Some thoughts on Far Cry 3

Whenever a high quality open world game comes along, I try to play it. Of all the games I play, those are the ones that more convincingly than any other provide me with agency, with worlds that respond to my actions. They present coherent spaces that I can project myself into. Compared to many games of other genres, like the lame, static theatre of many corridor shooters, they’re violently engaging.

So yes, it’s about escapism. It’s about the worn and torn expression immersion (don’t worry, I’m not about to use the phrase “living, breathing world” – “immersion” has become rather tired, but the “living, breathing world” has really been reduced to a parody of PR speak, hasn’t it?).

The last open world game I’ve been playing (and enjoying quite a lot so far) is Far Cry 3. It’s a well made and entertaining sandbox FPS focusing both on emergent and authorial storytelling, but it’s not without a few quirks and I have some thoughts I want to share about those. So here are a some of the things I’ve been up to on Rook Islands during my first hours of play.

I hunt! I stalk boar, deer, pigs and whatever else that is necessary for my survival. But it’s not for the meat. I don’t hunt them to satisfy my hunger. I’m after the pelts, their skin. To survive in the world of FC3 you need to craft wallets, backpacks, holsters, and more… The strange thing is that I loot assault rifles, old photographs, playing cards and all kinds of crap from the bodies of dead enemies, but for some reason I have to tear the skin of a pig and sew a wallet to increase the amount of money I can take with me.

Mechanically I do appreciate this, but they could have done a better job at integrating their crafting with the world they’ve built. The level of ludonarrative dissonance is surprising for an open world game 2012.

By the way, a small hint – the best weapon for hunting is any old car you find. They’re relatively silent and won’t spend your precious ammo. And it’s fun.

I fight! A big portion of your time in FC3 will likely be spent on taking outposts from pirates. When you’ve successfully defeated the pirates and your allies come to patrol the outpost, you gain access to its safe house. Inside is an automated store, full of weapons and ammo. A great reward from a mechanics perspective, but I keep wondering who I’m buying from? It must be the pirates’ store because the place was theirs a minute ago, but they’re all dead now – nothing but perforated, inanimate and soon to be despawned carcasses. Buying weapons from my dead arch enemies doesn’t make sense.

I climb! Rook Islands are littered with radio towers. Each is unique, and if you climb all the way to the top and hit a button you receive several rewards. First you get to see the camera swirl around the nearby area, highlighting local points of interest. Then it unlocks a free weapon in the weapon stores around the islands. The motivation behind the free weapons is that all the radio towers have a signal scrambler installed by the pirates, and the store owners have problems getting new shipments until the player destroys the scramblers. The free weapons, then, is a reward, a thank you from the gun store owners. And it’s a weak explanation that I just don’t buy.

Why, when I skin an animal, do I watch the protagonist tear out its guts while leaving the fur unharmed? Why, when I pick fruits and flowers and herbs from all kinds of vegetation do I only get differently colored leaves? Far Cry 3 remains a fun sandbox with neat gameplay and interactivity, but some of the features running the sandbox feel like raw mechanics with a thin layer of hastily applied paint. Such a poor paint job makes it harder to sustain the suspension-of-belief that I crave.

It feels more like a game than a world. And I get the feeling that it was intentional. But why?

Citizen Boss

There’s something about the gifted asshole that we love. A mediocre or just an average asshole would be impossible as a protagonist. But make him sharp as a razor and give him some charm, and we’re eating from his hand.

I’ve been watching Boss, the 2011 TV show about a fictional mayor of Chicago. Mayor Tom Kane has bought into the idea that he is the city, and sometimes he deems it necessary to rule it with an iron fist. His fist, however, only ever strikes in the shadows.

Appearance and politics becomes everything once he learns that he’s suffering from a neurological disease, one that will ultimately kill him. As long as he can cling to his throne, life is still in his grasp – and he becomes increasingly desperate to hang on. Not that he was ever in the game “for the people”, even if the thought helps to ease the guilt over his cutthroat political ambition.

The mayor believes that “people want to be led“, and perhaps our fascination for these bastard alpha males (like Mad Men’s Don Draper) suggest that there’s some truth to it. I know I’ve enjoyed every second of watching the show, and the biggest reason is Kelsey Grammer’s vibrant, fascinating and terrifying portrayal of Tom Kane.

Yes, Kane. It’s no coincidence that the mayor shares his name with the publishing tycoon of Citizen Kane. They overlap each other in ambition and in who they become.

The theme is clear from the show’s very first scene – where Kane is given his diagnosis and an estimate of how long he’s got left. He’s told that both his mental and physical faculties will wither until he finally expires. Whenever you’re cheering for him in the face of adversity, you still know that any victory is just a temporary pause on the downward spiral. Together with the fact that the protagonist is a democratic despot, watching Boss makes for an emotionally complex experience. One that I recommend.

The dark sisters

Stress and Sadness. Fear and Longing. Worry and Sorrow. They go under different names, but we know them well. We know their real names. Anxiety. Melancholia. Like dark sisters that never meet. One is our enemy. One our friend.

They seem similar, but they’re not. Both seem to arise from the same dark, hidden place, but one whispers while the other yells. If it was possible to choose between the two, the choice would be a simple one. But it’s not possible. They come and go as they like.

Anxiety is like a predator. She buries her claws deep into your flesh, feeds on you, and leaves you bruised or worse. You want to flee, but this is not the pre-historic savannah and running will take you nowhere. So you remain on your chair as she screams at you, shouting ugly things. You dont want to listen any more, but it was never a choice in the first place, was it?

Melancholy is a cocoon. She slowly grows around you until you are fully enclosed and divorced from the world. Inside that cocoon is the entire universe, cold and vast. With her near you are alone, on a mountaintop in the faint light of distant stars, feeling the night’s breeze against your naked skin. The world is an ocean embracing you, and you can feel every inch of the never-ending depth’s ice cold water.

It’s the summer sunrise before the others have waken up. The starry night when they’re asleep.

Monday – mon Dieu!

Monday – my god, it’s Monday again! Where did the weekend go? No point in mourning the passing of days, I guess, so let’s leave what was lost and look to the days that lie ahead.

My average week is not exactly shock full of cultural experiences, but this week will be a bit different from most. 2012’s edition of the Uppsala Short Film Festival started today, and will show great short films in several of the city’s cinemas throughout the week. I intend to see a bunch of them, and the one I look forward to the most is one I have already seen – The Fisherman.

“Following the death of Pake Walker, his son Pat climbs the high hill of Bull Na Mor, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, to honour his father’s memory and to contemplate a life spent at sea.”

It’s impossible to not empathize with Pat, but more than anything I was taken by the short film’s charged atmosphere. It’s a powerful experience. Simply amazing photography – which I very much look forward to seeing on the big screen – in dark blues and greys and silver, coupled with the sounds of the raging sea and an almost hypnotic voice-over by Pat himself as he talks about his life. You are invited to share Pat’s relationship with the raw, intense, yet somehow soothing ocean for 22 minutes.

Lena has been part of the group selecting short films for the festival’s programme, and I’ve happily ignored most of the DVD’s she’s brought home to watch. But after a few frames of The Fisherman I woke up from my iPad induced couch slumber, and sat up. The first thought that crossed my mind as the short ended was “I want to see that again“. On Thursday I will.

To answer this blog post’s first question; the weekend was sacrificed to the game Dishonored, which I finished yesterday. I have plenty to say about the game, and plan to do so in several blog posts, but for now I’ll just say “play it, dammit“. If you at all care about gaming, you need to play Dishonored.

On another note, I need to buy and play Xcom. Obviously.

Why ownership matters

There’s one concept of creative leadership that can make or break a team. It can make production slow and quality low, or it can bring out the very best in people. The concept of ownership is undoubtely one of the most important aspects of leading creative people – at least if you want quality, if you want efficiency and if you want to keep your staff.

Ownership, of course, is the sense of responsibility over a specific part of the project. Hopefully you desire to make the piece you own as good as you possibly can so that you can take pride in it.

If what this post has to say is obvious and selv-evident to you, congratulations! There are a lot of people that don’t either get it or believe in it. They ultimately pay the price, unfortunately without ever knowing it. Now, let’s dissect the concept and poke at its guts to see why ownership matters for people and projects.

Motivation

Very few people are happy to just be a cog in the great machine, just churning out whatever the next task asks for. It can be a very demotivating experience, because no matter how challening that task might be, you are still building someone else’s machine.

From Chaplin's Modern Times

We want to be involved. We want some level of control. We want to feel that we own a part of the project, even if its just a small splinter of it. Why? When you feel ownership, you feel it because you have invested some of yourself in the project. Suddenly it becomes very important.

Allotting ownership of different parts of the project to team members is a great motivational tool. It creates internal motivation and self-powered individuals, and can inject energy and passion into the veins of your team.

Efficiency

Ownership is efficient.

Picture this. TeamMember1 has produced ContentX. Some issues have been found with ContentX, but TeamMember1 is busy right now so TeamMember2 is asked to fix it. However, ContentX is complicated and TeamMember2 is forced to spend time understanding how it works before he can start weeding out the issues it has. In the end TeamMember2 ends up asking TeamMember1 how details of ContentX works.

The manager who has “optimized” the workload might think this is efficient, but is it really?

  • TeamMember2 had to spend time analyzing how ContentX worked before he could even start seeking solutions to its issues.
  • TeamMember1 had to spend time communicating the inner workings of his creation.
  • Afterwards TeamMember1 had to spend time to understand the changes TeamMember2‘s fixes brought.

Your average mad scientist

Here are two simple truths about production:

The person who has the best knowledge of a specific area is the person who has worked the most extensively on it.

Any project that requires a team is complex enough that communication poses a challenge. One goal to handle the challenge should be to minimze the amount of communication that is necessary.

If management had respected ownership of ContentX, the situation would have been different. The person who owned it could simply have fixed it and then moved on.

This of course demands good planning from management. The owner should have time allocated to fix his own material. If issues appear late in a milestone and there is no time for the owner to fix them, they should be postponed to the next milestone unless they are critical. Critical issues should not come as a surprise to management near the end of a milestone.

This is indeed a best case scenario and will not always be possible – especially nearing the end of a project when postponing anything is impossible. But the goal should be to respect ownership whenever possible for the sake of efficiency.

Responsibility

Simply put, if someone feels ownership over an area, that person will feel responsible for it and is likely to ensure that it is developed to be the best it can be. In the same way, if no one feels ownership over it, it will be neglected. And if something is neglected, management is required to take responsibility, and will end up micromanaging it. In turn, micromanagement decreases the individual’s feeling of ownership further. A vicious circle that can be difficult to escape.

Another threat towards ownership and personal responsibility is when others are tasked with important work within an area you “own”, like in the ContentX example above. Be careful. It doesn’t take much micromanagement, or seeing your tasks being redistributed to others, before the feeling of ownership diminishes.

Micromanagement and task redistribution kills individuals’ sense of responsibility while ownership builds it. Management can use this knowledge as a tool to decentralize responsibility over production and quality. Empower your employees with ownership and they will take much more responsibility.

The right stuff?

What all this means is that ownership is not just a need creative employees have – it’s a powerful tool to lead them. But do you have what it takes to utilize it? What kind of leader are you? Ask yourself the following questions:

Do I trust my team’s ability and knowledge?

Do I have the guts and confidence to take a step back for others to take a step forward?

Do I own the skills to effectively communicate the direction and vision of the project?

Do I plan ahead with realistic estimates and time buffers, instead of continously reacting to circumstances?

If you cannot answer “yes” to all of these questions, then you have work to do.

Postcards from Guild Wars 2, batch #1

Guild Wars 2 screenshot

Games are worlds to me, more than anything. I think they always have been. Even the simple platform games I played on the NES as a kid were places I visited, not puzzles or challenges to overcome. Sure, those elements gave the experience a much needed conflict, but they were first and foremost worlds that I could step into and experience. The TV screen became a portal that allowed me to escape a reality I wasn’t very keen on.

This is also how I as a child started dreaming about designing games. I thought and fantasized about those worlds, those spaces, and I wanted to make my own. Never did I dare to dream about making games for a living. I’m a lucky bastard to have ended up doing just that.

Guild Wars 2 screenshot

When I started playing PC games, the games that appealed the most to me were the point & click adventure games, because they had their focus on the places they portrayed rather than the constant physical conflict of most other genres. The adventure genre was probably the first where I felt I could really explore in a game. The (then) rather unusual importance of story and characters and dialog was also something that appealed to me. These aspects are just as important to me today as they were then, although I couldn’t articulate why I enjoyed it so much all those years ago.

I left the point & click games behind a long time ago. There’s simply much better realized game worlds in other places today, like RPGs and other open world genres.

Guild Wars 2 screenshot

I’ve written about how I enjoyed the world of Skyrim before, and there is no doubt why I gave it 90 hours of my life. It sure as hell wasn’t the combat mechanics. It wasn’t the quests or the RPG systems. Those rarely impressed me. Skyrim hooked me because of the very strong sense of precense I had in its world, and how much I enjoyed exploring it, affecting it and taking part in it.

Guild Wars 2 screenshot

A couple of weeks ago I started playing Guild Wars 2. I enjoy the gameplay a whole lot, but the most important aspect of it is simply being there, discovering, uncovering, conquering, tinkering. There’s a lot to be said about the world of Guild Wars 2 (and not all of it is positive), but that’s for a later post. For now I’ll just say that Guild Wars 2 is far away from the ideals I wish the MMORPG genre would strive towards, but I’m having a lot of fun playing it anyway!

Until that future post, please enjoy some of my photographs from the journey I’ve had to level 20.

Guild Wars 2 screenshot

Guild Wars 2 screenshot

Guild Wars 2 screenshot

Guild Wars 2 screenshot

More to come, stick around!

Stockholm Music & Arts 2012

This was written August 5th, 2012, on the final day of Stockholm’s brand new music festival.

Anna von Hausswolff at Skeppsholmen

13:19 I’m on a train to Stockholm to see Björk perform at the Stockholm Music & Arts festival. The train darts through flat farmland, occasionally stopping at the few railway stations between Uppsala and the capital. The sky is rather cloudy, but the sun is peering through. I got a headache and didn’t sleep very well, but I’m ok and look forward to seeing Björk for the first time. I’ve been a fan for many years.

16:32 The first artist to perform was Anna von Hausswolff. Creating moody and powerful soundscapes through vision and creativity, she gave us a great concert. The band was tight and gave a brilliant performance, but they revealed the joy of playing and the gratefulness towards the audience of a band that hasn’t spent years on the road. Hopefully they can keep it for a long time, because it was a real pleasure to see musicians reacting with honest happiness over the audience’s reactions.

Still got a slight headache. Beer didn’t help. Let’s see if a bag of crisps does. Good thing for the rest of you I’m not working as a doctor.

As I’m writing these words I’m sitting on a wharf at the dock, listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie perform. Skeppsholmen is a great place for a festival.

18:36 We’ve been lucky with the weather. The sky is blue now. Beneath me, between the planks of the wharf, I see the cold water of the Stockholm archipelago. In front of me, between two ships, float four enormous tractor tires. Perhaps an insurance if one of the ships’ mooring would break.  In the distance, on the other side of the water, I see some of Stockholm’s old, beautiful, spectacular architecture.

So far the performances have met my expectations. I wanted to see Anna von Hausswolff and Björk, and Anna was great and I don’t doubt Björk will be too. The others have been alright, and I didn’t expect or need them to be any more than that. Fatoumata Diawara was good enough that I’ll give her some time on Spotify. iamamiwhoami was ok, nothing to get excited about, but I’ll check them out too.

The thought just hit me that Björk is here, somewhere. All of a sudden the fact that I’m going to see her tonight became so much more real. After listening to recordings of her for hundreds of hours I will finally experience her in the flesh.

Large waves suddenly came rolling beneath the wharf, beneath me. Must’ve been a large boat.

23:54 The Björk concert? They should have sent a poet.

One of the things that struck me was how powerful her voice was live. I knew its potential from her albums, but that she would have that level of control on stage was a pleasant surprise.

Her performance was playful, creative and grand. It just made me so happy! It was, if not the best, then at least one of the very best concert experiences I’ve had. When All is Full of Love started playing, I was full of love. I was worried that the amount of material from her latest album Biophilia would come to dominate the concert, but in the end I felt she had composed a good mix – although I would have been happy to hear a few more of her classics.

Björk and the Icelandic choir Graduale Nobili in the Stockholm night

I’m on a bus to Uppsala. Asphalt flows beneath me, colored gold by yellow street lights, as we move through the darkness of the August night.

Björk used twin tesla coils (or “lightning machine” as she called it) as bass for a few songs. Giant bolts of electricity humming deep notes sounded great, and looked amazing in the darkness. That’s simply crazily awesome! She even used it to great effect in the calm song Possibly Maybe, as a contrast to the soft sound of the instrument hang, played by Manu Delago.

Perhaps she overused the Icelandic choir in some of the songs, and perhaps the audio levels could have been mixed better every now and then, but anyone would be a fool to complain about a concert which made them think “oh god!”

The madness of a cold

Muscles aching. Head full of snot. Tired. Slightly grumpy.

I got a cold all right.

We’re nearing a milestone at work, so I’m currently putting in a few more hours to reach my goals. But it’s honestly not much of a strain, so why do I feel like I’ve worked a 24 hour shift in a coal mine?

Again, it’s just the cold. Damn you, unescapable facet of being a biological machine!

Here’s a random thought. The cold makes me feel a bit strange, like I was a bit disconnected from the real world. I wonder if something as mild and harmless as a cold has the potential to affect a person’s conciousness during the peak of the sickness. Perhaps that could be useful creatively.

Who the hell is this?

Nothing has been posted here for a little while. With the new name and the new look, it’s all of a sudden like the blog is a stranger. Or a mere aquaintance. It’s no longer Pixel Park, and I don’t know this new character yet. But we shall become friends, of course, me and Instead of Letters.

The truth is that not much has changed, really. I will still write about games and movies, although with more posts about other art forms like literature, theatre, ballet… It all sounds a bit pretentious, perhaps, but the blog is merely an outlet for me to talk about the things I like – cultural expressions that resonate with me on some level, emotionally or intellectually. Both as a consumer and a creator.

Instead of Letters

When was the last time you sent a hand written letter to anyone?

When in Amsterdam a couple of months back, I and Lena spent a rainy afternoon at the Van Gogh Museum. Beyond simply taking in and enjoying a lot of Vincent’s great art, I was struck by the man himself; his determined struggle to be the artist he wanted to be, the confidence that told him to keep working, and the gradual collapse of his mental health as the confidence started to wane. Wall by wall, room by room, you could follow how he developed and changed and became ill. It was fascinating, and after having walked through his life in chronological order, I felt I had a sense of who he was.

Most of the knowledge we have about him comes from his letters. He wrote often and long, usually to his brother who was also an artist.

At the exhibition I realized that private letters have been instrumental in understanding the lives of so many of history’s important individuals; artists, politicians, warriors, believers – people that moved and changed the world. By far, we wouldn’t have the same insights into what drove them, what they desired, who they were, if not for ink and paper. But who writes hand written letters these days, now that the Internet has changed everything? It seems as if we all of a sudden are without an important tool for writing our history.

What do we have instead of letters? E-mail is the supposed replacement, but it doesn’t quite invite you to write the type of long, thoughtful letters that people once composed. Communication is fast, cheap and painless today, and I believe that it makes people sloppy in their written communication. E-mail is also merely one of a large number of ways to communicate today. Using myself as an example, I use e-mail but also a cell phone, Skype, blog comments, Steam, Facebook messages and comments, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr… And that’s just at the top of my head.

The written word of today is simplistic and fragmented, and most of a person’s written output will be lost. Social networks become deserted and go offline, passwords are forgotten, chat logs vanish during the next reinstall, e-mail addresses are changed and forgotten or their accounts closed.

There is hope. One form of communication still require coherent thought (from those who own the ability, at least), is completely public, and will remain mirrored even if the server goes offline or the author deletes the content – the blog. Perhaps blogging is more worthwhile than we usually give it credit for. No one knows who will be determined as “interesting” or “important” by the future – van Gogh was considered a nobody during his life – and for those of us who will never be given posthumous praise it might still be of value for the family we leave behind.

My own blog, the one you are reading right now, started out with the name Pixel Park because it was meant to be about digital culture. I wish to move beyond that rather narrow description. I want it to also be about theater, ballet, literature and that friendly duck I met at the summer house. A greater slice of my life.

These blog posts are my letters to you, whoever you are. This is Instead of Letters. Thank you for reading.