Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ignorance is Bliss. Kill the Scientists.

As I’m writing this, several Italian scientists are going on trial for manslaughter because (if I am understanding the news reports I have read correctly), they failed to predict an earthquake that killed over 300 people. Not because they caused the earthquake; not because they knew there would be an earthquake and didn’t tell anyone; but because they didn’t know there would be an earthquake. Essentially (and again, assuming I am reading this correctly), the scientists are being charged with the deaths of hundreds simply because they were unable to do something they hoped they would be able to do.

Months earlier, Australia’s top climate scientists began receiving abusive phone calls as well as death threats because of the work they have been doing towards better understanding global warming. As opposed to the Italian scientists being crucified for not doing something the general public wanted them to do, these scientists are being threatened for saying something no one wants to hear.

These are two pretty extreme examples of the fall out of what I see as a recent, pervasive trend of wanting to shoot the scientific messenger. Scientists try to understand the world and sometimes that means discovering things we would rather not know, such as how we are responsible for a progressively warming planet and rising sea levels. Instead of dealing with the problems, we move to discredit those delivering it. After all, it is easier to assume the world isn’t warming than it is to actually change our behaviours and societies enough to fix it.

Not helping is a rise in the fundamentalist and conservative right in both the press and politics of many countries that have an interest in not just discrediting climate change but also evolution, stem cell research, and many other strands of science. As such, over the past decades, the authority of scientists on a vast range of subjects has been eroded down to the same level as newspaper editorials, footpath vox pops, and angry bloggers. Many people don't want to hear from the brainy, ivory tower intellectuals about a topic; they want to hear from the average Joe.

Of course, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Scientists have always been scapegoated for telling people what they don’t want to hear and not telling them what they do want to hear. It comes in waves, and at the moment, as we come to terms with just how unsustainable our first-world lives really are, we are certainly at the muddy bottom of the curve.

Personally, I find it all incredibly infuriating when I watch television and see creationism and evolution debated as equal ‘theories’, or when the secret agendas of a climate scientist's peer-reviewed findings are questioned by an oil company, but that is not an area I’m an expert in or tend to write on. What I find interesting, however, is how this general attitude to the sciences permeates and is reflected in our cultural texts. In particularly, two videogames I’ve played and loved in recent months I think could be seen as emerging from this culture that has become obsessed with discrediting and deriding the sciences.

Two caveats. One: There have been stories about well-meaning scientists making dumb mistakes and paying the consequences for them for as long as there has been scientists (Frankenstein, for instance), and I am not trying to say “Look at this entirely unique thing that has never happened before!”. Rather, I’m hoping to just point at what I see as a really interesting, recent emergence of it. Two: These games, I don’t for a minute believe, are intentionally forwarding some secret, anti-science agenda. Rather, they simply reflect the culture they are produced in.

The first game is Halfbrick’s amazing Jetpack Joyride. Jetpack Joyride is the definitive moment where Canabalt stopped referring to a group of games mimicking Saltsman’s game and started referring to an actual genre. Jetpack Joyride has a simple framing narrative set up mostly in the game’s trailer: playable character Barry is a down-and-out blue collar who is sick of his day job and decides to steal a machinegun jetpack from the top secret science lab. After blowing through the wall and sending scientists flying, Barry straps on the backpack and the player must use the jetpack (and a range of other contraptions) to avoid electric zappers and missiles while collecting coins and getting as far as possible. The gameplay is so simple, so intuitive, yet so compelling, so diverse, and so intuitive. It is a phenomenal game and if you own an iOS device and have yet to own it, you are doing yourself a great disservice. But what stands out most in Jetpack Joyride is the insane amount of polish that has gone into the game—something that Halfbrick is already well known for after their successful Fruit Ninja. The shockwaves from explosions, the “thud” of the Little Stomper vehicle’s footsteps, the thrust of the jetpack all feel so good.

One such detail is the little scientists running around beneath you. The little guys are panicking, helpless, and clueless as you destroy their lab and send bullets flying everywhere. It’s as though they have no idea how to react to Barry stealing their device. They run back and forward, they get in the road of rockets, get capped by your bullets, immolated by your flames, and zapped by the zappers. Sometimes, they just slip over.

It’s meant to be funny, watching them run around and get zapped, and it truly is. The scientists also come into play in the games mission structure, with objectives such as high-fiving (i.e. running past) scientists and achievements for avoiding them. But, ultimately, Jetpack Joyride is a product of a culture influenced by politicians and the press determined to discredit and degrade scientists. Everything in the portrayal of the scientists and of Barry in relationship to the scientists is about portraying the supposedly-intelligent scientists as actually dumb and brought down to the same level as the supposedly-yokel blue-collar worker who is actually in charge. It’s a revenge fantasy, really. Look at how dumb the stupid scientists are. Not so smart now, eh? I have your contraption and you don’t have any answers as to what to do about it.

The other game is also an iOS title, but one that is probably far less known. This game is League of Evil, and you play a brawny cyborg who must punch the heads off evil scientists. Again, League of Evil is a great game. Despite the on-screen controls, it is one of the better sidescrollers on iOS and has a real Super Meat Boy Lite kind of feel. But, again, it is possible to read it as emerging from an anti-science culture. Unlike Jetpack Joyride’s scientists, the unquestioningly evil scientists of League of Evil just stand there, waiting for you to punch their heads off. It’s the brawn’s time to shine.

In fairness, this is part and parcel of being a videogame—it is easier to put the player in control of a character whose strength lies in physical abilities than intellectual ones. When you press a button on your controller, you generally want to see something tangible happen in the videogame’s world. It’s something that Half Life 2 comments on when Barney remarks how useful Gordon Freeman’s MIT doctorate was for pulling a lever. So usually, if not the bad guy, the scientist is rarely in a role more noble than sidekick, the one giving the brawny main dude his cool gadgets. Snake has Otakon, Bond has Q, Ezio has de Vinci.

So it is not as though Jetpack Joyride and League of Evil have made scientists the victims/enemies simple because “society hates science nowadays” or anything so reductive. But rather, the way the scientists are presented as dumb, degraded, and helpless offers an interesting lens through which we can see how the prolonged treatment of scientists and science within the media and by our politicians is perhaps starting to drip down into an everyday perception of science as untrustworthy, annoying, and dangerous.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Split Screen: Freedom in Alcatraz

I have commenced a new column at Kill Screen that is all about playable characters and how they control us. The first, introductory column went up this week and is all about Alcatraz of Crysis 2 and The Shawshank Redemption. It also has an amazing piece of art by Daniel Purvis. If you read it, I'd love to hear what you think about it.

I am Waaaaggghhh

I really like Warhammer 40,000. Not so much the tabletop game (which I suck at) or the miniatures (which I love but, again, suck at) but the fictional universe itself. I love the idea of the Imperium of Man as this futuristic, zealous, fundamentalist movement where humanity itself is the religion. I always found it a fascinating mix of medieval zeal and distopic science-fantasy and continued to devour many novels set among its stars even after I gave up the tabletop game and diverted my funds away from the miniatures to buying more videogames.

Still, despite my love of the fiction, I did not find myself too interested in Space Marine before it came out. I was never too interested in Orks, and as fascinated as I was with the Imperium of Man, I always found Ultramarines to be the drabbest of many drab Space Marine chapters. But then I watched the cinematic trailer (I'm a sucker for cinematic trailers) and had a change of heart when I saw that Chaos would be making an appearance, too. Ultimately, the trailer convinced me that the game successfully captured the feel and vibe of the 40K universe, and that was enough for me.

I'm glad I did because Space Marine is really, really fun. The boltguns feel meaty and the melee is visceral. Shooting and hacking is streamed beautifully so combat slides fluidly from picking off enemy gunners with a scoped rifle to thinning out the hordes with the boltgun before throwing yourself fully into the remainder with chainsword or power axe to pick off those that are left--and there will always be many left. Combat is repetitive and button-mashy, but this quick three-act cycle of distant/mid/close combat gives it a really steady, thumping rhythm that is pleasurable despite its repetition.

The game's feel has been polished well so that the combat is accentuated brilliantly. Orks have this kind of satisfying 'splat' of blood when the fatal bullet impacts them, as though their body expels all the blood remaining in their veins as they die. This offers a vital piece of information to the player, informing them thatone target is dead and they can move onto the next, but it is also, simply, really satisfying to feel your opponents pop like that. It is an odd comparison, perhaps, but the closest game that 'feels' like that to me is Geometry Wars 2. The enemies, when they die, have the same kind of chunk, meaty, splatting nuance to them. This splat is missing from close combat, but that is hardly a problem as it will be a rare occasion that you fell an ork in melee and its body is still in one piece. 

Though, unfortunately, the game is still chunky and clumsy in places. The narrative is rarely convincing and poorly communicated to the player. Often, it feels as though the characters have had a conversation while the player was out of the room, and the player is the only one present who doesn't know something. One example: the space marines see a weird ork contraption in the distance and one of them ponders "What is that?!" Minutes later, you are approaching it and your character says "Quickly! We must destroy the ork ram!" Oh, okay. I guess it is a ram then. I'm glad we figured that out and no one told me. It is always minor things, but it jars with the progression of the story in quite a few places. Also, for a game about space marines, there are precious few space marines present. If not for one vox transmission too far into the game's second chapter, I would have sworn the Emperor only deployed three single space marines to take out an ork infestation. Ultimately, the narrative feels like a condiment to the game and in no way integral to it.

Which is odd as the worldbuilding is excellent. Everything feels like Warhammer 40K. The universe, the species, the imperium are all depicted perfectly so that simply engaging with that fiction makes the game enjoyable. The way the space marines tower over the imperial guardsmen, the humility and zeal, the pride and lack of compassion all feel superb. The ork models are vibrantly coloured as though they were picked right out of the pages of a White Dwarf magazine. Everything looks and feels like 40K and this more than makes up for the clumsy, poorly delivered narrative.

There are also glitches here and there, such as enemies getting stuck on walls or allies teleporting onto lifts or audio diaries playing simultaneously with squadmate chatter. Also, all space marines and orks seem to have come from the same region of England, but none of this gets in the road of the rollicking fun of shooting and chopping through orks. Sadly, though, one thing does: Chaos.

When Chaos rocks up about four chapters into the game, things begin to go downhill insofar as the fundamental fun of combat begins to decline. Significantly, the pleasurable 'splat' of a dead ork is not present with the chaos demons. The demons have a long, drawn out death animation that every single demon plays out exactly the same way when they die as your power axe just keeps swinging through them as though they have already returned to the warp. The few Chaos Space Marines I have fought so far, too, are hardly enjoyable to fight. Your bolts no longer explode in the flesh but ting insignificantly off power armour. The gameplay has been tuned to make fighting orks fun in a 1-vs-1000 kind of style. But Chaos Space Marines are your equal, and this doesn't sit well in the game's framework. Ultimately, fighting Chaos is unsatisfying.

Which is interesting, as it was the presence of Chaos that convinced me to try the game out. But once they appear, it becomes painfully clear that the game was not designed for them. Perhaps a more Gears of War-based cover shooter would be more enjoyable against Chaos Space Marines, as then you could bunker down and fight against them as equals. But Space Marine is designed for you to jump unafraid into a horde of orks and to be confident that you can come out of it on the other side alive and covered in the blood of greenskins.

The game itself seems to realise this. Not long after Chaos arrived, they now seem to have disappeared again as I go back to helping Guardsmen fight the orks. I'm sure they'll appear again soon, though, and hopefully something changes to make them more enjoyable to fight. But for now, Space Marine seems to be a good case study against putting something in a game just because you can. Sure, Chaos fits with the fiction of the 40K universe and they have been as beautifully realised within the game as every other element, but in the style of play that Space Marine demands, they are just no fun to fight. But for now, splatting orks is more than making up for them.