Preface: I started writing this post over a month and a half ago. For lots of reasons (real life, lack of direction) it’s drug on this long. However, I like it just enough to publish it, instead of trashing it (which is not unprecedented for me). So instead of putting it on a shelf forever, here it is. For some reason when I’m in this mode of writing a long, titanic post I never feel like posting other little things until the long post is done. Now it is. Hopefully we can all move on with our lives.
I’ve always been a little bit disdainful of the approach of overhyping something way in advance. Something about the concept of announcing something years in advance has always bugged me. There are games being announced right now that won’t see the light of day until Bush is out of office. I understand the need to hype your product, but in this day of delays and cynical expectations, I can’t seem to give a damn about your game coming out in 2009.
This was why I was really hoping Valve could have delivered Half-Life 2 a year ago when they said they would – just to prove you could develop something in secret for years and make the call on your ship date so well. Oh well. Spolsky details the “Apple Approach”, which is to wait until you have something to ship, versus the “Microsoft Approach”, which is to announce something as soon as the idea comes into your head.
Something that did do the approach which is the opposite of the industry is the recent game JFK Reloaded – though for reasons completely different than the approach I advocate. JFK Reloaded is the product of Traffic, a new developer out of Scotland. It was announced as being available for online purchase one day before its release: November 22, 2004 – the 41st anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
In the game, you assume the role of Lee Harvey Oswald (or, if you prefer, whomever was in the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository) and you get to try and assassinate Kennedy. That’s the entire game. Suffice it to say that this premise alone, coupled with the fact that it was released when it was and how it was (i.e., there was no publisher to stop or anything) got it national attention in America. It was on CNN and every other major news site and channel. The tactic worked, brilliantly.
When you’re a person like me and generally an advocate of all things gaming, it’s not an easy gig. There are games out there that are tough to defend, and there are games out there not worth defending. Usually due to violence. The Grand Theft Auto series of games is tough to defend, but since the games themselves are so good it’s worth it. Postal 2 is tough to defend but the game itself is crap, so it’s not worth it. The Godfather series of movies glorifies criminals but no one says we should get rid of them so that they don’t inspire children.
With me, the context of the violence is important. I have no problem seeing a violent movie like RoboCop or Starship Troopers but I can’t stand watching ER a lot of the time. Tons of sci-fi soldiers getting killed by giant bugs? Fine. A little old lady’s heart exploding in a hospital? I’ll pass. I can handle all kinds of fake violence. Some would call that hypocritical.
The other thing about this game is the mere situation involved. As games move forward one of the things to reckon with is what is and is not appropriate for a game.
For example, one of the things that’s been bugging gamers is that we’ve been given a glut of World War II games. Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Medal of Honor (3 games on the PC alone), Call of Duty, Battlefield 1942 – to say nothing of the niche MMORPG approach WWII Online. The biggest reason is that WWII games still sell well. That will probably come to an end soon thanks to oversaturation, but for now it’s true. The other reason is that WWII is a “safe” war to make a game about. There was a simple and clear enemy – the Nazis. There were simple and clear reasons for being in the war – the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor. And it’s sufficiently far in the past that most who were in it are no longer around to be offended (and the ones that are don’t care). There’s other reasons, too – WWII had planes and ground combat, and guns that didn’t take forever to reload.
Now compare that to other wars. Vietnam is still controversial (witness the attacks on Kerry during the recent election) due to the circumstances in which the war happened. The Civil War’s cause is controversial as well, plus its lack of technology is a tougher sell. Worse so for the American Revolutionary War (muskets, anyone?). And as for the recent Iraqi wars – there’s something odd about playing a game of a war in progress.
And yet of course games on all those wars do get made – just not as many as WWII.
At a recent family get-together, the topic of JFK Reloaded came up from an uncle-in-law. I had to confess that not only had I played the game, but I thought it was pretty neat. At this point a cousin-in-law proposed, “well then – why don’t we just make a game where you man the gas chambers at the concentration camps?” I very quickly assessed the situation (family, holiday, lots of non-gamers), decided a debate was inappropriate, and changed the subject. But she has a good point. We make games to emulate certian aspects of WWII (D-Day, the battles at sea, etc.) but not other aspects (the Holocaust, etc.). I personally thought it wasn’t in the best of taste to make the game Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, a game wherein you are an American soldier at Pearl Harbor. The shocking part is that it sold well in Japan.
So where is the line? Is it wrong to make a computerized simulation of the JFK Assassination? People have been doing that for years – mostly in the non-interactive quest to try and guess trajectories of bullets. So is it that much worse to make one that’s interactive? Or that runs on consumer-grade hardware in real-time?
The game itself is actually pretty interesting. For starters, it’s more realistic than you might expect. If you shoot and miss too many times, the motorcade speeds away. Shoot the driver and the car swerves. You can view the replay from multiple angles, including the Zapruder angle. Since the entire “level” is so small, it’s actually a very detailed recreation of Dealy Plaza in 1963.
Supposedly part of the goal of the game is to establish that it is in fact very plausible that Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact pull off the assassination alone. However, I got out of it three things. First, getting off multiple shots behind a tree is insanely difficult. Second, it would have made a whole lot more sense to shoot him on Houston Street instead of Elm (leading to the theory that someone else shot him from somewhere else), and last – it’s impossible to actually kill a president with a mouse. If anything, this game makes it harder to believe that LHO did it. Or more amazing that he did.
It’s less a game and more a toy. Specifically, it’s a toy for JFK consipracy buffs, which includes me – sorta. Back when the move JFK came out, I was taken in by the hype like everyone else. Today my viewpoint is mixed – I buy the idea that Oswald did it about as much as I buy the idea that he didn’t. If Oswald didn’t do it – what are the odds it could be kept a secret for 40 years? Then again the show Mythbusters has shown us that those things we take for granted as true actually are pretty unlikely (for example, the guy who flew using weather baloons – Mythbusters could barely pull it off but it did really happen).
My Wife and I went to the Conspiracy Museum in downtown Dallas. It was definitely intertesting, though it does sort of underscore why even if JFK conspiracy buffs have a point, it’s lost on the general public due to their demeanor. We got there and it was closed for lunch. We sat there for a minute and pondered what to do next but the man running the show showed up at that time to let us in. We paid our admission and started to walk around. We were the only ones in there, and apparently we were doing it all wrong. He told us which order to view the items in (always a good trait in a museum – difficult to navigate) and seemed a little offended at our “tourist” mentality. He then had us sit in the back in plastic white chairs watching some clips of the assasination, a clip from JFK, and then a very long documentary “banned in the US” (banned how, exactly?) whose main revelation was that the man on the grassy knoll doing the assassination was in fact David Ferrie. How no one else in forty years has come forth saying they saw this guy running away is anyone’s guess but I do have to give them some credit – in all the conspiracy talk you never do actually hear anyone name names on who did kill JFK – it’s secondary to the notion that Oswald didn’t do it (or do it alone) or which organization set him up.
Anyway what we figure out quickly is that this isn’t some guy manning the ticket counter – this is the guy who owns the place. Like I said the entire museum was neat but since it’s the “Conspiracy Museum” and not the “Assassination Museum”, it’s not there to be objective. They have a particular viewpoint on what happened and why. They believe that JFK, RFK, MLK and others were killed to feed the “Paramilitary War Complex”. The entire museum is not entirely unlike a child’s science fair project – lots of painstaking inexpensive detail, typewriter-made signs glued to cardboard, a painting of the limbs of a tree representing all the aspects of their theory, etc.
The guy running the place reminds me of my friend’s view on Apple Computer. Apple might make the best products in the world but everyone knows someone who’s pretentious about their viewpoints on them to the point of being off-putting, turning some off to the concept of Apple entirely. The guy running the place might be dead-on accurate as to why JFK was killed, but since he and his museum are representative of the conspiracy nuts of the world – magnifying the shreds of evidence that support their idea, ignoring the mountain of evidence that debunks it. Compare this to the Sixth Floor Museum, possibly the best, most unbiased and even-handed approach to the assassination I’ve ever seen. I reccomend it to anyone.
Getting back on track, like I said JFK Reloaded is less a game and more a “toy” for conspiracy buffs. Of course there’s a couple of things which somewhat preclude the “simulation” notion. For starters, they charge money for it. It can be argued that if it was free or had no commercial motivation the quality wouldn’t be as good. If it was a level in an existing game it would be limited by the engine of that game (versus being able to do whatever they want). But that the developer is trying to profit off of the JFK assassination hurts their cause. Of course, so is everyone who writes and sells a book about the assassination, so whatever. The other thing is the fact that they released it when they did – on the annniversary of the assassination. Sure, a brilliant marketing move, but not the most tasteful one. Also, there is a violence setting in the game – you can choose whether or not to have realistic blood in the assassination or not. Not sure how much of this is “optional realism” and how much is exploitation.
But the final thing they did which makes them harder to defend has to be fact that they have a $100,000 contest to recreate the assassination as per the Warren Commision. When you buy the game you get “tokens” to enter the contest. You have to hit JFK at the same angle, trajetory, and timing of the actual assassination. Meaning you also have to miss once or twice first. I wonder if they’ll actually give the prize out (as they claim they will) – if they do then the first 10,000 sales of the product go toward the prize. That seems more than questionable taste to me – it seems stupid.
But whatever, I started writing this post over a month ago and it’s drug on long enough. Is a game about a war too far? Is a JFK assassination simulator too far? Is a Holocaust simulator too far? If the game industry goes the way of the movie industry will we see lots of “artsy” projects with controversial depictions of things in ways people can’t handle? Are the same people who complain that DOOM 3 is just another FPS also the ones complaining about how tasteless it is to do something innovative like JFK Reloaded? I don’t know the answers, but in the meantime I’m going to go watch JFK again.