Sunday, October 19, 2014

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: Decision Making Anxiety!

As the weeks ticks by, I find myself still playing Wasteland 2.  Part of it is that the game is simply massive, stretching out for dozens of hours, hours I do not have as midterms roll around and I find myself aggressively grading student papers and finalizing elements of syllabi and course frameworks I began developing little more than a month ago, but just as significant, perhaps more significant, is the fact that Wasteland 2 frequently paralyzes me with potential decisions to be made.  It's a feature of the epic scale RPG with enduring consequences slapped on to the end of it: a game like Wasteland 2 encourages you to explore every conceivable option, and encourages you to do so with thorough aplomb, so much so that each time you enter a new area, if you want to have full control over your potential options in that area, you'll often have to move very, very carefully.  Want to save Sarah in The Valley of Titan?  You'll have to snipe her assailant from across the map.  The Valley of Titan is actually a series of potential narrative pitfalls, which can terminate quite unexpectedly.  Traveling with a Monk Guide, a seemingly innocuous decision to make, can completely destroy potential narrative lines.  Traveling without a guide can do the same - whatever choice you make, someone's going to try and fight you, and you'll have to kill someone which will, inevitably, piss someone else off, long term.  There's really no way around it.

The end result is that I spent three days playing through each potential scenario for The Valley of the Titan, in between grading assignments and picking out readings.  Something that marks me as someone with obsessive compulsive disorder?  Certainly, but it remains a feature of my experience with Wasteland 2, and it's actually a product of the same qualities I discussed previously that actually make Wasteland 2 so remarkable as a game.  I can't necessarily discern where the narrative is going to go, and, as a result, I'll often explore multiple venues.  But, since I'm a giant fucking control freak, I'll also replay the game again and again until I get the ending I want.  I'd prefer not to just shoot my way into Rodia, so I'll quietly infiltrate the town and assassinate the leader of the bandit army occupying it.  I'll rob the bank while I'm at it, and try to find some medical supplies that can potentially help people, but I'll also mess up and accidentally save a marriage instead of reuniting a pair of lovers, which will, in turn, keep a radio from being repaired, and force me to either wander the wastes until I can correct my mistake, or reload my game from an earlier save state and try to dig up some dirt about that filthy Beatrice tramp.

Either way, it's time that I'm wasting for the sake of my ideal playthrough.

To some extent these qualities are forcing me to confront my anxiety, which is a good thing.  I'm a twitchy guy in general, and a little encouragement to leave well enough alone sometimes is healthy.  But it's also generating something of a crazy time sink as I approach the game less like a narrative experience I'm engaging in, and more like a crazy-as-fuck equation that I'm trying to balance with only a formative understanding of mathematics.

Part of the trouble comes from the fact that there are losing and winning outcomes imbedded in the narrative frame: there are decisions that can be made that eradicate other decisions arbitrarily, elements that don't need to exist for narrative cohesion, that exist none-the-less for the sake of narrative simplicity.  The first major plot point of the game, where you're forced to decide between saving two settlements, is one such occasion: other RPGs might let you save both towns, or give you an opportunity to work on saving both towns in different ways, but Wasteland 2 forces you to make your own bed and lay in it, even if the bed seems a bit trite and forced in its making.  And sometimes, especially when you uncover a particularly nasty unexpected twist, the end result isn't that you feel like something incredible or organic has emerged, it's that you feel like the game has cheated you in some way.  Hence the reboot.

This anxiety, as it builds, is pushing me further and further back into my playthroughs.  I've already prepared a new party that I plan to run from start to finish in the game, now that I've uncovered the importance of starting the game with 8 intelligence (so many more skill points!).  I've spent days loading and reloading scenarios in the Los Angeles swamp to test out how my decisions will impact the world around me.  It's begun to build up to the point that playing the game, something I once did with unabashed joy and enthusiasm, has become something of a chore: I'm not just playing the way I want to play, I'm playing the way I think people might want me to play and trying to discern what my choices will actually lead to, long term, in about six or seven areas when they finally come to fruition.

When I sit down to play, there's now a weight to my actions, partly because of the approaching confrontation that I can see shaping up as the game eases towards its finish, but also partly because of this queer system of accumulations that has become, rather than engaging, onerous.  Every interaction, every new area, must be fully explored.  Taking one action has begun to represent the elimination of other potential futures, instead of the generation of one particular future.  It's an old phenomena, one that dates back to the first consequence oriented games, one that people have found remarkable workarounds to in games like The Walking Dead, but that doesn't make it any less real.  Each time I sit down to play Wasteland 2 I find myself compelled to look into the future of the Wastes, and simultaneously paralyzed by the variety of options that I see there, options that I know I'll be eliminating the moment I carve out my future.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: Gauntlet Brings Back the Motherfuck!

There's a certain kind of joy that comes from shit talk, a kind of reverberant negative-positive energy, especially when it cycles back and forth, up and down, as the game stokes the pedantic shit-talking fires that lie in the adolescent hearts of every human being.  Rendered in random conversation, these aspects are socially unacceptable, with good reason.  Whiny, pedantic shits tend to find themselves friendless and in banking by the time they hit thirty for lack of basic human conscience, but the same winging shiftiness that besets the least among us takes root in us all, and to suppress that knowledge, that urge, that verve, is to do a disservice to the animal within all of us.

That's part of why the Gauntlet reboot is so remarkable.

In a world where co-op has become king, and co-op is a "let's all win together" prospect, wherein teammates function to the capacity of either the least or greatest among them equally, a kind of cruel, Darwinian engine for resolving personal disputes with impressively raw passive aggressive force is more than welcome.  Gauntlet brings just that to the table, featuring what Jerry Holkins aptly termed "competitive co-op" in its best form.

See, Gauntlet harkens back to the unforgiving arcade days of yore, where you were on your own, at the mercy not just of the enemies you were fighting, but your teammates as well.  Games designed to eat coins were looking to eat your coins, yours specifically, and in so devouring those coins, they would emasculate you, make it readily apparent that you were less man than your friends.  Your friends would make fun of you in turn, fueling your rage, your drive to push back into the game.  Your drive to improve.

That drive, once fulfilled, was rewarded with the flip side of the same cycle that reinforced it into being in the first place: you'd be the mocker, the winging little shit who'd shoot the food to spite your brain dead elf who didn't have the brains to grab it before it was gone.  You'd be the jack off grabbing the gold from his still warm corpse, picking up the crown from the barbarian when he dropped it after taking a hit for the team, darting in and out of combat, hoping for the best, fearing the worst: that you might be exposed, even for a moment, as something less than superlative at your game of choice.

For a generation of gamers, Goldeneye was the ultimate vector of this shit-talking framework, but the Gauntlet reboot repackages it quite aptly, in a way that, unlike Goldeneye, makes it much more possible for players lagging behind to participate, and even catch up.  But, like Goldeneye, without shit talking there's really little to it: single player Goldeneye was about as fun as hammering a nail into one's dick, and Gauntlet without other people is a special kind of hell.

But on Skype, with friends screaming at one another, Gauntlet is exactly what it needs to be: a remembrance of a kind of game long since past, a throwback in all the right ways that takes the best aspects of the original (abject competition among teammates and unforgiving conditions) and throws away what it doesn't need (friendly-fire damage and pedantically frustrating penalties for even passing deaths).  Mixed in with a wonderfully original achievement structure, which thus far has mostly focused on the ways I've fucked up while simultaneously giving me benefits for fucking up continuously, Gauntlet makes me pine for a simpler era of gaming, where games weren't so simple, where social interactions were terse and passive aggressive.

There's some nostalgia there, too.  Gauntlet has a flavor to it that recalls the best of arcade gaming, where you'd sit around with a handful of friends mashing away, occasionally shouting at one another, mostly silently working together towards a single task.  It makes me long for discontinued foodstuffs from my youth, for Hoods single serving chocolate-vanilla ice cream cups served in long sleeves and pretzel sticks from jars.  That's the power of Gauntlet's game type, the power of the specific kind of social interaction it permits, even lubricates by making the framework surrounding it more forgiving.  And that is the real core of Gauntlet: not its asymmetric play, not its well crafted progression system, not its button-mashy chaos.

It's a framework for people to be shitty to each other.  A spectacular framework, at that.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Unforseen Narrative Events in Wasteland 2!

We creep up the ridgeline, the six of us.  Cressida Two-Fists and Vulture's Cry crouch on the cliff's edge, sniper rifles drawn.  Thomas Gray and Angela Deth protect the approach from light cover, waiting to rain down a hail of bullets on any raider foolish enough to creep up.  Raymond the Mystery Man and Amara Realis sit behind line-of-sight cover, ready to pop out and engage any enemies foolish enough to rush the approach.  With pistols and shotguns in hand, they wait.  Cressida and Vulture take aim at the biggest, meanest raider they can, popping off two quick shots before the screen blurs and spins and the tension of my haphazard engagement setup suddenly coalesces into a series of furtive turn based choices.  Suddenly, Cressida and Vulture and Tom and Angie and Ray-Ray and Amara are all separate parts, instead of a self-contained whole.  They're all working towards a single end, but in a fractured way, a way that sometimes involves them accidentally shooting one another in a high stakes environment, or involves them suddenly ignoring my orders and diving from cover to pop shots off at enemies from open ground.  When the dust clears the makeshift base formed out of cargo container is littered with bodies, some of them glowing with potential loot.  My team is bloody, but still walking.  I tap the space bar to highlight all of my team members and click the reload button.  Fresh mags slam home with a satisfying cacophony of clicks, but there's something wrong.  Vulture's Cry just shrugs instead of reloading.  I bring up her inventory and see that she doesn't have any .308 left in her backpack, so I dart over to Cressida's inventory to pull some out of her bag and shuffle it into Vulture's.  Then, in Cressida's inventory I notice an unloaded sawed off shotgun just sitting in her off-hand weapon slot: a great weapon to have in a pinch, sure, but worthless if unloaded.  So after shifting the ammo I click reload again, then shift over to Cressida, change weapons, reload, change them back, and suddenly realize: Raymond's light machine gun is unloaded too!  Back to the inventory, this time to Tom, the .556 ammo mule, so that I can top off Raymond's supply, then hot swap out his weapons, reload, double check his stocks, and shift objects around accordingly.

This is the bulk of Wasteland 2.

There's far more to it than that.  The combat recalls the best parts of the Fallout series with more than a little Shadowrun Returns to it.  The exploration layer has a simultaneity of danger and excitement, and such a wealth of options to engage with one's environment that the game itself just explodes each time you enter a new area, uncovering land mines, picking locks and cracking safes.  The incentive for certain kinds of action, like recruiting new characters and returning to base to sell certain kinds of supplies, is very real, even as the temptation to hang out in the wastes endlessly hunting down baddies exists as a tremendously inviting counterpoint.  But all of this hangs on a layer of micromanagement, made necessary by the nuance of the system itself, which forces me into carefully monitoring and distributing ammunition, matching weapon usage patterns to the types of ammo available, and, in a sense, carrying my ammo-crazed craven attitude into each new engagement with enemies, as I cross my fingers and hope my sniper's rifles don't jam mid-fight.

This layer of micromanagement doesn't just saturate the inventory management system: it occupies the game entire.  Wasteland 2 is only about surviving in the wastes on its surface.  The reality of the game is that it's a tremendously malleable interactive story with dozens, nay, hundreds of moving parts under the hood, reshaping with each tiny action, each furtive decision.  Your choice to free a gaggle of pigs or rescue some sex-workers will impact the long term story.  Your choice to solve problem X in Y way will totally reshape the whole outcome of the game, which is amazing.  That's excellent.  But what problemitizes that system, what makes it worth discussion, instead of blithe praise, is that all of this happens invisibly.  There are no faction bars telling you where you stand with people, nor is it readily apparent how each event and the choices you make will shape the narrative.  Sometimes it's clear enough: do good things in a small town and they'll elect a mayor who directs their growth in a way that's favorable to you.  But sometimes it's not so clear: repairing a train can lead to a genocide, following the letter of the law can keep you from getting a new friend.  Keeping your team alive will keep you from meeting new party members with fresh perspectives and personalities.

It would be easy to call this a shortcoming, to say that Wasteland 2's lack of transparency with regard to its own complexity is a failing, but I don't think that's actually true.  See, in the before time, before every game was mapped out on the internet in excruciating detail within weeks of its release, before we highlighted quest paths and ran players through their paces so that they could uncover objects in just the right order, lest the scripting language of the game shit itself and render saved game files un-usable, this was the way of things.  And it was amazing.  Unexpected things would happen all the time, and as a result, narrative immersion actually presented itself in these games.  In the real world, you have no idea where your actions will eventually take you.  There's no way of knowing if you'll end up exactly where you want to be, and you are, in the end, just doing your best to get there in an imperfect world where all the moving parts aren't readily apparent.  Likewise, I'm never entirely sure who I can trust in Wasteland 2, or where my actions will take me.  Choices that I'd like to go back and re-make, as transparent as choosing to save Highpool instead of The Ag Center, occur every time I enter an area.  Living with the consequences of my blind, flailing choices is just part of the game.

Of course, sometimes it isn't.  After settling into Rail Nomads I set upon a series of decisions that I thought would allow me to bring peace to the rival factions in the settlement.  But, lo and behold, trying to satisfy both peoples just wasn't an option: if I helped one, I'd destroy the other.  So, after discovering this through trial and error, after helping someone with something seemingly innocuous lead to what amounted to a genocide, I decided to reload the whole god damn game, effectively losing a day and a half of progress.

In the end, that might be for the best: I'm still learning about Wasteland 2's systems, and I'm learning to take my time and really listen to the dialogue that I'm being presented with, something most RPGs don't really treasure.  It's very apparent that in-Exile is intent on making gamers pay attention again, something that we haven't really had to do since Torment.  Even Baldur's Gate, fantastic game it was, consisted of dialogue options that were mostly flavor text; real game changing conversations were few and far between.  In Wasteland 2, every conversation could be game changer.  Every minor decision could reshape the entire game world.  Choosing to kick the wrong totem pole over could kill a potential party member and insure that peace never comes to a particular region of the wastes.  But it's never entirely clear what the outcome of each decision will be, or even what all the potential outcomes are, and that's where Wasteland 2 excels.  It forces players to engage with the game world through an imperfect apparatus and, in doing so, forces them to make executive decisions as players.  Most games remove notions of "executive function" from their decision trees.  It's a shitty, lazy move, something that seriously curtails the value of games as an educational tool.  But when games do present constructions of executive function, they do so in a way that actualize notions of consequences, actions, and critical decision making skills.  Wasteland 2 forces you to engage with the consequences of your actions, even when the consequences aren't entirely clear.  Sometimes, it gives you hilarious options just to see if you'll take them.  Will you exhume the body of a town's mayor in front of the town's inhabitants?  What would you gain from doing that?  In a normal RPG, the answer would be "some loot" and the town would just ignore you doing so.  If you decide to do that sort of thing in Wasteland 2, an entire town will try to murder you.  Then it's kill or be-killed, and if you end up somehow killing an entire town, that town is just gone.  The population of the titular wasteland will have just become a little sparser.  But why would you try to dig up that grave in the first place?  That's like something an insane person would do.  But digging up supply caches randomly scattered around various settlements?  That's just good sense.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: There's Something About Assassin's Creed IV!

Amidst the torrent of new titles cluttering my Steam list and my rare free moments of thought, I've started playing Assassin's Creed IV again.  I put it down months ago in favor of endlessly repetitive Mechwarrior drops and the odd daily quest to work towards working towards the next loot drop in Neverwinter, suddenly bereft of the free time I'd once had to aimlessly sail about, pausing on to pillage whatever local establishments were available at the moment.  Now that I've come back, the pattern of things came almost too easily to me.  The natural, flowing control of AC4, paired with its well arrayed host of grind-y subplots, made slipping back into its contours easy.  I've been doing all the things I put off, things I felt took me out of the game proper for too much time.  I've been digging up treasures and capturing forts, only starting up the storyline again when I run out of space to explore.  Now only a handful of areas of ocean are covered by the forts still out of my control, and my treasure maps have gone from an overwhelming heap to a paltry handful, linked to areas that are either inaccessible, or simply don't exist in the game yet.

That's great, because I've obsessive compulsive and the more loose ends I see in a game, the more I want to tug at them until I see the whole thing come undone, but it's not why I'm writing about AC4.

See, AC4 came back into my life alongside a bunch of single player games and some action heavy summer movies.  It came back into my life at a time when I was exposed to a nigh appalling count of action sequences, occasionally sublime, far more often baffling in their composition and construction.  As I watched those action sequences, I realized something: Assassin's Creed 4 is actually better at composing action sequences than action movie producers, and it does it all procedurally.

I'm being a little hyperbolic, sure.  Assassin's Creed IV is just as often clumsy and infuriating as it is sublime, but those sublime moments, through their very presence, are a sort of victory for games as an art form.  There's been a long standing quest to make games more cinematic, something developers all too often try to do by removing player control for the sake of injecting "cool" stuff into the course of play.  You'll lose control of the solider you're controlling so you can witness a particularly grand explosion.  The RTS will cut away to a quick cinematic interval so that I can understand how cool these characters can be when they're not just repeating a single attack again and again.

The sensibility behind making games more like action movies has always been that the player is the problem; that is to say that player input of any kind will ruin the cinematic genius that the developers had in mind.  It's an old mindset, one that developed in an era where players really couldn't do anything but watch story unfold, but in an era of in-engine cutscenes, it feels a bit silly to still be cutting away from the sake of exposition.  Half-Life 2 took that sort of business entirely in house, making it all the more appalling that purportedly cinematic games only decide to live up to their lofty claims when I'm not around to ruin everything.

Assassin's Creed IV certainly doesn't ditch the cinematic cutscene as a means of exposition.  In fact, it relies heavily on them still, a strange occurrence considering the first Assassin's Creed's approach to storytelling.  And even then, the cutscenes aren't actually that cinematic.  There are more bombastic, and more interactive games out there; AC4 couldn't shake a fist at anything Telltale has put together on those fronts.  No, I'm not extolling AC4's capacity for cinematics.

I'm extolling its ability to portray its own action.

See, when AC4 is firing on all cylinders, it's something to behold.  Suddenly the awkward, stuttering momentum of the game is gone, replaced by a fluid, gorgeous stream of purposeful movement from kill to obstacle to kill.  The way AC4 unfolds makes me feel the way those cinema-grade action sequences are meant to: like I'm a part of some sublimely violent ballet, like I'm both witness to and participant in an event that is, in a phrase, objectively cool.  AC4 better renders those moments than any game I've ever played, contextually generating responses with a variety and tactility that most games can't dream of mustering.  It's one thing to see an enemy flail realistically.  It's quite another to watch the game render double assassinations or context specific combat moves in response to my inputs and the game's capacity to puzzle them out.

The end result is something empowering and spectacular, in the most literal senses of both words.  It makes you feel godlike, and distracts you with its raw, abiding coolness.  It mitigates the layer through which I control Kenway, so much so that I find myself slipping into the flow of play and, for a few seconds, controlling his movements unselfconsciously.  As someone who plays a shitload of games, this is far too uncommon.  Most of the time I find myself playing a particular game, I find myself overwhelmingly aware of the input system I'm engaging in.  After all, my mastery of it will determine how well I can perform in the feedback/reward environment of the game's structure.  Encouraging me to ignore that relationship is akin to asking me to stop thinking about elephants; it should be an impossible task.  And yet, Assassin's Creed IV has done it, which is probably for the best, considering how sloppy its controls are and how clumsy its action can be when it isn't being sublime.  If it were any less adept at making my flailing motion into something watch-able, any less fantastic at making those actions simultaneously seem action-movie-esque and like a direct result of my influence as a player, AC4 would be conspicuous in every way.  But when it fires on all cylinders, I find myself forgetting, not that I'm in a game, but that the inputs I enter into that game come through the mitigating structure of a controller.  In those moments, I'm thinking in the language of the machine.  The controller might as well just be a part of my hand.