Archive for February, 2011

We Come In Peace, Shoot to Kill
Wednesday, 23 February, 2011

I finished Metro 2033 last night. The game ends (as many do) with a final kind of choice you have to make between wiping out the freaky aliens/mutants who’ve been kicking the shit out of you for the last hours (sort of), or deciding to leave them alone. Being a gamer, I “got” both endings by first destroying them (with nukes, I think) and then replaying the last bit to spare them.

In fact, I’m a little bewildered as to why I would want to save the mutant people. As best I could determine during play, they seemed to cause nothing but problems for humanity, making people go insane just by being nearby for instance. After I’d fought all the way through the damn game and finally, finally stood on top of a radio tower with the device that would target the mutants’ stronghold (unsure why I knew where it was, but okay)… why would I not go ahead and nuke them?

The one reason that there appeared to be to spare them was that one of the “wise dudes” who had given me advice during the game had said you shouldn’t necessarily just do the knee-jerk obvious thing. In fact, to help me out, the game made my character “remember” this at the crucial moment with a little voice over. So clearly I was meant to question my decision to nuke the mutants. But really? Everything that I experienced in the game presented our relationship with the mutants as a war, including the mutants’ increasing attempts to kill me as I got closer to kill them. Dog eat dog world, after all.

Yet sparing them is an option in the game, and when you do it turns out the mutants are all peaceful and just wanted to be friends. Nice happy ending and a an achievement called “Enlightened”. Pretty heavy handed suggestion there that sparing them was the “right” thing to do.

This experience leads me into thinking about stories and video games. Yes, that old chestnut. In particular, when I saw that sparing the mutants was the “preferred option” in the game, my mind scrabbled back through the game experience to understand why in the hell I should have thought that – why I should have chosen to spare them based on my experience. Other than the quote from “wise dude” I couldn’t think of a single reason that I would think of the mutants as anything but my mortal enemy. This then turned me to the central question that all gamers feel at some point: did I miss something? Was there a whole layer to the game I had totally missed? If I’d looked left instead of right at some point, would I have seen mutants waving and smiling at me, holding placards reading “we come in peace!”?

It’s entirely possible, because video games are systems rather than linear narratives. It’s entirely possible to miss elements of a game in a way that you can’t miss something in a movie, say. You might quite literally just not go into the room where the information is, say – which would be a bit like closing your eyes (and ears) for some period of the movie. Because games are systems, you can’t quite be sure that you actually saw everything. So you can’t be sure you’re making an informed choice. Which is why Metro 2033 is still pretty cool – I made my choice based on the information I had, and that’s cool by me.

On the other hand, the systemic nature of video games is a major problem for the stories they tell. To the extent that your Metro 2033 story experience is meant to be a poignant telling of “one man’s crusade to blah blah blah”, it doesn’t pay to think of your experience as engaging with a system with multiple possibilities. The instant you know that you could have made a different choice and had a different outcome, you feel an inevitable tug to take that choice and see that outcome. This splits your possible experience into two, or three, or more different experiences. In doing so, I think it sucks meaning from them all.

While approaches like permadeath or simply roleplaying really hard can enhance our affective experience of the stories in games, the system nature, our knowledge that there are different avenues we can go down, arguably leaches significance from our experiences. Even though we make our choices, we don’t quite feel the need to stick with them. We flat out don’t have to. This “having it all” problem is something that a game like One Chance seeks to address.

Put as simply as I can: video games are systems and our core purpose (and joy) in playing them tends to be an exploration of that system. The stories in video games are necessarily subjugated to the system and to that extent having a scripted narrative with different endings is in conflict with our exploration of the system. Stories aren’t made for exploring, they’re made to hear (once) or to tell.

Video games can help us tell amazing, beautiful stories through out interactions with their systems (think of Minecraft), but it’s far less clear that video games are good at telling stories. Ironically, they’re particularly poor when they try to make the stories more “system-like” by providing multiple paths.

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Tuesday, 22 February, 2011

There’s some bad, bad stuff happening back home in New Zealand. In Christchurch, to be specific, where they’ve been hit by another bad earthquake, this one much more devastating because it struck during the day and was also closer to the central city (both in terms of distance and depth). I’ve been watching the news and reading about it throughout the day.

From my own perspective, the crisis has surprised me by how affecting I’ve found it. Generally speaking, I feel quite blank about these sorts of events, wherever they happen, beyond a kind of amazement at the things that happen in the world. But watching video today of Christchurch in ruins, New Zealanders running around on the streets trying to help each other, dead people hidden under blankets really got to me.

I don’t have anything useful to say about any of it, of course, not even anything perceptive. It’s just an awful thing and a classic example of just how random existence truly can be. It makes me miss New Zealand a lot and wish I was back home, so that I could wring my hands in Wellington instead, I suppose.

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Dungeon Dev Story
Monday, 21 February, 2011

I finally got around to playing some of Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer today. “Finally” because it’s one of those games I’ve felt like I ought to have played, since it’s an RPG-like thing about sadists and torture. Unconventional subject matter, and a relatively serious approach to it to boot.

So I jumped into the world of sadism and learned about the basic tenets of how you should torture someone “just enough” so that they feel really, really awful (in both body and mind!) but then escape. I think. I’m not entirely 100% on the sadist’s code just yet.

A lot of the game is rather well done, particularly the selection of your victim. You go to a busy street and then talk creepily to people about their lives, trying to befriend them enough that they’ll come back to your place so you can drug and then torture them on film. That process of trying to gain important information about a person (the better to torture them with – fear of water? Water torture!) and trying to be their friend… that’s a kind of disturbing experience. Ordinarily conversation systems in games are about getting information for the good of the galaxy, or for reading amusing comments and jokes. Here it’s very unpleasant, it makes you feel like a creep.

But then, once you actually get them home to the torture place, the game loses its edge rather a lot for me. Your dungeon is like a little maze and the idea is that you set various torture “traps” that affect the person as they try to escape. You can strip their clothes off (psychologically damaging), cut them with razors (bad for their health), tie them up, and so on. There are also action-based things where, for instance, you trap them in a water tank and then frantically press “1″ and “2″ in alternation in order to drown them more and more. A sadist’s Track and Field, in other words. But you have to make sure you don’t drown them too much or too little or they’ll die or escape and have you arrested. So it’s largely about laying out your torture arsenal in ways that lead to the “best” torture session.

At which point I found myself struggling to properly distinguish between Dungeoneer and my current love, Game Dev Story. Basically, you find yourself in a game of maximising particular properties, whether it’s someone’s anguish and torment or your virtual game in development’s “Fun” and “Creativity” ratings. You start to do things to influence the numbers and can all too easily lose sight of what it is you’re theoretically “really doing”. Torture and game development turn out to be rather similar, and both mystifyingly difficult.

This reminds me of one of the great ludological arguments back in the day that the aesthetic layers of games were in some sense irrelevant – the game was underneath that and it didn’t matter what it looked like. A game is a set of rules and changing values and so on, not a picture of Lara Croft running down a hallway. In general I, like most I assume, find that argument laughable – but it doesn’t seem quite as laughable in the context of Dungeoneer. There’s a very real sense (and it’s increased by the game having been made in a “game making” tool called RPG Maker) in which you could “reskin” Dungeoneer in all sorts of ways while completely retaining the entire underlying mechanics. A lion taming game, say, or a game about the revolution in Egypt.

But of course these moments where a game’s mechanics become so unmoored from their aesthetics that we forget what the hell we’re actually doing are a bit problematic. Games in which we tend to be “just” manipulating numbers are perhaps more problematic than most – although FPS games are largely the same thing with different pictures and stories, it’s still true that “shooting” is an evocative mechanic with many affective applications. Tweaking numbers has less of that, so when we’re trying to make an evocative game about torture (which I think Dungeoneer makes some very impressive moves toward), it may be that number crunching is simply too emotionless a platform from which to work.

Still, I’ll head back down to the dungeon and work on my technique, still haven’t managed to break anyone’s body and spirit in quite the right “beautiful” way yet…

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Existential Processing
Sunday, 20 February, 2011

So let me just wade into some thoughts about programming and games that I’m barely qualified to make and which I can’t seem to frame very well anyway. But since I spent part of the weekend making a little game about whistling away the darkness, and since I can’t think of anything else, here we are.

I’ve been making a little game inspired by an assignment I gave to my programming class this week – specifically, I took the theme (Extinction) and the rough dimensions (a skinny, long screen), and tried to make a thing. Started off with the idea that you get chased down a hallway by “The Darkness” (deep!) and ultimately must succumb. (Meanwhile, in the background, the word “existence” changes to “extinction”, as a kind of heavy-handed aesthetic flourish.)

That game, while it looked nice once I implemented a more interesting “bubbling” darkness, was a touch simple. So then I implemented the idea that if you hit keys really fast, you can drive the darkness back… but only for as long as you do that. Eventually, you’re going to go extinct. That was easy of course. So then I thought to myself, how do you dispel darkness? And I answered: with whistling, obviously.

So began my journey into Fourier transformations and identifying whistling based on the frequency spectrum of a sound sample. It turns out that whistling has a pretty strong signature, because it’s nice and clustered around a frequency or frequencies, rather than all over the place like most sounds. By stealing stuff from the great wide internet, and bending it to my needs, I managed to write a fairly poor whistle-detector. So now in the game you whistle and the darkness recedes, and when you stop whistling, it starts coming for you again. A little toy world that ends in your inevitable extinguishment.

All of that to say that it’s really fun and interesting to implement toy/game worlds in code. This idea of being responsible for creating everything is a remarkable one. It’s not unlike writing fiction, say, but much more systematic and reliant on literally getting things right. If you write the wrong bit of code, the whole thing fails utterly (or might behave in the wrong way, or in an unexpected way) – I find it hard to think of good analogies to this in other forms of fiction or “world generation”. You have to decide what the avatar looks like, what the dark looks like, how fast things move, what counts as whistling, what whistling looks like, what colour the words should be… everything. That level of responsibility is, of course, simultaneously awesome and exhausting, a real “yay-boo” story if ever there was one.

And this is also where Processing, the language, comes in specifically. It seems to me that unlike certain other languages I might develop a game in, such as Flash or Unity or even GameMaker, Processing provides less of a framework or even just a disposition for things to be a particular way, for worlds to have a specific genre of form and function. Our tools have vast amounts of leverage on our imaginations, and I find this especially true of programming frameworks. Processing (and other languages like C or Java etc.) doesn’t really have an establish way that you should approach things (maybe other than the ontology and other implications of object oriented programming and, in Processing, a kind of default notion of “time” implicit in the basic program flow).

In part, I’m thinking about this to assuage some of the guilt I have felt at times over teaching Processing to the designers in my class. There’s a sense in which it’s not the easiest language to write games in – you don’t get very much for free. But there’s a sense in which it’s incredibly liberating to start from absolute zero and to make your world and your game from nothing. You could do anything, and hopefully you will. Something like,

In the beginning…

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The Girl With the Subtitles and Flat Affect
Saturday, 19 February, 2011

We finished watching The Girl Who Played with Fire, also known as Flickan som lekte med elden (in Swedish), today. It’s one of those movies based on the Stieg Larsson books. It’s all super violent and sleuthy. Importantly, it’s foreign.

Here’s a thing. In watching the movie I had this constant sense that I ought to take it very seriously and that it was in some way a “good movie”. This created a great deal of cognitive dissonance as I watched, because it’s not a very good movie. Not in that “good movie” way that things like Stalker or Old Boy are good movies, say.

After the movie was over I realised that my troubles had two key sources: the subtitles and the Scandinavian production. Throughout the viewing these two elements were communicating (to me) the idea that the movie was more sophisticated than it really was. Subtitles on a “serious” and “mature” movie frequently mean it’s a cut above, or at least a cut different, from some kind of blockbuster affair. Similarly, the flatter affect of Scandinavian actors lends a seeming restraint and intellectual spin to the characters and settings.

Yet it’s all something of an illusion. The subtitles and Scandinavianness serve only to obscure the kind of obvious “airport novel” nature of the movie. It’s just a crappy blockbuster, promoting violence against bad people and the indestructible nature of its heroes. Like many such movies, it luxuriates and wallows in graphic violence and torture for no real purpose beyond the aesthetic “glory” of it.

In the end, I felt kind of interested that I could be so misled by the presence of subtitles and foreignness. Expectations setting is deeply effective in these situations and caused me to spend the entire movie thoroughly confused about the conflict between my understanding that it would be an intelligent piece of work and its unrelenting charge through the many clichés of the genre.

Probably you could put subtitles under a German Scientology promotional video and I’d sit there with a furrowed brow and an engaged mind all the way through Xenu and thetans and out the other side.

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