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.

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


Translations

For the past week, I’ve been playing through the original Starcraft’s single-player campaign. For the first time.

I’d attempted it five or six years ago, but I was embarrassingly awful at it and therefore hated it. I’d grown up playing many, many RTSes, mostly set in human history. My favorites were the Age of Empires games. They are slightly more forgiving to those who, like me, are awful at ‘micro,’ and while I was never very good at any of them, I could still enjoy them and not feel like a complete idiot. Starcraft made me feel like an idiot.

Nevertheless, I might have stuck with Starcraft if its single-player campaign hadn’t struck me as such an awful piece of crap. I didn’t enjoy the talking heads. History buff that I was, I didn’t ‘get’ the heavy references to the southern United States (and I still don’t). The characters were only very fleetingly sketched, and people kept dipping in and out of view, changing sides, and saying asinine things in funny accents. I never even got to the bit where a certain someone transforms into a certain Queen of Somethings. It’s not like I expected overmuch from the game—I knew that RTSes can occasionally suck at telling stories. Starcraft, though, struck me as extraordinarily bad.

But I’ve been slowly plowing through it these past few weeks, and I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve also been watching many, many Starcraft II replay videos. Together, I think they’re helping me understand something about the role that story sometimes plays in multiplayer-enabled RTSes. Both campaigns and replay commentaries serve, in part, the exact same purpose. They’re translations.

Starcraft II replay videos with commentary are fun because they transform chaotic madness into coherent stories. Alone, I can’t access the ‘conversation’ that takes place between these high-level players as they compete. That conversation takes place in a long-running strategic context of strategies and counter-strategies stretching back over years and years, and it’s a context that I don’t yet possess. Whatever’s going on, it’s not necessarily going to fall easily into an attractive narrative, or even the kind of narrative that I can understand. But humans like to see things in terms of gripping stories, so people like HD and Husky step in and, voila, the story congeals. They turn a frantic conversation in a language I don’t speak into something I can understand and appreciate; they imbue the players with a kind of character that isn’t immediately discernable to the untrained eye; with the tones of their voice, they give structure and energy to a match. They are translators. Sports commentators have always been translators.

Secretly, a translator

Additionally, sports commentators have always been authors. They’re not necessarily telling the story of a match in the same way that the players themselves would have told it. Instead, and of necessity, they’re writing a whole new one. Translation is never perfect, but we need translations, and we need stories. Humans love to see the things we don’t fully understand as coherent stories. They help us to understand those things, even if they’re not the kinds of things that can honestly be represented by a conventional story.

One example of this is historical periodization—the division of history into consecutive and self-contained segments of time, like “The Middle Ages” or “The Industrial Age.” We do it because it helps us to understand the past, not because the past actually took place in discrete chunks. We take a bunch of stuff that happened around the same dates, point out common characteristics, give that period a name, and slap it into a timeline and—voila!— the story of human existence congeals! On one level, periodization is important, because we can’t talk about things or ideas without thinking of them as things. On another level, a philosophical one, it’s not entirely ‘realistic.’ For example, historians have recently begun to freak out about whether or not the Renaissance ever actually ‘existed.’ We may have arbitrarily imposed our conception of it as a coherent time-block because time-blocks suit us. Rendering any kind of chaos into story always involves a little bit of arbitrary re-authoring.

The Renaissance: didn't "really" "happen"

On some levels, putting a story to an RTS is like this, whether it’s the story provided by commentary or by a single-player campaign. The story re-writes the experience into something a bit more palatable and accessible, reinventing it as something that we can learn from. It’s impossible to learn from chaos, and at the first glance of an untrained eye, many RTSes are chaos. But single-player campaigns and replay commentaries each provide the translations for single-player and multiplayer play, respectively.

It should be obvious to anyone who has ever played an RTS that single-player campaigns frequently exist to teach players the basics that they’ll need in order to function in multiplayer competition. By imposing careful restrictions, a mission can isolate certain skills and strategies, teaching you something that you might never have noticed in normal multiplayer play. Soon enough, you can talk the game’s talk—and, if you’re good, manipulate its mechanics as creatively as you could manipulate any language.

Similarly, the best replay commentary points out and isolates certain concepts and strategies in a way that allows players to decode the language of high-level play ’syllable’ by ‘syllable’, so to speak, teaching strategies that the single-player campaign cannot teach. While replay delivers this instruction in a simple, upfront context (“you want the translation, so I am giving it to you”), the way teachers provide translations of difficult concepts to students through traditional schooling, an RTS’s single-player translation takes the form of a straight-up fiction.

But each method uses stories, as I mentioned above. The story of a good match—say, the first clash between IdrA and Masq, and the eventual rematch—is as exciting as many of the stories Blizzard comes up with. Personally, I think they’re often a lot more exciting, mostly because the human drama is real.

At any rate, I find it interesting that RTS developers haven’t yet broadly acknowledged the similarities between these two teaching tools. They don’t provide competitive multiplayer campaigns that teach the same things that commentary does in the way that single-player campaigns teach it—with stories. Granted, for a game as complex as Starcraft, that would be incredibly difficult. You’d have to do an extended beta to test your multiplayer design, then develop a campaign around what you’d discovered, and perhaps find a whole new way to tie a translating narrative onto the top of all that. Worst of all, as the game entered its extended lifespan, strategies might emerge that you hadn’t predicted or worked into the campaign. They might even break the campaign. You might have to edit some of the creative content along with the natural act of balancing the game. You could definitely do it, though, and it could be much easier to do for a game with simpler mechanics. I’d love to see a game take some lessons from replay commentary and include a competitive multiplayer campaign with a story that reacts as the players defeat one another.

Then again, a good RTS should make it fun to learn to play competitively by simply playing competitively. That’s how I played Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology as a kid, and even though I sucked, I enjoyed it. People who currently battle for their rankings in Starcraft II ladders are having fun without a story in a competitive campaign. Nevertheless, they’re probably watching commentaries. They still want translations, and they use them often. Honestly, as a kid, I could have done with some good translations. If I’d had a few more than I did, I’d probably suck a lot less than I do now.

—–

Also: Where have Kent and I been? Well, we’ve been having the END OF THE SUMMER, and it’s busy, and will continue to be. In the coming week I’ll be moving across the country—leaving the lawless, mazelike ruin that is Los Angeles and returning to the east coast, where people are NORMAL, goddamn it. Kent is also making mighty movements across  our planet. On top of this, Kent and I have been working on a variety of separate simultaneous projects that also eat up a lot of time and energy. I, for one, have just had my thesis approved and am reading loads and loads of books and doing other kinds of quote-unquote research. But we hope to be back to our old something-on-the-site-at-least-more-than-once-a-week schedule in the “near” “future”. Interpret those scare-quotes as you see fit.

Life sucks. And then you die from a broken ‘Digestive Function’

For several years, my favorite computer game series was one which allowed you to force little aliens to have sex with one another.

I’m talking about the Creatures games, a series of three “A-Life” simulations which saddled you with a mob of half-sentient, disobedient monsters and dared you to breed them into a powerful superrace of babbling critters. Or something. It was hard enough getting the damn things to eat. It was much harder to get them to breed, because that meant keeping two alive at the same time.

Each Creatures game placed you as the godly caretaker of a race of small things known as ‘norns.’ The norns are diminutive, large-eared, monkey-squirrel-humanoid beasts. They can learn a limited English vocabulary, express fears and desires, communicate with one another, learn rather complex tasks, develop personalities and relationships, and generally shock players with their emergent brilliance. They can also die in a million horrible ways.

Each individual norn is comprised of a series of discrete ‘organs,’ each of which reacts to elements in the game world in a variety of different ways, many fatal. If a creature spends too long underwater, its ‘lungs’ organ will die. Then it will die. I’ve watched creatures fall and destroy their ‘bones’ organ, gobble up poison mushrooms to the detriment of their ‘digestive function,’ and even, due to an odd birth defect, pop out of the egg with two brains, both of which were already dead.

In C1, norns lived on the outer edge of Albia, their disc-shaped, sidescrolling home planet. They shared it on bad terms the grendels, a breed of stupider, stronger baddies. In C2, they were joined by the neutral Ettins, magpie-style wanderers who lived in the desert zone and stole mechanical objects from everywhere else. Originally protected by the intelligent Shee, a fourth race of aliens, all these little beasts were abandoned to your care until Creatures 3. C3 made you the Lone Shee, who flies a giant generation ship full of norns, grendels, and ettins through the infinite vastnesses of space for no particular reason whatsoever. Though the nomenclature is weirdly referential to Celtic mythology, the games’ art style had no relation. The norns were Disneylike buffoons, but the grendels were soulless lizard brutes and the ettins looked oddly like a race of dried, bleached zombie dolls.

All the weirdness aside, Creatures 1 and 2 were grueling sims, and for me, they were a sort of trial-by-fire introduction to biology and genetics. I received Creatures 2 for Christmas when I was nine or ten and, by the time I was done with it, I’d taught myself punnet squares, acquired a basic vocabulary in biology, learned about mods, bought my very first game guide, and accidentally irradiated ten or twelve innocent little artificial intelligences in the firey bowels of the game’s sole volcano until they mutated and bore stillborn young. That said, I never actually managed to raise a successful third generation of creatures in Creatures 2. I don’t know whether this was typical or not, but I do know that some players were far more adept at the game than I was. And a lot more obsessed.

Each version of the game had the same arc: you began with a single norn, to whom you taught English, often with great frustration. You then led it to explore the entire world map, collecting power-ups along the way. They granted you special new abilities in the gameworld. One allowed you to control and breed grendels and ettins. Others opened new parts of the game’s interface, allowing you a better look at each creature’s biochemistry or physical state. Unfortunately, to activate the power-ups, your creatures had to ‘push’ them—and, in C2, teaching them the meaning of the word was pretty difficult.

“PUSH,” you’d command, unsure what noun class the power-up fit into. “PUSH! PUSH!”  The parser was very rigorous. Unfortunately, the ‘push’ verb, when performed by one norn on another, resulted in norn babies. I triggered several accidental pregnancies by ordering a crowd of norns surrounding a power-up to PUSH! at random.

Eventually you uncovered the game’s crowning secret: a genetic splicing machine. It allowed you to combine norns, grendels, and ettins into mutant horrors. I only ever uncovered the splicer in three of my tens of C2 game-worlds. My father once played and, inexplicably, uncovered the splicer in a fraction of the amount of time it normally took me or my sister.

It must have been because we were stupid kids, I suppose—but C2 was hard. As a disembodied hand, the player could interact arbitrarily with only some of the objects in the game world. Some buttons could be pressed; some foods or other objects could be picked up and moved around. You could slap or tickle the norns, grendels, and ettins, which was how you taught them to do various things in the gameworld, but you couldn’t actually move them or force them to do anything. If your norn really wanted to leap off of the highest level of the bamboo village in the jungle biome, there was nothing you could do to stop him mashing his bones organ into a fine paste and dying, with whines and gasps, in the unforgiving Albian dust. Some of the most powerful moments in my entire gaming memory involved watching norns die, incredibly slowly , in the furthest parts of C2’s labyrinthine world. One little guy ate a cyanide mushroom. Though I found him the antidote, he was already too far gone to respond to my frantic typing. “EAT PLANT,” I commanded, over and over, dropping the healing flower in front of him. “EAT PLANT!”

“Bob hurt,” he responded, and, kneeling down, rested his head on the floor. “Bob feel very sick.”

I think I actually shed a tear over Bob. “You’re an idiot,” I typed. The parser didn’t understand it, and, with a quiet murmur, he died.

Most people who have played Creatures games played Creatures 3. It fixed everything that was wrong with the previous two games, and I consider it a tour-de-force, even though it clearly didn’t sell enough to keep the development studio afloat. For instance, it allowed you to grab creatures by the hand and drag them about. You could now protect them from danger by building machines that locked doors. Creatures learned English more quickly, were more resilient, and were easier to control in groups. The designers even started supplying better DLC—you could pay five bucks for a new breed of developer-polished norns. Later, the free Docking Bay add-on let you trade norns with randos over the internet. I once downloaded a female norn, oddly named ‘Oma,’ who was trapped in an eternal pregnancy. Her sprite was, anyway. She was a generation 1148 beast (my best was only 15 consecutive C3 generations) who had been bred for ultra-short gestation periods. Her babies popped out in seconds—but all were afflicted with the dreaded Fast Growth gene, a hated mutation in the C3 community. Fast Growth norns were usually colored in the ugliest possible way, susceptible to disease, and likely to be born crippled, with severe mental deficiencies or ultra-short lifespans. It took me months of experimentation to weed the Fast Growth gene out of Oma’s kids.

The C3 community was actually pretty active. There were an awful lot of mods: inexcusably ugly custom norn breeds, new rooms for the generation ship, new toys, machines, and tools. There was also a certain kind of iron-man game mode that these hardcore C3 fans liked to do—‘feral’ norn runs. They’d hatch six or eight babies out and leave them sitting in the game overnight, then check to see what had happened by morning. Because a standard C3 norn reaches sexual maturity in around forty minutes, many generations can pass in a day. Some people even kept feral runs going for weeks.

I only ever did one feral run. I left it going for about nine hours. By the time I returned, there was only one norn left. As a generation 9 or 10 norn, the logs indicated that he’d been born in a hallway, so he’d never come into contact with the Teaching Machine, and spoke no recognizable language. He could barely feed himself. He appeared to be ill, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, not even with the massive medical scanner in the bow control room. He had no name. I checked the logs, which provided me with photographs of each other norns at their moments of death, but I couldn’t figure out what had destroyed them. Possibly a deadly virus? Possibly inbreeding? There wasn’t much to go on. I put him out of his misery in the most creative way possible—injecting him at random with some of the unnamed chemicals in the medical scanner. I had a actual pen-and-paper journal where I’d ben taking notes, trying to identify some of these mystery drugs.  I didn’t deduce any new chemical functions from his death,though. I probably should have injected him with only one, not ten at once.

These days, life simulators are more popular than ever before—but The Sims has little in common with the back-breaking, soul-crushing, biology-wielding craziness that characterized the Creatures games. For one, you can’t do a feral run in The Sims 3. I recently obtained a copy of Sims 3 on discount and tried to do a feral run, because that’s what I’d wrongfully assumed had been going on in parts of Alice and Kev. I soon realized that The Sims 3 requires constant player input– it would just run until somebody had a phone call or an Opportunity, then pause itself. It’s full of modeled systems, but they’re not designed to run on their own. It’s just a game.

The Creatures games were certainly games—gamier than the Maxis Toys. But they were also fully modeled ecosystems. They ran on their own, and part of their cruelty stemmed from the fact that, like earth’s real, wild nature, Albia simply didn’t care about you. You didn’t even need to be there. Norns would die as horribly in your hands as on a feral run.

That, I think, is what sold me on the Creatures games. They were games about life that were, in the end, as harsh as life itself. Is the lack of harshness what bothers some people about the Sims games? I don’t know. The Sims games don’t bother me at all, but I’ve met people who find them saccharine and awful. I won’t deny it—I’d love The Sims better if I could do a feral run, wake up in the morning to find my starter guy dying fat and lonely while his grandkids fail school and piss themselves.

But that might be because I loved Creatures so much. Bob sticks with me.

Dying in Space

I failed to restore oxygen to the moonbase.

It was devastating, at first. I knew that I was going to fail long before the moment actually came—by the time I had about 8 minutes left, I was pretty sure that the end wasn’t going to be pretty. I put it down to my inability to grasp the minigame soon enough: I wasted about five minutes dicking around with the welder before I realized what part of the circuit board I was supposed to be playing with. There was also the issue of my poor robot-driving skills. To top it all off, I also actually got lost a few times—a tough task, admittedly, since there were only about three locations on the entire map. With eight minutes left, the seconds were counting down and there was no one to blame but myself and my incompetence. My incompetence, yeah, and certain fanciful misconceptions I had developed about the game while playing it. See, I kind of psyched myself out, when it comes right down to it. Yeah. Weird. I pretty much worked myself up into a terror. But I would have been perfectly satisfied with this self-inflicted terror, however, if it hadn’t led me to make a rather disappointing discovery about what happens when you fail the game’s scenario.

Bottom line: NASA ruined their own game for me with their squeamish space-positivism.

Moonbase Alpha is supposed to be played in multiplayer mode, pretty much. But when you tackle it alone, it’s got a certain atmospheric element that I think I might have missed if I’d played with another human—a strange combination of cheery optimism and desolate harshness that strikes me as particularly odd. In recent weeks, Neptune’s Pride and Gregory Weir’s Looming have given me the pleasure, if it can be called that, of some real quality intentional hopelessness. On the other hand, Moonbase Alpha is one of those games where you can’t tell if the desolation is intentional or not. I’m not sure if it’s just in my head—a conundrum I’m intimately familiar with after years of reading ‘hard’ science fiction. Space madness! It’s like I’m part of some crazy space-horror novel, I guess, but super low-key, and without the blood running down the inside of the visor dome and all that.

Moonbase Alpha is not necessarily for the kind of small children who tend to be obsessed with astronauts. It was, apparently, inspired by America’s Army, and that says a lot about the direction it takes, I think. It’s actually quite tough on the first playthrough, and though it’s got some cute minigame mechanics, there’s an awful lot of silent trudging, drab regolith, suffocating dust, and fiddly difficulty. Playing it alone, I really did feel like a bewildered, trapped spaceman. There isn’t any music. There aren’t any people to see. It’s in the Unreal engine, but everything feels rather more dusty and much less shiny-shiny-slick-and-fancy than other Unreal games tend to look. The disembodied voices of your fellow spacemen, stuck indoors with a dwindling oxygen supply, are more anxiety-producing than they are comforting.

Meanwhile, however, we’ve got the contrast of pretty LCD panels on the outsides of all our important moon-buildings, a bright glowy UI, oddly adorable maintenance robots, and the whole euphoric people-living-on-the-moon situation to deal with. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to think about the situation. If I’d succeeded in fixing the oxygen system, I doubtless would feel quite different about the game now. I’d probably be focusing more on the cute than the lonely.

See, I really did psych myself out: I was convinced, throughout the whole playthrough, that the astronauts would die, that they would suffocate to death if I didn’t save them. Dead astronauts are the creepiest things modernity has offered us in the past fifty years. Americans these days generally only pay attention to astronauts when they’re dead, or in peril of dying, and everyone loves putting them in movies and scaring the fuck out of us with them. (If you’ve seen Sunshine, you’ll know exactly what I mean.) I myself have a particularly strong fear of dead astronauts. As a child I desperately wanted to be a live one—specifically, a Payload Specialist. I even got to go to Space Camp in Florida for my tenth birthday, a gift that, to this day, remains the best present I have ever recieved. Space occupied a pretty significant portion of my daily thought-load—I would lie in bed for nearly an hour before falling asleep every day and try to imagine what it would be like to do a spacewalk and repair a shuttle. I almost always had nightmares after doing that, but they were particularly awesome nightmares, so I put up with it. Only a few weeks after Space Camp, though, I was diagnosed with diabetes. I immediately convinced myself to give up the whole plan. Didn’t stop my scary dying-in-space nightmares, though.

So when the game began, I immediately convinced myself that these astronauts would die if I didn’t save them. I don’t know if the game tells you otherwise right at the beginning and I missed it, but I was sure that I was the last hope they had, and that they were all slumped in their living quarters, slowly turning ice-blue, while I hopped desperately through the rising dust like an idiot. Imagine my surprise when, the moment I fail, the trapped astronauts suddenly speak up and announce that I can go back and try again, and that my failure’s only resulted in a lost day of productivity!

Listen, NASA. We gamers believe certain things about space. We believe that space is vast, and detailed, and largely friendly; we also believe that it’s as crowded with alien life-forms and awesome laser-gun fights as Canaveral and JPL are with PhDs. Your cute little robots are a step in the right direction when it comes to that kind of propaganda. But as Americans, as science-fiction nerds, we believe other things: we believe that spacemen die, horrifically, on television, with fire in the sky and immense mechanical screeches and explosions and bits of Our Heroes The Spacemen plastered all over the continent. Children of my generation know the ISS, but we also know Disaster in Space. We’ve read the books. We’ve watched the movies. We’re fascinated with space because it’s recently become a place for robots, not for people, and we know why.

I know why you made your design decision, NASA, but for God’s sake, let your spacemen die. It’s the only way we’ll ever be excited about your digital moon.

Guest Article: Die for Me

I’m normally a very cautious player.  Beyond cautious, really; I can usually be found flitting nervously between neurotic and obsessive, with occasional forays into outright paralysis.  In FPS games I always keep my health and ammo topped off as much as humanly possible, and I quickload so frequently I may as well be playing Prince of Persia.

It’s not limited to any one genre, either.  Any RTS match against the computer will end with hundreds of enemy units dead, no more than a dozen casualties on my own side, and well over three hours of game time passed; I never attack until I’ve amassed an absolutely overwhelming force.  I don’t even touch the multiplayer most of the time, because I know I might lose.  Any RPG I play will quickly accumulate a massive archive of save files, one placed just before every decision I have to make—just in case I decide, after thirty or so hours of world-saving, that I would have been better off buying the Amulet of Herpes Resistance over the +3 Death Spork back when I was level 2.

Just in case.

Totally worth the herpes.

I might have been this way forever, but there was one game that finally showed me the joy of carelessness.

Half-Life 2 has these annoying critters called antlions, which spend a good portion of the game trying to kill you.  Then, once your hatred of them has had ample time to fester, the game flips them over to your side and gives you the ability to control them.  So it was that I found myself outside the front entrance of a Combine prison fortress with four of them following me around, ready to die at my command.  I may have hated them, but they were still a necessary resource, and I resolved to keep the four of them alive as long as possible—so I was a little distraught when I made a stupid mistake and got one killed before I’d even begun the full assault.

But within seconds, another one burrowed up from the ground to take the place of its comrade.  My hand froze over the quickload button.  Overtaken by curiosity, I took a hesitant step toward this newcomer and prodded it with my crowbar.  It squealed, but did not fight back.  I hit it again, more confidently this time, and it exploded in a shower of giblets.

The other antlions didn’t even react; as bits of their slaughtered companion rolled away out of sight, yet another one rose up out of the ground almost immediately to replenish their ranks.  It scurried over to me and waited expectantly, looking for all the world like an obedient puppy.  Realization finally dawning, I felt a grin creep slowly over my face.

I had minions.

Up ahead of me was a heavily defended beach swarming with Combine, overlooked by sheer cliffs with fortified gun emplacements.  No way in hell was I going to go in by myself; this was WWII-era Normandy all over again.  Anyone attempting a frontal assault would be immediately shredded by automatic gunfire from six directions.

I know this, because I counted.  As I watched my antlions being shredded by automatic gunfire.

Go, my super bug Pokémon!

As wave after wave of my stupidly obedient companions was cut down by the merciless cliff guns, I quietly snuck up a path off to one side and lobbed a grenade into one of the gun emplacements.  Now they were only being shredded from five directions.  A few antlions were starting to push through; the enemy lines faltered for a moment, and then broke.  Silence descended on the beach as I took a moment to observe the many, many corpses of my fallen allies around me.

“That was totally awesome,” I declared, in somber recognition of the slain.  “I wanna do it again!”  Truly, my eyes had been opened to the unbridled delights of getting people killed.  Now wouldn’t it be great if I could do this sort of thing in other games?

Enter Starcraft.

No, not the sequel.  The original Starcraft, which I have been proudly sucking at since I was a kid.  And the reason I sucked, as I mentioned above, is that I took such good care of my units.  I would never send somebody to the front lines if they were likely to die, so I never even bothered with the weaker units like marines or zealots.  But after my antlion epiphany I made a point of revisiting the bottom of each race’s tech tree, and it was then that I discovered the lowly zergling.

You already know what a zergling is.  Anyone who has ever played Starcraft, talked about real-time strategy, or visited South Korea knows what a zergling is, but I want to take a second to put them in perspective for you: The weakest Terran unit—a marine—has genetically enhanced everything, swings around a high-powered machine gun like it’s a toy, and wears more body armor than the Master Chief.  These are the guys that often get brutally chewed up by larger units, most of which are described with such terms as “mountainous,” “biblical,” and “oh shit.”

Everybody got that mental picture?  Steroid-munching cyborg supersoldiers getting torn apart by gigantic alien doomsday machines?  Good.  Now the zergling, by contrast, is roughly the size of a small goat.  And where other units have plasma swords and fully automatic gauss rifles, they have itty bitty claws and teeth.

The food chain.

Send any one of these little guys into a typical Starcraft battle and it will die almost immediately; the only upside is that you can build an awful lot of them at very little cost.

And if you send a lot of them into battle?  Well, they still die.  But so does everyone else.

Suddenly my games took on a whole new tone.  I was no longer carefully shepherding my expensive units into perfectly orchestrated battles; I’d just bang out a quick army of two dozen zerglings and send them blindly into an enemy formation, then cackle with mad glee as both sides shredded each other mercilessly.  Thirty seconds later, another swarm of zerglings would already be on its way to massacre the traumatized survivors.  Suddenly, I was almost good at this game.

As I wrap up here, I feel like I should offer a moral; something to properly honor the humble zerglings and antlions of our world.  But which to choose?  ”Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is already a cliché, while “zerg rush owns all” can be difficult to apply in situations outside of Starcraft.  Perhaps I should borrow a dry witticism, such as “never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

No, I got it: “Life’s easier when you get some other sap to do your dirty work.”

Anyway, many thanks to Laura and Kent for letting me do a…guest…article…

Waaait a minute…

Peter Riggs is a gamer and a crowbar-wielding murder machine who occasionally writes about games and crowbar-related murders. Most of his writing can be found on his blog, Intelligent Design, where he uses the pseudonym “Veret” to avoid detection. Don’t tell anybody.

Is Deus Ex 3 a movie or a game?

Because it looks like it would be one hell of an excellent movie. I haven’t seen a cinematic trailer this long, plotty, or robust in a while.

I mean, I’m totally aware that cinematic trailers can be like this. I didn’t expect gameplay footage or anything. But usually when we see these kinds of things, they’re only fifty seconds long. Just a short clip of characters pumping shotguns and saying “Let’s roll!” in Clint Eastwood voices, or giving the camera heavy-lidded angst-eyes while titles and release dates flash by, or talking about why they love Commander Shepherd, or things like that. Clearly prerendered, but framed in such a way that we know we’re talking about a game, here. Even the ME2 cinematic trailer was just a list of squad members presented flashily. The launch trailer was also a list of squadmates, and it even had some in-game sex-scene footage in it. It had the framing logic of an RPG. When we start talking lists of recruitables, we know we’re talking about that kind of game. The Deuz Ex 3 trailer doesn’t have any of that framing logic.

The other type of cinematic trailer we see is the type where everything is patently cutscene footage. But the Deus X trailer feels like it was taken from a larger story, from a whole movie’s worth of story, not from just a few cutscenes. It feels like I’m going to want to play this game in a huge empty room with a bucket of popcorn and an Icee on hand. Which is, of course, kinda tough, right?

Here’s the thing: I’m starting to think that part of the reason we’re so skeptical of game movies (and I haven’t yet seen Prince of Persia, so I could be totally wrong about this) is that it’s not wise to try and make players feel the same way about a game character the same way we feel about a movie character, and vice-versa. Obviously, different strategies are involved in the characterization and the world-building, and so on. The kind of player-character that appeals to people in a game is often flimsy enough to be inhabitable, while simultaneously characterized enough not to feel like a sock puppet. Action-movie heroes are also vehicles for self-insertion, but in a different way: we spend more time regarding them from the outside than from the inside, so they’re shinier on that side, so to speak.

From what I see of these characters in this trailer, they’re the kind of people I want to regard from the outside. Or—I mean—they’re the kind of characters I don’t yet feel like I can regard from the inside, they’ve been polished up so hard.*

What do you guys think? I mean, when it comes to trailers-what-make-me-feel-excited, I think this is right up there among the best. But it doesn’t feel much like a game trailer.

*Except for that giving-orders guy  near the end. His voice acting just screams VIDEO GAME

Logical Journey

In 1997, I made a new best friend.

He was the son of an incredibly famous person, but I didn’t know this at the time. I actually remember my parents being rather shocked when they met his mother—as I learned much later, she’d been all over the news for reasons related to Bill Clinton’s government appointments. For some reason, they moved to my area just before September 1997, and now her son was in my school. Let’s call him Ricardo. He was in my third-grade class for a single year.

Ricardo was absurdly charismatic. He had twelve kinds of Napoleonic complexes, claimed to have read Hamlet, and showed off his family’s wealth with a shameless, mesmerizing kind of pride. He spent nearly every Reading Hour arguing with the teacher about whether or not he was permitted to spend the period reading the dictionary. He started a club “about Egypt.” He started another one “about Rome.” He got half our entire grade to sign the membership lists. He wore little polo shirts instead of t-shirts or turtlenecks. Despite not being Hispanic, he had a haircut like a novela actor, and he pulled it off. For whatever reason, we all thought he was awesome.

And he wanted to be my best friend. See, we both played the same computer games: we were absolutely hooked on edu-games made by The Learning Company. There was Treasure Mountain, Treasure Cove, Treasure Mathstorm and Treasure Galaxy, all math games; then there was Reading Rabbit and its bland successors. Additionally, we loved Broderbund’s The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, a logic game he and I both begged our parents to buy out of that year’s book fair catalog. We were obsessed. We’d go over to each other’s houses and sit for hours to watch each other play. We solved math problems together. We discussed secrets and strategies. He had a computer of his own, and it was in his room. He was the smartest and luckiest kid I knew. But he was new in school, and his friendships were all nervous alliances of awe and mistrust, and I was pretty awkward and lonely myself. So I guess we were good for each other.

There’s one day in particular from that year that I still remember. I arrived at his house sometime in the early morning; we ran upstairs to his bedroom, where he still had Zoombinis running from the night before. I plopped down in the chair next to his and was rather horrified by what I saw happening on the screen.

“What have you done?” I asked.

Ricardo settled down in the rolling office-chair his parents have given him, crossed his legs on the seat, and gave me a look. “I haven’t done anything,” he said.

“But you have two of each Zoombini,” I said.

The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is a selection of logic puzzles which focus on pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, and deductive reasoning skills.  The chief elements of each puzzle are the Zoombinis themselves—little blue fellows, a bit like punk-rock Mr. Potato Heads, each with a different arrangement of facial features, nose colors, hairstyles and limbs. Many of the puzzles involve arranging the Zoombinis in series or matrixes according to which facial features they have in common. Failure usually results in one or two Zoombinis getting left behind. Run out of Zoombinis, and you fail.

You’ll have to work quickly to get them through the puzzles and out of harm’s way: as players progress through the difficulty levels, not only do the puzzles get harder, but they begin to incorporate timers, penalties, and three-strikes-you’re out mechanics. I remember feeling the difficulty level increase, as if the air around me were filling with smoke, or some frantic kind of fear-gas. As a kid, I felt these logic puzzles viscerally. I began as a logic-starved whelp : by the time I began to tackle the highest difficulty levels, I could tell that I had grown mentally. I’m pretty sure that my brain was actually altered by this game.

The genius thing about it was that your own choices—the Zoombinis you designed for your team at the start of each play session—were one of the primary sources of difficulty. The more diverse you made them as a group, the tougher it got to solve some of the puzzles, particularly the ones that required you to arrange them by shared elements. You’re not supposed to have two of each Zoombini. You’re supposed to be battling against the clock with a crowd of misfits. Against all odds, even self-imposed ones, you’re shepherding them across this puzzle-studded wilderness to safety at the end of the overworld map. The final destination is Zoombinivile, and the Zoombinis, in fact, are refugees. The plot is: you’re rescuing these refugee Mr. Potato Heads from a dark and stormy prison-island with the righteous power of pure logic. It’s glorious.

So, having two of each Zoombini is cheating, I thought. Unquestionably. I could feel in my bones that it was a shortcut, an unfair advantage, and an unforgivable sin. Having two of each Zoombini makes each puzzle twice as easy.

I could not express my horror. Ricardo just smirked. “You know, if you double-click on the ‘make Zoombini’ button when you’re designing them at the start of the map, you make each Zoombini twice,” he said. “You get two of each instead of only one.”

“But that’s cheating!” I exclaimed.

“No, it isn’t. Why does the game let you do it if it’s cheating?”

He had a good point, but my world was falling apart. We argued for a long time about what constituted a ‘fair’ game of Zoombinis. “You have to follow the spirit of the law, not the letter,” I proclaimed. It was a garbled version of a phrase I’d just learned from my father, and I thought it sounded dramatic.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ricardo told me.

I suppose it makes a kind of symbolic, cosmic justice that the first gamer friend of mine to play a game with shrewdness and corner-cutting slyness, the first of my friends to take confident possession of an exploit, was Ricardo, the son of United States politicians. But that’s a trite and useless observation for me to make, really, and I feel kind of stupid making it. Ricardo didn’t teach me how to cheat; he taught me how to think about games. He taught me when to take my head out of the game-world and look at it from the outside. He taught me when to mess with the system and when to play by its rules. Before our argument about Zoombinis, I’d regarded games as rigorous but entertaining exercises passed down to me from some higher power, totally immune to my criticism or critical thinking: I’d perform the required actions and receive fun, like a hamster in a laboratory cage. After my  Zoombinis revelation, I began to look at my games with suspicion. I began prodding at them, manipulating them instead of letting myself be manipulated by them.

At the end of the day, I went home and started up my own copy of the game. I started a new game session, beginning at the Zoombinis’ home base. As I put a new team of them together, my sister ran up to watch.

“How do you do that?” she gasped.

“Do what?” I asked.

But I already knew what she was going to ask. “How do you have two of each Zoombini?”

I shrugged like it was nothing. “You double-click the ‘Make Zoombinis’ button each time you make one. It makes two instead of one.”

“Oh.” She stood there for a while, watching as I assembled a team of lifeless clones. “Doesn’t it make the game too easy?” she asked. “Are you still, like, doing logic?”

I was still doing logic, yeah. Just… a different kind of logic.

Enduring Oblivion

When I was a little kid, every trip to the mall was a potential trip to the arcade.  A five-dollar bill clutched tightly in hand, my brother and I would rush into that flashing cavern, fidgeting in anticipation while twenty quarters clattered into the coin-machine dish.  My favorite games were Tekken, Time Crisis, and The Simpsons, but I rarely chose to play those games.  Instead I would thumb my quarters into skee-ball machines and sport simulators, not because I liked these games, but because these games gave me tickets.  The tickets were key.  You could exchange them for prizes.  Maybe my brother had more fun when we were there, blowing all of his quarters on Time Crisis, but I was the one with the brand new Chinese Finger Trap, and wasn’t that the important thing?

I’m on my third character in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  I promised myself that this time I would just have fun, but it was a promise that I couldn’t keep.  As I write these words there is a rubber band strapped to my Xbox controller, forcing my character to swim into a stone wall, endlessly pumping his arms but never going anywhere.  Once an hour a message flashes across the screen: “Your Athletics Skill has increased.”  I’m a hundred hours into the game and I’ve barely played it at all.

When you start out in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind you’re a shadow of what you will one day become.  The path from the poor harbor of Seyda Neen to the bustling city of Balmora is grueling and dangerous; you’re so weak that any battle could end in death.  I remember getting lost in the hills with no idea where I was going – just somewhere, anywhere.  I staggered from fight to fight, growing in confidence and skill.  By the end of the game I was slicing up enemies like loaves of bread.  Morrowind made me feel like a hero, but Oblivion makes me feel like a muscular man who never leaves the gym.

Or a metaphor: Oblivion is a creepy man who wants to hold my hand. The game begins with a tutorial in a cave.  “Here’s how to stab things.  Here’s how to shoot a bow.  Isn’t it cool how when you shoot that bucket it reacts realistically?” asks Oblivion, pulling me along, gripping my hand a little too tightly.  “Now,” he says, bending onto a knee.  “Now it’s time to pick what you want to be good at!  How about sneaking?  We had fun practicing sneaking, didn’t we?”  I fall for his ruse, picking a bunch of useful skills as my majors.  Thirty hours in, I die in the same necromancer-infested cave a dozen times over before I quit the game in confused frustration.

 

It turns out that the enemies in Oblivion, unlike those in Morrowind, level up with you.  If you don’t carefully pick your major skills and plan out each level efficiently, even relatively weak enemies can quickly overwhelm you, and there is nothing that you can do to fix it short of cranking down the game’s difficulty.  If you select major skills that you actually plan to use, you will accumulate meager attribute bonuses and become weaker relative to all of the enemies in the game.  The Oblivion wiki suggests that you should only pick major skills that you don’t intend to use, and then intentionally grind those skills when you actually decide to level.  In short, Oblivion tricks you into making stupid decisions and then it punishes you for them.

My second character is an exercise in misery.  Grinding is boring and my first character just finished these quests.  I sink hours into endlessly, pointlessly tapping the same button on my keyboard, before finally giving up.  The game just isn’t fun anymore, and other games are calling my name.

Two years later, after buying an Xbox360, I find a copy of Oblivion for ten bucks.  I remember that I never finished it and, on a whim, take it home to start a new character.  “This time,” I tell myself, “this time I’ll just have fun.  I won’t worry about my Endurance level, and if worst comes to worst I can always lower the difficulty.”  As I make my way through the tutorial cave for the third time, though, I remember what it was like to fail.  I hate the private humiliation of being beaten by a game.  I’ve never played on easy, and goddamn it I’m not going to start now.  I skewer a final squealing rat and once more it’s time to choose my major skills.  I sigh as I select Speechcraft, Security, Hand-to-Hand, becoming a master of all things useless.

“Well,” I think, “if I’m going to do this again I might as well go all the way.”  I grab an empty notebook and write “1)” in the top left-hand corner to indicate my character’s level.  I fill it with my skill and attribute values, and I mark each marginal upgrade with a tally.  The skills that I actually plan to use – Blade, Heavy Armor, Block, Destruction, etc. – are pitifully underdeveloped, so I decide to just grind those for a little while before I start the actual game.  Twenty-four levels later my book is filled with scrawled pages of numbers, tallies and skill names.  I’ve used my pen nearly as much as my controller.

Maybe playing the game isn’t just about trudging through dungeons and saving the world; maybe it’s also a process of discovering the rules of the system and outsmarting them.  It has become that way for me, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve opened a door that I wasn’t supposed to know about and now I’m tinkering behind the scenes.  Back here the bandits and minotaurs are just sad cardboard cutouts, and I realize that they aren’t my enemies at all.  I’m playing against the developers.  Isn’t this a step away from being a role-playing game?  Scribbling on stat sheets and keeping track of skill levels hardly makes me feel like a battlemage.

The odd thing is that for some reason I’m still actually enjoying myself.  I didn’t think that trailing rats through the Imperial sewers in order to level my Heavy Armor skill was my idea of fun.  There’s something about the grind that keeps me coming back for more, and game designers know it.  World of Warcraft, one of the most successful video games ever made, is practically nothing but grinding.  Almost every JRPG that I’ve played requires me to perform the same repetitive, mindless tasks for hours, just so that I can move into the next area or kill the next boss.  And yet these are the games that I love.

For whatever reason, Oblivion takes the monotony to a whole new level.  Here’s a glimpse of how I’ve spent my 100+ hours of game time.  For a while I just summoned the same skeleton over and over again, killing him each time with a rusty dagger.  That was leveling my Blade skill.  Before that I literally pressed the right bumper over 3000 times, while jumping up and down.  That was leveling my Restoration and Acrobatics skills simultaneously, because hey, I wouldn’t want to waste time.

One of the biggest accusations thrown at gaming is that it’s a waste of time. We’re taught from a young age (at least I was) that time is our most valuable possession, and how you choose to “spend” your time is one of the most important decisions that you can make.  Time is to actions as money is to merchandise: you can convert it into anything.  Gaming is a double evil because it consumes your money and your time.  At least that’s the common assumption.  As a result, games have to prove to us that they’re worth our time by making us feel productive.  I think that this is one of the key reasons for the success and proliferation of grinding.  Every time a skill level flashes on the screen it reminds us that we’re achieving something.  It makes us feel good about what we’re doing.  Dozens of tiny rewards keep us interested, and the big rewards on the horizon keep us going.

Oblivion is a skee-ball machine.  I don’t play it for the experience of playing it.  I play it for the tickets.

Distilled to a purer substance

Have you ever played a game where the minigames or secondary goals were more exciting and compelling than the rest of the entire game?

It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Through extensive research (asking my friends), I’ve found that this varies in a highly personal way. I had a friend in high school who could never get enough of KOTOR’s Pazaak, which I hated. Whenever I played that minigame I was just dicking around with extra credits, but he had a real strategy and everything! Gosh! And while I absolutely adored the underground mining game in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, I know a number of people who thought it was incredibly stupid. Kent loves scanning planets in Mass Effect 2; I’ve only done it for maybe twenty minutes, and I find it dull. On the other hand, I found hunting for arrowheads in Psychonauts to be pretty entertaining—I mean, I spent as long a time amassing a grossly enormous fortune in that game as I spent trying to beat the Meat Circus level. And Meat Circus is a crazy.

Why do we do this? I suppose if the satisfaction we get from doing ‘trivial’ and secondary tasks in games is high enough, and if the effort it would take to ‘play the game properly’ is too excessive, we’ll all just sit around and do the trivial stuff instead.  Which sounds a bit cold and mathematical, but there you go. It’s not too much of a mystery why these things happen. I could wax philosophical about the nature of these appealing little secondary games, but they’re not really so mysterious either: they’ve got highly appealing sunk effort/returned reward ratios. And all that jazz.

I think the real question is: why don’t we have games for these trivial things, if we enjoy them so much? Why do they need to be secondary? I mean, narrative, pretty pictures, and man-shooting are clearly no longer the hallowed characteristics of ‘real successful games.’ What if we could take these big-name games and reduce them down to their secondary objectives– what if my friend could have a game of just Pazaak? What if I could take all the games where I’ve ever been distracted by a crazy secondary objective and imagine new, ridiculous games out of them?

Er, I can imagine that. Here they go.

Oblivion becomes: Herbalist Adventure

The most compelling thing about Oblivion is the alchemy.

Yes. I actually believe this. Out of the nearly 100 hours I have spent playing Oblivion in the past year, about 50 of those must have been spent entirely on collecting and combining plants, herbs, fruits, and bits of dead foes into potions. I don’t think I’ve ever gone past the bit in the story where you’re on the snowy mountain where the Blades are at. I did that part only once. All the rest of my characters are soft, pasty fellows with ridiculously good alchemy levels and backpacks full to bursting with every possible kind of plant. I once camped out in the basement of a townhouse, hidden in the shadows while the occupants ate dinner mere inches from my face, waiting for them to leave so I could steal their potatoes and make potions of shield out of them. It was my most epic heist ever, even beyond the Thieves’ guild!

Furthermore, I don’t even use the potions I make: I just carry them around. There’s a character from a famous Jack London short story who hoards insane quantities of food: he basically sleeps on a mattress of biscuits. See, I imagine my Oblivion characters sleeping in glass nests made up of glimmering bottles. The moonlight on the bottles, the strange cordials and elixirs sloshing about with the tiny movements of sleep, and all that. I mean, he’s got to protect them somehow. And it’s picturesque, no?

Herbalist Adventure would be my favorite game of all time. You’d be practically helpless: a weakling lost in a VAST world (let’s make it much bigger than Oblivion; make this a Just Cause-sized world, a huge thing with a million different kinds of plants). Your only skill: the ability to turn flowers into juices. All combat—what little of it there’d actually be—would be enabled by the crazy cocktail of stimulants and steroids you’d chug before every encounter. See a kobold? DRINK THAT POTION OF STRENGTH! DRINK TWELVE! While you’re at it, drink fifteen potions of shield, a potion of accuracy, a potion of Learn to Swordfight, and a Potion That Gives You a Magic Sword. Boom. All ready to go. You’d spend most of the time just skulking around in the bushes, gathering plants, admiring the scenery, researching and cooking up batches of Magical Buff Stew whenever you find a safe place. You’d cook amazing potions—potions that let you fly or run at a million miles per hour or clone yourself or breathe in lava or eat whole trees or tame bears or summon Panzer tanks or talking whales. But mostly it would be beautiful and calming—mostly it would be zen, my friends. It would be gorgeous.

Pokemon Diamond and Pearl become: Magic Dwarf Crystal Garden Tales

I already mentioned that I adore that mining minigame. I also adore Dwarf Fortress. I also adore Minecraft. It all makes sense: I must secretly want to play a game where you adventure in tunnels and grow crystal gardens. Yes. But not like those silly crystal gardens we used to have in the nineties: those are shit. I mean: great caverns of dagger-sharp gems! You’d have to travel around and water them with magic chemicals or whatever and harvest them later. Like Farmville with its guaranteed success, I suppose—but I wouldn’t have any of that schedule-your-life-to-the-game nonsense.

No, I’d have giant cave spiders or sand worms or goblins instead. So: the Pokemon mining game mixed with survival horror. Occasionally, you’d have to craft weapons out of the gems and protect your farms from the invaders with cunning traps and desperate barricades. Multiplayer play could be a Garden Siege Mode, or something: people would try to invade each other’s magic underground wonderlands with some kind of stealth mechanic.

Yes. Just take the whole Pokemon overworld away. I want my gem gardens and I want my secret bases and I want my capture-the-flag games. I want my silly underground time-wastey tomfoolery, please, but more awesome. Can that happen?

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 become: My Alien Girlfriend 1 and 2

Okay, I don’t actually want to play this game. But I know people who would! I remember when ME2 came out, all sorts of people were twittering things like “JUST NAILED ALL THESE ALIEN LADIES, WOOO” and I kept thinking things like “Oh my god, Bioware are such a horrible bunch of dicks! They’ve destroyed love! With a video game!”

But it’s not true. They haven’t. The universe continues to be not such a terrible place after all. What it needs, though, is a game where this absurd repressed sexual tension can be truly exploited.

What we need is a game where the whole point is for Man-Shepherd to have sex with alien chicks. Apparently, for maximum success, it must actually be Man-Shepherd in the title role. Not a new IP! Either that, or we need a spinoff of Fable 2 where the whole point is to marry people and then have sex with them. Admit it: you have a lady/man/both in every town in that game, don’t you? I’m under the impression that most people do. Is it too tempting? Is that what the deal is? Anyway, clearly we need a western game specifically for this kind of stuff. The Japanese have already got this shit figured out, guys.

Team Fortress 2 becomes: My Hometown Haberdasher

Hats. Whole game is: receiving hats. You run around in a big room with every other online player and trade hats with each other. You can hang out with guys who have the same hats as you. Or maybe you can do a fashion show while wearing a neat hat, or design your own hat? I don’t know. Just hats.

Hats. Whole game is wearing silly hats.

Alternately, we could be talking about a game I suggested in the comments to my last post: a game where you simply customize characters. Like the Spore Creature Creator, the whole point would be to give you extensive control over the appearance of some in-game avatar. People love messing around with that stuff: I hear stories from friends who take forever to design the perfect Sim, or the perfect Fallout character, and so on. Clearly, we need more games which make this obsession with avatar appearance more central– games which transform it from petty fiddling into an actual game mechanic. I remember that a young friend of my family’s used to be hugely into Gaia online, and from what I saw of it, that game seemed to tap into this customization desire pretty well: the whole point was to get points to buy clothes with, I think. So: games like that, but not totally stupid. A MMO character creator crossed with Spore? Can it happen? I think so.

The mechanics of this imaginary game would revolve around this appearance: you’d have to manipulate it to defeat your enemies. The game I suggested in the post comments was a professional wrestling game where the point was to design a stage presence that would resonate with fans. Best resonance would make your agent cast you as the winner in the staged fight: the better you fine-tuned your look and style to your target demographic, the more often you’d be the winner. Look terrible, and you’d be the heel. You’d spend hours in the editor before every match, fiddling with hair and clothes and catch-phrases and things like that. There could be epic campaign modes, people.

Or could we have something like that with just hats, though? Please?

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