Sucker Punch: Video Games and the Future of the Blockbuster

Jonathan McCalmont @ 20-04-2011

One of the great failures of 20th and 21st Century film criticism has been the failure to recognise that Blockbusters are a genre unto themselves. Forged in the 1970s by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Blockbusters borrow the trappings of other populist cinematic genres – such as science fiction, fantasy, espionage, war and disaster movies – but their aesthetics are entirely divorced from the concerns of the genres they borrow from.

In this column, I would like to examine the nature of the modern Blockbuster and argue that the next source of genre material for Blockbuster film will be video games. However, while there is much promise to be found in the idea of a film/game stylistic hybrid and Zack Snyder’s latest film Sucker Punch hints at much of that promise, it seems that the form of video games itself is as yet too underdeveloped to provide film makers with anything more than another set of visual tropes that will be used, re-used and eventually cast aside as the Blockbuster genre continues its predatory rampage through popular culture. Continue reading “Sucker Punch: Video Games and the Future of the Blockbuster”


Digital: A Love Story; Nostalgia, Irony and Cyberpunk

Jonathan McCalmont @ 05-01-2011

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.  Originally coined in 1688 by a medical student investigating the tendency of Swiss mercenaries to become homesick to the point of physical incapacity, nostalgia soon changed from being a curable physical ailment to being an unassuageable psychological condition, a sickness of the soul.

This shift was the result of nostalgia being partly decoupled from the concept of homesickness.  Homesickness can be cured by allowing the sufferer to return home, but nostalgia came to signify a longing not for a particular place but for a by-gone age forever out of reach… short of someone inventing time travel.  However, despite becoming de-pathologised, nostalgia never quite managed to shed the negative connotations of its medical origins and the late 20th Century’s decision to turn nostalgia from a condition into a marketing strategy did little for its respectability in certain circles. Continue reading “Digital: A Love Story; Nostalgia, Irony and Cyberpunk”


Paying Attention is Not Fun: Crackdown 2

Jonathan McCalmont @ 15-09-2010

Back in 2007 Realtime Studio’s Crackdown limped onto the XBox 360.  Originally intended for release on the original XBox, Crackdown had been beset by technical hitches and a series of disastrous decisions during the development process.  Despite Realtime receiving quite a bit of aid from Microsoft, the game’s testing did not go well.  In fact, it went so poorly that Microsoft decided to package the game with the Halo 3 demo in a desperate attempt to boost sales and recuperate some of the money spent during the game’s epic development cycle.

Originally conceived by David Jones — one of the developers behind the original Grand Theft Auto (1997) — Crackdown was intended as an attempt to go one better than the GTA franchise.  Where GTA had you running around a sandbox-style city causing chaos and climbing the ladder of the criminal underworld, Crackdown gave you super-powers before letting you loose on a similar sandbox-style city.  The reviews were surprisingly positive, because Crackdown managed to capitalise on one of the great joys of GTA: ignoring the plot and blowing things up.  Crackdown was all about the fun. Continue reading “Paying Attention is Not Fun: Crackdown 2”


DRM may suck, but avoiding it is no panacea to piracy

Paul Raven @ 09-08-2010

As a fellow-traveller of the copyleftists, this is the sort of story I’d rather not be reading. But it’s an important one, because it underlines the problem that all the optimistic rhetoric in the world can’t sweep under the carpet: the point-and-click adventure game Machinarium was released without DRM, and despite (or perhaps because of) great reviews, suffered from an estimated 90% piracy rate. The developers are now having a “pirate amnesty” where they invite people with pirated copies to cough up $5 – a quarter of the original asking price – to legitimise their installation.

So much for the myth (albeit rarely stated directly) that DRM-free games are less likely to be pirated because they give the players their oft-demanded flexibilities of installation and migration; disappointing, perhaps, but hardly surprising.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the piracy rate would probably have been similar even if DRM had been baked in to Machinarium. So what’s the way out of this bind? My guess (and it is a guess) would be a lower price point – maybe if the asking price had been $5 from the outset, more people would have coughed up in the first place. The counterargument to that usually goes along the lines of “but that won’t cover the overheads of making the game!”; the counter-counter-response is “well, charging $20 obviously hasn’t achieved that either”. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Then there’s the MMO/metaverse model: charge very little or nothing for software and access, and make your rake-off through in-game items. We know this one works, because if it didn’t there’d be no goldfarming outfits in developing nations… but how to adapt it to single-player gaming experiences? Or maybe you have to look at sponsorships, in-game advertising and product placements… none of which sound particularly appealing, but would probably become accepted by players pretty quickly once there were no other options…

… and given the way things are going, that might not be too distant a day. What this story makes clear is that DRM is a blind alleyway: whether you include it or not, you’ll still have your work pirated. The web burgeons with suggested alternative business models for computer games, but to my knowledge no one has yet made one of them really stick.


Shock: re-engineering science fiction, socially, as an RPG?

Paul Raven @ 18-06-2010

Damien G Walter has discovered something that sounds very interesting indeed: Shock, a ‘social science fiction’ roleplaying game. Go to the linked site for the full low-down, but for now, Walter explains:

Shock is a framework that has its players improvise science fiction scenarios based on the interactions and conflicts of certain Issues (slavery, imperialism etc etc) and Shocks (replicants, mind transfer) and Minutia. Or in other words, the gamut of tropes drawn from more than a century of science fiction.

[…]

As i read the handbook Shock is making me think some things. It is making me think that science fiction is powered by a small number of essential processes, and Shock does a good job of pinpointing what they are. It also makes me think that if we can accurately describe the meta framework of science fiction this way, then the task for science fiction writers is not to keep filling that framework with more stuff, but to start reengineering the framework itself. Don’t keep churning the same old products out of the factory. Don’t even build a new factory. Conceptualise a whole new manufacturing process and see what it produces.

Further unpacking of that last paragraph occurs here:

when we talk about innovation and experimentation, and about moving the SF genre forward, what we tend to mean is inventing new Shocks and exploring new Issues, or using old Shocks to explore new Issues or vice versa. So in Metropolis the Robot shock is used to explore the dehumanising process of industrialisation. A few decades later Philip K Dick uses the same shock to explore human empathy. Or Vernor Vinge describes the Singularity and introduces a brand new shock which a host of other writers then adapt to different uses. And in such ways does the genre advance.

Definite echoes of Superstruct, there… not to mention a new way (or at least a new old way) of thinking about tropes and premises and characters in the context of the genre. Anyone in the audience know anything more about this game?


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