Sunday, 14 December 2014

Why "Objective", Performance/Tech Based Reviews Are A BAD Idea

So, one thing that I have seen people calling for is "More objective" reviewing. Sometimes, they mean "Less biased overall" (Which is good to ask for), sometimes they mean "I don't want political viewpoint X to be represented so god-damn much" (Tough titty, writers have political viewpoints, readers have political viewpoints, and if you don't want to deal with gender and politics, good fucking luck in life. No, really, good fucking luck.)

Sometimes, however, they really do mean "objective", in the sense of purely representing the technical aspects, how well it runs, etc. Let's illustrate how misleading this can easily get with two hypothetical reviewers. Let's call them Jim and Graham, after Jim Rossignol and Graham Smith.

Jim has a computer which often meets minimum specs for AAA games, but rarely optimal specs for the newer ones. So he can play the game, but he can't afford to get the whole experience (Because, spoilers, even guys who write full time for a mag don't get paid a whole lot!). He experiences some slowdown at certain points in the game, but, unbeknownst to him, this isn't because his setup isn't top notch. It's because he's using an AMD graphics card, and the game was primarily coded around NVIDIA cards. Yes, that's a thing that still happens, even to this day. So he, naturally, mentions this as part of his review. NVIDIA fans slam him.

Graham, meanwhile, has a swanky computer with all mod cons, an NVIDIA card, and... A top range anti-virus program. This causes some problems, and, because he has a top of the range setup, he makes a bigger deal out of it. A week later, it's discovered that his particular anti-virus program fucks with the game, and he looks like a twat.

Meanwhile, both of them use different routers, and have exactly the same problems in multiplayer, problems which are widely reported. Their editor, Steve, doesn't have these problems, and writes an apology about both pieces when the folks who didn't experience these problems, and didn't notice all the complaints, decided to write in to say that they shouldn't lower the score based on this "nonexistent problem."

...Three months later, the readers look like twats when it turns out that, yes, the netcode was shit all along, and they start experiencing problems and complaining. And nobody's happy.

All three of these things have happened at least once. Because there are so many different components for PCs, software and hardware, and that means Your Mileage May Vary. I've seen windows updates, graphics driver updates, lack of graphics driver updates, all sorts of things fucking with performance in games that sometimes, it's hard to tell what's actually causing a problem.

"Ahhh, but consoles are different!", I hear you say. Perhaps. But sometimes, consoles look like they're working when they're actually about to break, and this, too, can occasionally affect reviews. Less than PC reviewing, it's sure, but you still have to use a router to connect, an ISP, so keep in mind that no system is free of this.

Then, we come to another issue: With only certain exceptions, older games re-released will, on a performance based scale, consistently score higher than newer ones. For example, I can play Jet Set Willy with so much less hassle than I used to have. Before, it was "pop a tape in. Is the tape clean? Is the cassette drive jammed? Do I have the cable connected?"

Now? "Put thing on hard drive, run program/emulator, fiddle with performance settings a little." 100000/10, much god-damn better than it used to be. Sonic 1 runs far better, on my current system, than Lichdom: Battlemage, and so it scores higher.

"That's not what we said, though! We meant as they come out!"

Ah, you're right. But re-releases are often reviewed as new products, because some of them (Not all, but some) come with slightly swankier graphics, and a slightly improved engine, and nothing else. Oh look, that re-release, on a performance base, still runs better than brand new AAA game, because it didn't have extra fancy gubbins.

Indie games would consistently score higher on a performance basis, because they're less resource intensive and smaller. The simpler the game, the higher it could score on a performance basis. And then comes the real killer: You then have to consider how much performance the game needs compared to its compatriots. Is it "objectively" better because it needs less resources, or "objectively" worse because it doesn't need to be as effective in using your computer's resource allocation?

"But you don't need to know these things, all you need to know is whether it's 'objectively' good or bad on your system, let readers..." No. Stop right there.

"Good" and "Bad" are rarely objective statements, because they're value judgements. You're stepping into "Worth" territory, and if you think that's something that can be objectively judged, I'm going to laugh. Hard. An object's worth changes, fluidly, based on subjective factors.

Good example: The white jacket I wanted for ComicCon. It's worth less to me now that I don't need it for a costume, because when I tried to get it, it was for a specific purpose. That purpose has been and gone, so it's "worth" less. If other people don't like how I look in it, it's worth less based on their subjective views, because it's going to get dickheads yelling stupid shit at me, which reduces its worth because of the hassle it cost me. If I lose or gain weight, it's going to hang differently, look differently, and so have a different worth to my self-esteem.

Then there's all the factors you're now leaving out, whether due to space or time constraints. Most reviews are 500-2500 words long. That's it. Are you going to read an article that's 2,500 words about how it performs on System X with Hardware Y,Z,A, and B, when you yourself have System X with Hardware C,D,E, and F (Not to mention that the reviewer probably won't have even noticed that Software G, which you have, and they don't, causes bugs in the game)?

Would you read it if it didn't comment at all on the writing, or great moments in the game, or how a mechanic feels like it fits with the theme you think they're trying to portray? All of these are subjective things you'll be missing out on: The cornering on Burnout Paradise isn't, by any means "Realistic"... Hell, describing it objectively, it would be "The lower statistic X is, the more likely it is to rotate the vehicle you are driving in a manner more consistent to 'sliding' than 'turning' , especially at higher speeds." ... But it's fun, not to mention collisions. We like collisions in racing games, right? "The collisions are rendered using a physics engine that -" GOD STOP, PLEASE, THIS DESCRIPTION CAN GO ON FOR HALF A PAGE, AND IS NOWHERE NEAR AS EFFICIENT, FOR A READER, AS...

"The collisions, meanwhile, are sufficiently meaty, with lots of crumpling, slow motion replays, and a delicious feeling of 'Yup, that car is fucked, and there is no consequence for this. God bless Fun'."

Which is, you'll note, largely subjective. Long live subjectivity, I say!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

New Ideas: Why Listening to Other Perspectives *Helps*

So, while it may not seem it, I've been working on a game at a glacial pace (Mainly because, before concentrating on gamedev, or reviewing, or a number of other things, I want my life to be stable, and, quite honestly? It isn't, not really...), and writing down other ideas for the time when I'm actually able to work on them.

But recent events, and new acquaintances (Hopefully friends, but I'm not going to be presumptuous and assume such) have encouraged me to go back to the drawing board. I actually rewrote that last sentence, because I said "made", when, in reality, "encouraged" is a much better word. I should also note that while I go into two folks here (and a third group), there are many more, so if I don't mention you, don't take that the wrong way, please!

You see, these perspectives have not only given me new ideas, but also, before they're even fully fleshed out, criticisms of those ideas, areas I can improve. And, as anyone who's worked on creative projects knows, a well constructed criticism before you've set your projects in at least clay is extremely useful. Obviously, a less well constructed (or destructive) criticism can sink a project, but since this isn't the case, we'll merely mention that, and move on to the folks I've met, and their perspectives.

Let's start with Veerender Jubbal . Veerender is one of the nicest people I've met in recent months, he happens to be a Person of Colour, and he happens to be a Sikh. Despite my saying "happens to be", these are actually both quite important. Because just like women, the video-games industry does not appear to have much of a PoC perspective, and Veerender was the first person in a while to remind me of this. More folks followed, and one group in particular will also be mentioned. But let's take a brief moment to digress on my main project (I'm not afraid of someone "stealing" the idea, because A: Not a lot of folks read my lil' ol' blog, and B: Each developer puts different touches on much the same basic idea. This is a kind of diversity, but not in the sense we're going to discuss.)

My main project at the moment is a game called Section M. It's inspired by three things: the works of Charles Stross (Which I may never live up to), the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (Which, in a sense we're going to go into, I don't want to "live up to"), and Covert Action, by Microprose. Set in an alternate 1930s-50s (Still haven't *fully* decided yet), it is planned to have similar approaches to Covert Action (Minigames as a mechanic for the duties of a covert operative attempting to disrupt the plans of various organisations in a Cold War setting), but set in a world where the Great Old Ones were given temporary lease on the world, which led to horrors greater than World War II, changes to the geopolitical structure, and the bringing to the fore of the dangers and wonders of the supernatural.

Obviously, I am somewhat of an idiot for making this my first major game project (Which is why I'm also, when time permits, working on smaller games to make sure my skills are up to the task), but Veerender has highlighted a certain aspect of this idea that, to my shame, I didn't actually notice that much before.

Where are the Sikhs? Where are the People of Colour? Many games in the modern day (A little less so in earlier games, where characters were more of a Tabula Rasa (Blank slate you project yourself onto)) have all the main characters as white heterosexuals, often male, and when People of Colour are put into games, it's in roles already noted as ideologically contested (Meaning, generally, offensive stereotyping and creepiness... Not the best summary, but it'll do for now). The Spirit Warrior (Native American), the Token Black Guy Who Dies To Save The White Hero, The Mystic Indian... There's a big ol' list of stereotypes, and even many games today include them, unaware of how somewhere out there, there's an entire segment of folks they just pissed off with one character.

Now, this goes back into a comment I've thrown out a few paragraphs back: I don't want to emulate all of Lovecraft's themes. I specifically don't want to emulate the fact that he projected his own dislike/fear of People of Colour and his attitude toward "miscegenation" (Interracial relationships, and I put it in quotes because the term itself is... Well, not the most enlightened, as it deeply implies biological differences between white folks like me, and People of Colour that weren't, and aren't actually there.)

Go read a bit of Lovecraft. Notice that many of the villainous individuals and groups in his works are, in one form or another, interracial ethnicities. As an important aside, I grew up with the term "half-caste" for folks who are children of white and non-white groupings, and, even fully aware that it's considered an offensive term in the modern day, I have to edit myself not to use it as a description... Which, if you think I'm the tolerant and open-minded person I believe myself to have become, is a single example of why racism is so problematic to deal with... Because often, those of us who grew up with certain words still reflexively use them, even though they fully understand why it's not a good idea to do so. (Caste means "purity" or "race", so... Half-pure, half a "race".)

So this now leads me to feeling that I want to actually think about other cultures within this world, outside of "They exist", and to explore, somehow, somewhere, the cultural identity of these fantastical races that may have cropped up in universe. Which neatly ties into the next person I wish to talk about.

But before I do, let me link you to a stepping off point for exploring this yourself: I Need Diverse Games (and their Twitter feed), a Tumblr Blog exploring issues of race in videogames, and some other perspectives you may want to explore if you're a game dev.

Okay, so we mentioned cultural identity. Cultural identity encompasses a lot of things, because, surprise surprise, there are a lot of cultures out there, all with differing attitudes to beauty, women, men, LGBT issues, race issues, politics... And religion. Now, I fancy myself somewhat of a hobby scholar when it comes to religion, but there are those who seriously study the subject, and those who then apply this thought to the theory of game design. One of those individuals is Jenni Goodchild , who studies Theology and Philosophy. And she, also, has made me seriously consider aspects I am ashamed to say I had not considered seriously before. Namely, religion in video games.

I won't go into too much detail on that one, except to say that my own perspective is a syncretic belief, essentially pantheist in nature, that nonetheless does not place deities very highly on the trust scale. I'm also going to start by linking a video, specifically a recent talk Jenni presented for VideoBrains: Playing Games with Gods: Why Games Need Religion

Don't worry, this blog post won't go anywhere while you watch it, I can quite happily wait. Especially as it raises many valid points about how we don't really think about these things. And, because I wish to change this, I will quite happily own up to being guilty of this. Points to especially listen to so far include how Bioware might not have thought their "different" religion through, how Civilisation: Beyond Earth deals with religion in a very interesting way, and how the Elder Scrolls series, essentially... Doesn't (or rather, kludges it somewhat). That's just from the first half of the talk, by the way.

So now, I find myself quite happy with this "predicament", because both of these people have highlighted more places for me to potentially explore. Yes, okay, I now have more work to do before I can consider the game's setting, lore, and the mechanical support I may have to introduce into my project, but at the same time, these two people have, by drawing attention to how little I've previously thought about these things, opened up whole new cans of worms for me to slop my hands into, feel, and examine... If that sounds gross to you, many folks who work in creative fields, even as a hobby, think of concepts as things we can explore, dissect, get our hands dirty in, and we love it. We also love folks who give us ideas, especially by pointing out areas we can improve in, and, more to the point, how to improve them.

So be fully aware, game devs, that more perspectives may be, at times, confusing, distracting, more than a little heartbreaking... But by taking in, by wishing to know other viewpoints, and to understand how your viewpoint will nearly always be lacking in some area compared to someone else's, you can not only improve your games... You can improve yourself.

I only hope I do at least an okay job of that. And I hope you do too.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Dam Broke Today (And Why It May Not Be A Bad Thing)

Don't expect amazing writing here. I'm not editing this beyond correcting my spelling as I go, this is something that has to be written, has to be written down raw.

So, for those who know me, or read my blog (All some of you), you may remember that I have depression. It's not severe. At least, I thought it wasn't. And maybe it still isn't. I just don't know for sure. There's only one thing I know for sure:

Today, the dam broke. Just a little, but enough that I was getting strange looks, because it was pretty plain to see on my face. It happened just over ten minutes ago. I'd just finished posting a series of old vignettes I'd written, based on characters from tabletop sessions (And some who, sadly, never reached a table to have their tales grow, like Finlay Houlihan, the Irish Hunter, or Saint Nicky, the Demon of the Spring Court)... And, just before I left the house, I tweeted that I had to sort the electricity...

...Which is when I started crying. Not full on tears, and it still isn't full on tears, bawling, tearing of the hair, that sort of thing. But it's pretty obvious that my many masks had slipped, and even as I'm writing this, I have to pause for a moment and take a deep breath, close my eyes.

But not to fight back the tears. Because, for the first time, perhaps in a long time, these tears are healthy. I want you to understand that. I need you to understand that. Because a big part of depression is locking your heart away, a little piece at a time, so that you don't do this anymore.

It's not the done thing.
You just need to man up.
What do you have to feel bad about?

Right now, as I'm writing this down (You'll see why it has to be written down soon, I hope), I know what I have to feel bad about. I've reminded myself, and opened a door I closed on myself some time ago.

I have songs, but I only sing them to amuse close friends, people I trust. I locked away those songs, because they're not the done thing.

I have stories, so many stories, so many dreams, and I locked most of them away, treated them almost clinically, because technique, writer, technique, you'll never get good if you don't master technique before flair, or feeling.

I have love to give, so much love, and nobody seems to want it. There are friends, family who accept it, and I love them dearly for the kindness they pay (And it is a kindness, for they know as well as I how valuable a gift it is to give)... But as much as I love them, I am too far away from most to share this love, and perhaps I've not found love in recent years because I don't want to show someone how much I want to hold them, kiss them, caress them, because if you do that right off the bat, no matter how passionate a person you really are, that's creepy, what a creeper, what a freak.

Even knowing that some of these things are exaggerations, my mind magnifying the pain, the fear, the loathing, I know they're also true, at least to some extent. We fear close contact. We're told not to sing, to show joy, after a certain age. We're told that having our own look is unfashionable, or dressing like a douche, or asked why would you want to look different? Answer? Because we want to show people more than one aspect of ourselves, or we want to change ourselves for the better, reach the ideals we know exist, or we just do it to have fun.

The dam's closing up a little now, but I want you to know that, for all that this has sounded like a bad thing, that dam is holding something back that should be in the light, plain for all to see. I shouldn't feel the need to hide it.

I have songs, but I do not sing.
I have words, but I concentrate on meaning, on interest, rather than the raw emotion.
I have love, but I do not express the passion in my soul.

This short (and it is short) outpouring of pain and grief and loss and a million other things that have quietly reverberated through my mind and my heart? For one terrible, awe inspiring, and blackly beautiful moment, they came out. You may think "Oh my god, he's in terrible pain" or "Such a god-damn drama queen!", but the fact is... They've been there. They've been there for a long time... And it is not healthy for them to hide so well.

Today, the dam broke. Just a little. And though folks inexperienced with depression won't think this, that is a healthy thing to have happened. Even if I am crying a little, I'm more worried that the tears are drying up than that they started.