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Kevin-V Blog

The Fondest of Farewells

It was 2002. I browsed GameSpot every day, reading every review and posting religiously in the forums. The first time I ever took a day off of work to play a video game was after I read Greg Kasavin's review of Neverwinter Nights, a game I was hooked on for months afterwards. PC Gamer was the magazine that originally sparked my love of games writing, but Greg was writing on a different level. When I read his reviews, I understood what it was like to play the game without needing to experience it for myself.

And thus, my passion for GameSpot only grew. Eventually, I would become a volunteer moderator in its forums, under the tutelage of Bethany Massimilla and Jody Robinson. I wrote scores of reader reviews for GameSpot, and soon began to write for a now-defunct site called Inside Gamer Online, along with Carolyn Petit, who would later join the GameSpot editorial team. Then, under the guidance of Sterling McGarvey and Will Tuttle, GameSpy brought me on as a freelancer; my first paid review was for a game called Crime Life: Gang Wars, starring hip-hop group D12. I gave it one star.

All the while, I continued my volunteer duties in the GS forums until the fateful day in 2006 when I got a call from Jody Robinson. A position for tournament coordinator had opened up, and GameSpot wanted me to apply for it. So I flew from Baltimore to San Francisco, interviewed with Jody, Hank van Niekerk, and a number of other people, and then took the red-eye back to Baltimore that night. A few days later, I received a job offer, which I accepted. Then, with equal parts terror and excitement, I packed up my car with everything that could fit in it and I drove 2300 miles across the country to start a new life.

Tournaments weren't long to last. Fortunately, I had already begun to transition to the editorial team by the time they were dropped entirely. Alex Navarro was my champion: he liked my work, and trusted me with some big games early on. It was surreal to sit in a room with all these people I admired so much: Jeff Gerstmann, Ryan Davis, Brad Shoemaker, and other great writers and personalities. I was the awkward newbie. I couldn't even walk through the video studio without tripping over equipment, and I cowered in the presence of video game giants during my first appearance on The HotSpot, the GameSpot podcast.

A lot has changed over the (almost) nine years I have been with GameSpot. You've probably heard some of those stories, so I won't recount them here; suffice it to say, I've seen things. I have also come to know a huge number of excellent people. I hesitate to try writing a comprehensive list of those that have become dear to me, and were instrumental to my growth, both personally and professionally. This essay is already too long, and I'd be horrified if I overlooked someone. But those people know who they are, and they gave me confidence, guided me through sticky circumstances, and believed in me and my work.

You know where a post like this must be headed. The time has come to pursue a new course. It's never an easy choice, but I think it is the right one. Soon, I will be joining MMOG developer/publisher Trion Worlds as a writer. I'll still be available to write elsewhere for the time being (if you need an author, keep me in mind!), but day in and day out, instead of writing about games for a living, I will be writing for them.

And so I move ahead once more with both terror and excitement. I won't have to pack up a car this time, but it feels no less a momentous occasion. I hope you'll stick with me as I begin this new journey. Soon, critics will be reviewing my work...a scary proposition indeed! Through it all, however, I will continue to play games and write about them; how could I not? It is through games that I have met thousands and thousands of wonderful people, and besides: an author is made by his audience. Thank you to everyone who read me, believed in me, complained about me, and supported me. I couldn't have done it without you.

On San Francisco Pride Weekend: Thoughts on Being a Gay Video Game Critic

Most critics are no stranger to mean words directed at them, their families, their significant others, their pets, their stuffed animals, and their hopes and dreams. I have received my share of death threats and bizarre conspiratorial accusations--the "you were paid off"s and the such. I even had a reader create a hotmail account called "killkevinvanord," so vehement was his anger.

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This is the bear flag, a variant on the usual rainbow flag. What is a "bear" in this context, you may ask? Let's discuss that another day. Or Google "gay bear," at your own risk!

You can imagine, then, that I had brief pause when deciding just how "out" I should be when I joined GameSpot's editorial team. I have always been relatively open about being gay, and that openness has usually served me well. Sure, there are exceptions. There was the time my grandparents asked me and my partner to leave their Christmas celebration because I "brought sin into their home," and the time hoodlums accosted me, crowding around me and my car (which I had locked myself out of) and threatened violence--though they fortunately never acted upon it. (I did have my comeuppance, however, taking them to criminal court for their actions and having $300 fines visited upon them.) But I am so lucky that those moments were exceptions, and that my family, my friends, and my acquaintances have been supportive and, frankly, blase about it all. And that's as it should be.

The general games audience? I wasn't so sure what me being gay would mean to them. I am hardly the only gay game journalist (though I am not sure I identify as a journalist, though that is a subject for another day.) But I am already a target, simply because sometimes I say things that people don't like to hear, and the vocal audience has become less respectful in my experience, and not more so. And I have never dealt particular well with the kind of mean-spirited, rather disgusting comments I receive. I didn't want to hide this aspect of me, but I didn't know if I should make the target even bigger and brighter. And surely, being an openly gay critic for a large, mainstream games publication would make me that kind of target, or so I figured.

But I painted the big ol' target anyway. And it was the right thing to do.

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Re: my Resident Evil 6 review, the GamesReflexoes gang informed me that my gay brain worked differently than normal ones, so obviously I wouldn't like this masculine game. 

That doesn't mean I haven't gotten my fair share of homophobic vitriol. Most contemptuous was the hate campaign served up by the Brazilian blogger that runs GamesReflexoes. My Twitter and email were overrun by this man, his alternate accounts, and his followers, first after my review of Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, and then in full force after my review of Resident Evil 6. I had never had so much gay-hate dumped on me in such a short period of time, to the point where I worried just how far these people might go to injure me.

But more frequently, I get Facebook messages, emails, and Twitter messages from young men and women that are in the process of coming out and need a kind word, or advice, or a show of solidarity. Sometimes, those men flirt with me. Other times, they tell me of the terrible social conditions in the countries in which they live, where they can't come out for fear of being ostracized or jailed. A reader in Croatia told me about how the populace petitioned the government to make being gay a crime. Another in Puerto Rico told me how he was forced into a marriage he didn't want after his mother threatened to kill herself because a gay son couldn't give her grandchildren.

I don't share these stories to be depressing, but rather because it is such an unexpected honor to somehow be a small inspiration to people wouldn't otherwise reach out to me. I am really not special. I was just there. They knew me on the Internet, and knew I was gay, and that was enough for them to reach out. And God knows my life is better because of them. I don't have enough ego to think I am changing anyone's life, but I am humble enough to know they have changed mine.

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I wonder: what would "Sid Meier's Butt Pirates" play like?

More interestingly, people still find plenty of reasons to say nasty things, and every so often one of them drops in a "cocksucker" or a "butt pirate" comment for some extra zing. But most people direct their hate in the usual ways: by suggesting I don't know what I am talking about, or accusing me of taking bribes, often from indie developers that can barely afford to make the game, let alone shower critics with cash. That doesn't sound like much of a reason to rejoice, but they hate me for the same reasons they hate any game critic: because I didn't say what they wanted to hear, not because of the way I deploy my genitalia. And for that, I say "hurrah." 

This weekend, we celebrate LGBT Pride in San Francisco. There is so much more to do. There is still so much hatred in this world--so much abysmal cruelty focused on our community. We're "different" and "godless" and "destructive" to so many. Some people believe that because I love another man, that God would punish the world with natural disasters because the world allows me to exist. Some people's passion is to make me feel like less of a human being by limiting my rights and condemning the very person that I am. This weekend we say: those people are wrong. This weekend we say: we're not just OK--we're awesome.  

Lost, Not Forgotten

Dan Wolboldt saved my life. 

He didn't pull me from a burning building or rescue me from a frozen lake. But when I was suffering from a depression that had me constantly on the brink of suicide, he was the man who kept me on this side of the abyss. 

He was my therapist, but that word is so clinical, and doesn't accurately describe who Dan was to me. Friend? Yes, even though I usually only saw him in the confines of the office of a mental health clinic in Warren, PA. Father figure is more accurate, I suppose, but whatever you call him, he was the one that convinced me that life was worth living. His office was the safest place on the planet. It was there that I felt most vulnerable, and most cared for. He is the reason I am still here today, rather than a memory, or at very least, rather than a human husk, withering away in a hospital for the remainder of my days. 

He shared with me stories that a professional therapist shouldn't generally be sharing with his patient, and yet it was exactly the right thing to do in my case. I would record myself playing Christmas music on cassette tape and give it to him as a Christmas gift. I went to a church where he was a guest pastor one Sunday and marveled that this man could radiate such kindness and generosity. I read about his exploits with his boy scout troop, and wondered if those young men knew how fortunate they were that someone like Dan could be in their lives. 

I also know that Dan was an imperfect man. But I wasn't prepared to discover that several weeks ago, this man responsible for me being here to share this story today went missing. Vanished from his house, his wallet and keys left behind. No note, no goodbye to his wife Penny, no sign of a break in, no indication that something was wrong. He was simply gone. 

The police have searched, and the Conewango Creek and local branch of the Allegheny River have been scoured. No one knows if Dan, at the age of 69, wandered off to take his own life, or fell into the river and was washed away. Perhaps he was discontent and troubled, and decided to travel where he couldn't be found and live out his last days in peace. Perhaps he simply went for a walk to some unknown place and suffered a heart attack, and hasn't been found in spite of the exhaustive search. 

But it doesn't seem that Dan is coming back. 

The last time I talked to Dan was a few years ago. He sent me an email entitled "The real story...for those with a warped sense of humor." It was a typical viral email that people might send, this one with pictures of fairy tale princesses as they might have ended up. Snow White with her several babies and a good-for-nothing prince sitting in front of the TV. An obese Little Red Riding Hood wandering through the forest, sipping on a Big Gulp and carrying a basket full of bread. It certainly wasn't the most socially sensitive communication, but it's what I have. 

I love you Dan. I hope that you are close to God now. 

Edit: My mom shared this YouTube link with me of Dan leading vespers in 2012. http://youtu.be/dmVaCIoxeI0

Two Random Things I Love About San Francisco

1. Croissants

There's a little place about three doors down from my apartment called Lee's Sandwiches. Here it is:

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They have awesome banh mi, but it's the croissants that are to die for. It's like eating the wings of an angel that have sprinkled by fairy dust and filled with the breath of a pixie.

OK, that sounded a little disturbing. Suffice it to say: Delicious croissants. 

2. My neighborhood.

I live in San Francisco's most rundown, most crime-ridden, most socially decrepit area. It's called the Tenderloin. 

And I love it. 

Each day, I cross paths with any number of homeless residents, many of whom are talking nonsense to no one in particular. I encounter drug dealers and prostitutes. And yet nestled in this place I call home are great restaurants, cool little shops, and the joy of never knowing what I might see next. Sometimes, the strange sights are more gross than strange: some guy peeing in the street. Other times, they defy description: a guy wearing a mink coat, a fedora, and elaborate designer jeans. 

All this, and only four blocks from City Hall. Behold, my neighborhood, the Tenderloin: 

one_eyeland_tenderloin_district__san_fra

It isn't pretty, but we find comfort in each other out here. 

Looking Forward, Looking Back

My mom likes to send me old photographs from time to time. They usually feature me at various periods of my life--grade school, college, whenever. In some, I have a full head of hair, like the ones from my days at Oberlin, the first place where I was never concerned by the mark on my neck left by my violin (the dreaded violin hickey I had to constantly explain in high school). In others, I stand next to former boyfriends in front of Colonial buildings, or am in the midst of playing some sonata or another, or singing in a choir. Some of them I took myself. When I went to music festivals, I was fond of taking pictures of trees for some reason. Those photos don't often feature people, but there sure are a lot of leaves. 

I bring this up because for much of my life, I haven't taken many photos or written down many memories. I haven't collected many birthday cards, or kept up my address book. Over the last few years, this very blog has fallen into disuse, too. I wish I had tracked life better. I wish I could identify all the people that do appear in photos. I wish I could remember where I was and what I was doing in, say, November of 1996. I have only lived in the San Francisco area for about six and a half years, and I will run into someone, and he'll say hello, and ask how life is, and how GameSpot is, and I will smile and nod and chat--and wonder, "Where do I know this guy from?" 

Most of my thoughts on games appear elsewhere now. Long-form ideas appear in actual GameSpot features now rather than remaining delegated to a blog post, and bit-sized thoughts get tossed onto Twitter and Facebook. What's missing is an outlet for personal musings. In some ways, I tend to be reserved in blogs, at least since I have worked here. It's kind of odd being a public figure, even if it's just "Internet dude that writes about video games" kind of publicness. More words open me up for even more ridicule, as if nasty review comments aren't enough to keep me consistenly humbled and sometimes humiliated.

But not so long ago, something in me changed. I recognize that words have power, obviously--I write for a living. I know that words are more than letters arranged in some semblance of order, but containers of ideas, thoughts, dreams, and emotions. And I will never allow people to disparage the ones I love, and always stand up against those that use words to hurt, demean, and accuse. I have never been very good at letting terrible words bounce off me; I take them to heart quite often, which is why I tend to avoid comment sections. And when I do visit them, I become invariably emotional. Often, that means feeling hollow inside for a while. Sometimes, it means a few tears. Other times, it means becoming defensive, and standing up for my work or that of others. But that thing that changed in me--it was a realization that I must stop giving people power to hurt me. 

This isn't meant to be a "QQ" post or anything--just sharing. Part of that realization was that expression can be incredibly cathartic. I am an extremely expressive individual, quick to Tweet what I am thinking, quick to cry when I am hurting, quick to talk about meaningless subjects to people who politely listen but may not have much interest, bless their hearts. And yet there are major parts of my life that stay in my mind, and I explore them alone until they become entire worlds of thought and feeling. And sometimes, it's nice to invite others to explore with you. 

And so I want to share more, and invite you to join me. Sometimes, it might be about games, but a lot of the times, I will probably blog about something else. Most of my game thoughts you can find everywhere on this site, and all over my Twitter. (fiddlecub is my Twitter handle. so feel free to follow me.) There's a lot in my life to share right now. Maybe I'll share with you the trials of gaining so much weight back, and the current efforts to lose it for good and ensure it remains gone. Or my journeys to art galleries and Seattle coffee shops, and my mom's summer visit. In any case, in a few years' time, I want to have a place I can look to, where my memories can be jogged and I can have those moments back for a while. 

Here is as good a place as any for them to live. I suppose this blog post is revealing my age; at 40, I am becoming more aware of the things I wish I had done. I can't change the past--but I can embrace the present and the future. And right now, I know there's a lot I want to share and document. I can't start yesterday, and tomorrow is too late. But now--now is just about right. 

The role of a critic: to be a portal, not a mirror.

Part of being a critic is writing or stating things that aren't necessarily what everyone wishes to hear. Of course, it's impossible to mirror everyone's opinions; no matter what we write, some guy on the Internet will say we overrated something, and some other guy will say we underrated it. I've gotten death threats over reviews, been called many terrible things, and have been accused of activities so far outside the realm of reality that it boggles the mind.

And while such negativity can occasionally hurt, I am ultimately glad for the hate. I am glad for it because it means we share a passion. And the more passionate we are, the stronger the words we use to express that passion.

Today, I received an apology message from someone who had written some (perhaps) unkind things to me regarding my review of Star Wars: The Old Republic. And since much of what I wrote in my reply to him expresses my feelings on the current state of games criticism, I thought I would share it with you.


There is no reason to apologize. You love games, and it's that love that fills you with passion. And when we are passionate, we use strong words to express our passions.

I have very strong feelings about the state of games criticism, and the 1-10 scale often hinders more than it helps. We're stuck with this idea that a 1-10 scale is the equivalent of American school grades, and that the entire lower half of the scale is associated with an F, while a great score of 8 is somehow indicative of a disappointment, rather than something to celebrate.

My goal for the reviews team in 2012 is to take back our scores, and to take back games criticism. I want an 8 to be what an 8 used to be in games criticism: a fantastic score. A score that says, "this game is great, and there's a good chance you should be playing it." I want those 9-range scores to be reserved for the truly special--the games that redefine expectations, the ones that define the years they come out, the ones we remember in a decade, when memories of others have long faded.

In other words, I want those numbers to have meaning that goes beyond "1-7.5 means a game sucks, an 8 is just ok, and 9s are good!" We've reached a point where most games are fun--and I don't believe that "fun" is enough for a game to be called an all-time great. There should be a small handful of 9-range scores at the end of a year, not a bushel of them. That doesn't mean I don't want us to reward the amazing games that come out in any given year--only to remember that those super high scores should be reserved for the truly special.

I don't know that we critics have always done a great job of that in the last few years. Now that I am heading the reviews team, I truly hope we can hone our critical eye. I want us to be critics, rather than fanboys. And not to hand out high scores like candy because we were wowed by pretty graphics and lots of explosions.

I have no idea why I have written so much, when so little of it as actually about SW: TOR! I think my eventual point was this: Star Wars: The Old Republic is a great game. It is a refined, put-together game that deserves to be played and loved. I have gotten messages from some, like you, insisting I was too hard on it. I have gotten others angry that I would dare to score it so high. That's normal: it means that human beings are individuals, with their own ideas of what games are, and what they could and should be. I could never mirror every single person's thoughts: it's impossible. But I can always promise that when you read a review on GameSpot, it reflects the thoughts and feelings of an experienced and talented individual free of preconceived notions. Our goal isn't to make fanboys happy, or to make publishers happy, or developers happy, or some guy on the Internet demanding a high score happy. It's to evaluate, dissect, and express.

I hope that even when what you read doesn't hold a mirror to your own views, that you can always find value in our reviews. Because we value people like you--with love for the medium, and thoughtful opinions about the games you play. Never stop having that passion. Without it, we will never expect more than what we are given. And if we don't expect more, we'll only ever get the same kinds of experiences in games that we already have.

With much respect and admiration,

Kevin

Weight Loss: The Journey

As you might already know, in the last year, I have lost weight. A lot of it. Between June of last year and the present, I have lost around 90 pounds. That's an entire Calista Flockhart! (Or one-fifth of a Bruce Vilanch!)

Many have asked me: how did you do it? I've even been asked if I had lost all the weight because I was sick. Actually, I've never been healthier. I lost weight not because I was sick, but because I wanted to, and for a few different reasons. The first was pure vanity: I was tired of being fat. I would watch myself in video reviews and cringe. I would tuck or untuck my shirts in different ways to look less fat on camera, or just when walking down the street. I would never go without a shirt just when walking around the house alone because I hated seeing my flabby belly in the mirror.

Don't get me wrong--my self-esteem wasn't as low as it probably sounds. But I was becoming more aware that I didn't look the way I wanted to look. And more importantly, I didn't feel the way I wanted to feel. I was tired all the time. My stomach felt yucky, and I was getting sick a lot. I would lay awake at night, feeling aches in my chest and wondering if I had pulled a muscle, or if I had gotten so fat that I was having a heart attack. (I had frequent thoughts of the hysterical scene from The Simpsons in which Homer has a heart attack.) And (not to sound disgusting), but my bathroom habits weren't normal.

It wasn't how I wanted to live.

June, 2008

And so I took action. My first step was to join a gym. Look: I write about video games for a living. So my day is spent playing games and writing about them. Besides, I am prone to laziness. My idea of a wonderful vacation isn't to go to windsurfing or rock climbing: it's to sit on my *ss and watch American Dad reruns and eat pizza. I knew that becoming active could be the most important part of the process. And let me tell you: it was difficult at first. I went to the gym at least four times a week--and still do, except when life dictates otherwise. (For example, when I got my tattoo, I took a few weeks off to ensure I didn't mess up the ink.) I was huge--and working out with a huge body is exausting. I spent a lot of time on the elliptical because it was easier on my knees but still allowed me to shed a lot of calories in a single session. Gradually, I added other cardio workouts to my weekly routine, along with more and more weight machines, and eventually some free weights.

The process was time-consuming, and took a lot out of me at first. But along the way, something happened: I started to understand the appeal. After a few months, I stopped dreading going to the gym, and started looking forward to it. I "got" it--that adrenaline high that so many people talk about but I always assumed was hogwash. I can't pretend to know the physiology of it, but I do know that I felt good getting on those machines, drawing on the energy of the place and finding new ways to sweat.

But I wasn't just feeling better because of the workouts; I was also feeling better because I had changed my dietary habits. A lot of people have sweet tooths. Me? I have a grease and salt tooth. Chocolate and candy bars are no issue for me. I crave bacon cheeseburgers, and pepperoni pizza, and salt-and-vinegar potato chips. I rarely cooked at home. Most of my food came from restaurants, pizza places, and 7-11s. So I went shopping.

I bought lots of frozen vegetables, and fresh potatoes and onions and peppers. I bought lots of salsa, because it has lots of flavor but few calories. (Just gotta be careful with all the sodium in that stuff.) I started eating protein bars in the morning, and eating vegetables from Lee's Deli in the afternoon. At night, I would microwave a potato with vegetables, spoon on some salsa, and enjoy it with a bottle of Vitamin Water Zero.

And so my body started to change, and not just physically. I started to feel more awake. I started to enjoy the taste of these fresher foods. And at those times when I got weak and treated myself to a burger or some pizza, I felt the consequences. The day after that pizza, I felt gross, and bloated, and I would think to myself: This is what I used to feel like all the time, and had no idea how awful it really was. I thought I hated three-bean salad. As it turns out, it was kind of delicious. "Tofu" was a dirty word at one point. Now, it's a staple of my diet. I discovered that food I always assumed was just "health nut" garbage was actually really good--and it made me feel good when I ate it.

June, 2011

In time, I relaxed somewhat, and adjusted my diet. Breakfast is usually either some plain low-fat yogurt with blueberries and granola mixed in, or oatmeal with some protein powder or walnuts (and maybe some of those blueberries.) Lunch is normal-person lunch: a sandwich and chips and a Pepsi Max from the deli. Though sometimes it's veggie curry, or maybe leftovers I bring from home. (I made a vegetarian chili last week that is still feeding me!) And dinner is sometimes a salad, or maybe Thai food, or I might make some rice and tofu at home. I am not a vegetarian, but I eat more vegetarian food than I ever have before. When I go out to eat, I often go to a Vegan restaurant in the Inner Sunset, or to a vegetarian restaurant downtown. And sometimes I pig out, and order from some place or another. (I live in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco near the beach, which is a predominantly Asian neighborhood. Thus, there are any number of amazing restaurants that deliver.)

And so I went from weighing 280 pounds to 190 pounds. Extra-large shirts were sometime too tight before; now I wear a medium in most things. My 44-inch waist is now a 34-inch waist.

And if one thing is certain, I'm never going back.

Here Is My 3DS Friend Code

I considered titling this entry "See Kevin naked. Click here now!" But that wouldn't have been right.

Instead, I offer this 12-digit number. You know what it is.

1332-7727-9057

Why Music Matters

This is Part 2 in a continuing series called Why it Matters.

Early this year, Kotaku's Stephen Totilo wrote a fascinating essay about how music in video games is nonessential. It's a good read and well-written, but I disagree with Totilo on a very fundamental level. Of course, he is technically correct: you can play most games with the sound off, and in extreme cases, I've done so due to awful voice acting or repetitive music. But to dismiss an important aspect of the gaming experience as nonessential undermines it; after all, games themselves are nonessential. We do not need them to function; they do not provide physical warmth (unless, of course, you use them to create a fort), or nourishment (they are not an appropriate source of fiber). Yet like fine art, and literature, and love, and all the creature comforts that make our lives extraordinary, games entertain and enrich us. Music, too, is not a necessity--but it is a joy that has elevated human beings for countless centuries. and it is no less desirable in a game than it is on its own. In this way, the game is a microcosm of life itself: its soundtrack may not be essential, but it is an expression of emotion and intellect that should not be rejected simply because it isn't a requirement of life (or in this case, game) function.

And so music matters, and is a core aspect of the gaming experience for most of us. Consider:

You know this music. When you hear it, it initiates a reaction. Music has power, and used properly--or misused--it can elevate a game, or sink it like a boulder.

I think games use music in one of four ways. Of course, some of these ways overlap; abstract music (say, the Mario tune above) still creates an atmosphere, and indeed, a Pavlovian response. (I dare anyone in their 30s to hear that and not have an immediate emotional response.) But I believe these categories work well, and are a good place to start when considering how music exerts its power over a gaming experience.

Music as Atmosphere -- "It's like I'm Really There"

You are Ezio Auditore di Firenze. As you ride your steed through the streets of Rome, a lilting tune in 5/4 time brightens the journey, just as the glowing sun brightens the cobbled streets.

You are John Marston. The strums of a guitar elicit images of rattlesnakes and cacti in the Mexican wilderness--you don't even need to open your eyes.

These are great examples of music matched with visual design to pull you into its world. In many cases, these are period pieces, in which music gives immediate historical context. Bioshock is another terrific example: an interesting mix of 30s/40s/50s tunes and an original orchestral score from Garry Schyman. Atmosphere is Bioshock's single greatest asset. It uses period music and art design in a unique fictional setting, and I can't imagine being swept into Rapture if I turned the music off--or indeed, had Bioshock gone with a purely original score. I am reminded of my favorite film, Moulin Rouge, in which familiar music is used to tap into existing emotions. It think of this music as emotional shorthand, and in Bioshock, it's incredibly effective.

On the flipside, I offer up Fallout 3 as an example of a game that did not leverage music to its advantage. An excellent game, no doubt, but the soundtrack did it no favors. It's symphonic swooning and light musical accompaniment didn't fit its postapocalyptic vision. It struck me as particularly "Bethesda-ish," in the sense that it might have worked well in an Elder Scrolls game, but didn't fit the setting particularly well. Like Bioshock, Fallout 3 used period music in an attempt to elicit a response, but there were scant few radio tunes, and they weren't used to any particular effect. I referred to this in my blog about story, but it applies here too: games are best when every aspect of them is used to communicate a singular vision. Because the soundtrack was incongruous, and because the period tunes were so sparse, Fallout 3 doesn't make a musical impression.

Music as Communicator -- "Pavlovian Response"

There is a point at which sound effects and music converge: small motifs blend with a few notes or chords, and these motifs communicate important information. Listen to the first few seconds of this:

This little major-third warble haunts the Gears of War series, and is immediately evocative. Bulletstorm's victory gong is a good one, using a short guitar crunch to signal the end of battle. There are longer themes used to this end, however. How about this:

Possibly the most famous victory theme of all. Just hearing it says to me, "you just triumphed once again over those that would vanquish you." More recently, Rift has used music to great effect to get your heart pumping. Consider:

Here's one of my favorite battle themes of all time, causing me to whip around and see if there's a rollerrat lurking behind me:

MMOGs (and other genres) frequently use music to communicate that you have entered a particular area. World of WarCraft is particularly good at this:

Final Fantasy XIV is not:

Part of the problem here is the matter of notes versus rests. In FFXIV, the music plays nonstop and never gets a chance to breathe. In composition class, one of the first things you learn is that rests are as important as notes. Just as a maze of cookie-cutter forest corridors is visually tedious, so too does this music wear on you in time. It retains the same time signature, the same key, the same instrumentation from beginning to end. There is no tonal variety, which is emphasized by the fact that the music never stops as long as you are in the Gridania forest. WoW's music is more immediately evocative, more varied within a single composition, and gives your ears respite because it does not continually play.

Another thing you learn early in orchestration class: go easy on the oboes and English horns. Excess reeds is another reason this music gets so wearisome, so quickly.

Perhaps the height of music as communicator is found in games in which music and sound effects are one and the same, exemplified by Everyday Shooter, the recent Bit.Trip games, and this outstanding game:

The power in all of this music comes from its consistency. Tunes and even a few notes are always associated with a particular action, event, character, or emotional state. This association gives it power. It is similar to how hearing a particular song or smelling a particular scent can stir up old feelings in the blink of an eye. Gears of War without the satisfying "Gears of Warble," as my coworker Chris Watters so affectionately refers to it, may not feel the same. At very least, the warble a recognizable part of that franchise's identity.

Music as Manipulator -- "I Cried Because the Music Told Me To"

This is one of the most superb examples of music as manipulator I can think of. I want to make it clear that I do not use the word "manipulate" to pass judgment--though I believe that games must earn the right to manipulate you. At this stage, Final Fantasy X had earned that right. Without the heartbreaking circumstance surrounding it, this scene might have rung hollow. But because you are invested, the music properly taps into that sense of sadness, remorse, and, finally, uplift.

I have mixed feelings on manipulative music. On one hand, I referred to Moulin Rouge above--a film that relies almost entirely on emotional manipulation. I believe that movie works because it encompasses a range of emotions rather than being simply maudlin. It works for me in particular because the musical shorthand is effective, using tunes I know well to immediately convey emotion, and to tap into my own memories to add depth to them.

What do I mean by "earning the right" to manipulate? I mean that big, sweeping battle music and tearjerking piano melodies work only when the game (or film) uses them to enhance existing emotion--not to create it. In film, James Cameron's Avatar strikes me as a good example of a film that uses music to telepath emotion without earning the right. It's damn effective at eliciting that emotion, mind you, but it's a case in which emotion is induced with music and imagery. But the characters are plastic and the dialogue is dumb, thus making the manipulative nature of the soundtrack noticeable. I have respect for a composer that can conjure emotion like this; he's doing his job incredibly well. But then it falls on the rest of the game to match that tone. Otherwise, an otherwise fine soundtrack might come across as a cheap ploy, rather than a poignant triumph. And of course, some music is too overblown to be considered anything but overblown. A barrage of brass fanfares means nothing if it isn't contrasted with something more subtle, and I have little patience for Hollywood-style bombast. Unfortunately, that bombast wins awards--even though it requires the least amount of imagination on the composer's part.

In any case, let's consider two examples. Warning: spoilers.

This is the most emotionally compelling scene in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, and an exquisite example of the positive use of music as manipulator. By this point, you know these characters, and you are invested in their fates. The scene's early silence serves only to make the simple music even more effective. The soundtrack does not overwhelm the scene, because it doesn't need to. Developer Funcom trusts the player here. It knows that we care, and so the music intensifies the emotion, subtly--it doesn't attempt to create it out of thin air.

Then there is this:

The music during the romp fits just fine; the music afterwards does not. You can initiate this scene extremely early on, and Isabela is quick to jump into bed. She makes it clear this is just sex, and the--er--energetic frolicking and dramatic drumbeats makes it clear that this is not romance. What to make of the swoons of the string section afterwards, then? From my perspective, the music attempts to elicit emotion, but the game hasn't earned it. You can jump into bed with Isabela without knowing her all that well. Romantic chords don't seem appropriate, even if you buy that Hawke had developed feelings for Isabela at this stage--which isn't likely.

In both cases, we get excellent music. In only one case, however, does the emotional manipulation avoid feeling cheap. The effectiveness of the music doesn't fall on just the shoulders of the composer, but on the entire development team. It comes down to matters of cohesion and vision. Once again, we see that one aspect of the design might suffer when it isn't supported by the others, just as we saw similar examples in the story blog.

Music as Abstract -- "Pretty for Pretty's Sake"

Sometimes, music is there just to keep things from being silent. Early video game music worked in this manner due to technology limitations. Thus, the same music looped again and again, and the composer's duty was to make it catchy and interesting, so that you didn't tire of hearing it. Thus:

Of course, this music needed to fit with the game, but for the most part, it was music for music's sake. We see it in modern games too, of course, most notable in sports and racing games. The music can contribute or detract, but this is based more on factors of personal taste, and whether or not the music fits the game.

Burnout 3 didn't need to use this song; it could have been any song that seemed to fit the mood, though this one is forever associated with the game now, at least in my mind. Obviously, this is a crossover into the music-as-atmosphere category, but the fact that many such games let you import your own soundtrack is an obvious statement: this is music for music's sake--insert your own as you wish. This is where your own musical tastes play a greater role than before. If you don't like Creed, you aren't going to like them in a game, no matter how well-suited that (awful) music is.

And of course, music can also annoy when used as a backdrop:

That's not what I want to hear over and over again in a puzzle game--particularly in one that requires some trial and error repetition.

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Music has power, as I hope I have demonstrated above. Tell me what music you love, and how it contributed to the game. Conversely, do you remember a game that suffered because the music made you want to shut it off? Tell me in the comments below! In the meanwhile, consider some other choice tracks I particularly enjoy. Caution: More spoilers!

Music as Atmophere:

Afro Samurai

Metroid Prime

Homeworld

Halo 3: ODST

Music as Manipulator:

Shadow of the Colossus

Nier

Why Story Matters

To me, it seems an obvious point: story matters. In fact, when it comes to games, lots of things matter, which has inspired me to start a series of blogs entitled: "Why it Matters." Games are more than just a bunch of parts cobbled together to make a whole--they are entire experiences that touch different parts of our psyche using the various tools developers have at their disposal. Metal Gear Solid 4 and Super Mario Galaxy 2 are very different experiences, yet both succeed at what they attempt to do, because the pieces and parts come together to make for a cohesive whole that effectively communicates a single vision.

Part of my job as a critic is to tell you whether or not something is good, and why. But a review can only go so far; I could spend page after page analyzing and dissecting various aspects of different games, and comparing them to other games that attempt similar things to greater (or lesser) success. It's something I wish we saw more of: clear-headed thoughts on what makes one game better than another, similar one, and how the pieces of those games add up to a successful (or unsuccessful) work of art/entertainment. Have you ever seen a line like this in a review? "I couldn't quite put my finger on it." Or, "I can't quite explain it." I think that's a cop-out; it's our jobs to put a finger on it. And the more we apply creative and analytical thinking to games, the more we can and should expect from them. If we insist that games can be considered art, then we need to treat them as such. A painting can be pretty, but that doesn't make it great. In the same way, a game can be fun, but that isn't enough to make it special. Game criticism can, and should, stake out its place in analytical journalism. But that won't happen if critics are content only to skim the surface.

So enough of the thoughts that led to the creation of this blog series. I'd like to talk about why story matters. Please note: Spoilers follow. Proceed with caution.

I've mentioned this before, but I want to reiterate an important point regarding narrative: "story" is more than just "plot." You can reduce a story to "what happens between point A and point Z," but anyone that's read a book, watched a movie, or played a game can tell you that storytelling is far more complex. Story involves characterization, dialogue, theme, and more. Effective storytelling also involves the use of language. Wooden dialogue can make characters ring hollow; metaphors can be effective, but bad ones seem cheesy or didactic. In writing, word choice makes a difference. Alliteration and other tools can make a sentence flow. A description of a beautiful sunset is enhanced by lilting, flowing sentences, while an action scene needs punchy words and onomatopoeia ("Boom!").

Film, theater, and games benefit from the addition of audio and visual storytelling. A glance between lovers; the call of a crow; the flame of a candle in a dark room. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Thus, cinematography becomes part of the story--as is the design of the world in which it takes place. Camera angles and movement, scene props, color palette--they communicate to us, both overtly and covertly. In the film The Bridges of Madison County, furtive looks and subtle facial expressions communicate more to us than words could in those moments. Close angles in a suffocated room can make an angry exchange even more intense. Take games like Limbo, or Machinarium. No character utters a single word of dialogue, but the gamesabsolutely tell stories, using visuals and sound. But that isn't just because both games effectively use elements other than speech to communicate events, theme, and tone: it's also because when you play a game, a narrative develops as you interact with it.

In other words, gameplay is also part of the narrative, and story and characters can develop without a single line of dialogue. In ICO, an incredibly and touching bond develops between the characters of Ico and Yorda, and that has a lot to do with gameplay mechanics. Yorda needs your help, as Ico, to lift her to higher places and protect her from attackers. Holding her hand and calling out to her are both gameplay mechanics, yet they have everything to do with how well the game communicates a developing bond between two characters who speak different languages. This is an extreme example; almost every game communicates to us like this in one way or another. Crisis Core's ending communicates the futility of Zach's actions. In Grand Theft Auto games, the lines you overhear bring the city to life, and become part of your personal narrative. Just shooting a bunch of aliens is part of that narrative, because they constitute an event in that timeline. Gameplay is story, too--the kind only a game can tell.

This game's ending shows how gameplay doesn't just benefit from storytelling--it is storytelling.

Whenever I discuss a story in a review, whether in a positive or negative manner, I often have people ask why it matters. Someone asked me recently, for example, why Bulletstorm's story matters. After all, isn't it enough that the game is fun? Super Mario Galaxy tells almost no story at all, but it does just fine, right? The difference is, of course, that the game itself determines how important its story is. Not every game needs a big story to be awesome, but when a game spends a lot of time telling one, it's asking you to pay attention to it. Many games are primarily about story. Most point-and-click adventure games are essentially interactive stories in which the player must solve puzzles to progress to the next event. Heavy Rain is all storytelling, its gameplay serving to enhance your connection with the story. I couldn't call Heavy Rain fun, but it was still one of my top 10 games of 2010. (Just as I wouldn't call many of my favorite films "fun.") Other games are content to frame the gameplay lightly, allowing its gameplay to speak for itself and letting the player-developed narrative take center stage.

Bulletstorm and Killzone 3 are both good examples of how a game is affected when a story doesn't work. Both are great games, but both spend a lot of time trying to weave a tale that doesn't work. I think Bulletstorm's language could have been funny if delivered effectively. Pulp Fiction is a great film with a lot of raunchy dialog, but that dialogue is an important part of a violent, surreal, and darkly funny story in which each aspect works together to form a whole. Bulletstorm, on the other hand, is divided. It has raunchy language spoken by meatheaded characters (not necessarily a bad thing, mind you); a straightforward sci-fi plot with a few twists you probably will see coming; and a beautiful lost paradise with a backstory you gradually uncover as you play. Those things are fine on their own; together, they lack cohesion. Contrast that with other shooters in which individual aspects are designed to fit together. Serious Sam, for example, is absolutely surreal, and everything about it is designed to be that way. Of course, Serious Sam is not a story-heavy shooter in a traditional sense, but it know what it is, and every aspect of it is designed around a vision. (I would say the same thing about Duke Nukem.) BioShock is a very special game precisely because everything is built to elicit claustrophobic apprehension. Half-Life 2 is my favorite shooter of all time, in part because you always feel on the run from an enemy you don't quite understand, in a fully realized environment that's familiar enough to keep you grounded, but strange enough to be frightening. Shooting can be fun. Shooting is better when you care about why you need a gun in the first place.

Without Rapture, would BioShock have been as shocking?

These are the things that separate the 6s from the 7's, the 7s from the 8s, the 8s from the 9s. Again, not every game needs strong storytelling to be awesome. Killzone 2's story was just sort of there; the details that made that game special existed outside of the story, and were outstanding enough to veil the weak tale. With Killzone 3, Guerilla took a bizarre route: they made the story aggressively bad, gave us much more of it than before, and made it intrude much more often.

We can look to Killzone 3 as an example of a game in which the experience suffers because of the story. Consider, then, Mass Effect 2, a game that succeeds precisely because of story. Remember: Story is more than plot. Mass Effect 2's plot is no standout; but that plot is a solid skeleton from which to hang its fantastic characters, places, and dialogue. The visual storytelling is top-notch. I spent hours wierded out by how waxy Miranda looked--and later, her story arc caused me to make sense of her design. Quick camera cuts make Mordin's jittery demeanor seem even more hyperactive. You practically know what Aria is like the minute you walk into Afterlife, what with its pulsing music, its rich purples, and its flaming hallway.

How much better could this game have been if you actually cared about what was going on?

Imagine, now, Mass Effect 2 as a pure shooter, without dialogue, great characters, and a vibrant world. Consider how different it may have been--and most likely, how much worse. Now, Mass Effect 2's action is fine. What elevates it is context. It comes back to what I said earlier: Shooting is better when you care about why you need a gun in the first place. That isn't to say every game needs to be like Mass Effect 2, or that shooters need to tell involved tales. But it does prove that games can be more than mindless entertainment. Heck, I like summer blockbusters with the best of you, but that kind of experience is very much of the moment. I would rather spend my time and money on games that stay with me after I shut them off. Aren't the best games those that you think about even when you aren't playing them? That isn't always because of the story. (I am hankering to play Crysis 2 right now, but that isn't because I love spending time with Alcatraz.) But story can be one of those elements that pushes the game over the edge from good to amazing.

As I close, I task you with a thought experiment. Think of all your beloved game characters, and imagine how their games would be if they were replaced by a no-name grunt. Or think of your favorite game worlds, and imagine the game taking place somewhere else. Or think of your favorite stories, and imagine the games they took place in without it What would Metal Gear Solid be like without Snake? What would Half-Life 2 be without City 17? What would Bioshock be without its setting, audio logs, and philosophical underpinnings? These games stay with us long after we're done with them. If the gameplay didn't have the context it did, we probably wouldn't care as much as we do about these games, many years after we played them.

Of course, you could say the same about many other aspects of the games you love. What would Burnout be without crashes? What would Homeworld be if it wasn't in space? That's why I will frequently be adding new entries to this series of blogs. The next one will be called: "Why Music Matters." This is my way of talking about the aspects of games that lift them to higher levels--and my way of giving you a chance to talk about the things you most care about in games, too.

What are your favorite game stories? Who are your favorite characters? And how much did they contribute to the experience? Tell me in the comments below. In the meanwhile, feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I frequently toss off random thoughts to see which ones might stick.