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I Miss You, Warren Spector

February 25th, 2009

Lunaran's Deathmatch Encyclopedia first appeared on the internet ten years ago last month. Since no observance of time passed is complete, or valid, without some second parallel bit of history to put the yawning chronological chasm in context, Penny Arcade that day was about 3DFX and User Friendly was already not funny. I didn't migrate to proper until May of 2002, so I guess there's a second 10-year birthday coming up, only seven shopping months shy of the Mayan apocalypse. You don't have to get me anything.

I haven't played much of any games recently, even the unshakably fun TF2, out of a hopefully temporary lethargy with games in general. I only bought four games in the whole of 2008 (Left4Dead, Audiosurf, World of Goo, and Indigo Prophecy), a year considered chock full of must-have AAA titles. GTA4, Fallout3, and Mirror's Edge are all probably great, but they receive nothing more from me than an acknowledging nod, the way you'd react to seeing an acquaintance you don't know well enough to warrant saying hello. I'm craving something new and unexpected that the games industry isn't quite providing. (I made some cynical and premature judgements about a friend's copy of Dead Space, and while I haven't gone back to the game I have learned that my list of things that game does that are nothing new was in fact premature: apparently later on marines show up ostensibly to save you but indiscriminately exterminate everything instead.)

In the meantime, I've grabbed Dawn of War 2, and I realize I have to to maintain some kind of credibility as a developer, and any as a level designer, so I finally picked up Call of Duty 4. (That makes six games in a row that I've bought on Steam, having not been to a store for a PC game since Opposing Fronts. (I've bought nothing for the Wii in about as long, but that's okay because I left it at my parent's house without an ounce of remorse. (They aren't using it either.)))

Call of Duty 4 comes from the "linear experience" school of game design, where the player's choices are considered dangerous and potentially destabilizing, and interactivity is a minor god to whom sacrifices must be made lest a developer confront the fact that he's actually making a film. That sounds terribly snarky, and I should add that there is nothing inherently wrong with this: a game can be fun without being Deus Ex the same way a train trip can be fun without giving passengers control over the switchtracks, but it's the world of games, where anything is possible, and damnit, I wanna drive the train.

I'm as aware as anyone of the high-minded crossroads that games are faced with right now: become creative-and-economic-dynamo Movie Industry or tired-niche-not-taken-seriously-by-most-people Comic Industry, so I'm intent and keenly focused on seeing where games can go that all the other media can't. CoD4 just doesn't look in any of those places, quite willingly taking as little advantage as possible of having a live human as part of the experience, by design. Not that there's inherently zero fun to be had in that context, but outside of combat the only thing you're thinking while playing is wondering what "they" have planned for you next. This strikes me as a natural outcome of Infinity Ward's designer-centric process, where level guys have the lion's share of the responsibility. Every level is honed to a sharp point and polished to a mirror finish, then lined up end to end and voila, c'est un jeu. As a designer myself it sounds like a near-Xanadu. As a player, I was highly entertained but couldn't help feeling left out.

Speaking of being left out, Dawn of War 2 looks like it's got the requisite choice and differentness (genre blending: the other genre creation) to make me happy, but I'll probably not find out until long after everyone else has because Relic is awful at making computer games that run on whatever computer I own at the time. The recommended specs for this game list "Any Dual-Core Processor," which is great, as things on paper always are. In application, Dawn of War 2 works with "Any Dual-Core Processor Except The Athlon 64 X2, Which Is The Specific One Lunaran Bought." After beating my head against the usual walls of driver updates, disablings of second monitors, and wadings through of unhelpful forums, I looked at the clock and remarked that it had been several hours and I still hadn't played the game I bought. This was followed by a feeling of deja vu. I say that without a trace of sarcasm: I actually experienced that odd tingle of recollection without recognition. After concentrating for a moment I remembered that the last time I'd thought that was running Company of Heroes. My mind then leapt further, to the trouble I had with the first Dawn of War, and I began to notice a pattern.

However, I did get the game to run long enough for it to threaten to punish me for not having a Games For Windows™ Live™ account, by denying me access to savegames and multiplayer until I went and told Microsoft my name, email, and date of birth, like a good boy. The page it sent me to informed me my email address was already tied to one, so I tried to log in with it and was told sike! it wasn't. I began to weep openly and to hyperventilate. The deja vu returned. Trying to recreate the account, I was told that my email was "reserved for future use," which is apparently the least efficient and helpful way MS could come possibly up with to tell me that the page I'd been sent to was the wrong one. There are Live accounts, you see, and then there are Games For Windows Live accounts, which are apparently expansions to the original account, modules almost, like attaching a comsat station to your command center. Nowhere is this explained.

Whenever dealing with anything Microsoft I always have the same apprehensive and powerlessly angry feeling as when being jerked around by a bureaucracy - an entity so comfortable in its weight and omnipresence it feels it doesn't have to care. I'm sure the PCGA will be bragging one day about the massive numbers of PC gamers that have signed up for the GFWL service, under the grand delusion that they wanted to, and not that they've been forced to by shamefully crippled products.