Sunday, May 25, 2008

More shit about rules and fiction.

So, last night I was depressed, and my partner and I rented Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. These two things may not seem like they complement each other to most people, but we are a strange breed. The clerks were split on whether this was a good choice, but agreed that it worked fine as a retaliation for my recently having been forced to watch A Chorus Line. The retaliation theory doesn't really work, in that she enjoyed the first AvP more than I did, partially because she thought the lead predator was adorable. So, he said, there's that.

The new one is, well, what you see is what you get. Aliens blown apart by bullets. Aliens ripped apart by glaives. Humans decapitated by shoulder cannons. But AvP isn't really ideal for narrative media anyway; I have some of the old comics somewhere, and perhaps I'm wrong and the whole predator homeworld thing added something really vital to the mythos, something greater than the sum of its parts. But as far as I can see, it's piggybacking on the established tropes of two sci-fi/horror series of wildly varying respectability. All it adds is fighting. The appeal of AvP is more kinetic than narrative. Which means that it probably ought to have been a videogame in the first place.

There've been quite a few AvP games over the years, of course. The one for the Jaguar has been largely forgotten, which is a shame, because it represents an era of gaming culture that is, frankly, hilarious. The later PC release is the one most of us remember, I suspect, and aside from somewhat clunky multiplayer, it was a thoroughly brilliant FPS. When everyone talks about System Shock, I bring up AvP. What I remember about the game is mostly its use of darkness, and how each species relied on different methods to cope with it, but my fondest memories involve the weapons. The presence of three species allowed developers to build two contradictory weapon sets into the human and predator armories. Most importantly, these weapons were narratively consistent with what we knew from the films: the shoulder cannon fires in a straight line, and aliens are too fast for it, so that's for humans. The prox pistol lobs a ball of energy that safely and quickly kills aliens with its splash damage, but if you miss and hit one with the initial shot, they'll explode and bathe you in acid. It's too short range to be useful against something that's not running toward you, so that's for aliens. And the invisibility, conveniently, fails when coupled with any of the weapons designed for aliens, who don't need to see you anyway.

The sequel, the aptly titled AvP2, improved on the first in virtually every way. Still, it took me a long time to warm up to it, because it was narratively inconsistent with both the films and the previous game. The shoulder cannon became a tracking weapon for fast-moving prey, and became incompatible with invisibility. The new weapons, like the netgun, seemed awfully human-like, complete with ammo pickups. In fact, the line between human and predator seemed to be getting smaller.

On further play, I realized what I had been missing. Despite the increased emphasis on story in the three single-player campaigns, the game had been optimized for multiplayer, specifically a class-based multiplayer that divided all three species into four specialized classes. Every piece of weaponry, every alien mutation, now made perfect sense from a design perspective, and had the single-player campaign used a similar structure--back in the days of dial-up, I can be forgiven for reliably playing the single-player campaign first--I would have grasped the reason for the changes immediately, and acknowledged that they did, in fact, lead to a better game. But even for a better game, the narrative inconsistency might have been a little tough to swallow. Different people value texts for different reasons, of course; does this mean I'm a narratologist?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One, two, three

Let's start with three.

One is a point, two is a line, three is a shape. The Greeks were big on three and its multiples, at least partially for that reason, and this might be why we in Western civ have such a rough time not thinking in terms of threes. It certainly seems intuitive, from the perspective of the reality our language constructs: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Once you have a thing, it's an intuitive leap to its opposite or absence, and an intuitive leap from there to the integration of the two. We see other arrangements as well: paper-rock-scissors is another one, appearing in Eternal Darkness as flesh-mind-spirit, the warrior, the alchemist and the wizard. Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the big one, of course, the one we can't unthink even if we want to. Metropolis refashions the trinity as head, hands and heart--suggesting a relationship between the three largely consistent with C.S. Lewis' description of the trinity itself. That which begets, that which is begotten, and the love between them, an animating force that is, itself, a person. The mind that conceives, the word that is spoken into being, and the breath that constitutes the connection between the two.

How does this relate to videogames? Mostly via a simple assertion: binaries are fucking boring. It's easier to make interesting relationships between three signs, characters, or factions than between two. And consequently, most modern RPGs and many adventure games are based around three primary stats or paths. Generally, it breaks down in terms of physical, mental/magical, and...other. Often it's agility, which is associated with stealth and thievery; agility essentially being an intuitive connection between mind and body that automates certain precise processes. The venerable Kingdom of Loathing uses "moxie" to much the same ends. Eternal Darkness splits mental/magical into two categories. Diablo begins with three playable characters, each based around strength, intelligence or agility; Phantasy Star Online reproduced the meme and split each class into three characters, divided among three races that related to each other as the classes did. In multiplayer games, a fourth entity sometimes appears in the form of the healer--most MMORPGs these days seem to be built around the interaction of a melee fighter, a non-specific ranger/thief support fighter, a healer and a nuker. Dungeons & Dragons, I'm told had the cleric before the rogue, but then, the cleric in D&D isn't much like the clerisy in any other RPG. And we're talking about three for now.

In RPGs that allow variable morality, it's generally a secondary stat, one that changes as a result of your decisions rather than leveling up. Arcanum uses a single good/bad axis, like the hilariously simple Jedi Knight and the highly confusing Darkwatch. Occasionally, these simple systems are used for things that aren't quite moral in nature, but function for the player much the same way, such as the professionalism meter in Reservoir Dogs or the trust bars in Splinter Cell: Double Agent. D&D did something a bit more complex by adding a lawful/chaotic axis perpendicular to the good/evil one, but its application in games is a bit odd, as it was really designed for tabletop games with actual humans improvising shit and then fighting about it.

So, what if we looked at morality instead as a primary stat, the heart that mediates between head and hands, the breath of life between the mind and the word...the spirit, the soul, that which is third? How would morality function as an ability stat?

There are a few options. As grace, favor of the gods, etc., morality could function as a luck stat. But a quick look at how the world functions shows this to be a fairly stupid and untenable idea. Besides, most good stories require at least a little bit of bad things happening to good people. Conversely, it could function as a kind of anti-luck, a demonic shit-magnet, but that would have to be offset with some positive to make it make sense. Protection from certain kinds of evil is a possibility, as is immunity to certain effects, such as fear or supernatural curses. Experience growth would be interesting, associating moral living with the life force. Virtue ethics might provide a useful template for ideas, as might the Christian cardinal/theological virtues. All of these, of course, hinge on free will.

So we borrow a page from Kant, and to some extent, Zoroaster, and associate the morality stat with free will. What does this mean? Well, first of all, it sets up morality as a matter of presence vs. absence; morality opposing amorality, not immorality. A character with a low morality stat is, functionally, an animal, operating largely on stimulus-response, i.e. the avatar spends some of its time on autopilot. This character pursues self-interest--its rationality is debatable, and might be linked with the mind stat--and thus might or might not be thought of as an egoist, but, y'know, moving on. At any rate, this sad avatar of low morals is ruled by avarice and fear. (An aside: I think lust ought to be here, but that's a very hypothetical area I'll not deal with in this post, because any game that purports to be about morality, sex, and violence is going to need--need--to deal with rape. And not superficially.) (S)he identifies all opposing players as enemies, and can't converse or exchange items with them. Teams and clans, therefore, cannot be joined; those of low morals are doomed to solo. This connects our oversimplified, somewhat childish, yet still kind of interesting morality signifier with the realm of the interpersonal. More to the point, it penalizes mindless (automated) aggression, and makes not doing things as important as doing them--more, since not doing things is effectively a reward for increased abilties. (This principle will need to be applied at a few layers, but, whatever.)

As for immorality, the perversion of substantive good, well, there's a couple of paths for that, fodder for future posts. In the meantime, what does the ruleset I've vaguely outlined above say? That the evil are fearsome, and more powerful individually than the good, but their power is limited and redounds upon itself by their lack of self-control. Finally, this ruleset would seem to give griefers their own class, although one wonders if they'd prefer to play as moral characters to as to fuck up other players more effectively.