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Life in the Machine

Anyone who’s been playing games for a while has probably, by now, encountered the concept of experience points and leveling up in a number of different contexts. I find nowadays that I’m enjoying this design trope less, that I’m less comfortable with gaining experience and leveling up, than I used to be – and I think that’s partially a slow shift in who I am, and what I value in games, and how I see the world, but also represents a shift in how games use exp systems and what the priorities are that lay behind that usage.

Of course, the satisfaction is still there. Every moment, every action, making you better, stronger, more effective – intoxicating, really. Becoming learned without learning, becoming strong without exercising, discovering one day that, to your surprise, you know kung fu. How delightful, to feel we have earned our power fantasies, not through the specifics of actual work done to develop a particular skill or capability, but through the application of genericized soylent work product. Plenty has been said about and against this aspect of unearned reward – and, indeed, part of what divests my interest in experience systems is that I’ve come to find it much more rewarding when a game demands I actually practice and learn rather than merely grind. In this context, however, what interests me more, what has increasingly begun to unnerve me, is the form of that reward.

It’s strange, and almost a kind of body horror, to find yourself slowly and inexorably becoming a more effective killing machine. RPGs have had many kinds of leveling systems, and in the past most of them allowed you some degree of control. Sure, the end result was usually to make you more effective at fighting, but you at least chose how and why – and, though I never thought about it much at the time, you also chose whether to level at all. You could, if you’d rather, remain exactly who you always were – you could, if you chose, remain weak. This option is not available to us in most games with leveling systems: Now we level up the way we breathe, rather than the way we eat.

And, man, it kills me that everything I write goes back to Dark Souls, but that’s a game where you get to make that choice. And, man, it also kills me that everything I write goes back to Undertale, but that’s a game that actually explores the subtle horrors that are implied by experience systems. Having played these two games, it’s hard to ease myself back into the classic experience of classic experience points without feeling a bit of discomfort.

Maybe, though, this is the realer system. We change, uncontrollably. We go through puberty, become physically stronger whether we want to or not, learn things we were happier not knowing. Experience accumulates, and the numbers that describe us go up and down, mostly up at first and then mostly down as they describe our arc. The lie of the exp system is that it pretends we always become better and more capable, which is never true. Every moment something is gained, yes – every moment, as well, something is lost, and we change. We do charge forward, uncontrollably, but we never level up.

I finally got new glasses, after a couple of years of financially-induced nakedfacing. It’s kind of amazing being able to see again. It feels like a superpower. It feels like, within the constraints of a couple of inches of glass in front of me, I can see everything. It’s actually a little bit disturbing to think that all of this was going on all along, there in front of me, like invisible bacteria covering a freshly washed dish.

It’s strange the way we don’t notice how our capabilities shape our perception until those capabilities change. As I became able to clearly perceive things more than 10 feet away from me, my sense of peripheral space became less acute, I began to be surprised when I noticed people and objects to my right and left, things that I previously would have noticed much earlier. Because I am so used to myopia, my relationship to space has become one of vague motions, a worldview of information constructed by inferring the relationships between things I cannot perceive clearly. There’s the classic concept of the blind person who has their other senses enhanced as they are forced to depend solely upon them, and I think the same thing happens to all of us, based on our capabilities and capacities, to lesser or greater degrees.

Our limitations define our aptitudes, and become foundational points of our identities. When I play games, I tend to be the one who notices things – and, lest it sound like I’m bragging, I should note that this is distinct from the one who makes good decisions based on that information, the one who successfully infers what things signify or, even, the one who cares about the things that he notices. What I want to convey, though, is the idea that in this case my lack of long-range focus means that I have a sort of diffuse form of attention which makes it somewhat more likely that I will perceive things that aren’t directly in front of me.

Within this context, I start to wonder about my resentment of time, whether it stems from a conceptual antipathy to things which are distant. I wonder about whether my inability to focus my mind on a single task for very long is conceptually related to my inability to focus on an object very far away. I wonder how much the symbolic logic of focus, distance, attention, periphery, have shaped the way in which I conceive of and understand the world, if this correlation of traits means something, if and how much of my identity has been subtly and subconsciously shaped around this relatively minor, fun and quirky disability.

I wonder, then, if so, what does it mean to put on a pair of glasses, and why accompanying exhilaration and joy at my newfound abilities there is an undercurrent of discomfort. Will it help me look past today and into tomorrow? Do I want to perceive that kind of distance?

We shall see.

I don’t like making recommendations.

Other people seem to be very comfortable with it. For many, the calculation seems quite straightforward: “I enjoyed it, so I recommend it. I didn’t enjoy it, so I don’t recommend it”. I envy the simplicity of this approach; merely contemplating it fills me with anxiety.

Here is a partial sampling of the things I worry about when I am considering recommending something:

  1. Did I enjoy it?

  2. Does the fact that I enjoyed it imply a likelihood that this person I’d recommend it to would enjoy it?

  3. Do I think my enjoyment reflects well on me?

  4. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will I resent them for it?

  5. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will they lose respect for me for recommending something bad?

  6. If they do enjoy it as much as I did, will they never shut up to me about it?

  7. Will they enjoy it for the wrong reasons and I’ll have to pretend to agree with them?

  8. If I recommend it to them, will they resent the implicit pressure to engage with that recommendation and never actually check it out when otherwise they might have done so independently?

  9. If I recommend it to them, will I make them feel so pressured that, when they eventually do check it out, it becomes a joyless exercise?

And so on.

Maybe the issue is that I don’t really believe in mass communication. All communication ultimately boils down to a connection between two people: One, encoding a thought process into words and gesture, the other interpreting that through their understanding of verbal and body language. It is so personal: How can a general statement like “You should check out this awesome game” make any sense if it isn’t tailored for one specific person? How can we declare that something is good or worthwhile without taking into account specific tastes?

Most often we just don’t. Critics talk about their personal experience, what worked for them or didn’t work for them, trusting the reader to measure that described experience against their own preferences to decide whether this seems like a worthwhile experience. However, the audience for video games criticism is notoriously hostile towards these sorts of personal experiential statements, which puts game critics in quite a pickle since it’s really the only way to actually evaluate anything in a way that makes sense.

All of this might seem like splitting hairs. It might seem like I’m willing to take every step that one would associate with a recommendation or endorsement – the enthusiastic and specific praise, the testimonial, the frequent mention of interesting and unique features – but detest taking the final step of saying “you should go play/read/see/eat that game/book/movie/pasta.”

God help me if I ever get popular enough to acquire some kind of sponsored monetary backing – my anxious honesty will be my undoing. Actually, my anxious honesty may already be largely responsible for my lack of being done in the first place.

Anyway Hollow Knight is a good game, Colossal is a good movie, 1Q84 is a good book and basically all pasta is good.

They say whatever fails to kill you makes you stronger. Everyone knows it’s a lie, but we say it anyway because we so wish it were true. There are probably more accurate proverbs we could introduce: “Whatever makes you stronger is also probably slowly killing you”, or “regardless of how strong you are you will definitely die one day” – somehow these alternative sayings have never caught on. So, when we make games, we tend to make them so that whatever fails to kill you makes you stronger. There is no wound that cannot be healed, no trauma that cannot be resolved. It is a story of becoming bigger and better, stronger and healthier, until we inevitably become too great to be stymied by the pathetic obstacles that remain.

We become the strong, crushing the weak. You know: A hero.

The body is a machine. We can do the best we can to keep it in running order, but many of the parts don’t get replaced. There’s no way to fight each grain of sand that might get in the gears. You can exercise and eat right, and probably those will help but also you might get hit by a car or poisoned by a bad batch of kale. On some level we all understand this. However, that’s not how we make our art: We make art in which those who work hard succeed, and those who don’t fail, because no one wants to see the heroine die because she slipped in the shower, and no one wants to play a game where the threats of monsters and enemy soldiers are eclipsed by the terror of heart disease – or, at least, so goes the popular wisdom of the marketers

Nevertheless it remains a lie.

We want to believe it so badly – so badly that we vote for it, vote for the good to be rewarded and the bad to be punished, where ‘good’ is defined as those who have already been rewarded and ‘bad’ is defined as those who have already been punished. The one thing we could do to really protect ourselves from the stray grains of sand is to create support networks for those whose gears have been jammed – but we don’t, because to do so would be to admit the terrifying fact that whatever fails to kill you will, eventually, one way or another, still see you dead.

But how can we acknowledge this in our work and still make art that is enjoyable? Art that people want to experience?

Perhaps the shift in what people want to experience has already begun. As I discussed last week, in PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS much of your fate is left up to chance and happenstance – and all the more so since right now the game is full of weird bugs which make things turn out even more unexpectedly. No, you probably weren’t supposed to randomly take fall damage walking off that 2-foot high step, but as things stand it makes an adequate stand-in for the accidental misstep and sprained ankle that could easily claim a life in a combat situation.

Or occasionally more exotic scenarios

Maybe we don’t need to be subject to entropy in quite that extreme a fashion, though. Maybe, rather than being constantly menaced by a bevy of invisible health risks, as we are each day in real life, it could be enough just to depict even the most mundane of actions as having consequences – that is, potentially negative consequences, of having costs as well as benefits. There are games like that around, too: In the Princess Maker games, you’re tasked with raising a child, and do so by way of creating a schedule for her to go through each week. It becomes a balancing act: Every action has a cost, where work makes her stronger and earns her money, relaxation becomes necessary to maintain her health and happiness, and study and practice are costly but provide experience that’s impossible to acquire elsewhere. The game ends when she becomes old enough to set out on her own, and depending on the particular balance of skills and attitudes you have imparted on her she finds different paths in life.

It’s just so strange to have a game where the things you gain come at a cost, where you cannot become the best at everything in every way. At least, not in one lifetime.

“We are not dead yet, so we can still become stronger” – perhaps that would be a better saying. The hard part is deciding how to develop that strength – and to know, hopefully before it’s too late, the cost at which it may come.

It’s been a rough month for the project. I’ve been feeling the least motivation to work seriously on it that I have in a long time, and there’s probably a number of reasons for this, ranging from stressing out about volatile political conditions to worrying about money to being distracted by very good video games. However, I think the biggest thing undermining my motivation is lack of confidence in the technical side of the project, and I’m still figuring out what to do about that.

See, I’m building this project in Adobe AIR, which is essentially the same thing as Flash but repackaged for local installation instead of streaming. There’s a lot good to be said about AIR, and a number of good games have been made in it, but over time it’s felt like I’m struggling more and more against it, being limited by its weaknesses while not taking advantage of its strengths. I’m starting to question (again) whether I should be working in this environment at all. The past month has been a struggle to get the framerate up over 60fps. Originally I had believed that once I got my multi-threaded solution working it would just happen. Then I thought that once I got my multi-threaded solution optimized it would happen. Then I thought that once I went through and optimized everything else it would happen.

Now I’m thinking it might just not happen – at least, not with the amount of individual animated details I want to have in each level, and/or not with the lighting system blending in on top. There may be another way to handle the lighting issue, so I’ll look into that. I also can probably improve performance somewhat by more carefully culling draw operations that would take place outside of the screen space. I can try those things, but it’s time to start carefully considering what I do if they don’t work. I’m slightly tempted to try to port the engine into some new architecture/environment, though I probably won’t. I may experiment with getting it running in OpenFL again, since that gives me a lot more opportunities for optimization, but I probably won’t remake the entire thing running in C and SDL…

Probably.

So, what do I have to show for this last month? (A bit more than a month, actually, since this devblog is a week late). I did all of the animations left to get the basic mask enemy working (though the enemy itself still needs some work since the behavior doesn’t work quite right), fixed a number of bugs, finished getting the multi-threaded particle system running and fixed performance problems therein, and made some performance improvements. It’s not a very productive month, but they can’t all be I guess.

But what’s next? What’s my plan to get out of this funk?

Most immediately, I’m going to go in and see if some judicious culling of draw operations can improve the framerate. Then I’m going to see if I can figure out how to do some decent looking water. Then I start building out the early levels, adding details, fixing up the mask entity so it feels good, and perhaps starting work on getting another enemy working.

There’s still so much to do, and I don’t feel like I have any momentum. But who ever starts with momentum? It’s something you pick up along the way.

Most games only give us weapons. Yes, some also give us a button for talking, and a handful allow us to guide a conversation but, more often than not, all we can do is shoot or cut. Our only windows into the worlds of these games, then – worlds of love and loss, myth and legend, tragedy and comedy – are the holes we carve into them for ourselves. Our perspectives of violence shape these worlds, and our experiences within them, but a world far vaster and more meaningful than our small, mean, and violent place within them can still be implied. Even if a vast cathedral becomes just set dressing for a gunfight, even if it has nothing to do with us at all, it still implies a religion, still implies builders, still implies history.

It’s impossible not to feel a little out of place, even if this church is made explicitly to have a gunfight happen in it. We are still intruders against the spirit of what this place might once have been.

Game designers have started acknowledging the strangeness and off-puttingness of this innate violence more explicitly in their designs. Yet, despite knowing that these constructs will always seem weird and artificial, we are still loath to pass beyond the types of games we once loved. We still want to fight nazis and zombies, dragons and aliens – but now, perhaps, we’re more interested in having a good reason to do so. It becomes difficult to ignore the suggestion that every enemy must once have been a person like us – and, if so, what does it mean about them, and about us, if we kill them? Even when it’s all make-believe, it still has to make a certain amount of sense – and what’s implied when you think about it too much, or think about it at all, was all to often very ugly.

So now we play ghosts, terrifying beyond comprehension, imbued only with the power to deal death. Revenants, returned from the grave to right wrongs. The last few games I’ve played, Dark Souls and Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight, feature a protagonist who stands at the boundary of life and death. These characters return from beyond the clutch of the grave to fix the world that wouldn’t allow them rest. We, as players, occupy these border characters, avatars of the boundary separating life from death, and fight to bring peace – even if it’s the peace of a shared grave. We are recontextualized from a murderous opponent into a kind of shaman, helping long-restless spirits find peace at last.

As I develop my game, write out its story and characters, I find myself walking this same path, creating this same archetype. The framing is different but, still, my protagonist stands at the boundary of life and death with the others, poised to guide misplaced souls from one side to another.

This might not seem new. After all, heroes have brushes with death all the time: “No one could have survived that” is a cliché for a reason. What’s changed is there’s an explicit acknowledgment that even if we fight for the right reasons, even if there really was no other way, we are still beyond the pale. We have no place in the world we are fighting for. We are remnants of the trauma that made us. At the end of the ghost story, the ghost is laid to rest, the haunting past uncovered and resolved.

Perhaps, as time moves forward, we will create games more comfortable with non-violence. Perhaps, as well, we’ll find new and interesting ways to contextualize our violence into a world and story in ways that don’t seem crass and tone-deaf. If so this may be a discrete generation of games we can look back to: The twilit years of Dark Souls, where we all stood on the boundary of the afterlife and judged who might live and who must die.

 

Evaluating art is difficult. Or, to be more precise, while the evaluation happens quite easily and naturally as we look back on our experiences with the work and judge the impressions they left upon us, what’s actually difficult is trying to share those evaluations with others – in other words, to be a critic, to find some way of describing the work in a way that will let other people guess at what their personal experience may be like, to encode something essential about the art into words.

It’s not really possible to make a definitive statement on the quality of a piece of art. In order to argue that a work of art is good, we are actually forwarding two separate arguments for each point we make. The first argument we make is that this work of art has some particular noteworthy aspect. Observations in this vein might include; element A is harmonious (or disharmonious) with element B in a particular way; this aspect of the work expresses (or fails to express) something important about the world we live in in; this work is similar to (or dissimilar to) this other particular work in some particular respect. However, none of these map to ‘good’ (or bad). We can say we like them, we can make claims about the benefits of the insight they offer, but that doesn’t make them ‘good’ per se.

Thus, once we present the argument that this work has this noteworthy aspect, if we want to argue that the work itself is good or bad we have to then argue that the aforementioned noteworthy aspect is good or bad. Most critical works omit the second step. Consumer reviews skip this step by way of having implicit assumptions about what comprises a good work; more artistic criticisms bypass this step via a common understanding that the reader may decide whether they value a given aspect or not.

For instance, most game reviews tend to omit any argument as to whether a noted aspect is actually desirable or not: they tend to assume that an aspect is good if it adheres to the mark set by a previous game that was generally considered to be good. Or, often, they don’t even draw a connection to a real game, just invoke a sort of unspoken platonic ideal of gamehood – the ideal gaming experience, like living within a story, where everything seems completely real and everything you might imagine happening happens just as you’d imagine it would. To the extent which games approach this ideal, they largely manage to do so, not by expanding the possibilities of game creation, but by constraining the imagination that shapes these expectations.

For those of us who chose long ago to reject the idea of a single ideal game, it can be difficult to formulate criticisms that still feel weighty and meaningful without using the implicit assumptions most game reviews are built off of. Nevertheless, if we want to push people towards interesting experiences – and why are we here, if not for interesting experiences? – then we have to formulate these arguments.

And, when I say ‘we’, I don’t mean professional critics, or even more generally those who write about art. I mean anyone who ever wants to get their friend to play a game they loved, anyone who wants to lead horses to water in the manner most likely to get them to drink. Learning how to express what we love about something is a skill that is tested for all of us eventually, one way or another – so it can be helpful to think about how these arguments are made, and just how much usually goes unsaid, assumed and uninterrogated, in the process of describing what we love about the things we love.