Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Don't Own This Post: Thoughts on The Objectivist Ethics

First, as the essay I'll be looking at has been collected in The Virtue of Selfishness, I feel obliged to summarize the intro to that book, lest we end up getting Dworkined on a basic misunderstanding of vocabulary. (I'm pretty sure the use of Dworkin as a verb is my invention. I'm a communist, though: you looters can have it.) In the American English of Rand's day, as well as ours, selfishness is generally contrasted with altruism. The trouble is that altruism being accepted as a good necessarily presupposes that its opposite, selfishness, must be bad. And there is much to be admired about being interested in, skilled with, and dependent upon one's 'self,' whatever that may mean. Self-sufficiency, for example, is generally considered a valorous attribute. Self-awareness even more so. Self-interest, well, that gets us locked up in political lingo, as it's essentially a meaningless concept employed to summarize unrelated ideas.

But, getting back to Rand, selfishness probably ought not to have the exclusively negative connotation that it does. However, the fact remains that it does, and insisting that it be treated otherwise won't promote new ideas so much as require us to rework ever more vocabulary. Which might be useful, over a great deal of time, but it's not really in a philosopher's area of expertise at that point.

I once stumbled upon the website of a man who claimed to have found a way to divide by zero. It's a bold claim, perhaps, but an asterisk is warranted. Because, as many math-oriented people pointed out, the rule against dividing by zero is not a law of nature we found in a pristine state. It's an agreed-upon rule that's part of a larger mathematical structure. We could have designed a system in which dividing by zero is possible, but we did not. So one can certainly divide by zero, as long as they're willing to acknowledge that sundry other mathematical laws will not function in the new system. You'd be starting from scratch.

I leave the parallels to you. Moving on!

What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions--the choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics is: why does man need a code of values?

The Socratics, to whom Rand and I will soon turn, were very fond of this kind of philosophizing, and they had different answers. They were, at least, sensible enough to note that such values existed, and seemed to have existed for as long as there have been human beings, even when there were no philosophers around to tell people about it. The idea of not having values is an empty signifier, like not being on a boat. That something exists, and it is difficult to imagine an alternative to its existence, does not make the question of why less important, of course, but it does set an interesting tone for our reading. The writer does not seem entirely in control of her symbols.

Rand then asks whether a judgment of what is Good and what is Bad is a subjective whim, a "desire experienced by a person who does not know and does not care to discover its cause, or on actual fact. Rand actually uses not merely fact but "metaphysical fact," although she is kind enough to explain in parentheses that she is using metaphysical to mean "that which pertains to reality, to the nature of things, to existence." Which is not, strictly speaking what metaphysical means, and may in fact be its opposite--exactly what relationship do abstract entities immune to empirical testing have to "reality" or "existence" this week? I had a doctor's appointment and couldn't make the last meeting.

Anyway, Rand claims that for most of human history, morality has been decided to be in the "whim" school, primarily expressed through the (literally) arbitrary will of gods, although a few have tried to break out of it into something scientific. Aristotle went with descriptive ethics, neatly avoiding the question of "why?" that so plagues the prescriptive, and others ("neo-mystics" simply reskinned religious dogma as agreed-upon social rules, substituting the "good of society" for the "will of God." Taking a brief aside from my usual concise, ruthlessly on-topic approach, I feel I should note that either of these seem like fine places to start for ethics, assuming the thing that "wills" exists. I'm not sure about God, and though certain people doubt the existence of society, the empirical evidence for society's existence is pretty daunting. Who the fuck is writing all these blogs, anyway?

Credit where credit is due, it is true that individual people exist, and society is just a made-up concept that makes it easier to refer to large groups of them in speech of writing. (We will ignore, for the moment, the possibility that the individual person is also such a made-up concept.) Because we lack the hive-mind technology of the Borg, or even the knowledge base technology of the Cylons, society can be referred to, lauded, or railed against, but it cannot act. And because it is difficult to coordinate the efforts of every individual in a large system to a common end, especially when some of them are dicks, the moral dictates of the will of God/good of society must be enforced by individuals who symbolically take on the identity of society itself and pursue actions that would be prohibited to them as individuals. Through this conception of "society," we have made men into gods.

This is not a minor point. The fact that the snarling beast of chaos can only be kept in check by the also-snarling beast of an army or police force is a serious fucking problem, and deserves to be taken seriously. A police class necessarily legitimizes coercion. The Western approach has generally been to set up so many checks on power that it's a pain in the ass for any of our public servants to step too far out of line, but it's not a perfect system, and the question remains: Who watches the watchers of the watchers of the watchmen? And who watches them?

Having established the shakiness of the persistent "whim" school of values, Rand suggests an alternative: existence. "The concept 'value' [...] presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative." As living organisms, our existence is a pattern of information whose continued function is not guaranteed to us, but must be painstakingly maintained. Because we need to exist and face nonexistence for "value" to exist, reasons Rand, then Good must necessarily be what furthers our existence, and Bad what hinders it.

Things get tricky here, because Rand is unknowingly treading on the territory of a field which did not exist in her time, that of evolutionary psychology. Like it or not, "The Objectivist Ethics" is an apologetics for evo psych. Which doesn't make her claim about morality being necessarily related to existence wrong, but does severely problematize her earlier concept of "whims," because it turns out we've identified those subjective whims, and they're the result of natural selection, i.e. technically random, but the very opposite of chance. We do care enough to discover the cause of these former-whims, and we are learning more daily about said causes. The fact that such subjective ephemera were nearly universal among our species, and that agreement on said principles was largely effective in getting people to pretend not to murder each other or sexually abuse their children, was enough reason to keep them around, despite our inability to locate their origins. (Oh, and hey, C.S. Lewis actually tries to deduce the existence of God from the ubiquity of said rules. Rand, if you're reading, check out that old post. I'm sure you'll get along.)

And now that you mention it, who wouldn't like to see C.S. Lewis fight Ayn Rand?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ultimate The Mortal Kombat Problem 3

Previously on Mortal Kombat:
Stryker? Seriously?

MK3 had done its business in arcades, and performed quite serviceably on the extant consoles as well, including the shiny new PlayStation, but the buzz was certainly nowhere near what it had been during the heyday of MK2. In an attempt to remedy this, Midway decided to emulate the most critically despised feature of its closest competitor: the non-sequel sequel, more commonly referred to as the upgrade.

Attempting to appear responsive to fans' griping that the third game hadn't been as groundbreaking as the second, the designers made it known that they were paying close attention to fan input on designing the inaccurately named Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. Message boards swarmed. Magazines printed summaries. The results, unsurprisingly, were stupid.

Primarily this is because the fans wanted more MK2, and almost all of the suggestions boiled down to "make it more like MK2." So back came Scorpion, Reptile, Kitana, Jade, and Mileena, palette-swaps broken only by sex. The male portion of the palette-swapping duo, the mighty and stick-legged John Turk, also reprised two roles that had diegetically ceased to exist in the series continuity, "Classic" Sub-Zero and "Human" Smoke, along with Ermac, who was "created" as a hoax back in MK1. A few of the classic Outworld backgrounds returned as well, but really, now that we've had 3D backgrounds for a while, who gives a shit?

None of these characters added much to the game; most of their functionality had been rendered redundant by MK3 new cast, and in practice they were mostly interesting for people who didn't like or wouldn't learn any of the new affordances built into MK3's design. At any rate, UMK3 attempted to respond to accusations that the series wasn't as innovative as it used to be by explicitly recycling its own past.

In short, UMK3 was kind of a pointless "internet only" release of a game, appealing for diehard fans, but not particularly noteworthy from a design perspective. The rights to console adaptation of UMK3 were sold to Sega, who released it as an "exclusive" to their already faltering Saturn platform. Not willing to forgo the more lucrative PlayStation and Nintendo64 markets, Midway quickly came up with Mortal Kombat Trilogy, which was basically UMK3 with an additional level of recursion.

So the games built, in part, on what the fans wanted, ended up exacerbating all of the fans' complaints, because it turns out the fans aren't always the best designers. That's why they don't get paid to, y'know, design. But lo, respite on the horizon! The new, 3D Mortal Kombat 4 was to follow, cross-marketed with the series' first genre jump (the quirky but underrated MK Mythologies: Sub-Zero), and a brand new story that didn't involve Shao Kahn at all! Most importantly--this became a mantra for the fans--there would be no more silly, cartoonish fatalities (or babalities, or animalities...). No, MK4 was going to be a return to the dark and violent milieu of Mortal Kombat.

MK Mythologies bombed. MK4 added in some thoroughly disposable new features, including the most limited "3D" movement since Fatal Fury 2 did it with sprites, and left people generally unimpressed. Tekken was busily making the series irrelevant, and arcades were dying around both of them. The storyline, despite having the advantage of a very filmic paratext, was more vague than its predecessors: how Shinnok (the new villain) intends to take over the world through the not-officially-a-tournament tournament is rather unclear. In fact, diegetically, Shinnok seems to have no powers at all: humans can make him perform "impersonations"--a simplified form of Shang Tsung's morphing that wouldn't cause problems on CD-based consoles--but Shinnok the end boss ran around and threw rocks. As is, apparently, befitting a fallen elder god ruling over a desolate parody of the heavens in which he once served.

On the bright side, it was nice to be away from Kahn for a while, and once again the designers seemed determined to keep supplying us with fresh faces, despite the fairly large number of returning favorites befitting a series reboot. To that end, the (dead, it has been implied) Kung Lao has been replaced with the more interesting Fujin, the (dead, it is stated) Kano is replaced by the...well, not-that-different Jarek, Tanya points to the still tumultuous situation on Outworld, and Quan Chi makes his appearance as the only thing anyone will remember about this game. There's even a character added in v2.0 that's implied to be a weakened and pissed-off Shao Kahn, but turns out to be...well, nobody in particular.

Really, the only reason I bothered to spend more than a sentence on MK4 is the Feuding Ninja Paradox, which is not only an excellent name for a rock band, but a continuity clusterfuck more emphatic than even the Shao Kahn Shenanigans that preceded it.

Shamelessly plagiarizing one of the more long-winded and arrogant theorists, it bears repeating: For a sequel to take place, there must first be a coherent and reasonably specific decision as to which possible chain of events actually happened in the previous game. In the canonical conclusion of MK1, Liu Kang wins the tournament, an event that happens only in Liu Kang's ending. However, the events described in Cage's ending, aside from the victory itself, also take place: Cage has, in fact, made a movie called "Mortal Kombat." Likewise, Scorpion has killed Sub-Zero, as happened in his own ending, and as was explicitly contradicted in Sub-Zero's ending. The world is not swiftly brought to its end, as it is in Raiden and Kano's endings. The only element common to every ending, Tsung's defeat, is canonical. The rest seems to be a mishmash of all the endings, excluding only the events that explicitly contradict each other. This rule seems to apply throughout the series: Kung Lao dies in Liu Kang's MK3 ending, but also in his own, and so we aren't surprised not to see him in MK4.

In MK2, the recognition and reconciliation between Scorpion and Sub-Zero occurs in both characters' endings, and is nowhere else contradicted. It is the conclusion of Scorpion's character arc, and the reason for his absence in MK3. Midway went out of their way to reboot the Sub-Zero character, dramatically altering his trademark appearance, giving him new antagonists, and making him a white-hat rebel at war not only with the forces of Outworld, but with his former employers as well. Scorpion's UMK3 ending actually has him enlisted by Kahn to fight against the good guys, only to turn around and kill his master when the orders conflict with his spectral prime directive of "protect Sub-Zero."

Which is why it confused fans when Scorpion entered MK4 consumed with a desire to take vengeance on Sub-Zero, who murdered his family. The text very nearly provides a way to fanwank this problem, but gets caught up in the details. Clearly, this would require some sort of retcon, an official overwriting of an element of the canonical story. The lead designer went in a different direction, stating that all the games' endings were just hypotheticals, describing what would happen if that particular character had won the tournament. Since neither Scorpion or Sub-Zero won MK2, the reconciliation never occurred, and they were arch-nemeses again.

Conveniently, this logic undoes not only the Scorpion/Sub-Zero storyline of MK2 and UMK3, but also everything that has ever happened in the series past the conclusion of the first game. After all, the designers remind us that there hasn't been an "official" tournament since the first game, and they've decided on no winners since then, nor have they defined the consequences for any of the parties involved. While the fans were busy arguing out a canon, the authors helpfully reminded us that almost nothing in the entire series was canonical, and there need be no narrative connection from game to game.

Which is, I suppose, one way to solve the Problem: by stating it openly.

After MK4, it was announced that the follow-up would be a reboot to the series, a return to the dark and violent milieu of Mortal Kombat. The series picked up, eventually, with the console-only Deadly Alliance, which brought back some characters declared dead, killed some other characters, and brought in an entirely new, and quite brilliant, set of play mechanics. It broke the million-sold mark, but the diehard fans were furious for the game's severe dearth of the stupid bullshit they'd begged them to take out of previous iterations of the game. A sequel followed, Deception, finally attempting to paper over the giant story holes and answer some basic questions about the universe. Another sequel followed, Armageddon, in which the (hilarious) plot concerns the possibility that the ever-growing cast of the series will cause the universe to collapse under the weight of its own convoluted continuity. (It also, curiously, extended the tutorial "Konquest" mode into a full-length adventure game.)

Now, our eyes are drawn to 2011, two decades after the release of the first Mortal Kombat, and we have been promised that it will be a reboot, a return to the dark and violent milieu of Mortal Kombat. MK storylines are always best when stealing from other media, and I think the Star Trek reboot is a fine place to start. Warner Bros., the new owners of the franchise, are reputed to be interested in expanding the brand into the multimedia juggernaut that never quite came together under its previous stewards. The MK universe has all the raw materials for a pretty interesting fantasy world, which is why the fans have been so inclined to try to make sense of it, even when the authors couldn't be bothered to do so, even when the genre conventions worked against them. Here's hoping someone's actually paying attention this time.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Department of Redundancy Department

I just found out that Might and Magic: Heroes Kingdoms has gone live in North America. This is the MMO based on Nival's Heroes of Might & Magic V, which was spun off into Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and the stellar Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. It is not to be confused with Heroes of Might and Magic Online, a different MMO based on New World Computing's much more prestigious Heroes of Might and Magic I-IV. Also not to be confused with King's Bounty, either the original game that inspired the creation of Heroes of Might & Magic, or the recently released remake. Also also not to be confused with the Western RPG series Might and Magic I-IX.

There. Glad we cleared that up.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Means, Ends, and Win Conditions

Between The Power and the Glory and Twilight, my fiction diet this year has been something of a mixed bag, so it should probably surprise no one that my scatterbrained lit-major-in-denial ass has spent most of my reading time in the non-fic section of the storyrealm. Among the highlights of such recent ventures has been Codeville and Seabury's War: Ends and Means. It's a fairly famous text in conservative intellectual circles, although one does have to wonder if it would be so fondly remembered were it released under its original title.

It's been updated to accommodate the decades of real actual history that took place after it's publication, and I must confess ignorance to the any substantive ass-covering in the editing process. (c.f. Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History Except Not Really, New York: Doubleday (2001)) Reading it in terms of politics, it's a surreal text, taking place in an alternate universe in which conservatives used the same buzzwords they do today for diametrically opposed reasons. In terms of war, it's a much more straightforward read, and the raw data on technology, expenditures and logistics is useful even when the political slant is a bit obvious. The introduction offers an apologetics, of sorts, for the book's existence, in the process arguing a point much more difficult to deny than any of the principles that follow: when it comes to the function, history, risks, rewards, tactics and procedures of war, modern Americans don't know shit.

I've written before--not here, so you'll have to take my word for it--on how modern war-strategy games tend to present war in a certain way, which is also how it is often discussed in media coverage of politics. Specifically, war is presented as armed and/or mechanized conflict between two or more parties who fight each other until either some specific goal is achieved by one side, or until only one faction has living bodies left on the field. (We are, for the moment, excluding the problem of necromancy from the model.) The results are final, and beyond the initial outlay of resources, the battlefield is presented as something of a closed system: if it meaningfully affects the map, it's going to happen on the map. Terrain matters, but ultimately technology is king.

It's a fine enough model, and makes for some thrilling games, but it's a pretty strange way to look at war, because it's strangely devoid of...soldiers. Players often lack a clearly defined avatar: diegetically, they are sometimes represented by an officer figure of some sort, and sometimes feel more like the non-specific godlike presence of a sandbox game. The soldiers respond in the affirmative when given commands, and...that's about it. With rare exceptions, such as the pleasantly diverting Elven Legacy and Battles of Prince of Persia, armies are never "broken": unit discipline cannot be seriously undermined, because the soldiers in the field are functionally part of a hive mind, being fed information from the semi-omniscient command/control system at the speed of the player's mouse hand.

Confusion itself is the greatest impediment to an army's ability to function, due to the seemingly obvious fact that soldiers, for the most part, are sane people who don't want to die. Those who command them--and who rely on their loyalty and ferocity for their own ends--usually aren't thrilled about the idea either. Wars are rarely fought "to the last man" in practice.

Which brings us to the largest glaring omission in modern war-strategy games: the curious absence of prisoners and civilians. The rules about what to do with each are neither new nor vague, but in practice it seems difficult to keep to them. Games seem like an ideal medium to get people thinking about why. The rules of war dictate that, when fighting is to begin in a populated city, both armies give the refugees safe passage out prior to the onset of combat. Simple enough, but...what to do with these people? Whose responsibility are they? What realistic options do they have? What tactics encourage enemy soldiers to raise the white flag? What are the consequences of ignoring these tactics in favor of a more decisive body count?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Mortal Kombat Problem 3

At around this time, the inevitable Mortal Kombat film adaptation was rolling around, and despite exquisitely high standards set by Van Damme's Street Fighter and Hopper's magical realist Super Mario Bros., it turned out...pretty ok, as popcorn flicks go. It's largely irrelevant to the topic, but two points are worth mentioning:
  1. Shang Tsung's shapeshifting, a visual effect inspired by Midway's previous work in the Terminator 2 arcade game, functioned rather sensibly, as the storyline would have suggested. Which is to say, it functioned pretty much like the guy in Terminator 2.
  2. Raiden, lord of thunder, war, and exposition, explains that tournament was designed to protect the aptly named Earthrealm from Outworld invasion. The rules dictate that if Team Outworld can win ten consecutive tournaments, they get a coupon that can be redeemed for one free invasion of Earthrealm. Goro, prince of the Shokan, ruler of Kuatan, and all-around jerkoff, has won the last nine.
There's no particular reason to think of a movie tie-in as a likely place to introduce canonical changes--or rather, if there is such a reason, the Freemasons are keeping a tight lid on it--which is why I find it bizarre that the "ten wins in a row" rule seems to have been leapt upon by fans eager to put the expanding story into some kind of cohesive order, and it comes up (without citation) on the "story" sections of most fansites. I don't know for certain that the rule emanates entirely from the movie, but I can't find anything in the games themselves or in contemporary paratexts that mentions it prior to 95. It's a particularly important rule, because it changes the apocalyptic loss condition from "give Tsung/Kahn too many powerful souls" to "lose too many times." This adds a specific, down-to-the-wire gravitas to the early entries in the series, mitigated somewhat by the fact that it makes no fucking sense at all.

First off, Goro has been champion for 500 years, having won nine consecutive tournaments. Assuming the tournaments are held at regular intervals--the tournament in Enter the Dragon was every three, and the MK movie says "every generation"--this would put the canonical tournaments on an interval of slightly over fifty-five years. Olympic hopefuls have difficulty being in prime shape for contests held every four years, mind you. Had be been born a decade or two earlier or later, Liu Kang might have had to compete when he was 11 years old, with options to try again at 66 and 121. On the bright side, Liu Kang's victory in MK1 guarantees the safety of Earthrealm for another 500 years, which is helpful because he'll be pushing 80 when next called upon to defend his title.

More to the point, this would seem to make MK2 an even more irrelevant display of puffery. Were it an "official" tournament--it's not, according to later canon rules--our heroes would be forfeiting a couple of human generations' worth of freedom for what is essentially an interdimensional gang war. There seems to be no actual victory to be had in the Outworld tournament: best case scenario, according to the "ten wins" rule, they've protected Earth for another three-hundred-sixty-five days or so. One supposes that killing Kahn would end the threat entirely, and since Kahn's defeat results in his body turning to stone and exploding, we'll have to assume that Earthrealm's warriors are hoping to kill the possibly immortal sorcerer-warlord in straight-up arena combat, in a tournament that has thus far failed to kill anyone of any importance at all. Statistically speaking, the Mortal Kombat tournament seems to be significantly safer than pro wrestling.

MK had never been a favorite of the gaming press, and the critical popularity of the Street Fighter provided no shortage of comparisons. By the time MK3 was approaching its arcade release, Capcom had released Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the fourth consecutive non-sequel upgrade to a brilliant game released four years earlier. While Street Fighter's narrative remained oddly frozen in time, and most of the new cast were widely despised, the gameplay had been finely tuned with an extraordinary eye to subtlety. Critics and players alike applauded the narrative trappings and secret content MK had successfully imported from adventure games, but the general stiffness of the gameplay was getting more and more apparent in light of the competition. It was in this context that the world, represented here by a thirteen-year-old boy living in Florida, got its first look at MK3, and discovered...

Well, it looked pretty much the same as the last one. In terms of gameplay, MK3 would respond to critics who harped on the lack of gameplay differentiation between characters, overreliance on palette-swaps, and an engine that disproportionately favored defensive tactics by implementing a series of changes that would halfheartedly address one of these problems, while actually making the other two worse. (Ultimate MK3 would go the extra mile by fucking up the palette-swap reduction as well.) To be fair, it was a much tighter engine in general, removing the sense that we were operating our avatars by remote controls with dying batteries, and Gathering-of-Developers bless their little hearts, the designers had been pretty ambitious in terms of character design. Five characters were dropped outright, and some of the new faces replacing them brought some legitimately new gameplay concepts with them. Additionally, these concepts were well mapped to narrative conceits. But that brings us to the story, which is actually what these interminable goddamn posts are about, in case you've forgotten.

Shao Kahn has invaded Earth. How? Well, it's unclear. The early press for the game said that he had won the Outworld tournament, which would suggest a double-or-nothing principle that makes the heroes' decision to participate even more insane, and which would seem to fly in the face of the soon-to-be-canonical "ten wins" trope. No, the story behind Kahn's invasion of our beloved realm is much more interesting than that:

For centuries Earth has used Mortal Kombat to defend itself against the Outworld's Emeperor Shao Kahn. But, Kahn becomes frustrated by failed attempts at taking Earth through tournament battle. He enacts a plan which began 10,000 years ago. During this time Kahn had a Queen. Her name was Sindel and her young death was unexpected. Kahn's Shadow priests, lead by Shang Tsung, make it so Sindel's spirit would someday be reborn: Not on the Outworld but on the Earth Realm itself. This unholy act gives Shao Kahn [sic] to step through the dimensional gates and reclaim his Queen. Thus enabling him to finally seize the Earth Realm.

Upon breaching the portal into Earth, Shao Kahn slowly transforms the planet into a part of the Outworld itself. Kahn strips the Earth of all human life: Claiming every soul as his own. But there are souls which Kahn cannot take. These souls belong to the warriors chosen to represent Earth in a new Mortal Kombat. The remaining humans are scattered through out the planet. Shao Kahn sends an army of fierce Outworld warriors to find and eliminate them.

So, the completion of Kahn's ancient lust for the domination of Earthrealm was attained by: an unrelated event having nothing whatsoever to do with the tournament for which the series is named. He could have cancelled the damn tournament before this Goro fellow even showed up and achieved precisely the same result. So, not that it matters now, but how did the Outworld tournament turn out?

We have no idea. The game doesn't actually mention it. If there weren't the odd mention of having "escaped" from Outworld, the game would have made no acknowledgment of MK2 having happened at all. So MK has now effectively (albeit temporarily) retconned out its most popular entry, in the process of rendering its origin and namesake largely irrelevant. Fans were, of course, free to imagine how the previous entry might have played out, safe in the knowledge that, according to the canonical story, no outcome of the Outworld tournament would have had any appreciable impact on anything at all.

By 1995, MK was ably bringing in money from a variety of revenue streams across multiple media, but the bulk of it was always adaptation to home consoles. Over in that neck of the market, the inauguration of what wikipedia helpfully denotes as the fifth generation was about to begin, and the wheeling and dealing over platform exclusivity would exert its own suck on the MK franchise. Some of it can be blamed on the Street Fighter trap, the tendency to advance a series' ludic elements while leaving narrative elements to stagnate, but mostly the black hole into which the series would soon sink can be blamed on a fateful decision to start taking design cues from the most unreliable, unimaginative, and thoroughly idiotic source imaginable: the series' fans.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Mortal Kombat Problem II

Previously on Mortal Kombat:

500 years ago, Shang Tsung was banished to the Earth Realm. With the aid of Goro he was to unbalance the furies and doom the planet to a chaotic existence. By seizing control of the shaolin tournament he tried to tip the scales of order towards chaos. Only seven warriors survived the battles and Shang Tsung's scheme would come to a violent end at the hands of Liu Kang. Facing execution for his failure and the apparent death of Goro, Tsung convinces Shao Kahn to grant him a second chance... Shang Tsung's new plan is to lure his enemies to compete in the Outworld where they will meet certain death by Shao Kahn himself. Now, the Kombat kontinues...

So says the attract mode for Mortal Kombat II, an achievement of the human species so impressive that it ranks alongside indoor plumbing, individual rights and the discovery of the female orgasm in our collective accomplishments.

Any sequel not explicitly accounted for in its progenitor will necessarily entail un-finishing a seemingly finished story. Usually this is accomplished by building backwards as well as forwards, expanding the diachronic past to accommodate the synchronic present. This is world-building 101, and not technically a retcon, since there is yet no con to ret. Sometimes it can be clunky, but MK2 manages quite well overall. We find out that Tsung has a boss, a warlord from another dimension known as Outworld, and that there is a vague long-term plan to "unbalance the furies" (to borrow a phrase from a couple of MK1's endings), but otherwise it's basically a soul-sucking necromancer running a once-noble martial arts tournament, and a variety of people who want to kick his ass. Classicists among us will note that this is also the plot of Sense and Sensibility.

The attract mode also helpfully alludes to previous, non-surviving combatants we never met, which is nice, because as is noted quite eloquently here, the player's experience of Mortal Kombat does not much resemble an actual tournament. If there are a bunch of extras getting eliminated each round, that does theoretically allow a sensible arrangement, although one wonders if there are weeks between each fight, or if there are multiple stages of brutal violence operating at once, forcing spectators to pore over their programs and choose their favorites, like at Lilith Fair. One also wonders if the non-surviving combatants were put off by the fact that the tournament decorating committee saw fit to commission statues of Goro and exactly six other fighters, as if they knew in advance who was going to merit permanent display in the Warrior Shrine.

However, the structure of the sequel demands a second look. As has been noted at great length by theorists far more ludological than I, a videogame is not a straight narrative, but a possibility space in which narratives can be enacted. For a sequel to take place, there must first be a coherent and reasonably specific decision as to which possible chain of events actually happened in the previous game. We don't need to have every moment of time or pint of blood accounted for, but we need to know a) who won, b) who's dead.

Officially, and established at the outset of MK2, the answers are a) Liu Kang, and b) Sub-Zero. Strangely, this has not prevented Sub-Zero from competing. Scorpion, who could have sworn he murdered Sub-Zero before--imagine losing your car keys, but instead of your car keys, it's revenge, and also you're on fire all the time--is back to try to kill him again. The attract mode leaves us with the mystery; the two fighters' ending texts reveal that the new Sub-Zero is the dead one's younger brother, and Scorpion has decided to protect the younger to atone for incinerating the elder. It is unclear when this discovery is made, for we don't get a sense of the social scene between bouts. I assume it's a lot like the Olympic Village. At any rate, in the now non-canonical comic, both of them have hugged it out and made this arrangement before the tournament begins, which will become a relevant distinction in...three or four years. I don't know why I even brought it up.

The only niggling plot problems at this point concern the Outworld tournament itself. Though it's never explicitly established, one can't help but wonder whether the hopeful combatants, by and large, are aware of Tsung's infernal doings. If the Mortal Kombat tournament, once a noble and fine thing to do in a heroic neo-fascist sort of way, is still attracting idealistic kids who just want to win medals to pad their college applications, they might not realize that they risk having their souls eaten and used to fuel an invasion of our reality by an interdimensional warlord with a striking baritone. If everyone knows about Tsung, the sensible thing would be to simply boycott the tournament, like the U.S. hockey team in the Olympics. If Tsung needs the souls of great warriors to open a gateway into our reality, for God's sake don't let strong warriors sign up. If one such warrior was willing to risk feeding the beast for a chance to kill Tsung and/or take the tournament back to its roots, entry would be a sensible way to do it in a kung-fu double feature sort of way.

These concerns about the logic of taking part in the tournament are exacerbated in the Outworld tournament, in that it's unclear what kind of reward might be gained from winning. With Liu Kang's victory, the tournament ought to be back in the rightful hands of the Shaolin/White Lotus Society, although Tsung had the presence of mind to send mercenary monster-guy Baraka to murder them all. One is left to wonder how this will affect ticket sales, or what the stockholders will think. So Liu Kang, the white-hat hero, is entering a tournament in which he risks his life, and possibly ours, for...revenge? The rest of the cast follows suit with their own motives: Johnny Cage wants another hit, and figures interdimensional martial arts combat is cheaper than hiring a talented screenwriter; Sub-Zero is going to take another swipe at assassinating Tsung; Scorpion is going to take another swipe at assassinating Sub-Zero (sort of); Col. Jackson Briggs ("Jax" if you're nasty) is trying to rescue the aforementioned Sonya Blade, who is being held hostage, along with Kano, for no discernable reason. (Neither Kano nor Sonya are playable in MK2, creating great demand for two characters who were ironically removed because they were unpopular with players.) In addition, Kung Lao, a descendant of the guy famous for being killed by Goro, is there, raising questions about where he was last year when his fellow White Lotus frat brother Liu Kang was risking life and limb in Goro's lair. The rest are various assassins or handymen on Shao Kahn's payroll, who fight for their own reasons, but mostly give the heroes meaningful rivalries and/or punching bags.

Other highlights and problems-in-the-making: MK1 had a hidden character named Reptile, a palette-swap of Scorpion and Sub-Zero, because hey, yellow and blue makes green, right? That Scorpion's appearance is nearly identical to Sub-Zero's is adequately explained in the plot, but Reptile seems to be pretty much a character of convenience. His existence spawned the rumor of a fourth ninja, the orange-clad Ermac, but fortunately this was not the case, and we all had a good laugh at the idea of anything so stupid. In MK2, Reptile makes an appearance as a playable character, and his previous hidden-ness is worked into both his storyline and character design: a bodyguard with chameleonic skills, he stayed in the background on Earth guarding Tsung, and is now trying out a solo act.

They pull the palette-swap trick again with Kitana and Mileena, in blue and purple, showing a great deal of leg (digitization technology had not yet advanced far enough for more advanced concepts like cleavage). They are introduced to us as twin daughters of Shao Kahn, whom he employs as assassins. Scott Brown, you might want to take notes. Shortly before the tournament, however, Kitana (good sister) has discovered that Kahn has worked a mind control spell on her, that she's actually the daughter of the king of Edenia, whom Kahn deposed/murdered. In perverting the realm's magical energies, Kahn turned Edenia into Outworld, severely confusing Old Testament scribes in the process. Mileena (bad sister) is in fact a clone, albeit one with terrible teeth, who (in her ending text) ends up dating the equally fangy Baraka. Nothing serious; she's been hurt before. Total palette-swap count: five males (Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, and hiddens Smoke and Noob Saibot) and three females (Kitana, Mileena, and hidden Jade). Actors Daniel Pesina and Kaitlin Zamiar are now carrying a substantial portion of the cast themselves, and it's looking a bit odd.

So we have some fairly neat characters, and they have increasingly interesting interactions with each other, friends becoming enemies, enemies becoming friends, etc. We can imagine some interesting and dramatic arguments, conspiracies and alliances as they plot their respective paths to power. We haveto imagine them, in fact, because there aren't any conversations in the game. Where would you put them?

It is generally expected in games, as in film, that plot follows genre/mechanics. You write about a martial arts tournament because you want people doing martial arts. You write a war story because you want big battles. You write about vampires and werewolves because you want gunfights. Ok, scratch that last one, that would be stupid. But now, MK's plot has gotten a bit big for its genre, and nobody seems to be thinking of ways to address that problem.

It's not just the characters. Outworld itself is a gorgeous invention. Every background glistens with delightful creepiness, from the growling trees in the living forest to the dessicated skeletons in the wasteland to the inexplicable (and unexplained) guy who seems to be on fire in the distant background of the bridge over The Pit II. (I think there was some kind of copyright problem with "The Pit.") The world begs to be explored, but interaction with the backgrounds during fights is very nearly nonexistent, and it's not like digitized sprites are exactly ideal for detailed exploration of space.

But those are fairly minor problems for a brilliant game. The series' success grows and grows. Console ports of MK1 are flying off the shelves and annoying Joe Lieberman, who initiates a plan to ruin my life. Merchandising takes off. More comic spinoffs follow. A movie is in the works, along with a TV show. What began as an attempt to cash in on the glowing celebrity of Jean-Claude Van Damme has become the hottest game franchise around, with legitimate multimedia appeal.

Clearly, it was time to fuck it up.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Mortal Kombat Problem I

Once, during in an enjoyably boring shift, I was called upon to explicate the conflict between Arianism and Trinitarianism. It was long, and convoluted, and required several detours to establish a frame in which the ideas being fought over made any sense at all. Afterwards, it was noted that it had been a lot like one of our friends' attempts to explain the divergent universes of Bishop and Cable in X-Men.

Mortal Kombat has taken up enough time, energy and thought in my life to qualify it as a religion of sorts, so it should be no surprise that it has its own incomprehensible and internally inconsistent cosmology. Or perhaps it should, because it was drafted by literate people who were protected by copyright law and under no direct threat from Roman authorities, and because the whole damn thing goes back only two decades. Nay, to establish a narrative clusterfuck of such utterly Shokan proportions, the designers and writers would have to have made terrible decisions at nearly every level of the world-making process.

Since this seems to be precisely what happened, I refer to these mistakes, collectively, as the Mortal Kombat problem.

Starting, as is in the fashion, at the beginning, the Boonverse is established in MK1 as thus: there is a secret martial arts tournament in which the world's best warriors fight to the death. Currently, the tournament is run by the immortal Shang Tsung, who took control of the tournament when his champion, a four-armed monster named Goro, defeated the previous tournament champion Kung Lao 500 years earlier. (MK1 is assumed to take place in the present or nearish future, so let's go ahead and put Kung Lao's defeat at the tail end of the 15th century.) People make their way to the tournament for various reasons: Liu Kang (intended at the outset to be the lone "good guy" in a roster of egoists, criminals, and psychopaths) seeks to put the Shaolin monks back in control of the tournament. Irritating movie star Johnny Cage wants more fame and money, Sub-Zero wants to assassinate Shang Tsung, Scorpion wants to assassinate Sub-Zero, Kano is in it for the money and the power, and leggy green beret Lt. Sonya Blade, captured trying to apprehend Kano, is just in it.

Of course, Mortal Kombat is a game about people beating each other into unconsciousness and then, for the bragging rights of the players, murdering each other. While comic book characters have long been able to have deep, soul-searching discussions of their lives and motives during fistfights, our beloved cast of misfits is not so lucky. The story is delineated initially by the "attract mode," a programmed series of images and (for lack of a better term) gameplay trailers that display while the machine in question is waiting for players to plunk in their not-money tokens. The attract mode gives us most of the playable characters' (potential protagonists') backstories, while each character's ending text, displayed as a reward upon beating the single-player mode, fills in any intentional gaps in the attract mode bios--why does Scorpion have it in for the Lin Kuei? Is Raiden really a god? These answers and more, tonight on Mortal Kombat--as well as a bit of epiloguing, describing what happens to the winning combatant, and the world, after the tournament's end.

The use of story as a reward isn't much talked about by theorists or understood by non-gamers, but it's both fairly prevalent in the medium and fairly effective in generating fan interest. In addition, the publisher produced a comic book companion that covered much of the game's storyline in a more traditional narrative fashion, although the comics were quickly decided to be extra-canonical when they became inconvenient. But the seeds of the canon wars are planted in MK2, and we ainnot there yet.

In fact, MK1 is pretty clean, as far as the storyline goes. It ought to be, since it's just dumping some Street Fighter aesthetics into Enter the Dragon. (And yes, sports fans, we're going to skip over the extent to which Street Fighter II borrowed so much of its je ne sais quoi from Enter the Dragon. I much prefer A Fistfull of Yen anyway.) The most interesting bit, really, is Shang Tsung, an apparently elderly man who can transform himself into any of the other tournament fighters. The story enacted in the comic and repeated in gaming mags was that he was a sorcerer who absorbed the souls of his defeated opponents, prolonging his unnatural life. This makes a great deal of sense, especially given the illustration (in the comic) of Tsung pulling a glowing ethereal mass out of a pile of human-shaped goo. He pulls in the soul, and with its owner's features, giving him the ability to "become" the defeated. This also gives him a nice motive for maintaining the tournament, as well as a reason that he needs to be killed. The tournament must be returned to its boring, sporting event equilibrium, just as any action flick must end with the hero once again rendering the world boring.

In the game's final battle (against Tsung, natch), the sorcerer "morphs" into all of the game's opponents, making Tsung a forerunner of the "clip-show villain" trope later typified by The First in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is assumed, at this point, that Tsung has eaten the souls of all the warriors the player has thus defeated, raising two easily fankwankable questions: a) When did he do this? Can he still get a soul out of a corpse in which the heart has been separated from the body? How about decapitated? Or burned to bone and ash? b) That said, how the hell does he morph into the still living person he is fighting at that particular time? The second question addresses what has been largely decided to be a purely extra-diegetic phenomenon of allowing two players to select the same character in fighting games; MK at least lampshaded it with the "mirror match" concept, but it didn't help with the finale. The first question addresses a much more fundamental problem with the series: franchises survive by world-making more than any specific character, but characters do have to be carried over, and actual questions of gameplay preference can exert their own weight on a story. The result is that, in the martial arts tournament for which the series is named, the tournament that is literally synonymous with fighting to the death, nobody ever fucking dies.

I take care establishing these things primarily to help elucidate exactly how fucked up it's all going to get over the sequels, and with the sequels shall I continue.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fire Emblem and the Moral Meat Grinder

What's the one thing better than an exquisite meal? An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night.
-Frasier Crane

I bought Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon during my partner's bout with Solidus Mononucleosis last year, and I've been playing it, with varying degrees of obsession, ever since. I've beaten it, of course, backwards and forwards. I've built an impeccable, unkillable squad for online play by exploiting a minor feature the online build guides seem to ignore. It's far from the best game of its genre, nor the best game in my personal possession, and yet I am compelled to continue.

I am so compelled because there are a number of choices in the game design that seem bizarre, that just barely miss the mark labelled "brilliant" and have to settle for "weirdly nonsensical." I find that these are the games that demand the most of my attention: not the ones I enjoy most per se, but the ones that would be perfect but for inexplicable design choice X. Or, in the case of Fire Emblem, design choices X, Y, and Z. (That Oxford comma was for you, Beth-Ann.)

The most unique feature of the Fire Emblem series, and the feature for which it is most famous, is as simple as it is profound. You see, when a character falls in combat--whether felled by sword, impaled by a javelin, or burned with eldritch magick--they die. And they stay dead. And with one very specific, late-game exception, they're of no use in future battles, because they're fucking dead and nothing can ever bring them back. I suggest you pause for a moment and think how interesting it is that this is such a rarity in this medium that we consider it a bold design choice. We even have a term for it: "permadeath." Out here in the really real world, we just call that "death."

Shadow Dragon has about 60 playable characters, all with names, histories, and unique growth statistics, along with a short epilogue describing what happens to them should they survive the game. (These epilogues are neatly sandwiched between the "epilogues" of the dead characters, who are "erased from the pages of history.") The result, from an emotive standpoint, can be quite striking: a particularly costly battle that wipes out ten characters you've spent many hours building up, characters who call out to their friends and families with their dying breaths, can feel a mite traumatic. Given the value placed on the unique and named in the tactical strategy genre, one might expect that the overriding ethic would be to be cautious and avoid gambling with the RNG, to take care to protect each and every soul in your army, accepting only the most modest losses in the most hopeless circumstances. One would not be dissuaded of this opinion if one checked the strategy guide, which suggests more or less this strategy. Nor would one be dissuaded by walkthroughs available online.

One would encounter difficulties later in the game, though, because it turns out that this pious, humanistic strategy is utter bullshit, and will completely fuck you over by around Chapter 20. Because there are around 60 unique playable characters in Shadow Dragon, but there aren't nearly enough enemies around to level all of them up. (The hint guide recommends equipping the weakest weapons possible, and keeping opponents alive for as long as possible so your soldiers can use their living bodies for fencing practice. Try, for a moment, to narrativize this scenario.) So some of your dudes are going to have to go un-leveled. However, when your army drops below a certain number, scabs are brought in--characters without identities, whose experience and abilities are determined by an average of the surviving members of your party. So that poor Lv.3 kid you picked up fleeing the ruins of his hometown? Not only is he not helping, but he's actively making your job harder merely by being alive. In addition, those unique growth stats have a lot of variance: Altea truly is a land of natural masters and natural slaves.

As you've probably figured out by now, the optimal strategy in Shadow Dragon--I cannot, for the moment, speak of other Fire Emblem games--is to identify the heroes in your party, and throw the wretches in front of them should your enemies loose an arrow in that direction. Four hidden levels, each containing a powerful ally and most containing valuable rare items, are only accessible if you keep the total roster from climbing above fifteen. For me, this invariably requires me to intentionally send five or six souls to their gruesome, pointless deaths on the level prior to the check-in. I can think of no narrative reason to fanwank this blood sacrifice, but dammit, I want that sorcerer.

This strategy is, perhaps, more appealing to some than others. On a message board discussing the brilliant Battle for Wesnoth, I read a complaint from a player who found themselves unable to complete most of the campaigns, because they could keep no experienced troops alive for the duration. This player was presumably a devoted adherent to the meat grinder strategy, protecting a hero who could not be arsed to actually engage in combat with a constantly reinforced wall of human bone and sinew. Wesnoth, perhaps, takes its priorities to the other extreme. The more battle experience a unit acquires, the more suicidally risky it becomes to allow them to engage in battle.

But then, I suppose that's not significantly more insane than how these things have worked in real life.