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Gone Girl: Sympathy for the GamerGater

This post contains spoilers for the film “Gone Girl”.

I managed to catch Gone Girl during its last days in the first-run theaters. I feel glad that I did; it’s a stylish film, what I think of as a Fincher/Reznor collaboration (per The Social Network) where the latter’s synthesized instrumental score is nearly a character unto itself, stepping into the foreground during the tensest scenes, playing as important a role as the actors’ spoken dialogue. I liked that.

The film’s content, though, I feel less unqualified admiration for. Maybe this is informed to some degree by the coincidence of the title’s initials, but it struck me as a film quite in step with GamerGate’s anti-feminist, even gynophobic philosophies. Gone Girl’s story takes place in a world where women actually do the awful things that GamerGate accuses its own female harassment-targets of. I couldn’t help but see it as a window into the mind of men who are petrified with contemplation of the life-upending terrors they fear women as having the power to perpetrate.

Gone Girl introduces us to a woman, a creative professional, who wishes to redefine her marriage to a less successful writer — a fellow who, various faults and infidelities aside, seems a decent enough guy. Through a convoluted plot, she fakes her own abduction, leaves a trail of false evidence implicating her husband, then reappears with more lies about escaping, torn and battered, from the dungeons of a rapist (who was, in fact, another wholly innocent man). She immediately becomes a news sensation, rewarded with global attention and adulation for her bravery. This she uses to strong-arm her unwilling, beleaguered husband — now tarred with suspicion in the public eye — into living with her forever, raising a child he doesn’t want, trapped unhappy and afraid in a permanent panopticon of sympathetic media built from his wife’s constructed fame.

She has no motivation, other than perhaps a lust for attention. While her celebrity as a children’s book author appears in backstory, as far as the film’s plot is concerned, her only real career is that of a full-time con artist and master manipulator of public opinion.

Given the events of the last few months, I found it unavoidable not to see the film as uncomfortably parallel with GamerGate’s worldview, specifically its continued suspicion that the various “Literally Who” victims of its own harassment have been just making it up all along for attention and sympathy and positive game reviews (even though, for the most part, GamerGate couldn’t care less about the actual games they made).

Through this lens, we can see Affleck’s character as the every-gater: just some poor guy who only wants to be left alone to enjoy his shooty-games in peace, before a crazy lady swoops in and tells him how to live his life. Against all sense and sanity, she wins, because she gets the media on her side through a careful campaign of fake documentation and blatantly false assault accusations that nobody with power questions. Only the poor, disempowered man and a handful of his trusted friends know the truth, but this knowledge is useless against the tide of public opinion. Poor Ben Affleck’s character!

I have no reason to believe that the filmmakers set out to create antifeminist propaganda, and I won’t even go so far as to say that they did anyway. My reaction to this film is my own, leavened with my observations of the GamerGate saga, as well as my first-hand experiences as organizing an indie game competition amidst this environment. Looking at it positively, I can say that it’s given me another ounce of empathy for the majority of self-identifying GamerGate proponents who do not actively participate in harassment, but are also blind to the culture-poisoning all around them. Not only do they view social progress and artistic critique as assaults on their identity, but — as the unwitting parable of Gone Girl helps me understand better — GamerGaters see themselves as increasingly powerless to do anything about it. Nobody will listen to them.

And that’s a shame.

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XCOM's mastery of player complicity

Much as Fallout: New Vegas felt like an entire season or two of a solid TV series (as Matt Weise and I discussed in Play of the Light), XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like an epic movie or miniseries. New Vegas begins with a single motivating frame, but delivers many episodic stories while the protagonist pursues it; XCOM has only one story, but it’s a war story told across a handful of discrete acts, driven forward by a course of high and low points. That alone might have been enough to have me play through the whole thing, but I find XCOM uniquely compelling in how it makes me feel like I’m playing a sizable role in creating the story, despite its necessarily pre-scripted underpinnings.

Solitaire video games have been using well-established filmic story techniques for some time now, of course; screenwriter Todd Alcott described how Half-Life adheres satisfyingly to a modern three-act story structure. But where games like Half-Life or Bioshock speak to you through a linear series of obstacle courses, XCOM gives you a wider structure of non-predetermined procedural events, with scripted plot points acting more as targets to aim for than paths to maneuver through. I haven’t quite seen this since Star Control 2, and I believe that XCOM’s design proves even more effective in providing a real sense of agency — and therefore complicity — to its player.

This happened to me yesterday:

My satellite network — hastily assembled and sparser than I’d like, due to early-game mismanagement, but still effective — tracked the landing of what the game described as a small scout UFO in a Chinese swamp. I had recently entered what I take to be the story’s Act II, shortly into which I had shot down and captured the most enormous UFO I’d encountered so far. A surprise raid on a scout ship sounded like an easy dessert mission.

I — that is, me, in my living room, not any in-game protagonist bound to scripted events — decided to treat this as an opportunity for a live-fire training exercise. This is not a choice I picked from a menu of ways to respond to the situation, nor was it anything suggested to me by in-game advisors. Through a few minutes’ worth of manual controller-fiddling, I had most of my usual team hang up their equipment and return to the barracks, and equipped and deployed less-experienced soldiers in their place. I also rolled in a robotic mobile weapons platform that my engineers had just researched and built, but which we hadn’t fielded yet.

When the strike team reached the landing site, I had an up-and-coming heavy-weapons specialist accompany the robot in approaching the little craft directly, while the other four soldiers flanked it. No sooner did the lead man see that the ship’s door was already open did it pour forth a host of alien horrors none of us had never seen before. As the rest of the team watched in shock and confusion, they took my poor sergeant like an offered hors d’oeuvre.

The battle ended moments later with no further casualties on my side, but the camera let itself linger on the higher-ranking soldier who had rushed to the spot where his comrade fell. I couldn’t tell quite what gestures he was making underneath all the after-action-report text on the screen, but I think he may have been sobbing.

While I saved my game before this (and I’m not a lunatic who activates the permadeath-ish “Ironman Mode” on my first play-through) I didn’t go back and try the mission over. Despite the loss, it felt like a gain, narratively speaking. This thrillingly worst-way education that my team has yet to see the full scope of the alien threat yet would fit perfectly into any filmed sci-fi epic, and so it did in the epic I increasingly feel like I’m co-authoring with XCOM’s creators.

I felt like I helped make it happen. And not in the sense of “Gosh, I really screwed up — I deserved that setback,” but in the sense that I played an actual participatory role in helping the game tell its story. The game encouraged me to feel overconfident, but it was my own choice to actually adopt that stance, going so far as to put green troops in harm’s way, and paying a dear price for what we all learned. This isn’t the first time this feeling arose during this play-through, but it is the most recent, and (with the shocking on-screen death of a secondary but still “speaking-role” character) maybe the most personally affecting so far.

Many other games would either fall back on a completely scripted cutscene to express this plot point, or would treat my sub-optimal performance as a complete failure, as if I had wandered off-script and spoiled the story, and would demand a do-over. XCOM, like magic, transforms gameplay failure into a narrative “low point”, tempering the protagonists’ power and complicating their goals, and it feels right. And the story continues from there.

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No Show Conf and IF stuff (with bonus movie)

Ns logo smallThe very first No Show Conference is happening this coming weekend on the MIT campus. Organzied by local videogame producer Courtney Stanton, it’s angled at game-making professionals working in any medium. As I write this, there’s only a couple of dozen tickets left, so if you’ve access to Boston and this is your sort of thing, you may wish to get on that.

While it’s not on its official schedule, No Show shall play host to this year’s Interactive Fiction Summit, late of PAX East. The People’s Republic decided to give PAX a pass this year, in favor of a smaller and more developer-focused conference, and lo, one has appeared. As suggested by the fact that I write this post just a few days before the event, the Summit doesn’t quite have the definition it enjoyed during the PAX years; really, it’s just a call for IF authors and fans to come on by and find one another.

That said, No Show does itself take a IF-philic stance — the structure of the conference’s demo hall is inspired by the IF Demo Fair that Emily Short organized during last year’s PAX East. Furthermore, No Show speakers include IF authors Clara Fernández-Vara, Dierdra Kiai, and Jim Munroe, presenting on a variety of topics around games and culture. (I suspect that Dierdra’s alt-universe satirical examination of “Men in Games” will end up an especially popular talk.)

As a special treat, Jim Munroe will screen his new film Ghosts with Shit Jobs on Saturday evening, bracketing it with a panel discussion featuring our own Andrew Plotkin and local webcomic superstar Randal Munroe. That screening is part of MIT’s summer film series, not No Show, so it’s free and open to the public.

So, yes, that’s where I’ll be all weekend.

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I like Indie Game: The Movie

If you, like me, hadn’t paid much attention to Indie Game: The Movie because it doesn’t have a very strong title, let me assure you that it’s a poor match for what turns out to be a really impressive documentary with a focused and strong narrative. It’s available digitally via various channels (I rented it on iTunes), and I highly recommend forgiving it for keeping its working title.

The movie’s central track follows the creators of Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes — as well as their families, necessarily along for the ride — as they grind through the months leading up the game’s debut. They finally release the game to fame and fortune, but even moreso relief and redemption, the end of years of stressful, unpaid toil. The filmmakers do a fine job balancing their attention over the course of their story between the artists and their work, digging into the details of the game’s mechanics (employing clever and restrained animation) when it serves to further the story. And it often does, considering how bound up the developers’ lives are with their game during this period.

Jon Blow brackets this narrative, here cast as a bodhisattva who has already walked this path and transcended, long ago (all the way back in 2008, with Braid). The film lets Blow define its epigraph, beginning and ending with his assertion that making a great game demands that its creators plant their deepest and most personal vulnerabilities in its core, and seeing what grows from there. We see this reflected strongest in McMillen’s guided tour of his own body of work leading up to Meat Boy. His examination of that game’s themes (which happen in large part to be about vulnerability itself), and the way the movie ties them into his life, makes for some of Indie Game’s most memorable moments.

(As for Jon, the movie does sometimes press the guru frame on him a little hard. At one point, it juxtaposes his sighing about how nobody really understood Braid’s narrative with YouTube footage of Soulja Boy and his friends laughing with genuine delight while they play with the game’s time-rewind button. It came off, perhaps unintentionally, as an invitation to consider whether Blow was the one missing the point.)

Phil Fish, creator of Fez, gets about as much screen time as the Meat Boy makers. His story, however, is much less certain, allowing the film to display a cloudier version of Team Meat’s happy-ending narrative. Where McMillen and Refenes’s struggles are buoyed by their families and fans, Fish’s company is often dominated by the hordes of gamers who voice their fury across the web every time Fez misses another deadline. It has missed several by the time the film joins him, and in the camera’s eye, this has worn deeply on him. While he speaks poignantly about his personal connections to the game, he also speaks with stark frankness of his desire to commit suicide should it fail to ship. Later, he fantasizes mid-interview about murdering an estranged business partner with an intensity that doesn’t invite laughs. His story doesn’t get any easier from there, and ends ambiguously.

(As it turned out, Fez would finally ship almost at the same time as the movie, in the spring of 2012. And the game would be pretty darn great. And Fish’s twitter account appears rather unshy about his depiction in the film, linking to its digital-download release quite a lot this month.)

No, I don’t have a better suggestion for a title. So stop listening to me and go watch the movie. Its stories show a very narrow slice of a new artform’s widening bandwidth but this focus plays to its credit. Indie Game will probably be the smartest and least condescending feature about videogames you’ve seen so far.

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Three upcoming documentaries on games

We seem to be entering a nexus of documentaries about games. Far be it from me to do anything but encourage further flowering in this field! Witness:

Lorien Green has released a clip of Gone Cardboard, a film about board games -- particularly Eurogames, by the looks of it -- and the people who play them. She expects to release the final cut in early 2011. (Link via Kevin Jackson-Mead.)

The enigmatically named Spinach hopes to produce a doc about people who create digital games, called You Meet the Nicest People Making Videogames. That link leads to the project's Kickstarter fundraising page, which includes a teaser he filmed at GDC. Mr. Spinach approaches this endeavor from scratch, and needs help covering both equipment and travel costs, a position I can certainly appreciate. He's a quarter of the way to his goal, so far... (Link via Anna Anthropy.)

And of course, just 49 hours and 15 minutes after I type these words, I plan on attending the world premiere of Jason Scott's Get Lamp at PAX East. It is part of the interactive fiction track which is of course the real reason to attend the show, ho ho. Jason's been working on this film for years, and I was privileged to see a clip a few months ago at a Boston IF meetup. It's gonna be a goodie.

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Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

Last night I watched Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, a documentary by Kevin Rafferty, about a single extraordinary college football game that occurred in 1968. I highly recommend this movie to anyone interested in the art of documenting the play of games, of any sort.

The film interweaves footage of the game - which exists as a single, no-frills, televised tape - with interviews of its players, who have been living with its memory for 40 years. The subtext is how profoundly a single game affected them that they could remember it so vividly; Rafferty frequently juxtaposes their memories with the filmed footage of the events they describe to prove this (as well as to display a couple of notable exceptions).

Structurally, it inevitably reminded me of our own Diplomacy episode, with the notable absence of any hovering narrator explaining the game's rules. The voice of the 1968's game's TV announcer is preserved, though, and becomes invested with an unusual poignancy when put into this film's context.

I assert that this picture is worth watching even if you don't care about - or don't know anything about - American football, but feel free to read Zarf's Guide to Watching the Football first if you wish (noting that it's optimized for professional playoff games happening four decades apart from this one).

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Myst news: progress on Myst movie, iPhone Riven

I haven't posted much about the Myst movie project since I first blogged about it. Patrick McIntire and Adrian Vanderbosch have been posting occasionally on their blog, but while they've been colorful about the life of indie filmmakers, they haven't had much in the way of solid news.

They still don't have solid news. But they do have encouraging news:

Our trip to LA was to meet with potential producing partners.  What this means is that we were looking for producers to join forces with to further develop the script and project in preparation for pitching to the studios. [...]

We have joined forces with two production companies.  Announcement of those names will come at a later date after some business elements have been taken care of.  For now I will tell you this: One of our partners has a first-look deal at Warner Brothers.  [...]  Don't assume this is a guarantee of WB being the studio.  I will also tell you that the other producer we partnered with is an Oscar winner and has extensive experience with world-creation and bringing epic films like ours to the theaters.  We are very excited about our partners and we're enjoying the collaboration.

-- Adrian Vanderbosch, posting on Christmas

So, no deal yet. But they have friends in high places, or rather in glitzy places, who will be working with them to help make a deal possible. (Adrian estimates that they're "two and half or three years" away from having a finished film, and that's if they don't bog down anywhere.)

I find this awesome, and I look forward to more.


In other news, Chogon (Mark DeForest, CTO of Cyan) posted this on the Myst forums a few days ago:

I am working on Riven for the iPhone/iTouch (along with RAWA and Rand) as I type. And yes. There are some challenges still ahead that I am confident we can solve. And we are determine to make this the best Riven evvvv-er.

(That's with Richard Watson and Rand Miller, two of the other Cyan honchos.)

Myst has been ported to quite a few platforms (DS, iPhone, Saturn, Jaguar... seriously, I didn't even know about most of these). Riven, due to its size -- five CD-ROMs originally -- has been much less widely ported. And in fact, while I've replayed versions of Myst several times over the years, I've never gone back to Riven. My old Mac version certainly won't run on OSX, and I've never gone through the contortions needed to set up a Windows version.

So I'm super-excited about an iPhone Riven. There are challenges, as Chogon says; see his full post for his comments about making the video-playing toolkit do what they need it to do. But it's in progress.

(Yes, someone asked about Droid/Android. Unfortunately the current Android devices still have limited space for app storage, so no luck there for the moment.)

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Embittered Movie Review: "Metro Polis"

If you enjoy my game videos, perhaps you will like this. The idea for this literally woke me up in the pre-dawn hours last Saturday, and I found the time to put it together last night.

There actually is a game connection, here. I was inspired to try applying the attitude of certain contemporary reviewers of very old video games -- who often make little to no effort to place their comments in the games' historical context -- and apply it to a very old movie. It flew off the rails from there, of course, for the sake of comedy. But, there it is.

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Tron sequel trailer

I justify this as a Gameshelf topic by being twelve. Once upon a time.

Behold the movie trailer for the sequel to Tron:

Tron: Legacy splash image
(Trailer page)

(Some of this trailer escaped the marketing firewall last year, in handheld shakycam. This is an updated version, official, available in hi-res. You want to watch it in hi-res.)

It is weird and lame and probably incorrect to say that Tron defined the visual aesthetic of computer games for a generation. It just defined coolness for the computer game world for me, forever, because I was twelve. Everything about it was awesome.

I even remember the ad that played before the movie, for Atari video games. It used a cheesy pixelization graphical effect (probably cost millions of dollars, and was a trivial Photoshop filter within a decade). I remember thinking "Is this awesome? No, it kind of ain't," and then I realized it wasn't the movie yet.

I don't know if this Tron: Legacy will be any good. The original certainly wasn't any good. I am going to squinch up my hands and hope for "awesome" instead. The artists who worked on this trailer have the right magic in their sights.

As a side justification for this post, the marketing machinery is using an alternate-reality fiction model: http://www.flynnlives.com/, http://www.homeoftron.com/. Who knows, maybe they'll get a game into it. That would be desirably recursive.

(In other "oh lord my childhood is taking over the world" news, Henson Studios has confirmed that The Power of the Dark Crystal and the Fraggle Rock movie will be in theaters in 2011. Holy mazumba.)

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Myst: the movie: the fan audition movie

I posted last year about a couple of indie filmmakers who are tackling the idea of a Myst movie. Sadly, Patrick McIntire and Adrian Vanderbosch still haven't made a film -- last we heard, they had a script of roughly three zillion pages and were trying to slash it down to feature-length.

I still think that's pretty awesome, but even more awesome -- at a slightly different angle -- is this: their project has inspired a different couple of guys to become amateur filmmakers, from a standing start. Isaac Testerman and Nate Salciccioli have produced what they call an "Audition Project", offering to help out with the Mysteriacs film.

Watch the Audition Project on their web site, or on the Mysteriacs blog.

Regardless of where it goes, it is great: a ten-minute clip, covering several scenes of the basic Book of Ti'ana story. Shot on the classic shoestring budget, on locations (seriously: real caves), and it looks terrific. Plus director commentary at the end! The story stands on its own; my only note is that the character Aitrus you're watching is the grandfather of the Atrus in the Myst games.

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Myst: the movie: the trailer

People talk about a movie based on the Myst games. People have been talking about it since Myst first appeared. Cyan even starting working with the Sci-Fi Channel around 2002, but that effort was quietly canned after a few months. (For creative differences, i.e., Cyan didn't like what the SFC was planning. As the SFC's adaptations have ranged from the miserable (Earthsea, Riverworld) all the way up to adequate (Children of Dune), nobody was too stricken about this.)

It is less well known that a couple of indie filmmakers have been struggling with a Myst film for several years now. They only opened their web site this past February, but there has been a great deal of quiet work before that.

Patrick McIntire and Adrian Vanderbosch do not yet have a movie. They do not yet have funding, or actors, or indeed a complete script. They do, however, have a concept trailer. This is an animatic, a series of storyboard images linked with music and voiceover dialogue. They produced it in 2004, in support of their proposal to Cyan to make a movie. Cyan liked the looks of it, and said "Go for it."

Yesterday they put this animatic on-line. So take a look.

It may help to know that the movie is based on Myst: The Book of Ti'ana. It is set many years before the Myst games, the era of Atrus's grandparents, at the height (and end) of the D'ni civilization.

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