Where Online Social Liberalism Lost The Script

Parallax Abstraction:

I don’t normally believe in reblogging and this is the first time I’ve ever done such a thing on Geek Bravado. However, this post resonated with my thoughts on the issue of the continuing decline of online discourse so much, I couldn’t help but promote it here as well. What this writer says is exactly why I have to largely (and cowardly) stay out of so many discussions on these issues now and why my one attempt at jumping into it (my previous blog post) was so weak sauce and toothless, I’m almost ashamed of it. Regardless of what side of any issue you fall on, this should be read by everyone because this is the primary reason we can’t have proper discussions about these things any more.

Originally posted on The Dish:

by Freddie deBoer

I’ve developed something of a reputation as a socially liberal critic of today’s social liberalism. I got an email from a Dish reader who asked me to flesh out where I’m coming from.

I guess what it all comes down to, for me, is that social liberalism was once an alternative that enabled people to pursue whatever types of consensual personal behavior they wanted, and thus was a movement that increased individual freedom and happiness. It was the antidote to Jerry Fallwell telling you that you were going to hell, to Nancy Reagan saying “just say no,” to your conservative parents telling you not to be gay, to Pat Robertson saying don’t have sex, to Tipper Gore telling you that you couldn’t listen to the music you like, to don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t wear those clothes, don’t walk that way, don’t have fun, don’t be…

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Posted in Humanity, Internet, Personal, Politics, Video Games | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Being A Gaming Professional and A Person (with Video)

I’ve already recorded the extra rambly video to go along with this post and even as I type, I still don’t know if I’m going to publish it. I was both exhausted and in a pretty major funk when I made the video and I largely still am so forgive me if this isn’t my best written post, even by my standards. I don’t even like the title of it but it’s the best I could come up with. Putting this out there is without a doubt painting a target on my back for one or more groups of angry people and with all the shit that’s been going down in the world lately, my brain hasn’t been doing so hot. However, one of the reasons Geek Bravado exists is so that I can voice opinions I have that don’t solely follow one group think or another and as with most things, that’s also the case here. So buckle up dear reader, it’s time to ride the Controversy Coaster.

I had been planning a post in my head for approaching two months on the subject of when an employee of an organisation should be held accountable in their job for something they say on their own time. It started with a Community Manager from Turtle Rock Studios (developers of the upcoming Evolve) getting fired because of some tweets he posted from his personal account in defence of racist scumbag and former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling. There have been a couple of other examples of this issue that have surfaced as well. The short of my opinion on that is that I think these examples represent a terrifying chilling effect. When you work for a company, what you say when not speaking on behalf of that company is your own damn business. People should be allowed to think controversial opinions and as long as what they’re stating doesn’t impact their job, isn’t being said about their employer or their customers and isn’t illegal, that’s where it should end. That you have to be careful where you exercise your free speech online when working for certain organisations is something that should scare everyone. The guy from Turtle Rock is a twit speaking a rubbish opinion but that’s an opinion he’s allowed to have and if he said it on his own time, Turtle Rock should have butted out.

Given the events of the last week, this topic has now morphed into something else entirely. If you’re reading this, you’re very likely aware of what I’m talking about. If you’re somehow not, go look it up, it ain’t hard to find.

Since this whole Quinnspiracy situation was such a heated subject for a variety of reasons, I decided to actually read and watch a bunch of stuff representing both sides of the issue. That wasn’t an easy thing to do as there’s a lot of nasty mud being slung around from both camps but since it involves the press which is largely only speaking on this with one voice, I wanted to see the complaints that they were facing. Unfortunately, learning the crux of the other side involved reading a lot of poorly written articles and watching a lot of YouTube videos of people ranting, many of them on one hand saying they don’t care about the details of someone’s personal life, only to then spend minutes throwing insults around regarding people’s personal lives. This is made all the more ironic by the fact that many (though not all) of these people didn’t even have the guts to show their faces on camera. When I looked past that though, I saw what were kernels of legitimate concerns and complaints, which have largely been responded to not with reassurance or serious answers but by the press deriding and slamming the audience they are tasked with serving, tarring everyone who even has a question with the same horrible brush.

This insane saga involves a number of serious issues but it unfortunately started in a really gross way; with an ex-boyfriend who decided the best way to handle being hurt in a relationship was to lash out against a very public figure in a very public way. The way he did so is too detailed to simply be petty revenge but it’s nonetheless gross and disgusting and he should be ashamed of himself. As someone who once aired my own relationship laundry in a public forum (albeit on a much smaller scale, without any preparation and without naming names), I can attest to that being a fucking stupid thing to do and the stupidity was amplified many times here.

What this issue has done is bring the conversation about games press objectivity, ethics and trustworthiness to the forefront. The problem is that this has become wrapped in the cloak of someone’s personal life and the important issues that need to be discussed are getting lost in that massive, homogenised mess. When you coat that in the icing of morons from various well known places trolling, hacking people, doxxing people and taking down major web sites, it gets even harder to have any semblance of a real discussion.

Let me be clear here: I don’t support the hacking of anyone or revealing anyone’s personal information to the public. There’s trolling and slander which is disgusting enough on its own and then there’s that. People who do that kind of thing are not only evil scumbags who should be in prison, they’re also doing orders of magnitude more harm to any cause they espouse to be supporting. Really though, they’re not in it for any cause. They’re the people who show up at a peaceful protest and start throwing molotovs. They’re not fighting for anything, they’re just evil people who want to start shit. A certain segment of those people are also to be expected but that’s a previous discussion.

When you take that element out though, here’s the thing: There are problems in segments of the games press with regards to lacking professional standards and potential conflicts of interest. It’s not everywhere but it is there and it can be found in some frankly astonishingly prominent places.

When sifting through the sludge of opposition content I did, there were a number of irrefutable facts demonstrated that show people in this industry who frankly should know better, have clear conflicts of interest that would not be considered acceptable in other forms of media. I’m not naming them (sorry, big enough target on me already, you can look them up) but it has been shown that prominent journalists have not only written about products made by people they have friendships or other relationships with, many have been discovered to be directly financially contributing to some game creators they are supposed to cover. These people are vehemently defending that as well, saying that there’s no conflict of interest there and it doesn’t impact their objectivity. I simply can’t believe they can say that with a straight face. I’m sorry but there is no reasonable ethical test that can be passed by lending financial support to someone you are supposed to write about in a critical fashion. You can certainly recuse yourself from covering that person to avoid the conflict but that’s been proven to not be happening in a lot of cases and from publications that not only should know better but in some cases, have publicly posted ethics policies.

There are game journalists I follow who won’t even back gaming Kickstarter campaigns by people they’ve never met, simply on the basis that they might have to cover that product some day and lending early financial support could taint their viewpoint. That’s the way it should be and really, that the opposite happens at all is shocking to me. Yet, this is not being discussed at all in light of what this issue is being wrapped in.

Furthermore, we have some of these supposed professionals treating anyone who even so much as asks questions as just being as bad as the trolls who throw around death threats and insults. Walls of snark, derision and hostility have gone up across the industry and to look at Twitter the last week, you would think the games press was essentially at war with its audience. The trolls are evil but they will always be there and if you’ve worked in the games press for any amount of time, you already know that. But all it would take is for a few places to come out and respond to this. State your official position on it, state what your ethics policy is (or perhaps create one if you don’t have one), state where potential conflicts are and what if anything you intend to do about them. If you truly believe that funding game creators you write about isn’t a conflict, say so. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to your guns but say what those are and let your audience decide if they still trust you after that. We’re not seeing that though and with a lot of what I’ve read, a lot of this goes beyond just not wanting to feed the trolls and starts to look more like some of these people have been caught red-handed and just don’t want to answer the tough questions. Some of these sites had no problems writing tabloid-esque stories about a prominent industry figure getting accused (not convicted, not even charged, accused) of a crime, yet they are trying to sweep this under the rug and hope it goes away. Do I feel sorry for that people are questioning the integrity of some who have potentially shown a lack of it? No, I don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of really dumb people on the opposing side of this saying a lot of really dumb shit. They should be ignored and aren’t but that’s another story. However, any dissenting opinion is not automatically trolling and people wanting answers isn’t a betrayal. The gaming press works for the audience, not the other way around. They are not owed anything beyond our eyeballs on their content. If they truly believe they are in the right, all they’re really required to do is say so, why they think so and leave it at that for the audience to decide.

Instead, we are seeing an incredible amount of arrogance and entitlement being shown towards a group who are simply asking questions, the same group the press will call entitled when they get upset about things like exploitative industry practices. When you not only throw up walls but start throwing your own mud back, you start to look just as bad as those you deride. In the last few days, I’ve seen supposed professional journalists (some of whom are actual trained journalists) with large audiences making snarky comments and vitriolic insults, not just in response to individuals but to their audiences in general and doing things like calling angry gamers worse than ISIS (yes, that happened.)

What the Hell is wrong with you to even consider saying something that crass and insensitive?! You’re supposed to be better than the trolls, not one of them! It really shocks me because this is not something you would see done in any other form of journalism. You would never see reporters from the CBC, NPR, BBC or likely even cable news, calling their audience worse than a terrorist organisation who posts videos of beheadings, even if they were being trolled, let alone those who just want to know who they can trust. If that’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see what’s happening, then step back from the damn keyboard and think about what you’re saying to your customers and what that implies you think of them. There’s nothing wrong with being angry and getting trolled is awful but at the same time as I’ve said before, you don’t get to cannonball into the sewers and then complains it stinks. Having a large number of Twitter followers and a byline on a web site doesn’t mean you’re automatically not a troll yourself. If you’re that angry, step back until you aren’t. If you think yourself better than the trolls, then you need to be better than the trolls. To return to my point from before, we saw the guy from Turtle Rock Studios lose his job because he supported Donald Sterling on his personal Twitter feed, off Turtle Rock’s clock. Yet we see supposed professionals equating their audience with a terrorist organisation in the same fashion and not a thing has happened to them. Does that make any kind of sense?

The growing problem right now is that the gaming press in many places, has become so polarised and arrogant with different subjects, be they review scores and critique, social issues, anti-consumer practices, blurring the lines between analysis and marketing, discussion and debate is no longer welcome. These writers don’t want discussion, they don’t want debate, they want compliance. Opinion and ego has become a greater part of the coverage (which is different than simply personality-based coverage) and increasingly, you either agree with them in full or you’re treated as the enemy. Middle opinions are not welcome. What we’ve seen in the last week is that mentality coming to a boil. This is a system that’s broken at its most core level. When you’re at war with your audience, everybody loses. This is a war that doesn’t need to happen. A discussion between the rational elements of this can and should be happening, while the trolls should be shut out. Instead, we just have a bunch of people yelling, everyone getting treated the same and the issue just getting worse with nothing being accomplished.

The events of the last week have been incredibly depressing for me. I’m seeing a medium I love and the people who write and talk about it at each others throats instead of working together. A lot of what I saw from the opposing camp disgusted me and though I took some useful information from it, I’ve also seen just how mean spirited some of these gamers can be and seeing how many subscribers some of them had makes me weep for the future of this species. At the same time, it’s also been a valuable learning experience because it’s shown me who in the press are the true professionals that are deserving of my clicks and praise and who are the ones that have just put themselves on a pedestal and consider themselves better than their audience. It makes me really sad to see how many have fallen into the latter camp because right now, there’s a lot of people I used to trust and respect that I don’t any more.

By all accounts, the gaming press as we’ve come to know it for the last many years is dying a pretty quick death. Like in the magazine industry that preceded it, web sites are closing down or scaling back, a lot of people are losing their jobs and many sites are having to resort to things like clickbaiting to pay the bills. As someone who ran a failed business, I know what it feels like, especially when there’s no viable alternative to your business model. This isn’t a good thing because unlike when web sites took over magazines, what’s rising up to replace the games press is largely YouTube. YouTube gaming channels are a great thing and I follow several of them in addition to doing my own thing but look at what’s popular in there. I don’t want PewDiePie, The Game Grumps, Game Theorists, Yogscast or even TotalBiscuit to be the new face of games journalism. None of these people are journalists and most of them wouldn’t call themselves that and don’t aspire to be. What they do is a fantastic complement to traditional games coverage but it’s by no means a replacement.

A good, strong, independent media covering video games is incredibly valuable and important and it needs to exist and be sustainable while being able to do proper reporting and service its audience. Instead, what we have now are web sites that thrive of clickbait, controversy, sometimes mixing too closely with the subjects of their coverage and now it seems, being in conflict with their audience and denying there’s a problem while they get eaten alive by often inferior alternatives. This isn’t the way it should be. The press can do better, the audience can do better and the industry can do better. We all want great games and want to talk about them. Is that really so hard? It shouldn’t be.

Patrick Klepek has said that the best thing you can do in times like this is thank the people you do trust for doing what they do and let them know they have support. I’m going to do that and if you’ve got to the end of this post, I highly encourage you to do the same.

Posted in Business, Coverage, Culture, Humanity, Personal, Video Games | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Review: AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3 (August, 2014, with Video)

NOTE: This review is for a product that originally came out in late 2013 and thus, was done using more mature drivers and firmware that earlier reviews did not have.

UPDATE (18/08/2014): In the review, I talked about the limited USB 3.0 chipset support of this device. Apparently, the latest firmware for the ExtremeCap U3 adds support for VIA and ASMedia chipsets but with limitations depending on your OS and configuration. AVerMedia’s site isn’t clear on this and that support is only mentioned in the change notes for the latest firmware. See the ExtremeCap U3 download page for more information.

Capturing video in general is a bit of a voodoo science. There’s lots that can go wrong and it only takes one thing to wreck a whole session. Since starting my YouTube channel, this has been the biggest of my many trials by fire. Capturing from PC isn’t too bad because it’s just done with software but grabbing footage from consoles needs extra hardware and thus, an extra thing that can go wrong. As YouTube’s popularity among gamers continues to skyrocket, a number of options are now available for easily taking in video from an external source. The AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3 is the third of these I tried and despite some quirks and the potential for frustration for some users, it’s still the best option I’ve come across.

Previous to the ExtremeCap U3, I tried the Elgato Game Capture HD (which has since been replaced by a new model) and AVerMedia’s previous USB offering, the Live Gamer Portable. I hated Elgato’s feature-lite and unreliable software (which I should have expected given Elgato’s being a Mac company first and foremost) and its inability to record commentary to a separate audio track, a vital feature if you are concerned about production values. The Live Gamer Portable allows separate commentary recording which is the main reason I switched but it too had lag issues that weren’t nearly as bad but still problematic. The Live Gamer Portable is a USB 2.0 device and thus, doesn’t send data to your PC fast enough for you to be able record a game lag-free. To get around this, it has an HDMI pass-through that allowed you to send real-time video to another display to watch while you recorded. Since I record at my desk where I only bring consoles when needed and don’t have HDMI-capable monitors, this didn’t work out so well. There was between a one and two second delay between what the console was sending out and what the included RECentral software was showing me which made playing off the software’s display near impossible.

The ExtremeCap U3 is AVerMedia’s first USB 3.0 product and furthermore, the only USB 3.0 capture device on the market that’s not targeted at the very expensive, professional sector. Due to the massive speed increases the relatively recent USB 3.0 spec offers, it’s two most boasted features are the ability to monitor game play through the RECentral software in real-time and also, to be able to record or stream 1080p video at 60 frames per second. Other devices (including the Live Gamer Portable) can only record 1080p at half that speed and even then, still dropping frames on occasion. You can stream to at least Twitch at 60fps if you want and YouTube is starting to roll out 60fps capability to select partners but due to bandwidth constraints, few people will likely use them right now. The higher frame rate is not particularly important right now but having a device capable of it is good for future proofing. The real-time monitoring seemed right up my alley and since this device was cheaper than replacing even one of my two monitors, I decided it was time to upgrade. After a bunch of testing, I can say that this device is solid and does what it advertises very well, if it works for you. That’s key because while I had few problems with it, there’s plenty of headache potential for others.

The first point that cannot be stressed enough is that this is a USB 3.0 product. If you don’t have a system with USB 3.0 capability, you are wasting your money with this. If your motherboard doesn’t support it, add-on cards are available cheaply. However, since USB 3.0 is still in its infancy (though the standard has been finalised), the number of chipsets with official support is low. At present, AVerMedia only supports Intel (which is only on motherboards), Renesas and Fresco Logic chipsets. They say others may work but if not, it’s not their problem. If you are an AMD user, you’ll likely need an add-on card. Even with this caveat, I’ve read numerous reports of particularly Renesas users still having problems with certain resolutions not capturing properly. If you run Windows 7, you’ll also need the most current USB 3.0 drivers for your chipset and right now, only Intel makes those freely available. For other chipsets, you’ll have to go to your add-on card’s vendor and those drivers are often out of date. With Windows 8 or 8.1 (which I run), there are official USB 3.0 drivers from Microsoft in the OS which work well. I have an Intel chipset on my MSI Z77A-GD65 motherboard and had no issues. AVerMedia does include a handy utility which will test your USB 3.0 ports against the ExtremeCap U3 and tell you what resolutions are supported. Unfortunately, this utility requires the device to be plugged in and thus, you can’t do the test before you’ve already put your money down. I strongly recommend that if you buy one of these, do so from a place with a no-hassle return policy.

Aside from the higher frame rate, the main benefit of the ExtremeCap U3 is real-time monitoring. Essentially what this means is that you can use their RECentral software as a display, rather than having to have a second display purely dedicated to monitoring your game play. Overall, this feature works quite well. I experienced a handful of frame drops while playing this way but they were far too few to impact game play and they didn’t show in the recorded footage. The bummer about this is that I presume to save on component costs and keep the price reasonable, they took out the HDMI pass-through that’s present in the Live Gamer Portable. Now, I just explained why real-time monitoring eliminates the need for that and while that’s true, it only applies when you’re recording with RECentral.

If you’re live streaming and using the ExtremeCap U3 as a virtual camera in something like XSplit or Open Broadcaster, your display then becomes your fully populated scene in that software. If you have a webcam in the corner and text elements or use a plug-in to monitor your chat, you have to stare at all of that as you play. This might be OK for some but it’s too distracting for me and unfortunately, you cannot use RECentral while feeding the device into another piece of software. RECentral does support live streaming directly from it but you’re very limited on features if you do that and serious live streamers will want their higher-end tools. While all of AVerMedia’s products support both recording and live streaming, some are better tuned to one of the other. You’ll notice the Live Gamer Portable has the word live in its name whereas this is called the ExtremeCap. That’s very key to determining what they’re best suited for and is something AVerMedia does a poor job of communicating clearly. The good news is you can work around this by purchasing a separate HDMI splitter, many of which are dirt cheap. I have this one on order which is cheap, well reviewed and has the added benefit of stripping out HDCP copy protection, making it much easier to hook up things like the PlayStation 3.

Another touted feature of the ExtremeCap U3 is that it has native plug-ins for both Adobe Premiere and Sony Vegas Pro. I’m not sure why anyone would want to capture directly into their editing suite instead of just using RECentral and importing the footage after the fact but I guess there was demand for this. I’m a Vegas Pro guy so that’s the only plug-in I could test but from my experience, don’t even bother. The interface for the plug-in is messy, it only shows the device’s output in a tiny window that can’t be maximised and at least in Vegas Pro 13, the entire application would crash about 40% of the time after recording stopped. Vegas Pro 13 is newer than the plug-in’s latest version so maybe an update will fix that but honestly, this is a pretty useless feature in my opinion.

As for RECentral itself, opinions online seem to be very mixed on it. A not insignificant number of people have reported that it frequently crashes, freezes or otherwise fails to record properly for them. Personally, I’ve found it a joy to use, especially against the Elgato software. It’s been reliable and I’ve never experienced a crash. I do have a powerful, heavily overclocked Core i7 gaming PC and a Core i7 laptop so if you’re running a more modest configuration, perhaps the software’s reliability goes down. Given the number of people with issues though, I would say that AVerMedia probably still needs to put more effort into it. However, one major gripe I have with it that’s existed since I bought the Live Gamer Portable (which was about four versions ago) is that if you are recording your commentary to a separate MP3 file, the commentary will always be about a half second out of sync with your game play audio. Since it’s a separate file, this can be corrected when you’re editing and I’ve got it down to a science. This is incredibly frustrating though and if you just want to capture and upload to YouTube without editing, it’s an even bigger problem. AVerMedia had steadfastly insisted this is a problem with my setup but after testing on multiple computers, I can assure you they are wrong. This is a big and a really frustrating one that they need to correct.

This brings me to their tech support. This is something not often discussed in reviews but an otherwise good product with lousy support can really sour the experience and I think it’s important to know how it stacks up. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of the Elgato in general but their horrendous support sealed that deal for me. It took them forever to respond when I submitted an issue and not once but twice, they responded answering a question that was so different from what I asked, it made me wonder if they actually read what people submit. AVerMedia’s representatives are both friendly and knowledgeable which is a big plus. However, reaching them is a headache. The support form on their web site is long, complicated and is designed for their entire range of products so it often requires you enter information that’s not really relevant. They will respond quickly but if the can’t answer your question on the first go ground, you can’t just reply to the e-mail or sign in to a portal to submit your response. You actually have to go to the page where you submit feedback on the support experience and at the bottom of that form, there’s a space both for general additional comments or to type a response if your issue was not solved. This is a lousy and overcomplicated way to provide support. We use a free ticket system for IT issues where I work and it puts this to shame. AVerMedia’s tool looks like it was written in-house but with so many off-the-shelf solutions that do it better, there’s really no reason they can’t upgrade to something better. Again, not the end of the world but like most of my issues with this product, they’re little things that aren’t a big deal on their own but are frustrating when you need them.

The last thing of note is probably not important to most but it was to me and that’s the unobnoxious appearance of the ExtremeCap U3. The Live Gamer Portable has a very bright and large ring of light on the top of it that’s always lit up when it’s plugged in and pulses red when it’s recording. It can’t be disabled and I find it very distracting. The ExtremeCap U3 is just a plain black box with a much smaller light that does stay on and also pulses red but it understated and not in your face at all. I’ve ranted before about the lack of status lights these days and I like to know what my stuff is doing but this is the way to do it reasonably. I hope they keep this design going forward.

I’ve accentuated a lot of negatives in this review but overall, I actually like the ExtremeCap U3 quite a bit. I was happy with the Live Gamer Portable as well and the only reason I upgraded was because of the real-time monitoring requirement that’s unique to my setup. Given the relatively small price difference between the two, I would say if you have a compliant USB 3.0 capable system, the ExtremeCap U3 is still the better buy because it supports higher resolutions and frame rates. If you don’t need 1080p/60fps recording capability and have a second HDMI display to use with a pass-through, then the Live Gamer Portable is a fine choice too if you can find it for cheaper. I think that while not perfect, the RECentral software is the easiest and most reliable capture software I’ve used so far and AVerMedia’s support is a little cumbersome but good and they support these products with much more frequent software and firmware updates than Elgato ever did. If you’ve got the system to handle its requirements (and to be fair, mine is well above the system requirements), this does what it says on the tin and does it very well. I will say once again however that I highly recommend you buy this from a place with a no-hassle returns policy because even if you have all your ducks in a row, it may still not work for you and the last thing you want is to get stuck with a restock fee or an outright return refusal.

If you’re a YouTuber or live streamer who is looking for a solid way to capture console footage in any flavour you want, this is a good buy. If you happen to keep all your consoles right beside your desktop PC, you might be best served with an internal card like the Live Gamer HD. If however, you capture off a laptop or your consoles live under your TV which isn’t near your desk, this is a solution that’s fitting my needs well. I don’t always hit it but I try to set and maintain a high quality bar with my videos and this enables me to maintain that. It’s not perfect and it’s not a one-size-fits-all device but it does what it says very well if you’ve got the rig for it. I urge you to watch my video companion above which goes into more detail about the points I’ve made here and has a bunch of demonstration footage as well.

Posted in Computers, Live Stream, Reviews, Reviews, Technology, Video Games, YouTube | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beta Review: Destiny Is Full of Promise and Itself

I have long said that Bungie is a studio that takes themselves way too seriously. Their games are full of simple, yet purposefully impenetrable narratives that they profess to be some form of high-art in game storytelling, when in reality, they’re just incredibly simplistic sci-fi narratives (mostly) that are more or less copies of each other. They like to use a lot of single, simple words to name things and hold back on any useful exposition about them because if you’re a real fan, you’ll seek out all the expanded universe novels, comics and ARGs to fill it in for you. I’ve co-opped every Halo game except 4 to completion and based on the game stories alone, I couldn’t begin to tell you what really happens in them. And we haven’t even gotten to the problems of how slow their games are or how bad the audio design is, just to name two things. Going into those would be a multi-part blog series on its own though.

If you don’t believe Bungie’s opinion of themselves, just listen to the sweeping, almost biblical music that accompanies each title’s opening or the super-serious making of videos they put out before release. These are artists man and they’re making art! You can tell this is a company that cut its teeth making Mac products. They make very pretty stuff that in the end, has the depth of a spoon and has been done better elsewhere but if you aren’t on board, there’s a fiendish army of cult-like followers to tell you how wrong you are and how you just don’t get it. Obviously, being someone who is not a fan either, this makes me super pitiable. Or maybe not. Probably not.

I say that up front because while Destiny (at least in its recently concluded beta form) is all of those things, there’s a ton of potential here and I’m actually excited to see more, though I have a lot of skepticism as well.

If you’re hoping this is when Bungie was going to differ in the narrative department, you’re sadly mistaken. If you want another story about humanity being on the losing side of a conflict and a large object in the sky being key to stopping it, all of which have single word names that explain nothing about them, you’ll find that here. To be fair, the beta was purposefully light on story so it’s possible this will be further explained in the final product. Given how Bungie and Activision have supposedly put $500 million into this project though, I think it’s a safe bet to assume that there will be some other accompanying media. The thing is though, I love both sci-fi stories and post-apocalyptic stories and Destiny looks to be a mixture of both. Even if Bungie does with this what they do with Halo, it’s still going to be a lot more entertaining to run around in this world. At least on the current consoles, it’s a pretty world indeed.

In many ways, Destiny feels like Bungie took the concept of Borderlands (running around shooting stuff, doing missions and collecting loot) and turned it into a full-on MMO. The game can be played offline but it’s clear the meat of it involves running around with friends or joining groups of public players to tackle quests as a group. There are several different types of missions, some simple story quests, others exploratory, others which are essentially raids, complete with the long duration and hard as nails difficulty that requires teamwork. I never managed to finish one, even though I spent north of an hour on some attempts. In the beta, there were not many environments available so a lot of these missions took place in the same part of Earth but the maps are large and different missions will take you to different parts of them. Given the incredible detail of the Old Russia map I spent most of my time on, if the shipping game has a larger variety of areas and juggles your missions back and forth between them, that will be something impressive indeed.

This wouldn’t be a Bungie game without competitive multiplayer and that’s present as well. The beta centered mostly around territory control missions and while it was fun, it was nothing new. If you’ve played this mode in another game, that’s what it is here. Bungie is famous for coming up with kooky game modes so I hope they continue that tradition. Where things get pretty slick is that multiplayer is integrated into the game world. You have to go to a specific place for it but you just travel there like another planet and you take your experience level and gear with you. If you make progress there, you get to take that forward into the main game. I love this seamless design and it does make everything feel a lot more cohesive, though I’m not sure how they’re going to handle balance with matchmaking in that situation.

The problem with MMOs is that they require a lot of customisability and content has to keep coming, otherwise people will just blow through them like any other game and move on. Bungie has said they have a ten year(!) plan for Destiny and they’re already pimping the season pass for it (which they of course call an expansion pass because Bungie has to sound more grandiose) but I really wonder how much content and in particular, unique content is coming. A lot of the beta missions were just of the “go here, kill this” variety and especially in the explore mode, the objectives felt as generic and flat as any MMO. To be fair, those types of grind quests are the bread and butter of genre powerhousees like World of Warcraft so maybe that’s what they need. It won’t be enough to keep me around though. I talked before about the repeating missions in environments and that’s also a concern because many of these repeats are gated off behind level requirements. If you take a mission that’s too high a level for you, all the enemies are just more powerful. They can even be invulnerable if you aim too far beyond your means. There’s no story justification given for this, it’s just the way it is. Again, this is a normal thing to have happen in an MMO but Bungie is positioning this to be something more, something revolutionary. If that’s how they plan to get progression and dish out content, it’s anything but, aside from having more backstory perhaps.

Customisation is another big concern of mine. At least in the beta, there are only a handful of weapon types. As you collect loot, you get better versions of those weapons and some of them will have certain elemental enhancements on them. Sound familiar? You get a primary weapon, a secondary and a special. You also have a few armour pieces you can change but again, the number of types is low compared to even a traditional MMO and it once again becomes a game about getting higher numbers. There may be bigger plans for this but as it was demonstrated in the beta, it feels like a shallow, stripped down version of systems that exist in better fleshed out forms in MMOs that came before. It doesn’t really feel like you have the means to make a character that’s uniquely your own and that’s onen of the big draws of MMOs. At it is now, I feel like there’s going to be a lot of samey characters walking around, just with mismatched colours of armour on with nothing to compare except stats. That’s boring.

Technically, Destiny is one of the first third-party games that I think can truly be called “next-gen.” It was supposed to be Watch Dogs but that game can’t hold a candle to this. Visually, the world is simply breathtaking to behold. Everything is finely detailed and you can see a long way into the distance without it being a blurry mess after a few feet. It’s a gorgeous aesthetic that blends sci-fi and the post-apocalypse perfectly. Bungie’s excellence at menu design is also present here, with a thumbstick controlled cursor setup that looks like it should be an nightmare to use but flows with a level of elegance rarely seen. It’s both more enjoyable and more efficient than using traditional menus. I knocked the pretentiousness of Bungie’s musical choices before but one can’t deny that in spite of that, it’s still wonderful music. A lot of games have fairly generic orchestral scores but Destiny’s feels unique and there’s no doubt that when you hear that menu music, you know exactly where it came from. The voice acting is once again flat and oddly mixed like most Bungie games and they’ve now become the latest studio to have a game in the Why Did You Waste Money On A Big Non-Voice Actor? category. Your robot companion is voiced by Peter Dinklage, whose delivery is so deadpan, disinterested and phoned in, I honestly didn’t know it was him until The Internet got upset about it. I don’t know why studios obsess with paying undoubtedly large amounts to bring in big Hollywood talent who have no idea how to do voice acting and who completely waste that money on lousy performances. People take the piss out of Nolan North and Troy Baker but those guys know how to bloody voice act!

Bungie certainly hasn’t come off their high horse with Destiny. Expectations for this game are high and Bungie’s cultivated them that way. But as someone who doesn’t really care for Halo or Bungie at all, Destiny grabbed my interest and I really want to see more so they may have nonetheless struck a chord with me. I love the concept they’re going for and the world looks gorgeous. I can forgive a lot of pretentiousness when there’s a good game underneath it and there’s potential for that here. There needs to be more variety in the missions and environments, a lot more variety in character customisation and they have to figure out a better way to gate off content but they could have all that sorted already. The beta was apparently a very tiny slice of what is a hugely ambitious product and my reservations about Bungie aside, there are only a handful of studios left who could have a shot of pulling something like this off and the creative influence to do it their way.

Bungie could have made a safer game than Destiny and I imagine they’re betting the farm on it. This game is either going to be a massive success or an historic failure, nothing in between. That’s something you hear a lot more in AAA development this is a level above even that. As someone who wants to see AAA games succeed and do more, I hope they pull it off because that’s more important than whether a studio thinks more of itself than maybe it should. You’ve got me interested Bungie, I hope your ten year plan’s a good one.

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Fix Comment Sections Instead of Just Whining About Them

As we all know, there’s been a lot of talk and snark about the lack of respectful discourse in Internet culture the last while. It’s strange to me how so many people have only recently decided that a problem that’s existed as long as the Internet itself is something we should find a solution for but better late than never. Chief among these discussions has been comment sections. This method of user interaction has never really been regarded as pleasant or civilised, yet it exists everywhere and largely untouched from its original formula. Indeed, this is such a prominent problem that it has its own daily reminder to avoid it. Comments are pretty much the worst.

As this problem continues, we see a greater number of people from press sites bemoaning how terrible comments are, how evil so many commenters are, how they are the reason X group of people can’t feel safe and respected etc. I don’t necessarily disagree with those assessments but it occurred to me yesterday that these people whining about comments on the sites they contribute to have a surprising touch of hypocrisy in their statements.

I mentioned in my Internet Reality post that part of the reason hateful and abusive comments are so rampant on social networks is because despite making a mint off their user’s content, the social networks themselves have largely washed their hands and said they aren’t responsible for what propagates on their services. Somehow, I hadn’t considered web sites themselves in this argument and indeed, there are certainly points to be made there.

Yesterday, Polygon posted yet another story about women in games feeling unsafe and not respected. I have no comment on the article itself beyond that ones of that ilk are a regular staple of Polygon’s “opinion” section, in which every article is purposefully designed to provoke strong response from readers. As one would expect on an article about women in games, a bunch of morons, largely from other unregulated cesspools like Reddit, flooded the section with the same abusive garbage we all know about already. Shortly after, an online acquaintance I follow on Twitter retweeted the following 3 things in a row:

The first is from Polygon’s Opinion Editor, the person who ensures the often purposefully vitriolic tone of that section. His history of harshly toned articles and picking fights with other writers and readers are well documented. The second two which were in response to him are what got me on this line of thinking and demonstrate a baffling disconnect content creators have. As Alex said, Kuchera is actually telling people not to read the comments on his own site, for a controversial article he approved the publication of.

Polygon’s comments section is pretty standard fare. It has moderation of sorts (apparently, I rarely read that site, much less comment) but if you want to chime in, you just have to make an account and post away. They encourage the same interaction with their audience most other sites do and they have an entire section and staff devoted to writing frequently hostile and inflammatory articles which don’t kid yourself, are designed to draw strong reactions because as I’ve said forever, controversy drives clicks. I think that’s softball journalism, which Kuchera has frequently touted himself being superior to while still practising it. I single Kuchera and Polygon out here because they’re the most recent example but it’s just one of many involving many writers.

The hypocrisy comes in when the people who do these things whine and complain that comments sections are as comments sections always have been. You provide the vector for people to comment, you provide the carefully crafted bait that you know will provoke them, you profit from the clicks that controversial articles bring and the additional clicks from people refreshing that comments section but when things go exactly as expected, you want sympathy? Give me a break. You know what’s going to happen, the framework under which your site operates provides the means for it to happen, you let it happen by enabling comments, you don’t get a pat on the back and a “There there, it’s not your fault.” Polygon has since disabled comments on the article in question because they got out of control but not before it made the rounds on Twitter and undoubtedly got a lot more free hits as people stopped in to watch the train wreck.

I don’t think the solution to this is to stop writing about tough subjects. There’s little journalism left in gaming but talking about the hard stuff is how we get more of it. Arguments can be made about the best ways to tackle these subjects but they absolutely should be tackled and discussed. However, the current means of fan interaction through comments is clearly a broken model that’s not working and it’s time to stop whining about it and do something about it.

As I said in the past, the Internet Reality is never going to change. Many people are assholes when they’re anonymous (many don’t even care if they aren’t) and you’ll never eliminate that. However, there’s all kinds of ways you can mitigate the damage they cause to online discourse. You can change how comments sections work and you don’t even have to alter the core idea behind them. It’s mostly different moderation ideas. Here’s just a few:

  • Require that every post be manually approved by a moderator before appearing. Not revolutionary but effective. Many newspaper sites do this now. If your site posts a lot of content, disable comments on new articles after a pre-determined and documented amount of time.
  • Require that new accounts be active for a certain amount of time before getting comment privileges. This deals with people who sign up a fake account just to troll.
  • Leave comments on stories disabled until a certain amount of time after posting. This potentially allows a lot of knee-jerk posters to either forget about the story before commenting or at least, force them to think about what they want to say and calm down if it’s a story that upset them.
  • Have more active moderation and potentially have extra moderators you can bring in when you’re posting a story you know will be controversial. Have strict rules and enforce them vigorously. Change your comment culture with brute force until it normalises. Other sites have succeeded at this.

Or perhaps the most bold idea of all to deal with comments: Don’t have them at all. This is what the person I mentioned above suggested and I think there’s a lot of merit to her argument. Several popular YouTube channels disabled comments entirely after that site rebooted its comments infrastructure last year (which arguably made it worse than it already was) and at least TotalBiscuit has said he has seen no reduction in views whatsoever. From what I’ve heard elsewhere, the vast majority of people who read articles on web sites don’t comment so that’s not traffic that’s lost and chances are if you disabled comments, most of the people who use them wouldn’t go away either. If they want to spout their garbage about your article or even just discuss it, they have Reddit or their Twitter feed to do that.

The fact is, comments aren’t as important as people think they are, they just exist because it’s what you do on the web. That’s a lousy reason to have them. People will make excuses like “This comes from the top, I have no control over it.” but if you’re telling me that corporate executives wouldn’t at least question how comment sections negatively affect their brand when you show them a printout of the stuff contained in them, I simply don’t believe you. You’re either doing a lousy job of selling your superiors on the value of heavier comment moderation (or elimination) or your site’s business model is so intrinsically tied to the traffic that comes from comments that allowing them to run unregulated is more critical to your success than curating civilized discussion. If that’s the case, maybe your site isn’t contributing the value you think it is.

I know it’s very hard to make money in online media these days when reliance is on advertising that pays a fraction of a cent per view. Traffic is necessary and I’ve said before that as much as people like to bitch about that, no one’s figured out a better way yet. However, given the levels of toxicity in online discourse these days, one has to balance that with the need to not be a major contributing factor to the problem. Twitter, Facebook and Reddit may not care to do anything about the toxic communities they make possible but their executives aren’t out there whining about what a problem it is either, nor does being smaller than them get you off the hook. You don’t get to profit (however little) from providing a poorly regulated vector for Internet bile and then whine how it burns when you get it on you.

Victory begins at home. You’re not going to change people being assholes on the Internet but you give them the platforms to be that and there are things you can do but minimise the impact they have. That may not always be good for business but sometimes, principals should prevail. If you think you don’t need to change, that’s fine too. If you don’t have the power within your organisation to try to change comments for the better, that’s also OK. But then don’t whine about a problem you are a part of whether you like it or not and especially not when you collect a paycheck based on stoking controversies and driving that which you claim to despise. It’s hypocritical and not particularly journalistic.

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The Growing Challenge of Belief Suspension

Consider the following video game scenarios:

  • In the BioShock series, you frequently heal your character by eating random foodstuffs found on the floor or in garbage cans.
  • Nathan Drake cuts down hundreds of enemies in the Uncharted series, with such a total lack of conscience that he’s clinically a psychopath.
  • In the latest Tomb Raider, Lara Croft frequently undergoes horrific body trauma, yet manages to shake it off within moments. She also murders hundreds of people and stops being upset about it after the first couple.
  • In Watch Dogs, Aiden Pierce can run over a group of civilians (accidentally or intentionally) and despite the total surveillance state Chicago is portrayed as in game, the authorities seem unable to track him down with any accuracy or expediency.
  • The house in Gone Home is ludicrously oversized for the size of the family living there and how the game portrays the economic situation of said family.

What two things do all these scenarios have in common?

Firstly, they’re all completely unrealistic, improbably and in some cases, just plan ludicrous. Secondly and more importantly, they all take place in video games which are not real.

I’ve noticed in a lot of recent game discussions I’ve come across, that many people seem to be having a harder and harder time suspending their disbelief when playing certain titles. They’re almost always titles that take place in a world based in some way off the present world we live in. Most of the time in present day (or the recent past) and with human characters. In these conversations, you’ll often see the term ludonarrative dissonance appear. A term often used by pretentious people to sound pretentious, it basically means that it makes no sense that the character you’re playing is able to accomplish what they do because their actions and consequences (or lack thereof) have no grounding in reality. Whether this is murdering hundreds of enemies with ease, healing by eating out of the trash or getting away with heinous crimes in a police state, the discussion will usually be centered around how that makes no sense and the game is worse off for not portraying things in a manner more believable.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem suspending my disbelief and leaving it firmly suspended. I’ve been playing video games for over 30 years now. To me and I dare say to most others, they’re an opportunity to break from the real world and experience something that’s not constrained by the societal and physical rules that our normal lives are. That’s why I love them, they’re an escapist media and one where you’re in control of it. So it’s always struck me as odd how people will be put off by what is ultimately a fantasy, not being closely tied enough to reality. When I see people criticising BioShock for its trash healing items or Watch Dogs for its lack of lawful consequences or Nathan Drake for his lack of conscience, my response is always “So what? It’s a video game.”

Furthermore, I find it odd how a lot of the discussions I see on this subject only cite certain elements of games as the ones that are hard to believe. Never in a discussion of Nathan Drake’s supposed psychopathy did I ever see people complain how unrealistic his regenerating health is. Yeah, in the real world it would be pretty disturbing to see someone mow down armies of mercenaries with little more than sarcastic quips but the dude can fully heal up from getting shot a dozen times! Those bullets just drop right out of him and the wounds close over all by themelves! He can also reload a partial clip of ammunition in his gun without losing the excess and he’s able to do it within seconds every single time! That’s downright miraculous and something that would never, ever happen in the real world.

Thing is, a video game isn’t the real world and that’s what makes all of this OK. A world in which we had to wrestle with Nathan Drake’s conscience or had to individually heal up every wound (which wouldn’t even happen because after the first couple, your body would just give up) would be horrendously boring, frustrating and not at all fun. Which is tricky when video games are ostensibly supposed to be about fun. There are games out there that attempt to portray real life scenarios with as much exacting real life detail as possible. It’s great that these exist but there’s a reason they only have niche audiences of super hardcore players.

One of the reasons I like Watch Dogs is because it presents an interesting world with its surveillance state of Chicago but it’s also a world you’re encouraged to have fun in. Much of the value of video games is breaking the rules of the real world or just the absence of them. To give it the rules and limitations of the real world would be to suck the fun out for all but a devoted few and that few can’t fund a AAA open world game. When I look at Watch Dogs or to a more extreme degree, the Grand Theft Auto games, I don’t see a world that’s frustrating because it doesn’t closely mimic the one I live in, I see a bunch of possibilities for goofy escapism because it doesn’t closely mimic the one I live in.

People can choose to like or not like a game for whatever reasons they wish of course but I’ve seen this subject come up more often lately and I’m curious why. Maybe it’s a byproduct of big games pushing ever closer to that graphical end point of photo realism. Perhaps it’s that too many games are focusing not so much on conflict and combat but encouraging you to dispatch enemies in increasingly brutal and unrealistic ways. Or it might be that as game storytelling evolves in complexity and character depth, it’s simply becoming harder to suspend our disbelief and see these as purely virtual elements. When you’re controlling a realistic looking 3D character with a well exposited back story and a voice instead of a mute sprite, maybe it becomes more difficult to not relate to them in a real world context.

If the sentiments I’ve been seeing continue to grow, this is something future game designers are going to have to wrestle with. How do you make a game that can appear to be something viable in the real world while still making it a video game whose principal function is to entertain? I certainly don’t have the answer to that. Personally, I’m happy to keep my real world and my video games separate. When the lines start to blur, a lot of the entertainment value for myself and I suspect many others starts to diminish rapidly. If there is a growing market of people who want stuff more closely tied to reality, maybe there’s an interesting venn diagram there where the two make something truly awesome.

I’m all for pushing the envelope and making stories, worlds and characters more easily related to but you know what? If my choices in BioShock are instantly eat stuff out of the trash to heal or having to find, prepare and eat food, then waiting for it to actually start healing me, I’m happy with the former. Remember how Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater had you manually heal your own wounds? Yeah, that sucked. It’s not my idea of fun. If you’re spending more of your time with Uncharted psychoanalyzing Nathan Drake than experiencing the world, that’s fine and maybe that’s what fun is for you but in that case, you may also be playing the wrong kind of games.

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Review: Video Games: The Movie Is A Gushing Love Letter with Little Substance

Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter for this. Read on though and you’ll see how that’s clearly not affected my view of it.

When it comes to video game documentaries, I’ll watch pretty much whatever I can get my hands on. As a medium, it’s had little coverage in this form and as someone who takes as much an interest in where games come from as the games itself, I lap this stuff up. When Video Games: The Movie first announced its Kickstarter, I backed it at the level to get the movie at release without hesitation. I knew little about its creator but I just wanted to see more of this stuff get made and when it came out today, I dove right in. Unfortunately, it’s ultimately just a shallow, gushy love letter that preaches to the choir and little else.

It turns out Video Games: The Movie’s writer/producer/director Jeremy Snead, actually does video work for the industry itself, often in the form of trailers. This is evident when you watch the movie. It’s full of quick cuts, licensed musical backings and flashy motion graphics, where I surprisingly noticed more than a few glaring typos (geez guys, it’s spelled veteran, not veteren.) It also has no sense of pace, always feeling like it’s in a rush, spazzing back and forth between time periods and topics with no consistent flow. You can look away for a minute and come back to see it talking about something not at all related to what it was before. Despite clocking in at over 90 minutes, it still manages to skip all kinds of important industry history, including several of prominent game consoles and it all but entirely ignores the massive role personal computers played in the rise of the medium. It hits a lot of the key historical beats that most people already know about and doesn’t even acknowledge many others. As someone who already knows a lot of this history, I found myself dumbstruck by how much was omitted.

A number of industry veterans and fans of the medium are interviewed throughout, everyone from Nolan Bushnell to Wil Wheaton to Hideo Kojima to Chris Hardwick. There’s a couple of important historical figures but not as many as I’d like to have seen in a movie ostensibly about the industry’s past. I also have to say that including three people who were also listed as being Executive Producers (a reward for backing the project at the $10,000 level) felt a little weird to me. Especially David Perry and Cliff Blezsinski, both of whom got segments dedicated to pimping technologies they both have investments in (cloud gaming and VR respectively.) All of this is backed by narration from Sean Astin, whose delivery is so wooden that I honestly wouldn’t have known he was in it if his name wasn’t in the credits.

My big issues are with how the movie presents information and what it leaves out. As I said above, many important gaming systems and basically computers as a whole are excluded in all but a pass on a motion graphic timeline. In addition, several key elements of gaming’s history are either omitted or distilled down to the point of misrepresentation. A segment is devoted to the famous 1980s crash that all but killed the console business until Nintendo came around and revived it. Notice there that I said the console business. Computer gaming actually thrived after the crash but nowhere is this mentioned. The movie also blames Atari’s infamous E.T. game as what caused the crash, when in fact is was just the most prominent story of a crash that was already well in progress by that point. Later, a segment is jarringly shoved into the middle of the movie to deal with the subject of gaming violence and it’s demonising by politicians. Rather than show how this came about and how it’s since largely gone away, it just spends several minutes hammering on about how violent kids are a parental problem, not a gaming problem and how wrong everyone is to blame them. Guess what guys? We won that fight already! The US Supreme Court was with us and aside from an occasional tabloid story, violence in video games is no longer a mainstream cultural issue. This was a movie made largely in 2014, why are you still acting like we’re on the defensive?

Beyond that, Video Games: The Movie deals with almost no other criticisms of the gaming industry. It’s cultural impacts, social impacts, the problems of representation, the business challenges that have been building for more than a decade and are coming to a head right now, there’s no mention of any of these. Most of the information is presented in the form of either old trailers or commercials, many of which are clearly low quality pulls from YouTube and occasionally with an industry personality talking over them. Those are fine in moderation but it’s not really what I want to see the majority of a documentary consist of. Furthermore, this movie which is supposed to be about the medium, spends almost all its time focused on the AAA side of the business. Indie games get a short segment to tout the same usual lines about creative and corporate freedom, mobile games are left out entirely except for Angry Birds, the cultural revolution that is Minecraft only gets some B-roll and aside from a mention of Steam by Wil Wheaton, the resurgence of PC gaming is ignored. Don’t get me wrong, I love AAA games and am glad to see something these days that doesn’t just speak cynically of them but it also feels like Snead is kind of kissing up to the industry that provides his bread and butter when he’s not making documentaries about it.

Make no mistake, this is a love letter to the medium and the industry of video games but my question is, who was this actually made for? People who are existing fans of video games probably know a lot of what the movie talks about already. Preaching to the choir is fine and all but did you need a crowd funded documentary to tell people a stripped down version of what they already know and love? If you’re someone who doesn’t care about video games, I don’t see how this is going to change your mind about anything. If you’re hoping to get a history lesson, you’re better to spend a couple of hours on Wikipedia where you’ll actually get a complete story.

Video Games: The Movie is a documentary that uses a flashy presentation to cover up the fact that there’s little underneath. What information hasn’t been excluded has been boiled down and distilled to something that doesn’t do justice to the history it’s trying to convey. This is a movie made for people who are just going to nod their heads in agreement with it because they were already sold on its ideas before they even sat down. Documentaries are supposed to be more than that, they’re supposed to provoke independent thought and discussion and enlighten from those. All this does is just go “VIDEO GAMES AMIRITE GUYS?!” for over an hour and a half and honestly, I think we can do better than this.

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