"Is this a newsgame?"
isn't a question that comes up too often in our project studio meetings. In Newsgames: Journalism at Play
, Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer clearly
outline the various categories and qualities of different newsgames, and it's usually easy to identify new newsgames through their classification system. At the same time, it can be difficult
to take stock of a title with newsworthy elements without playing it.
So when I heard about CheneyStar
, a downloadable title available on Xbox Live's
Indie Games Channel featuring the likeness of Dick Cheney, I decided to
investigate. The strange thing I played is definitely not a newsgame. It
isn't even about the news, save for the fact that it features the pixelated face of
a controversial ex-Vice President as its primary antagonist.
It is a useful example, however, of what the
border between newsgames and other games can look like.
The game is based on the arcade classic, Sinistar, which plays
similarly to Asteroids in that you navigate a space-ship through a
2-dimensional space while destroying asteroids and enemy fighter ships. The twist is
that you also have to destroy a roving robotic battle station. In CheneyStar said battle station resembles Dick
Cheney's head re-imagined as a terminator.
The CheneyStar is gradually constructed on the map at the beginning of each level, giving you time to scavenge the asteroid field for bomb ammunition. The "bomb" is actually a red, white, and blue laser, which is the only thing that can harm the CheneyStar. You have other weapons, which can break apart the asteroids for ammunition or kill the lesser enemies dispatched to kill you, and there are various power-ups such as increased shielding, homing shots, and sonic waves that will crush asteroids more easily.
After you defeat the CheneyStar on the asteroid map, you must defeat him again in a vertical scrolling section. Mechanically, this is a more complex affair than a typical political flash game or an interactive editorial cartoon. The graphics and sounds, including 3D assets, are also elaborate and polished.
These mechanics could have
supported a newsgame. Cheney is a polarizing political figure whose comments, behavior, and politics have placed him in the crosshairs of the media many times. Presenting him as a demonic, floating battle station cut from the same cloth as Star Wars
' Deathstar may be construed as an accusation of imperialism and evil, but that's as far as the metaphor goes.
The sprite for the player's ship could have been a political figure with opposing viewpoints, and the player's gunfire could be represented as legislation Cheney opposed. The asteroids could be represented by logs for republican business interests, and the other enemy ships could be represented as other members of Bush's cabinet. But CheneyStar
does none of this. Save for Cheney's propensity for profanity (the CheneyStar constantly abuses the player while floating around the map) and professing his hatred for liberals, the developer does nothing political with its source material.
There is supposedly a sound-bite about shotgun shooting to be heard, though I never encountered it. The asteroids are rocks, the bullets merely bullets, and the floating robotic head of Dick Cheney is just the floating robotic head of Dick Cheney.
In defense of the developer Johnny Death Games, they never present CheneyStar
as a newsgame or announced their intention to make any kind of editorial or political point with the title, and randomness pervades the entire experience. The first time the player starts up the game, rather than receiving any kind of tutorial or even seeing a traditional title screen, I was prompted to "kill the gringos!" in a horizontal scrolling shooter where I played as a bikini-clad Venezuelan woman firing a machine gun. After several rounds of this, the disembodied head of Hugo Chavez flies by the screen restoring my health, and then CheneyStar appears and kills me. You are then prompted to play the actual game.
Again, this is imagery with political potential, but it is presented without any arguments, and the bizarre experience that results is like a botched punch-line.