Archive

Monthly Archives: June 2018

Games are, generally, engines for responding to player input. Whether the game feels good is largely a matter of how robust the response is – robust both in how closely it interacts with the player’s input and in how well-constructed it is. A systems-driven game would be primarily the former, capable of reacting to a wide range of different situations in ways which are individually rather shallow but, in interaction with each other, can be rich and complex. Linear narrative games, on the other hand, focus on the latter, only responding to a narrow range of inputs but responding with content that has had a great deal of thought put into it.

Let’s disregard linear narrative games for the moment, because what I’m interested in right now is that idea of responsiveness. Every time you, the player, takes an action within the game and the game responds to it, that just inherently feels pleasurable, the pleasure of a toddler dialing a fake phone or ringing the bell on a bike. Doing something, and something happening in response, is an intrinsically pleasing act.

Now, games try to be ambitious in all sorts of interesting ways, and one of the most popular is having some sort of morality system: Do Good things and good things happen, do Bad things and bad things happen. There are a whole lot of conceptual problems with this, some of which I’ve gotten into before, but a huge fundamental flaw with these systems as a form of messaging is that there’s no way bad things can happen in a game – that is to say, there’s no way that a game’s reaction to your decisions can really be ‘bad’ because the mere fact that it is responding to your decision is pleasing to the mind on a fundamental level. When you’re playing Deus Ex, you don’t get flustered or upset because JC Denton got in trouble with his boss for poking around in the women’s restroom, you’re just pleased the game noticed something you did. You can’t even really punish the player by making things more difficult to them, because at that point you’ve given them a challenge run – this is fairly directly critiqued in the genocide story path in UNDERTALE (I’ll avoid getting into specifics here for spoiler reasons, but you can read my thoughts on it, among other aspects of the story, here).

It seems that the best way to discourage a player from taking an action is merely to fail to respond to it at all, rather than punish them or shame them for it: After all, many people find punishment and shame quite enjoyable under safe circumstances. Perhaps this tendency, rather than actual narrative success, is what has preserved the morality system in games – but I digress. In Far Cry 2, there are various animals wandering the deserts and forests you’re exploring and fighting through. The developers didn’t want the players to hurt or abuse animals for fun, so they just made them so they dropped dead if anything happened to them. This lead to some amusing scenarios where a deer would occasionally get bumped with an open car door and immediately be stricken dead, but at least served the purpose of keeping the animals from being cheap physics toys for the players to amuse themselves with.

None of this is an argument to disinclude consequence or morality from your game: After all, we include these ideas in other narrative forms all the time, just with no expectation of the audience to feel personal shame or chagrin for the actions undertaken. I would relinquish any idea of making the player ever regret taking an action in a video game on the basis of that action’s consequences: There can be no such thing as punishing a player with the consequences for their actions when consequences are just so delightful, regardless of their intent.

Advertisements

They say there’s no story without conflict. I don’t really understand why this is said so often and with such confidence, but that seems to be how we teach fiction-writing around these parts because I’ve heard it a lot. I dislike broad structural declarations like this, since inevitably stories are warped to fit the lens rather than the lens being applied to better understand the story: If there’s no interpersonal conflict, then the conflict must be between a person and their environment or their own mind… this covers a pretty broad range. Yes, you can describe a plot this way: Nearly any sequence of thoughts or events could be vaguely described as a conflict, in the same way nearly any arrangement of objects could be turned into a physics diagram, but only occasionally would these be useful intermediary steps towards solving a particular problem. Likewise, only occasionally is the conflict-centered view of storytelling the most useful and interesting approach.

There are lots of stories! Stories of love and loss, of the unreliability of memory and the temptations of imagination and of hurt and exploration. It’s impoverished to regard these as a conflict between Man and Time or Man and Death. What sort of conflict is that? We are not in conflict with gravity or with the ground, we are suspended between them. Even if we fall, our death is not conflict with the ground. Things happen that don’t fit this conflict model, and they frequently make interesting stories anyway. It’s a bit terrifying that we’ve been able to tell the line that stories are based in conflict as a generally uncontested bit of storytelling advice for so long – that, itself, tells a story: It’s like science fiction, a culture that can only understand the world through fights.

Similarly, a popular description of gameplay, coined by Sid Meier, is as a ‘series of interesting choices’. This is broader and, in general, I have less direct criticism of it – my issue is more with what we regard to be ‘interesting’ and what we regard to be ‘choices’. Even in completely passive entertainment along the lines of movies we make choices – we choose which characters we like, we choose what to focus our attention on and choose from different possible interpretations of what’s going on and why. Even in a passive medium we are active audience members, parsing and digesting and translating. This process is much the same as it is in games, except games then ask us to take that interpretation one step further, to translate it into an action that then affects the state of the game.

Since we have culturally interpreted all fiction as being based in conflict, it’s then a short jump to interpret all ‘interesting choices’ as being based in conflict. And, when you frame a choice with conflict, it tends to be crunched down into whether it allows you, as a participant in this conflict, to come out on top. Every interpretation, every decision, becomes a way to navigate a way to victory.

To most people, this is what a video game is.

However, none of this is intrinsic to the medium. Stories don’t have to be about conflict, and choice isn’t just a way to win battles, and interest isn’t just the currency of problem-solving. Games structured this way are fine, and it’s great that they’ll continue to exist because I like shooting digital people with digital guns as much as anyone, but when you take a step back from any of these assumptions it becomes obvious how incredibly tiny this conception of what a game is compared to the massive possibility of what games can be. I mean, we’ve already cut off a huge amount of possibility space to explore in fiction by centering our conception on conflict, and we’ve further constrained games to be a subsection of that.

There’s so much resistance to seeing games as anything but engines for presenting choices that navigate supremacy in conflict, but they could be more. They could be anything.

This might not be the best time to write a DevBlog, but it’s also way overdue and having not done it is stressing me out, so I may as well get it out there. After a short vacation followed by a short cold, I finally managed to get the scripting system more or less up and running. However, whether it’s left over from the cold or because of my mood, finishing the scripting system didn’t leave me with a sense of relief or of completion, but just a sense of having reached a dead end. Now I have a potentially powerful and interesting tool at my disposal, but in order to actually use it I need to restructure my project to accommodate it, and I still don’t really know what that project is or is going to be.

In and of itself, that’s not a problem. I didn’t know what the project was before, and I have one more tool for tackling the project than I did before, so no problem, right? At worst I have a month or so of wasted time, which isn’t great but it’s hardly worse than some of the other setbacks I’ve dealt with – and, as wasted time goes, creating a parser for a scripting language is far more educational than most time wastes. The issue is more that, at the moment, I have no real drive to pursue the project, or really to pursue any project.

This happens sometimes, and maybe I just need to wait it out. Or maybe I need to do something different, or maybe I just need to figure out a new approach. I don’t know. I’ve just been very tired, and not knowing where I’m going or how I’m getting there is making me more so. The world seems exceedingly broken at the moment, and putting long-term work into a project when I can’t feel confident that anything about the world I’d be making it for is will still be the same when it is complete just feels like a waste of time. Games are generally what I’ve been passionate about, but at the moment games feel like a bit of a dead end.

In all likelihood, I’ll feel better soon enough. I’ll feel more alert, some aspect of the project will catch my interest again, and I’ll build an idea and purpose around that. In the meanwhile, I think I need to take a moment and look around. Maybe something else will catch my interest, maybe something a bit more solid. Maybe I’ll get back to work on EverEnding. I don’t know. I’m just waiting right now, and trying to rest, and trying to figure out a direction to go in. I don’t think that we really need any sort of grand calling in life, but we do need something to pursue, and right now I’m not sure what that is for me.

Oh well, this one was kind of a downer. Hopefully I’ll figure something out and next month’s DevBlog, if that’s even an appropriate title any more, will be less bleak.

The relationship between power, success, and ethics is a tricky one. We’re all expected to try to achieve success in our chosen fields and, though to some degree we define it differently from field to field, in large part ‘success’ always boils down to earning money and/or the respect of one’s peers. Both money and respect, though, come with power and influence, frequently influence which we cannot choose not to wield – at least not without also yielding our hold on success, and who knows if we can ever get that back? So, then, to become successful is to take on a moral burden, that when we exercise this power – which we cannot help but do – that we be mindful of the help and harm we might deal.

It is strange, to me, that we expect everyone to attempt ‘success’ when it has so much potential for harm, that we think less of those who do not. I’m personally not wild about this dangerous potential that fame and fortune harbor, but I’m not thrilled about the rewards of obscurity and poverty either.

We don’t talk much about the responsibilities that come with the power of achievement, which is probably why so many seem to fail to notice those responsibilities exist. There are many out there now trying to become ‘influencers’ without considering what they might do with this influence. This myopia is beneficial to those who would utilize these influencers, for advertisements or propaganda of one stripe or another, and detrimental for everyone else, since an influencer who fails to in any way account for the content of his or her influence tends to vent a lot of humanity’s worst brain garbage on those they influence. And, of course, those they influence tend to be those most vulnerable to outside influence, which boils down basically to those people who already inclined to agree with what they’re saying and children – who mostly agree with anything that they hear early and persistently enough.

If there was a college curriculum for this sort of career path it would be high time to integrate ethics classes into it, the same way ethical engineering classes became a priority after the invention of the nuclear bomb. More traditional creative educational programs would probably also benefit, except that the arts and humanities tend to already contain various morals and parables. You cannot learn about fiction or history without learning about action and consequence, without learning about butterfly effects and wars lost for want of a nail.

This is not an especially fixable problem at the moment. The problem rests in how we’ve defined success as influence, and then made each individual’s survival and prosperity contingent on realizing that form of success. This isn’t even entirely a problem with capitalism, although the close ties between artistic success and financial survival aggravate the situation: As long as we have an economy of attention and respect that only recognizes artists with wide reach as successful, we’ve created a scenario where everyone who is successful will have wide reach, whether they wanted that reach or not, whether they can use it responsibly or not.

We’ve decoupled the desire to become a leader from the skills and responsibilities of leading. Perhaps all we can do for now is convince as many as possible to stop following – or, as it were, unfollow.