BLOODSPORT: Part 1—The Rebellion

For the past week or so, I’ve been running a game called BLOODSPORT that I designed and wrote. In this game, twenty-two men and women are abducted from their beds and dropped into a sandy alien coliseum, where they’re forced to fight to the death for the pleasure of their alien captors. Players spend most of the game training in a chamber deep underground, and directly or indirectly voting one another into the arena. It’s an email-based elimination game and there are now nine players left. Combat, scheming, and permadeath are at the core of the experience. Twenty-two people play but only one person gets to the end. BLOODSPORT has by turns been exhilarating and exhausting, for me and (I gather) for some of the people playing it.

Here’s my biggest mistake—I did a bad job of preparing my players for the time commitment that the game might entail. As such, some of them had trouble keeping up with all of the emails and flavor text. One person became so overwhelmed that they decided to quit.

So I gleefully penned a depressing story about how their character killed himself, here reproduced in full:

“Brian Sachs was sleeping in his bunk. That’s all he’d been doing for the past few days. Everyone else was traipsing around this god-forsaken cave like idiots. Shit, he didn’t want to be here. He’d said it from the first day: he wants to go home. He approached an alien guard and asked him to spear him in the stomach. Brian Sachs has been killed. He will no longer be playing with us.”

I sent this story to everyone playing as a diegetic explanation for Brian dropping out of the game. It was flavor text. Now, I thought that this story was funny for a few reasons. For one, the first thing that I asked each player to do was to send in a name and a catch phrase for their character. Brian Sachs chose “I want to go home” as his catch phrase, and it now seemed all to appropriate. Second, while all of the other players had been doing their training actions each day, the person playing Brian had been too busy to participate, and as such Brian hadn’t done any training. Once this player (understandably) decided to quit, I was left with the image of a sad man who wouldn’t leave the barracks and couldn’t find the strength to go on. And so I had him kill himself!

Immediately, I got a few responses from a few of the other players, saying something to the effect of “hahahahhaha that was great.” But when the player who was playing Brian responded to me, he told me that he was sad that Brian would never make it home to see his wife and kids.

This got me thinking. My friends and I have designed a few other games like this, but none of them have encouraged roleplaying as much as mine has. In those games, we were pretty much playing as ourselves. That, in my opinion, made it too easy to get offended; there was no layer between the player and the player’s persona. So in my game everyone is playing a character, and no one knows who is pulling the strings.

The roleplaying also allowed me to write lots of meaty flavor text that I hoped would make my players move invested in the world and characters that we were creating. In past games, there has been little sadness about being voted out because there was no in-game parallel. Maybe you would cease to be in the game, but it wasn’t like your character was speared in the belly by an alien guard or chopped in half by someone you considered a friend.

In most games, you will eventually win. Sure, you’ll encounter adversity and opponents, but even if you die you’ll just reload and keep going until eventually you become the hero who saves the world, just like you always knew you would be. Even in permadeath games like Nethack or Spelunky, death is only a hurdle before your next iteration of the game. Who hasn’t died hundreds of times in Spelunky?

In BLOODSPORT, there are no save games and there is no new game button. It’s run live over two weeks or so, and 96% of players will die. Half of the players won’t even see the second half of the game. This is a very unfamiliar gaming experience for many. It’s like Survivor or Neptune’s Pride. The players become invested in their character’s life because it’s the only one they have. The victor can feel a true sense of pride because she or he has outsmarted, outplayed, outschemed, or out-RNGed their competitors. It’s not a game for everyone, but it’s certainly a game for some.

When the person playing Brian Sachs quit, though, I was feeling bad that I had misled people into thinking that the game would take less time than it did. I worried that there were people playing who didn’t want to be—who were overwhelmed by the number of emails and the sometimes complicated rule-sets. Quitting was always an option, but I wanted to present an easy in-game out that would let people quit guiltlessly and without just abandoning their characters. My first thought was to give them an easy way to go home, but I thought better of this because all of the characters would probably want to go home. If I offered them the option, they’d have to step out of character to reject it. So I came up with the Rebellion. This email went out to all of the players:

“You’ve heard rumors of an uprising against your alien overlords. Your friend said to you, “I don’t think that it will work, but I sure as hell don’t want to give the aliens the pleasure of seeing me die in the arena. If I’m going down, I’m taking some of those alien bastards down with me…”

I gave each of my twenty remaining players the option to join the rebellion and I made it clear that doing so would result in fun flavor text and the end of their role in BLOODSPORT.

I expected a few people to drop out. Instead I got nineteen encouraging responses. “I’ll take my chances in the arena.” “Screw rebellions.” “No rebellion for me.” “I will not be participating in the rebellion. I will, however, totally sell out the rebels if I can get a reward for my unscrupulous conduct.” All but one player responded to tell me that they wanted to continue playing. Several added that they were having a great time. The final player was simply very busy with work and wasn’t able to keep up with the social game. So I sent out my email on the rebellion (Derrick was one of the game’s NPCs—a paranoid ex-military boot camp instructor who has been trapped deep in the ground for far too long):

“The time is now, ladies and gentlemen,” screams Derrick, a crazy look in his eyes. “Who’s with me?? Viva la revolution!” He draws a beautiful diamond sword and raises it above his head.

“I’m with you!” shouts Roly Poly, and then the room is heavy with silence.

“No one else? Only one will join the revolution?” No response. “Ah, to hell with all of you. We’re dead either way. Come Roly, we have guards to slay!” Roly Poly and Derrick charge off into the black of the cave and they are never seen again.

Roly Poly has died.

A permadeath, long-form game centered around trust and betrayal will never appeal to everyone, especially when it requires a lot of time. But I’m glad that most of the people who are playing are enjoying the ride. Designing and running BLOODSPORT has been a hell of a lot of work, but I suspect that I’m having even more fun than my players.

~

This is the first in a series of articles about BLOODSPORT. In my next one I’ll go into more detail about how the game worked, and what I’ve learned about designing and implementing new mechanics.

Playing God

When I grew up, some games were off-limits. Diablo was a no, because Satan was right there in the title. Grand Theft Auto was also disallowed when my parents caught me mowing down police officers and lines of Elvis impersonators with a machine gun. Mortal Kombat was banned for obvious reasons—you can rip out a man’s ribs and them stab them through his eyes—but even Golden Eye was mysteriously “lost” one day after a particularly hilarious match of only shooting each other in the knee caps. I can understand the logic behind all of these decisions, but I’ve always been confused about why I wasn’t allowed to play The Sims.

The Sims, for those few of you who don’t know this, is a game about organizing the time of a virtual suburban family. The player directs virtual people, called sims, to interact with objects and individuals in pursuit of their personal goals. One premade family, for instance, is comprised of Jeff Pleasant, who wants to “provide for his family and fulfill his lifelong goal of being the first man to walk on Mars,” Diane Pleasant, who wants to “set her family on its way up the social ladder,” and their two kids, Daniel and Jennifer, who both simply want to “make new friends and succeed in school.” In a game market saturated by violence, The Sims is a refreshing exception. It’s a work of playful satire, and it’s about as far from objectionable as I can imagine. So why did my parents ban it?

Recently I asked my mother about this, and she told me that in her mind, The Sims is a game about controlling lives and playing God. As a Christian, she believes that there is always temptation to try to control your own life, but what God wants you to do is to surrender control to Him. The Sims, she said, gives you ultimate control—it indulges unhealthy and un-Christian power fantasies.

So maybe it’s appropriate that The Sims has an toggle switch for “free will.” If it’s enabled, sims will move without being directed by the player. They will take showers, go to the bathroom, cook food, go to work, call their friends, read a book, all while the player watches through the invisible roof and walls. Left to their own devices, the sims will often make bad decisions. Maybe they’re hungry and they need to go to work in half an hour, but instead of eating breakfast they will just sit and play on their computers, and maybe they’ll skip work. This is the game at its most uncanny.

But that’s not how it’s meant to be played. Even when free will is turned on, direct commands have priority over whatever the sim would otherwise do. The player is meant to micromanage every little part of a sims life in order to try to keep her happy and moving towards her goal.  You tell her when to go to the bathroom, when to water the plants, when to hold the baby. A sim will never apply for a job or begin a relationship or have sex without explicit instructions from the player.

I volunteered, once, to speak at a Christian rally in one of the poorest slums of Bacolod, a city in the Philippines. We called them ‘crusades,’ which I found uncomfortable even then. Crusades were missions of mass evangelism and spiritual nourishment—there were skits, songs, testimonies, and messages, and at the end a pastor, accompanied by an encouraging piano, invited people to walk up to the stage and be saved.

I was sixteen and I squinted in the stage lights at hundreds, maybe thousands of people. The microphone felt clammy in my hand as I began to speak. “Imagine that life is a road stretched out in front of you, and you’re in a car with Jesus.” My translator spoke for nearly a minute in Tagalog. He was clearly saying something more or different than my single sentence. When he stopped, I was worried but I continued with my metaphor. “And imagine that you’re a really terrible driver.” My translator began again, speaking quickly and gesturing with the hand that wasn’t holding the microphone. Something that he said made everyone laugh. “Maybe you’re swerving all over the road and you don’t feel safe.” When his hand seemed to swerve in and out of traffic, I felt reassured that we were at least roughly telling the same story. “But the thing is, Jesus is in the passenger seat, and he’s an excellent driver. So you have to ask yourself, do I want to drive, or should I let Jesus drive?” I thought to myself, as I looked out over men and women who had never driven a car in their lives, that I had probably chosen the wrong trite metaphor.

One of the most comforting things about being a Christian was my fervent belief that I could relinquish control of my life to God. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.” Paul refers to himself as a slave to Jesus Christ, and that was what I wanted to be. I thought that all of my problems were caused by my struggling attempts to control what should’ve been God’s—my body and my mind.

So when I started to suffer from severe anxiety I knew that it was my fault.

In my Junior year of high school I felt ill and so I stayed home from school—at first for a day and then for a week and finally for a month. I went to the doctor almost every day. I had more needle marks in my arm than a heroin addict, because they were taking blood samples almost constantly. I went from specialist to specialist and no one could tell me what was wrong. As I got further behind in school my symptoms got worse, and I then started to have panic attacks. The doctors told me later that I’d contracted a virus which my body had fought off, but my immune system wasn’t aware that it was gone so it kept chewing me up from the inside. The panic attacks were linked to my physical condition, my lack of sleep, and my anxiety over school.

Different people have panic attacks in different ways, but for me it was like this—I lost control of my body and I broke down sobbing wherever I was. At the zenith of my mental deterioration it was happening several times a day. I didn’t ever want to leave my house, or my room, or my bed. Every night I prayed for God to take control. “I don’t know what to do, God, I need to you to show me.” But he never did, and that is when I started to lose my faith.

For that month, games were my way of regaining control and my way of being controlled. I played games that were easy and empowering. Japanese games, mostly. It was comforting to inhabit worlds where I could instigate tangible self improvement, and it was comforting to let those worlds inhabit my mind.

It’s been a long time since high school, and I don’t struggle with anxiety anymore. I do, however, still love the measurable and attainable goals of games. Games are a way to assert control—if not over your life, over the lives of others. If The Sims is about playing God, you’re playing an active, meddling God. Life is a series of small choices, and it doesn’t matter how fervently you believe in him or how thoroughly you want to surrender control to him, Jesus will never make sure that you take a shower before you go to work.

While I no longer believe that I can give control of my life to God, I do believe that it’s important to come to terms with the fact that there’s a hell of a lot that we’ll never be able to control. It’s less scary when you believe that nothing is up to chance, and that everything is a part of some larger plan, but hey—if you ask me, lack of control is what makes life interesting.

Second Person Shooter 2:The Reckoning

Hello, my friends! It has been a long time since we have conversed on the ways of video games under the cool blue moon. But do not fear! We are back, Laura and I, to facilitate fascinating discussions, to tickle your brain cells, to ruffle your hair affectionately through the tubes of the internet, and to bend your kind internet ears. Yes, we have returned from our long journey across the empty deserts of academia, and now we are thirsty. Thirsty for games.

We graduated from college on a rainy day in June. On that day, Conan O’Brian, our graduation speaker, complained about Jay Leno from a wood-stump podium, and for some reason Dartmouth gave an honorary degree to George Bush Senior. Dartmouth also gave real degrees to your friendly neighborhood games writers, Laura and Kent! Laura finished a double major with honors in History and Creative Writing and completed her thesis, which, instead of being nonfiction writing about games as she had planned this time last year, was in fact an entire 270-page-long novel about angry children treating each other poorly. Kent was awarded a degree in Creative Nonfiction with a minor in Digital Arts. We said our bittersweet goodbyes, to one another, to our friends, and to the icy granite of New Hampshire, and we went our separate ways, our eyes misty with rain and our hearts cobwebbed with memories.

Laura has just started doing some copywriting work– basically, writing quests– for Tencent America, which means that everything she now says about social games is probably a conflict of interest and should be summarily disregarded. She is currently in the process of moving to San Francisco. Kent is currently searching for work in Hong Kong!

This week, to celebrate our return, we will be offering up fresh from the oven gaming insights for seven consecutive days! After that we’ll be posting 2-3 times per week. But regular posts aren’t the only change ’round these parts. You might also notice the new layout. Don’t worry; it will get significantly spiffier before we’re done. Also, the short-lived Second Person Shooter Podcast will be raised from the grave, and will be slowly ambling towards your ears very soon. We’re going to try out a few new types of articles, including multi-part posts and commentary-laden Let’s Plays–beginning with a Dwarf Fortress Let’s Play that’s already in the works.  Additionally, we will see you again tomorrow for the first installment of a 3-part post by Laura about Tiny Tower!

Welcome back, readers, and thanks for joining us.

(more…)

Skinny Stone Tower of Babel

Everyone’s playing Minecraft these days, so here’s a scene that might be familiar. I’ve built my sweet cliff-side villa and I want to go exploring.  The thing is, getting lost is easy when the world is made of blocks.  I want to make a monument—an unnatural landmark—so that I can always find my way back home.  It’s time to build a skinny stone tower of Babel.

But first, I must undress. I’ll put this nice wooden chest down right here, and I’ll strip naked and fill it with my clothing, my materials, and my tools.  Two stacks of stone blocks should be all I need.  And now I build.

I’m a herculean builder. The ancient Greeks told stories of me—Kent, god of speedy architecture.  My building method involves jumping and block-dropping. I put a block on the ground and I stand on top of it. I then hop into the air, balancing a second block below my feet.  I hop again and drop a third block on top the second one. Fortunately, I can stuff my pockets with enough stone blocks to build 700 giant temples where my worshipers can admire my building prowess.

Up and up and up I go, laying the blocks as fast as I can jump, and the ground rushes away from me. Pretty soon the only limit to my range of sight is the clip distance. The blocky grass reminds me of rice terraces in Thailand and tea plantations in Darjeeling.

Whenever I show this game to someone new, particularly to people who don’t play many games, they say that the graphics are terrible. I guess that I can understand this. The omnipresent wielded tool or hand-stump is a constant reminder of just how grainy the textures are. Even at medium distances the textures don’t tile well.

The way to convert anyone is to climb the tallest thing you can find. Minecraft vistas are sublime.  They’re so unabashedly digital, and yet so organic.  Who can look at a scene like this and not be overcome with awe and wanderlust?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I haven’t come for the view. I’ve come to jump. I toe the edge of my impossible obelisk, and then I plummet awfully to the ground. Game over! Score: &e0.

Alright, so: Game Over screens. These are used to signal that the game has ended in an unfavorable way. Maybe you’ve run out of time, or you’ve run out of lives, or you’ve run out of hearts, but the game is over and you didn’t win it.

When I die in Spelunky or Rogue, I have to restart from the beginning. When I die in Dragon Age or Dead Space, I have to return to a save state, rewriting history as though I never died. But when I die in Minecraft, I return to the same world that I left. That tower I built is still there. The crater that the exploding creeper left in the mountainside is still there too.

Remember the nonsense score on the Game Over screen? It’s a holdover from an earlier version of survival mode, when you got points from killing monsters. But to me the broken score counter is emblematic of how Minecraft eschews traditional gaming impetuses and measures of success. Minecraft isn’t about getting a high score. It’s about exploring and building and destroying.

I’m easily exhausted by traipsing around a city in order to collect hundreds of assassin’s flags, but I love exploring in order to see what there is to see. I have a perpetual desire to crest the next hill, to see what’s at the top of that cliff. There’s something about hearing the low moan of a zombie while you’re entombed in a narrow tunnel of your own construction that strikes a wonderful harmony of fear and curiosity. It’s great to stand gazing into an abyssal cavern and be overwhelmed with the simple need to see what’s inside.

Minecraft is special because the main character isn’t you, it’s the world around you. You are only as important as the effect you have on the world. AND SUCH IS LIFE. Now join me and look up in perfect silence at the stars.

Found in Translation: Chanting the Words of the Buddha

Yesterday, I loved Final Fantasy XIV. Today I’m not so sure.  But this is only the latest oscillation in my sinusoidal relationship with Square-Enix’s brand new MMO. I’ve been trying to write about Final Fantasy XIV, but my opinion of it is more erratic than a seismometer during an earthquake.  When I write something, I like to let it sit for a little while so that I can return with fresh eyes. This has become problematic as I write about FFXIV: by the time I reread my writing, my opinion has changed. Perhaps as my ideas settle down I’ll figure out what I really want to say.

In the meantime, here’s something excellent.

The Japanese Amazon page for the Final Fantasy XIV Collector’s Edition has 142 customer reviews, 110 of which are one star, and 15 of which are two stars.  I was curious what the complaints were, so I ran the page through Google translate.  I find the results to be eloquent and wonderfully puzzling.  Here are some of my favorite lines:

Items are lost. Time is rewound.
Maintenance is done frequently. Do it in primetime.
-from “Goods does not even reach the area” by Himuuro Yuki

What happened after one year is unknown, is to buy at the moment is not.
-from “Remember the Anger” by Mithra

Frankly I do not think people who bought can only regret I will only lick the user.
-from “Trash” by Bygto

The contents of the game is boring. Boring.
What is a boring boring?
-from “Gotten to say a word” by Old Man In Front of Grandpa

First came on the tumbler can not be used in an unsanitary unsatisfactory on the street called you.
-from “Noticable downside but a beautiful” by Transformer

Maybe because I root rot is going nowhere. I feel like I’m a heart massage decomposed body.
Still praying for a  miracle to feel like throwing up makes me feel bad.
-from “Dumped in a ditch ten thousand 20 w” by Liefmann

Nevertheless, they tumble into naked in a box, which had placed too much silica. Sorry, sealed in plastic.
It’s better to work while chanting the words of the Buddha.
-from “Fall! Fall! Falling rolls?!!” by Planetes

Square Enix would have been forced to chop off the head of a lizard bold decision soon.
Sincerely hope to come from the remaining cell grows a new head.
-from “Lose lizard head” by Love Shop

The only drag down ][ Haunted piggyback
If you do not want to fall together
-from “Final pathetic” by Maru


Dr. Mario, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pill

My grandma is better at Dr. Mario 64 than I am at any game.

Dr. Mario is a plumber-turned-doctor who solves all of his problems with a torrent of colorful pills.  He exists in a world where viruses are smirking and primary-colored, and where three consecutive instances of a single color is a surefire recipe for viral destruction.

When you first load Dr. Mario 64, you can begin as high as level 21.  Once you beat it, the game’s credits roll.  And then, if you’re in the mood for sudden and inescapable failure, you can play level 22—they add a few more viruses.  Each subsequent level adds more and more viruses until there are so many that it is literally impossible to win.  Here’s a shot of what the game looks like on virus level 23:

My grandmother regularly reaches level 25.  It’s uncanny how quickly she flips and flits the pills into place as they tumble into the bottle, fast and inexorable.

In the early ‘90s, Grandpa bought an NES.  My brother and I went to his house all the time to play Gauntlet II, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario.  Initially, Grandpa played games to get closer to his grandchildren, but he discovered that he really enjoyed them, and before long he was playing them all the time, even when we weren’t there.  And so, initially, my grandmother played games to get closer to her husband.

She spent many hours sitting on the couch, watching him play Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Final Fantasy, and Golf.  She didn’t particularly enjoy any of these games, but she came to love a different genre: puzzle games.  She consumed hours at a time playing Tetris, Dr. Mario, and The Adventures of Lolo.

When Grandpa bought a PS2, the N64 was relegated to the shoe room, a dingy entranceway to the house.  Even after all of those years, the little stack of tube TVs sits right next to the door, and grandma still perches on the crowded futon, flipping pills and killing viruses.

Maybe games like Dr. Mario, Tetris, etc. are about creating order out of disorder.  Maybe people who play them are like Amelie’s mother, who likes to empty the contents of her purse and then return everything to its neat and rightful place.

In Solitaire you start with a shuffled deck, and you sort the cards into meaningful piles.  In Bubble Spinner (a perennial favorite of my girlfriend), you begin with a spinning hexagon of orbs and you pair like with like, eliminating swaths of color.  Tetris starts with an empty screen, and you fight to organize falling blocks as quickly as you can.  Every game of Dr. Mario begins with a brimming bottle of viruses, and you have to clear the squirming chaff and return to simplicity.  Simplicity is an empty bottle.  Games teach us that no quagmire is so murky that we can’t fight our way out with guns, magic, or a fistful of pills.

Grandpa died a few years ago, and now Grandma lives by herself.  One of her daughters lives just across the road, and everyone still comes to visit, but the house is big and she has little to do.  I can’t imagine the oppressive loneliness that she must experience, but I rarely see her without a smile.

I asked her what was so special about Dr. Mario 64 that it would keep her playing for nearly a decade.  She shrugged.

“When my mind is all filled up with problems, and I don’t want to think about anything, I can just come and play my game.”

Press ‘x’ to Continue

I’m two hours into Persona 3 Portable and I’m thinking about the illusion of control.  It’s one of those games that spins its own web for a while.  Your main act of participation is to press a button at the end of every line of dialogue—to give the speaker permission to continue.  If you don’t press ‘x,’ she stands suspended, with that final word still hovering on her lip.

It’s a silly mechanic.  After I enter my name, I sit through screen after screen of dialogue.  I like the dialogue, actually.  It’s endearingly bizarre—just Japanese enough to make the game into a cultural experience.

For an hour I have no options—just press ‘x’ to continue, but eventually I’m alone in my room, and I’m ready to do something.  The game presents me with a still picture and a cursor.  There are several points of interest that I can select, but almost all of them give me the same message: “You’re tired. You should go to bed early tonight.”  I’m tired, am I?  I open the menu and flip through the options.  I notice an interesting choice: Auto Text on/off.  It’s set to off by default.  I switch it to on.  And then, with nothing else to do, I go to sleep.

When I wake up, things have changed.  The first thing that bothers me is the timing.  Characters won’t wait for anything.  Once one has finished her lines, the next blurts in.  It’s like everyone is itching to speak, eager to make themselves heard.  It makes me feel nervous, jumpy.  My thumbs hang uselessly above the buttons of the PSP.  No input required.  It won’t stop; even scene changes are automatic.  The game charges ahead, eyes shut, losing its balance.

I want to open the menu and change it back, but I can’t, because the menu won’t open during dialogue, and the dialogue won’t stop.

My girlfriend asks me to do the dishes.  “I can’t,” I tell her, “I have to watch this.”  I can’t even pause.  I’m bothered that the game would go on without me.  That it would just run on its own for thirty minutes.  I haven’t pressed a button in so long, how does it even know I’m here?

Several years ago, my family went on a trip to Egypt.  It was summer, and it was unbearably hot—over 110 degrees.  In the temples there was never any shade.  The heat was so thick that it undulated in the dry air.

In Luxor, we had a blind tour guide.  I don’t know what sort of tenacity would lead a blind man to become a tour guide, but there he was, complete with sunglasses, cane and floppy hat.  He led us from place to place, tapping his way across the ancient stones, stopping just before he reached the next point of interest.  How did he do it—did he memorize the number of steps between monuments?

Whenever we stopped he would preface his history in the same way.  He turned to us and said, “Mr. David, do you see the hieroglyphics behind me?”  Mr. David referred to my father, whose first name is David.  “Mr. David, do you see the statue behind me?”  Of course he saw the statue; it was unmissable at twenty feet tall.  But the tour never continued until Dad said, “yes, I see the statue.”

Our tour guide was blind, and what he was really asking was, “are you there Mr. David?  Say something so that I know you’re there.”

In Persona 3 Portable, I turned auto-dialogue back off at the first opportunity, and our relationship returned to normal.  Are you here, asks the blind game, feeling in the darkness?  Don’t worry, I’m here.

Do I control your body or your mind?

I’m going to talk about Loved now.  If you haven’t played it, you should go fix that.  It won’t take long.

I believe that all games require trust.  When we start playing a game, we form a pact with it.  To some extent we’re giving ourselves to that game—we’re allowing it to affect the way that we move our hands, and maybe even the way that we think.  To play a game is to surrender.  We allow ourselves to be led.  We trust the game and, more abstractly, its maker.

Well, Loved is a game about trust.  It’s about a child and a god.  “Are you a man or a woman,” it asks me. I can’t know that the asker is more important than the answer.  I click on man. “No, you are a girl.”  It’s so strange for a game to begin with a contradiction.  I am asked a question and I answer honestly. I surrender to the game, and it betrays me.  Why are so many games afraid to jerk you away from yourself, to break your trust, to reject your answer? It’s so effective, so startling. It asks me who I am and then it tells me who I am.

“Will I teach you how to play? Or not?” If you click on play, the speaker responds, “you don’t deserve it.”  If you click on not, the speaker says, “you will fail.”  Either way he’s taunting you.  The strangest thing about this proposed tutorial is that your decision has no effect whatsoever on the game.  The prompt only provides the illusion of choice; the demeaning responses of the program are coupled with the demeaning implication that your decision doesn’t really matter, that you don’t know what’s best for yourself.

And so begins our abusive relationship: me and the game maker; the little girl and her god.  I hop across the silhouetted land, and he gives me orders.  “Jump across those barbs… good girl. Touch the statue and I will forgive you.”  The first meaningful decision comes at a branching path.  The top path looks easy and safe, while the bottom path looks perilous. “Take the bottom path.” Do I trust him?  I take the top path.

“Ugly Creature.”  A flash of light, and I continue.

There are two ways to play the game.  Either you trust the narrator or you don’t.  Either you obey or you rebel.  The game maker sets up his stand-in as an antagonist from the beginning, with a brash contradiction and a couple of insults.  As soon as I disobey him, he insults me again.  So I keep disobeying, even when it wouldn’t hurt me to obey, even when he’s only asking me to stand still.  I won’t stand still, I keep moving, and something strange starts to happen.  I don’t notice it at first, but my surroundings become increasingly clouded with colored boxes, giant pixels, until by the end of the game they fully obscure the details of the environment.  I can barely discern my surroundings: there’s the sky (blues), the ground (multi-colored), and danger (red).  Maybe this is all that I need to finish, but it’s frustrating.  It’s like the world around me is disintegrating, becoming cloudier.  In the final hallway, I run, red blocks descending in pursuit, and I fall….

“Why do you hate me?”  No decisions at all. I can only click on hate.  The game responds, “I loved you.”

Strange.  I play a second time, and I take the lower path.  In place of insults I get condescending praise.  “Good girl,” he says, like I’m a dog.  This time there aren’t any colored blocks.  In fact, everything appears in black and white.  At the same time, the world becomes clearer, building in detail and intricacy.  Vines trail from the ceiling and flowers grow on the ground. Maybe the colored blocks were some sort of punishment, and the detail is a reward.

Is the black and white world really better than the colorful and abstract one?  I think that the colorful world is harder to navigate, but it’s also more vibrant.

I believe that all games require trust, and perhaps all movies and books do too.  Maybe art is about surrender.  Maybe we surrender our eyes and our minds every time we look at a wonderful painting, every time we hear a beautiful song.  But compared to games, other art forms are passive.  Midway through the game, Loved asks you, “do I control your body or your mind?”   The more I think about this question, the more it disturbs me.

The truth is: I trusted Loved, and it abused my trust, and that is why I love it.

I toe the edge of a precipice lined with barbs, and my god tells me, “jump.”

Or maybe all games are in the second person

Laura is done with her term, but I’ve got 20 pages to write between now and next Wednesday.  Also, I’ve had a horrible virus that has left me sleeping for 16 hours a day, running a high fever, and swallowing like my throat is made of sand and ouch.  I’m feeling a bit better today, but I’m not really working at the moment, so here is a quick post!

The more that I consider what exactly a second person shooter would be, the more I become convinced that our terminology is very odd.  The phrase “second person” refers to a particular narrative mode where the reader is pulled into the text by being treated as the subject of discussion, as in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City: “It’s ten-fifty when you get to Times Square. You come up on Seventh Avenue blinking. The sunlight is excessive. You grope for your shades.”  In this sense, aren’t almost all games in the second person?  Even “third person shooters” have you controlling someone, making them, to some extent, “you.”

For games, we’ve retooled the term “first person” to refer to perspective distance, not narrative mode.  This makes sense, since we need a way to talk about our visual relationship with our on-screen body.  But what about games where text is the primary means of communication?  The terminology of perspective distance doesn’t make much sense here.  I can’t even imagine what a “third person” text adventure would be if we used the ludic sense of the phrase.

Text games are dueling narratives—one that the game is telling to you, and one that you are telling to the game.  Outputs and inputs.  “Ye find yeself in yon dungeon. Ye see a FLASK.” And “Get ye flask.”  The user input is usually directive, and the game’s output—the story—is usually in the second person.  A text adventure in the first or third person would actually be pretty cool.  Has anyone played one of these?

At any rate, as to the question “what is a second person shooter,” let me put forth my answer!

6) Almost any text adventure with guns.

You enter a room with seven Nazi Zombies.  Obvious exits are NORTH and EAST.

>Shoot zombies

Where would you like to shoot the zombies?

>In the head

Your pump action shotgun splatters fascist zombie brains all over the cave walls.  That’s what they get for following you into your secret lair!

By the way, to anyone who hasn’t played it, GO PLAY SWITCHBREAK’S GAME.  It is a second person shooter.

Salutations, New Readers!

To all of our new readers: welcome! The past few weeks have been crazy.  We were linked on Rock Paper Shotgun, Critical Distance, Game Set Watch, and Gamasutra.  Laura and I both had pieces republished on Kotaku.  Our views per week have moved from the hundreds to the thousands.  And so, we wanted to take a moment to welcome all of you to the site and let you know what we’re about.

Laura and I are both Creative Writing majors at Dartmouth College.  We met in a course called Digital Game Studies, and after the course ended we both decided that we wanted to continue writing about games.  We’re interested in seeing games in new ways, in examining how we interact with games, and in exploring how games deal (or don’t deal) with important issues.  We think that games are more than just products, they’re experiences.

We try not to get too bogged down in academic stuff, but we don’t always succeed. We want our writing and ideas to be interesting, fresh and accessible.  Lots of games writing falls into the preview / review pattern, and this sucks because writers often stop talking about games just as soon as everyone else starts to play them.  We try to write the sort of stuff that will still be interesting in a few years, and we try to engage with old titles as well as new ones.

Several loyal readers grace these pages, and their comments are consistently insightful.  Please feel welcome to join the conversation!

We do our best to update with new content a few times a week, but unfortunately we’re currently wading into final exams, so don’t expect much for the next week or so.  When we emerge from the other side, though, you’ll hopefully have more to read than ever—the summer should afford us more time to play games and write about them.  We also have a podcast, but we haven’t updated it in a while.  We will remedy this soon!  Expect a new episode in about a week.

In the meantime, why not check out some of our older writing that you may not have read?  Laura’s Learning Dwarf Fortress is about navigating the ASCII graphics and online community of one of the world’s strangest and most awesome games.  I wrote a piece called Becoming Art about why we need more games like Demon’s Souls, and Laura wrote a response about why Max Payne is awesome anyways.  In Fable II I got a sex change, and it was strange.  Read about it in My Experiences as a Transsexual Lesbian in Albion (complete with video!).

We also want to say thank you.  Thanks for stopping by.  Thanks for the engaging discussions and the kind words.  We’re only getting started and we hope you’ll stick around.

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