The Zombie Apocalypse

What have I been doing?

Well, I recently finished running a game of Humans Versus Zombies at my college. I and five others spent over a month preparing for the event, and by the time we got underway, 136 people were signed up to play. It lasted for six days, during which time I learned quite a bit about game design.

HvZ is a game of Nerf-gun tag—crossed with an ARG, crossed again with Airsoft, and crossed yet again, for a spectacular final mixture, with an MMO. It’s like the popular campus game Assassins, but it’s team-based, runs for a shorter period of time, involves quests and rewards, and is probably more psychologically-stressful than Assassins has ever been. It’s complicated enough that you’d probably benefit from reading the rules, found here. Bear in mind that although it’s been played at hundreds of college campuses around the world, each permutation is unique. (Ours was made particularly unique by the fact that nearly a foot of snow fell while we were playing.)

Photo by Shaun Akhtar

The game begins with all but a few players on the ‘human’ team. They’re armed with Nerf guns and they wear armbands to identify themselves as players—and they carry these guns and armbands with them wherever they go: to classes, to the gym, the library, and to every meal. (It’s a high-visibility game. While we were running it, we were interviewed by the campus paper and nearly interviewed by the college town’s local newspaper.) When the game begins, almost everyone’s in high spirits. There’s something quite exhilarating about carrying a toy dart blaster around inside official buildings on a college campus, even if you know you’re not allowed to play with it inside.

As the game continues, the zombies grow in number. We started with three Original Zombies. They had six hours to masquerade as humans and tag as many players as possible, after which they revealed themselves and began wearing bands around their heads. Anyone tagged by a zombie becomes a permanent member part of the zombie team. They don’t carry Nerf guns—instead, they tag players by hand. Every time they’re shot by a Nerf dart or hit by a thrown sock, they’re stunned for fifteen minutes, after which they return to play—the zombie team is an implacable, restless horde.

HvZ, then, is a game where the teams have unequivalent and unequal powers. Each team is forced by these unequal powers to pursue a different basic strategy—different ways of moving through campus, different ways of gathering and collaborating, different ways of approaching objectives and goals. And each team, as we went on, developed its own character and attitude. The humans threw paranoid Sun Tzu quotes around on their hastily-constructed, poorly-protected listserv and had long, philosophical arguments about whether it was “better” to win the game as a human or a zombie. The zombies assembled a “kill list” of high-profile players and spent hours lurking in central campus locations, waiting for anyone with an armband and a Nerf gun to show themselves.

Meanwhile, I and the other mods were putting together ‘missions’ for each team to participate in. Teams who completed their missions earned rewards—humans could win health packs to stave off infection, “clue cards” to purchase benefits, or increases to zombie stun time. Zombies, whose basic mode of play has them running far fewer risks than humans, were significantly harder to reward. We gave them decreases to stun time and offered them a “human disguise” which could be used to get the jump on unsuspecting human players. Unfortunately, we introduced that mechanic too late, and it was never used.

The missions themselves, however, were enormously fun to think up and put together. One quest asked the players to find objects hidden in snowdrifts while weathering attacks from the opposing team. Another required human players to escort an NPC to a remote location, where they then discovered a ‘zombie baby’—a game of Operation painted up to look like a zombie—whose cadaver they were forced to examine while under zombie attack. Another forced humans to split into small groups and run across campus while the zombies split into search parties to chase them down. One quest, designed to keep the players on their toes, simply tasked each team with a surprise cook-off involving vegetables we’d hidden in the snow. We’d planned for the final mission to involve a complicated construction task—the humans would have had to build a twelve-foot “radio tower” out of plastic children’s toys and a boatload of rubber bands—but we tested that one ourselves and discovered that it was actually impossible. We modified it at the last minute into a point-defense mission which asked the humans to defend a pre-constructed “radio tower” until “stealth copters” arrived to extract them. The humans ended up winning it, mostly due to poor zombie turnout at noon on Sunday.

I was more deeply involved in mission design than in the other parts of the game. Over the summer, while interning at a small PC game company, I had a great boss who taught me quite a lot about quest-writing for MMOs. I used that experience while writing up HvZ quests. Writing quests for a physical-world ARG actually has quite a lot in common with writing quests for a digital MMO. Like MMO quest writers, we balanced high-energy tasks with lower-energy ones to avoid stressing players out. We had to examine the space of affordances created by our ruleset—the kinds of actions players could expect to take—to figure out which situations would be the most surprising for players to experience, the most atmospheric, and the easiest for us to put together. We didn’t want everything to be escort and fetch quests, so we spent a long time thinking up as many unusual situations as we could. Early drafts of quests included the “Kiddie Pool Quest,” which would have required human players to move a kiddie pool filled snow or water across campus while suffering waves of zombie attacks, and the “Snowman Quest,” which would have required each team to make armies of “decoy” snowmen, facing one another across a battlefield, before engaging in a firefight.

Photo by Shaun Akhtar

Quests exist in HvZ to lure the humans out of hiding—if the entire human team turtles for a week, it’s no fun. That said, we had to make sure that our quests were as fun for zombies to play as they were for humans. Each team’s experience offers its own, unique excitements. The fun of being a human comes in the intense thrill of survival, and in the foxhole-style bonding players experienced as a team. People also derived a lot of entertainment from purchasing and maintaining their impressive Nerf arsenals. The fun of being a zombie comes in the glee of making a great kill: in successfully staking out a hard-to-catch player, or in chasing down a noble survivor as part of an enormous, coordinated horde. Friday’s quest, which asked humans to split into tiny groups to carry buckets of snow across campus, was perhaps the best-designed of all our quests. It gave the humans a chance to work stealthily in small groups, making heroic three-man dashes across exposed territory, and it gave the zombies a chance to organize themselves, work as a machine, and take on the predatory role in a campus-wide game of cat-and-mouse.

The trouble with quest design for a real-world game involving over 130 people, of course, is that you can’t ‘balance’ the quests before the event actually happens. We had no idea how players would react to being told that they must successfully complete a game of Operation while standing in knee-deep snow in a darkened stretch of woodland. We didn’t know whether the zombies would even be clever enough to locate the humans and stake out their kitchen during the cook-off quest. We didn’t know that our radio-tower-construction quest was impossible until we checked, last-minute, whether we could actually do it. Despite this, while talking to players afterwards, we were told that they probably would have enjoyed the construction quest anyway, even if it was practically impossible.

Photo by Shaun Akhtar

We couldn’t know these things, and there was no way we could have found out. Digital game designers benefit from the fact that playing games on consoles and PCs is, essentially, a low-effort task. Asking a team of beta testers to play through all the quests in an MMO is simply asking them to read words, press buttons, and do some critical thinking. We tendto think of and talk about digital games as if they are incredibly tough, active, whole-body experiences—but compared to the kinds of quests in HvZ, they’re not. If our HvZ mod team had included thirty dedicated athletes, we might have been able to test all of our quests before we finished writing them. Even then, however, we couldn’t have known how the heavy snowfall would affect play. We couldn’t know anything until it actually happened. That, I believe, was the most stressful part of the entire experience.

Another part of the game I was deeply involved in was flavor-text writing and the design of the game’s few recurring NPCs. The humans were led by “President Barack Obama”, whose written voice I designed to be brash, ultra-patriotic, and rather action-hero-esque. Here’s an example of one of emails we sent out the human team, telling them the time and place of an upcoming quest:

From the Presidential Desk of Valorous American President Barack Obama

January 13, 2011

Dear American Citizens of Dartmouth College,

It is yet again I, your President, Barack Obama. I am contacting you
now with the gravest of all requests, and I hope that despite your
dwindling numbers, the patriotic humans of Dartmouth will rise to the
challenge.

We have recently discovered that Professor Schnapps’ laboratory was
doing strange experiments upon something mentioned in his notes as a
‘zombie baby.’ My CIA scientists were totally grossed out by mere
PHOTOGRAPHS of this ‘zombie baby,’ but you, my citizens, will have the
privilege of seeing it IN PERSON!

A patriotic whistleblowing scientist in Schnapps’s laboratory has
volunteered to turn the ‘zombie baby’ over to the human forces. We
need you to go and meet this scientist, then conduct whatever
operations are necessary to extract clues from it. Meet her between
Dartmouth Hall and the Fayerweathers at 5:30.

Godspeed, humans. May your justice fall on the heads of the zombies
like a screaming eagle from the skies!
–Barack Obama

For giggles, whenever we decided to bring out Obama as an NPC, we had him played by a white female dressed in a suit. She acted him as if she were a square-jawed president from a Blockbuster movie. The result was a weirdly dissonant, pretty hilarious character. Our Obama proved a favorite among the players.

The zombie team was led by “Professor Schnapps,” a fictional hippie-ish professor from the Dartmouth Medical School. He’d created the zombie virus by accident, as part of an experiment designed to cure world hunger (his experiment subjects lost the need to eat food at all—but gained a hunger for BRAINS). Whenever we brought him out as an NPC, I played Professor Schnapps, complete with a Dartmouth lab coat and a bald wig. Here’s one of the emails I wrote from Schnapps to the zombie team:

January 14, 2011

Oh, my darling zombies!

What a glorious treat I have for you today! You’ll be ever so pleased!

I’ve discovered from highly reliable sources that those fools in
Washington think they’ve created an antidote. How wrong they are! In
fact, the precious shipment they’re sending up to our little town is a
powerful serum which will boost your systems up just perfectly. For
once they’re being useful to us, eh? I feel like I should be laughing
maniacally right now, or something!

Well, zombies, they’ll be delivering the serum soon, and I’m sure
those last few pesky humans will be doing all they can to keep it from
you. Go forth, and make me proud! Meet in the Dick’s House parking lot
at 3:30 sharp to plan our interception of the goods!

Make daddy proud!
–Professor Schnapps

Professor Schnapps was also played for laughs. Frequently referring to the zombies as his “teeming, shambling children” and signing his letters with hugs and kisses, he was a neat spin on the classic ‘crazy mad scientist.’

In the days since the game has ended, we’ve been meeting with some of the more-hardcore players and coming up with new plans to make next term’s game even better. With the snow gone, the kinds of missions we’ll be able to put on will be even more interesting. Now that we’ve had a chance to “troubleshoot” the rules on our campus, we know what changes need to be made to the ruleset to make play smoother and more-enjoyable next time. We’re aiming for over 200 players.

I hope to follow this post up with a more-technical post focused on the strange interaction of the digital and the physical in Humans Versus Zombies. It’s a game that requires digital software to run properly—we had a database keeping track of who was a human and who was a zombie. Additionally, it was from the digital—mainly, from the email lists each team used to keep in touch and plan for missions—that the most interesting player-initiated behavior sprung. In a game where the play zone is identical to our real, everyday lives, “player-created content” takes on a new meaning.

By the way—if anyone out there reading this has ever put on a game of HvZ at their school, or is interested in doing so, I’d love to talk to you about it!

The best kind of revenge

In the spirit of popular revelation-analysis like “Fight Club Is Really Calvin And Hobbes” and “Secretly, the Joker Has Homoerotic Feelings For Batman,” I present: “Assassin’s Creed is Really About A Little Child Climbing on Furniture.”

In elementary school, I was addicted to climbing low obstacles. I’ve always had a paralyzing fear of drops and edges, but there was something I loved about clambering along the backs of couches, along crumbly retaining walls, on bookshelves and stair railings. I was, and still am, uncomfortable with merely looking at cliffs, but jumping on furniture was a thrill. Although it still scared me, it wasn’t actually dangerous, so I loved it. Kids seek out these kinds of controlled encounters with fear. They’re important.

This behavior was not very popular with my parents and teachers. I remember getting in trouble for standing on desks, trying to climb out first-story windows, and sitting on high stacks of classroom chairs. Everyone who remembers being eight knows what adults say when they see children doing these kinds of things. Those chiding, deriding warnings have been ground into our skulls, and when we warn children, we use the same words without even thinking about it. Ubisoft was quite right to label wall-climbing “socially unacceptable” in Assassin’s Creed I and II.

Socially unacceptable horse behavior.

Ubisoft also nailed the language of derision. The following quotes are taken from the first game; they’ve always reminded me, rather strongly, of the things I was told as a child, and the things I’ve told to children myself.

He’s going to hit someone!

Is there a reason for this nonsense?

Look at him! He’ll break his neck!

I don’t understand what he’s trying to accomplish!

He’s going to hurt himself And when he does, I won’t help him!

When will he stop acting like a fool?

Does he really have a reason for doing that?

He should stop acting like a child!

Stop acting like a child, indeed! There’s something about the bystanders in Assassin’s Creed which infuriates some of us and makes us want to kill them. The sneering pedestrians who see you riding your horse at anything faster than a walk. The neutral guards’ bemused teasing. The nagging beggar-women who tell you, angrily, that “No, you don’t understand!” It’s sometimes as though the city is made up entirely of angry parents, and you’re the kid, misbehaving. They want you to stop climbing on shit and stay on the floor, like a normal person. They all wish you would just stop messing around.

But this time, you have a knife, and you can throw parents and teachers and angry bystanders off cliffs and into walls and stab their eyes out, if you so please. You can run up sheer walls and vanish like a hero before they’ve even finished talking, and there’s nothing they can do about it. The relationship you have with these bystanders gets even clearer, and more satisfying, in the second game. The opening levels are filled with street heralds who warn their bumbling audiences about how the young men of the cities have taken to climbing on the buildings “for sport.” That, of course, means you. And the herald warns you, over and over again, that “It’s only divertimento until somebody breaks a leg!”

But you know that’s not true. It’s always fun, particularly when you’re breaking your leg, or other people’s legs, and running at breakneck speeds through crowds of screaming idiots who can’t do what you can do. They don’t mean a thing. They’re worthless. You can breeze through the press of people with your ‘pickpocket’ button held down and rob them of a hundred florins in a minute, and they’re so stupid there’s nothing they can do about it.

This sense of avenging your unfair belittlement is a powerful undercurrent in both of these games, both explicitly, in their plots, and implicitly, in the little ways you’re casually treated by the ambient dialog. When I play, I feel like a triumphant child. I’m showing them! That experience is powerful through its own artistry, but it’s important through what I bring to it. You don’t have to be twelve or thirteen to feel that there’s some deep, mighty, mysterious kind of children’s revenge taking place in these imagined streets of the Holy Land and Italy. Like the plot, it resonates through time: the shoppers of ancient Jerusalem sound like my third-grade teachers. Everything, particularly resentment, belittlement, and childish rage, persists.

The only time I’ve ever been disciplined officially by a school was in seventh grade, when I was written up for running in the hallways. I actually sobbed. I’d never been punished like that before, and I felt the injustice very sharply. At the time, when the issue seemed so dramatic and serious, I think I’d have loved to push the responsible authorities off of a roof.

Socially unacceptable. But it's what you want.

In AC2, you won’t be written up for running in the halls, but you might be laughed at, and if you’re notorious, you’ll probably get stabbed. And you’ll certainly get a chance to throw someone off a roof. For once, you’ll beat your enemies soundly. It’s a refreshing feeling. A dark and bitter kind of refreshment, but refreshing nonetheless.

1000 Blank White Cards

Have you ever played 1000 Blank White Cards?

It’s a card game—a party game—which the players make up themselves.  Everyone gets a few blank cards and writes whatever rules they please on them. The goals, objectives, and substance of the game itself is entirely up to those players. It is absolutely one-hundred-percent player created content.

Over the past few days, as my friends and I unwound from the fever-pitch of an awful academic term*, we played this game several times. We cut a pack of index cards in half, doled them out to 5 or 6 people, and wrote whatever we pleased on them. There isn’t even a skeleton ruleset in this game—each card should contain a title, a cartoon, and a rule, but that structure is mainly just a suggestion. We had a few cards without rules or point values—only pictures. A few were crude copies of cards from other games we own. We only bothered enforcing the rules we liked.

Any stranger who walked in off the street would have found our game impossible and absurd. One player named his cards exclusively after people we knew. I made several cards referencing the game Bang. One card could only be played successfully if the players knew where in the house to find a NERF gun. We had more than one scribbly copy of the Base Set Pikachu Pokemon card. When it entered play, others used their blank cards to draw Energy Cards so that Pikachu could attack—though no one ever managed to pull that off. One card made points irrelevant. Some cards forced players to play while blind, or without using their hands. Other cards punished players for being sober. Others punished them for being drunk. One card forced players to reveal ‘deviant sexual desires.’ One card—my favorite, in fact—forced the players to light it on fire and pass it around in a circle until one player drops it. We had another card which forces the players to recreate the burned card if had been reduced to ashes.

Though the game has a points system, many of our cards never even referenced points, and it is certainly impossible to deliberately win while playing with our deck. Too many crazy pyramids of stacked and nested rules collapse during play. The point of the game, you might say, is to create the cards, not to play with them. If a card is interesting in theory, we love it.

Every game, we play with about 40 cards from our ‘live’ deck. We create about 20 more cards during play, and at the end of the session, we search the deck for cards we didn’t like, and set them aside. We have a card which allows players to ‘resurrect’ cards from this ‘dead deck’ and return them to the ‘live’ one. We have cards which allow players to destroy other cards by cutting them up with scissors or ripping them apart. In this game, ultimate victory consists in never making a card so dull someone wants to retire it. The winners are the ones who make us laugh the most. We preserve their senses of humor in the deck.

We stopped playing because it tired us out. One session was so loud, raucous, and fire-filled that most of the people in our house at the time jumped into the game halfway through, hypnotically fascinated by whatever we were doing. But they didn’t understand our cards. Some of our cards struck them as cruel. Our jokes seemed out of line. When we culled the deck at the end of our game, half the cards we loved were thrown out. The ecosystem of humor and self-congratulation we’d cultivated was upset.

You can’t let other people join your group, we realized. 1000BWC is private. It’s for hateful jokes and unintelligible humor. That final game was so apocalyptically confusing, with so many voices—we had something like twelve people playing—that it no longer made sense. It was too exhausting. We haven’t picked it up since, though the decks are all still there, ready to go.

It’s been a few days since we put the game aside, and in that time, I’ve realized why player created content is so tough. 1000BWC is the Communist revolution of player created content. Because all you need is a pen and a stack of index cards, you can do anything. The game is whatever pleases the players. There aren’t any real rules. There aren’t any real restrictions on resources or playstyle. You can’t be this creative in a computer game, and I doubt we’ll ever be able to. 1000 Blank White Cards is minimalistic. It isn’t anything. You can’t buy it in a store. Really, it’s more like some primitive inversion ritual than a card game. It’s so formless that it seems to deliberately bait frowny proscriptivists with the ‘is it actually a game!!?!’ debate.

If 1000BWC is the wild, extreme end of player-created content, where does Spore lie? Way down on that other end, I bet. Where’s the APB character creator? Where’s Minecraft? What are we actually looking for in player-created content? Are we looking for a chance to be as creative as we could be if we weren’t playing a game at all?

I’ve infected my circle of friends with Minecraft. Yesterday, one of them angrily asked me why he couldn’t put redstone dust on the sides of walls. “I was coming back across the beach and I saw my house sticking up there with its big blank sides,” he told me, “and I thought: hey, you know what would be great there? A big skull face made out of redstone dust. With torches for eyes.” But he can’t do that, because redstone dust is not for vertical surfaces.

“You’re too creative for Minecraft, I suppose,” I told him. I’ve been playing Minecraft for something like eight or nine months now. I bought it the week I finished with Dwarf Fortress. I remember picking it up back before there were even any trees. These days, I no longer imagine further than the game seems to let me. I’ve been wishing that I could reclaim some of that imagination and think up something splendid. That I could bring to it the fine, invention-drunk attitude that comes with 1000BWC. But I can’t. It’s an actual, imagined, conceived-of game, and 1000BWC isn’t—not until you make it.

Besides, our final game kind of sucked. There was a bit too much raucous creativity there, and it broke the feel. It’s very easy to break the feel when you make the feel yourself.

——-

*So awful that it would mangle your brain, Lovecraft-style, if I explained it to you

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.

Can we stop using these words?

I have come to the conclusion that ‘pretentious’ no longer means anything when used to describe a videogame. We ought to stop saying it.

Currently, it’s pretty much the most damning word in the biz, particularly when it comes to indie games. In many internet communities, it’s used to apply the marks of tribal exclusion. Angry internet people apply it willy-nilly to nearly anything that they don’t understand (like pOnd), even if those things are, from the perspective of your average vocabulary-having individual, not in the least pretentious. The press members who write for these people sometimes do this, too.

Okay, so a lot of people use the word to mean ‘intellectual.’ These are the kind of people who believe that games somehow resist study, or that intellectualism in gaming is somehow objectionable. They are the enemy, etc. etc. I don’t really want to talk about this. It makes me too angry and I start typing too many words about how much I dislike ’core’ gamer culture. (This post has undergone 4 revisions and was at one point over 2000 words long.)

Other people use the word ‘pretentious’ because it’s easy. These are the people I’m bothering to have an argument with. If a word is too easy to use—if we can slap it in any old place without feeling that we need to think about it—we shouldn’t be using it. ‘Pretentious’ is one of those words, like ‘gameplay,’ or ‘interactive,’ which are simply too vague to be critically useful. Instead of ‘interactive,’ I’ve started talking about ‘agency’ or, better, ‘degrees of agency.’ At this point, ‘interactive’ is basically a feature-list word, and it’s hard to control the meaning of a word that’s owned by commerce. You can slap the word ‘interactive’ on anything, and so long as your game involves user activity—even the kind of ‘press x to continue’ stuff Kent recently wrote about—you can probably get away with it. As for ‘gameplay,’ I flat-out don’t use it. If you have to use the word ‘gameplay,’ you’re not thinking hard enough about how you’re playing.

Anyway, ‘pretentious’ is now in the bin with ‘gameplay’ and ‘interactive.’ According to Merriam Webster, the actual definition of ‘pretention’ is:

expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature.

At least, this is the best suited definition from the list. Oh, also: the given synonym is ‘showy.’

Okay. How do games express importance, worth, or stature? How do we tell if and when those are unwarranted? Exaggerated? Affected? What makes a game ‘showy’?  Is that really all we need to say about a game—‘it pretends to be more important than it really is’—when we want to create productive criticism? It’s the vaguest kind of unsupported opinion. And if you’re going to bother supporting it, the weakness of the word is going to make it hard for you to do it to anyone’s satisfaction.

Honestly, we’d be better off using different words. Different phrases and ideas, anyway. Instead of trying to decide whether Braid, for example, made ‘unwarranted’ claims of ‘importance,’ we should be  talking about the intellectual and emotional risks it took, and asking whether they were worthwhile. (Answer: they were.) What about a game that took similar risks, but failed to live up to the promises those kinds of risks often make? Some people think that The Path failed in this way. I think that The Path failed on a variety of levels—it had that awful collection mechanic shoehorned into it, for instance, and had a variety of irritating and unnecessary control problems that made it less an experience of transcendent/horrifying discovery and more an experience of frustrated ambling. But I also think that it was very emotionally effective and ultimately, therefore, a kind of success. People need to talk more comprehensively about Tale of Tales’ games—to dissect why they seem so abrasive, even to people who are willing to enjoy that kind of experience. They don’t need to pull a Jim Sterling. I know he’s not really in the best position to advance the quality of games criticism, working for Destructoid and all, but he certainly doesn’t make it easier for those of us who are trying.

‘Pretentious’ is not the kind of word to use if you want to have a debate or win an argument. It does not make friends. It is good for screeching at the choir, but screeching at the choir is not something that people ought to do at all. In my opinion. At any rate, most of the games writers I care about already avoid the word. I’m just pulling ‘pretentious’ out as an example because it’s bothered me recently—there are plenty of other problems with the words we use to talk about games.

Scientists: relevant to this post!

One of the books which has had the greatest impact on me personally is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s about how new scientific fields form—about how we lose trust in old ‘paradigms’ of science and grow, slowly, to adopt new ones. The process invariably  involves a certain kind of indoctrination: new generations of scientists must grow up learning the new standards and the new vocabulary in order to communicate or perform productive research together. Scientists need a shared vocabulary and a certain critical mass of shared beliefs in order for them to talk with each other about anything. The same is true for any group of professional people for whom communication is a primary concern. A strong vocabulary with enthusiastic support from the people who use it will be much more useful than one they constantly argue about, or one too coarse to communicate the important nuances of their work.

We have an awful coarse way of talking about games.

Why all the dungeons in Oblivion look the same

I play a hell of a lot of Oblivion, even now. That game is awesome. It’s even better if you play through all the conversations with the sound off and your hand securely planted over the pasty pasty faces of the chattering NPCs.

But, jokes aside, I think that players can live with the ugly faces and the stupid voices. The only major failing I’ve ever really cared about in that game is that all the dungeons look the same. They do. Well– there are a few distinct varieties, yeah, but they’re awfully similar. You play through a dungeon and see the same landscape asset recycled five or six times; you play through another, and realize it’s practically the exact same as the first dungeon, except instead of being filled with imps, it’s filled with wolves. Or… vampires. Or armored skellingtons. So, yes. If you disagree with me, you’re bad and wrong, and we can never be friends.

Here’s why all those dungeons look the same.

1)      The designers ran out of ideas with the first one

You’ve got to admit, the first time you crawled into a dungeon in Oblivion, you thought it was the coolest shit ever. You found this big old ruined circular castle overgrown with weeds, all crumbling into the mud, directly across from the exit to the Imperial Sewers. And you thought: Forget that main quest—I’m going to explore this magic castle thingamabob! And so you did, and it was awesome. See, that experience was great. People worked hard on it. I dunno, maybe they worked on it for the whole development cycle? It was so cool that it used up all their brain essences, and they had nothing left. They brought the first dungeon over to the project lead, and he plays it, and goes: “Hot damn! This is fine stuff! What else you got?”

And the dungeon designer goes, “I got nothing.” This is it, man. He’s all used up, like Sparrowhawk from that Wizard of Earthsea book The Farthest Shore. It’s noble and epic, see. He’s slain the symbol of his divided soul and reclaimed the world for goodness and purity and all that jazz.

And so the project lead thinks for a few moments, then goes: “That’s cool. Because this is fine shit.” And so they sit around for the rest of the day smoking big old cigars and staring off into the distance and feeling awesome about themselves.

2)      They made others, but had to scrap them all

The Disneyland-, Lord of the Rings-, Star Wars-, NFL-, Capri Sun-, and Harry Potter- themed dungeons were awesome, but they all violated IP copyrights and so, of course, they had to go; so did the dungeon based on September 11th, and the one based on live footage of births. They had partnered with medical researchers to produce a dungeon based on the epidemic of childhood obesity which would teach players about the importance of exercise and healthy diet, but they figured that it might be a bit of a downer, and in the end they couldn’t figure out how to implement it tastefully.

3)      The dungeons aren’t all identical, idiot!

Honeybees see ultraviolet light. This allows them to navigate using the sun, even on overcast days; it also permits them to see identifying markings on certain species of flower. Indeed, the world of the honeybee is filled with depths of color and detail far beyond the capability of mere humans to perceive—theirs is a brighter world, and one more-varied. Truly, the honeybee is a marvelous creature. We ought to envy its life.

If you were to look at Oblivion with the powers of the honeybee’s ultraviolet sight, you would see such a gorgeous wonderland of variance, beauty, and striking design that your brain would flip upside-down in your skull and you would spend the rest of your days trying to eat roses.

4)      All the dungeons are reflections of the Platonic model of Dungeon contained in the mind of God

Oblivion’s dungeons are all reflections of the Ideal Dungeon, which exists only in the mind of God. According to the Greek philosopher Plato, all objects in the real world are merely pale shadows of perfect prototypes, called ‘universals.’ God manufactures these universals and stores them up in the holy warehouse of his mind, where they are preserved forever and made real to the outside universe via his magic. Like, all dogs are different, but we know that they’re dogs because the concept of ‘dog’ is eternal and born from the everliving consciousness of a God whose main purpose is to imagine and sustain the perfect images of things in his holy brain.

We recognize, in the imperfect things of this world, bare echoes of the shining ideals which underly them. We catch the merest glimpses, and see the overarching similarities that tie them together. In Oblivion, that sublime game, we see the underlying framework of the universe! Truly, there is but one Dungeon, and all these many dungeons are but blurred representations of it, cast from different lights, like flickering shadows on the wall of a cave.

Okay, okay! Okay. I’ll shut up.

But seriously. It’s a spiritual experience, man.

Oh God, not THAT discussion

On this blog, I’ve been trying to keep my commentary as far as possible from the “girls and games” topic, partially because I feel like I have little that is original to add to the discussion. I am a female who plays and enjoys nearly every kind of digital game and I have never seen much merit in the idea that girls and boys inherently prefer different essential gaming experiences. I know women who love and excel at shooters and men who play Peggle and other ‘casual’ titles obsessively (I see their Steam notifications. They can’t hide from me.)

True, most western AAA video and computer games are marketed toward adolescent males. Their art, themes, and stories promote or at least embody the fantasy of masculinity treasured by that particular demographic, and they’re created by an industry where a majority of the producers, designers, artists, and management are themselves male. It is from this that the notion that girls can’t be ‘core’ gamers derives: ‘core’ games like Gears of War, Modern Warfare, and God of War all work hard to satisfy those culturally-reinforced male fantasies. This makes them a bit awkward to play if you don’t share in the fantasy, regardless of what your gender is. Anyway, games really have no trouble providing us with fantasies if we don’t bring our own to the game; most ‘core’ games are simply providing fantasies that are deliberately very exclusionary to females.

It doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t enjoy them. I still love games, and I still love the medium, and I still love shooting digital people in the face, because it’s exciting and challenging and because I have strong nostaligic memories associated with the shooting of digital people in the face. But I’m also hyper-aware that the AAA industry doesn’t usually give a shit about people like me. This is part of the reason why I love indie games so much: most of them are directed at fulfilling basic human fantasies, not adolescent male ones. They don’t adhere to the same bullshit aesthetic of ‘gritty realism’ that those AAA games do, and they often tackle very mature issues on a symbolic level. I appreciate this maturity more than I appreciate the posturings of maturity found in many AAA titles.

At any rate: games and girls. I bring it up now because I’ve had a number of strange games-and-girls related interactions over the past two weeks.

The first occurred at E3. A female friend of mine—actually, she’s a game tester—and I were eating lunch at the food court area when two heavyset older gentlemen seated themselves at our table. Space was tight at the food court, so it made sense to share. As we each carried on our separate conversations, however, my friend and I suddenly realized that the conversation these middle-aged guys were having right next to us was infinitely more interesting than our own.

“But girls don’t like that,” one said.

“Oh, you guys are doing it all wrong,” the other replied. “See, what girls don’t like is senseless violence. If it has a purpose, fine. They like that, if it has a point, like if it does something good for the world. But they won’t play it if it has senseless violence.”

I don’t remember what else they said. I and the woman I was talking with left shortly after this comment. I wasn’t able to see what the names on these two guys’s tags were, and I still don’t know whether they were designers or marketers or executives. But they were somebodies.

“Girls don’t like senseless violence,” the other woman muttered to me as we walked away.

“It was interesting for me to learn that,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind next time I find myself enjoying shooting dudes in the head.”

I enjoy meaningless, senseless violence in games as much as the next gamer. What I don’t enjoy is always having to be a man whenever a game lets me commit senseless violence. Or always having to be a hyper-sexualized woman whenever a game grants me the privilege to be a lady while I kill dudes. Part of the excitement of games is the ability to “be” somebody else, to explore a story from the perspective of a new character. It gets depressing, though, when an entire industry seems to have decided that you, people like you, and the fantasies and perspectives that you have, are not fitting material for games. Generally, in order to experience a AAA game, a woman will have to ‘be’ a man. Only culturally-masculine fantasies are worth immortalizing in games, it seems.

Okay. Whatever. They’re still fun.

I’ve moved to Los Angeles for the summer and am living in an apartment with three other female students about my age. All three are actually from a very different cultural background than my own: they’re all of Pakistani heritage, and they’re all very ‘Californian,’ while I’m a very east-coast Irish Catholic. We have very different expectations when it comes to socialization, food, dress, and so on—mostly due to the east-coast/California divide, not the Pakistani/Irish one. But all three grew up with N64 or Super Nintendo consoles in their homes, and loved Zelda and Donkey Kong Country—so games are, surprisingly, one of the cultural elements that we absolutely share.

So I thought, anyway. I think it still baffles them that a girl can care so much about games and devote as much time and intellectual energy to them as I do. While eating dinner a few days ago, one of them asked me, rather aggressively, what I thought about violence in games. I tried to give her a reasoned explanation of my feelings on the subject—parents are responsible for the media their children ingest, so to speak, and they must use ratings responsibly and control purchases themselves. She told me that she’d seen a sociology study proving that little boys who play violent games are more violent; I told her that no such thing had been actually proven. She told me that the study had actually proven that they were more tolerant of domestic abuse against women. I had no clever answer for her, as I’d never even heard such an accusation before.

She then went on to ask, rather slyly, what I thought of CounterStrike. She demanded that I explain why “perfectly good, intelligent boys” can be so engrossed by the game that they “get sucked into it for hours.” I told her that ‘game addiction’ hasn’t been proven to exist, that people who can’t control their play time probably have different, underlying troubles. Like depression. This offended her—or her concern for the unnamed CounterStrike player, I suppose.

The conversation degenerated.

Just thinking about it over the past few days has absolutely infuriated me. I will not be held accountable as a kind of gender-traitor because I care deeply about the world’s newest and most important modern artistic medium. I will not allow the fact that this medium is currently controlled by industry, not artists—that the strings are being pulled by the kind of fat, middle-aged businessmen who, while stopping to eat lunch together at E3, decided between themselves what it is, exactly, that this medium can deign to offer women—I will not let this kind of thing control what people think about me. Or the medium. The medium is most important.

Which is why I will use indie games to educate my roommates, over the next few months, about what exactly it is that games can offer the world. Just to be controversial, I’m starting with Hey Baby.

I’ll keep you posted.

This is what the PokeWalker reminds me of

When I was quite small, I was obsessed with Pokemon. I couldn’t actually play Pokemon, since I didn’t have a Gameboy and the party line in my household was that Gameboys would rot your brains. But I was obsessed nevertheless. I was obsessed because it was a thing I couldn’t have.

So I watched the show religiously. I had a bajillion cards organized in two three-inch D-ring binders. I also had a Pokemon Pikachu II, the silvery-glittery Pokemon pedometer meant to connect with the Gold and Silver games. I didn’t have the games, but the pedometer worked kind of like a Pikachu-themed Tamagotchi even without the games, so it wasn’t a huge problem. By accumulating steps, you’d earn Watts, and these watts could then be used in a betting game to accumulate more watts. If you had the Gameboy game, they could be sent there; where, I assumed, they served some perplexing and unknowable brain-rotting service. Alternately, you could give them to the Pikachu. The Pikachu would be so pleased by the gift that he/she/it would perform some wild trick. The more Watts, the crazier the trick. If you were a cheapass, the Pikachu would just stick its face real close to the screen and make a happy face. There was another trick, I think, where it would give you an acorn or some other shitty seed you certainly weren’t ever going to need, in the same way a cat offers its owners dead mice. And then there was the top trick—Pikachu would leap into the air and fireworks would explode around it. I don’t know whether the fireworks were incidental or the Pikachu was supposed to be a licensed pyrotechnican, but that’s what would happen.

I adored my Pikachu. I first received it just before a summer trip to Yellowstone National Park, as a way to entertain me in the car, I think. It worked. See, I had an epiphany in the first few moments after unwrapping it and turning it on: sitting in my mother’s minivan, I lifted the Pikachu up to the cabin light to get a better look at the screen, heard the clicking and rattling of its internal components, and realized that I could shake it with my hands to accumulate Watts.

This, of course, immediately became the main objective of my waking life. I would get up in the morning and run around the house while shaking it in my hand, because I reasoned that this combination of violent movements would cause the footstep meter to rise the fastest. I quit playing computer games entirely during that summer. Any time spent seated was wasted time. I set myself ludicrous benchmarks: 10,000 steps before lunch was the normal one, and one, in fact, that I regularly met. I developed an idiosyncratic way of shaking the device; I’d hold my upper arm out rigidly, angled up above my shoulder, and shake the Pikachu up and down as fast as possible at cheek height. I could do more reps more quickly that way, I learned.

At the swimming pool my sister and I swam at, we were suddenly the cool kids. However, this lasted for only about half a week before my devotion to the Pikachu began to bore my friends. My good friend Elizabeth particularly hated it. It kept me from swimming with her.

“I need to get to ten thousand,” I’d tell her. “Uh, you just get in the pool, and I’ll jump in when I get there.” I’d stand and shake it on the side of the pool, staring off crosseyed into the distance, while she did flips in the deep end and gave me resentful glances. I actually got tennis elbow from shaking the Pikachu that summer—a huge knot of muscles gathered at the base of my forearm, just above my elbow. It ached whenever I pressed it.

The Pikachu was an infinite well of mysteries. I don’t think I ever found all of Pikachu’s tricks; the first time I discovered the fireworks one was on the Fourth of July, and I was so baffled by it that I assumed it was some kind of holiday event. Because I had no Gameboy game to worry about, I could use the Watts for whatever I pleased; chiefly, I used them to play the card game with Pikachu. Though it was only a guessing game, I developed the belief that I was an expert at it. I played constantly. Waiting in line for a seat at Applebees; at the doctor’s office; in the car; I even once played it in an airplane during takeoff, chancing (I thought) a bloody death for the entire crew. Such was my adoration for Pikachu: capricious, unwise, in defiance of sense and safety. Pikachu and I were closer than Ash and his Pikachu. We were business partners. My obsession was clinical and calculating; my methods were tested, double-checked, analyzed, and finally, rigorously scheduled. We were in the business of collecting footsteps. We were in the business of collecting Watts. We maxed out the Watts once, my Pikachu and I. I gave it 999 Watts in celebration, and the Pikachu adored me for it. It had max happiness. I had max happiness.

Posers.

That was a good summer. During the following school year, because Tamagotchis and Tamagotchi-likes had been banned the previous fall, I carried the Pikachu secretly in my pocket. I would jiggle my leg and tap my toes on the floor to keep the footstep meter running. But we had lean times, Pikachu and I; without the ability to shake for benchmarks, the store of Watts was slowly depleted. I stopped giving it gifts. I had to play the card game in the bathroom, in secret. Life was tough. When the next summer began, I had almost kept my Pikachu running for an entire year. The hoary old thing was scratched, half-broken, and weak on battery power, but I kept it clipped to my waistband anyway. The clip had been bent, though, and it gripped my clothes with less surety now.

This is key to my story.

See, I would frequently go kayaking or canoeing with my sister and my father on a lake near our house. We’d bring our own canoe, or rent the kayaks they had there for a dollar an hour. I forgot to take the Pikachu off one day while kayaking, and when we got home, I realized it was gone. It was hard not to cry. I assumed that the little thing was dead at the middle of the lake, Pikachu’s ghost drifting sadly among the catfish. We called the lake office; they said they couldn’t find it anywhere on the beach. We drove back to the lake. When we arrived, however, they’d already discovered it exactly where I’d bent to pull the kayak back up onto the beach, knocked off by the edge of my life-vest and drowned under a foot of water. The lifeguard gave it back to me I pretended to be very thankful.

“I had it for almost a whole year,” I told my mother in the car on the way home. “That’s a long time for one of those toys to last,” she said. Unhelpfully. That the Pikachu had been such a magnificent survivor only made its death worse. I felt emptied. I felt as if a real creature had died.

Wielding a glasses repair kit, I disassembled its corpse on a sheet of Kleenex on the floor of my room. I soaked the water up off the tiny green chip with a stack of q-tips. I rolled a slice of keenex into a tiny rope and threaded it down around the screen area, soaking up hidden drops. I let both halves of the toy dry in a sunny spot for two weeks.

When I turned it back on, the memory had been wiped. All the footsteps and watts and max happiness meters were gone.

I totally lost the drive to play with Pikachu after that. He/she/it was dead.

So: my new PokeWalker is a sorrowful, sorrowful thing. I can hardly use it. It feels false and deadening. Also, they figured out a way to make it immune to most kinds of shaking. There’s no point to it anymore.

If it can’t be like the old times, I don’t want it at all. Which, of course, says a lot about me. And about gamers. We want what we want, of course, because we can’t have it.

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.

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.