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.

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.

POST-PAPERS EXHAUSTION POST!

All of my writings for school are done.  My brain hurts, and migranes have inflicted me with temporary blindness. I wrote 35 pages in two days and read over a thousand pages in one weekend to prepare myself for the process. Now I cannot focus my eyes more than five feet in front of my face, and I have a headache. Hooray!

So I wrote this frivolous thing. It is a list of all possible definitions of the ‘Second Person Shooter.’  See, most of the random web searches that get directed here are phrases like “definition second person shooter” or “example second person shooter.” People out there want to know what a second-person shooting-people video-game would look and feel like. And they think we know? Pah! We don’t.

Frankly, we’re curious, too. We picked the name “Second Person Shooter” basically because it sounded interesting. Our excuse: we were despairing. We’d just spent over an hour combining random nouns in the hope that something would click, but we’d only come up with monstrosities like “Antelope Rapture” and “Black Hole Church.” (I still think either of those would have been awesome. Perhaps we can sell them to nameless indie-rock bands.) At any rate, we are definitely not the experts on what a ‘second person shooter’ would look like. I myself don’t think that a second person shooter would be any fun to play, unless the idea was approached with a certain amount of drunken levity.

1)      A GAME WHERE YOU ARE EMBODIED, AND CONTROL A DIFFERENT GUY WHO SHOOTS A GUN

In this game, you have control over yourself, in a first-person perspective, and over another individual, the shooter. It would be a little bit like that one team-building exercise where blindfolded people team up with non-blindfolded people who shout instructions at them while they and navigate mazes or throw yarn balls at one another. Have you ever done that? I did it once at a summer camp staff training, and it was horrible.

Anyway, for this game, I’m thinking of things along the lines of the robot segments from TLC’s Logic Quest. Remember that one? You had to program a robot-like boxy-man painted up to look like a king or a knight. He was always inside this weird kind of spacious jail cell, and you would have to program him with a set of commands that would let him unlock the cell. Anyway, this variety of second person shooter would require your embodied digital self to either 1) program or 2) directly control a separate individual who has a gun. Objective: shoot dudes without getting you or your puppet-man shooter shot. It would be INCREDIBLY COMPLEX. There would be WAAAY TOO MANY CONTROLS. Basically, this setup would translate poorly to the kind of moment-by-moment excitement of a shooter— it would be awesome, but only for five minutes. After which point every player would either tear the game directly out of their hard-drives with the brute psycho-magnetic force of their unholy rage, or commit pathetic, despairing suicide in the drippy corner of their local basement. That’s what I did after a few sessions of Logic Quest. Yep.

2)      A GAME WHERE SOMEONE DESCRIBES YOU IN SECOND PERSON AS YOU SHOOT PEOPLE.

Such a game almost already exists. It’s Night of the Cephalopods: A Terrifying Experiment in Narrative Excess, a lovely bit of indie freeware from 2008. In it, you, the terrified Lovecraftian protagonist, run through a foggy forest while squidly-face monsters chase you. You shoot them. EVERY TIME YOU DO ANYTHING, the narrator describes it. There aren’t too many variations in the voiceovers, so you’ll quickly reach the extent of your amusement with this game—but for its length and complexity, it’s brilliant. It would BE  a second person shooter, except the descriptions are phrased in first-person rather than second.

3)      A GAME IN WHICH OTHER PEOPLE SHOOT YOU

I’m thinking of something in the style of The Onion’s ‘Close Range’, but instead the player is the guy who gets shot. And dies. Over and over. Or maybe the player never dies, and just stands there while he or she gets shot again and again for no reason. Not sure which would be more effective. Basically, though, that’s the bottom line: you watch as someone shoots you over and over and over and over again. Infinitely. Not much else to say about this idea. Maybe the environments would change? In one level, you’d stand there while people shot you in a jungle; then there’s be an ice level, and every time you’re shot your body would physics-slide all around the map, ragdolling against barriers? No idea. Not even sure where player action would fit into this game.

(Also: the staff members of the embarrassing college humor magazine I write for consider Close Range to be one of our favorite-ever videos. New recruits sometimes have a hard time understanding why we love it so much. But we do. It is sublime. And I love the Max Payne references.)

4)      A GAME IN WHICH YOU MUST SHOOT THE SECOND PERSON OUT OF EVERY PAIR

Pros: Would teach our children the important moral binaries they will need in order to navigate the modern, adult cultural world.

Cons: Would be very short. Also, very easy. Too easy.

5)      …GOD OF WAR?

While checking over this post, Kent suggested to me that the famous from-the-victim’s-perspective death scene in GoW III is a second-person death scene. A shooter version of that, he posits, would be a second-person shooter. So: like idea number 3, but instead of playing the silent victim, you’d shoot yourself. Gosh! So  crazy!

I would only play this game if there were a bit where time slowed down while the bullet flew towards your face, and you had to contemplate the philosophical profundity of your self-capping act.

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.

Games are Dreams

Okay, bear with me for a bit. I’m going to pull some crazy literary theory shit.

There’s this one famous footnote that Freud added to one of his books, Interpretation of Dreams, years after it was originally published. The gist of the footnote is this: “Hey, everybody, quit assuming that EVERYTHING in dreams is a symbol for something!” Freud thought that dreams had two layers of meaning: the obvious meaning (what was going on in the dream, on the surface) and the ‘latent’ meaning, which is all the stuff that is symbolized on the dream—the meaning under-the-surface that we always think about when someone says ‘Freud’. Freud said we should, basically, quit getting so overly-Freudian on our dreams. He said that we should try to find the ‘dream-work,’ or the combined meaning of the surface and latent elements of the dream. Instead of just saying, “oh, this obviously symbolizes this,” we should say, “when we take all the surface elements into consideration alongside the symbols, what does the whole of this dream actually mean?” I like to think of it in terms of vector math:

So, dreamwork is what you get when you add the rest of the stuff together equally. It’s what the dream is pointing at.

Now, the only people in the universe who still take Freud pretty seriously are literary theorists, and they don’t even take all of him seriously. I have an awesome professor right now who studies comics, and he uses dream-work to understand comics and graphic novels: “When we combine the effects produced by both the surface and the symbolic aspects, what’s the work of this comic? What is it actually pointing at?” It works very well because comics are filled with icons and symbols, and are very fertile grounds for both latent and obvious meaning.

I like to think about games this way, too. When you combine all the stuff that is in a game—the obvious stuff, like the art and the script and the mechanics, and then all the ‘latent’ stuff, like “how does this control scheme influence the way I think about the game?” or “what’s special about the actions the game makes me perform?” or “what does this game assume about its audience?” or “how did the game’s creators establish its tone and mood?” and so on, it helps you to get a more complete and holistic idea of what’s actually going on in the game you’re playing—what’s special about it, and what it’s doing to your brain. And because games are a bit like dreams, the comparison works.

Anyway: have you ever had a moment where you feel particularly conscious of a game’s latent content? The moment I would cite is probably when, while playing Don’t Look Back for the first time, I suddenly became hyperconscious of the way I normally play platformers, and realized what DLB was doing to force me to change that. The nuke moment in Modern Warfare was also pretty effective in this way. It made me suddenly conscious of what kind of agency I expect to have in a FPS, and, in taking that agency away, attempted to express its political message on a kind of subconscious level. What else could have made me want to shoot those renegade Russians so badly? They’d killed me, Anakin-Skywalker-style, once already!

And what about the gamework—have you ever tried to explain the essential essence of a game to a friend, only to get caught up stumbling over words because games are actions, not words, and it’s hard to heal that breach? I feel like the writers who are best able to talk about a game’s work are the ones who write artistically– who try to articulate gamework through the language of metaphor. Tim Rogers’ recent God Hand article does this brilliantly: the final paragraph is so clever that I cannot read it without being ashamed of myself. There are some NGJ pieces out there that I think really make a serious grab at expressing gamework, too—Quinns’ piece on Wurm Online was scary as hell. It made me feel that through this game I could suddenly understand the essential wickedness of man or some shit, even though I hadn’t even played it yet and don’t believe in the essential wickedness of man.

I wish that I’d have been able to articulate this concept back when I’d been studying games for school. It would have solved so many pointless arguments about what the ‘most important part’ of a game is, or ‘what makes game X different form game Y,’ or ‘what is the point of game genre X’—those are all ultimately very rocky ways to think about games. I feel like we should be encouraging each other to look at what games are pointing at, too. Games are like prefab dreams—which is simultaneously awesome and pretty spooky.

Expertise

I have just played my best game of Nethack. My best game of all time. I got to level ten and did almost all of the Gnomish Mines but, while backing up to find the Sobokan, I got trapped between a wolf, a cockatrice, and a giant housecat and was ripped to shreds by them all before I could figure out a way to escape.

Now that I reflect on it, I realize that I had ways to survive. I could have used my pickaxe to dig a hole in the wall and hide inside it, thus limiting the attacks to a single front. Or I could have started zapping all my unidentified wands. Or I could have quaffed that one golden potion I’d found—there’s a chance it might have been a healing potion or a teleport potion. I could have thrown it at an enemy. It might have exploded and killed them (and me?) or paralyzed or confused them. I could have done a number of things. I was so close, really—eminently ‘ascendable’, as NetHack players say. My female dwarven cavewomen could have eventually won the game if I hadn’t screwed up there. A real Nethack expert would have known what to do.

I’m always telling myself that real Nethack experts exist. I honestly believe that there are actual people living in this world—in secrecy, of course, hidden among us under disguise—who have a godly understanding of Nethack and who can actually play it without feeling like a bumbling idiot. I have no evidence for this, but somebody had to write the Nethack Wiki. Those people have to be the geniuses I’m talking about. I mean, they’ve probably actually beaten the game.

You beat the game by ‘ascending’ the character: by travelling to the lowest level of the dungeon and taking the Amulet of Yendor from the High Priest of Moloch. You must then travel to the Astral Plane and offer it to your god, who will grant you immortality, ‘ascending’ you to demigodhood. In order to do this, however, you have to play the game for practically an entire lifetime, learn all the tricks and gambits, master a class and a playstyle, figure out the cost/benefit ratios of practically every risk you could take in the entire game (basically, of every action, since doing almost anything in Nethack could potentially get you killed).

In a way, it reminds me of The Arhkam Horror, a fantastic board-game based on HP Lovecraft’s writings: newbies at Arkham Horror will do everything, and they’ll have a blast. Experienced players will turn almost every risk down—even the ones likely to result in a benefit. They know something us new players don’t. They’re jaded. When they play, it looks like they’re not having any fun, because they’re practically not playing the game. But then they win it, so we all nod sagely and wonder aloud how they got so good.

It also reminds me of people who are really, really good at Civilization IV. They play absurd societies—societies where half the entire culture track gets invented before bronzeworking, societies which leap absurdly from power to power, which manipulate wonders and resources until they’re scarcely similar to real-world civilizations at all. Everything narrows down to the exactness of turns and production-times. The illusion of the game falls apart, and we’re dealing with mister Sid Meyer’s architecture. And it’s fun: that’s what the game is for. You’re supposed to get right on in there with the math and the loopholes and the broken mechanics. It’s satisfying to have that kind of expertise.

There isn’t a way to be an expert at something without surrendering a bit of wonder—without leaving the game-world behind. Not all of it, of course, mind you—just a bit. Enough so that we can peel back the story and get our hands on the numbers that make the game work the way it does. For Pokemon, there’s EV training; for Oblivion, there’s strategic leveling; for other games, like Halo, there’s the ethic behind the whole e-sports scene—three shots to the body, one to the head. Do people really die that way? Of course not, but there has to be some kind of death-math in order for us to master death in Halo, right? For Nethack, it’s the encyclopedic understanding of all game systems: people who can ascend probably know the exact probability that sipping from a fountain will release a water demon, and if they defeat the demon and it grants them a wish, they know they should ask for silver or grey blessed greased +2 dragon scale mail. They know that you can guess the identity of an unknown potion by dropping it in a store to see what the shopkeeper offers them—because they’ve memorized the prices of everything already, and they know what they’re looking for.

I don’t know if this is the way we played games for expertise back in the day, before everything had its own online fan community and its own wiki, complete with number-crunched tables. But it’s kind of the way we play now: collaborating across the internet to rip the clothes off the game and get a look at its inner framework. It’s not bad; it’s just the way expertise works, I think. Being ‘good’ at a game means, most of the time, being an expert at the numbers, not being an expert at ‘enjoying the atmosphere,’ or ‘liking the plot.’ But it’s not like we’re killing the magic: we’re just swapping one kind for another. There’s something incredibly special about the x-ray vision we develop once we begin to look past the outer surface of a game and focus on its inner mathematics. When we learn to do that, we begin to feel powerful and wise. We enter into a kind of secret compact with the developers: we know the neurotically complex work that went into their game—particularly one as complex as Nethack—and we begin to understand it. We understand the game in a new mental language, almost. At any rate, it’s special.

It’s a kind of specialness I rarely feel, though. I’m not the kind of person who gets really really good at games—any games. I think the only one I’ve done this to is Dwarf Fortress, really. I find the process intimidating, and I’m always unwilling to take that mental step out of the gameworld and into the world of the game’s math. Perhaps this is why I run with such an awfully-balanced Dragon Age team, why it took me a whole week to figure out how to beat the Elite Four for the first time, and why the numbers-game focus of raid-level WoW often strikes me as heartless, even though I know that such players regard it as the point of the game. Expertise is the one kind of game-magic I haven’t yet learned to properly appreciate.

Here’s hoping I may, in time. Or I’m never getting anywhere with Nethack.

A bit of argument-killing on my own part, though: this binary is pretty much only the way I see things. People like the Magnasanti guy clearly can see both sides of the coin at once.

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?

A Palmful of Guilt

The sun rises around 6 am and that’s when it starts to come full force.  Something about the hazy pink morning light strikes the perfect chord of misery.  The mouse in my hand is a palmful of guilt, guilt, guilt, and my fingers clatter on the keys like the legs of a spider.

It’s Final Fantasy XI and I’m 15.  I’ve turned off the volume and stuffed a towel along the bottom of my door so that my parents don’t know I’m still awake.  The door swings open and the silence of my father’s eyes makes my chest implode.  His shadow circumscribes me and the light from the hallway gives him a sort of halo.  “What are you doing?”  He asks because he wants me to say it.  I remain silent, too ashamed to even form the words.  My father sighs, deeply.  My eyebrows furrow into my head.  I want to melt into the floor.  “Turn the game off.”  On the screen my warrior has lost agro and the monster has killed my party.  Profanity tumbles through the chatbox.  /quit.  “We’ll talk about this when you get home from school.  The bus leaves in half an hour.”  He tries to shut the door behind him but it’s caught on the towel so he just walks away.

It’s World of Warcraft and I’m 18.  My roommate rolls over in bed.  Class in two hours.  I have a headset on and my friends are laughing because we’re winning in 3v3 arena.  “This is my last one,” I type.  “Gotta get ready for Greek class.”  We lose and they want to keep going but I tell them to have a good night and I log out.  I crack my neck and Brenton mutters something in his sleep.  In the shower I bow my head and close my eyes and feel the hot water washing down my body; I try to imagine it as a sort of baptism, a sort of cleansing, and I can still feel the guilt in my chest because I won’t be ready for the test at 8 am, because we lost that last game.  My friends are online and sometimes the booming solitary feeling of gaming overwhelms me even when I can hear them talking in my ears.  I can still hear them talking when I lie down for just a quick nap and I sleep straight through the test.

It’s Digital: A Love Story and I’m 21.  My girlfriend is sleeping on the bed behind me, illuminated in the blue glow of the screen.  Soft chiptunes pop hiss and crackle in my ears, and that purple-pink haze washes through the window, onto the desk, onto my keyboard.  The computer tells me, “I know what it’s like to be lonely, believe me.”  The computer tells me, “I think I’m in love with you.”  I turn around.  Ellie is so quiet when she sleeps, but as though she can feel my gaze, she rustles, she opens her eyes and she looks at me.  “Come to bed,” she says.

“In a minute, I’m almost done.”

Garrysmod anthropologically

Our podcast on griefing and countergaming, and the response to the shownotes, got me thinking about in-game communities and how we police them. What’s the best kind of game community—the one where the players make the rules and ‘police’ themselves, or one where empowered community watchmen—GMs, forum moderators, and the like—control, censor, and organize interaction? What are the tradeoffs? Is there really a difference?

Here’s an elaborate case study. Er. Anecdote. It’s not a direct response to anything. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about.

I spoke in the podcast about my crazy experience on a Garrysmod server last spring. While joining a server I hadn’t been on before, I was identified as a newcomer/trespasser, so a moderator seized me, ragdolled my character, and called upon all the ten other players on the server to construct an elaborate machine around my frozen, puppetlike body. They used WireMod to construct a CCTV circuit so I could see what they were doing to me. They welded a bunch of stuff to my arms and legs and exploded it. They did some rather obscene things to my character model. This all went on for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before I was released: I subverted the whole endeavor by calling the server denizens “good sirs” and complimenting their WireMod skills with overly-polite, sarcastic quasi-Victorian-speak. They found it hilarious enough to let me go.

Anthropologically speaking, I’d just experienced a ‘rite of passage.’ Something like a baptism or spirit quest. Psychologically and socially, raping ragdolled server-newcomers with a giant contraption built out of Half Life 2 props fulfills the same purpose as a circumcision ceremony: the victim has to undergo symbolic change in order to transition between two social states. My experience wasn’t official, but it fulfilled the same purpose and transformed me into a community member. When I was between those two social states, I was in a crazy position where I had no social identity at all, and that’s when all the nutcase shit happened. Hazing in sports teams or college fraternities performs the same purpose. To use technical athropology-style terms, I was ‘liminal’ when this stuff happened: I was on a threshold between two ways of being. It was like a spirit quest or some shit, man!

Despite the hilarious extravagance of my spirit-quest hazing ritual, it seemed to me like a more realistic approximation of community dynamics than anything I’d ever seen in multiplayer gaming before. The sheer number of options Garrysmod players have—the number of props, modes, tools, contraptions, mods, and so on—gives them a peculiar freedom unavailable to players in other, more-gamelike environments. In TF2 or Counterstrike, there’s no easy way to stage a transition ceremony: why stop shooting each other in the face? Our real lives are filled with transition ceremonies, so there’s a good reason to keep them out of games. Transition ceremonies aren’t necessarily fun. The’re complicated and cruel and maybe a waste of time. We play games at least partially to escape these kinds of social rules.

But these ceremonies cement communities. Though their participants get to transcend social rules for a short time, these ceremonies make the normal, ordinary, everyday social rules stronger. My hazing reinforced that server moderator’s power and leadership. It also highlighted the players’ sense of community by allowing them to demonstrate that I could only enter it on their terms.

I’m arguing that the lack of gameplay ‘rules’ in Garrysmod made it easier for these players to invent ways to demonstrate their community’s power. The lack of structure also made it easier for the players to construct elaborate community conventions—unwritten rules. Garrysmod is a haphazard collection of strange communities with baroque regulations: on some servers, destroying another player’s constructions gets you punished, while on others, people build only to destroy. Some servers are all about car-racing. Others are for ‘serious builders only,’ and demonstrating noobiness will get you kicked. Other servers are aggressively noobified. Some servers exist purely to stroke their teenage moderators’ egos. Some are elaborate roleplay worlds. Garrysmod throws away the structure inherent in most Source games, then leaves communities with ability to create their own structure. So this is what happens. An endlessly diverging community, a zone where anyone can build their own perfect little world and rule it like an absolute despot. Freer, in its Source-Engine chains, than Second Life.

If you’ll allow me to wax poetic for a moment: the unique lawlessness of this terrain makes it a surprising mirror for the human soul, even more acutely than a standard MMO like WOW or COH. Instead of relying on game mechanics for rules, Garrysmod communities have to create their own, cooperatively or despotically. There aren’t any standards: each server is radically different. Each game mode changes community interactions dramatically. I couldn’t predict anything about each server’s rules of social interaction until I’d figured out what game mode they were running. Even then, I could rarely guess anything until I’d been dunked in headfirst.

So, to return to the top of my post: Garrysmod is an example of a community-policed, low-rule-density environment. WOW is an example of a company-policed, high-rule-density environment. Garrysmod has no standardized ‘gameplay,’ no reward structure, no subscription fee. It’s creative and lawless, and despite its exterior wackiness,  it produces creative and ‘realistic’ social situations, in both good and cruel ways. It mirrors the dark and sweaty interior of our psyches. Where else could I have experienced such a vivid, human form of hazing? Not that the hazing was a positive thing—it wasn’t. It was merely very human.

But you say: high-structure game communities can invent their own ceremonies of transition, too, can’t they?

I’m going to argue that there’s something fundamentally different about that kind of experience: it’s not terribly expressive. Or even interesting! User creativity is at an all-time low there, compared to the effusive nuttiness of Garrysmod. These WOW players are working solely with what they’ve been given because they have no other choice. I think this shackling of creative expression limits the height of community affirmation and the depth of community cruelty possible in standard, company-policed MMOs.

Real-world social ceremonies, cruel or kind, are where we really let our human creativity loose.

It makes sense to me, then, that a creative game would mirror the dark side of social interaction more closely than a stricter, limited game.

I’m sorry this stuff gets thick and academicish. That wasn’t the point of this blog– I wanted to write things about games without getting too deep in the academic shit. I wanted to make the kinds of things we discussed in my games class accessible to those of my gamer friends who weren’t interested in reading big-time games scholars like Espen Aarseth. If gamers are going to be self-aware and not a bunch of mindless dicks, they need the opportunity to talk about this stuff without taking an entire liberal arts degree first. I mean, I love reading some academic writing about games, but I wanted to write the kind of stuff on this blog that’s thoughtful without being overtly academic. I mean, hell, that’s work to me. Right now, that’s grades. I want to write for a living, and I don’t want to write for academic journals. Not right now, anyway. Capisce? Capisce. I’ll try harder in the future.

Let’s come up with excuses for why I die in Spelunky

You’ve played Captain Forever, right? If you have, you’ve picked up the drips and slivers of its story. Despite its neon graphics and cheekily deadpanned flavor text, it’s secretly a soul-crippling tale of sacrifice and cyber-horror! Hooray! Captain Forever is a trapped pilot doomed to fly forever in a kamikaze ship that reassembles itself after destruction. He must kill hundreds of enemies in an infinite cycle of death and gruesome rebirth! It’s like something out of Harlan Ellison, but with less Harlan Ellison. I adore it.

See, it’s awesome when games bother to explain in-game death and rebirth. Lord knows they don’t have to—have you ever seen an arcade game that bothers explaining ‘INSERT COIN’ in the context of the game’s story? It’s hard to talk about that mechanic directly without leaving the perspective—the ‘diegesis’, to use the technical term—of the game-world. Farbs didn’t have to come up with a backstory that explains why I can play Captain Forever over and over again, even after losing. But he merged old-school permadeath shmup game-logic with a WOWlike focus on repeat play and mined this for every ounce of crazy, and it’s awesome.

I started thinking—what would it be like to explain permadeath and infinite rebirth in another game? How about Spelunky? What’s going on there? Shall we sink into the sweaty morass of its diegesis—down into those caverns where La Mulana and Nethack collide head-on? There are bits of brain spattered all over the walls. There are little bats squeaking adorably. I am killing the shopkeeper, over and over again, throughout eternity. Yes. Let’s do this. Let’s make this as crazy as possible.

There are many archaeologists.

Under layers of dirt and grime and tattered clothing, each archaeologist seems identical, but each is really a unique man, each capable of unique mistakes and uniquely spectacular deaths. Some die in a fluke accident five seconds inside—others last longer.

Some are wicked, heartless fellows. They toss the women around like beanbags. Some are kinder. Some proceed cautiously, wringing every last ounce of gold out of the place before creeping on. Some will use the lady’s corpse to bludgeon a skeleton to death. Some will sacrifice her to Kali! But in the end, everyone wants to kill the shopkeeper—web him to the floor, blow out his brains from behind with a pistol. What can we say? It’s something about these caves.

The archaeologist is a ghost.

That’s why you keep running the same dungeon over and over, see. You ran it once, in human form—you probably died in the tutorial cave, or moments afterwards, feeling the first bat’s teeth in your jugular. Whatever it was, it wasn’t impressive.

So now you’re a ghost. Still unwilling to release its pathetic grip on your corpse, your spirit dreams endlessly of running the dungeon, of the infinite disasters you would have met had insane chance allowed you to live a minute longer—another minute—a few seconds. You run the dungeon over and over and over again, but your imagination always fails you: you have not yet imagined the dungeon’s furthest point. Someday, you might. You might dream a victory profound enough to bring this all to an end.

It will probably take you a long time.

There is no archaeologist.

We plumbed these tunnels with sonar long ago, and found them so complex and endless that it would be madness to send a team down there—and worse than madness to send a man alone and unaided. So we’ve simulated all its terrors, and now we’re taking applications. Applications for Suicidal Hero, that is.

Each applicant is tested  against the program. We’re looking for the ideal string of hops and whips and sprints and crimes. We’ll put them through again and again until we’re sure: the perfect super-soldier. We’ll train him up. It’ll be like Ender’s Game, but underground. Or something. When it all comes down to the big win, the blood will be real. The archaeologist will be carrying a machine gun, and he’ll be wearing a super-science bodysuit that gives him super-strength, and he won’t actually be an archaeologist. If he dies on the spikes, it’ll be a lot grosser than what you’re used to in 8-bit.

The archaeologist is a mistake.

We didn’t mean for you to see us. Truly, we’re very sorry. Usually when we go out into public, we make sure the holographic cloaking devices are fully powered. Nobody wants to see a tentacle-beast straight out of HP Lovecraft go waddling down the street in full daylight, and none of us wants to have to hunt down and mind-erase the blistered memories of any Earthling who saw us like that. It’s a sticky business, it is.

But you—with you, we screwed up. By the time we found you huddled in the dumpster, brain a soup, face stained with tears and twisted permanently with disgust and horror, your memories were burned too deep to wipe away. So we gave you Spelunky instead: we took you to the orbiting mothership and hooked you up to the game. It’ll give you something to do while we research a cure for Madness. It’ll provide you with infinite bliss! There’s no getting tired of Spelunky. Not as far as we know, anyway—we once had a patient on it for forty years while we tried to fix him up, and we’ll keep you on it, too, as long as we feel is necessary. It’s like a kind of therapy. It’ll soothe your splintered consciousness back into shape, so it will. You’ll play it forever, if you have to!

And you can play it forever. That game is a bitch to beat, even when you’ve got forty tentacles, like we do, and a mind capable of thinking twelve thoughts simultaneously.

Pfft. Spelunky.

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