“Screw you guys, I’m going home”

Phil Fish has withdrawn from the video game industry. After a self-righteous pundit used his online platform to issue insult after unwarranted insult at the game designer, he’s given up. His Twitter’s locked up, Fez II has been cancelled, and the relevant segments of online observers are in an uproar.

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And I am 100% on Phil Fish’s side in all of this.

The entire debacle has demonstrated just how ruthlessly vile the incessant feedback loop the internet provides can be on a creator. Actually, it’s not even feedback. People are constantly discussing and dissecting, commenting and criticizing, bitching and berating, all of it about and/or directed at you. And when people talk about you, you listen. And it’s cancerous.

It isn’t feedback; it’s performance. Be as loud, as cruel, as hateful, as spiteful as possible, all just to coax reaction and grab attention. Comment sections are arenas for verbal sparring. Twitter feeds are divine covenants to be defiled. Anything and everything you say and do will be held up for public scrutiny.

Phil Fish’s presence in the video game industry was often controversial, but that’s because he wasn’t a safe and sanitized PR machine. His comments and remarks may have been divisive, but they were also raw and genuine.

It’s situations like these that make me glad I have only the smallest possible presence online. They also serve as reminders not to aspire for anything more. I’m sensitive when it comes to these things; many people are, and it seems like Phil Fish is, too. I wish him well, I’ll miss hearing puffed up pseudo-news pieces about the crazy opinions he expresses on Twitter, and I hope everyone comes away from this nastiness with a resolve to be better people.

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And for the record…

  • Fez II is Phil Fish’s ball and he has every right to take it home.
  • Everyone may be entitled to their opinion and offer a reaction, but not every response is automatically deserving of validation.
  • Please stop approaching feedback as public spectacle. Be kind, respectful, and sensitive. Criticism is not a contest.
  • I’m going to start playing Fez in earnest tomorrow (finally!)
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Pipe Trouble (or: The Persuasive Power of Pipe Mania)

When examining Pipe Trouble, a recently released app for iOS and certain Android devices, I’m immediately reminded of what Clint Hocking (of Far Cry 2 fame) explored in his GDC talk two years ago, Dynamics: The State of the Art. In about the middle of his presentation, he engages in an exercise where he leads his audience in a dynamic re-imagining of Tetris, an experiment of how “narrative can influence… dynamic meaning.” The foremost example is where the play area of Tetris now assumes the identity of a train yard in a World War II era Warsaw ghetto, and the objective is to pack people (the bricks) into boxcars and ship them off to concentration camps. The various iconic shapes are rationalized as the terrified people clinging to their friends and loved ones as they dread their fate, and the line clears are boxcars being shipped off once they become completely full. The end game or failure state remains the same, with the train yard being flooded with half full boxcars being unable to leave. Tetris is still Tetris (the metrics and objectives are the same as ever), but with this narrative, our experience with the game changes. Do we become the obedient overseer efficiently sending off boxcars full of innocents to concentration camps, or do we sabotage the Nazi effort with half-full boxcars grinding the train yard to a halt?

Pipe Trouble seems to be the application of Clint Hocking’s narrative and dynamic re-imagining of Tetris (whether conscious or not) onto the classic game Pipe Mania (or: that obnoxious hacking mini-game from Bioshock). Your task is to build a pipeline through various stages consisting of natural landscapes and rural communities, attempting to satisfy the demands of both the local farmer on the screen’s left (respect the environment and local community interests) and the corporate bigwig on the screen’s right (build efficiently, on time and on budget). This narrative will immensely affect how you approach the game, as you’ll quickly be met with tough decisions that demand compromise.

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The core gameplay is, more or less, as you might expect: the play area is a grid, and you lay sections of pipe on the landscape, one by one, to complete the pipeline. What’s fascinating, however, is how each stage, from the third one onwards, consists of a landscape which presents its own unique set of ethical dilemmas to navigate. A lake stands in the way of the pipeline, and you can either take the short route (finish ahead of schedule and under budget, but aggravate the locals by uprooting a small forest) or the long route (respect the environment, but enrage the energy conglomerate by losing money on a meandering pipeline.) In certain cases, it will be impossible to satisfy both parties. Heck, sometimes it may be impossible to satisfy anyone at all.

Pipe Trouble, then, is an important game. Its narrative heavily impacts its dynamics, and thereby influences the player and their experiences with the game as a result. This is all genuinely wonderful and fascinating stuff. What’s perhaps less wonderful (and perhaps by just as much more fascinating) is what has been the reaction to Pipe Trouble so far.

In Western Canada, pipelines, such as the highly controversial Keystone XL, have been a hot topic for quite some time. Pipe Trouble was developed and published as yet another voice in the debate, with $10,000 in partial funding from TVO (a publicly funded Ontario television broadcaster). Local news outlets in both Alberta and Ontario (as well as the national CBC and presumably many others) have picked up the story rather swiftly for such a modest project, with the more conservative outlets (such as the execrable Sun Media) being quick to condemn the game for being dangerous and irresponsible (The Sun’s headline? Pipeline Propaganda from TVO / You too can play eco-terrorist with taxpayer-funded game)

“It’s disappointing to see a taxpayer-funded game and organization depict the blowing up of pipelines,” says Alison Redford, the premier of Alberta.

It is true that the pipelines of Pipe Trouble are vulnerable to the explosive measures of in-game environmental activists should your projects exploit and abuse the environment too much, as is (evidently) uncomfortably clear in the promotional trailer for the game. Indeed local opposition to pipelines have resulted in their bombings in northeastern British Columbia. But then again it is also true thatPipe Trouble is a companion to a documentary film entitled Trouble in the Peace (itself costing $80,000 and also financed in part by TVO) about such unfortunate realities. Both projects are reflections and reactions to these unfortunate situations and circumstances, yet the videogame is the thing which riles people up the most.

PipeTrouble1

And this is what I find to be the most fascinating: Depending on how you look at Pipe Trouble and the notion that games – even the tacky apps most are so quick to dismiss – can be tremendously significant, all this controversy is surrounding the game for either all the wrong or all the right reasons. Outrage over its depiction of pipeline explosions is rightly sensitive to those in western Canada for whom the Keystone XL and other such pipelines may be either a blessing or a bane. Questions swirl as to why a publicly funded Ontario broadcaster has published a game about hot topics in Western Canada, while the government of Alberta has made a fuss of it with Ontario, its source, remaining comparatively mum. Not surprisingly, Pop Sandbox Productions themselves, the game’s developers, have come under fire for using their prerogative as creators to donate a portion of the game’s proceeds to the David Suzuki Foundation, whose namesake these days suffers the public image of a hypocrite.

Pipe Trouble has inspired conversation and discussion about all of these issues, whether directly as a result of its content and agenda or indirectly as a result of its debts to taxpayer dollars and the citizens of Ontario who may now be questioning why their money has gone to develop a propaganda videogame. And be assured that Pipe Trouble is most definitely a propaganda game, even before its news media soundbites, which bookend its stages, betray its fairly neutral dynamics and gameplay with a distinct bias against energy conglomerates.

This is why I adore Pipe Trouble. It’s not just because it’s a brilliant game (which it is), nor because it speaks to my ethical/ideological stances (which is neither here nor there), but rather because it’s a truly important and significant game. Rather than wrapping its dynamics in commentary as an ironic coat of paint or critic-proof facade (see: Far Cry 3), the two elements support one another to such an extent that the commentary becomes essential to its dynamics and the dynamics amplify the effects of the commentary. Depending on which of the two you remove, you’re left with either a dreary Pipe Mania-esque puzzler or an ineffective grade school level debate. But combined, it becomes a highly successful and thought-provoking dynamic experiment, deftly demonstrating the persuasive powers of videogames.

Extra information:
– Play Pipe Trouble Demo
– CBC News Report on Pipe Trouble
– Sun Media News Report on Pipe Trouble
– National Post news report on Pipe Trouble

Posted in Videogames | Leave a comment

Introduction

Consider this post a mission statement, if you will. I’m feeling inclined to explain my intentions with this site and what I hope both to use it for and to get out of it.

So I used to be a writer. Up until recently, I was a journalist for an awful campus newspaper at my university, a gig I was far too proud of and spent far too much time attending. Not only that, I used to fancy myself a videogame and film critic as well (who on the internet doesn’t?) Over the course of about 4-5 years, I churned out enough material to feel misguided worth in hosting my own website. But last June, I got my act together and left journalism to focus on my graduate school ambitions. My website was hacked in November, and I got rid of it entirely just a few days ago before contract renewal would have me sink another $200 into two years of nothing.

But here’s the thing: I still like writing. It was disgust and outrage at the people involved in my journalism gig that made me quit, not the activity itself. It was just that, without reliable output, my old website fell into such disuse that I hadn’t even realized it was hacked until somebody told me about it a month after the fact. Between then and now, I still felt the itch to write, but didn’t have an outlet. That’s where this wordpress comes in.

This is free, so who cares if it goes unused? It’s anonymous, so who cares about what I post? It would’ve been tempting to backup my old site and keep it going as is, but another thing that bothered me was how much I tied myself to it.

My old journalism colleagues knew about it, as did old circles of friends whom I’ve always held at a distance. My anonymous friends of various forums and gaming account/services, too. Three different groups I was petrified of peering into my three core disparate social ecosystems, all three of which I was desperately trying to keep separate.

And if you’re wondering to what end, it’s to ease my own paranoia. I live with a bizarre cocktail of behavioural anxieties (but then again, who doesn’t?)

I felt this was uncomfortably evident in the sort of material I was posting: campus news, the odd personal diatribe, and asinine video game and film reviews. All of this was done under the laughable pretense of polish and professionalism that the site was merely an open archive and meant for nothing else. What a joke.

And yet it was a joke attached to my real name and my real self, a joke that someone curious enough could easily find by typing my name into Google, and from there spend countless hours of their time mocking me for my peculiar array of interests.

Again, paranoia. Although I do feel validated whenever I hear idle gossip about X’s Facebook shenanigans and people who scour the “missed connections” classifieds on Craigslist.

So this is the dream: an anonymous webspace where I can say and share whatever I want without the lingering dread of repercussion and judgement (however far-fetched) from the people I deal with in my real life. No fear of awkward conversations borne from “so I read what you posted on your website the other day…” No shame from if someone in academia should discover my immense interest in video games and then draw conclusions about my habits and pass times.

And yes, I do feel ashamed about this. I would love to talk openly with my friends about interesting video games and not fear that they think I moonlight as a wannabe Youtube broadcaster airing hackneyed videos of me slap fighting myself in a parking lot with intermittent spurts of pseudo-commentary. I would love to feel comfortable playing Persona 4: Golden on the subway.

I’ll never post my name on this site. I’ll never hint in what city – or even in what country – I live. All you need to know is this: I am a university student, and I’ll be attending graduate studies next year. I won’t say where, and I won’t say for what. If you want to contact me, this anonymous stranger who would really rather you didn’t, there’s an email address and a twitter connect in this site’s “Contact and Information” page.

Otherwise, I hope to be using this site for my thoughts and musings on various topics in video games and in whatever else strikes my fancy. I am part of upstart magazine dealing with such things (more on that later), and us writers seem to like having our own place to call home. As neurotic as I tend to be, I’m no exception.

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