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Monthly Archives: September 2016

s1e22_marceline_and_jake

What are monsters? Are they scary or just strange? It’s a shifty word that keeps on shifting. Monsterness is in the eye of the beholder – although, with the beholder being, itself, a monster made of eyes, this may be tautological. Sometimes they’re cuddly and sometimes they’re insectile, sometimes they want to be us and sometimes they want to eat us. The endless flexibility of the word is confusing and enthralling, a word that encompasses Sully and Adolf Hitler, Cookie Monster and Charles Manson.

Maybe it means a creature that humanity doesn’t want to see. Something too big or confusing or scary or improbable. Vampires are disconcerting even if they don’t eat people. They defy explanation – plus, like, they could eat a person if they decided to, right? Well, so could a person, if it comes to that. Most of the worst things done to people are done by people, and it’s been that way for all of recorded history. Mostly we don’t even call the people who do the worst things monsters: We call them pioneers, visionaries and missionaries, entrepreneurs.

Is it any wonder so many of us wish we could just be monsters? To belong to horn and tooth and fur, divorce from humanity. What could be more human than wishing you weren’t?

Sometimes I feel like a monster, like I can’t be let into the light, like my existence is too improbable and my wants unspeakable. It seems self-important to say how much I feels out of place, like I’m selling myself as exceptional when I’m merely invisible. It’s so common to feel a kinship with the monsters. So many of us can feel the fur and the fang that don’t exist, can feel our tissue rejected by the body of humanity, feel certain there must be another home for us out there. Isn’t that what we were taught as kids? That the monsters are out there, that we could come live with them if we must, that they always await us if we become too wild to be held by our world?

Alas, the monsters were in us all along. We made them to be what we needed them to be: A friend when we were lonely or an inhuman face to paint over all-too-human crimes. That’s why we make art today, to create a little yard where the monsters can play, where the fur and the fang can slake its thirst without hurting us or without, in the end, showing us anything we weren’t already prepared to see.

difficulty

Difficulty is a difficult subject. What makes a game harder or easier is intricately tangled in what makes it work as an experience: Just as you can’t take a difficult game and make it easy without losing something, you can’t take an easy game and make it hard without warping the experience and, often, making it unpalatable.

Some people like difficult games, some people like easy games. Some people like both. What is it that we enjoy about each, though? Difficulty is appealing because it conveys a sense of weight to our accomplishments in the game: When we succeed at a difficult challenge there’s a sense of elation, and it’s not really possible to fake that experience through other means (though many have tried). A difficult game can also force us to examine the game’s design more closely, study it deeply for opportunities to gain the advantages we need to succeed. However, it also means we’re probably going to spend a lot of our time with the game doing the same things over and over trying to get them right, feeling inadequate because of our inability to conquer an obstacle: Difficult games force you to learn them the way you’d learn any other skill, and to be comfortable with that you need to be able to face the possibility of being bad at that skill and spending repetitious time practicing to get better.

jake

What the design of a difficult game requires, then, is for the game to be learnable. That is not necessarily to say easy to learn: The solution to a frustrated player is not necessarily a thorough tutorial. However, within the game causes should be closely tied to effects in a way that can be observed by the player. If this isn’t the case, the game will probably feel frustrating and arbitrary, with the player confused as to why they aren’t succeeding when it feels like the things they’re doing should be working. Though the Dark Souls games succeed well on this in terms of the moment-to-moment action, their stat systems are less successful in this regard, with many hidden effects and thresholds to trip up the inexperienced player.

Easy games are easy to like. Flowing through the game’s content effortlessly, the player is invited to feel powerful, to smoothly engage with the constructed content of the game at a planned pace, to experience things more or less directly as the designer intended. Not everyone enjoys that, though: some players might get bored, might feel the game is flattering them or pandering to them for accomplishments they had no hand in, may even feel like the game is lying to them for pretending that what they’re doing is impressive. In the worst case scenario, the player mentally checks out of engaging with the game’s systems at all, solving each problem by rote repetition of suboptimal solutions.

drinking_bird_the_simpsons

If we regard the difficulty of the game as being intrinsic to its design, then that means that changing the difficulty means changing that design. In that regard, having multiple difficulty modes is like having a set of similar but distinct games, kind of like alternate realities. Some of these games will work better than others: Players will get stuck more on the harder settings and not explore everything the game has to offer on the easier settings, but with any luck one setting will hit the sweet spot – but not necessarily the same one for every player. Some players will never end up playing the difficulty that provides the optimum experience because they believe, for one reason or another, that that difficulty doesn’t suit them.

Even though this optimum may shift from player to player, there tends to be a point where the challenge of the game is well tuned: Where the attentive and engaged player can succeed, where the structure of the designer can maintain, where actions feel consequential and consequences feel earned. This is the point of optimum difficulty. There’s another point of interest on the difficulty curve, and that’s the point of maximum difficulty. After a certain point, tuning a system to be harder will result in the breakdown of that system. Actually, it doesn’t break down all at once, but in pieces. For instance, say you took a normal FPS and made every enemy attack a one-hit kill: Much of the game would still function as intended, but the entire health kit and armor dynamic would be completely broken. If you also doubled the number of enemies, certain weapons that weren’t capable of the kind of crowd control that was now necessary would start dropping out. As you dial up the systems of the game to place a greater demand on the player, tools that the player used to cope with lesser versions of those threats start to lose viability. Eventually, all these tools fall away, and that’s the point where the game breaks. It isn’t necessarily literally impossible, but victory becomes a matter of luck or tedious grinding rather than the player’s clever usage of their resources.

One might ask: Why no point of minimum difficulty? To which I would say that reduction of difficulty is the act of disengaging the player from game systems. The point of minimum difficulty is therefore always the point at which you require no input from the player at all, which is the point where it stops being a game. I’m not calling games that don’t set out to challenge the player non-games, but I am saying that if you continue down that road to its logical conclusion you eventually end up at a place that’s not a game. Even the minimal asks of a game like Dear Esther, find out which way you’re going and walk there, is a challenge (of sorts) which requires the player to engage directly with the world.

Of course, difficulty isn’t everything. It isn’t even most of anything. But it’s worth keeping in mind that you can’t change how difficult your game is without touching the fundamental core of the experience, and that’s a step that you have to take mindfully. You can’t regard difficulty as merely a set of multipliers: At each level of the game, the difficulty is the design.

sunlesssea

I’ve been taking the opportunity of finally getting kind of burned out on Dark Souls to go back through my massive Steam backlog and try out some of those games acquired over the last decade but never actually installed or played. Currently I’m exploring Sunless Sea, a spinoff of the browser-game Fallen London, in which London for no apparent reason sank underground and is now part of a hellish surreal underworld (more so). In Sunless Sea, you play a captain exploring the underground ocean London now rests in, finding your way from island to island and scraping together the resources to keep your voyage going by doing favors for the powers that be.

In practice, it’s largely a simple naval combat game strapped to an anthology of choose-your-own-adventure short stories. Perhaps a reductive description, but it gives an idea as to the experience. I could dig into a critique here, but I’m not going to because I’d like to talk about something more specific.

I’d like to talk about Pigmote Isle.

Sometimes you find something that just doesn’t seem to fit. Most games nowadays are group efforts, and Sunless Sea employs many illustrators and writers who seem to have been largely left to their own devices, given the smattering of diverse art and prose styles. However, Pigmote Isle’s story just didn’t seem to be on the same page as the rest of the game. To start with, the prose style shifted so abruptly, into a past-tense chronicle style with chapter headings and everything, that for a while I believed I was supposed to be reading someone elses journal rather than experiencing the events for myself. I encountered two envoys, one of a group of talking guinea pigs and the other a group of talking rats, on the eve of a war they were about to have. They each gave me some back story about why the conflict was happening, and then demanded I pick sides. I sided with the rats since they seemed rather downtrodden, and with my help they won the war, though I convinced them to show mercy to their fallen foe.

Bringing a report of this back to the admiralty, the reaction seemed to be that I was bringing them some outlandish nonsense. This would make sense if this game wasn’t set in an insane dreamscape where the existence of talking rats was already well-established, amongst many other far stranger creatures. Why they should pick this particular strange event to balk at, when I was regularly transporting crates of souls and sentient clay men across an underground ocean full of malicious icebergs, I couldn’t say.

From this point on, I was in the position of making crucial choices about the future of this colony. Here’s where it lost me. Every story we tell holds a belief system about cause-and-effect: That this situation would cause a character with this background to act in such-and-such way, would lead to this chain of events, would create this story. Each story contains a world-view, and though this aspect isn’t very important or noticeable when you’re dealing with a tale of a few individuals, when you expand it out to an entire society, posit that this event would create this outcome, the burden of plausibility becomes greater. When you slot that into a choose-your-own-adventure scenario, and make the map between cause and outcome so clear and close to the surface, you really have to show your work – if you don’t, it becomes a tale of how you believe the ideal society should be run rather than that of a struggling colony making hard choices.

I got a chance to make two choices before the colony was destroyed.

In the first, there were rumors of a monster in the forest preying upon the rats, rumors which had them hiding in their homes instead of doing productive work. I had the choice to either burn the forest or conduct a hunt. The hunt had a chance of failure: If the hunt failed, I envisioned severe morale issues – and there was no guarantee the creature even existed. I chose to burn down the forest, on the premise that it would DEFINITELY solve the problem, the existence of the creature would be proven or disproven, and we could move on.

There’s a few odd parts to this scenario. One, again, monsters are extremely commonplace in this world. Am I supposed to interpret this as superstition when the most likely explanation for the rumors of a monster in the forest are, in fact, a monster in the forest? Especially when, two, these are rats, so how monstrous does a monster have to actually be here? A cougar? A wolf? A fair number of forests are full of animals that could gobble up a rat without a trace just by default, even in a world without ‘monsters’.

Anyway. The result of burning down the forest was that the rats became stronger militarily but became less civilized – in fact, rather uncivilized. I’m not sure whether that was because of the ecological setback or because we gave credence to ‘wild rumors’.

My second and last decision: A rat was caught stealing bread, which he claimed was to feed his family. A classic. I had three choices: Advocate mercy, execute him, or brutally and spectacularly execute him. I advocated mercy. This apparently meant letting him off completely scot free, not doing anything about the underlying problem, and continuing to allow other rats to steal without getting punished indefinitely, leading to the collapse of civilization on Pigmote Isle.

Reading the wiki now, I see that having him publicly drawn and quartered would have increased the civilization of Pigmote Isle. Perhaps the issue is that the game and I are operating on very different definitions of civilization – though, I must admit, their definition seems to enjoy a great deal of popularity, historically.

So, now. The game is forwarding a hypothesis about what allows the world to work, about how society functions and the role of justice within that society. If I disagree with the game, civilization collapses. The future of Pigmote Isle depends on my ability to interpret the cultural values of the game’s writer, and to moreover submit myself to agreeing with them.

But I don’t agree. I don’t agree that punishing those trying to survive by giving them death is necessary for society. I don’t agree that mercy erodes order. If this was a game premised on these kinds of societal decisions, I would expect to have to buy into assumptions like these, but instead it’s been put inside of a very different kind of game.

It’s not so much a matter of suspension of disbelief as it is of suspension of disagreement. Every game has things that we feel to be incorrect, either for reasons of abstraction or of fun or just of different viewpoints – the way stat systems work doesn’t often map very well to real-life aptitudes, for instance, or the economic systems are grossly oversimplified. We go in expecting to make certain allowances for things that seem wrong to us – however, an abrupt genre switch takes us outside of those boundaries, into a territory where maybe we’re not so on-board with those premises.

The worst part for me, though, is that the thing I did buy into with Sunless Sea was that I would be emotionally open to this world and its characters. Even if I disagree with nearly everything about its creation, I still feel protective of Pigmote Isle.

And I still think my way should have worked.

Creation is so much harder than creativity.

Creation is engineering, is sport, physically and mentally exhausting, the tiny motions, tapping of keys, scraping of pencils. Creation springs from creativity, is rooted in the imagination, but can only manifest through days of work, weeks of work, months and years of work.

Making art is painful because creativity is so easy and creation is so hard. We are our bottleneck. Artists can see the possibilities, a million and a million more possibilities, games, music, drawings, we can see them in outline, but in order to actually bring them to life it takes just so much goddamn work.

It builds up. That’s why you have to keep working, because if you stop the pressure builds up until it’s painful and the pain makes you stop working.

Also painful: The knowledge comes early on that without the creation, the creativity is meaningless. Those outlines flicker when you’re not looking. The thing that seems so so clear in the mind’s eye is actually just an idea, a kind of a nostalgia for something that has yet to exist. The thing you love cannot exist until you make it exist. Imagine if your favorite game or book or movie could only come into existence if you put thousands of hours of work in. Imagine no one but you would ever know this amazing thing existed if you never put in the incredible amount of work it takes to show them. That’s the pain. That’s the pressure.

Some people manage to create in different ways. Some people explore ideas before they fall in love with them, create out of expression instead of obligation. Sometimes my creation outpaces my creativity too, and actually that also totally sucks. When creation outpaces creativity, when I find myself without an idea and a blank page or empty music document in front of me, I feel lost in a sea of vast possibilities, uncharted, trying to create but unsure where to go next. They call it writer’s block, an ocean of formless form where no one thing can stand out. Too many ideas is the same as none.

I guess maybe, too, there are those whose creativity and creation speeds aren’t so mismatched, who can stay in sync.

I’m not sure if these people exist, but if so they can fuck themselves.