Saturday 31 December 2011

A Very Brindle Christmas

This article was jointly written by John and Jimmy Brindle.

How does your family spend Christmas? Eating a huge dinner whose duties are passed slowly down from generation to generation? Guiltylessly zombifying with well-stuffed stomachs before a blazing TV? Perhaps you all go out for a walk along the spine of a nearby hill and reflect upon the changing landscape. Whatever it is, I’m sure you have your way of doing things. That’s nice. We Brindles spent each festive season ritually fighting and betraying one another.

Tom Brindle, alias ‘Dad’, was ahead of his time. When he wasn’t collecting incapacity benefits under 14 different aliases or undergoing torturous experimental treatments, he funded his ever-growing family as a ‘Future Consultant’ for the games industry. Many tropes and trends of the noughties had their origins in the Skinnerian laboratory that was our childhood – and just as many died there. But of all his experiments, we will never forget that winter when he and Ma came up with a plan to gamify Christmas.

The rules were simple: three teams would compete in three separate areas of Christmas preparations, with one handling the tree and decorations, one cooking the dinner, and one mixing the drinks (a task very much the equal of the others in the Brindle household). Each would follow a list of objectives laid out by Tom and carefully balanced by Ma, specifying in what fashion they were to complete their duties.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Automatic Gardens

If a game makes me spend hours playing and there’s nobody to make money from it, am I being exploited? Such are the deep and ponderous questions found in the Zen Garden of Plants vs. Zombies. It was my strange fate to become obsessed with this seemingly pointless but actually mysterious time-sink minigame – and to wonder why a game would offer automation as its ultimate reward.

Things start simply. Halfway through the main Adventure mode of PvZ, you’re introduced to the Garden and given a potted plant to grow there. Plop it down and it’ll start popping out coins every thirty seconds. Click on the coin, enjoy the satisfying tinkle of acquisition, wait another thirty seconds, and repeat – for hours, if that’s your idea of fun. It’s like a skinner box, except nobody’s watching and the scientists have hit the pub.

Saturday 26 November 2011

First Person Problems (or, the alternate history of modern genres)

Measure for Measure tries hard but pales beside classic comedies like As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. 6/10”
– Official Playhouse & Bear-Pit Magazine, 1605

If you want to analyse videogames you have to struggle with the problem that half our critical discourse comes from bullet points on the back of a box. Even as academics and bloggers strive to establish a new conceptual vocabulary, their lexicon still carries the trace of promotional material, their terms of art taken from features lists. This does not make our critique somehow degenerate or ‘impure’ – but it does risk obscuring and occluding ideas the market left behind. Nowhere is this more clear than in the evolution of the first person game.

When Shakespeare’s plays were first published in 1623, seven years after his death, his literary executors – former colleagues John Hemmings and Henry Condell – faced a dilemma about what to call them. Sometime rival Ben Johnson had been viciously mocked in 1616 for releasing his collected plays as ‘Works’, a label too elevated and serious for an art form still considered two steps away from prostitution. But, by the same token, 'Plays' would position their book at the whorehouse end of the market. H & C, convinced that their late comrade deserved better, trod a middle path and published what’s now known as the First Folio under the title of ‘William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies’. 

It wasn't a big deal. Many of the plays had once been advertised as different genres entirely, or as more than one throughout their lifespan. A few didn't fit into any in particular. Yet until the twentieth 
century most critics took the Folio's classifications at face value - and some, assuming strange or hybrid plays like Measure for Measure were supposed to be straight comedies, assessed them sternly by that yardstick.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Review: Infantry Combat

Brindles do reviews? Why, yes. If you choose to read the review below, go to section 2. If you choose not to – maybe you’re too good for such things, or maybe your child is wailing next door – stop off at section 1.

SECTION 1: Ravenous mice burst from a lesion in your thigh and consume the rest of your body before destroying it in a series of star-bright antimatter detonations visible (after ninety minutes) from Saturn.

SECTION 2: You settle down peacefully to a review of Infantry Combat: The Rifle Platoon. Since the game is actually an interactive novel in dead tree form, picked up in New York City for a dollar, you have the rare experience of reading a videogame review written in the same medium as the game itself – just as as Wolfenstein 1d might be considered a prescient review of Modern Warfare 3.  

Friday 11 November 2011

The Assassination of Rockstar by the Coward John Brindle (or, three design failures in Red Dead Redemption)

Revenge. It’s an ugly word, but I’m an ugly man. I tried to start a new life of peace and fulfilment – I started playing Red Dead Redemption. But now the work of just one blogger has turned that all to ashes. They say this path never ends anywhere good. Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m damn sure I’m going to end the son of a bitch who spoiled that game for me.
As you can see, I get a bit carried away with the idea of the Wild West. Yet RDR itself leaves me somewhat cold, and the dirty no good rotten spoiler in question – Lee Kelly over at Ambient Challenge – has perceptively summed up the reasons why. The game’s visuals and sound are immaculate; it shimmers (to steal a phrase) with droplets of purest atmosphere, and, for a game, I guess the writing’s okay too. But Redemption is so entangled in the design conventions of the GTA series that its mechanics never live up to its aesthetics. I want to expand Spoiler Kelly’s critique to illuminate three major structural ways in which Redemption fails the challenge of its Wild West setting.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

CS:GO interview, elsewhere

A secret identity of mine has colluded in an interview at fan site, talking to Valve's (and OldManMurray's) Chet Faliszek about the upcoming Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. This blandly-named but interesting project will simply update CS for modern systems, and the limited scope of its changes is testament to how confident Valve are in the basic rules of the game. Perhaps they have good reason to be: it's still popular, and Chet contends the world yet has a place for it. There's also some stuff about the schisms in the competetive community and how player-bases respond to changes and updates.

Read it (if it please you) in three parts:
Part 1: "We won't change the rules of CS"
Part 2: "It's hard to accept change"
Part 3: How long will CS last?

Saturday 22 October 2011

Groping and Touching

Our father, Tom Brindle, was phone hacking before it was cool. 2004’s round of birthdays saw each brother stunned by his uncharacteristic generosity as mobile after swanky mobile was torn free of its wrapping. What we didn’t know then is that Bells’s first words down the wire were a summoning spell*, and that the ghosts of every conversation ever transmitted over the US telephone network still circulate through its byways. With a raft of occult paraphernalia, plus Captain Crunch whistles and several thick volumes of default PIN numbers, our father intercepted our voicemail and browsed our texts. Intelligence gleaned would then appear in a home-printed tabloid newspaper offering such scoops as

Stuttering son spurned by phone-line sexpot

Black sheep of the family confesses homosexual desires

So you can understand if I am sometimes nervous about phones. That goes double one that’s ‘smart’ (what if it learns to open doors?). But the world drives us whichever way it will and now I am the terrified owner of a not-quite-brand-new HTC Wildfire S. What intrigues me, despite my trepidation, is the leaf the Android developers have taken from the book of videogames (Biblical apocrypha removed in favour of Deuteronomy over fears it would have a bad influence on teenagers).

Saturday 8 October 2011

Where the Line Leads

I need you / I don’t need you / and all of that jiving around

It is in the nature of Brindles to return to the scene of a crime long after everybody else has been allowed the mercy of forgetting. Since a similar impulse is clearly afflicting this blog  (Left 4 Dead? The Marriage? In 2011?), let us go stubbornly and grudgingly back to examine a year-old minor furore. Shortly after the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops, a fellow called Bungle put out a video of him playing through the first two levels without firing a shot.

For detractors, Bungle’s video offers the grim spectacle of the linear manshoot genre’s design principles enacted as full-on farce. On Hardened difficulty he is able to stand around like a lemon admiring the idle animations on his gun while AI companions blitz through the enemy before him. He does this from cover, in the open, and in slow motion. He runs through a field of harmless explosions and, as a culmination, sits in the back of a plane twiddling his thumbs over the firing studs of a machinegun as enemies queue up outside to spray blanks at him. As it turns out, he’s been rendered invincible for the sequence. It seems like the player has finally become irrelevant to the proceedings.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Notes on 'The Marriage'

'A Garden Party At Which The Husband Is Uncomfortable'

There’s plenty to say about Rod Humble’s The Marriage – a game I briefly mentioned in last week’s article – that would have suffered from being stuffed into it. This is a tangential analysis.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Consider the Unicorn

The late-night drunk has a new song in his repertoire. I heard it not too long ago, when I was still a student, returning home from a club at 2am. Three others, crossing the road ahead of me, began without warning to belt out Erasure’s camptastic sugar-bomb: ALWAYS! I WANT TO BE WITH YOU! MAKE BELIEVE WITH YOU! We all know who to blame. It’s that bastard unicorn.

How did a tiny two-button flash game end up on the streets of Brighton? Some time ago Rod Humble – EA’s Captain of Sims by day and spare-time indie meddler by night – wrote about the ancient Egyptian game of Senet, whose intricate boards and pieces have been excavated and studied but whose animating principles are lost forever. Yet any future archaeologists who dig up Robot Unicorn Attack will have the opposite problem: they’ll have the code, but they still won’t understand why anyone gave a shit. Although you can peel back its skin and sweep away the sparkles to focus on the underlying rules, trying to pin down its appeal to any mechanical facet seems fruitless.

Sunday 18 September 2011

A Family Game

If I were called to remember Left 4 Dead by one defining image, I would think, oddly enough, of red doors. The front door to the Brindle household was painted red, but in L4D each red door leads to a safe place. Every red door, in fact – every identical red door – has the same reliable function. Amidst a ruined and shadowy world, these doors are bright reminders that the game’s authentically grim tone and its touches of mechanical realism are employed only and fully to the extent that they bring players together as a unit.
By the time Left 4 Dead was released, our own family was scattered across the world. Most of us had no more desire to get back in touch with each other than the British MoD does with their old pal Gaddafi – but this was also the period in which I began to re-establish contact with my brother Jimmy. Most of our catching-up took place in the haunted woods and ruined estates of L4D’s campaigns. Sometimes we invited other Brindles, and we were able to put away our quarrels for a while in subordination to the goals of the game.

Meet the Brindles

One day, not so very long ago, I was on a Team Fortress 2 server, and, by chance, I was playing under the name of ‘John Brindle’. There is bitter disagreement about who came first, but soon I was joined by other members of the Brindle family. Initially there were only a couple; then their ranks grew and grew until cp_dustbowl was a Brindletopia and the whole server resembled our family history writ large, brother versus brother, vicious struggle, and no quarter given. That day the first few of us decided that we wanted to write about the pastime that has taken so much of our time and affected our lives so much. For us, the argument as to whether or not videogames are art has already been won. Henceforth, it will never be mentioned again.
We are calling all Brindles. We know you’re out there – members of our family, with the same roots and  concerns and dysfunctions as us, and no better. We are calling you out of your pits, out of your lairs, out of the desperate places where you’ve made your homes. You know who you are.
Everything that follows is dedicated to our loving father, Thomas Brindle.