’t feel that way.

Lara’s vulnerability (and the vulnerability of the nameless TLOU multiplayer characters) comes not only from the abilities they have access to in the levels they live within, but also from the microchoices we make. Can we pause here for just a moment? If I run at this gap in the floor and leap, leaning into it as much as I can, will I make it? The choice I make could destroy me, but I do it anyway.

I make a deliberate choice. I fly through the air.

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On Alastor and Ifrit

1.

A while back Oscar Strik wrote an article titled “An Ode To Objects” where he explained that the most wonderful items in games are ones that are clearly part of the game world itself. Essentially, if you can “plug and play” an item from one game to another, it isn’t doing the kind of work that Strik would like to see it doing. He cuts the argument down to a polemic near the end:

Read my lips: No more longswords +1, ever. None. Please give every single item some real flavour, some colour, some history. This can be a special in-game effect (special damage, limited use of a certain spell, and the like), or just something non-functional that makes it stand out (a backstory, a particular visual design).

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2.

I am Alastor. The weak shall give their heart and swear their eternal loyalty to me.

and

My name is Ifrit. The fool who awakens me shall pay dearly with the fires of hell.

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3.

I played Devil May Cry sometime around when it first came out. I was at my friend Tyler’s house, and we spent a full 24 hours passing the controller back and forth and pirating music from WinMX. I’m not sure if we completed it or not. After all, for a game that is about stylish swordplay and quick wits, the actual process of playing it for the first, second, and tenth time is a grueling march from point A to point Z. We died a lot, but I was fascinated with the game, not only for its gameplay, but for the setting.

The world of the first Devil May Cry is full of demons. That’s just a part of everyday life, so much that Dante, the main character, has a service for killing them. That’s his life. Demon murder. But we don’t see any of these Ghostbusters-esque hijinks. Instead, the game begins, and Dante is off to a strange island where strange things happen for no real reason other than “demons.”

There’s a creepy window with a tree that looks humanlike. There’s a castle ruin, strange in its combination of use (the bedroom) and abandonment (so much more of it). There’s a circle in the sea where giant biting heads appear to chomp on Dante. The game is just god damn weird.

4. 

Alastor is a sword that tries to kill the protagonist of the game. It appears, shoots out of a statue, and impales Dante, who survives by pulling the sword through himself. It is a moment of pure teenage badassery which is pushed even higher by Dante immediately picking up the sword and cutting the air around falling glass with it.

But that sword wanted to kill him.

The strange animacy of the weapons in the Devil May Cry universe is one of its unique features. Like the sword mentioned in Strik’s essay above, Dante’s weapons clearly have a life outside of their use-value for him despite the fact that our only real experience of them is through that use. We can imagine a world where Alastor isn’t conquered by Dante and instead consumes him, alien-like, planting demonic sword eggs in his belly that cut their way out when they hatch.

5.

All forces and flows (materialities) are or can become lively, affective, and signaling. And so an affective, speaking human body is not radically different from the affective, signaling nonhumans with which it coexists, hosts, enjoys, serves, consumes, produces, and competes.

- Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter 117

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On Timesplitters

This article was voted on and supported by my Patreon page.

Timesplitters 2 was the most significant game of my teenage gameplaying years. It is comprised of several micronarratives taking place throughout human history, and the core of the game involves the player hopping into heroic bodies in those time periods in order to defeat arch villains as well as their Timesplitter allies.

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Timesplitters are evil aliens. Or something.

In any case, TS2 really imprinted itself on me. I’ve maintained a fascination with games that try to blend weird genre work and different time periods into a single game, and Timesplitters 2 has become a weird high-water mark for me in how it managed to handle all of that complexity while giving a super-playable arcadey shooter.

I say all of that to note that when I recently got way into grabbing Playstation 2 games, the original Timesplitters was at the top of things that I wanted to play. I had never had a chance to grab it, had never even seen it, when I was a teen, and so being a big grown up adult with big grown up money to buy games with, I decided that I definitely wanted to give it a shot. I put it in a list of different games I wanted to play and write about and made a poll on my Patreon page.

Then, to my surprise, it was chosen.

Playing Timesplitters fourteen years after its release is a strange experience. While my memories of the sequel are almost completely concerned with story, Timesplitters itself it completely absent any effort in that department. Each level allows you to select a character, after which you are dropped into a map. If you pause the game, you can see that there are objectives, and all of them are some form of “get an object in the heart of the level and bring it to the beginning of the level.” It is, by all accounts, a barebones product.

It is also hard as hell.

I have not shouted, screamed, and cursed at any piece of media in my entire life as I have Timesplitters (and I’ve recently been playing New Super Mario Bros. WiiU). Enemies can barely hit you, but when they do, they take out a chunk of health. There’s no cover. The movement is strange and jerky, and the first level introduces the dreaded Timesplitters zombie enemy, which will always get up after being shot unless you skill shot its head off. I spent three hours trying to clear the first level on medium before I shifted down to easy and blazed through it with super speed.

Why the severe change in difficulty through the two modes? There’s a version of this essay where I trot out some videogame ideology truisms and talk about how important it is that this game’s standard difficulty is incredibly difficult, placing it in videogame firmament with Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Legend of Zelda and all of those other fetish objects that make up the breadcrumb trail behind Dark Souls and Spelunky.

That isn’t this piece though. Instead, what sticks out to me about Timesplitters, which is a fairly bog standard shooter overall, is that it is one of the last games that acknowledged that it was wasting your time.

That’s what the steep increases in difficulty between difficulty levels is. It is a mode of wasting time in the most beautiful way. In my weird semi-research project Reading Electronic Gaming Monthly, where I have been reading as much of that magazine as I can get my hands on, I’ve come across a way of thinking that permeated the 1990s: games should make you spend a lot of time on them. They should be incredibly difficult to complete, let alone master, and if they aren’t then they are not good games. That kind of thinking has extended into the contemporary period, with a lot of vitriol about time return on investment thrown at quickly-completed (but not quickly experienced) games like Gone Home.

The best time wasting games have always worn it on their sleeves. When an RPG boasted on the back cover that it had 80 hours of content, that is a claim to time wasting supremacy. You could get lost inside of that object, spend entire summer days cramming it into your brain boss-by-boss.

Short of those RPGs, though, time wasting fell out of vogue. You wanted a narrative, and narratives that featured fetch quests without the appropriate trappings of self-justification were pilloried. Without gimmicks, superpowers, and the ability to be immersed in the world, time wasting became a gross thing.

Now our time-wasters, the games that really take an inordinate amount of time to even get into, let alone master, spin themselves as developing skills in the player. By dumping 100 hours into Spelunky, you become better at understanding the system that governs that game.

Timesplitters doesn’t even allow this amount of comfort with how you waste your time. You cannot dodge bullets or use special skills or tricks to better play the game. The best you can do is memorize the specific timings of when enemies teleport in or pop out of their scripted hiding places. You cannot get better at the system, but merely at recognizing that systems symptoms. God help you if you change difficulties, though, because then both the enemies and the shape of the level changes.

Timesplitters requires you to dump hours into it, like piling sand onto a beach, only to see yourself barely passing through the levels. Your time gives you nothing more than a minor ability to navigate the space. And it does not care. It does not have any sympathy for you. It does not try to addict you, to get you to say “HEY I CAN DO THIS, JUST ONE MORE TIME.” It is entirely apathetic to you and what you want to do in the game, and you can take it or leave it.

 

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You Buy It I Write It: Karateka (2012)

This was written as part of my longform project where I play anything someone purchases for me. You can read more about that here.

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Videogames have strange relationships with time.

There’s the time-to-complete, which is a measurement of how long it takes to get from arbitrary point A to arbitrary point Z. Evolving from that is the speedrun, the quest to find the fastest time between the those two arbitrary marks.

There’s time in relationship to labor in at least two forms: in the role-playing game (Japanese or otherwise) sense of how long it took you to grind up to a certain level; in the massive online game sense of how long it takes to get to an item level that seems to equate to how much time you’ve sunk into the experience. And there’s time-to-value, the literal translation of hours into something useful – playing Team Fortress 2 for crates or idling in games for cards.

Those are all concepts of time that rest in the macro. Karateka works in a smaller, more fine register, being a game totally focused on the micro. The core of the game takes place in that microscale. The player, controlling a martial artist, responds to attacks with button presses.

An enemy approaches. The enemy attacks, and with each hit, you press a button, blocking punch or the kick. You block three, five, seven in a row, and there’s an opening. You wail on the buttons as fast as possible, delivering a flurry of blows, ending in a powerful one that often sweeps the enemy off his feet.

This goes on until you fall. Then someone comes to replace you.

Simon Parkin writes about this replacement in his review of Karateka:

But should one of the scores of guards get the better of you, your limp body will be thrown from the cliffs, never to return. This death is not the end of the quest; you may continue to fight from the place Mariko’s true love fell. But you now must do so as a new suitor – and a less desirable one at that.

Parkin makes a number of amazing points about the centrality of this core narrative feature of the game, suggesting that the replacement of the suitors provides a complex narrative structure for a fairly simple game. As the plot goes, you are attempting to rescue a damsel in a trope-ridden way (and this is a remake of a game that helped solidify that trope in videogames.) Your ability to perform at the game determines which suitor reaches the damsel Mariko. Therefore, for Mariko and for Parkin, the difference between the suitors is one that truly makes a difference — the True Love is the fulfillment of a classical tale (that tale being highly critiquable), the Monk a strange pairing, the Brute an awful moment of possession (also riddled with fatphobic and ableist imagery, the whole thing is awful).

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But there are also things that don’t change between the three characters. There is a fundamental microphysics that suggests that there’s a universalism to the way that fighting occurs in the Karateka universe. There is violence followed by rest, a call-and-response nature that constantly returns to a similar small structure. No matter who you are, fighting operates the same way; there’s a rhythm undergirding all of this visual and narrative difference.

There isn’t much to say about this other than pointing it out. Perhaps the strength of this way of creating the game (and therefore the pleasure it produces in me) is its pure simplicity. There’s a way of imagining this game being made today that gives you three characters with different stats, fighting styles, and ways of blocking. They might get progressively easier to use, but each one is controlled in start contrast to the others. Worse yet, you might have to unlock them, or level them up, intentionally failing early missions in order to use the “backup” players. Or there is “energy” to raise previous characters from the dead. There are a thousand ways to get it wrong, to lose the core gameplay in the name of procedural generation or engagement or the dreaded return on investment.

Karateka purposefully chooses to stick to its simple roots, and it is better for it. It flattens itself, and gives into its arcade-inflected heart, forgetting all forms of time except for its own. It measures itself in micromovements, in enemies defeated, in points systems.

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