Review: Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed The World

Ah, video games. The love that dare not speak its name, at least in many mainstream media. According to TV especially, gaming is about bleeps and bloops as well as about blood and guts. Games are inherently male, inherently adolescent, inherently about power fantasies – and lest the gamer protest too much, that’s how the medium likes to present itself, at least when it comes to marketing. Boys play video games where they wield massive guns that would have made Freud go “Hmm…”, girls play video games that are pink and feature ponies, right?

How Videogames Met Your Mother. Or something.Charlie Brooker’s latest on Channel Four, the feature-length How Videogames Changed The World, was refreshing, mainly because TV seems to see games in very generic ways: either we get the embarrassing dudebro image of Call of Duty gaming, the stereotypical manchild living in his parents’ basement eating crisps and playing World of Warcraft, or we get handwringing worries about how gamers are desensitised by their chosen medium and turned into ticking timebombs just waiting to shoot up some high school. Brooker’s show looked as games as if *gasp!* they were a cultural good, for better or for worse, and should be seen as exactly that. Regardless of their cultural worth, games have become too big to ignore – and that may be one reason why they’re still presented as the sort of endeavour waiting for us to go 1 Corinthians 13:11 of them: “When I was a child, I gamed as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things, like controllers and such.”

Brooker, together with a whole bevvy of talking heads, took the programme’s viewers through games from their bleepy inception to their social-media-infused present day. Far from po-faced (or should that be Pong-faced?), HVCTW was largely about memories: from Peter “I voiced Darth Maul, so don’t you dare misspell my name!” Serafinowicz to Jonathan Ross, with various comedians and games journalists filling the ranks, talking about growing up on Space Invaders and GTA. One thing that was clear from the show: video games may slowly be growing up, dealing with issues more weighty than whether to shoot that terrorist in the face with an assault rifle, shotgun or grenade launcher, and that’s because video gamers and developers are growing up. A 30-something dev changing diapers on a nightly basis may make very different games from the guy in his 20s, and that’s definitely a good thing. The medium has become increasingly diverse over the last years, with a growing indie scene experimenting with what games can say and how they can say it differently from films or books.

Charlie BrookerFor me as a long-time gamer – ah, those heady days of writing BASIC code in between bouts of International Soccer! – HVCTW was nevertheless a qualified success at best. It was great to see Channel Four taking the medium seriously, but Brooker and his team delivered a show that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be: was it meant for general audiences without much of an idea of the medium, or was it by gamers for gamers? It was each of these at different times, but as a result it often fell between two stools. I wonder how the programme was received by non-gamers, because I’d imagine that they lacked the context to make sense of, say, the ultra-gory Mortal Kombat footage, or to understand the importance of the rise of the indie scene as told by Brooker, yet gamers who’d lived through most of the games mentioned are likely to have found much of the show rather “been there, done that”. Perhaps this could have been averted by giving HVCTW more breathing space and turning it into a series, or by ending it with an actual conversation between gamers, developers, experts and (most importantly, perhaps) people who don’t see what all the fuss is about (as long as they’re not called Jon “You know nothing!” Snow). As it was, HVCTW was several things at the same time – documentary, primer, nostalgic look back – without being any of these altogether successfully. The programme may have worked better as a statement – that video games are culturally relevant – than as an argument supporting this statement.

Now, gentle reader, you may be wondering, “Can I watch this programme myself, so I can tell this Goofy Beast guy how he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?” You can – provided you’re in the UK, or your computer is suffering from MPD and believes it’s in the UK. Just follow this magical link. For those of you unblessed with UK residency, though, here’s a short clip:

P.S.: The true test of whether you’re a real O.G. (Original Gamer)? It’s this – does the Robocop theme tune (Gameboy or C-64, I don’t mind) make you wax nostalgic?

Confessions of a sneaksy, thiefsy crash test dummy

Well, for once I won’t write about last night’s episode of Lost (titled “Catch-22”). Why? Because it wasn’t very interesting – but neither was it so horrible that I have to share my eye-gouging terror with the world (and the Keira Knightley fans who may want to eviscerate me after yesterday’s entry… Just kidding!).

So, instead let me regale you with my current PC gaming choices: Colin McRae DIRT (which I’ve mentioned here before) and Thief: Deadly Shadows. The latter is a game that I originally played when it came out, but now, two computers and three videocards later, it runs much, much smoother than it ever did. However, the game bears sad witness to who I really am: someone who gets a kick out of skulking in the shadows, waiting for people to pass, and then hit them over the head with a blackjack and rob them blind.

Yup, that’s me. I prefer crouching in the darkness and waiting, and then knocking out my enemies. With almost any shooter game, if I have the option to put my opponents to sleep, that’s what I’ll do. There are few things as satisfying in a game as a totally non-lethal headshot with a tranquiliser dart and then dragging the motionless body behind a wall or some rocks… and then waiting for the guy’s buddy to turn up, looking for his mate – and do it all over again.

Now, as far as DIRT is concerned… I’m not bad at it. Not totally bad, at least. But sometimes… well, sometimes my driving looks pretty much like this – and (moving) pictures say a lot more than words in this case:

Weee are alien magicians!

Videogame critics keep saying that there’s precious little humour in video games (or at least humour that isn’t unfunny at best and cringeworthy at worst). Now, it may be true that the humour in most games is made up of stale wisecracks and one-liners that make you groan… but then, most movie comedies aren’t really very funny, are they? There’s little good comedy in games as in films, but there are of course gems in both media. The games I’m thinking of, for instance, are many of the old LucasArts adventures (Grim Fandango, Sam & Max Hit the Road, the Monkey Island titles minus Escape from…), No One Lives Forever, Psychonauts – and Anachronox.

I never finished Anachronox when I originally played it; the pre-patch version was so buggy that it started to crash frequently halfway through the story. Now, thanks to some new tech and inofficial patches, I’m finally able to play it again, and in spite of the engine showing its age, I’m riveted. The game’s the strange offspring of Japanese RPGs, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Raymond Chandler crime novels. It’s got some of the best writing and voice acting ever in computer games. Even though I don’t particularly enjoy the gameplay itself, I still can’t stop playing, no matter that I’ve got newer games waiting for me both on my computer and on PS2.

It’s a shame the game didn’t sell very well at all, since it was meant to be followed by a sequel. As it is, Anachronox ends on a cliffhanger, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get the follow-up. Which is roughly like ending Lord of the Rings on The Fellowship of the Ring, with Frodo and Sam going off to Mordor – THE END. NO, WE WON’T TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENS. It’s a crying shame that good writing sells less well in videogames than big boobs, big guns and uninspired franchises.

P.S.: Anachronoxis a good illustration of my theory that humour is usually funnier when the characters aren’t just Punchline Delivery Agents(tm), but are actually fleshed out. There are moments of surprising poignancy in the game, which make the comedy shine more brilliantly.

P.P.S.: Here are some more trailers of genuinely funny games – because it’s these kind of games the medium needs if it wants to be more than just adolescent (male) power fantasies. I also hear that the new game Portal, scripted by Eric Wolpaw of Psychonauts fame, is very funny, and very good.

Psychonauts

Grim Fandango:

Portal: