Watching THQ

Gaming companies are definitely losing steam. In particular, Radical Entertainment has lost out on what it once was. And Kaos Studios closed its doors. Ben Kuchera over at The PA Report covered this with more detail. While I’m not about to make claims about doom and gloom, the fact is that something is wrong when companies are folding.

In my mind, I can see a good half a dozen reasons why games are suffering.

First, there’s the ongoing economic situation. There seems to be some remaining back-and-forthery about whether or not it’s still a recession. But while people can drown their sorrows in games for a while (better than booze), they cannot continue to shell out $50 to $60 for every great title that comes along.

The second aspect that is changing this is the available of SmartPhone and indieĀ games. Most of these games are free or very cheap, and although aren’t as hardcore as console/PC games, are still quite fun especially among friends.

A third thing to consider is the ease of DRM software like Steam, which allows players to purchase old, classic titles for extremely low prices. Why play new games when you have a catalogue of older classics you need to catch up on? I know this very well as I have been downloading games I never got around to trying, like Bioshock.

Then there are the usual factors. A dash of piracy, people can’t afford to be shelling out money, so on. Perhaps the thing to consider here is that the gaming industry isn’t as immune to the recession as we were first led to believe. It certainly lasted far longer than most industries in the midst of rough economic times, but sooner or later you have to pay the piper. The field is shrinking.

Which brings us to the central focus of this blog. THQ.

THQ Inc. has actually been around since 1989. When I was a kid, I played their interesting Home Alone games back on the old 8-bit NES. Today, they’re responsible for the Red Faction series, Saints Row and especially the Warhammer 40,000 line up of games. Recently, THQ made news twice over, first by turning their UFC series to EA. And then a strange, reverse split restructuring of their stocks, consolidating shares at a rate of 10 to 1.

As an owner of some of THQ’s stock, I take considerable interest in this turn of events.

And as a guy who someday would like to make games, I find the whole set of news troubling. It is not an immediate dream I’d like to realize, but something I’d like to do in a few years. And I am working in that direction, bit by bit. But right now the industry is changing, adapting to a combination of new markets, fighting the effects of the recession and taking on riskier projections.

Times a changin’. Keep watching the future, folks.

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Because I Choose To

There are significant spoilers ahead for the game BioShock. If you haven’t played it yet but want too, don’t read. Also, this is probably too long. I haven’t beaten BioShock yet, but I have gotten passed one of the key plot twists within the game. To fully explain my interest in this one scene, I have to go back to the beginning.

The game’s antagonist, Andrew Ryan, is a hard nosed industrialist who founded the underwater city of Rapture. He adheres to his philosophic code, which he refers to as ‘The Great Chain’, a philosophy very similar to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Both philosophies are uphold the concepts of free enterprise and free markets, and the belief that self interest is the ideal with respect to individual rights.

Now philosophy is something everyone has, even if they are not aware of it. It is the abstract study of problems, including morality. We all have a sense of right and wrong, but we define it differently. Religion has its own philosophy, but not every philosophy adheres to religion. And politics is merely the real-world branches of philosophy’s roots. A catch-22 occurs when someone argues that philosophies and ideology are “politically dangerous”, because they still adhere to a philosophy of their own, even if it’s not fully recognized or understood.

But Andrew Ryan’s beliefs come apart under the weight of caring for Rapture; he relents and nationalizes a rival corporation, going against his own laissez-faire beliefs. He places an embargo on the import of outside goods, violating free trade and creating a black market that smugglers capitalize upon. Kidnapping girls to create ADAM would be universally respected as wrong. There were the murders of Jasmine Jolene and Anna Culpepper. And the addition of pheromones to plasmids, a corruption of Ryan’s concept of free will.

Ryan lost it. He lost sight of his own philosophic code and let the desire to win against his foe override his own morality.

Now, Ryan created an enemy out of smuggler and mob boss Frank Fontaine, who helped to found the entire plasmids industry. Circumstances in the war to obtain Rapture eventually forced Fontaine to create an special assassin using advanced growth scientific theories, mind control impulses, and a fetus purchased from a stripper who had slept with Andrew Ryan.

This assassin did not know of his programming, of his history. During the struggle, Andrew Ryan finds himself on the losing side of the war as this assassin has tipped the scales. So Ryan sets Rapture to destroy itself. But before this happens, Ryan calmly faces his assassin (the player) and reveals their past. Most tellingly, Ryan reveals that all along, the player was responding to the words “Wound you kindly” and was forced to do whatever he was told as long as this codeword was uttered.

Ryan had total control over the assassin. He could have ordered the player to kill himself and end the game. But he didn’t. Instead, Ryan hands his assassin the golf club and orders him to kill. As the assassin beats Ryan to death, Ryan repeatedly reminds the player, “A man chooses. A slave obeys.”

I have heard a few theories as to why Ryan chose to die this way. Yes, he chose too. He had the upper hand. He could have killed his assassin. But he didn’t. Some say it was assisted suicide. Some say it was a way to try and save his illegitimate son from the mind control. It could be even be both.

But I have a slightly different theory.

Atonement is a term we often reserve with religious implications. Then again, we borrow many things with religious origins and use them without reference to their theological roots. But I feel that Andrew Ryan’s words with Jack (and the player) are his attempt to atone for the self-betrayal of his own philosophy.

When Ryan encountered the assassin Jack, he saw something that was an affront to his original beliefs. He saw a man who could not choose. He was a slave. He had to obey the words, “Would you kindly.”

“A man chooses. A slave obeys,” Ryan said. If we applied these words to the decisions Andrew Ryan made with his governing of Rapture, it would mean that Ryan was fully aware of the choices he made that violated his own philosophy. But Jack was different. He was a man who had, up until then, spent his entire life obeying words and not understanding why. He never even knew that choice was denied to him.

For a while, I wondered if Ryan’s death was his means of spitting in Jack’s eye. As though to sneer to him that he was a slave and to drive that thought home. A lot of Ryan’s early tone was condescending, as though looking down on Jack. But when he orders Jack around using the phrase, his tone changes. The disdain seems to go away. It becomes something else.

Throughout Ryan’s rule, he was eventually driven to become the thing he despised. The very thing that drove him to create Rapture in the first place. And perhaps, in making Jack realize that he was a slave was Ryan’s attempt to restore some semblance of free will to a place that had lost it. As Ryan is beaten, his tone sounds increasingly more of one of regret.

And Ryan had hoped his words would win out and beat the programming. One might think that Ryan failed in this because he was killed. But Ryan was going to die anyway along with the rest of Rapture. In the short term, Ryan’s words did nothing. But apparent through Jack’s actions and desire to live, it eventually had the effect that Ryan wanted. Jack wanted to be free. He wanted to live. He wanted to be a man instead of a slave.

Choice is the key. Choice is what separates us from slaves, whether in chains or in the mind. Understanding this can help make sense of the ending of The Matrix Revolutions, when Agent Smith asks Neo why he gets up. Why he keeps fighting. What’s the cause for it, the reason. Trying to make sense of whatever concept it is that keeps Neo going.

And when you apply Andrew Ryan’s words as a cipher to Neo’s answer and the reason of the Matrix itself, it can be understood plainly.

“Because I choose to.”

Super Hill or Silent Bowl

Can’t believe that Patriots lost like that. I don’t follow football often, but that game was a see-saw of expectations. Most of my friends, who are Patriots fans, were not pleased.

I totally can't wait to see this family's photo albums.

I totally can't wait to see this family's photo albums.

So anyway, I beat Silent Hill: Homecoming yesterday. Yeah, it took forever because I didn’t hammer away at it.

The ending wasn’t quite what I expected. I understand that the developers were really aiming to pull from the same psychological vein of Silent Hill 2. They even borrowed and re-purposed Pyramid Head strictly to draw upon that fan mystique and loyalty. I have to applaud their effort, but I’m still struggling with some of the plot holes. I’ll talk about this more in depth later.

On another note, I noticed that the developers of Silent Hill drew inspiration from the movie Jacob’s Ladder. Without even reading what the movie is about, I’ve added it to my Netflix. I don’t care if the movie’s bad, I’m watching it.

Which brings me to another concern. I seem to be out of a story-driven, single player game for now, as I wait for the price of Gears of War 3 and the latest Castlevania game to go down.

So despite reservations, I am considering BioShock for now. I feel cautious and leery because I’ve done reading about the game development of it. And I guess I worry that the game is a form of interactive propaganda against certain philosophies. Or maybe that’s wrong, and the critics merely misinterpreted the game’s themes.

Eh, I’ve made up my mind. I’ll give a whirl. Write a Silent Hill: Homecoming review later. Time to hunt for jobs and write.