The Portal games have been beautiful, haven't they? The first one presented a simple, clean aesthetic that worked as a great backdrop to the clever gameplay and snarky humor of Chell's battle of wits against GLaDOS. Then, last year, Portal 2 took Aperture Science's glistening white test chambers and destroyed them, letting players roam through the innards of Cave Johnson's company. And lo, it was glorious.
Now, everyone can see how Valve executed this big visual shift in Dark Horse's upcoming The Art of Portal 2. Announced tonight at the Emerald City Comic-Con, the 184-page hardcover book will feature concept art and completed vision, along with character sketches and commentary from writers, artists and other developers.
It's out on October 31st and no price has been announced yet. But, based on the scintillating art above—click the Expand button to enlarge—I'm going to say that The Art of Portal 2 will be worth whatever the price tag is. It's got pictures of space. Spaaaace!
Oh happy day. As someone who resents leaving the safety of his Ubuntu desktop every time I want to play a game or do some benchmarking, today's headline from Phoronix.com is frankly the news I've been waiting for for years.
Valve has been recruiting for at least one Linux specialist to help port Windows games with this job ad since January. But it looks like they're getting very serious, and keen to push on with the project. Phoronix' Michael Larabel has received an email from Gabe himself asking for help head hunting.
The email to Larabel, which has been confirmed as genuine, reads:
We are running into a bunch of performance issues in Linux drivers (e.g. 50 millisecond draw calls because thedriver is compiling a shader).
We'd like to hire someone to work on these performance issues. If you know of anyone we should be talking to, I'd appreciate getting connected with them.
This isn't overly surprising, but it is reassuring. With the rapid rise of Android as a gaming platform, and recent changes to the Linux kernel which integrate Android code, there's every reason for developers to start treating open source more seriously. The Humble Indie Bundle has proven that there's a market for Linux gaming too, as grateful Tuxheads spending more than Mac users.
It could well be that they're looking for someone purely for internal testing and research with no firm plans to bring Steam or games to Linux yet. But neither the ad or the email seem particularly speculative.
I'd never be as foolish as to predict the rise of the Linux desktop, but the operating system is pervasive in other ways that might become a more common desktop alternative.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - email@example.com (Craig Pearson)
It doesn’t take a lot for me to get obsessed. I’d managed to pull away from Team Fortress 2, but then Valve introduced the Strange category of weapons, stat-tracking guns and melee weapons that report how many kills each has, and I got into it all over again. I’m almost embarrassed by how easy it was to hook me back into the mainframe. Worryingly Valve have just added a new category of unlocks to augment the Strange weapons counting abilities: Strange Parts.
Only found in crates, Strange Parts will help you study specific aspects of your performance in battle by letting you customize your favorite Strange weapon. Now you’re free to track the number of enemies you gib, projectiles you reflect, heads you’ve shot, and more.
They’ve also dropped three new hats into the game, and that number is a more descriptive than you realise: there are only three in the entire game, and to get one you’ll most likely need to spend a significant amount of money. (more…)
Late last night one David Grossman shared with me a different sort of laser singing. Instead of using the pitch of the laser to replicate sound the way DePrisco did with the fiber laser, Grossman transformed his 250 watt CO2 laser into a working speaker.
David explains: "In essence, the laser is firing at a fixed repetition rate - there's around 30k pulses hitting the material every second. Each of those pulses disrupts the material, and has an associated flash of light and plume of ejected material, which pushes air outwards, making a sound.
"The circuit that's driving the laser pulsing is using the audio signal to vary the energy of each of those pulses.
As such, each plume is ejecting a different amount of material, which is also pushing air differently, causing different sounds."
To put it simply, the music is being played by tiny explosions.
As I prepared to write up Grossman's video, I got another email, this time from the original laser Portal engineer.
Chris DePrisco was dropping me a line to let me know he had followed up on the :Still Alive" video with a two-track fiber laser version of "Want You Gone". Using his single laser he recorded two tracks and spliced them together into one slightly-off but still incredible impressive video.
I couldn't decide which to post, so I posted them both. That I live in a world where such decisions are necessary pleases me to no end.
The Counter-Strike: Global Offensive beta keeps getting bigger. The latest patch has added a new Arms Race mode playable on Shoots and Baggage. In Arms Race, every player starts with the same weapon, and gains a new one with every kill. The first player to get a kill with the final weapon, the knife, wins the round. Dead players respawn immediately and the round time is extended to give players time to murder their way through CS:GO's arsenal.
The patch adds a few new weapons, too, including the Scar 20, an auto-sniper for Counter-Terrorists, the G3SG1, an automatic sniper rifle for Terrorists, and the Zeus x27, a one shot insta-kill taser available to both teams in casual mode.
If you're looking for something less wild, the classic Aztec has been added to the map rotations. Here are the patch notes in full from the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive site.
Added Arms Race maps – Shoots and Baggage
Added Aztec to Classic maps
Arsenal Arms Race game mode is a single extended round with instant respawn. All players start with the same weapon and get a new one each time they kill an enemy. The progression of unlocked weapons ends with the knife. The first player to get a kill with every weapon wins the match.
Added ‘Find A Game’ to the Play options menu screen. Find A Game allows you to join an online game of a specific type. This update offers Arsenal Arms Race and Classic Competitive game modes. The map cycle groups include:
Arms Race Maps
Added new weapons:
Scar 20 – CT only auto-sniper.
G3SG1 – Terrorist only auto-sniper.
Zeus x27 – Casual Mode only weapon available to both teams.
Adjustments have been made to increase the base accuracy of all weapons.
Jump and land penalties have been decreased, and the rate of stamina gain has been increased.
Bot difficulty has been tuned.
HE grenade damage has been adjusted per pro feedback.
Added two new player skins:
Death notice order reversed.
Updated Italy mini map image.
Fixed a bug in the keyboard + mouse options screen where changes were resetting.
Fixed the consecutive loss bonus persisting through halftime. Solves the problem of teams receiving extra cash early in the second round of the match.
Fixed end match scoreboard saying it was a tie in Arsenal Mode.
Fixed a bug where penetrating shots were doing full damage after the penetration.
Fixed a bug where the desired distance required to defuse the bomb wasn’t being used.
Fix for the HUD alert panel coming up incorrectly.
Fixed for bots not being able to defuse bomb.
Fix for bug in Demolition mode where players would start the first round of the second half stuck in level geometry.
Fix for radio message font appearing quite large at higher resolutions.
The first Survivor team sets the time. The second team tries to beat it. Then the first team tries to beat the second team's time. Then the second team tries to beat the first team's time. And then the... you get the idea. Rounds keep switching until someone fails to beat the previous time.
I've never played as a black video game character who's made me feel like he was cool. Worse yet, I've never played a black video game character who made me feel like I was cool. Instead, I've groaned and rolled my eyes at a parade of experiences that continue to tell me video games just don't get black people.
The faces that look like mine that I've encountered in video games have been, at best, too inconsequential to be memorable and offensively tone-deaf at worst. What about Barrett from Final Fantasy VII or Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII, you might ask? Or Cole Train from the Gears of War games? Wait, there's Sheva from Resident Evil 5, right? No, no and no. Too many elements of caricature in each, I'd say, and they're all sidekicks. Their stories aren't the focus of the adventure players go on.
But, hey, it's a given that video games tend to present exaggerated characters. Marcus Fenix isn't like any white guy I've ever met, after all. But he doesn't have to be. For every Marcus Fenix-type grunt hero, you can also get a witty Nathan Drake, a charming Ezio or a regretful John Marston. Enough white characters exist in video games for a variability of approach. That's simply not true of black characters.
In creating Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance, Valve gave players a woman who was feisty and fragile at the same time. Alyx ranks amongst the best black game characters of all time, but she's another sidekick. C.J. from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comes closest to this pie-in-the-sky ideal I'm dreaming of. C.J. managed to hold a core contradiction inside of himself—an intense love of family balanced against the violence of thug life—that added depth to his characterization. And while he was the lead of the game he starred in, he was still a gang member. Rockstar found interesting things to do with him but C.J. still comes into being by virtue of another overused stereotype.
Does this stuff matter in video games? Yes. The thing to remember is that beneath all the comforting platitudes about a character's color not mattering lies a sticky web of stereotypes and cheap myths that can still insult and anger people playing a game. Even if I wanted to like Sam B from Dead Island, for example, I'm still running up against the fact that he's a hot-tempered thug rapper.
Stop leaning on this stereotype. Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell. Stop putting spear-carrying primitives in games.
What I want, basically, is Black Cool. It's a kind of cool that improvises around all the random stereotypes and facile understandings of black people that have accrued over centuries and subverts them. Black Cool says "I know what you might think about me, but I'm going to flip it." Dave Chappelle's comedy is Black Cool. Donald Glover is Black Cool. Aisha Tyler is Black Cool. Marvel Comics's Black Panther character is Black Cool. Their creativity is the energy I want video games to tap into.
There's a book about it. In the anthology Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, author Rebecca Walker assembles a crop of personal essays that talk about how Black Cool manifested in their lives. One of those writers is Mat Johnson, a professor in the University of Houston's creative writing program. Johnson's like me, a lifelong comics-reading, game-loving geek who continues to bump into jarring, awful portrayals of black people in video games.
"I played Dead Island when it came out last year and there's a point when you get the Natives Camp area. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we're going to have an African-style primitive out here,'" he told me. "The bizarre thing is that the stereotypes you encounter in the games don't even match up timewise with our current culture. That's what's so odd about it. The mainstream culture at large has moved beyond the trope of the black primitive. You can't get away with that kind of thing in a movie."
Johnson's written prose along with graphic novels and when he compares video games' racial awareness to comic and he says "comics had a much more concerted effort to change images of minorities in the work. And part of that was a market-driven concern." There's a difference of scale, too, he continues. "If comics can access another 5,000 or 10,000 in their possible audience, it has a huge impact. Whereas video games have become a mass market phenomenon that have an even bigger scope than movies. So they're not as worried about minority concerns as comics are."
The importance of seeing a face that looks like yours when stepping into a fictional universe can't be overstated. I'm a big Superman fan, but it was DC Comics' Black Lightning that piqued my interest when I was growing up. Every black superhero face I saw growing up was another signpost that said "Hey, you're welcome here. You can be larger-than-life, too." The absence of such characters doesn't make fictional constructs hostile; it makes them indifferent, which can be far worse.
"Another difference with games is that, as a medium, they're about invoking our fears so that we can overcome them," Johnson speculates. "I think that's what happens in both Resident Evil 5 and also Dead Island. They're not just invoking fear of zombies, they are invoking fear of blackness, and offering the gamer an opportunity to challenge their racial fears as well as their other fears. What you're seeing here is a subconscious action. And the reason it becomes clear because it's not in one game, it's in several different games."
Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell.
"There have been exceptions in games like Left 4 Dead," Johnson observes, "where you have an actual black nerd character in the game." "I honestly think the move away from this going to be generational, when it's so easy to produce a 3D video game that it's the equivalent of shooting a movie today with a digital camera. But, until then, when I see a game that clearly walks right into a racial dead-end, I know I'm seeing a room of developers talking out a story with not one black person, not one Latino person of power in that room. So I think the single biggest thing that many of these companies could do to make sure that they are being representative of the larger culture's ethos, would be to hire in a diverse way."
"It's not a question of [developers and publishers] pushing culture forward," Johnson said. "It's a question of them catching up to mainstream culture. Part of it, I think again, is market success. They haven't had to worry about that at this point, because they're still going to sell a ton of games if the basic gameplay is good. But being better about black characters and characters of other races would make the overall quality better, too."
In other mediums and creative pursuits, there've been the black people who pivoted the conversations, expanded the possibilities and deepened the portrayals about what black people are. In jazz, it was Charlie Parker. In literature, it was Ralph Ellison. In comics, I'd argue that it was Christopher Priest, followed by Dwayne McDuffie. For me, the work of the deceased McDuffie managed to create characters that communicated an easily approachable vein of black cool.
Video games need this kind of paradigm-shifting figure. Not an exec, mind you—sorry, Reggie—but a creative face who steers the ethos of a game. For example, you know what kind of game a Warren Spector or a Jenova Chen is going to deliver. With Spector, it's a game that'll spawn consequences from player action. With Chen, you'll get experiences that try to expand the emotional palette of the video game medium. I want someone to carry that flag for blackness, to tap into it as a well of ideas.
Blackness can be a sort of performance, a lifetime role informed by the ideas of how people see you and how you want to be seen. One thing I've heard over the years is some variation of the colorblind testimonial: "I don't see a black guy when I look at you. I just see you." Well, if you're not seeing a black guy, then you're not seeing all of me. And if you're seeing just a black guy, you're not seeing all of me in that instance either.
I'm not naïve: no one's going to buy a video game because it's less wince-worthy on matters of race or diversity. But, maybe if Black Cool found its way into video games, I wouldn't have to hear the word "nigger" during online multiplayer sessions so much. Or maybe I wouldn't have to listen to characters that sound like 18th-Century minstrels in cyberpunk games.
While I'm sick of video games stumbling around the same ol' stereotypes and being afraid of black lead characters—"they won't sell!," cries the panicked logic— I'm not going to love Starhawk or Prototype 2 more because they have black lead characters. But if Emmett Graves and James Heller tap into some kind of deeper, more surprising portrayal than Standard Gruff Black Guy #29 and feel more human as a result, I'd feel better about the creative possibilities of video games.
Any mode of creativity that wants to be called mature needs to grapple with the sociopolitical issues of its time and place, especially if it wants to hold onto future generations. If it doesn't, then said medium just remains stuck in its own adolescence. When it comes to the examining the realities of how race can be lived in the world, movies, books and TV all do it. I'm not saying video games won't or can't, but damn if it's not a long time coming. Getting black characters who don't make me grit my teeth would be a great sign that video games are growing up.