The Burden of Expectation: The Revolutionary Ambition of No Man's Sky

Contributor Marshall Harbin takes a look at the way the revolutionarily directionlessness nature of the new game No Man's Sky has been received by the gaming community. He explains why, when you actually look at it, the game does exactly what it has always promised to do and not much more, and why that isn't a problem.

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Killer Tunes – Music in Gaming

by Jamie Chinery

Music is a very powerful thing; one of the most universal and intrinsic parts of human culture, yet also one of the most personal. Alongside our own personal collections available at the touch of button anywhere we happen to be, music is integral to most of our entertainment and media as well. With the power to enhance and convey various emotions and add much needed gravitas to many situations encountered across TV, movies and games.  

So as I sit here listening to the soundtrack to the 2013 reboot of Killer Instinct, I got to thinking about how music is utilised in games, in particular how it meshes with the unique interactivity available to this medium. 

Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’m not hugely into fighting games, especially the arcade-style ones where the possibility exists for someone to KO you in a single, never-ending combo (looking at you Marvel vs Capcom 3); and yet, I was drawn into Killer Instinct the moment I was told to listen to its soundtrack. You see, Killer Instinct utilises its soundtrack in a really interesting way, but before diving in, a quick brief as to what Killer Instinct is for the uninitiated.   

Killer Instinct is a reboot of the original series from 1994 which debuted on the SNES and also released on the GameBoy in ’95, originally developed by Rare and published by Nintendo, the 2013 edition was developed by Double Helix Games and published by Microsoft exclusively on the Xbox One and is currently being ported to the PC.  

It’s a “2D Fighter”, as in, the fights are fought on a 2D plane - a lá Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, and relies on fast paced, arcade style, combo-centric gameplay to take down your opponents life bars, of which there are 2 per round. The 2013 version, along with updated visuals, sounds and music, also added some new gameplay enhancements in the form of “Instinct” meter, “Counter-Breaker” mechanics and a “Knockdown” value to curb potential infinite combos. 

Featuring almost all of the characters from the past 2 Killer Instinct games (plus some new additions) for a total of 18 characters split into 2 packs, or “seasons”, and with a third season coming in 2016, Killer Instinct boasts a large roster of very diverse characters to suit all manner of players. 

Now, back to the music, as I mentioned I was drawn in by both the sound and style of the music (being a rock and metal fan helped here), but also by the way it utilises its soundtrack. As above,  there are currently 18 playable characters in the game, and each one has a unique musical accompaniment with a unique theme, tone and sound based on the character’s personality and traits, whilst also for the returning characters at least, remaining faithful to the 1994 theme they each had.  

For example, werewolf Saberwulf’s reinvented theme comes straight out of a Jekyll and Hyde classic horror movie, played almost exclusively on violins, screeching off beat to instill this feeling of somebody losing control; or ancient golem Aganos’ music is every bit the epic, orchestral piece you would expect for a giant god-like creature. From blistering industrial heavy metal, to dubstep and dance, the soundtrack is every bit as varied and diverse as the character roster, every track has clearly had a lot of attention and love paid to it, and it shows. 

It would be easy to think that just having a good soundtrack would be enough, and usually it is for most games, as most games do have an appropriate soundtrack designed to elevate the gameplay and invest you further in what’s happening on-screen. However, Killer Instinct goes one step further in a way I wish every game would take note of; for while most games the music is cued by certain events and triggers (for example, in an FPS when a firefight starts, the music will also start), the music for each and every round in KI is dynamically played depending on a variety of factors.  

Starting with the stage/arena which is selected by players, this decides which of the 18 character themes will be playing in the fight, pick Cinder’s stage, you get Cinder’s theme. So far, so simple, however once the fight actually begins in earnest is when things get interesting. Sticking with the Cinder example, once the fight starts rather than simply playing Cinder’s theme from start to end and on a loop, the game dynamically skips and cuts through the tune depending on how the fight is playing out; if someone hits a long or high damaging combo the music will boost the volume and skip to a faster tempo section of the theme; if a player gets very low on health, the music will shift again to an ever faster section of the song and steadily increase the tempo the longer the low-health player remains alive; there’s even an eventuality where if both of the players do nothing the music calms down and slows (and, character depending, you get a throwback, classic theme played as a nod to the original fans). 

All of these subtle cues take place dynamically, as before, but also whilst still keeping time and within the musical framework of the tune, which is an added bonus of not being completely jarring every few seconds as it would otherwise be cutting back and forth and losing any semblance of rhythm. 

This all adds up to the effect of immersing you fully in your fight since as you pull off impressive combos or inflict massive damage and then hear the music react accordinglythis incredibly rewarding feeling comes over you pumps you up even further. It leaves you craving that feeling even more, which in turns makes you want to be better at the game and keeps me hooked on a game in a genre I don’t usually dabble in.  

Video games are different from other forms of media, the interactive element provides experiences, stories and fully realised worlds that cannot be replicated within movies, TV and books. In recent years this interactivity has been woven directly into the narrative of games, examples like Mass Effect, Telltale Series and Until Dawn have clearly shown how player decisions can affect how stories play out, providing wholly different experiences from player to player, and I don’t think it should stop there. 

As I mentioned above, music is integral to immersing people into games or movies, providing an extra layer of tension and adrenaline; or simply helping portray a particular emotion to heighten on-screen events. While it’s far from the only example of this, I’ve singled out Killer Instinct here as a step toward where I hope music will go as it pertains to its use within gaming. 

Others include Alien Isolation, where the classic tense music taken straight from the movie slowly creeps up as the titular Alien draws near you, ramping up the tension in-game immeasurably; the Halo series is very well known for its soundtrack, being one of the first games to truly implement the memorable music based on what the player was doing at the time, piping up during dramatic engagements, and equally keeping down during the quieter, explorative sections of the gameand arguably Dark Souls, since it uses its soundtrack (or lack thereof) very sparingly, and while not overtly interactive, players know that upon hearing music, the game is communicating that you have reached somewhere or met someone important. The list goes on and I have missed a fair few, these are just some examples that spring to mind to help illustrate my point.  

To wit, my point is these games demonstrate what can happen when real attention and care is used to not only create a memorable soundtrack (ones I’m quite happy to listen to outside of the games themselves), but utilise the unique interactive elements found only within video games. It’s something that I hope continues to develop as gaming further matures; as personally I feel soundtracks to games are often overlooked, and while usually fitting to their particular genre, are rarely particularly memorable, or indeed using this incredible medium to its fullest potential. We currently have stories, characters, worlds even, that respond to players and react to their actions; so why not the music?  

 

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RT SideQuest: Branching off the RTX Main ConQuest

By John Fenix

Final setup of the RT SideQuest booth is underway in the main exhibition hall of RTX Friday morning before the floor opens to the public.

For a weekend in the summer, tens of thousands of people flock to Austin to celebrate a company whose primary productions are hilarious webseries and Let's Play content. Although it’s been around since 2003, Rooster Teeth Productions has only had its own convention, RTX, for the last 4 years. Despite being so new, the convention, like the company itself, has expanded exponentially, with 40,000 fans arriving in Austin for a weekend of video games, previews of RT productions, meet and greets with RT staff among other events. Beyond the walls of the convention itself, one can find the expanding influence of the convention itself and the fan community itself to bringing good and charity as well as fun. Some of those 40,000 that attended this year's RTX were doing just that, branching off the main path of RTX to attend RT SideQuest, a community-run series of events that has been raising thousands of dollars for charities both local and national.

SideQuest festivities begin Thursday, the night before the convention starts with their Charity Dinner and Auction, now in its fourth year. Before the normal, bustling atmosphere of RTX begins, attendees enjoy a calm, more relaxed occasion to enjoy delicious food, great beer, and meet fellow fans, even a few Rooster Teeth staff. Dressed in suits and cocktail dresses, the event offers a chance for attendees to dress up from the normal convention attire. Around the floor, tables display items offered for silent auction run throughout the night, from props provided by RT Staff, companies such as Twitch, and pieces of artwork created by Rooster Teeth community-at-large. No matter how much the item goes for, attendees know all the money will be donated to charities such as Child's Play, which lies at the core of what RT SideQuest has become. Where they are today stems from their humble origins only 4 years earlier.

Early attendees to RT SideQuest’s Charity Dinner get early chance to bid on the items being offered for charity during Thursday evening, from Rooster Teeth Productions scripts and props, to Twitch streaming packs, to Microsoft and Halo products and signed merchandise.

The start of RT SideQuest parallels RTX itself. When the first RTX was being organized in 2011, only 200 tickets were initially offered. This concerned RT Community member Dominic Dobrzensky, now Co-founder and Donations Director for RT SideQuest. He wished to create an event parallel to RTX for fans to meet each other and explore Austin, even if some of them couldn't make it to RTX proper, which later expanded to offer 600 more tickets. Dobrzensky, originally from Vancouver, teamed up with local Austinite Grady Bailey, now fellow Co-Founder and President, creating a spreadsheet of places to eat and visit for attendees to use, becoming an interactive guide for any RTX attendees to use while in town for the convention. During the weekend of meet and greets, 100 fans showed up to meet fans at local Austin flavors such as Home Slice and Halcyon. Even during this initial event, RT SideQuest showed the potential to become its own event as much as RTX.

It wasn't until after the support and attendance from the first year that started to conceive RT SideQuest as a charitable parallel event to RTX, says Julia Rosinski, Logistics Director for RT SideQuest. They started the following year with their first charity auction, where they raised $10,000 for Child's Play, a video game-related charity. Every year since then, RT SideQuest has raised more money not only for Child's Play, but now several other charities, including Extra Life, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Operation Supply Drop, and AbleGamers. The amount of money being brought in by these events led to the group of people coming together to formally organize RT SideQuest as a non-profit in 2013.

Saturday night of RTX weekend, RT SideQuest staff and Spectres, volunteers spending their convention time helping setup for SideQuest events, are busy pulling together the evening’s festivities on the second floor of Buffalo Billiards bar along Austin’s well-known Sixth Street. The bar, pool cues, and gaming consoles are set for the competitors to compete in the SideQuest BarLympics. Soon enough, the room is filled with competitors, split into four teams, named after characters from Rooster Teeth's show, Red vs Blue. The team that wins the most points from a number of challenges has their name added to the BarLympics trophy as that year's winner. The challenges vary from playing rounds of Super Smash Brothers, drinking a few specialty drinks, or taking a picture of yourself at a bachelorette party or kissing a Lyft car. It's the unique mix of hilarity and high-speed spontaneity that is reflects the spirit of the RT community. After a long night of friendly competition, Red Team took home the trophy and reigned supreme for the evening.

Competitors gather and listen at Buffalo Billiards as Grady Bailey, co-founder of RT SideQuest explains the rules and point system for the evening’s BarLympics.

Even in its few short years of existence, RT SideQuest has rapidly expanded its charitable progress and events beyond RTX. SideQuest meetups have been organized around PAX Prime (PrimeQuest) in Seattle, WA and PAX East (SideQuEast) in Boston, MA. Beyond these meetups, they have done other charity activities: They partnered with local video game retailer Gamers Galaxy to run 24 hour live streams for Extra Life, raising $10,000 over 4 streams. They have even worked with Rooster Teeth staff Barbara Dunkelman, Rooster Teeth’s Community Manager, and Caleb Denecour, Achievement Hunter’s Community Manager to attempt to send them down side of a building in downtown Austin to raise money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. As part of their goal of also supporting the community, they provide $200 community group grants to support whatever event or activities they wish to accomplish. It's all part of following RT SideQuest's motto for the group “Enim Filii,” Latin which translates to “For the Children.”

On the Monday following the end of RTX, RT SideQuest attendees that remained in the Austin area gathered for one last farewell at The Salt Lick, one of Austin area’s best local barbecue restaurants, located just outside the city in Driftwood, TX. For the last several RT SideQuest years, fans have gathered to say goodbye to friends, old and new, and enjoy some of the best food the city has to offer. During the previous night, RT SideQuest offered a post-con lounge event at Buffalo Billiards for any RTX attendee to relax and reflect on the finished convention. Sadly, I was catching a flight back home by then and had to enjoy the next best thing: The Salt Lick had open up a small restaurant within the Austin Airport. With more attendees expected to join RT SideQuest alongside their main quest of RTX, the group hopes to rent out a whole area of Salt Lick for the event next year, and I will be sure to be among them, so that I can enjoy the same thing.

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The GamerGate Controversy: A Mire of Misogyny and Hatred

Video games and journalism have a lot more in common than believed by the general public. Gaming journalists are just as important to their respective industry as any other form of journalism. Journalism for video games have come a long way since the conception of the industry. But a major problem with journalists has been escalating within the gaming industry, one that has come under fire recently: video game studios bribing journalists to write positively about the studio’s products in an effort to garner more sales (Kotaku), paid events for journalists to cover big games to either win a prize, or to be compensated with more money (Eurogamer), or studios placing review embargos on reviewers that write highly about the product (GamesIndustry). Journalistic integrity for video games is an issue that is often raised on occasion to dedicated followers of the industry. However, in light of recent events, there is now one more method of bribery studios can utilize: sexual favors for positive coverage. Within the gaming industry is a workforce and community consisting of a healthy balance of men and women. Gaming is no longer exclusive to a male dominant industry. Unfortunately, there are individuals within the community that do not desire this change of hands and attempt to preserve the gamer image in the hopes to make video games exclusive to men. As odd as the following may appear, these two subjects—gaming journalism and women—share a common thread between one another; a thread so tainted by misogyny, racism, sexism and threats of murder and rape, these events led to one of the most controversial movement in all of gaming: GamerGate.

What is GamerGate?

GamerGate is a movement that heavily focuses on sexism within video game culture and the industry at large. The origins of the movement date back to March of 2013, when a public feminist speaker named Anita Sarkeesian crowdfunded and uploaded a multi-part documentary series to YouTube, titled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The documentary was aimed at examining “the roles and representations of women in video games,” which included separate episodes discussing “tropes, plot devices, and patterns most associated with women in gaming, from a systemic, big picture perspective,” “hyper-sexualized female characters… extremely graphic depictions of violence towards women,” and “pattern[s] in character design in conceptualization” (“Tropes…”). Upon the release of Sarkeesian’s first video, she was bombarded with a wave of overwhelming negative criticism from gamers, as viewers believed that Sarkeesian was challenging the status quo. In a fit of unmitigated hatred towards the documentaries, users attempted to have her video series taken down; additionally, users uploaded scathing video responses to YouTube, along with replies on her Twitter page criticizing Sarkeesian’s documentaries, calling her a “slut,” a “whore”, and a “cunt,” along with threats of rape and murder, all because of one woman’s desire to speak her mind about the portrayal of women in video games. While Sarkeesian’s documentary series did not start the GamerGate movement, the controversy was enough to keep the subject in the thoughts of all who were involved that ultimately led to the formation of the GamerGate movement.

On February 14th, 2013, a month before the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games documentary was uploaded to YouTube, Zoe Quinn, an independent developer, released a video game titled Depression Quest, a fictional browser game that focused on depression. A year after the game was released, Quinn’s previous boyfriend, one Eron Gjoni, wrote a lengthy blog post alleging that Quinn was in a relationship with Kotaku journalist Nathan Grayson. In addition, Gjoni accused Quinn of having a sexual affair with Grayson in order for her game to be reviewed positively when Depression Quest later launched on Steam—the digital distribution platform for video games on personal computers (The Washington Post). Initially, the blog post appeared no more than mere Internet drama—a “rambling online essay” as pointed out by Nick Wingfield of The New York Times (The New York Times). That was the case, until Stephen Totilo, the editor-in-chief for Kotaku, spoke about the allegations in earnest. While Totilo confirmed the relationship, he heavily emphasized that there was no proof that Grayson wrote or covered any game from Quinn prior to the relationship (Kotaku).

Unfortunately, this did not stop gamers from decrying the end of gaming journalism. Shortly after, a number of individuals began to virally harass Quinn and her family with misogynistic and discriminatory language, along with threats of raping and/or murdering Quinn. “Next time she shows up at a conference we... give her a crippling injury that's never going to fully heal... a good solid injury to the knees,” an anonymous user on the message board 4chan wrote, “I'd say a brain damage, but we don't want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us” (The New Yorker). This barrage of verbal assault was enough for Quinn to leave her home and find shelter with close friends.

In August 2014, Adam Baldwin, a famous actor, coined the term “GamerGate” in a Twitter post, where he criticized the hate movement against Quinn. This post led to the conception of the GamerGate hashtag (Reason). A month after the GamerGate hashtag was created, approximately two million Twitter posts contained the hashtag (Newsweek). This quickly formed a divisive split between the industry, where the movement was divided into two groups: Pro-GamerGaters, and Anti-GamerGaters.

GamerGate movement

The GamerGate movement is a mystery in the eyes of the public, which has led to confusion as to what the movement is about. Those that are for GamerGate claim that the movement is focused on the corruption and biased nature of gaming journalism, while those who are against GamerGate claim that Pro-GamerGaters are fighting against women and are thus fighting back against these assaults. The biggest flaw regarding the movement lies in the movement’s lack of opposition towards a unified cause. The GamerGate movement is without any reasonable and logical opposing arguments, which gives off a distinct withdrawal and separation of "Us vs. Them.” One side is fighting to include ethics in gaming journalism, while the other side fights for the freedom of women in the video game industry. This leads to the overall movement having no central focus as to what each side is attempting to resolve.

However, the Pro-GamerGaters bring up a valid concern about the state of gaming journalism. Journalists always have a colored perception amongst the gaming community, as these conveyers of news in the gaming industry are viewed not as individuals seeking to protect consumers from purchasing a sub-par product, but rather as a method for unscrupulous companies to underwrite reviewers and journalists to positively cover the products of the company to ensure maximum profit. The controversy surrounding Quinn and Grayson would be far worse if the developer in question worked for a larger, more publically recognized studio, i.e. Blizzard (World of Warcraft), 343 Industries (Halo), Activision (Call of Duty), or Ubisoft (Assassin’s Creed).

On the flip side, the opposition—the Anti-GamerGaters— bring to light a valid argument. Female gamers are subjected to a variety of harassment and abuse. Feminine gamers are frequently bombarded by men asking to be in a relationship, sexually harassed and assaulted, and threatened with murder and/or rape. Women want to be gamers just like their counterparts, but women often prefer not to be involved with gaming, as gaming culture is viewed as a mire of negativity, sexism, racism, and misogyny. However, despite this negativity, the margin between male and female gamers is slowly drawing into neutral ground, as female gamers account for just 48% of the video game industry (Entertainment Software Association).

Although Pro and Anti-GamerGate followers state that their motive is to fight for ethics in gaming journalism and to protect women in the industry, respectively, a number of critics and commentators are skeptical about these claims—that the movement has nothing to do with the journalistic well-being within the gaming industry or protecting women from harassment. “Every single question of journalistic ethics [GamerGate] has brought up has either been debunked or dealt with,” Todd VanDerWerff of Vox wrote, “At this point, [GamerGate] seems to keep raging simply to do two things: harass women and endlessly perpetuate itself so it can keep harassing women. There is absolutely no center to it — save for the harassment of women” (Vox).

The reason the GamerGate movement has accumulated this much controversy does not come from the sides of the movement or what the movement represents; the controversy stems from the methods both sides employ to get their respective sides’ messages across, as well as the harassment and assault on, primarily, women within the industry—one that highlights a wider and larger problem within the cultures of the Internet. Both sides of the movement regularly threaten acts of rape and murder to each other, as well as women who speak out about the movement; additionally, these groups engage in hacking and breaching of personal information on a regular basis. One such method both sides utilize is a form of hacking known as doxing (The Daily Dot). Doxing is the act of hacking into an individual’s personal information and publishing said information on websites like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and 4chan. This information includes first and last name, address, ZIP code, occupations, diplomas, one’s credit card number, bank account number, Social Security Number, phone number, along with a number of other pieces information pertaining to an individual. Sarkeesian, Quinn, and Brianna Wu, an independent developer who criticized the GamerGate movement, were among those targeted by doxing (Boston Globe). Additionally, individuals engaged in deploying Distribution Denial of Services (DDoS) attacks on websites in a concerted effort to have specific services taken down (Forbes). DDoS attacks occur when compromised computers send a certain amount of useless packets of information to a server, thus overloading the server until the service is temporarily taken down. Worse, anyone critical to GamerGate are subjected to SWATing—a sinister form of pranking wherein a hoaxed emergency call is sent in an attempt to provoke the deployment of SWAT teams to the victim’s home (The Guardian).

The GamerGate controversy has grown to such heights that the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence held a congressional hearing about the movement and what can be done to stop it. The executive director of The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one Ruth Glenn, described the GamerGate movement as “an online hate group… which was started by an ex-boyfriend to ruin [Quinn’s] life.” Among those present at the panel was Quinn; she discusses her life during the aftermath of GamerGate—how her life has changed following the events of the movement.

“The girl I used to be used to sit down and check her email where she'd get the occasional fan letter, business correspondence and spam email. These days they're joined by death threats and graphic fantasies about raping me, often accompanied by my home address and proof that the sender has everything they would need to carry through on them… When thousands of faceless strangers have set their sights on you, every single aspect of your life is bombarded and probed until who you were before is gone and your life becomes almost unrecognizable” (Polygon).

Conclusion

What has transpired—and what attacks and discussions are to come—is toxic and destructive to not only those who are actively engaged in the movement, but also to those who are swept into the cobweb of misogyny and hatred. GamerGate, while tragic and atrocious, has led to the industry’s first major discussion about diversity, inclusivity, and the protection of women on the Internet. This discussion will continue to pose questions as to how the industry can evolve past the origins of this growing business. But the real question that must be asked is not which side of the movement is right or wrong; the question is whether the methods of intimidation, as well as the treatment of women online is justifiable. Is threatening a woman with murder and/or rape on the Internet reasonable? Is sending the SWAT to an opponent’s home as a result of an ongoing argument justifiable? Is the publishing of personal information reasonable and justifiable? For the industry’s best interest, this movement must end as soon as possible.

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