Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tall Tales and Paidia

Given the popularity of the genre in American film and folklore, it's really quite bizarre that we see so few Western-themed videogames. Granted, I can't think of any off the top of my head that have been especially successful, but it's hard to say if that's because gamers are for some reason particularly uninterested in the Western milieu or because they make so few of them in the first place. Neversoft's Gun is a notable exception, squeezing most of the standard Western motifs into the free-roaming adventure mold established and popularized by Grand Theft Auto. The pacing, however, is a bit different; in GTA games, while the story missions do generally follow each other chronologically, there isn't a great sense of urgency connecting them, and it doesn't interfere with the experience to wander around and explore the world for a while.

Gun spins a fairly tight tale, and one that doesn't especially lend itself to taking breaks. The narrative proceeds with a sense of urgency that the rule system doesn't bear out--there really is no penalty if you decide to wander around doing odd jobs and mining for gold while a friend of yours is being held and tortured by the bad guys. I enjoy the side missions a great deal, and tend to do them as soon as they become available; this play style tends to make the story a bit disjointed.

This might not, in fact, be an accident. The gameplay structure of Gun is cyclical: story missions open up side missions and new weapons. Side missions boost character stats and allow the player to earn money. Money is spent on upgrades. So playing straight through the story missions consecutively allows no time for stat growth or upgrades. I assume this would make the game unbearably hard, and there are key points in which the game actually reminds you that things are going to get harder soon, and you'd better raise your stats. These key points generally arrive at less time-sensitive moments than the "kidnapped comrade" scenario I mentioned above, and it's possible that this is how the designers intended/expected players to progress: hours of concentrated play on story missions followed by hours of concentrated play on side missions. At any rate, in practice the gameplay structure allows players to change the difficulty of the game to an unusual degree.

In addition to screwing with the dramatic tension of the story, doing all the side missions as soon as they come makes the game, well, pretty damn easy. By the second half of the game, your character is practically bulletproof, and most of the bad guys go down if you look at them funny. You're not just heroic, you're bloody invincible.

Which might be the point. Someone who prioritizes the ludus game exclusively would find a brutal, dramatic game with a harsh difficulty curve emphasizing the usual FPS bag of tricks, such traps, ranging, proper weapon selection, stealth kills, etc. Not exactly a realistic story--the Western is not especially well-known for "realistic"--but not out of step with, say, modern film narratives. Conversely, someone who goes off the path into paidia as much as possible ends up with something more closely resembling a tall tale: not only does the hero beat the bad guys, he does so without a great deal of difficulty; he gets shot hundreds of times and lives to tell the tale; he hunts better with a bow and arrow than the best Indian hunter; he does the jobs the sheriff and federal marshall couldn't; he's the best horseman in the Pony Express, the best gambler, the best prospector. It's common enough for the sheer hyperbolic weight of the protagonist's heroic accomplishments to swamp the main storyline in a game, but in a milieu that's always half-folktale anyway, it seems strangely appropriate. Accident or not, the tension between ludus and paidia exerts its own pull on the game narrative, resulting in a storyline that's as pleasantly flexible as those concerning any of our "real" Western demigods.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A few words on feedback.

My name is J.C. Denton.

Well, no, it isn't. I am Peter Rauch playing Ion Storm's Deus Ex, and even diegetically—that is, even from the perspective of the game's internal world—J.C. Denton is a codename. As Denton, I am infiltrating the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, which have been occupied by a terrorist group called the NSF. (The Statue of Liberty is in ruins because a different terrorist group has blown it up several years earlier. This attack on a major American landmark has allowed the government to launch a global war against vaguely defined “terrorists” and clamp down on civil liberties in general. There is much to be said about this plotline; I will say only that it sure seemed like a fun escapist fantasy back in 2000.)

My diegetic brother, Paul Denton, is assisting me on this mission. He reminds me that I am serving in a police capacity, not as a soldier, and encourages me to minimize bloodshed. I am armed with a 9mm semiautomatic and a short-range stun-gun, and Paul allows me to choose a third weapon. If I select the non-lethal tranquilizer crossbow, Paul is pleased; if I instead opt for the sniper rifle, he is concerned, asking that I remember that I'll be shooting at human beings, not targets.

Every character, in fact, seems concerned with my attitude toward the casual application of lethal force. Only Paul seems opposed to it. In fact, if I kill too few people, and gain the admiration of Paul, my other comrades will doubt my commitment to the mission. Two opposing viewpoints on the morality of my killing are clearly established. Taking actions that satisfy either viewpoint will please some and displease others. My own beliefs concerning the morality of violence color the proceedings, of course, and I therefore consider one path preferable to the other. However, from my perspective as a player, and not as a character in the world of Deus Ex, the two viewpoints are distinguished differently. From a purely practical standpoint, completing any given part of the game with a high body count is much easier than doing so with a low one.

Deus Ex has only three non-lethal weapons, and they all require more skill to use effectively than their lethal counterparts. As the game goes on and my foes become more difficult, this skill difference becomes greater, and one might expect that the treatments of lethal and non-lethal violence would become more disparate.

This is not what happens. At the end of what could be considered the game's “first act,” Paul reveals that he has been working for the NSF all along. It is never made clear if he opposed the gratuitous killing of NSF agents because they were human beings, or because he was secretly on their side. This plot development could be read as an endorsement of the “mercy equals betrayal” attitude espoused by J.C.'s more bloodthirsty comrades. From this point on, while the game itself continues to make distinctions between “dead” and “unconscious,” the characters in the game do not. Characters drugged into unconsciousness are treated by other characters as being dead. At this point, combat functions much like any FPS: if something attacks you, empty as much of its blood as possible onto the floor.

In Deus Ex, the reasons we do not generally engage in wanton homicide in the “real” world generally do not apply. Beyond some vaguely-realistic faces and voices, the NPCs in Deus Ex are not very much like human beings. Whether he leaves them conscious, unconscious, or dead, J.C. rarely encounters any specific enemy more than once. The gun-toting NPCs are, on one level, problems to be solved, and it so happens that the sniper rifle is much more effective for solving problems than the crossbow. So why would anyone want to use the crossbow?

One reason, of course, is because the crossbow is less effective. Non-lethal weapons require more skill, but developing and displaying skill is one of the things that makes videogames enjoyable. Variety is another reason, as players tend to seek out multiple ways to play a given scenario. Players who apply a role-playing element to the game might opt for non-lethal tactics because they wish to impute their own morality onto J.C. For this last reason to function, however, another more fundamental reason must already be in place. Why would players want to minimize NSF casualties in the face of greater difficulty?

Because the game will notice if they do.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Sarah Problem and the gendering of genre

Hat tip to August J. Pollack for finding this. It's tempting to think of this sort of thing as mere ham-handed marketing with nothing more than the profit motive behind it, a desperate attempt to bring women into a consumer group perceived to be hostile to said women via tired stereotypes. It's easy because, well, it's largely true, but to dwell on that would be to miss the fact that this kind of thinking is surprisingly pervasive at all levels of the gaming community, from the players to the press, and even, to some extent, to the academics.

Richard Cobbett covered this territory more effectively than I ever could with "Writing A 'Girls In Games' Article", an essay that ought to be required reading for anyone attempting to discuss gender and games. Girl Gamer seems to flow from several lines of thought critiqued by Cobbett, specifically points 3, 4, 8 and 9, with the greatest emphasis on point 4.

Thing is, the idea that women, when expressed as as an arithmetic mean, prefer certain genres, modes and features was not arbitrarily pulled from the ether. Statistically, it has some support, and even for those of us who feel that the American faith in statistics is more often religious than scientific in nature, that support is hard to ignore. But even at their best, statistics are only empirical, prone to methodological error, and are not, in and of themselves, predictive. (That's where "theory" comes in. Creationists beware.) Group identities are useful things, but they are ultimately fictions. I like fiction; fiction can be compelling and useful, and you don't have to be a mystic to understand that things that exist subjectively can and often do affect things that exist objectively. To riff a bit on a quote from a dead conservative/libertarian humorist whose name I cannot, at this moment, find, women are only available in units of one. Out here in the really real world, they're not actually a hive mind.

Which brings me to the Sarah Problem. Sarah is not an average or a composite, but an actual human being, made mostly of water, and capable of reflecting on her own existence. While I haven't verified it directly, her name, physical appearance, and the image she projects suggest that she has two X chromosomes. She is, in short, a woman. And the rules we apply to women in the context of their relationship to videogames do not seem to apply to her. She's not big into The Sims or casual games. She isn't turned off by brutal violence or highly sexualized female avatars. (And yes, sports fans, she's straight. That should save a couple of comment writers a minute or two.) She bought her PS2 before I bought mine, and nearly every time I get into a bloodbath like Devil May Cry, God of War or Resistance, she's already bought, played, and usually beaten it.

This would seem to make her something of a statistical outlier, but I can't sign on to the assumption, implicit in many discussions of gender and videogames, that this makes her experience as a gamer or as a woman less valid. Because, well, she exists. She's a friend of mine. And her experience ought to be part of the discussion. Individual experiences matter. In addition, in a large enough sample group--say, people who play videogames--outliers can be comprised of rather large groups, and sometimes the exceptions to the rule are among the most interesting and important.

The need to create a "feminine space" in videogames, however worthwhile that goal might be, has led to an irritating phenomenon I refer to as the gendering of genre: Halo is for boys, The Sims is for girls. Boys like speed, competition and violence, girls like story, personalization and collaboration. And, if you were to take a poll, that's certainly true for some of them. But things like story, personalization and collaboration are important in and of themselves, not because they might be marginally more likely to appeal to women. We're seeing a great expansion in paidia play in nearly all videogame genres now, due to a combination of market demands and the new creative options available due to advancing technology. The development of new genres is a good thing, period. Will these new genres help developers and publishers expand their consumer base? Who cares? Electronic Arts' bottom line really isn't my problem.

The problem with gendering these aspects of gameplay is that actual flesh-and-blood women do occasionally fall on the "masculine" side of the spectrum, and this creates a conflict in our construction of the topic. If violent, ludus-heavy action games are masculine, then Sarah is something of a ludic transvestite. Whereas before she might have been thought of as unfeminine for playing videogames, now she can look forward to being thought of as unfeminine for playing the "wrong" videogames.

More to the point, treating Sarah's play experience as being "masculine," in the sense of being equivalent to the experience of a male playing the same games, collapses her into a group to which she does not belong. That meatsuit she wears influences her consciousness, her sense of identity, and the way she's treated by others, just as my (marginally different) meatsuit does for me. Her experience might very well be different from that of the "usual" gamer, and for research purposes that seems like it might be kind of important. Yes, it's always interesting to think about what games non-gamers might like to play, and a lot of those non-gamers happen to be women. But if there is some social good to be gained from having more women playing videogames (a question I'll not attempt here), it seems like women who already play and like games in multiple well-established, commercially successful genres would be worth listening to as well.

In Arcanum, female avatars are given a +1 bonus to Constitution and a -1 penalty to Strength. Even in a world of elves and dwarves, default status is issued to human males--white ones, judging by the available character portraits. The discussion of the "female problem" in the videogame industry does not have to function along similar lines. So let's all grasp a firm hold of our undergraduate understanding of the difference between "sex" and "gender," and remember that we don't know much about biology, culture and causality, and that demographic data that's true right now might not be for very long. To pretend otherwise, to reify what might be fairly arbitrary taste issues, would be stupid.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Torture Game

More recycled content, technically the second half of the last post. If you're not going to skip this, read that one first.

Four recent, commercial games have directly dealt with the issue of torture: The Punisher, State of Emergency 2, The Godfather and Reservoir Dogs. This list is not exhaustive, but these titles demonstrate some of the ways torture has been approached in existing games. Of these four titles, The Punisher is the most explicit, and is the central subject of my investigation. As such it receives the most attention, but all four offer useful insight on the subject.

The Punisher, it must be noted, is not merely a game, but part of a multimedia franchise. Originating as a villain in an issue of Spider-Man, the character known as Frank Castle—alias The Punisher—has been a persistent figure in the Marvel Comics universe for thirty years. Volition's videogame adaptation of The Punisher was released in 2004 to coincide with the theatrical release of the film of the same name. Both the film and game adaptations drew heavily on the work of Garth Ennis, who had recently revitalized interest in the character among comic readers. Ennis' particular take on The Punisher is substantially more complex than the simple-minded vigilante previous writers had crafted, and the Punisher videogame is so thoroughly steeped in the work of Ennis that it cannot be read in isolation from that work. Panels from Ennis' books provide a substantial part of the game's reward system, and serve as indexes, pointing to the larger narrative of which the game is a part. That narrative guides the game mechanics, and the game's ethical framework compels the player to kill in a variety of ways, none of which should be unfamiliar, symbolically or mechanically, to any action game enthusiast. What is comparatively new is The Punisher's treatment of torture.

The Punisher's so-called “torture engine” is a mini-game of sorts. Frank puts his victims in a dangerous, frightening and/or painful situation that is not immediately lethal, and he must keep them sufficiently intimidated without killing them. The controls vary with every method of torture, but all rely on subtle manipulation of an analog stick. At first glance, torture appears to function as an interrogation technique. Certain characters possess special information that can only be extracted through torture. However, this information is never essential to Frank's mission, but only supplementary: a skilled player can easily get by without it. Moreover, very few characters have any useful information to be extracted, yet nearly all can be tortured. In spite of torture's lack of value for interrogatory purposes, it is nevertheless a crucial play mechanic, and players cannot easily avoid engaging in it.

The Punisher is not an open-ended play-space like Second Life, and players are not expected to do things merely because they can. Rather, the game encourages torture (makes it "ethical") by connecting it to two incentives: the acquisition of points, and the unlocking of hidden content. Points feed directly back into the gameplay experience, as players exchange them for skill and weapon upgrades. Scripted, location-sensitive tortures provide the largest point bonuses, but any enemy character within grabbing distance can be exploited for this purpose, and an execution is never as profitable, in terms of points, as an execution preceded by torture. In addition to the points, torture will randomly cause Frank to have flashbacks. These flashbacks are presented to the player as a panel of comic art from Ennis' Punisher stories accompanied by an appropriate voice sample; for example, an image of Frank holding a dead family member juxtaposed with a terrified criminal screaming “I have a family!” These flashbacks, once unlocked in the main game, can be viewed from the title menu, and contribute to overall completion of the game, much like the side-quests in the recent Grand Theft Auto games. For the player, the reward for the (frequently challenging) act of torture is non-diegetic. Points have no meaning at the narrative level, and it's unclear why Frank would want to suffer flashbacks to painful moments in his life. Thus, in terms of the game's internal world, it would be tempting to refer back to George Orwell's 1984: “The purpose of torture is torture.” More accurately, though, the purpose of torture, in The Punisher, is a “bonus round” of sorts, a chance to allow the player to demonstrate skill in exchange for points. If torture is a “mini-game,” it is easy enough to “fail” by accidentally killing the victim. The player loses points for killing a victim in the course of torture, even though he or she would gain points for killing the same person in a more conventional fashion. The game takes no notice whether or not the victim has given Frank whatever information they have. The rules are simply that killing is rewarded, torture is rewarded, but accidental killing during torture is punished. These are the ethics of torture in The Punisher, and they make sense at a purely mechanical level. At a narrative level, they are internally inconsistent, and thus the narrative and ethics cannot be integrated into a moral argument about torture.

State of Emergency 2 is the little-known sequel to the controversial State of Emergency, which places players in violent street combat against a fascistic corporate dictatorship. The original game incorporates contemporary political debates about globalization into its narrative, but squanders its potential for legitimate discourse through simple-minded play mechanics.

The sequel adopts a more linear, story-based approach to revolution that includes a mini-game in which players interrogate suspects. The interrogator is “Spanky,” a former gang member and Hispanic stereotype, and the interrogation consists of repeatedly punching a captive. In terms of play mechanics, interrogation is a timing game, in which players must hold the proper button and release it at the proper time—release the button too early and Spanky will not punch hard enough to cause sufficient pain, release the button too late and Spanky will punch too hard and kill the captive. In contrast to the calculated brutality of the torture seen in The Punisher, the State of Emergency torture scenes are somewhat cartoonish. The famously graphic violence of the original State of Emergency, which allows players to blast non-player characters (NPCs) apart with explosives and then use the charred body parts as weapons, has been toned down considerably in the sequel, and one wonders why torture was included at all if gratuitous violence were a concern. As it stands, the torture scenes are among the least violent and disturbing action scenes in the game.

The Godfather is the high-profile videogame adaptation of the world described in the Mario Puzo novel and Francis Ford Coppola films. Though not explicitly mirroring the plot of the novel or films—the protagonist is a new character not found in either—the ubiquity of The Godfather in popular culture makes it unlikely that players will come to the game unfamiliar with the Corleone dynasty. As with The Punisher, the game narrative must be read in context of the larger text of which it is a part.

Intimidation is a major factor in the gameplay of The Godfather. The most common use of intimidation is against shopkeepers, to encourage them to hand over protection money. Unlike the previous examples, the player need not resort to physical pain for this purpose, although the game allows a great deal of realistic physical violence. If a shopkeeper is being particularly stubborn in his refusal to pay, smashing his cash register might be more effective than choking him or shooting him in the kneecap. Simply placing someone in your gunsights for several seconds will often do the trick. Consistent with the gangster ethics detailed in the novel and films, the game engine generally rewards players for finding ways to intimidate without resorting to direct bodily harm.

Finally, Reservoir Dogs is the videogame adaptation of the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film of the same name. Similar to The Godfather, torture is used not for interrogation, but rather for intimidation. Though the game gives players the option of blasting their way through all obstacles, earning a “Psychopath” rating in the process, the more cerebral “Professional” track requires a more measured use of violence, both threatened and enacted. Taking human shields, and therefore threatening hostages with lethal violence, is sufficient to disarm security guards, but will result in a standoff with actual police. Police will also drop their weapons, however, if the player pistol-whips the hostage in front of them—but even this is ineffective against large numbers of police. When surrounded, players who have charged up the avatar's “adrenaline” can perform a “signature” move, beating the hostage into unconsciousness and likely disfiguring him or her in the process.

These “signature” moves are unique to each character, from Mr. Blue's cigar to Mr. Blonde's trademark straight razor, though the most brutal violence happens off-screen. A “signature” move will make every cop in the vicinity lay down their weapons in surrender. The game's ethics, in this case, cannot possibly be developed into a moral argument, simply because the they make no sense whatsoever at the narrative level. Beating and disfiguring a civilian should, logically, make the character more likely to be shot by police, not less. In addition, unconscious hostages drop to the ground and cannot be picked up. Thus, by performing a “signature” move, the protagonist reveals to the police that he is violent, unpredictable and dangerous, while simultaneously releasing his human shield. The torture techniques described by Mr. White in the film, or enacted by Mr. Blonde, would have made some degree of sense in terms of the narrative, but the torture found in the game, while superficially similar, does not.

In all these games, some common elements exist. First, the games' ethics, which compel the player to torture, are not explicitly out of sync with the protagonists' motivations. From the protagonists' perspective, torture is justified by the moral “gray area” of the situations in which they find themselves, be it organized crime, insurrection, or vigilantism. We are given no reason to believe that the protagonists themselves believe torture to be immoral, at least under the given circumstances. It is worth noting that three of the games I've discussed, The Punisher, The Godfather and Reservoir Dogs, are adaptations of existing works, and each inherits a nuanced morality of violence from the worlds' origins in film, novels and comic books. The player is not called upon to accept or reject the protagonist's actions as moral, and the circumstances in which the protagonists find themselves are defined as extraordinary and largely unrelated to “real life.”

Second, the morality of torturing an innocent is never addressed. The Punisher cannot torture an innocent person who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, because these people do not exist in the game. (Innocents exist, but they are clearly marked, and the player cannot make Frank torture them.) In The Godfather and Reservoir Dogs, the player is an anti-hero at best, but there are no judgments on when it is moral to torture, just when it is ethical in terms of gameplay.

Third, when torture is applied for the purpose of interrogation, it is universally effective. The tortured party will invariably “crack,” given the right circumstances. When they do, they will invariably give the protagonist correct information.

Fourth, the actions of the player have no long-term effect on the overall “war effort.” It is hard to imagine how it could, given the genres in which it takes place. The mafia and the fascist thugs of the games in question are not in a position to become more brutal due to the avatar's actions.

Fifth, the experience of having intentionally inflicted pain on a defenseless human being has no long-term effect on the mental health of the protagonist. Again, this is to be expected, since the modeling of avatar's mental states is still very rare in videogames. (Silicon Knights, of Blood Omen fame, made some progress on this front with Eternal Darkness, albeit in a less "serious" supernatural fashion.)

These games clearly demonstrate that videogame designers have developed the conceptual tools necessary to model the act of torture, but not its consequences. By carefully integrating the rule system and narrative, and by explicitly addressing those elements found lacking in the games I've described, it is possible to design videogames that make coherent moral arguments about, and more specifically against, torture in a way that would not be possible in any other medium. I here propose a model for such a game.

The best genre for such a game would be a single-player strategy game that alternates between macro-management and micro-management, similar to Microprose's X-COM: UFO Defense. Time will need to be somewhat fluid in the game, which would suggest a turn-based approach, but there's no reason parts of the game couldn't be designed for real-time strategy. The player commands a military unit in occupied territory, under constant threat of attack from local guerrilla forces. To prepare for or prevent these attacks, the player must gather information, make arrests, interrogate suspects, and use the new information to coordinate attacks or make more arrests. Like X-COM, gameplay will be cyclical in nature, and will end when either the guerrillas successfully wipe out the player's unit, or when public support for the guerrillas wanes and order is restored. These are only end conditions, however—it might be necessary, depending on the argument the designers seek to make, for true, non-diegetic victory to be independent of military success. Most importantly, the morality espoused in the narrative must be consistent with the ethics of gameplay.

As the game begins, players are given some initial intelligence from a variety of sources concerning planned attacks, and suggesting suspects. Players must then travel to a given location and attempt to arrest a suspect, using a minimum of force. After all, killing a suspect before he can make himself useful is a failure at both military and moral levels. Assuming the suspect can be arrested and returned to base successfully, the interrogation phase begins.

The interrogation process is the most significant portion of the game. Consequently, the game rules must acknowledge the issues ignored by the games I've discussed. The rule system, after all, will determine the ethics of gameplay, compelling gamers to play in a certain way, and the narrative cannot be allowed to disconnect from these ethics. Thus, characters must express differing opinions on the morality of torture in general. Establishing the opinions of NPCs can be handled in a number of ways, and designers need not resort to overlong cutscenes, but they will need, at the very least, well-written dialogue that is both semi-random and likely to be encountered by players. In addition, the game must include the possibility of bad intelligence, and it must be possible, even likely, for players to make false arrests. Whether or not the suspects actually know anything, many will lie and give false information as the torture becomes increasingly brutal; conversely, some will protest their innocence through any level of torture, and some will simply say nothing.

Players will be allowed to detain suspects for as long as they choose, torture them in any way provided by the game designers, and execute them at will. All of these actions must directly affect the rest of the game. The guerrillas might gain popular support, and become more numerous and better armed, depending on who the player arrests, how the suspects are treated, and whether they are released, detained indefinitely, or executed. In addition, as a result of the player's actions, suspects could become increasingly less likely to allow themselves to be arrested, opting instead to shoot it out with the player's troops or blow themselves up to evade capture.

In addition to the effects of the player's torture on the effectiveness of the mission, there must also be consequences to the torturer. This can best be accomplished by having a single interrogation specialist character with greater narrative depth than most other characters: in the context of the interrogation sequences, the specialist is the protagonist. While much of the game's dialogue can be semi-random, the interrogation specialist must have more tightly scripted dialogue, and more of it. If the game is to have a narrator of any kind, the interrogation specialist is the logical choice. As torture becomes more frequent and more brutal, the specialist will become increasingly unhinged. Torture will become more difficult to accomplish, as the protagonist increasingly “ignores” the player's controller input, increasing the number of so-called “accidents.” As the protagonist moves from torture as a means to an end to torture as an end unto itself, he will become less effective at extracting information. The less brutal methods of interrogation will cease to be available to players. Eventually, it will become impossible for players to do anything with suspects except brutally torture and kill them, and doing so will only hasten the victory of the guerrillas.

These are the basics of the game, the elements common to any meaningful argument against torture. From there, three specific arguments can be made. The specific mechanics of the game, such as the probabilities of arresting an innocent person or extracting false confessions, will be dependent on the designers' intended argument. The first is a rather Machiavellian claim that torture is an effective tool for a counter-insurgency, but must be used sparingly, so the benefits of useful information outweigh the costs of increased enemy resistance and deaths of innocent victims. This argument defines what is good as what wins the war, and treats torture as an evil to be engaged in only for a greater good. For this argument, torture must make the game easier to complete; refraining from torture as much as possible must bring a greater difficulty and a greater reward. Nonetheless, the only win condition is military victory, and no moral rule is more important than that.

The second argument is that torture is simply counter-productive. For this argument, the variables must be set so the costs of torture are overwhelmingly larger than any possible benefits. Consequently, it must be impossible to complete the mission using torture as a strategy, and victory must be easiest when the player repudiates torture entirely. Again, this argument ties morality with military victory, and the most moral solution is also the most practical. This argument could also be made satirically by separating the win condition from military victory, and rewarding the player in non-diegetic ways for continuing to torture even as it dehumanizes the protagonist, kills innocent people, and allows the guerrillas to take over the country. The world will be decisively worse than when the player began the game, the mission will have failed miserably, but the player will be assured, through a high score or bonus content, that they've done the right thing. The sheer absurdity of such a game would be a powerful argument against torture.

The third argument differs from the first two by designing the game's ethics to serve an anti-torture morality completely divorced from military victory. The mission may succeed or fail, but such success is not taken into consideration in terms of the player's reward. Rather, the game must encourage players to torture by offering powerful short-term benefits, and reward them for resisting the temptation, both with non-diegetic rewards such as points and unlocked content, and a well-constructed narrative that makes it clear that, win or lose, soldiers who refrain from crimes against humanity can at least look themselves in the mirror with their sanity intact.

These are, as I like to say, loose thoughts. I can't design this stuff, and don't know if it would work, assuming we can all agree on what constitutes "working" in this context. But it's an interesting possibility, and an interesting way to think about this kind of debate.

(Gameplay) Ethics: A Primer

And now for something completely different. This is recycled content, having appeared first in a conference paper and later in my master's thesis, available here. If you've already read it, you'll be pretty bored here. I lay out my ideas about ethical gameplay here, a concept to which I'll be returning and hopefully improving.

In “Simulation versus Narrative,” Gonzalo Frasca posits the possibility of meaningful argument in simulation games. Drawing on the topic of a worker's strike, famously explored in literature and film in Emile Zola's Germinal and Ken Loach's Bread and Roses, Frasca describes a hypothetical real-time strategy game called Strikeman. What Strikeman offers that is unique to the videogame form is a story comprised of not only the author's singular vision, but also the activity of the player, the effect of random and pseudo-random events, and the specific limits and probabilities encoded into the simulation by the author. The form of the story would constantly change, but because simulations are inherently iterative, the internal logic of the world becoming apparent to the player only through repeated play, patterns would emerge over time. In these patterns, Frasca argues, is the author's thesis: a viewpoint being argued about the events being simulated. Behind the viewpoint in question are the author's implicit beliefs about the subject at hand, the worldview on which the argument rests.

James Paul Gee argues that videogames' ability to model worldviews, or “cultural models,” allows players to articulate and challenge their own unexamined assumptions about the world. In “Cultural Models: Do You Want to Be the Blue Sonic or the Dark Sonic?,” Gee examines a variety of war-themed games, from the superheroic Return to Castle Wolfenstein to the darkly realistic Operation Flashpoint to the explicitly political Under Ash. Under Ash, an action game in which the player takes on the role of a Palestinian fighting against Israeli soldiers and settlers, hints at an unrealized potential of the videogame medium: the ability to argue for the validity of a moral viewpoint.

A vital distinction must be made between morals and ethics. Many dictionaries consider them to be synonymous, but in common usage, at least in American English, the two words can have a variety of subtly different meanings. My definitions are provisional, and while they bear some similarities to existing popular definitions, they are specifically tailored to be applied to the interpretation of videogames. I am not suggesting that “real-world” morals and ethics function the way I describe here, but only that they do so in the context of the videogame medium.

I define ethics as a discourse concerning what is correct and what is incorrect. What is ethical is dependent on a specific activity, determined entirely by an explicit, constructed system of rules, and cannot be questioned by the participants. I define morals as a discourse concerning what is right and what is wrong. Morality, unlike ethics, is not tied to a specific activity, but can be applied over multiple activities, and possibly all experience. Moral rules enjoy considerably more variance than ethical rules: because they are wider in scope, they are more nuanced, and subject to interpretation.

Ethical frameworks, while they might attempt to model moral behavior—as in the examples of ethical codes for doctors or lawyers—need not have any connection to morality at all. In chess, that players should try to capture their opponents' pieces is an ethical rule, not a moral one. It has no relevance to the world outside chess. This rule is also not subject to interpretation or argument. It is simply, factually, true. A player that makes no effort to capture the opponent's pieces is not playing chess. The same cannot be said of moral rules like “love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus' formulation of the “golden rule,” nor can it be said of “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law,” Kant's categorical imperative. These rules concern the very act of being human, but one does not cease to be human if he or she rejects or violates them. They are much less specific than the rule concerning the capturing of pieces in chess, and open to many more interpretations. No, these definitions are generally not English-speaking people mean when they say "moral" or "ethical," though they are built in part from conversational usage. I'm told Tracy Flick had some interesting thoughts on the correct distinction. That said, a lot of people seem to disagree with my terminology here. Without arguing that further, I'll just add that I'm using these terms in terms of videogames, and here make no claim about ethics or morals proper.

Morals and ethics exist independently of each other, and while they must each be internally consistent, it is possible for the two to explicitly contradict one another. Law is an ethical system that is constantly revised to prevent such conflicts. Torture, for example, is illegal under international law. Assuming one accepts the existence of international law, the legality of torture is not open to debate. The morality of torture, however, is fundamentally unconnected to its legality. Torture is not less moral now than it was before the Geneva Convention. Conversely, it would not become more moral if the U.N. were to repudiate the Geneva Convention tomorrow.

Any game that has a “win condition” has an ethical framework. This applies to all games, not just videogames. First and foremost, these games are possessed of an overriding ethical imperative: win. If the game has a win condition, a player who does not try to win is not playing the game. As Johan Huizinga notes in Homo Ludens, a player who does not try to win faces greater censure from society than a player who cheats in order to win. One interpretation of Huizinga's claim is that a player who cheats breaks only those rules concerning the means of play, whereas the player who throws the game violates the goals of play. The goal constitutes what players must do, while the rules offer only clarification on how the goal is to be accomplished—what actions are allowed, and what actions are not. A strategy or technique that helps a player win, while not explicitly violating any of the rules, is always ethical in terms of the game in question. The ethical framework comprises both goal and means, and although the former is more fundamental to the game than the latter, they are both necessary for a game to function. With an established goal, the game's rules, which determine how the game can be played, give rise to the ethics, which determine how it should be played.

I use the term “ethical” to denote imperatives that are dependent on the accepting of a role, as in the specific ethics of a given profession, and also in terms of play in general—playing a videogame ethically could be seen as the player's agreement to play the role allotted to her by the designers. Some degree of freedom is present, of course; were such freedom absent, it would not be play. However, just as an actor may be allowed to improvise, but must ultimately play his role to the author's conclusion, the player must play “in character” to play the game. If the player does not accept this role, she is not playing the game, but rather playing a game with a game. This activity of “metaplay” (not to be confused with the paratextual "metagame" of fan cultures), in which the player designates goals unrelated or contrary to the game's internal ethics, has a wide variety of forms. Metaplay, at least in single-player games (where there are no social expectations of ethical play), is not “cheating” in the sense that the word is used in everyday speech. It simply means that the player in question is not, strictly speaking, playing the game.

In addition to the ethical frameworks inherent in any games, videogames can potentially add an unprecedented level of narrativity. This narrativity is achieved by mapping recognizable symbols onto the rule system. This mapping process allows for the suspension of disbelief necessary to involve the player emotionally in the gameworld.

The interaction of these symbols gives videogames the potential for rich narratives. However, if the narrative is not sufficiently integrated with the rule system, it will appear arbitrary, and fundamentally disconnected to the experience of play. This disconnect between narrative and rule systems is one of the central problems for the potential of videogames as a storytelling medium, forcing a distinction between authorial narrative (the story written by the designers) and emergent narrative (the story enacted by the players). However, even in the most non-linear games with the greatest potential for emergent narrative, the rule system and choice of symbols are selected by the designers, and as such the players' freedom of interpretation is inherently limited. In videogames, the author might be dead, as was famously suggested by Roland Barthes, but she is still the author, and she must not be confused with the reader. To make the transition from ethical imperatives to moral arguments, the designers must fully embrace authorial status.

Moral arguments can easily be attributed to texts in traditional narrative forms such as literature and film, but in videogames, a narrative thesis unconnected to the game rules creates a disjointed experience. Without a connection to the ethics, the gameplay and the narrative will operate independently of one another, as is often the case in games that rely extensively on “cut-scenes,” which are essentially short film sequences that interrupt active gameplay. Moral imperatives can exist in a game only when the ethics can be interpreted and applied to the “real” world in which the player resides, and this can only be achieved by connecting internal ethics to the external world through narrative. Most, if not all, of the game rules must be connected to recognizable symbols, and those symbols must have referents in reality.

Rules and a win condition are all that is necessary for an ethical framework, because ethics point inward to a specific activity. Conversely, because morality must gesture outward to the world a large, it cannot consist only of abstract symbols. For a game to have a moral argument, it must have an ethical framework, a narrative that can be connected in some way to what we speciousl refer to as “real life,” and a careful integration of the two. Specifically, the moral argument of the narrative must be connected to the win condition. It might be necessary, in making distinctions between what is right and what is expedient, to develop some new ideas as to what constitutes “winning.” This will require a somewhat nuanced perspective on the avatar.

The avatar, in most games, is more than an extension of the player into the gameworld. Rather, the avatar is simultaneously an extension of the player and a different character that is not the player. I refer to this different character as the protagonist. Since the protagonist has only diegetic information, his or her motivation for interaction in the world must be entirely diegetic. The player, who has access to the game's non-diegetic information, will have additional goals, often involving tasks with no narrative meaning, such as scoring points or unlocking content. Narratives, even videogame narratives, have a logic of their own, and even when the narrative fails to emotionally invest the player in the story, it can usually be assumed that the protagonist is quite involved. The narrative, even when viewed by players as epiphenomenal, is the entirety of the protagonist's reality.

In the interest of symmetry, this post concludes here.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

First Things

It is quite easy to become bored with Mere Christianity.

You don't even have to read it to become bored with it, because like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, it's kind of everywhere. Maybe not quite so widespread--it's not a recurring joke on South Park--but if you frequent right-wing political blogs, it's hard to escape. C.S. Lewis' reputation as the skeptic's apostle seems to have made the transition into the 21st century quite nicely, and whenever a Christian conservative (that oh-so-specific label currently popular here in the States) mentions their road-to-Damascus moment in which they abandoned atheism, liberalism, and any other unhealthy -isms associated with the political left, Mere Christianity seems to get the credit.

I'm not a Narnia afficionado, and am thoroughly unversed in any of the English quasi-Christian fantasy canon, so my prior experience with Lewis' writing was pretty much nil. But it's a book you can't seem to avoid, especially if your worldview is as comfortably confused as mine, and I picked up a copy from the library after class one day. The edition in question was a printing from the 1950s, visibly falling apart, and came appended with a note from the librarian apologizing for the book's deteriorating condition. By the third yellowed, crackling page, I knew I'd just end up buying the damned thing.

I knew I had to buy it not so much because it appeared to me as Truth--as an apologetic, it was more convincing than I'd expected but less convincing than I'd been told--but because of the quality of the writing itself. I've shown a tendency to write with a shotgun, to scatter thoughts far and wide and work out what the hell I'm doing by looking at the grouping after the fact. Lewis writes like the Saint of Killers shoots: with absolute certainty, with no more rhetorical flourish than is necessary, and with astonishing clarity. When he's not certain, when he's on uncertain doctrinal ground, or when a possibility for which he cannot answer appears, he explicitly acknowledges as much and says little. He doesn't fire if he's not sure where the bullet's going.

Part of this has to do with the fact that I can only really read in one language, and it's the one Lewis wrote in, less than a century ago. It's possible I'd feel the same way about Augustine or Acquinas or even Paul if they had the same kind of advantages, but they don't. And the world Lewis depicts certainly seems more similar to my own than those depicted by Augustine or Acquinas or Paul. Which is not to say it's bulletproof: it is a bit unnerving that our relationship to God is at one point like that of a disobedient child to an adult and at another like that of a tin soldier to a toymaker. (Presumably, the "disobedient child" refers to some kind of transitional state between the perfect and fallen humanity. Or maybe not. At any rate, we're all tin soldiers now.) I'm of the opinion that contradiction is not necessarily a problem when you're dealing with this kind of deep subjectivity, but Lewis resorts to subjectivity only sparingly, and attempts to marry it to empiricism to boot. As he notes in The Problem of Pain, "nonsense remains nonsense even if we talk it about God." Which is, on its face, hard to argue against; I suppose it depends on what one means by "nonsense." A lot of my thoughts would have seemed like nonsense even to me if I hadn't gone to the trouble of repurposing a slew of unrelated words to help articulate them.

Where Mere Christianity is at its most impressive is when it deals with logic, the structure of Law, free will, sin, and redemption as naturally following from one another. Put succinctly, most of what Lewis writes struck me as eminently plausible whether or not a man called Jesus of Nazareth ever existed at all. Which, incidentally, is a point he doesn't dwell on: the canon is the canon, take it or leave it. This stance is likely having to due with the "mere" of the title, meaning common, universally accepted within the mainstream Christian community, and the opposite of esoteric. Turns out that whole "historical Christ" sticking point predates The Jesus Seminar, who knew? But it's particularly interesting, given that Lewis' own conversion (detailed nicely in The Question of God, although that borrowed it from somewhere else) begins with an acceptance of the Gospel's historical accuracy, that he would ignore readers' questions about that particular issue. In what is perhaps the book's most famous passage, Lewis offers an argument a bright child could knock down:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

A man who was merely (merely?) a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher, if he actually said those things. Or if those things meant what popular interpretations suggest they mean. Both are issues worth debating, and I'll get to them in other posts.

Nonetheless, the above passage seems to be the killer app of Christian apologetics for the right-wing commentators I read, despite their reluctance to acknowledge the other things Lewis talks about--talk of evolution as an obvious fact that could help deepen our understanding of God's plan for us and the world, for example, or a depiction of homosexuality that's still progressive today by right-wing American standards. I don't suspect they have as much of a problem with a reliance on sexist stereotypes in the discussion of Christian marriage, but I can't imagine they'd like his assertion that secular marriage ought to have nothing to do with Christian morals. I'll be writing more about Mere Christianity, and C.S. Lewis in general, for a number of different reasons: the questions they raise, and their delineation of a moral worldview that's much more funky and organic and, well, weird, than the stuff we get from the secular deontological, aretaic or consequentialist paradigms. And like those paradigms, it's basically a rule system, and one that can be simulated, tweaked, and resimulated, preferably by people who actually know things about morality, code, or both. In short, not me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

BioShock follow-up

A deeper look at BioShock, and the moral issues with which it deals or fails to deal, can be found here.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Raziel is a scab.

I first heard of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain via a preview in Diehard GameFan magazine. The emphasis, unsurprisingly, was on the game's graphic and aesthetic qualities; it was an early PlayStation game (released in late 1996), and the thrill of (then) high-quality full-motion video (FMV) hadn't yet worn off. In addition, the media hysteria over Mortal Kombat and Night Trap had only recently worn off, and violent game--games that would likely arouse controversy and thus validate the reviewers' occupations--were always in high demand at the thoroughly contrarian GameFan. An interview with the creators followed the preview, and the conversation took a curious turn: the creator began talking about the game's plot, and the psychological profile they had tried to construct for the protagonist.

I was out of school at the time, after 7th grade and before college, and the always significant role of videogames in my life was growing. My interest in storytelling in general was growing as well, and much of the time I didn't spend on games was focused on creative writing in the form of prose and screenplays. I had begun to understand games as stories integrated within tests of strategy and reflexes (a whole lot simpler than what I believe now, but not exactly a bad view of the medium), and I purchased the game not long after it came out, expecting just this: a good little morality tale with some exploration and a few boss fights thrown in.

In my first time through the game, my expectations were fulfilled, but not exceeded. The gameplay itself was mediocre, a 2D, 3/4 overhead view Zelda knock-off showing some of the same gimmicks (real-time scaling) and problems (oppressive load times) as other early PS games, as well as inconsistent collision detection that would have seemed out of place in a 16-bit game. The strategies I (as the player) was called upon to learn were rather simple, and challenging only in that they were well outside the strategies usually employed in the genre. The story, and the presentation, were something else altogether. The actual plot is perhaps too convoluted to describe here, but can be summarized thus: Kain of Coorhagen, an arrogant nobleman, is set upon by brigands and murdered. Offered a chance for vengeance by the necromancer Mortanius, Kain eagerly accepts the offer without asking the consequences. He is returned to earth as a vampire, a living corpse despised by his own class and his inferiors alike. After killing his assassins, he finds himself lured into a quest to end the malaise that has so corrupted the land of Nosgoth by killing the nine guardians of the land, who have been perverted by a darkness that manifests as insanity in some and moral collapse in others. These nine are referred to as the Circle of Nine, and each is linked to one of the Pillars of Nosgoth, nine columns representing the magical elements that control the land: Mind, Conflict, Nature, Energy, Time, Dimension, States, Death, and Balance.

Incidentally, do you see why your college lit professors told you not to do plot summary in your writings? It's fucking awful to read. I wrote that crap paragraph above this one, and am now so bored I'll probably end up spending an hour looking at political blogs and porn just to get the taste of plot synopsis out of my mouth.

Anyway, the story is arranged, toward the game's beginning, in a standard fashion for the genre: nine powerful wizards must be tracked to their opulent lairs and slain. The genre conventions, however, do not hold throughout the game. The wizards in question do not, as they had in all previous incarnations of this game design, simply wait for the “hero” to slowly grow in power until he bursts in and kills them; they behave, for lack of a better term, realistically. One flees from his pursuer, knowing he stands no chance. Another cannot be defeated, and the player must escape and seek assistance from a third party. Three form an alliance to protect themselves. Two attempt to kill each other. Members of the Circle, far from bit players, are active participants in the story even when Kain (and, by extension, the player) can't see them. The player's perspective is mostly fixed to Kain, and as such the player seldom knows more than the avatar; most of the story is revealed to players only through Kain's discoveries. At the end of the game, with the Circle annihilated, the final truth is revealed. Kain has been selected, through his actions, to become the new guardian of Balance, but his own body is an abomination, regardless of what good he has managed to do with it. As the lone remaining power in Nosgoth, he can rule it as a king overseeing its continuing slow death, or sacrifice himself and restore balance, bringing salvation to a land damned hundreds of years before his birth.

The device is a fairly common one: a good ending and a bad one. It is easy enough, by loading a saved game near the end, to see both. Nonetheless, the game does offer the player the choice, and players are thus allowed to engage in an activity that is both role-playing and literary criticism: what, given what is known about Kain's character, would he do?

It is here that the ambitiousness of Kain's design becomes most apparent. There is no onscreen text in Blood Omen, aside from file management and one puzzle involving runes; all information, even that not directly related to the story (such as descriptions of items or spells), is carried to the player by Kain in short oral narratives. It is in these moments, seemingly extraneous, that we learn much of Kain's character. Kain is a vicious, bloodthirsty sadist, and it seems from his comments that this was true even when he was alive. He enjoys the kill, but resents that he must do it to survive. He is a bad person by any stretch of the imagination, consumed by hatred at every turn, but in his hatred lies his redemption. He hates the state Nosgoth is in, the corruption that runs through every plant and animal in the land. He hates being a vampire, even if he enjoys the power it gives him. His hatred sets him in his way, and amid his blood-soaked journey, he begins to change. He begins his quest looking for vengeance, continues it looking to restore his own life, and at some point, simply forgets about the trappings of power with which he seemed so concerned both before and after his perverted resurrection, going so far as to ignore a chance to travel back in time and prevent his own death. Kain's own power, and his own vengeance, slip by the wayside as he increasingly fights on behalf of Nosgoth itself, and neither Kain nor the player is called upon to notice this change in priorities until the choice that ends the game.

In the GameFan interview, the creator says that Kain is a character of moral transformation: a thing of darkness that can think only evil, yet ultimately finds himself trying to save the world. My own reading of the text confirmed this claim: Kain was not an anti-hero, as semi-literate game reviewers have always been fond of calling him, but a hero.

I enjoyed the game greatly, and awaited the sequel I presumed was coming—most games don't have both a main title and a subtitle unless a series is intended, after all. Two years later, I saw a feature on the GameFan website of the upcoming Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. I was initially confused that the subtitle had become the series title, and that the Soul Reaver, a minor plot point in the first game, would be featured so prominently. Upon reading more of the preview, I became even more confused. Kain had chosen his own survival over the well-being of Nosgoth, said the preview, and now ruled of the dying remnants of the land with six lieutenants, vampires he had created. Moreover, the Soul Reaver storyline contradicted the Blood Omen storyline, specifically its physics/metaphysics, in several ways. It was still possible, of course, that the designers had changed their minds, or that I had just happened to stumble upon a radical, possibly unsupportable interpretation of the text. Nonetheless, if any designers were to assert that a game had a meaning bound up in the text itself--that “readers” could not pick and choose the elements they felt valid to support what future storylines made sense--it would be those at Silicon Knights. Some time later, I read a minor story on the same site that Crystal Dynamics, Blood Omen's distributor, was being sued by Silicon Knights. Not much in the way of detail was given.

I did some digging, and soon found that Soul Reaver was being developed in-house at Crystal Dynamics, not at Silicon Knights. At the time, I was working (in the sense of doing work, not in the sense of being paid) for an amateur game review site. My main job was to go on professional sites and grab screenshots for games, which I'd send to our graphics department (a woman named Katie), who would open a graphic editing program and place our site's logo directly over the watermarks on the screenshots I'd grabbed. I'm not sure if that was, strictly speaking, legal, and won't be repeating the process here. That said, I soon started writing reviews, and thus my participation in the site was sufficient to write to people and imply that I was a member of the press. I wrote an article about the games (now lost to the ages) for the now-defunct site, and sent drafts to Crystal Dynamics and Silicon Knights, in case they preferred to correct any errors or argue any judgments before its publication. Crystal Dynamics sent no response, but my email to Silicon Knights was answered by the lead designer, Denis Dyack. Although legally prohibited from discussing the terms of the settlement with Crystal Dynamics, he did discuss the team's plans for the series and issues with the story path chosen by the sequel's designers.

Crystal Dynamics' Kain series, which now has four published entires (including one that purports to be the sequel to the original Blood Omen), did eventually develop quite a fan following of its incredibly convoluted storyline, even if it ended up being more like an extended spy movie than the classical tragedy to which Blood Omen aspired, and aside from the glaring, unresolved inconsistencies with Blood Omen, the new series has been pretty consistent with itself. Perhaps more importantly, the storyline was matched with a more modern gameplay system (swiped from the 3D Zelda games and Tomb Raider) and exponentially better graphics. A modest success in the hands of Silicon Knights, Crystal Dynamics made a highly lucrative franchise out of Nosgoth.

The experience as a whole made me think long and hard about the nature of authorship, and how the concept had not yet been fully developed in games. The videogame industry does produce its share of superstar designers—Wil Wright, John Carmack, Sid Meier—but they're usually valued for general game design principles, nothing so pedestrian as character creation or story. It made me think about how the non-interactive elements of what is so often presumed to be an interactive medium were so important to my overall experience of the game, and what that meant for the future of games as a storytelling medium. It made me wonder why the press didn't seem to think the legal theft of the Blood Omen series, renamed as the Legacy of Kain series, warranted any print, and it made me wonder to what extent players would have cared if it did. It made me think about rules of interpretation, and brought forth ideas for which I wouldn't find words until I studied literature in college, years later. In short, the treatment of Blood Omen by the distributor, by the press and by the players pissed me off, and I ended up channeling that anger into my academic work.

Though the ideas are obviously still in development, what I learned from Blood Omen and its subsequent sequels still informs a great deal of my work. First, despite all the griping about videogames being a “dumb” medium fundamentally incapable of storytelling, deep, throught-provoking games exist; they just don't often become famous, because the gaming press often can't be bothered to notice. Second, active gameplay does not entirely divorce games from rules of non-ergodic narrative. The drama in playing Blood Omen comes not only from the ergodic elements, or from the voiceovers and cut-scenes, but from the tension between the two: not control, but illusion of control. This illusion of control makes this particular form of game design (one that seems to be receiving fairly little critical interest when compared to the ludic playgrounds of Grand Theft Auto or The Sims) particularly well-suited to tragedy. Finally, if the industry is going to prosper, creators' rights must be respected, and when they are not, the media have to cry foul, or give players the information needed to do so themselves. It isn't a lack of creativity that slows down artistic progress in videogames, it's a lack of critical involvement by those that play them.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The BioShock effect.

In the February 2008 issue of Game Informer--yes, it's probably available somewhere online, and no, I'm not going to track down a link for you--Matt Miller raises the radical idea that videogames can be meaningful texts. After dipping briefly into Nietzsche to remind us of the Conventional Wisdom About Videogames (escapism, power fantasy, etc.), he suggests that "recent releases seem desperate to strive for some more subtle and powerful thematic visions, and the trend has only recently begun to hit its stride."

Unsurprisingly, he's talking about BioShock. Everyone was talking about BioShock, as the adorably solipsistic Game of the Year ritual was hitting its peak toward the end of the year. BioShock is, by all accounts, a bloody awesome game, and it seems to have succeeded admirably in using narrative elements to emotionally involve the player in what is fundamentally a rule system that involves pointing a cursor at moving things and clicking until they stop moving. "As that sprawling undersea metropolis opens up to players," writes Miller, "it's hard to avoid the cultural commentary." "Hard to avoid" is an interesting phrase, and hints at what I consider to be the central problem of the piece. We have heard so much about BioShock partially because it's a fun game built on impressive technology, and partially because its storyline deals with Big Important Themes. But plenty of games, good and bad, have dealt (or attempted to deal) with Big Important Themes over the years, with varying commercial and critical success. Miller acknowledges as much: "For years, we've had a smattering of titles that seamlessly blend fun and exciting gameplay with deeper and more complex thematic issues, from Oddworld's environmental commentary to the wasteland motifs of Fallout."

As someone who thinks of videogames as a medium with narrative potentialities we've not seen before, it's frustrating to me whenever an interesting title goes unnoticed. Miller, perhaps, feels the same way. But this begs the question, why? Why do players in a saturated marketplace in which a large number of developers compete for finite amounts of money and attention often miss out on ambitious games that experiment with ways to use the affordances of the videogame medium to enact meaningful stories in a completely new way? Who could have been helping to raise public awareness of these games that the public might have greatly enjoyed had they been aware that there was more going on in videogame design than Doom and Mortal Kombat? Do you have any idea, Matt Miller of Game Informer magazine?

Some of the most interesting texts slip under most players' radar, but that's true of popular film, literature, etc. BioShock falls into the category of the Oscar bait film--a work that's to obviously and overtly Big and Important that you can't possibly miss it. In film and literature, most of the heavy lifting is done by academic wonks, but even lay reviewers are expected to pay some attention to what a book or movie seems to say, in addition to cataloging its its raw components. And despite the confusion over exactly how story works in games, as the academics work through the collapse of the imaginary ludology/narratology binary, there's a lot of interesting work going on that could very easily filter into popular consumption were the mainstream gaming press to step up to the plate.

Granted, I don't read a lot of mainstream gaming press anymore; I used to obsessively pick up every issue of GamePro, Electronic Gaming Monthly and DieHard GameFan when I was a kid, a habit I was happy to leave behind once internet access let me cut out the middlemen. I get Game Informer for free these days, and generally flip through it once or twice, become depressed at all the cool games I won't have time to play, and ponder selling all my possessions and wandering the earth like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. It's possible that the gaming press is doing a bang-up job these days and I'm missing out on it. Still, beyond the occasional nod to the academic community ("Look! It's Henry Jenkins! We're legitimate!"), I don't see much in the magazines and websites I do consume. In the next post, I'll talk a bit about my own experiences with the gaming press, my early experiences trying to parse out meaningful ideas in games, and why I'll probably never have screenshots on this blog.

What we do for you is so good for you: the mission statement post.

My name is Peter Rauch. I am twenty-six years old, and I possess a master's degree and no marketable skills.

I study videogames and a variety of other stuff loosely covered by "philosophy." In college, I tended to focus on one or the other, studying literature, political science, religion, and the accordant theory for class, and playing videogames as a means to avoid studying literature, political science, religion, and the accordant theory. Somewhere along the line, I screwed up, and things got reversed. I ended up writing my undergrad thesis on videogames and constitutional protection, the result being that I spent my senior year in my room reading, whereas my suitemate, who was writing a thesis on relativity, spent his senior year in the common room playing videogames. This struck me as a bit counterintuitive, but in the process I discovered the growing body of academic work on videogames, referred to here as "videogame theory" because a) it's not game theory, and b) it isn't ludology either.

When I was accepted into grad school at MIT's CMS program, I figured videogames scholar might not be a bad career path, and studying games became my prime interregnum academic work. So, on my own time, I picked up where I had left off studying moral philosophy.

At some point it occurred to me that I had a hard time thinking about one without thinking about the other. More to the point, thinking about one often helped generate new insights into the other. Both ultimately rest on models of worlds and how they work, ought to work, or fail to work, and both require very clearly delineated rules about what is important and what is epiphenomenal.

So here's a place I'm going to be writing about this thing I like to write about. It will generally fall into one or both of those categories. Formality will vary, as will post frequency, at least until I hit a fairly standard rhythm. Of course, this is all academic (so to speak) until I actually "launch," i.e. start showing this to people outside my immediate social circle, which should be sometime between the next couple of weeks and, um, fall.