Sunday, September 27, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: An End to Regular Updates!

I have been writing Super Nerd Sundays for over six years now.  They began as an outlet for me, an attempt to present a kind of writing that was absent from the discourse surrounding video games as a medium.  In 2009, when I first started typing them out, there was a dearth of intellectual discourse surrounding video games, and what few discussions were occurring unfolded in ways felt off, unfulfilling somehow.  So I wrote, once a week, about games, trying to illustrate how they existed as a medium of artistic expression capable of displaying the complexities of human existence just as effectively as every other medium out there could.  I did that, with some awkward interruptions along the way, for more than half a decade.

But lately I've felt like the pieces I'm writing have been getting stale.  I feel like I haven't been discussing big issues, the issues that really captivate me when I'm thinking about games as a medium: things like representational politics in games, metastatic narrative constructs, and the malleability of story structure that games necessitate in order to operate effectively.  I still get a chance to talk about these things every once in a while, but just as often I spend three or four hours of a Saturday hurriedly attempting to cobble together something to say between grading papers and falling asleep.

That isn't what I want to be doing.  It isn't the kind of discussion that I'd like to have, and it distracts me, both from the games that I want to play, and the projects that I'd like to develop.  So I'm no longer going to be releasing Super Nerd Sundays on a regular basis.

This has been coming for a while: I spent a long time working on serialized content, and I've done things with it that, I hope, have been enjoyable, maybe even interesting.  But I'd prefer not to bash my head against a keyboard, and I'd prefer not to phone in content to people who have been engaging with my work for years.  So I'm not going to be posting SNSes every Sunday anymore.  I will, however, still be writing them when they come to mind.

With a bevy of upcoming titles on the horizon that promise to introduce fascinating new elements to the discourse that is "video games," I'm sure I'll have plenty to discuss in the near future, but I'm going to wait until there are games that I've played that evoke the same kind of visceral reaction Bioshock, Fallout 3, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare did.  I want to write essays that are meaningful, and that come from a place of personal urgency: I want to focus on telling you all things that I consider profoundly important about this medium we all love again.

Thanks for sticking with me all this time, and I hope you drop by again, after I start producing new articles.  For now, though, I'm going to go back to playing games.  Maybe something will come up sooner than I think.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Pattern Interrupt!

An especially cynical critic could posit that learning to play games really amounts to little more than learning to identify patterns.  A player "learns" to play a game when they zero in on the pattern of the game itself, the rhythm behind its play.  It's akin to reading poetry, or tapping out a beat: at first it might be clumsy, or haphazard, but over time players develop a fluency with the systems that govern that pattern, and eventually internalize the structures of said pattern.  Consider Street Fighter: players learn attacks, counters, and specials, and then combine them together in a sort of dance that, as both players acquire fluency in those patterns, becomes increasingly elegant.  Novice Street Fighter players might clumsily punch and block and stagger out an abortive hadouken or three, and the game, as such, can be almost painful for spectators to watch, ut professional Street Fighter players engage in a sort of play that takes on a highly performative quality, as players engage in a kind of theater reserved for one another that can translate delightfully for an audience.  The pattern of Street Fighter becomes a sort of dance performance, and spectators, even without a working knowledge of the game and its systems, can be utterly enchanted by that pattern.

Starcraft exists on the other side of the spectrum.  An ugly game, difficult to spectate at any level, Starcraft is a game that relies entirely on players building, breaking, and rebuilding patterns: the opening moves of each Starcraft game are more or less the same, and the divisions from that point onward are little more than realizations of different approaches, different pattern-shapes actualized by players to the best of their ability.  Starcraft 2 build orders remain enshrined, and player execution of those build orders can often be predicted down to a few minutes.  At the highest levels of play, there are disruptive constructions of these patterns that rely on an understanding of their inner workings, but at the core of everything, the patterns, the build order and the performative element of micro-managing units in combat, remain key, so much so that Starcraft announcers spend a great deal of time explaining not only the patterns that players are engaging in, but the patterns they're eschewing or modifying as well.

I could harp on a bunch of other examples of patterns, but most players probably recognize, by now, that their play style builds on some sort of patterned behavior that they internalize as effective or functional.  Even single player games, and their storylines, rely on patterns to work.  I've been replaying X-Com, and I find its familiar patterns to be almost comforting, and as I fall into them, I remember why that game ate almost a year of my life.  I start a new game, I set up my tech, get my units deployed, and begin iterating towards success as best I can.  The most unusual thing in gaming, the most unthinkable thing, really, is to create a game that eschews patterns, or that asks players to learn patterns and then breaks them up without warning or care for how that disruption might impact the lessons that game has been teaching its players.  Sunless Sea, which has long stood as a sort of non-proverbial white whale at the edge of my perception, is all about this kind of interruption.

Sunless Sea is a rogue-a-like that puts players in command of a small ship in an undersea ocean filled with terror.  Players sail around trying to get money, recruit crew, and buy a bigger boat, all so they can avoid dying terribly to the sea creatures, pirates, hell beasts, and general dickheads who inhabit the undersea realm of Fallen London.  At first, the game asks players to do something pretty simple: explore.  Get out there and find as much stuff as you can as fast as you can. Patterns begin to unfold as exploration takes place.  Players will find quests that seem to repeat.  They'll begin hauling cargo from one place to another, taking mostly-dead tourists around the horror-scape of Fallen London.  These patterned actions will give you money, and you'll want to keep trying your hand at them to keep paying your bills.  But then, a problem will arise.  You'll be unable to do so anymore.

It won't be that your locations will be gone.  It will merely be that the pattern will no longer deliver any kind of positive return on investment.  I had my first pattern-interrupt when the young women I visited to stock up on supplies before going on long journeys burned their manor house to the ground.  If not for the intervention of an insane scholar in a completely different location, I'd have probably starved in the long run, or had to put off improving my lot in life, at the very least.  My second pattern interrupt came after I'd spent some time transporting stone from ancient ruins sacred to an undersea god to the London bazaar, where I could then sell them for good coin.  I'd been making good money when, suddenly, I was told that my contacts in the London government would no longer be accepting my shipments.  Instead, I'd have to explore uncharted locations with a hold half-full of stone, and find a way to gain access to a foreign port for a day so that I can convince them to accept my various shipments.  With that done, the pattern was officially closed, and I went off to find my next money making scheme.

That is, in a sense, the brilliance of Sunless Sea, and what makes its capacity for pattern interruption so special: that by asking players to learn patterns, and then removing those patterns from play, it encourages a distinct kind of exploration that prevents players from ever getting comfortable.  In a horror themed game about exploration, the threat, always, is that players will become powerful enough to resolve any kind of trouble they encounter without issue.  But by forcing players to adapt to new circumstances, by forcing them to constantly expand their explorations or stagnate, and in stagnating slowly starve, lose fuel, and die, Sunless Sea manages to make their game an exercise in forcing players to consistently learn new skills and internalize new patterns.

It goes beyond exploration, even infiltrating the combat.  In my first small ship, I'd be forced to hug up next to enemy frigates and corvettes and sit in their blind spot, plinking away, if I wanted to beat them in a fight.  Undersea creatures were an outright nightmare that I had no chance against in a fight.  My only option was to run away.    As the game progressed and I bought bigger engines, I realized I could actually turn at the last minute and force sea monsters to overshoot my ship and sit quietly for a few minutes, which, with my improved speed and maneuverability, could help me take down large targets that I'd previously had to flee from.  The addition of a forward facing weapon added a new consideration: should I face an enemy head on and try to do double or triple damage, or fight them mostly by strafing them, and maximize my own safety?  The calculus of battle shifted with each new feature, and the patterns that I had fallen into shifted accordingly.

Ordinarily, this might seem infuriating, but Sunless Sea encourages players to die and play again, which means the patterns that they're learning, these strange patterns that beg players to explore their world and then adapt to changing circumstance, are patterns that players should be engaging with consistently before moving past them and learning about a new pattern.  That's where Sunless Sea really shines: it's a game that recognizes the value of patterns in gaming, the importance of pattern recognition and mastery in play, and the stagnating potential of those patterns when they're sustained in play.  As elements that players can tackle and move through, they can be helpful, useful, even necessary grounding elements that allow each game to open up.  But the meat of the play, the thing that makes the game fun, and keeps the game fun, is the interruption that follows, the randomness that comes with each patterned interaction.  There are always patterns, but their shifting nature, their inconsistency, means the pattern you're engaging with will change ere long.  That's what makes Sunless Sea great, what makes it unpredictable, and what makes it, sometimes, wonderfully infuriating.

Well, that and the writing.  The writing is also quite good as well, I suppose.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: On the Importance of Reading Walls of Text!

I've transitioned out of "game-vacation" mode to work mode over the last few days, as I went from teaching around forty students to teaching closer to 90.  The time I would, right now, be putting into Dragon Age's latest expansion is instead being absorbed by a rapid-fire hate read of dense classical literature, literature I'd purposely crafted my undergraduate studies around avoiding.  This is and of itself isn't so much "odd" as "the way I've been making a living for the last two years:" relatively few people have to read things to lecture on them in rapid succession.  It's not a "native" form of textual engagement, even for most college professors, who will usually read and develop syllabi in their off season.  It's exclusively a problem of the adjunct, and it is, oddly enough, one that the last two games I've played prepared me for superbly.

Shadowrun: Hong Kong, which I touched on last week, is a game made up of various walls of text, almost all of them important or, barring that, pretty interesting.  It's a game more reading intensive than most books, and I found myself more engaged with it than the book I was reading at the same time, Bolano's Monsieur Pain.  That's not a knock on Bolano - the man's a fine writer.  It's a compliment to Shadowrun: Hong Kong, which presents more writing in a denser, more involved setting, and lets readers insert themselves more fully into the text.

Shadowrun: Hong Kong is a game that, at least for me, was almost entirely about reading.  The combat, when it occurred, was just a quick break between passages, a chance to catch a breath of fresh air, a chance to reflect on what I'd just read as I waited for my turn.  Most of my play-time was actually accumulated in between missions, as I talked to my teammates and got to know them a little better.  I started to look forward to those missions not just as progress tickers in the traditional RPG sense, but as spaces where I could get to know these characters I was rapidly coming to love a little better.

This kind of gameplay, where reading is a crucial component, doing a lot of reading all at once in particular, used to be a great deal more commonplace, back in the day.  Before recorded audio and FMV cutscenes, the only way to convey information to players was to ask them to read stuff, sometimes lots and lots of stuff.  The Marathon games are perhaps one of the best examples of this: the story they tell occurs entirely within the confines of text, a story so epic that it spans back to Greek mythology and forward to future titles like Halo.  The Gold Box RPGs of old relied entirely on text as well, though much of it was nowhere near as well-constructed as the kind that Bungie and Harebrained Schemes are showing off in these titles.

When these games started to vanish, iteratively replaced by the partial voice-over era of games like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights which, in turn, gave birth to Bioware's full voice over era, something was lost: narrative malleability, perhaps, or flexibility, or perhaps some of the capacity that players had to insert themselves into the text and build relationships with the characters around them.  After all, if a voiceover actor has to record every line in a game, the options are fundamentally limited based on that constraint.  Late-development changes, and especially flexible or nuanced tonal shifts in personal interactions, are no gos: the scripting required to include things like that is already quite complex, and we can already look at the landscape of story oriented games and see it littered with scripting errors from shore to shore.  Even my aforementioned and beloved Shadowrun: Hong Kong had scripting errors up the wazoo in it, some of which actually made it impossible to complete the game "the right way."

But these losses are being made up in other theaters: Sunless Sea, my other recent obsession, is a game almost entirely dedicated to text, a game where careful close reading is the difference between success and grisly death.  I find that pretty amazing, and while it owes that meticulous focus at least partially to its status as a rogue-a-like, which makes being killed because you misinterpreted a given passage far less unforgiveable, its presence represents a return to the form of games of old, the form that hooked me and drew me in to reading constantly and closely, to taking notes and double checking them at crucial moments.  There have been other great games that have brought back this trend, like Pillars of Eternity, which REALLY likes for players to take notes, or Legend of Grimrock, which encourages players to engage in the kind of pen and paper mapping that days of yore imposed upon them.

Because those games of yore weren't just great vectors for storytelling, they were frameworks for developing skillsets crucial to other parts of life.  When I first settled in as an undergraduate, I went from a public school environment where the mantra was "keep your head down," to an environment filled with private school overachievers.  Many of the lessons they'd had in school, the texts they'd read and the lectures they'd heard, were things I had never encountered before.  The things that kept me afloat, that taught me how to compartmentalize and solve problems in general, were the skills I'd built up playing games over a decade and a half.  Things like situational awareness, rapidly reading walls of text with a ticking clock in the background, and improvising when things didn't go my way to try and scrape together a solution to a given problem were all crucial tools in my young-person toolkit.  And many of them came from games.  Weird, superlative games that inspired me, and challenged me, and, above all else, forced me to read large passages of text to locate relevant or interesting information.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: On Facilitating Human Interaction in Storytelling!

In the belly of a ship-turned-squat, he tells me about how he learned he was a psychopath.  He talks about a battery of tests, about how his mother wept when she found out.  He talks about how the doctor confided in him that he could not be cured, but that he could hide his symptoms if he learned how to observe normal people.  He discussed, in heartbreakingly blunt terms, the manner in which he perceived the world, and how his twin desires for his own personal posthuman future and the maintenance of his family's good standing, or at least what little remains, given their history of psychopathic behavior.  In the end, I do not sympathize with him.  I do not think he is a victim, or a martyr, or a monster.  He is just a person, part of my team, my mismatched family.  I do not trust him with my life, but I trust him with his own, and by staying with me, he remains safe.  In that, there's a certain humanity: he sees me as his best chance at survival and success.  And within his psychopathic mind there is a certain sense of honor guiding all these thoughts: he owes me for helping him move a little closer to the posthuman future he dreams of.  Because I've helped him, he is loyal to me.  I have proven useful, and like any useful tool I am worthy of preserving.

The twisted inner logic of Rachter is somewhat monstrous, but not as monstrous as the reasoning that other characters in Shadowrun: Hong Kong present.  To call it shocking is inaccurate.  Rather, Rachter is immersing and, in a very real sense, I come to care about him, even if I don't like him or his weird little droid overmuch.  And that's an achievement for a developer.  Getting me to care at all is an achievement.  As a gamer, I'm a jaded son of a bitch, given to looking at the various moving narrative parts of any experience I'm engaged with as tools as much as characters.  The art of making a player feel connection to the characters they're inhabiting a world with is a difficult one.

There are games that try desperately to get players to relate to characters, games built around desperately elaborate social schema, that utterly fail to convince me to care even one whit about the rogues galleries that they present me with.  Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 2 are two such titles, games with what might be politely called "obligatory social components" that fail more often than they succeed.  I spent hours in each of these games forwarding "friendships" that were little more than mechanical devices that I chased to get more experience and gear.  By the end of each, I didn't care one whit if most of the characters I'd spent nearly eighty hours fighting with lived or died.

That's in part because they never really felt human for me.  In each of the titles I just mentioned, and in many other titles besides, the world entire revolves around the player.  That can be nice, because it lets developers compartmentalize and control the action of a game world and avoid potential confusion in storylines, but it's absolute garbage when it comes to getting me to care about characters, because it entirely prevents them from feeling like actual people.  In Mass Effect 2 the characteristics and history of each character (aside from perhaps two or three side characters) were inevitably somehow relevant to the plot of the game itself.  That kind of storytelling, emblematic of historical epics and mainstream contemporary films, presents a sort of neatness that is abhorrent to the creation of the illusion of reality.  If you're attempting to build real characters, those characters won't necessarily have life experiences that are uniformly or universally relevant to your story.  Those characters won't always like you, or want to share everything about themselves with you.  The details they do share with you shouldn't always be pertinent to the plot of the story that the game itself is trying to tell.

In most games, there's a temptation to draw everything together and tie it off with a bow.  Plot devices, character details, and dialogue are all hard to write, and if you're pushing them all towards the same goal, you're wasting time.  But the moments where things aren't relevant, the moments where characters present us with red herrings, are just as important, if not more important, than the moments that we're dealing with crucial plot devices.  These details flesh out the characters and the world, and make the environments we inhabit feel like genuine spaces where anything can happen, instead of limiting frames of reference that we're doomed to sleepwalk through.

This is phenomena is especially clear in many of Bioware's titles, where even passing details often become relevant, even if they seem like they should be red herrings.  Dragon Age: Inquisition represents a step back from this tradition, with characters like Krem simultaneously fleshing out the world and serving little or no purpose in the plot (with the details of their lives being further irrelevant to that larger story), but it remains the exception to the rule.  Consider Mass Effect 3, where a child you see in an opening sequence becomes the mouthpiece for one of the game's most important characters (plot wise, at least).  That kind of storytelling smacks of its own self-importance, and has the end result of making players feel like they're in a carefully constructed world, a world absolutely bereft of the kind of organic interactions that color our own daily lives.

But in Shadowrun: Hong Kong, there's a wealth of world around me that I don't get to fully experience.  There's a suite of ambiguous details that I can delve into, decisions that I can make, or not make, the impact of which is never entirely clear.  As I stumble through the world, meeting people like Reliable Matthew and Ten-Armed Ambrose, I learn more and more about what makes them tick, without necessarily learning anything about Raymond Black or the Tseng Corporation or the fearsome menace chewing its way through worlds.

And that's tough to do.  It's risky, and Shadowrun: Hong Kong does it from the get go.  It introduces you to two characters at the start of the game and gives them both equal screen time.  Each character reveals things about themselves to you, and the characters have a long standing relationship that feels lived in and real, even though it's barely on screen for more than a few minutes.  And you only get to see it for that long because one of those characters dies almost immediately after meeting you.  Bullet to the head, bereft of heroics, along with another character who seems to be both relevant, interesting, and important.  To say that his sidekicks go on to become two of the most important characters in your storyline isn't a spoiler: it's a statement on just how skillfully Shadowrun: Hong Kong takes minor characters and makes them feel real.  Because it didn't take me any time to feel like Gobbet and IsObel were real people.  And it also didn't take me any time to believe that either of them could die at any moment and leave the game.  I felt it from the get-go, and I've felt it for many, many other characters in the world of Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

The game is, in many ways, a love letter to helping players develop connections with characters that are, for the most part, irrelevant to the main story.  I've spent more of my time in-game talking to various characters in Heoi, getting to know them and helping them when I can, than I have in combat, or forwarding the main plot, and I haven't been this immersed in a game in some time.  Shadowrun: Hong Kong builds a world by filling it with interesting people, and letting you see snippets of the private lives of those people as you stumble about their homes, desperately trying to survive your own personal crisis with global implications.

That's a hell of an achievement, mostly because it takes a heroic amount of restraint on the part of developers to not make every interaction important, to let them risk letting players feel like they've wasted their time by making sure Maximum Law was good and set up with a nice gun that he knew how to shoot when he needed to defend himself, or by making them care that Reliable Matthew was a miserable, lonely man who was doing okay sometimes.  There's a moment that stands out in particular, where you meet a team of rival Shadowrunners on a mission to rob a major corp of a sweet-ass laser.  While escaping, you get to know them a little, and you quickly discover that they've got just as much of a history as you and your friends do, maybe even a little more.  Then, at the end of the mission, you never talk to them again.  You hear about them a little off screen, but that's it.  No further conversations.  No detail.  No involvement in any sort of climactic battle.  Just ships passing in the night, meeting during a job, exchanging professional courtesies, never to meet again.

That's really something.