I Watched “United Passions” So You Don’t Have To

Last week saw the timely U.S. release of “United Passions,” a film about errant soccer association FIFA, funded by errant soccer association FIFA. This was a vanity project to top all vanity projects, an attempt to rehabilitate the image of an organization now best known for its corruption and destructive nature. And, in the United States, it came exactly one week too late, following the arrest of several top FIFA officials and resignation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

“United Passions” reportedly made $607 dollars in the United States over the weekend. There’s no missing digit, no missing “thousand” which would make that number less embarrassing. Six Hundred and Seven Dollars, so little that someone probably had to make a call on whether to report how many cents it made over $607. Even given the recent controversy–which probably made more Americans think about FIFA than ever before–no one wanted to see FIFA’s movie about FIFA. And it’s really no wonder, since it has 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and (as of this writing) a legit 1 on Metacritic (again no digits missing there).

But, c’mon, you’re curious, right? That’s where I come in.

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Experiences In Old Sports Games: Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games

I’m not sure if there is any subset of the sports video game genre more maligned than the Official Video Games of The Olympics. Football games may be stale in the age of Madden. Wrestling titles may be gloriously dumb. Horse racing games may be completely impenetrable to everyone except one Japanese kid who does nothing but watch VHS recordings of triple crown races. But none are as bad as video games based on the Olympics. No matter who develops them, they are always buggy, awful looking messes with controls that range from awkward to borderline war crimes.

I was just thinking that there weren't enough video games about shooting guns.

I was just thinking that there weren’t enough video games about shooting guns.

The exception to this rule is Track and Field, an arcade, home, and Game Boy classic.  Even Track and Field is merely good for its time. It has held up about as well as an NES controller used to play Track and Field. Like all video games based off the Olympics, it was nothing more than a minigame collection with frustrating input issues. Unlike the games that came afterwards, however, it at least had decent graphics and didn’t feel rushed out the door to beat a close deadline and make a fast buck.

There has been an Official Game of the Olympics for twenty years now and they have all been terrible. The license has been passed around to a number of developers, starting with U.S. Gold, which somehow is neither a United States company nor a company specifically formed for releasing video games based on the Olympics.  U.S. Gold had released a number of unlicensed Track and Field-esque games prior to acquiring the license, and produced official Olympics games from 1992-1996. For the 1998 Winter Games, the license was picked up by Konami, makers of Track and Field, who promptly squandered all their good will with Nagano Winter Olympics ’98. I actually played Nagano Winter Olympics ’98 for the N64 and as a result I am a carrier for a previously unseen form of hepatitis.

There's NagaNO way I'm going to play a game with graphics like this again.

There’s NagaNO way I’m going to play a game with graphics like this again.

Eidos took over the license for the 2000 and 2002 games, and farmed out development to Attention to Detail, a studio best known for Cybermorph for the Atari Jaguar and for stretching the meaning of the phrase “best known for” to its absolute limit.  After Eidos came Eurocom, which has a track record of remarkable mediocrity for a number of decades. They couldn’t solve the Olympics Video Game problem, so 2k Sports took a crack at it in 2006.

Despite the publisher pedigree, Torino 2006 was particularly godawful. Development returned to Eurocom, now under the banner of SEGA for 2008 and 2010.  Finally, the license was farmed out to SEGA Australia for London 2012, which won a gold medal for being damned with faint praise as various websites called it the best official Olympics title but still gave it middling-to-poor reviews.

This image is a good example of how male and female athletes are objectified in different ways but I'm too distracted by the hideous logo of the 2012 Olympics.

This image is a good example of how male and female athletes are objectified in different ways but I’m too distracted by the hideous logo of the 2012 Olympics.

Along with its predictably terrible standard Olympics video games, SEGA actually did something interesting with the license and developed a second series of titles exclusively for the Nintendo Wii and DS. Leveraging the legacy and long history of SEGA and Nintendo, in 2008 they released the first Olympics game that could actually get anyone excited about an Olympics game: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games.

Jumping hurdles in denim overalls? Really? This is why the Chinese don't take Americans seriously.

Jumping hurdles in denim overalls? Really? This is why the Chinese don’t take Americans seriously.

Of course, people weren’t excited about yet another sports-themed minigame collection on the Wii, they were excited because this title represented the first crossover between the universally-beloved Nintendo mascot, Mario, and the still-beloved-on-parts-of-the-internet-I-avoid SEGA mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. For years, Mario and Sonic had been virtual rivals of a sort, as they starred in the flagship games on Nintendo and SEGA platforms. Putting them in the same game was a landmark event for people who care too much about video games. There was even a sort of thematic relevancy to the mascots joining together in an Olympics themed game, as the Olympics have often served as a kind of neutral ground, where geopolitical enemies can meet up and engage in peaceful competition.

For a notable exception to when countries did not put aside their differences, see the 1980 Moscow Olympics co-sponsored by Atari.

For a notable exception to when countries did not put aside their differences, see the 1980 Moscow Olympics co-sponsored by Atari.

But the real meaning of Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games goes much deeper than that. This isn’t a game about just sports or mascots or the commonalities of nations. This is a game about the decline of the Japanese game industry. This is a game about hopelessness.

First off, as we all know, Sonic the Hedgehog represents death. He always has. There’s no reason to re-examine that point, as it was so eloquently proven in the acclaimed 2009 article “Gotta Go Fast: Sonic, Tails, and the Rapid Approach of the Inevitable End”.

They say that it is certain that “death” comes. They say it and overlook the fact that, in order to be able to be certain of death, Da-sein itself must always be certain of its ownmost nonrelational potentiality-of-being not-to-be-bypassed. They say that death is certain, and thus entrench in Da-sein the illusion that it is itself certain of its own death. - Sonic Adventure 2, quoting "Being and Time" by Martin Heidegger

They say that it is certain that “death” comes. They say it and overlook the fact that, in order to be able to be certain of death, Da-sein itself must always be certain of its ownmost nonrelational potentiality-of-being not-to-be-bypassed. They say that death is certain, and thus entrench in Da-sein the illusion that it is itself certain of its own death. – Sonic Adventure 2, quoting “Being and Time” by Martin Heidegger

With that out of the way, let’s examine the core concept. Mario, a rotund Italian man, is set to compete in a series of athletic events against Sonic, a anthropomorphic hedgehog whose defining attribute is his running speed. Granted, over the past few years Mario had found himself participating in a number of sports–golf, tennis, baseball and basketball–but he’s really no match for Sonic at any Olympic activity that requires speed or agility. This is an analogy to the growing disparity between Japanese and “western” game industries.

Mario represents the Japanese game industry. At one point he was the biggest thing in the world. Mario games were the gold standard of console titles. Now, he’s doing the same thing he’s always done but found less success in a more competitive, broader world. There are still plenty of great Mario games, and great Japanese games, but they’ve been overshadowed and the business model hasn’t caught up with the rest of the world.

And now Cat Mario is a thing.

And now like Japanese games, everything in Mario has cat ears.

Sonic, on the other hand, represents the western game industry. I realize “western” is a somewhat senseless distinction founded in sketchy outdated categorization, but off the top of my head I can’t think of a better term for the parts of the game industry scattered about North America and parts of Europe. Sonic was a character designed to appeal to audiences in these “western” territories. His character aesthetic and especially his “attitude” is founded in what adults thought American boys liked in the 1990s. The same can be said of a large portion of the western game industry, which has thrived despite (or perhaps because of) an obsession with continuing to blatantly pander to the tastes of American boys. Of course, as someone who purchased both the new Call of Duty and Battlefield games, perhaps I’m just hurling rocks straight through the walls of my glass house.

I don't even know which Call of Duty game this screenshot is from and I have played all of them since Modern Warfare.

I don’t even know which Call of Duty game this screenshot is from and I have played all of them since Modern Warfare.

Of course, Mario and Sonic aren’t the only playable characters in the game. A variety of faces from both franchises make up the roster of playable characters.  Now, to anyone who has played at least one spinoff Mario game, all the Nintendo choices will be recognizable. Mario has built up a regular supporting cast over the last decade-plus and they’re mostly inoffensive.  But take a look at the SEGA side and suddenly everything gets confusing.  Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Robotnik/Eggman and then shit starts to get dicey.  I had to go to the List of Sonic the Hedgehog Characters Wikipedia entry to figure out who any of the other strange animals were. And let me tell you, it is absolutely terrifying how much effort has been put into the various Wikipedia entries for Sonic the Hedgehog characters.

Waluigi is the least legitimate Mario character on the roster and if you don't think something as ridiculous as Waluigi deserves to stick around you can get out.

Waluigi is the least legitimate Mario character on the roster and if you don’t think something as ridiculous as Waluigi deserves to stick around you can just get out.

On one hand, the diverging paths of the Mario and Sonic series, which led to a mostly reasonable cast of Mario characters and some very questionable decisions regarding Sonic characters, seems to undermine the theory that the two are counterposed  representing the Japanese and Western game industries.  The Sonic series has gone off of the rails, and by that I don’t mean that SEGA is considering a Sonic/Train Simulator 2014 crossover entitled Sonic Derailed.  Though if you told me that was a real game I would probably believe you.  Sonic introduced a dumb as hell antihero called Shadow the Hedgehog, started Dragonball-style super saiyan bullshit, gave Shadow his own game with guns, had a hedgehog/human romance for some terrible reason,  released a Bioware RPG, and then Sonic became a werewolf because there was no way to dig the hole the series was in any deeper without striking werewolf coal. Meanwhile, Mario is still going relatively strong.  Cat Mario notwithstanding.

Ultimately, though, we have to recognize that this is a SEGA game, and they probably think that Sonic is still doing perfectly fine.  Maybe in some ways it is.  I’m willing to acknowledge that Tyler Perry movies aren’t made for me, that I don’t have the patience for Kazuo Ishiguro, and that there’s a whole new era of adolescents who think they’re being edgy by watching the twenty-billionth season of South Park.  Maybe I’m just not the audience for Sonic.  Or maybe SEGA is using this game as a self-critique, realizing that it has fallen into the same dark path as so many Western developers, pandering to the point of insanity.

Or maybe I’m just making shit up.

Nah, I wouldn't make shit up. not about Sonic the Hedgehog.

Nah, I wouldn’t make shit up. Not about Sonic the Hedgehog.

Experiences in Old Sports Games: Grand Theft Auto V

All sports games are divisive. Either you are a fan of the sport and its digital representation, or you find them utterly boring. And no sports game is quite as divisive along these lines as the golf video game. To most people, the idea of virtual golf is duller than than the pain of a lingering bruise. But to others it is a joy, if not an obsession. These players range from folks who enjoy a drunken game of Golden Tee at the bar, to the fans of EA’s Tiger Woods series, and finally to the madmen who still play Links. Capturing this audience is difficult, as there are only so many ways to distinguish a  new golf game from those that came before. This brings me to this week’s game:

This is the only game I've played since Tuesday so this is the game you're going to get.

This is the only game I’ve played since Tuesday so this is the game you’re going to get.

In 2013, Rockstar Games released its first foray into the highly competitive golf market with Grand Theft Auto V for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Rockstar was previously known for its work in revolutionizing the world of virtual ping pong with Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis as well as the wildly successful bowling title, Episodes from Liberty City. However these were just warm-ups for the Scottish developer as they prepared to tackle the national sport of their homeland.

Thank God no one is sensitive about racism towards the Scottish because this picture.  This picture.

Thank God no one is sensitive about racism towards the Scottish because this picture. This picture.

The name Grand Theft Auto V originates from a phrase in the Doric dialect of Old Scots, “graend ‘heft otta V”, which refers to a very specific set of circumstances in the game of golf, when the ball is removed from play on the green (the “graend ‘heft”)  by an otter or other woodland creature (the “otta”). This permits the golfer to take another swing from the “V”, which was the ancient equivalent to the golf tee–a v-shaped piece of wood used to hold the ball on the first drive that was in fashion before industrialization allowed for the mass production of proper tees.  Up until the invention of otter traps, this phrase was common parlance on the Old Course at St. Andrews.

“Aye! Ye baill gyan missin’.  Looken like a graend ‘heft otta V, taik ‘er back.”

Aye!  Nah again!

Aye! Nah again!

As demonstrated by its choice of title, Grand Theft Auto V seeks to return the sport of golf to its Scottish roots. Unlike in the United States, where golf is considered s port of privilege, only open to the wealthy, in Scotland it is considered a far more egalitarian affair. Some of the most famous courses in the world, including the aforementioned St. Andrews, are open to the public. There are several government-owned courses with subsidized fees that are accessible to everyone.

To further its goal of the democratization of golf, Grand Theft Auto V allows you to play as three characters from across the spectrum of social privilege. Rather than provide a selection of real golfers, these three golfers–Michael, Franklin, and Trevor–are fictional. Michael is a retired, wealthy man.  The kind you would expect to see on the golf course.  Franklin is an African-American of limited means, and Trevor is white trash incarnate.  In St. Louis, we would call Trevor a hoosier but anywhere else that’s just going to sound like he’s from Indiana.  St. Louis is weird about the word “hoosier”.  I don’t think Trevor is from Indiana.

Franklin enjoys a day on the golf course.

Franklin enjoys a day on the golf course.

Back in the Nintendo 64/Playstation 1 era, the days of games like Waialae Country Club: True Golf Classics, only including one golf course was acceptable. However, for a 2013 release, the inclusion of only a single 9 hole course was rather disappointing. This may be a reflection on Rockstar’s Scottish view of golf.  Rather than offer a variety of locations, which would be available to a jet-setting celebrity or CEO, Grand Theft Auto V encourages a laser-like focus on a single local course.

The location, in this case, is the fictional city of Los Santos. This is likely a licensing issue, as representing the existence of the course in any real city would pose a risk of brand confusion with any real course within that city. This may be disappointing to hardcore golf fanatics who have grown accustomed to the realism of the Tiger Woods series, but it’s not without reason. The specific layout of golf courses are protected from duplication or adaptation by the International Links Protection Agreement of 1998, which states that any recreation–physical or otherwise–of a protected property must be approved by a joint panel of judges selected from the U.S. judiciary, the Scottish Court of Session, and the International Court of Justice. EA, with its long-running series, has been willing to draft the necessary petitions and pay the necessary bribes, but Rockstar chose to forgo the hassle for its first attempt at a golf game. Incidentally, the poorly drafted definition of “links” in the 1998 ILPA is also the reason very few video games directly use the phrase “hot dog”, and instead use the generic “processed sausage”.

Two German diplomats had to die to make this possible. Don't ask which ones.

Two German diplomats had to die to make this possible. Don’t ask which ones.

The gameplay in Grand Theft Auto V is simple, and like Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis easy for a beginner to jump into. The game automatically suggests the club, trajectory, and desired strength for each swing of the club. These suggestions aren’t perfect, and if you want to get under part, you’ll have to learn to tweak them, but they do just fine for the first time on the green. There’s also some light RPG elements, as each character levels up as you play. Swings can increase your strength, and running from hole to hole has a chance to increase stamina. Diving into the water hazards can also increase lung capacity, presumably allowing your golfer to yell “FORE!” with greater power.

In Grand Theft Auto V, golf is a surprisingly brutal sport.

In Grand Theft Auto V, golf is a surprisingly brutal sport.

As you’ll note in the screenshot above, Grand Theft Auto V fills the background of the golf course with virtual buildings.  Unlike most sports games, however, GTA V supplements its rather simple gameplay with the option to explore the area surrounding the course. You can walk your character off of the course and into the city. You can go through the streets on foot, in a car, or in a number of aerial vehicles.

The purpose of this side activity is twofold.  First, it adds depth to a golf experience that can take less than thirty minutes to complete.  Second, it gives context to egalitarian theme that persists throughout the game. In exploring the various neighborhoods within a short distance of the golf course, the lines between the wealthy and the poor become blurred.  Within a few seconds, you can pass between mansions and slums, construction sites and beaches.

GTA V represents a message from the shores of Scotland to the heart of the United States: Golf is for everyone.

Franklin continues to enjoy golf, and doesn't want you to look at what's in the background of his picture.

Franklin continues to enjoy golf, and doesn’t want you to look at what’s in the background of his picture.

Now that I have horribly shoe-horned GTA V into the theme of this blog, I’ll write quickly what I think of the real game, as I have been surprised by just how much I’m enjoying it. I didn’t come into this year, or even this month, with much excitement for GTA V. Games like the Saints Row series, Sleeping Dogs, Just Cause 2 and Infamous had all progressed the open world action genre so much that I wasn’t sure if I wanted another GTA. I didn’t even particularly like GTA IV, though I can’t say for sure how much of that was due to a sluggish opening act and a lack of mid-mission checkpoints. Then I watched a trailer for GTA V, found out Tangerine Dream was working on the soundtrack, and heard some of the boasts about the size and scope of the game. I realized I had to play it, if only to keep up with the zeitgeist and to see how in God’s name it ran on the current, outdated consoles.

Turns out, GTA V is a pretty great game. In a lot of ways, it is more of the same, the radio/TV attempts at humor are oddly dissonant with the themes of the rest of the game, a female protagonist would have been nice, and there are some undeniably problematic issues that shouldn’t be ignored. But the formula has been refined to a point. The city and the countryside are gorgeous. And maybe for the first time since Vice City the storyline missions are actually fun to play.

Something has gone incredibly wrong.

Something has gone incredibly wrong.

Most remarkable, though, is how GTA V feels like an attack on itself and the forces that created it. Five years ago, Rockstar Games tried to dramatically chang its formula, reeling in the silliness of San Andreas and focusing on a more personal storyline about the cyclical terror of violence with GTA IV. The game was a huge success, but complaints about nagging side characters and the dissonance between the story and the typical GTA player’s desire to rampage around the city abounded.

Like Michael in GTA V, Rockstar wanted to move on from a life of creating mayhem and do something different. But mayhem is what is expected of them, and it’s the one thing that the world thinks they are good at. So they are dragged back in. The silliness is back. Mini guns, blimps, gas cans, drug trips, and exploding smartphones. But GTA V doesn’t thank its fans for pulling it back in. Rather, it forces the player to think about how awful it all is. The world of GTA V is full of vile, unlikable people. None more than Trevor, and literal embodiment of what fans want Rockstar to make. His character lives like every GTA player acts outside of missions. He is violence for violence’s sake. But he is also a pathetic sociopath, and the commentary couldn’t be clearer. You don’t want to play as Niko Bellic or John Marston, whose characters make you question your desire for indiscriminate violence? Then you have to be Trevor, and Trevor ain’t pretty. He’ll drag you, and Michael, and Franklin, and Rockstar itself into the darkest of places, where you’ll wish your cousin could give you a call to go bowling.

So maybe you should just stick to the golf course.

The Meaning of Madden

No one gives a shit about sports video games. Granted, they sell extremely well. The top franchises-Madden, FIFA, MLB The Show-all bring in plenty of money. Even games based on staged sports do well, as evidenced by the success of the yearly WWE entries and NBA 2K series.  But no one cares about sports video games. They occupy a space long-derided by serious sports fans and serious video game fans alike.

To the sports fan, a video game is a dilution of the experience. It may technically reproduce every aspect of a football or baseball game, but ultimately the simulation rings hollow. Besides, why don’t you just go outside and play the game for real, loser?

Alex Rodriguez

This image basically sums up baseball right now.

To the video game fan, sports games represent everything wrong with the medium.  They were the unoriginal, uninspired, mass-market, annualized plague on gaming even before the was a new Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed on the shelf every November.  They are regurgitated every year, with little more than a roster update and a few new features to slap on the box. Besides, why don’t you just play a real game, like Shadow of the Colossus, mouthbreather?

So despite the fact that sports games are some of the most successful titles, and have kept Electronic Arts afloat after a coke-fueled bender in which the board decided to bet the future of the company on BioWare’s writing staff, they don’t get much attention from either of their core audiences.  No matter how entertaining or technically proficient, they are not placed alongside the classics in any evaluation of video games as a medium.  Instead, they live in the ghetto of casual gaming, in a sketchy-looking apartment complex just down the street from the Candy Crush Payday Loan.

But I care about sports games. Here’s why: sports games are some of the few video games not completely lost to the hyperreal.  If Umberto Eco ever sat down with a Xbox for a few hours, he’d probably update Faith in Fakes with a new final essay that just read “Fuck you, I’m out” and run screaming into the woods never to be seen again.

To become a Model Reader of this text we must first choose no items, Fox only, Final Destination.

To become a Model Reader of this text we must first choose no items, Fox only, Final Destination.

An example: the most recent two releases in the Medal of Honor series purported to be based upon the actual details of modern military operations. The questionable ethics of this aside, these games were nothing of the sort.  They were imitations with no original, copies of copies of copies, so removed from any representation of reality that they became grotesque parody. The new MoH aped almost everything from the Call of Duty single player campaigns, which as linear parades of over-the-top set pieces, do nothing but try and continually reproduce the Invasion of Normandy sequence from, naturally, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, Allied Assault was just a pastiche of the battle as portrayed in the film Saving Private Ryan.

That is just an example, and while there is plenty more to say about how modern military shooters affect our view of war, that’s another story. This is about sports video games, which is clearly more important on both a personal and global scale.

Actual screenshot from The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct

Most video games are basically power fantasies, and sports games are no exception. Even if your arm topped out at 70 mph in high school, you can rack up strikeouts in MLB The Show. No matter your concussion history, you can make tackle after tackle in Madden 13. And while the most you accomplished in theatre was getting cast as the understudy of a chorus member in your high school musical, you can still lead your team to the Finals in NBA 2K13.

However, unlike most games, the fantasy that the sports game is attempting to provide is, theoretically, achievable in real life.  No one has killed a dragon, or saved a princess from a horde of sentient lizards and fungi, or single-handedly defeated Russia in a global war.  None of those things have ever happened.  Despite what the Heritage Foundation would like you to believe about Ronald Reagan, those lizards were not sentient.

But the events depicted in sports games are real.  Someone has thrown a touchdown pass, hit a home run, or done whatever it is that’s supposed to be cool in soccer. All those things are possible, but exceedingly difficult. The challenge in accomplishing those goals is in overcoming real world obstacles, and a big part of a sports video game is reproducing those obstacles.

And this is where sports games get interesting. Unlike Medal of Honor, in which developers are trying to make the experience more like Call of Duty’s take on two decades of the shooter genre, the creators of Madden are trying to make their games more reflective of reality. The closer the game gets to the actual sport, in theory, the more fans will enjoy it. But the physical inputs they are working with-the timing (sometimes intensity) of button presses and the movement of two control sticks-simply don’t have the margin for error associated with the corresponding physical activity triggered by those inputs. It’s way easier to press a button and aim a stick than it is to throw a ball. So they rely on tricks to increase the difficulty.

This is the reason MLB The Show added pressure sensitive throwing buttons to the fielding controls and pulse pitching. It’s the reason Madden implemented the ill-advised “vision cone” for quarterbacks. It’s why FIFA debuted a physics engine that led to some rather shocking images and video.

WHY DID WE PLAY AT BEING GODS?

WHY DID WE PLAY AT BEING GODS?

Not all of these developments work.  Some, like the vision cone, end up adding a layer of ugly, cumbersome game bullshit that put an additional barrier between the player and the desired results.  Some people still swear by the cone as a way to engage player skill and differentiate quarterbacks, but for the most part it was a failure.  Other developments, like the analog pitching in the otherwise properly-maligned MLB 2K series, have fared better.

This is also why sports games have ever more elaborate systems of evaluating players, and applying those evaluations to gameplay.  How do you give the user full control of the game, while also making it easier to play as Miguel Cabrera than it is to play as Rob Johnson?  This is a huge challenge that largely goes unappreciated.

Because the goal is to recreate reality, or at least provide the player with an experience that feels true to the sport, the decisions and care that go into a sports game is actually far more interesting than what goes into the next Halo or Elder Scrolls or whatever near-future third person shooter Ubisoft wants to make into the next big franchise this year.

So because I can’t think of any better ideas for this blog, I’m going to go back and play some old sports video games. And write about them.  It may be the dumbest idea ever, but at the very least it will set a nice baseline for other dumb ideas I might have in the future, like cat-sized Cardinals jerseys stitched with the name “Meowjica” or cheering for the St. Louis Rams.