On Free Fire

I’ve just finished watching Free Fire, the newest film from director Ben Wheatley (and Amy Jump who he cowrote and coedited it with), and while it’s very late I have some thoughts I want to get down about the film.

Back when John Wick was released, I wrote this piece about it in which I argued that the most interesting part of that film was how it replaced fists with guns in the martial arts film. In that genre, a protagonist navigates the world via their martial prowess, and its their mastery of their hands and feet that carves their protagonist film through the trials and tribulations of that world. Within John Wick, the intimacy of that martial combat was maintained, but the navigating tool was the gun instead of the fist.

Free Fire performs the exact same conceptual maneuver, but instead of fists becoming guns, language becomes guns. It’s apparent even from the trailer that Free Fire is a kind of locked-room drama in which the characters move through their arcs in a very tight physical space. It’s very theatrical, very David Mamet, but the actual spoken dialogue is all one-liners out of 1970s films.

The pacing of the shooting, how it wounds those who are assailed by it, and the consequences that are reaped from it all have the feeling of language. There are “conversations” in the film that happen purely formally: a gun fires, another gun fires in reverse shot, and then another, and another. It spins around this factory, never landing anywhere, and the characters joke that they don’t know whose side they are on anymore. There are slow gunfights and there are fast ones; there are spectacular ones and boring ones. And they all function as conversations, punctuated arguments between one character and another.

It’s critical that the constant gunfight opens with a failure of language, or more precisely, a failure of language to produce justice. One character has supposedly “bottled” another’s cousin, and honor has to be restored between both these men and the injured woman. Justice has to be done, and everyone agrees to it, and someone gets beat up. And then language bubbles up again in an insult, and the gunfights begin.

If guns become language here in the sense that the function of language is usurped by the firing of a gun, then we have the assumption that only guns can deliver justice (and this is a familiar argument from a lot of media from a lot of time periods). But even weirder, it means that language can be liberated from its deliberative capacity; in Free Fire, language exists almost wholly to crack jokes around the more serious, deliberative function of the gun that delivers justice. Language gets to play at whatever it wants, while guns have to take over the heavy work of working on group dynamics.

Sharlto Copley’s body is the posthuman image par excellence. From District 9 to Elysium to Free Fire, we have watched this one particular guy become things other than human, and in this film we have seen him become a crappy dude from the 1970s. He’s materialistic, manipulative, willing to sacrifice anything for money, and vicious. More than that, we see some actual horrifying physical transformations that are cringe-worthy. I think that someone should probably write about this at some point: this South African guy who has stood on the precipice of the inhuman, the posthuman, and the neoliberal sleazeball.

Free Fire is a movie that is all about people shooting each other, but it’s very sedated for a long time. Guns don’t necessarily punch massive bloody holes in people. Bullets penetrate and stick, or they go through, or they enter and bounce around. Bullets are not what we’re presented with in The Expendables; they’re much less exciting and much more terrifying for it.

By dialing down the extreme violence for much of the film, the director is able to do some truly surprising and brutal things. A wound being sewn up or a used needle stuck in someone’s hand isn’t shocking in the context of a John Wick or a Bourne film, but in this movie they become cringeworthy, horrifying things. By turning the thing that we associate most heavily with have-to-look-away violence into something banal, the “less interesting” violence becomes that much more difficult to watch. It’s a honed idea, and it works here.

I liked Free Fire, and I think you should try to see it in a theater while you can.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , ,

“The horror of life itself”: Wes Craven on his films

Christopher Sharrett – “‘Fairy Tales for the Apocalypse’: Wes Craven on the Horror of Film,” 1985.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , ,

Weedopia and Everything

Just wanted to crosspost two pieces I wrote that were published today:

  1. I wrote a short essay on the game Everything and what I think it does as a game (and how it is in conversation with the creator’s previous game Mountain). I’m really happy with the piece, so please give it a read.
  2. I was finally able to write something longform about the game-that-isn’t called Weedopia. If you’ve been following this blog for a minute, you’ve probably seen me mention it at some point, but I also really like the essay that I wrote about it for Waypoint. In it, I ask where the How High of games actually is.
Posted in General Features | Tagged , , , ,

Bad Affect as Game Design, Or It Feels Good For Overwatch To Feel Bad

This was originally written as a monthly essay for my Patreon. If you like it, consider chipping in $3 a month.

There’s a lot of talk in game design about how to make people feel things.

For the Skinner Box people, the ones who are trying to psychologically dial in exactly how good it should feel to win a match of a competitive card game you play on your phone, you do it through stimulus. You click the button, and it lights up just right. When you open your box of loot that you got from winning way too many games, it shakes in just the right way. But if you hold off on that shake-y click, you might be able to upgrade that bronze box into a silver box when you collect enough doodads. It’s all about the design of making things click in your lizard brain.

While most, if not all, massively popular games are trying to go down that route for various (cough, financial) reasons, I think that lots of game designers would still say that they are going for “classic” methods of getting you to feel good about a game. They’re designing levels, skill trees, and open-world environments with those tried-and-true ideas of flow or game feel in mind.

Those theories aren’t the same, but they’re attached to each other in the belief that games are at their best when their mechanics and expectations are clearly communicated to players. Each desires an end-state of consistency, and the optimal gameplay experience is one in which the player seamlessly melds into the experience of playing a game. With that established, you can play with the model, but that initial smooth space of play is critical.

I’ve done some research at my day job on player toxicity in games, and I’ve even written about my experience of toxicity in a game that many claimed had “fixed” the problem of players being rude as hell to each other. The general belief about toxicity is that it interrupts the smooth space of play–that it generates a bad feeling in players, and that bad feelings tend to spread out into everything. Riot, the developers behind League of Legends, promotes a lot of statistics that suggest that toxic players make for a bad time in a quantifiable and repeatable way, and that if you want to have a good time in a game then you should avoid being toxic.

I’ve now put an embarrassing amount of time into Overwatch for the PS4, and I’ve come to a weird conclusion about how I think bad affects, or bad feelings, might impact a seamless state of play. I think that they help generate one. I think negative feelings might be fully incorporated into my seamless and fun experience of play. And that’s weird.

In other words, I think becoming consistently angry about particular things in Overwatch might have a calming effect that generates a smooth space of play. I’m meditative in my being angry.

To be clear, this is probably an edge case. I play a lot of Overwatch, but I never play with a headset unless I’m in a party with friends. I would say that the total percentage of games that I have played in a party with those friends is probably less than 10% of my total games played.

So when I get angry in Overwatch, it’s with that weird little radial communication system. There are no tanks and we’re dying over and over again to Hanzo headshots from across the map? I’m spamming the “Thank You” command. No healer and I’m dying over and over? Spamming the “Need Healing” command. I’ve finally bit the bullet and I’m playing Mercy, but my team is fighting way off the point and is letting every McCree who has ever played the game jump right up into my face with utmost glee? It’s me, on the couch, hitting the “Thanks!” button until I’m locked out of using it.

I’m not proud of any of that, and I’ve tried to cut it down because it helps no one, but at this point it’s automatic. I’m on autopilot when I sarcastically use these commands to signal my unhappiness, and from a personal perspective it’s an entirely neutral thing. While I’m sure that deep in my brain I am feeling some kind of anger, on the top level I am just hitting that button to signal my unhappiness.

My ability to signal that I am having a bad time allows me to process that out within the game itself. It’s rare that I put Overwatch down and have any lingering feelings of anger or frustration, even if I lose several times in a row. That radial dial of bad feelings allows me to put it all out there, and importantly, to leave it there.

It’s probably crucial that it’s (mostly) impossible to target another player with sarcasm using the communication wheel. Short of walking up to a teammate and spamming the emotion right in their face (which I guess I could do), there’s no way for me to say “THANKS!” to a particular Reinhardt after he fails to use his shield for the 50th time in a row. I can only denote that I am unhappy, and that lack of targeting means that I don’t have people messaging me on PSN asking me what my problem is (or why I am so bad at the game).

It feels weird to admit to a kind of passive haterism, but this particular anonymizing and untargetable generation of bad affects sorta works. I get to immediately divest myself of unhappiness, and other players are able to do the same. It’s a way of expressing anger in the game without anyone knowing that they’re to blame or that you’re angry at them. You’re just someone spamming a button, and you can be ignored.

My weird play experience suggests to me that toxicity (and this is, I’m sure, considered toxic play) can be the baseline of that consistent and full game state that generates the “best” or “elegant” gameplay experiences.

[Addendum a little while after original publication:]

I don’t think this is intended behavior in that it is put there by the design team, but I do think this very limited form of button-based communication that can be spammed generates something different from being able to write text with your keyboard or yell with your mouth in voice chat. I also don’t think any of this “working” (in the sense that I’m able to leave these emotions in the game) is really a positive development. After all, for other players, it just looks like I’m being a huge jerk. And I am, to be clear, being a huge jerk. But I think all of this points to some interesting spillover effects from solutions that, at least on a theoretical level, should limit toxic play.

From my experience that I’m trying to lay out here, though, I think it might just morph into a different form that’s qualitatively different for the end user although maybe not different in kind.

I wrote this little addendum after rereading the piece and not thinking that there was a clear conclusion.

Posted in General Features, Video Games | Tagged , , ,

Bernard De Koven on approaching death

If you want to do something for me or because of me, grieving is not what I need. What I need is for you to continue your play/work however you can. Play games. Play the kind of games I like to teach – you know, those “funny games” – harmlessly intimate, vaguely physical games of the semi-planned, spontaneous, just-for-fun ilk, basically without equipment, or goal, or score or reason, even.

Teach those games to everyone. Play them outside, these games. In public. With friends. And strangers. As many as want to play with you.

Make up your own games. Make them up together with the people who play them. Play. Teach. Invent. Play some more.

Hello. My Name Is Bernie. My Friends Call Me ‘Blue.’ I Have Cancer And Maybe A Year To Live. This Is What I’d Like You To Do About It.

Posted in Annihilation, Video Games | Tagged , ,

On Dishonored, the Inside, and the Outside

This is a quick post about Dishonored, a game I wrote a lot more about back when it came out. Spoilers abound.


I’m playing through Dishonored again after a very long time (so that I can play the sequel, finally), and I’m struck by how often the side characters talk about the “mission area” of the game versus the “home hub” of the game. If you don’t remember, the structure of Dishonored is that the protagonist Corvo is assassinating and missioning his way through various tasks that have been set up for him by a group of conspirators. Those conspirators want to put the true heir Empress back on the throne of the Empire of the Isles, and to do their bidding Corvo hops on a boat, gets taken into the city, and then comes back again to discuss whatever he needs to that might make the plot move along.

The characters he’s speaking to are very explicit about the separation between those places. They say “the city” despite the Hounds Pits Pub (their base of operations) being located within, or at least in tight relationship to, that city. Sam, the sidekick who operates the boat for Corvo, helps maintain that, and lots of his dialogue pretends as if he isn’t a few hundred yards from Corvo’s violence/sneaking mission.

The big reveal of Dishonored is, of course, that the conspiracy you’re a part of were villainous the whole time. The Hounds Pits Pub, this place that you’ve been traversing for funsies throughout the game, gets turned into its own level. And it would have been easy for that just be a linguistic and mechanical turn (“these people are now your enemies!”), but the game’s continual statements about the content of the game taking place “out there” and “in the city” means that the reversal of the home base into the “out there” is even more distressing.

In a conspiracy, there’s only one safe harbor, and it’s who and what you trust. Through these throwaway lines, the game spends hours establishing that this place, this pub, is 100% legit. And in a moment, it’s flipped around.

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Posted in Video Games | Tagged , , , ,

“No One Criticized Bioshock Infinite Before!”


All week long I’ve been reading tweets that have intimated that there has been some kind of sea change opinion shift in the way that Bioshock Infinite was received by audiences. The entire conversation has had a kind of “these damn hipsters” feel, as if the HD rerelease of some blockbuster game should be met with the sanctified silence of the venerated tomb, and I just wanted to take a moment to maybe put some of these sentiments into perspective.

In my neck of the internet woods, Bioshock Infinite was put under the knife. I collected thirty pieces of criticism on the game myself, and I probably made the active choice not to put another thirty on there for content overlap reasons. It was a game that the critical community showed up for, talked about, and came to some general consensus about. People were critical, have been critical, and actually formed an opinion about this game before it was expedient to on the release of the HD remasters in TYOOL 2016.

I’m not surprised by the surprise that some people critically engaged with the game. Tevis Thompson’s post-Infinite review castigation piece neatly split “critics” and “reviewers” into two camps, and if I had to hazard a guess I would say that the people whose tweets I’ve seen were maybe more familiar with the latter than the former.

And it isn’t their fault. Games criticism seems to be everywhere in my internet social circles, but that’s because I’m in it, have been in it. I’ve watched a dozen sites, magazines, and personal projects centered on critical inquiry in games sink beneath the tides of no money, no attention, no time. I’ve seen other places linger on (this site might be in that lingering zone). I can’t really say that I’ve seen any site thrive, even if thriving means living on the best side of precarity, but I have seen some critics do well, which is maybe the best thing that I can ask for.

There was a time that the primary argument in the broad world of games criticism went something like this: if we can get things archived so that people have a history and if we can get people paid so they’re not scrambling all the time then we will be able to have a critical community that will raise the level of discourse around games. That seemed to be a shared goal, and many, many people have left the world of games disgusted because they came to believe that achieving the first two might not move the chains on the third in any way.

So “no one criticized Infinite before!” comes to signify two things for me.

The first is that the games criticism of three, four, five years ago wasn’t all that successful. We didn’t reach the broad audience, and that’s a bummer, but it’s also not surprising.

The second is that something has changed. If the world were the same way it was three years ago, the people finding out about these long standing critiques would still be walking around thinking everyone sees Infinite as a holy grail of achievement. And that’s heartening, in some ways, because it means the discourse has shifted that little, small amount. The words got out, somehow.

In any case, that’s just what I’ve been thinking about this week. I’ve got the long view on “games criticism” at this point, like quite a few others, and I’d say that 80% of the people doing that kind of work on the internet who predate myself and my “cohort” have gone on to other things. Maybe even higher. But there’s a weird print in the culture in the shape of their words, and well, I guess that’s something.


Posted in Video Games | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment