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Episode 92

The Indoor Kids

The Language of Games with…

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The Indoor Kids #92: The Language of Games with Tom Bissell

Today The Indoor Kids welcome Tom Bissell, author of some of our favorite video game essays and writer of Gears of War: Judgment. They talk about how they evaluate games, why you should always play games on “hard,” and how writing a video game has changed the way Bissell thinks about games in general. Plus a ton of Bioshock: Infinite talk with no spoilers.

Check out Tom’s work on Grantland and buy his book of essays on video games.

GAMES:

Batman: Arkham City, Call of Duty, Gears of War: Judgement, Gears of War 3, BioShock Infinite, Alan Wake, Uncharted, Lollipop Chainsaw, Skyrim, Ninja Gaiden, Dark Souls, Spec Ops: The Line, Popo y Yo, Tomb Raider, Metro 2033, DMC, Bayonetta, God of War 2, Dante’s Inferno, Deadly Premonition, Dishonored, Defiance, Max Payne

MOVIES:

Twilight

BOOKS:

Extra Lives

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Follow @indoorkids, @kumailn, and @thegynomite on Twitter! And email us at theindoorkidspodcast@gmail.com!

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44 comments

  • I would LOVE to hear Tom’s take on the story presentation of a game like Dark Souls, which essentially starts off with a vague mythology, and then leaves the leg work up to the player. The depth of the story really is dependent on how willing the player is to delve into the details, more so than any other game I’ve seen. Some people absolutely love it, others hate it.

  • @Kumail

    Regarding teenagers attacking you on Twitter, I found this Bradbury quote from Fahrenheit 451 relevant:

    “Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”

  • Listen.

    Don’t play Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls.

    Save yourself the time, just punch yourself in the dick.

    Or punch Kumail in the dick Emily and ask him how it feels.

  • Some great discussion — I will definitely check out more of Mr. Bissell’s writing.

    You often don’t realize the inanity of game conventions until you play a game that doesn’t follow those conventions. That’s why after playing “infantry simulators” like the OFP/Arma series I’ve been ruined for arcade-y shooters like CoD. In CoD you have regenerative health; one magic magazine that gets refilled from a pool of ammo (so you don’t have to decide when to swap mags, you can just reflexively hit R to instantly refill that one mag); laser bullets (no arc in their trajectory); and so on. Arma doesn’t have any of these things; one hit and you need a medic to give you aid, which both forces a more deliberative, tactical style of play (don’t get shot in the first place!) as well as cooperation (you can’t patch yourself up after a serious hit).

    There seems to be a widely held belief among younger gamers and game designers that realism and challenge cannot be fun, and games in the last decade have gotten easier and more “automatic” as a result. (In contrast, Arma doesn’t even have a sticky cover mechanic — it’s up to the players to position themselves to take advantage of cover.) That is one of the great things about Dark Souls — instead of relying on your CHARACTER becoming invulnerable through power-ups and leveling, Dark Souls actually forces the PLAYER to become more skilful, which in itself can be vastly rewarding. You -can- become slightly more powerful through items and leveling, but even at high levels you can get killed by the beginning creatures of the game if you don’t protect yourself.

    OFP and Arma have been decent sellers, but never near the level of CoD. At least the financial success of Dark Souls gives me some hope that there is a future for challenging games.

    Oh, and about Doctor Who: It seems like Kumily started watching with Matt Smith. I’ve been watching NuWho since Eccleston, and I’m even more tired of Who’s antics. I’ve seen repeatedly how something great will be introduced — e.g. a single Dalek was genuinely frightening when first brought back in the Eccleston episode “Dalek” — and then run into the ground until it becomes a joke (thousands of CGI Daleks flying in the air during Tennant). At this point I think it would be good for the showrunner Moffat to step down like Davies did, instead of just swapping out cast members. Coleman is great, but even if they also added Alison Brie and Lizzy Caplan as companions for all-girl threeways I still wouldn’t be enthused about this show. Okay, I’m lying about that last — I would definitely check out those shagging scenes — but I’ve made my point.

  • Great EP. I recommend Dark souls, a great game, hard but it is fun. Also play Bio. Infinite. a game with a solid story and some solid production. The shooting(in this FPS) isn’t perfect, but the story and the emotional integrity keep you playing. I fell in love with the A I even after i came to dislike the combat. As a Nongamer i realize I may not be the normal follower of indoors kids, but as a fan of good stories and interesting conversations i hope Tom will come back for another episode.

  • I tried Demon’s Souls and just didn’t have the patience for it. I loved the elegantly oppressive atmosphere, the level design, and the well-balanced combat system, but without a story to latch onto the trial-and-error approach the game requires quickly became more tedious than satisfying.

    The Persona games can be pretty unforgiving even on normal difficulty, but I persevere to see where the story goes next. I don’t know if the storytelling approach changed at all in Dark Souls, but in Demon’s Souls the only reward seemed to be your own mastery over the game, and that’s just not much of an incentive to me. Of course developing a skill is satisfying, but I’m not particularly interested in being “good” at video games.

    Great games, but they’re not for everyone.

  • I think the idea that you can’t get around killing hundreds of people narratively is a bit of a cop-out. I think ultimately it comes down to choice. In Fallout, you didn’t *have* to shoot everything to solve every problem. Many of the quests have negotiable or stealth solutions. And many of the enemy A.I.’s would run away from combat if properly injured. But you could always CHOOSE to be a murdering psychopath if you wanted. This allowed for much greater immersion as your play-style could better embody the personality of the character you play. The double pay-off of this is more gameplay variety. That’s my problem with the original Bioshock. Yeah the world is really cool, but you basically fight the same 4 enemies the same 3 ways over and over. It gets old.

    And I think the excessive murder problem is much different than the regenerative health/no jump problem. Those are passive game elements that really have nothing to do with story or theme. Regenerative health and “laser bullets” are put in to make gameplay a more fluid (e.g. easier) experience and therefore (in theory) a less repetitive one. But there’s a real dissonance that takes place when asking a person to buy into a character’s journey when they’re behaving like a sociopath for most of the time. Story should utilize the genre and comment on it (Far Cry 3) not pretend it doesn’t exist. To use Tom’s play analogy, no jumping is like a curtain or a flat set. It’s a physical limitation to the story world. But one that should be worked around to the best of the designer’s ability. But murdering everyone in a game is like murdering everyone in a play. The story is the story.

  • Royce B, I understand your point. But what if you wanted to make a shooter? You can’t always have it be a comment on violence or sociopathy. Far Cry did that, and that’s great, but it’s going to get old. Fallout 3 is not a shooter, so it can have you avoid violence. The gameplay in Bioshock is not built like that.

    Kumail

  • Love Tom’s work on Grantland and Extra Lives. I was really excited to see he was on the podcast and he didn’t disappoint. Didn’t realize he wrote the new Gears. Makes me wish I had an X-Box. There are certain files I download and save to listen to again later and this will be one for sure.
    Woooooo, Cole train!

  • IS this show ever going to do episodes about competitive gaming. I mean SC2 and Dota2 are two of the biggest and fastest growing games in the world, and rarely have I heard any discussion on them.

    The show just discusses the same games over and over. How many more times do I have to listen to a discussion about Skyrim.

  • @David

    Zero more times. It’s a free podcast. Stop listening if you aren’t getting what you want from it. The idea that everything should bend to your will for no other reason than because you want it to is very silly.

  • @David

    If you’ve heard this podcast “over and over” before, you’d know that Kumail and Emily aren’t huge RTS fans (though Emily seems to like them more, such as AoE).

    This podcast is popular because it has a “voice.” At the core of it, it’s just about their interests and perspective. Gaming just happens to be a huge part of that.

    Get your RTS fix elsewehere. There must be tons of podcasts out there about that topic.

    • Ajey, while I agree that #2 and #3 have gone the way of Resident Evil, evolving into more generic action games, I still think the first Dead Space has earned its place among the better horror survival games. Sure it has a very different flavor than something like Silent Hill or Penumbra, but it still created an incredible sense of hopelessness and desperation.
      Dead Space is another game that I think hugely benefits from the hard difficulty setting. And maybe it’s that much that changes it from an action game to a horror/survival game.

  • Hey Kumail, it’s really cool to see that you post here and get involved with your fans.

    I take your point. I think making a truly interesting story in a pure shooter is really difficult. But I think a lack of innovation on this front is part of what’s creating shooter-fatigue for a lot of people (myself included). I don’t begrudge anyone their fun, but I think if people want to hold up games as a story-telling medium (or at least a complex emotional experience) they have to hold these games to a higher standard. It’s very hard for action movies these days not to have at least some level of self-awareness or genre-subversion at work and be taken seriously. At the very least, the main character can’t kill people in a happy-go-lucky manner without something to justify it. And granted, this has led to over-grittiness for lots of people, but there are ways around that too. I’ll freely admit, I’ve never played Uncharted. And maybe this dissonance wouldn’t bother me if I did. From what I’ve heard, Uncharted is like playing an Indiana Jones movie, and that is a very worthy thing for a game to do. It’s not a common experience. But shooters are all so similar now that they have to innovate narratively to stand out. I mean, the real gameplay difference between Goldeneye 64 and Halo 4 basically just comes down to controls (dual analog sticks/triggers, quick buttons for grenades and melee) and smarter enemies.

    And I think every shooter is a commentary on violence, whether it intends to be or not. It might not be an insightful commentary or a good one, but even COD is offering a justification for violence. Not every shooter has to be directly commenting on how violence changes you, but part of building a good character is being realistic about how experience would affect him/her. That’s basic storytelling. That’s why the characters in Gears of War aren’t very likable (at least to me). They’re just angry cartoon jocks with no depth. They don’t all have to become gritty-tortured-Batmen either. Characters can respond differently as long as it can be justified psychologically. This can actually be in service of a powerful larger point (like in A Clockwork Orange).

    I understand the reality of the market, so I accept that COD games will do well just like Transformers movies will do well. But there are ways to make a point, have a realistic character, and have fun shooting people. Bioshock Infinite (a game I haven’t played) seems to do this just like District 9 or Attack the Block.

  • @ Warg,

    Cry more please. I’m sorry your masters can do no wrong in your eyes. All I did was suggest they start discussing more genre’s of video games and stop talking about the same games every week. It gets tired, no matter how much circle jerking you like about skyrim.

    @ Mr. T. I would like their particular perspective and comedic view on those other types of genres. Yes there are other podcasts on those particular games, but they are strictly mechanics or news I would prefer to hear Kumail and Emily’s perspective as a fan of their show.

    After 92 episodes, I think I can add my two sense. It’s up to them in the end if they want to include those games on their future episodes, not you two self appointed white knights of the indoor kids.

    That being said, Warg please continue being fat, play your CoD, and die lonely in a well.

  • Jeepers creepers you guys, everyone’s just so excitable! I guess that’s a good thing…

    Ultimately, I think games are headed in the right direction as far as mature storytelling goes. There’s always going to be single-track shooters focused specifically on competitive gameplay, which is in its own right great, and fun, and good, and great.

    But the games that are intent on presenting a creative perspective, story, or some meaningful experience are certainly maturing as they receive more attention as a viable medium for this sort of thing. Part of that process is that people ARE holding them to higher standards, and that’s a great thing for games.

    Games are getting SO good you guys. So good.

    I love video games! Hooray!

  • @David

    I don’t think anybody really has a problem with you putting in your two cents, but you sure came off quite spoiled and entitled when you did it. The way I see it, you listened to 96 episodes which means that you’ve gotten 96 hours of free entertainment produced, delivered, and gift wrapped by Kumail and Emily. For which you’ve given nothing. If anything they should be asking you for something, not the other way around.

    So if you’re going to put in your two cents about something else you wish they’d talk about the very least you could do is be polite about it. That’s my two cents. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a well to go die in.

  • @Mescalineous

    first, your using the word entitled completely wrong.

    the word(s) you were looking for were probably rude or crass

    given nothing? oh yeah except for consistent podcast views.

    The podcast is free, but to think that they don’t benefit financially off it is ridiculous. They get sponsors from the amount of listeners that they draw, and I’m sure Kumail draws a lot more because of the show. If anything they should continue to be thanking all of us (which they do) for listening to their show. They owe lots to their fans, who are the ones that support them.

    Keep white knighting, maybe one day you can go up to them after a show and say how great it was, be a yes-man with no personality, then be forgotten 5 seconds later.

    That well is probably a good idea.

  • @David

    1. It’s perfectly reasonable that you make a request for their perspective on something. However, people are taking offense to HOW you requested it. You’re asking for something; why be rude?

    2. Why would you want Kumail and Emily’s perspective on a topic that you know does not interest them and they do not know much about?

    3. Being a straight talker and eschewing being a yes-man doesn’t give anyone personality. The corollary is that being polite and positive doesn’t make anyone lack personality.

    4. White knighting is coming to someone’s defense, right? One, why is it a bad thing to defend someone you love. Two, doesn’t that mean people think you’re attacking?

  • Oh, David. Oh you poor dear thing.

    I’ll start by saying that in my previous post I was too polite to point out the fact that you misused the word “sense” in your previous post, but since you’ve attempted to correct me I’ll return the favor. It’s “add my two ‘cents’” as in “You paid zero dollars and zero ‘cents’ for this podcast.”, not “add my two ‘sense’” as in “The way worded that made absolutely no ‘sense’.”

    You also misused the word “your” in your most recent post to me. I’m sure you meant “you’re” which is a contraction of the words “you” and “are”.

    The word “entitled” means to furnish a claim on something as you furnished your perceived claim to hear Kumail and Emily discuss a particular genre of game on the podcast regardless of their interest in it. You were ALSO rude and crass, but I used the word I meant and I used it correctly. Next time I recommend you check before you correct in order to keep from looking foolish.

    Now that the grammar lesson is over I’ll say, to you and Herpaderp, that while I’m sure Kumail and Emily more than appreciate your download, your ears, and your appreciation of the show, they don’t think that that “entitles” you to be act like Veruca Salt every time stray from the podcast you want to hear rather than the podcast that they want to make. While based on their previous comments on the subject I’m sure that they welcome ideas and interests, they would probably much rather lose your download than put up with your petulant BS.

    And I’m less white knighting for them and more speaking up about your shameful behavior. If I’m rude to undeserving people on the internet whose only sin was to make things for people to enjoy, or if I stand by and say nothing when I see it, then I sanction it and lose my right to complain when that undeserved rudeness begins to point itself in my direction.

    Now off to find that well.

  • @Mescalineous

    The snozberries do, in fact, taste like snozberries. In case you were wondering.

    @Tim
    @David
    @Herpaderp

    Video games are just great aren’t they?

  • sigh…

    yes those were spelling mistakes, that i overlooked through my autocorrect. But you’re still using the word entitled wrong. The word entitled suggests a right to something from proper grounds, and I have never said that I deserve these things. Merely I asked if the show was ever going to discuss these 2 particular games that cover 2 different types of genres.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/entitled

    So you did use the word wrong….

    I’m not even going to get into the mess that was your last paragraph(think you edited and forgot to take out half a sentence).

  • @Ben Clarkson

    And I totally know where you’re coming from. Except when it comes to Smough and Ornstein – in which case it’s really closer to a double-dickbutt punch…

  • @David
    They were spelled perfectly. They were context mistakes, not spelling mistakes. And your comportment, and later your assertion that Kumail and Emily should be grateful for your downloads, gave the impression that you felt you deserved these things. Remember when you said, “They owe lots to their fans, who are the ones that support them.”? So you pretty much did say that. Don’t try to worm your way out of it now.

    And if there’s a mistake in my last paragraph I would be delighted to hear precisely what it is. It appears to be perfectly grammatically correct to me.

  • 1. I’m sure they do.
    2. I don’t think that just because you earn a little bit of cash for doing something means that it entitles your end user, who pays nothing, to treat you like garbage. However much cash they earn from this I’m sure it isn’t enough to justify putting up with that.

    Based on things they’ve said in the past I imagine that it’s more likely that they actually do it for a means to express themselves in a medium that they have complete control over. Not cash.

  • I refuse to play CoD as I don’t enjoy multiplayer and the single player campaigns are way too short. I will continue to be fat and work on finding a well to die in. I think my grandfather might have one on his farm.

  • Sorry, Warg. I’ve already got dibbs on that well. I reckon this here well ain’t big enough for the both of us. You’re gonna have to find another well to die in. :)

  • erm…..I like Mr. Bissell’s clear and well stated opinions on this show. He sounds like he’s not just some grump that a lot of people make him out to be, but rather a very seasoned gamer with very understandable view points. great show!

  • I’ve been hoping – given Kumail and Emily’s affection for his work – that Tom Bissell would stop by to chat with them for quite a while. And this proved to be the perfect time, given Bissell’s new perspective on the industry.

    I’ve always loved his articles, and his willingness to hold videogames to account for vagaries in character, narrative, or thematic coherency, but I’ve always wondered whether he was a little *too* picky at some moments in which the logic of the experience had to bend to the needs of the game structure. So with his new personal experience in many complexities and difficulties of crafting a game, I found his more sympathetic observations even more welcome.

    The analogy about gaming being somewhat like theatre was particularly resonant (and indeed, a reference I have used myself at times). After all, theatre is about investing in the fiction enough to allow for the lack of a fourth wall, the slightly wonky sets, and the empty tea cups in people’s hands.

    So if the cold, dead eyes of an NPC in Skyrim, or a door that won’t open in Arkham are the trade off for breadth of experience and pacing, then I’ll take it.

  • Great episode, thanks Emily & Kumail & Katie.

    I really didn’t like Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives, I thought he came off as trying to justify the amount of time he spent gaming, like he was ashamed of his hobby. He totally lost me at the GTA chapter and I stopped reading.

    He’s in top form on this podcast though, he made so many good points and articulated them so well. I’m glad he played Dark Souls, that’s an incredible title which gives me hope for the future of video games. Kumail & Emily should give it a shot, its difficulty is overrated; like Bissell said, it’s not that you die constantly but that you learn what you did wrong. It’s incredibly rewarding and satisfying.

  • Dark Souls and Demon Souls are hard, but they’re not *that* bad once you get used to them. You will die a lot and you can’t just run into groups and enemies and button-mash your way to victory, but if you’ve beaten Ninja Gaiden on the XBox you’ll have no problem with it.

    A few things that make it manageable:

    * If you die on a level you go back to the start, but you get to keep any items you’ve picked up. So if you get halfway through a level, and find an awesome weapon, you can equip it and have an easier time from then on out.

    * When you die you lose all your ‘souls’ currency (which you can spend on stat upgrade or items). If you go back to where you last died you can get them back. A second death and they’re gone for good. Sounds brutal to lose your xp, but there are always simple enough ways to earn/farm souls if you really need them. Once you realize it’s not the end of the world to lose your souls from dying you don’t stress about it happening as much.