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We keep finding ourselves as amnesiacs and strangers in the games we play. There are practical reasons for this, which have been frequently mentioned by other authors and by myself, in the realms of narrative and game design. The most commonly mentioned of these is that having the character come to the world of the game as a stranger makes exposition easier to create and more natural, since both the character and the player need the same information in order to make sense of the world they find themselves in.

Is that the only reason?

Over and over again, we see characters cut loose from the bonds of their former lives– ten days ago, I discussed Silent Hill 2’s exceptional and tragic treatment of one such character– and only severing those contacts allow them to recreate themselves. Bruce Wayne’s world gets destroyed, and out of the pieces of that he creates Batman. The narrator in Fight Club loses his home and all his possessions, and in doing so he is able to recreate himself as a flesh and blood human rather than a homunculus of the meaningless artifacts he has acquired. Countless inciting incidents burn down protagonists villages and massacre their families, murder their mentors, and only afterwards do they become heroes.

Why is the complete dismantling of their lives seemingly such a necessary step on the path to becoming a hero? Or, indeed, since their origins usually tend to follow in similar veins, a villain?

Sometimes our worlds start to calcify around us. Every person who knows you as you are or as you were becomes another obstacle to becoming something else; how can you change when the reflections you see in their eyes show you as you were the day before? The rooms we live in become emblematic of the events which happened to us within them, and the weight of that can be crushing. Our identity ceases to be a skin and hardens into a prison.

Loss can be liberating. Sometimes, the things we cling to are just the things which weigh us down.

The characters we inhabit are blank slates because that lets us collude with the game to create the hero. We don’t merely occupy a static protagonist who was always what he is, but accompany him as he is created anew– or, as in Silent Hill 2, perhaps he isn’t. When the flames recede, does a phoenix take flight, or is there nothing but charred bones? We are the agents of his metamorphosis, or we are the seeds of his downfall.

We are fate.

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This is my writer’s block. I punch it when I get frustrated about how hard it is to write. Then, I say, “ouch, I punched a brick, I am dumb”.

So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been experimenting with these shorter-form essays, 300-500 words, and for the most part I’m really digging the results. 500 words is the perfect length, I think, to capture an idea, and usually that’s what I want to do here, is to share some of the ideas in my head with you in the hopes that they will be entertaining and thought provoking.

However, this methodology seems to cause a few problems. Read More

One of the criticisms I often see levied at World of Warcraft and other such MMORPGs is people saying that playing them is ‘like work.’ By this they mean, I believe, that the gameplay involves a lot of more-or-less tedious tasks which you’re rewarded consistently, if incrementally, for achieving. It’s an interesting criticism, in particular because of how revealing it is of our attitudes towards work.

Personally, I enjoyed WoW– but, then again, back in the days when I had a job I enjoyed work, too. That said, the experiences were entirely different. I worked as a programmer of small Flash games, and though most of the job wasn’t difficult, some of it was quite intricate and, at times, frustrating. Nothing could be further from the experience offered by WoW, which was almost entirely painless in every way. Painlessness was the genius of Blizzard when they made WoW, because even when you’ve tired of the game it is a wonderfully quiet semi-world where it is, simply, easy to exist.

Conversely, I’ve just started playing SpaceChem, and I can’t think of a game that’s more like work– that is, the work I actually did. Programming work, minus the tedium, the downtime, the projects I wasn’t personally invested in, and the not infrequent need for me to fix someone else’s mistakes. Also, regrettably, minus the money.

Do people whose lives are awash in tedium seek the challenge of SpaceChem? Do people who have stressful jobs seek the relief of WoW? Or do the same predilections that drove them to live those lives cause them to choose more of the same? I’d imagine there are plenty of examples of each.

However, I must say that this popular perception of employment as being a simple method of trading lifetime, of trading valuable minutes and hours and dreams away for money, has gotten into my head. It used to be that a man’s trade defined who he was, and now it seems that we believe it consumes who he wants to be. And these both happen, sometimes, but I think it must often be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This illusion haunts me. It makes me terrified of the world of work when I probably shouldn’t be. I want to work, I hate getting to the end of the day with nothing to show for it but tissue paper memories that dissolve in a week, or in two. In other words, I hate idleness for all of the same reasons I’m scared of jobs that are no more than holding positions.

But the sheer satisfaction of creating a machine, intricate and elegant, and seeing it perform perfectly the task I imagined– SpaceChem reminds me of all of the things I lost with my job.

Except money. I’ve never cared much for money.

I have been thinking about sorrow, because I feel sad, or at least morose. I think of Silent Hill 2, and what a powerful experience it was for me because, unlike most games, it was unrepentantly tragic. I like the contrast between the main characters of Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2, Harry Mason and James Sunderland. Harry ventures into Silent Hill, braving the dangers of strange monsters and damaged terrain and unexplained occurrences because his daughter, the person he cares most about in the world, is in there somewhere. Lost. Conversely, James ventures into a town full of monsters because he has nothing left to lose. Everything that defined him in his life is gone, and there’s no reason for him not to dive into Silent Hill in the hopes, no matter how distant, of getting even a piece of that back.

In and of itself, this difference in characters creates a huge contrast of tone between the two games. Harry is trying to defend, to rescue; the world of Silent Hill is correspondingly much more overtly threatening, because it’s trying to take something from him. James is trying to find something, supposedly another person but in actuality something within himself, and the world reflects this by being much calmer and more contemplative– but that contemplation begins to feed on itself, turns dark and wet and corrupt, blooms into despair, and starts to collapse into nothingness. Sometimes that’s the way contemplation is.

I love both games. I love Silent Hill for it’s pure vicious feverish imagination, twisting and roiling under an apparently dead surface, it eats away at our insecurities about where the world goes when we aren’t watching it, about whether that’s a crack in the wall or a face with a grin that gets bigger at night. However, my emotional connection with Silent Hill 2 was far more intimate; maybe it’s because I feel connected to this world at fewer points than many people, but it’s hard not to wonder what happens when someone gets really disconnected. When we’re cut loose from our worlds, do we fly away into the night sky like a kite?

How many of the people we see are alone, with no leverage left in their hearts to know another person again? It’s impossible to make a charity to fight that kind of loneliness, but I think that’s the seed of homelessness, disease, poverty. We have fetishized individuality to the point where it is easy, as an individual, to no longer connect to society in any meaningful way. We don’t work to improve the world because we don’t see ourselves as part of the world.

Maybe I’ve wandered too far. But thoughts like this grow from the seeds planted by the Silent Hill games, which is why I have so much affection for them– Even tinged, as it is, with sorrow, and disgust, and regret.

A thing that many people say about video games is that they are empowerment fantasies. This is apparently axiomatic. I have never seen it challenged. Is that why we play video games?

I believe that this grazes against the truth, but that it is also vastly oversimplified. ‘Empowerment’ implies that we seek to feel mighty, to crush our enemies and hear the weeping of their women. Instead, I think we simply want not to feel helpless. This is not the same thing as feeling powerful.

Observe the ‘masochistic’ gameplay of such games as Super Meat Boy. Is it an empowerment fantasy to die over and over in the service of a relatively simple goal? If empowerment is the goal, why is the character archetype of the underdog enduringly popular in this medium (albeit, admittedly, perhaps less so than in other narrative media). Why are horror games, founded on fostering a sense of helplessness, so popular?

Empowerment is something some games offer, but it’s not what games are about, or why they’re appealing. Games are appealing because, by their very nature, they posit a world which operates by rules. Moreover, we expect the rules of games to operate within a small enough world that we can account for the factors which produce any given result– when this isn’t the case, or when the rules are so obtuse and/or arbitrary that it becomes impossible, not only to predict what will happen, but to understand why something happened after the fact, we rebel. Those are the games which we consider poorly made.

The fantasy of video gaming is the same as the fantasy of the American Dream: We want to believe that if we work long enough at one thing, it will definitely pay off, instead of perhaps paying off dependent upon the whimsy of chance. It may be naive, and posit an infinitely more hospitable universe than the one we live in, but it does not innately raise us above the level of our peers.

Perhaps wanting to believe the world is comprehensible is a kind of power fantasy, but I don’t think it’s the sort the critics (and proponents) of video gaming have in mind when cite games as being empowerment fantasies.

It keeps happening

This week is proving to be, even by recent standards, exceptionally chaotic. I’m not sure if I’ll have the time for the usual two-essays a week, so instead I’m going to try to post a few mini-essays, 200-500 words in length, about ideas and thoughts that weren’t meaty enough to write full-length essays on. I know that Problem Machine still hasn’t built up much of an audience, and for all most people could care I could just as soon not bother, but if you do take the time to come here and read what I have to say I want to make sure you don’t leave disappointed.

So. Short subjects this week. I think they should be fun, even if they’re perhaps less polished and insightful than the essays I’ve been posting here thus far. Also, Twitterers, I have created a Twitter account for posting site updates and also stupid jokes which I’m trying to think of on a daily basis. If you have Twitter and like stupid video game jokes, you can me, or if you don’t have Twitter and like stupid video game jokes my recent Tweets will always be mirrored here on Problem Machine as well.

Game genres are a strange and many-splendored thing, a grab-bag of features and perspectives and settings which came together through common usage and convention. The games came first, then the words to describe those games, then the genre classifications built with those words, then the games built to the specifications described by the genres. The same is true of the genres of other media, but to a lesser extent since they don’t integrate as many disparate elements. Movie genres are based on setting (western), narrative tone (comedy), or content (horror), while game genres encompass all of those and add gameplay (strategy) and perspective (first-person) as well.

Ideally, were accuracy of description our primary goal, we would describe each of these elements (perspective, setting, tone, content, and gameplay) individually, since that would give people a much better idea of the nature of the game. For instance, Silent Hill might be a third-person modern-day surrealist horror beat-’em-up (strange to think of it as a beat-’em-up, but stripped of all the narrative elements that’s the closest analogue I can think of). However, the most common combinations of these have been grouped together into genres with label names– first-person shooter, survival horror, etc– which sometimes describe the narrative content and sometimes don’t. It’s all very slapdash, and any competent designer could easily devise a better system for labeling games, but the whole thing has been grandfathered in at this point so: Whatever. Read More