Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Got Medieval explains video games
February 23, 2010 5:23 AM   Subscribe

How to explain video games to a medievalist, or at least, the sub-set of medievalists who are not also video game geeks (who I think are a larger group than Got Medieval does).
posted by jb (62 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Medievalists who are not also video game geeks.
I know what all the words mean, but not when you put them in that order.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:28 AM on February 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


He forgot the bit about how some books will have additional characters or chapters (sometimes even integral parts of the story) missing from them, and you will have to go back to the shop to buy them in order to finish the book completely.
posted by permafrost at 5:30 AM on February 23, 2010 [6 favorites]


That was also. And damning. (And the 24 year old commenter who has "never played a video game in her life" but is commenting on blogs?)
posted by DU at 5:33 AM on February 23, 2010


Also? Awesome.
posted by DU at 5:33 AM on February 23, 2010


That was actually an excellent explanation of video games for people who don't play them.

Especially the books being all about jumping. I bought a real video game the other day while procrastinating and gameplay was 99% jumping. The other 1% was making the little man walk an extremely precise timed route while annoying sounds played. It made me want to punch people in the face, and so I stopped.

Then again, I have played kingdom of loathing for six years and have spent hundreds of dollars on it, so what do I know. But there are no annoying sounds in it, and my little stick-people-man requires me to walk no bizarre lines with my mouse that are impossible for anyone not soaring on a Jolt high.
posted by winna at 5:48 AM on February 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


These books all require very fancy bookcases to read, and periodically new, more advanced bookcases are released which will not hold the books you currently have any more, forcing you to buy (often inferior) sequels to the books you've already read, or occasionally updated versions of the original books with sharper text and fancier fonts.

Also, most of these books are about jumping.


Theres a Borges story in there somewhere.
posted by The Whelk at 5:56 AM on February 23, 2010 [6 favorites]


I didn't have much faith in the original premise, but he really made it shine. About jumping indeed.

I was recently having a conversation with a friend wherein I expressed my frustration at how most video games were essentially skinner boxes. It's obvious what sequence of buttons the game designer wants you to press and it's just a matter of trying over and over until you manage to succeed within some predefined tolerance. Then you get rewarded with a crappy cut scene.

The only games that can hold my attention any more, it seems, are multiplayer games, true sandbox games (SimCity, not Grand Theft Auto) and games that feature deep procedural generation.
posted by 256 at 5:58 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh man I really want to read this guy's review.
posted by graventy at 5:58 AM on February 23, 2010


They left out the part about needing eye-hand coordination and ability to think strategically.

stupid eye-hand coordination and ability to think strategically *tries to despondently kick a pebble, misses*
posted by gubo at 6:05 AM on February 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also, most of these books are about jumping.

Ha.

They forgot the bit where you can read certain chapters of the book along with other people, but in this case the book will have pictures of cocks and phrases like "ur a fag" crudely scrawled all over the page in crayon.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:08 AM on February 23, 2010 [11 favorites]


(And the 24 year old commenter who has "never played a video game in her life" but is commenting on blogs?)

Well, she is a girl and we all know girls don't play videogames.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:10 AM on February 23, 2010


They forgot the bit where you can read certain chapters of the book along with other people, but in this case the book will have pictures of cocks and phrases like "ur a fag" crudely scrawled all over the page in crayon.

Oh! Multi-player games are like the Public Library.
posted by explosion at 6:13 AM on February 23, 2010 [10 favorites]


It's obvious what sequence of buttons the game designer wants you to press and it's just a matter of trying over and over until you manage to succeed within some predefined tolerance. Then you get rewarded with a crappy cut scene.

As opposed to film, where the director insists that you just sit there and look at it for two hours?

But yeah, this is true, but the best games are the ones that take that limitation and do something truly amazing with it (Bioshock, Fallout 3, etc.).
posted by jbickers at 6:46 AM on February 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


As opposed to film, where the director insists that you just sit there and look at it for two hours?

Absolutely. And when the story and visual presentation in a video game reaches the level of even a mediocre film, then that criticism becomes relevant.

Sadly, I'm pretty sure I can count the number of times that has happened on one hand.
posted by 256 at 6:56 AM on February 23, 2010


...do something truly amazing with it (Bioshock, Fallout 3, etc.).

Yeah, amazing how Fallout 3 totally fucked up a good thing....
posted by Pendragon at 7:03 AM on February 23, 2010


And when the story and visual presentation in a video game reaches the level of even a mediocre film, then that criticism becomes relevant.

Sadly, I'm pretty sure I can count the number of times that has happened on one hand.


What if you count Grim Fandango seven or eight times? I'm pretty sure it deserves it.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:04 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


So that is kind of spectacularly missing the point about what games are.
posted by empath at 7:11 AM on February 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, actually a pretty terrible description of video games and seemingly designed to give his readers the worst possible impression.

I suppose it's a fair enough critique of a certain type of video game (of which the unfortunate "Dante's Inferno" is certainly one), but pretty far from the stated goal of explaining the medium.

Most video games are not first and foremost about story, and the usual tiresome comparisons to film and other passive media totally miss the point.

Back to the post, if you want to describe video games to someone who has never played or seen them... you'd be better off starting with board games (chess, card games) and sports (archery, soccer, etc).
posted by malphigian at 7:27 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


More medieval video-game commentary. (Sadly, the week seems to have had only 3 days. But he does have to, you know, actually work on medieval history sometimes).

malphigian -- you're making a big assumption that medievalists would know about these strange things like games and sports. Okay, maybe the games (if they involve farming and building cities), but if the sports don't involve nerf swords, they may have never heard of them.
posted by jb at 7:46 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, that's why I put archery in there! Throw in jousting tournaments and, I dunno, quarterstaff fighting and you'll get there.
posted by malphigian at 7:53 AM on February 23, 2010


Most video games are not first and foremost about story, and the usual tiresome comparisons to film and other passive media totally miss the point.

Hmm ... not sure that's correct. Worldwide top-selling games, as of Feb. 13:

1 BioShock 2 (Xbox 360) 534,731
2 BioShock 2 (PS3) 267,981
3 Wii Sports 261,396
4 New Super Mario Bros. Wii 235,494
5 Wii Fit Plus 187,235
6 Dante's Inferno (PS3) 175,323
7 Dante's Inferno (Xbox 360) 154,645
8 Mass Effect 2 153,411
9 Wii Sports Resort 142,675
10 God Eater 108,777

So, even if you leave the two Wii Sports and the Wii Fit games on there (which I don't think you have to, as they're kinda special cases), 7 of the top 10 games right now are story-driven.
posted by jbickers at 8:00 AM on February 23, 2010


I didn't say games don't have story or setting, I said that is not first and foremost what they are about -- what makes them good or what should be the primary criteria by which they are judged.

Also, best seller lists? Really? If you want to go that route, go ahead and compare that list to the NY Times Bestseller list. Tthe story elements in Bioshock 2 and Mass Effect 2 at least will hold up pretty damn well next to Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks.
posted by malphigian at 8:08 AM on February 23, 2010


Let's ignore doubles, and let's do the top 20:

1 Bioshock 2 (story)
2 Wii Sports (non story)
3 Super Mario Brothers Wii (barely a story)
4 Wii Fit (non-story)
5 Dante's Inferno (story)
6 Mass Effect (definitely story)
7 wii sports resort (non story)
8 god eater (story? don't know anything about it)
9 just dance (non story)
10 MW2 (story-ish, but the vast majority of people bought it for multiplayer)
11 Dragonquest (story)
12 MAG (story)
13 Markio kart (non story)
14 Star Ocean (story)
15 new super mario bros (story-ish)
16 - tennis no oiji sama (no idea what this is)
17 - wii play (non story)
18 - tomodachi (non story)
19 - Mario and sonic at the olympics (non story)
20 - quiz academy - (non story)

I think maybe 6 out of 20 would be hardcore narrative based games? The rest are either only marginally story based or not story based at all.
posted by empath at 8:24 AM on February 23, 2010


So, even if you leave the two Wii Sports and the Wii Fit games on there (which I don't think you have to, as they're kinda special cases),

It makes it a lot easier to make your case when you ignore all evidence to the contrary.
posted by empath at 8:24 AM on February 23, 2010


And btw, those are just big budget console games. If you throw in indie games, casual games and flash games (which I think actually comprise the vast majority of actual game-play time) the ratio of narrative to non-narrative games gets much more unbalanced in the direction of strictly gameplay.
posted by empath at 8:27 AM on February 23, 2010


Funny, but a better description for medievalists would have described a video game as a set of folios for a medieval university textbook. When you order a textbook from a bookseller (i.e. play a video game), you have to complete each folio before receiving the next one. Then you have to complete a really hard task (i.e. the big boss at the end) in order to get the thing bound.

Oh, and the more difficult pages are palimpsests.
posted by hiteleven at 8:43 AM on February 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


As opposed to film, where the director insists that you just sit there and look at it for two hours?

Or fine art, where the painter insists you stare at it while doing nothing else. There is not even any sound. WTF?
posted by stbalbach at 8:43 AM on February 23, 2010


I want to try!

Ok, uhm, if I tried to stare at a painting for 150 hours I'd get really bored! And yet my Xfire profile says i've played both BioShock and Fallout 3 that long!

I'm not doing this right am I?
posted by BeerFilter at 8:51 AM on February 23, 2010


You're giving MAG a heck of a lot of credit there for story; it's just a multiplayer shooter. Likewise, calling MW2's single player a cohesive story is a stretch. It's more like a collection of action movie cliches thrown into a blender.
posted by graventy at 8:54 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


jesus christ, people. it's not that hard. show up to the ren faire in Star Trek garb, show them a Nintendo DS, call it a "portable holodeck" and give it to them. They'll happily forget continuity in order to assume it makes sense so they can play Animal Crossing.
posted by shmegegge at 8:55 AM on February 23, 2010 [8 favorites]


Also, most of these books are about jumping.

Unless you're Bioware. It's always amused me how you can be a badass biotic with the ability to make fucking black holes with your mind yet you can't jump at all. If you're lucky, you might be able to climb a two foot rise, but that's it.

On the other hand, a game like Crackdown is really all about the jumping. And it's awesome.
posted by kmz at 9:00 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


So that is kind of spectacularly missing the point about what games are.

The point? There's only one?

Roger Caillois, one of the first people to beanplate games, proposed four different patterns of play: agon, or competition; alea, or randomness; ilinx, or vertigo, speed, movement; and mimicry, or simulation. If you look at chess, you can spot three patterns: agon is obvious in the gameplay, but mimicry is also present in the vestigial symbolism of battle, and there's even a little alea in the choice of colors.

Short of an injection of alchohol, the game has no ilinx, which is significant. Not all games exhibit all patterns; more importantly, not all players enjoy all patterns. It follows that not all players will enjoy all games.

Videogames, for almost the entirety of their history, have been dominated by agon, by competition against the computer - individual battles, boss fights, completion counters, conduct limitations. The reward for winning those challenges is the emotional afterglow of triumph, which by itself can drive certain people to beat all 256 screens of Pac Man on a single quarter. Such people don't ask anything more of game than that they be worthy opponents; the rush of endorphins upon beating them is by itself enough to justify all the hours spent, the peripherals bought, the FAQs pored over or voluntarily withheld. Narrative? Context? Even graphics? Just distractions from the real worth of the game.

Then there are the people who say things like, "What? Another fucking pack of walking skeletons? I just spent half an hour clearing the last room!" The type of people who use cheat codes because they just want to see the cutscenes, or noclip about the levels; the type of people who obey the traffic lights in Liberty City. For whatever reason, they prefer to treat a game as a theme park or a casino or a movie, rather than as an enemy; they prefer ilinx, alea, and mimicry to agon.

There are an awful lot of these people. Until very recently they've been under-served by the videogame industry, because they need expensive things like decent graphics, motion control, procedural generation, and excellent writing to get the most out of games. It's not a coincidence that the flock to "cinematic" titles that engage their sense of being in a movie; it's not a coincidence that the Wii, which engages ilinx, broke through in a big way among people who didn't want to put the time in to master modern controllers.

Which brings us to Dante's Inferno. Like most modern big-ticket games, the developer makes some small allowances for people who want more than just agon; EA knows that good graphics move games these days (though perhaps they don't entirely know why they do so), so they went all out on art direction. They also know that good stories win big numbers; they don't necessarily know what makes for a good story, so they played it safe by lifting a respectable narrative from the public domain and adding angst, violence, and breasts.

But the vast bulk of the game is still agon: walking skeletons, jumping, and unlockables. That's fine for the people who are into that sort of thing; if you're not, it's likely to be a long season in you-know-where.

Anyway. Pyrdum's little essay isn't meant to be a canonical definition of videogames. It's really more of a sardonic caveat to naive medievalists, few of whom are likely to be chrysalitic hardcore gamers: if you don't enjoy or appreciate the conventions of a very specific kind of gameplay, be prepared to have problems with Dante's Inferno (the game) from the very beginning. It's best for him to have that upfront, so that when the time comes for specificity, he can make a distinction between the limitations of the genre and the limitations of the game itself.
posted by Iridic at 9:18 AM on February 23, 2010 [40 favorites]


The "about jumping" line made me laugh out loud.

*returns to New Super Mario Bros. Wii*
posted by brundlefly at 9:28 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


That was awesome.

Also, it is just so grating that people refer to the first book of the Divine Comedy as "Dante's Inferno." It's like constantly referring to the first Star Wars movie as "Lucas' New Hope" or to Catcher In The Rye as "Salinger's Catcher."
posted by The World Famous at 9:28 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or "Wes Craven's New Nightma--" oh... wait.
posted by brundlefly at 9:31 AM on February 23, 2010


(And the 24 year old commenter who has "never played a video game in her life" but is commenting on blogs?)

Well, she is a girl and we all know girls don't play videogames.


A 23 year old roommate (with whom I play Rock Band on a weekly basis) walked in on me after I cracked open Uncharted: 2 for the first time this weekend, asked what I was watching, I replied "Playing. Uncharted, it's like Indiana Jones." Said roommate then proceeded to ask me if it was normal for video games to have little movies in them where you weren't controlling your character. And then my brain exploded. After I smushed the pieces back together, I tried to summarize the text of this gamasutra article about the uneasy merger between narrative and interactivity at said roommate. We had a longer discussion about whether it was strange to have someone else be controlling your character sometimes and at first I was all "What? No, that's what games do." But then I started to think how it is a really odd way of telling a story, and how games like WoW and LBP do a better job of letting you "act" as your character but suffer narratively. But then I got distracted 'cuz these dudes were like shooting me a lot.

Stupid decision to be a real gamer and play all my games on hard.
posted by edbles at 9:35 AM on February 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, you don't want it to get mixed up with Strindberg's Inferno, Niven and Pournelle's Inferno, MacBride Allen's Isaac Asimov's Inferno, or Denning's Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Inferno.
posted by Iridic at 9:40 AM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow, thanks Iridic -- that was one delicious plate of beans.
posted by treepour at 9:43 AM on February 23, 2010


Iridic: You sir have blown my mind. From now on I'm walking around saying things like, this game is great but it needs more Ilinix.
posted by edbles at 9:46 AM on February 23, 2010


Well, you don't want it to get mixed up with Strindberg's Inferno, Niven and Pournelle's Inferno, MacBride Allen's Isaac Asimov's Inferno, or Denning's Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Inferno.

Or you could just call it the Divine Comedy (and refer to the entire work rather than just the first third of it) and not worry about confusion.
posted by The World Famous at 9:49 AM on February 23, 2010


Or Autodesk's Inferno.
posted by Naberius at 9:52 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or you could just call it the Divine Comedy (and refer to the entire work rather than just the first third of it) and not worry about confusion.

Milla Jovovich's "The Divine Comedy."

But yeah, it does suck that only the first third of the work gets any cultural play. Robert Pinsky varied the snub by calling his translation "The Inferno of Dante" rather than "Dante's Inferno," but he still blew off the second two books. For Paradiso's sake!
posted by Iridic at 9:58 AM on February 23, 2010


Or you could just call it the Divine Comedy (and refer to the entire work rather than just the first third of it) and not worry about confusion.

I like this solution. I think this is how we should solve all problems re: precision in language. Something not precise enough for you? Stop being precise!

Jenkins! Fetch me that glass container!
Which glass container, sir? The beaker, the boiling flask, the ehrlenmeyer flask?
The glass one! Fetch it! Stop being precise!
posted by shmegegge at 9:58 AM on February 23, 2010


Aren't the other two books really boring? Purgatory is some dudes chasing flags and Spoiler Alert: heaven is him staring at a rose for eternity. It's how we handle the last two matrix movies.
posted by edbles at 10:07 AM on February 23, 2010


Actually, I misspoke (er, wrote) above. Calling it Dante's Inferno is like calling Star Wars "George's New Hope" or calling Catcher In The Rye "J.D.'s Catcher."
posted by The World Famous at 10:14 AM on February 23, 2010


I have to admit, I loved Inferno, and had little to no interest in reading Purgatory or Paradise. I couldn't see how he would top it, or even come close to the excitement of hell.

Which would make me a bad medievalist, but I get to ignore them because I'm doing early modern history. I just had to read #!$$ Hobbes.
posted by jb at 10:15 AM on February 23, 2010


The most popular books also require you to also be on the telephone when you first open them, and all their pages go blank when the publisher goes out of business.
posted by robtoo at 11:43 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Funny, but a better description for medievalists would have described a video game as a set of folios for a medieval university textbook. When you order a textbook from a bookseller (i.e. play a video game), you have to complete each folio before receiving the next one. Then you have to complete a really hard task (i.e. the big boss at the end) in order to get the thing bound.

This makes a lot of sense. The boss fights could range from "attend evensong for a fortnight" near the beginning to "go on crusade" at the end.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:47 AM on February 23, 2010


I'm up for an In The Name Of The Rose RPG.
posted by The Whelk at 11:58 AM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


For me, Bayonetta will always be the purest expression of Dante's work in the video gaming world. None of this johnny-come-lately, scared-of-vaginas stuff out of EA.

I should have been a pole dancer!
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 1:04 PM on February 23, 2010


I just had to read #!$$ Hobbes.

Don't give them ideas! Now that you've said this I fully expect the announcement of the Bellum Omnia Contra Omnes MMORPG (which, when played solo, is naturally poor, nasty, brutish, and short).
posted by RogerB at 1:11 PM on February 23, 2010


I judge movies by the standards and qualities of movies, paintings by the standards and qualities of paintings, sculptures by the standards and qualities of sculptures, books by the standards and qualities of books, and video games by the standards and qualities of movies.

Behold me: the critic.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:29 PM on February 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Iridic, I think those 4 categories are best understood as forms of gameplay, with narrative being a separate thing (it's not really contained within alea, ilinx, or mimicry), and at least one more category that contains something like sculpture or architecture and is related to exploration, discovery, immersion, beauty, horror, the sublime - the sense of being in a place. Many of those things can also exist within narrative, but games have a way of creating those feelings/sensations/experiences apart from the narrative, and also apart from the alea, ilinx, and mimicry of the gameplay.
posted by straight at 2:34 PM on February 23, 2010


the sense of being in a place.

"Mimesis" is how that's generally referred to in the game design philosopical stuff I've read.
posted by rifflesby at 3:29 PM on February 23, 2010


winna : and my little stick-people-man requires me to walk no bizarre lines with my mouse that are impossible for anyone not soaring on a Jolt high.

B A N A N A S!

Okay, still not exactly a twitch-fest there.
posted by pla at 5:44 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd be up for more classically-inspired games. I like God of War for the mythology and my kids are looking forward to Dante's Inferno.

I could definitely get behind Paradise Lost if I could play as "The Adversary of God and Man," for example.

I'd also play a game based on The Crucible, if I could be the lone voice of reason decrying the teen girls with their claims of "Witch!"
posted by misha at 6:34 PM on February 23, 2010


You're right, misha, there's not enough games where you play a witch.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:47 PM on February 23, 2010


I don't want to be the witch so much as the "There is no such thing as witches and these girls are lying."

Though a witch would be fun, too.
posted by misha at 7:14 PM on February 23, 2010


I don't want to be the witch so much as the "There is no such thing as witches and these girls are lying."

Right, so you want to play a witch.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:28 PM on February 23, 2010


Somekind of bullet witch.
posted by The Whelk at 7:42 PM on February 23, 2010


Misha:

This Jason Rohrer game may be what you are looking for with your Crucible game. Although, I've never been able to unzip it after downloading it on his website.

Also seconding GoW for the mythology so hard. It really reminds me of the World Mythology Series of books I used to read as a kid that had super graphic paintings of Prometheus' liver being ripped out by a giant bird of prey that I'm amazed were available for my perusal as an 8 year old. So yeah, one of the most brutal video game series of the past two generations gives me warm fuzzy nerd hiding in the library nostalgia. Plus it fits my understanding of how the greek gods in those stories treated human life, as worthless.
posted by edbles at 6:48 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd also play a game based on The Crucible, if I could be the lone voice of reason decrying the teen girls with their claims of "Witch!"

It's called mafia/werewolf.
posted by empath at 7:52 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


« Older There are many ways to eat your own head. You cou...  |  8 Ways to Make Beatles Rock Ba... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments