Two things I’ve been mulling over in the wake of the most recent episode that I felt I wanted to share:
Note one: Yes, I have heard that the Casino level in Thief wasn’t added until Thief Gold. I have heard about it in YouTube comments, in a reddit thread, on Twenty Sided, and on Twitter. I’m really confused about why people keep bringing this up.
The original version of Star Wars: A New Hope was released in 1977. Twenty years later in 1997 The Special Editions of Star Wars were released and added a bunch of stuff, from CGI Jabba the Hutt to Greedo shooting first. While this was generally considered a Bad Decision™ for its content, it was notable more for the fact that it effectively replaced the versions that had come before. For years it was incredibly difficult to get clean, official looking, anamorphic cuts of the original films on modern formats like DVD. Meanwhile the special editions were available at every big box retailer in the country. “Han shoots first” wasn’t just a debate about which version is better but a frustrated rant against a preferred version being erased.
And that’s largely what happened with the release of Thief Gold. It has effectively replaced the original version of Thief: The Dark Project. Thief Gold is pretty much the only way to acquire the game legally these days – it’s the only version sold on GOG or Steam. Sure, one could always hit up fleamarkets or eBay for a CD-ROM copy of the original. But at that point it’s like dumpster diving for VHS copy of the original Star Wars. It’s more of a collector’s item than the way the work exists for most people today. And we certainly don’t respond to people who complain about Sy Snootles with: “Well, that wasn’t in the original edition.”
So I’m confused as to why that seems to be the reaction to criticizing extraneous missions in Thief Gold. Does the fact that the original iteration of Thief: The Dark Project didn’t have this level make it any less of a digression? Is the level’s aimless design any more exusable because you didn’t have to play it in 1998 but do have to play it now? I’m not sure I buy the “An expansion added this forced two hour digression that goes nowhere after the fact, and that makes it okay” argument any more than I buy “This song and dance number by a horribly animated CGI monster that kills the pacing of Return of the Jedi was added later, and that makes it okay.” Just because the level was added later doesn’t make it any less meandering or tangential. Nor does it cut my overall argument down, as it was just a singular example of a problem endemic to the game as a whole – I could have just as easily chosen the first Haunted Cathedral level or The Mages Tower or Escape! or the Horn of Quintus level as my example.
Note two: I’m not sure the current way I produce these big Errant Signal episodes is working. Hm. Maybe this should have been Thing One. Anyways.
To produce a video like Thief or The Novelist or Quake I have to play through the whole game (sometimes multiple times!) to ensure I record everything of value I’d want to possibly cite. This takes several hours, as games aren’t generally a medium known for their brevity or respect for the player’s time. At the end of that arduous process I have hundreds and hundreds of gigs of raw game footage that I can’t easily store anywhere. But I also certainly don’t want to play through the game and re-record all that footage ever again. It may seem absurd to complain about not wanting to play a video game again, but try playing your favorite game not just as a player but as a camera man interested in usable footage that conveys cogent points for the entire length of the game.
So it becomes a sort of use-it-or-lose-it scenario, with a game’s worth of footage laid out in front of me destined for the trashbin if it isn’t used right now. As a result Errant Signal episodes become a huge mishmash of everything I could possibly have to say on a game. This works well enough if I have just one thing to say about a title – my looks at Hotline Miami and Sleeping Dogs are pretty focused to one idea (a single reading of the game).
But some games are just too large; too culturally relevant to boil down to a single neat perspective. Thief was one of those games and I think the episode suffered as a result. I had to talk about the stealth model, I had to talk about the changing way violence is framed in stealth games, I had to talk about how movement mattered, I had to talk about Thief’s ties to the *Shock games, I had to talk about Garrett’s position as a natural balance bringer between order and chaos… and the result was an episode that had the flimsy pretense of comparing new stealth games to Thief’s approach when really I just had to hit all of those checkboxes. And it’s not like people didn’t notice.
The real problem is that I don’t know how I want to fix this. I don’t want to stop doing in-depth, comprehensive analysis and contextualization for games. But at the same time there are going to be games that are so malleable and cover so much ground that a single topic is all but impossible. I don’t know if a structural change would be better (rigidly segmented sections instead of a freeflowing essay?) or if it would be better to do a series of smaller, shorter videos on each section of the game I want to talk about (an episode on Thief’s ties to the *Shock games and a centrist worldview followed by another brief episode about Thief’s lighting and stealth model, etc). Or maybe the rambly, aimless video essay is an aesthetic choice? I dunno. But it’s given me something to think about.