The Conversation Tree of Woe

in capitalist west, power armour wears you!

Battle Isle

bi2screen

I want to preface this by saying that I don’t like Panzer General and its imitators. As much as I wanted to like Unity of Command (smart-looking indie operational wargames being all but nonexistent), I couldn’t get over its fundamental, sterile panzer-general-ness. A repetitive, abstract pursuit of perfection is exactly what I don’t want in a wargame.

Bluebyte’s Battle Isle series, in all its simplified hex-and-counter glory, seems like an odd place to find inspiration, then. While it certainly could be a bit plodding,  Battle Isle (or at least Battle Isle III, which is the one I played to death many years ago) has always fascinated me because of its emphasis on information, logistics and the environment.

A few anecdotes. My troops are driving north through a frozen island, rolling up the enemy defences, when the lake freezes hard. Enemy units pour across the channel from a nearby island, forcing me to halt operations and desperately try to cover my exposed flank, ploughing light tanks through the deep snow to blaze a trail for slower units.

An armoured advance comes to a grinding halt when heavy rains set in and the open plains turn to mud. My tanks burn fuel at a tremendous rate moving through the quagmire, and my fuel trucks are completely stuck. I eventually manage to rescue my logistics column by building emergency roads with my engineers while I hold off enemy probes with helicopters and artillery.

My forces completely outclass the enemy and are driving south toward their supply bases, but there’s a problem. Somewhere, they have a well-supplied long-range missile launcher that is decimating my forward units. Heavy tanks no longer count for much: my first priority is to find the enemy launch site, which means trying to pry open screening forces long enough that I can find and kill the thing without my raiders being savaged.

Mechanically, the game was simpler than it sounds, and it’s a testament to Blue Byte’s solid design that I began to appreciate this complexity as I played through the campaign. Discovering hidden interactions between strategy and the weather was a revelation, and I’ve never played anything quite like it since. Also, I’ve always found the terrain art oddly charming.

Marathon: Rubicon

Even before the third game came packaged with an editor, the Marathon series had a small but intense mod-scene. The seal of the .MAPs was Rubicon, released in 2001 — six years after its parent, Marathon Infinity.

I’m not sure whether Rubicon was good, but it was fascinating and effective. It was (is, thanks to Aleph One) simultaneously more ambitious than any other mod — crammed with original maps and bespoke assets — and more faithful to the atmosphere of Marathon Infinity (if not the earlier games).

Rubicon eats itself. It knots and blossoms. Infinity‘s austere architectural convolutions are driven to overwhelming, fractal excess. One of the levels is a remake of a Marathon 2 level that was itself a remake of a level from Marathon, at this point dissolving into some kind of psychedelic baroque while killing you over and over. The textures and environmental sprites are vastly richer than anything in the original games, attempting (rightly or wrongly) to show Marathon‘s universe in much more detail than ever before; clunking machines and living alien architecture. It almost doesn’t matter that the mad fluidity of vanilla Marathon play frequently collapses in exhaustion trying to keep up, or that the mod’s story is torn apart by conflicting directions.

Most remarkably, this is a mod for a relatively obscure game that was already long in the tooth when it was released. Out of love or stubbornness, the creators persisted.

I’ll leave you with someone playing the infamous Hex Level 73, the old-fashioned maze level as an object of insufferable beauty.

Lords of Midnight

lom1

Before we get to anything else, this game must be acknowledged as an aesthetic achievement. Look at that screenshot! Simple lines and colours, a long view of a rugged landscape, Art Nouveau font. ‘Tolkienesque’ games breed like aphids, but I can think of no other game (or film, especially not the Jackson adaptations) that is aesthetically Tolkienesque. Mike Singleton described his creation as ‘epic’, and he certainly nailed the combination of austerity and whimsy that runs through a lot of old British fantasy in general and Tolkien in particular.

Speaking of which: Tolkien is the influence inevitably referenced when someone describes this game, but other influences shine through strongly. Lords of Midnight is in some ways more reminiscent of the work of Lord Dunsany and, especially, E.R. Eddison. ‘Luxor the Moonprince’ is the kind of carelessly grandiose name that would have given Tolkien conniptions, but would be right at home in The Worm Ouroborous or The King of Elfland’s Daughter. The game’s focus on godlike aristocrats and their heroic exploits is also distinctly Eddisonesque.

Lords of Midnight, then, is bit of a monotreme aesthetically. It’s also mechanically odd. The player’s view is bound to the perspective of various heroes. New lords are recruited by face-to-face meeting as you move your heroes about the map. Regular readers will know that I’m fascinated by the way games represent information and control; this is another of those rare instances in which the player is not an omniscient Sauron. It serves the theme well: marching  lords across a snowy wilderness in order to find assistance and do battle against the encroaching armies of darkness feels more appropriate to a fantasy setting than the cheap plastic murderfests of LotR spinoff games.

The Other Civilization

Here’s another monotreme. Not Sid Meier’s Civilization or its boardgame adaptation, but Francis Tresham’s much earlier boardgame, now sadly extinct.

This is, superficially, an odd choice to nominate as an overlooked game. Tresham’s design is famous as the first instance of a ‘tech tree’ in a strategy game, and was clearly an influence on many later games. Like many influential creations, however, the most interesting parts of Tresham’s game are not the ones that are famous.

For a start, it doesn’t have a technology tree so much as a technology hedge. Whereas the conception of advancement in many of Civilization‘s imitators tends toward the teleological, Tresham’s game emphasises adaptation and differentiation alongside linear progress. Most techs have no prerequisite, the paths to the ones that do are somewhat fluid, and the benefits they provide tend to be situational.

Partly, this is because of the way technology interacts with the game’s wonderful (and terrifying) ‘calamity’ system. Calamities, when they strike, can be truly catastrophic, leveling cities or cutting your civilisation in half. In many cases, a particular technology is all that stands between you and ruin. Add geography, and things can get really interesting. If you live on a floodplain, you’re going to want the to get engineering for flood control post haste. If you live in the trackless forests of temperate Europe, you won’t be able to build many cities, so there’s no need for techs that protect them.

This interaction between civilisations and geography is actually one of the most interesting aspects of the game, I think. Unlike the digital game series, in which the Egyptians are liable to have a bonus to living near a river if they can find one, the Egyptians in Tresham’s creation will often end up with floodplain-related technology out of necessity. In the manual for the Avalon Hill edition I played, there was a great designer’s statement (they don’t make manuals like they used to) in which Tresham mentioned that the original design had had no named civilisations, just colour-coded factions. In the AH edition, they gained names for a bit more flavour, but these were somewhat vague and geographical: Italics vied with Illyrians and Thracians. In both cases, the reasoning was that actual play should decide a civilisation’s identity. This is not only a rereshingly materialist philosophy, but a nice bit of game design. Your civilisation is always distinctly ‘yours’, and always able to adapt.

One last thing. Rather than depicting cities exclusively, the game started with only units of population. Your little tribes would spread and multiply, and possibly conflict, though warfare was perfunctory and usually resulted in a stalemate. Cities, interestingly, could only be built on certain sites, with the Aegean, the Nile, Mesopotamia and parts of Italy and Anatolia having the lion’s share. At the same time, they were essential to trade and progress. This meant that if you started as, say, the Thracians and found yourself locked out of the good Aegean city sites by other players, you might end up squatting on the Danube with a chip on your shoulder, no use for city-related technologies, and a hunger for those vital trade-rich lands to your south. In other words: you became the barbarians. This is interesting both because of the asymmetry of the situation (one player as the warlike outsider, needing to break in before they can compete, but not out of the game) and because the game actually simulates (and lets people play) cultures beyond the pale of its central focus. Tresham’s Civilization is an intimation of profound possibilities the genre has rarely explored.

Dark Souls Dark Souls Dark Souls

So, Dark Souls 3 is out, and, like many, I’ve been captivated by it (the contrast between my experience of the first game — lowish but optimistic expectations constantly being surpassed — and the inevitable but slightly hollow expectations for the ‘true sequel’ is a topic for another time). Time for a few preliminary notes about the series as I try and get a better grip on my thoughts.

One of the things that always impressed me about Dark Souls was how limited its world was. It is, still, so very videogame-y, not just mechanically (an eternal moment of respawns and carefully laid traps) but spatially and aesthetically; and all the more so for the fact that its cramped surfaces crawl with baroque detail. The original game’s stilted level design is truly dreamlike: full of involute spirals and nightmarish traps, but ultimately small and empty. With a few exceptions, it evokes rather than displays its febrile greatness (as to whether the third game achieves this, my answer at this early point is a resounding ‘sometimes’ — the game reaches farther, but perhaps grasps less).

Interestingly, just as Dark Souls’ mechanical conceits only seemed to reinforce its story (a static, insane, chronologically disjointed twilight of the gods), its spaces are all the more effective for being so limited. The palaces of Anor Londo are all the more powerful a statement for being empty and dysfunctional; Darkroot Garden will easily get you lost, as a good enchanted forest should, without actually being that large; and so on. Even the Ash Lake, which offers an unlimited, primordial vista (previously referenced at the game’s start), is weirdly isolated and claustrophobic, the expanse that stands at the beginning and the end of time — while still being physically connected to the overworld via the Great Hollow within one of its infinite number of trees.

I’m reminded, not for the first time when playing a videogame, of Frederic Jameson’s ‘reduced worlds‘ (it’s a good essay, read it). It would be a bit of a stretch to claim Dark Souls is an naturalistic thought experiment after the manner of Zola — this is not any kind of realism– but there is a sense in which the peculiar, suffocating interconnectedness of Lordran makes the whole experience more coherent, more interesting, and more emotionally challenging (as it should). Determination is notably absent — the associations between characters, places and events are relational or metaphorical but seldom causal, giving the world a creepy, primordial feeling. By pruning the world down to its bones and making that skeleton stand for everything else, the developers leave us to consider what each of these fragments (the quiet despair of the world, the unspeakable crimes that created the New Londo ruins, the nature of the fire keepers) implies about the rest of the world. One of the reasons Dark Souls is so effective, I think, is that it functions well as a myth — something most fantasy games and literature are actually astonishingly bad at. Dark Souls’ Hesiodic creation myth is strange and ambiguous, and yet seems to obey a certain kind of logic, and the rest of the game continues in the same fashion. By contrast, the second game has greatly expanded, but utterly disconnected, sights and stories which cross well into the realm of pastiche, without the feeling of indeterminate gravity.

Souls games have always had an ‘intertextual’ relationship to each other, mythology, and the broader sword and sorcery genre, being filled with references (or dead references, in the form of tropes) and mechanical conventions, but the first Dark Souls nonetheless seemed to make them its own. In the second game, this internal coherency (or hint of coherency) broke down, leaving something more like Azuma Hiroki’s ‘database’ of disjointed pastiche elements that can be sampled to produce affect. Compare Dark Souls’ Fire Keeper with the Emerald Herald of Dark Souls 2, both analogues of a Japanese shrine-maiden character. The first has very limited ‘screen time’ and is literally and metaphorically distant from the player, being mute, shrouded in a hood and darkness, and placed behind bars. Her story is simple but dramatic and suggests volumes about the world she inhabits. The Herald, on the other hand, is omnipresent, seemingly designed as the kind of moe-object shrine maidens often represent in anime and manga, and rarely shuts up, but suggests (dimly) too many disparate plot points to really say anything of interest. Likewise, the shining skyboxes of Dark Souls 2 are pretty, but don’t mean anything in the way that the ash trees or Anor Londo do.

It’s too early to say for certain how Dark Souls 3 fits into this schema, but from what I’ve seen, the improved technological capabilities and development budgets may end up being counterproductive. That’s not to say I don’t like the game, or that it isn’t well written or well designed — quite the opposite. More time with the game, and a better understanding of the knot that binds genre, the games that obsessively employ it, and the broader trend away from both realism and the genuinely fantastic toward pastiche and the striking moment, might help me to unravel the whole business.

Notes from Wordplay 2015

I had the pleasure of attending Wordplay on Saturday. Unfortunately, I missed Emily Short’s opening talk, but the other speakers all had interesting things to say and I’m glad I went. A few bits I found striking:

  • Two members of the Night in the Woods team (whose names I’ve unforgivably forgotten) mentioned that they write dialogue in Twine and then have Unity read it, complete with emotes, using a touch of technical wizardry. You could see a lot of people in the audience thinking ‘brilliant!’ at that moment. The theme of the talk, ‘Rust Belt Gothic’, probably deserves its own post, but I was really struck by the emphasis on agency as a tool for exploration rather than something that lets the player ‘win’.
  • Sherwin Tjia counterposed the model of the heart or circulatory system with the more traditional, pruned-by-failure-state ‘bonsai tree’ of player choice. What I found most interesting was Sherwin’s emphasis on role-playing as a tool to encourage empathy, and his fantasy of an eternal ‘Quantum Leap’, shifting from one situation (and embodied agency; one self) to another. It think there is some kind of unresolved tension there that needs to be explored. In what sense is empathy becoming (or already) instrumental?
  • Christine Love was embarrassed that people still play Digital: A Love Story and insists that it’s terrible and tedious. I agree, in that the manual search for and entry of codes becomes a chore, but I also think that the mechanic serves an important purpose. Forcing the player to go through a mildly laborious process in order to explore a new place both builds a feeling of anticipation and forces the player to reaffirm their own agency. This is why you don’t destroy the Enterprise with a single button press or voice command (aside from safety reasons). More operations equal more weight. It also adds to the feeling that you are actually interacting with something. The trick is to avoid making this a routine tedium.
  • Love also mentioned the, for want of a better term, ‘temporal’ approach to dialogue she is taking in her new game Ladykiller, where speech options appear and fade as an NPC is talking (something a bit like a less silly version of those quicktime events in Mass Effect, if I’ve understood correctly). This is absolutely fascinating and I may have to shamelessly steal the idea for something myself. The conversation tree model of dialogue is an accepted trope, but in many ways it’s creaky and limiting (though it does tend to provoke contemplation). Exploring other models of interpersonal interaction in games is something I think holds a lot of promise. You can see the way Mass Effect was trying to resist the tendency of dialogue trees to make players speak strategically, though the effect felt forced and obfuscatory. I’m looking forward to seeing what writers like Love are able to accomplish.
  • Finally, Sam Barlow made an interesting point about the use of ‘framing’ or ‘distancing’ (reminding the player that they are not the protagonist, but rather a person playing the game; explicitly presenting the game as fiction rather than simulation) to encourage players to become complicit (a term Emily Short apparently used — I wish I’d seen her talk) in the fiction. Something something something Brecht? I need to think about this.
  • Following on from this, Barlow mentioned that the experience of piecing together a narrative like Her Story is a bit like the process of writing it — there’s a lot of revision, and this is part of the thrill. I’m suddenly reminded, oddly, of Morrowind and the way players had to unearth its contradictory truths. A thought for later.

That Old Chestnut

A few rushed thoughts about the manifesto that’s been doing the rounds. I want to focus on one particular element. I’m going to be extremely unfair, since there’s more to the piece than I pick up on. Nonetheless, I take issue. I’m pursuing this critique, not because I want pillory the author, but because I think it’s both important and emblematic of some of the broader arguments among those write about games (that old formalist debate) and broader ideological conflicts. I’m going to assume the reader has read the manifesto, because I’m too lazy to explain it all. That said:

Taking his queue from an old essay by John Crowe Ransome, Paul Kilduff-Taylor opposes historical and moral/aesthetic modes of criticism, suggesting that a resurgent ‘contextual’ mode of criticism is obscuring the beauty of games themselves.  The first example he gives is a piece by Matt Lees about the importance of coin slots in the development of the ‘finite lives’ convention in games. Kilduff-Taylor wants to argue that there might be other, ‘vital’ reasons such as ‘the importance of death to human experience’.

Both modes depend, ultimately, on one’s ‘priors’, and I am more than happy to admit that my own prejudices run strongly against the notion of a ‘human experience’ as such and in favour of the immediate and quotidian. I should add that the insistence on value – high-minded concepts are more ‘vital’ than coin slots – is absolutely of a kind with the old 19th Century, moralising mode of aesthetic discourse. One mode of argument seeks to bind a work to its context, another searches for higher meaning.

Likewise, when Kilduff-Taylor warns that historicism risks focusing on a work’s consequences to the detriment of its content, one has to ask: what kind of content? The coin slot example demonstrates the extent to which content might be contingent. When Kilduff-Taylor (henceforth KT, because I’m lazy) says he wants to emphasise content, he seems to mean: the really important things. But in the example he gives (Miyamoto discussing Super Mario Bros.), jumping is just another form of contingency. All Miyamoto can tell us is that X was done because Y, not what any of it really means. If we wanted to speak in abstract terms, we could talk about exploration or agency or motion or what-have-you – which method might be better served by a survey than a minute analysis of a particular game. The distinction between intrinsic value and context is, again, a distinction between the abstract and the particular.

The unfortunate fact is that Mario doesn’t mean anything. KT seems to surmise, correctly, that personal context is what makes Jenn Frank’s reading of Super Hexagon possible. What he misses with his faintly patronising commendations of ‘subjectivist’ enthusiasm is that, in this mode of criticism, context is the source of all meaning. NGJ isn’t, I think, an argument that anything can be right. It is the apprehension of the truth that nothing can be right without context. We are back to the old arguments (and misapprehensions) surrounding ‘postmodernism’. There is, from where I’m sitting, no ‘real’ value to Super Hexagon, and no way in which plumbing the depths of its designer’s brain about how its mechanics work that will yield the golden fruit of meaning. Not because it’s impossible for a designer’s ideas to be important to a reading, but because a game like Super Hexagon is, by any reasonable standard, an abject failure when it comes to communicating ideas beyond its own abstractions. As is Mario: it’s a wonderful piece of design that, as the linked video demonstrates, does an excellent job of teaching its player how to play itself. It’s a very clever machine, but it doesn’t really do anything. I think it’s significant that KT emphasises these sorts of games: he’s not reading games closely, he’s looking past them into the ghostly world of true meaning, as if some essential humanity might be hiding in the code.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t. Just that the KT has a tricky path ahead of him, and many dead ends. What is it, precisely, that makes Mario fun? What is fun, anyway? At this point, the conversation becomes very much like old arguments about what constitutes art, or aesthetic pleasure. That is: fractious, interminable, bitter and pointless. In light of the above, KT’s suggestion that the critic use a pot-pourri of approaches seems as likely to multiply problems as resolve them.

Then we come to the crux.

Ideally, the New Games Critic has some understanding of traditional academic modes of criticism, such as liberal humanism, post-structuralism, cultural materialism, feminist and queer theory as well as specific game-related fields such as ludology and narratology. They understand the limitations of these and expect further enlightenment from emergent areas of study such as neuroscience and the exploration of cognition. They embrace, rather than resist, the interplay of science and the humanities.

And the cat leaps from the bag. True meaning, inaccessible via contextual criticism, dwells in the neurons: games will be understood as systems of abstraction that interact with our machine-like brains. For my purposes, the fact that a good deal of what passes for ‘neuroscience and the exploration of cognition’ is execrable nonsense, or that the scientific method cannot reveal meaning, is mostly beside the point. What’s important is that this approach mirrors the sort of debased formalism that continues to haunt popular art criticism. A good story/game contains Element X. Element X appeals to an innate human quality, and its narrative/ludic use can be refined, reproduced, and tested through study.

If this all seems suddenly partisan, that’s because it is. If we go back to our coin slot example: Matt Lees’ historicist reading suggests that something taken for granted as central to games was actually contingent on a specific set of economic and technological circumstances. It’s a slightly disconcerting and more than slightly subversive way of thinking. KT’s reading is that finite lives in games are good or natural, or both, for some intrinsic reason, and that the job of the critic involves understanding this quality, extolling it, and judging games by how well they reproduce it. Which is funny, because that’s exactly what marketers and the less salubrious sections of the trade press, in their own declassée way, already do.

When KT insists on primacy of a review as a buyer’s guide, it’s not hard to see why. When he insists: “If a design decision can be adequately explained by commerce, the critic rejects it only in terms of creativity and not in its totality”, this is perfectly natural, since he views commerce as extrinsic to the ‘vital’ quality that makes the game what it is. Repeatedly and vociferously, KT denounces excessive subjectivity and ‘subjectivism’. But, as the coin slot controversy suggests, vitality is a moving target. In fact, it shouldn’t be hard to see the way that business models (international legibility, reducing resales, prolonging subscriptions, pushing microtransactions) have a lot to do with conventions of the medium that are taken for granted. By insisting on the primacy of something abstract, we allow all sorts of quotidian things to slip through in its guise. High-minded concepts about nature and aesthetics and grubby systems of commerce and control make, as ever, excellent bedfellows.

Monotremes: Ruse

ruse screen

A hybrid of abstraction and naturalism.

Ruse was an interesting game. Partly because it was a mainstream real-time-strategy game which attempted to encourage a semblance of realistic combined arms tactics (the almost-but-not-quite rock-paper-scissors relationship between infantry, tanks and artillery, modified by terrain and intelligence — Company of Heroes is the only other mainstream example of this I can think of, though Ruse did it better), but also because it demonstrated an interest in another aspect of warfare. Ruse is one of the few games (and even fewer computer games) to attempt to model the rather grey nebula that is staff work — in this case, intelligence, deception, and operational planning, as practiced by various uniformed specialists behind the lines.

The game does this via a very abstract system of deception plans which can be purchased with a slowly accruing currency whose name eludes me. Basically, each player receives a drip-feed of staff work which can be used to execute the eponymous ruses. Most of these — camouflage, false intel, radio silence, decoys —  relate to the game’s particular implementation of the traditional ‘fog of war’, an unusual, boardgame-esque twist in which enemy units can be seen but not identified until spotted by your own units. Others make units faster or encourage them to fight to the death. Though the individual ruses are highly ‘gamey’, the result is a game of second-guessing, feints, ambushes and upsets which, like Ruse’s impression of the rock-paper-scissors of WW2 tactics, bears enough of a semblance to historical reality to make you feel that you’re playing more than just glorified chess.

It’s probably worth mentioning that my use of the word ‘semblance’ here is inspired by Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, where he distinguishes semblance from mere naturalism, the first being ‘Apollonian’ and therefore rational and ordered, the latter (if I recall correctly) more like mindless repetition. I think this distinction may prove useful when talking about games, in order to distinguish between naive or obsessive attempts at simulation (not always a bad thing, depending on one’s taste) and deliberately simplified or abstracted systems which nonetheless attempt a form of simulation, as opposed to games qua games like Chess or StarcraftRuse stands between abstraction and simulation like one of Nietzsche’s beloved Greek statues, godlike and sublimely indifferent.

Belated E3 Snark

Enthusiasm, eh? I don’t really follow events like E3, but I did watch Bethesda’s announcement of Fallout 4. In spite of myself — I’d thought myself very much ‘over’ that sort of game, as much as I loved Morrowind and the earlier Fallouts back in the day — I found it captivating.

What I always find striking about Bethesda’s games — and, more importantly, the idea of Bethesda’s games — is their sheer excess. They’ve been biting off more than they can chew since Daggerfall shipped sans half its impossible list of planned features back in 1996. Bethesda RPGs are all about breadth — about simulating as many monsters, caves, cities, people, factions and wildernesses, and as many things to do in a fictional world as they can get away with. They actually remind me a lot of a certain old-fashioned approach to pen and paper game design epitomised by GURPS, 2nd ed. D&D and various ‘monster’ wargames. As computer games developed back in the ’90s, a lot of people (young me included) imagined that the complex simulations which had been, frankly, unworkable as physical games were now just around the corner. ‘Cyberspace’, as imagined in the ’80s and ’90s, was always a dream of excess. It extended infinitely along every axis, and modelled everything (and other things) in fractal detail. This is as true of William Gibson’s novels as it is of The Matrix (or The Lawnmower Man), virtual reality, and Atomic Games’ V for Victory wargame series, whose manual bursts with paeans to the possibilities of computation. Our liberation from the stifling constraints of the analogue world was immanent.

Not actually V for Victory, but from the later game Stalingrad.

Not actually V for Victory, but from the later game Stalingrad.

Instead, the trend has generally been toward closure, simplicity, and control — what you might call ‘designer-ly’ games. With physical games, this has led to all kinds of interesting boardgames, as well as a slew of ‘indie’ RPGs which tend to take a very narrowly defined setting and theme and build a game around a very specific set of interactions. You can see the same thing in video games: compare the Firaxis’ rebooted XCOM with the original (or its homage, Xenonauts), and you’ll see what I mean. Imaginary soldiers no longer have a grid of space for equipment plus a weight limit, into which the player can stuff any desired combination of trinkets; they now have two or three ‘slots’ for equipment, which varies bases on the soldier’s class. It’s slick, simple, and gives the designer maximum control over outcomes. Mobile games, RPGs, and first-person-shooters all tend to take similar forms (though I have no idea where DotA fits in this schema). Even the Assasin’s Creed series, which is ostensibly an open-world game like Fallout, is such a tightly controlled experience, burdened with endless map icons, minigames and compulsory hoop-jumping, that exploring its worlds always feels like wading through molasses. To pinch a couple of terms I learned from the designers of the relentlessly simulated Combat Mission games, game designers have tended to move from ‘engineered design’ to ‘design for effect’.

Bethesda’s E3 presentation is a declaration, in case we needed one, that simulationism has never quite died. They’re not selling an ‘experience’, they’re selling a dream. Which is precisely why it’s so exiting. According to the demo, they’ve gone to the trouble of recording voice actors speak in excess of 1000 popular names so that characters can address the player by name. The limited addition comes with an actual, all-metal, retro-futurist ‘PipBoy’ wrist computer frame into which you can fit your smartphone. There’s even a companion app so that you can use it while playing the game. Even by the profligate standards of the AAA game industry, this all seems a bit Quixotic, but it’s also extremely cool. In fact, Bethesda have more than a little in common with Vault-Tec and the other long postwar boomers of the Fallout universe. The concept, like nuclear cars and robot butlers, is exiting regardless of whether or not it is practical. Bethesda, who have of course included a jet pack in this sequel, get this. Ironically (?), the E3 presentation embodies the technological fantasies which form the background of the Fallout universe. Though many old fans complained bitterly when they acquired the rights to Fallout, few studios are better suited than Bethesda to making a game about dreams becoming nightmares.

Living the dream.

Living the dream.

In case it’s not clear, I don’t actually think that Bethesda make bad games. I’ll take the rickety promise of Fallout 3 over the asphyxiating authority of Assassin’s Creed any day of the week. That said, it’s interesting the way that Bethesda’s promise — “create any kind of character you want, go where you want, and do what you want” — mirrors the failed promise of capitalism. Once again, what failed in the analogue world can be made to work in the digital — and to some extent it really does. I played the hell out of Bethesda’s earlier games, and for all their rough edges and old-fashioned design, I had a great time exploring those worlds and building unique characters. The problem is that it’s all fake. I know this fact about videogames is obvious, but it’s funny how little it is discussed. Fallout 4 will, with typical magpie maximalism, allow me to collect materials in order to build my own custom towns or fortresses as in Minecraft or Terraria. But people who build cool things in those latter games can at least share the experience with friends. It’s not just that I crave authenticity, or that the technology is still too primitive for the dream to swallow me whole; it’s that it is solipsistic, ephemeral and disconnected. The problem is that meatspace is still there, and that its demands — represented by the corporations behind E3 rather than the dreams on sale — seem to be ratcheting up rather than down. At the same time, the other half of the Fallout setting — cynical (naive) biological determinism, Hobbesian fears of violence and degeneracy coupled with a paranoid distrust of order, all the vengeful fever dreams of the industrialised world — in a word, the apocalypse — the apocalypse never changes.

Shameless Promotion

Just a quick note that the Summer Video Game Story Bundle is on sale for another couple of weeks. Regular readers of this blog won’t find anything by me that they haven’t read already, but the Unwinnable anthology contains some fantastic writing and I’m proud to be in it. The other books in the bundle are also quite interesting; I’m looking forward to Russ Pitts’ How Videogames are Made.

Monotremes: Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway

hellshighway

Neither shooters nor games set in the second world war are exactly rare, I’ll grant you. In fact, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is weakest when it tries to be yet another WW2 shooter, but it contains the germ of something else. At its best, this is a tactics game played from a first-person perspective. You shoot Germans, but you also direct teams of soldiers around the field. Mastering tactical control over your troops is essential to mastering the game. Put this way, the Brothers in Arms series might seem like a mild innovation.

Here’s a screenshot from Starcraft.

sc1

Eyes and fingers.

Starcraft lets the player survey the battlefield from above. We erroneously call this view a map. Europa Universalis has a map, a globe divided into provinces coloured according to the empire that controls them. This makes a certain sense within EU‘s scale and setting. Starcraft does not have a map. It has a battlespace. You command your troops as a disembodied eye, zooming across the battlefield and directing everything from factories to individual soldiers. You see all that they see, and they respond to your orders instantaneously. All Starcraft play, and the play of the entire ‘real-time-strategy’ genre, revolves around instantaneous knowledge and potency. The whole concept of ‘micro’ — micromanagement of individual soldiers and vehicles for a tactical advantage — is an expression of this immediate access to information and power.

197712-waterloo-dos-screenshot-beginning-of-the-battle-of-waterloo

Waterloo was an early game to restrict information to the commander’s perspective.

It also — and this is interesting precisely because it is never discussed — depends on the collapse of the distinction between the tactical and the strategic. Commanding soldiers and factories simultaneously is more than a generic conceit designed to remove boring abstraction. When these two spheres are compressed, the space in between — what military theorists call the ‘operational’ sphere, including intelligence and problems of organisation like logistics, communications and planning — is elided. When military writers refer to the ‘fog of war’, they refer to the entire problem of knowing what is going on during a battle — in one’s own army as much as the enemy’s. The ‘fog of war’ in an RTS is simply the limit of what your minions can see. The contrast here is between vision and communication. Starcraft is a hypervisual, autistic fantasy of command as a button press, which is why expert players must train above all for speed. This is what real generals might wish they could do, but can’t — yet.

ww2 us rifle squad

Note that the leader is placed in the scout team.

Brothers in Arms does have a map, a concession to ludic sensibilities or the difficulty of making imaginary soldiers convey accurate information to the player, but this is not where play occurs. Instead, you must command from the front, directing machine gunners and riflemen only to places and targets that you can actually see. Suddenly, the fantasy of command breaks down. What lies beyond that rise, or those houses? Can that machine gun position be flanked? Is there a clear line of sight from the enemy positions to your avenue of approach? You can’t see without going there. And, when you do, you come under enemy fire. Now you have to worry about your own survival while your men are being shot and calling for help or orders. You order an element to advance to a position here it can provide supporting fire, but it is gunned down by enemies you can’t even see. Welcome to the fog of war.

It’s not a great game — too much cover-shooter and not enough freewheeling tactics game for my taste — but it is a fantastic premise. There’s a lot of interesting ground to be explored here; whether audiences and developers trained to expect fantasies of instantaneous power would be willing to seize it is an open question.

 

Monotremes: Hollow Ground

hgscreen03

Hollow Ground is a minor tragedy. Released for the Macintosh way back in the naughties, it would probably not be languishing in obscurity had the developers simply sat on the idea for a few years, then released it for PC instead. So many boxes are ticked: an indie ‘roguelite’ (before the term existed) drawing more on Gauntlet than Diablo, with local co-op, controller support, a grim occult-industrial setting, moral ambiguity, clever symbolism and a bevy of cleverly crafted little levels arranged semi-randomly so that no two playthroughs are the same.

The premise is straightforward: it’s the cyberpunk apocalypse, and you must dungeon crawl through the feral military installation ‘Bunker Epsilon’ in order to destroy the ‘Cortex Utero’ that is spawning a plague of cyborg-zombies. You choose one of four anti-heroes — Gibsonesque street ninja, genocidal space marine, tattooed psionic or trenchcoat-clad Road Warrior — and battle your way through progressively more intricate dungeon levels, accompanied by piles of corpses and a moody industrial soundtrack.

Level design is excellent. While this is superficially an action RPG, it’s mostly about parsing each level’s eldritch architecture. Traps and treasures abound, while slow, constant health loss due to ambient radiation means you often need to balance exploration in search of goodies with a panicked rush to the exit.  This is complicated by the fact that progress can be slow: you are literally wading through piles of corpses, and some enemies just keep coming in numberless hordes until you destroy the machines that spawn them. That said, the pacing varies: some levels are replete with health kits and can be traversed in a more tactical fashion, while others are simply deathtraps that will see you rushing for safety.

The fins, eggs and venom-spines? The game’s symbolic statements about what dungeons have been all along (Cortex Utero, indeed) are more eloquent than a thousand naive roguelites. The level names read like the track listing from a metal album: Tomb of the Mutilated; Blacker than Darkness; Cthudral; Unsilent Grave; Tunnels of Madness; all part of a deliberately over the top aesthetic which feels, well, metal rather than designer-ly. The anti-heroes are genuinely dark and violent, but seem to be seeking redemption by entering the bunker — no fridged girlfriends, main-chancers or wallflower-ninjas here. The game as released was polished, complete, and bundled with a level editor. Oh, and it was made by Swedish philosophers. This is very much a labour of love rather than an ‘indie’ game in today’s sense, and it shows.

[A note: the developer’s website is still up and the original mac download seems to work, but the link to the site of the third-party company which made the ‘Special Edition’ PC port leads to something NSFW which is most definitely not the original site.]

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