Sunday, August 30, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Warmachine Tactics Brings Tabletop to the PC!

The isometric turn based genre exploded back into the scene not so long ago with the X-COM reboot.  What followed was a slew of cover-oriented, turn-based tactical games with dramatically varying rulesets, but a similar style of play: players would move a small squad of allies through a cover-laden battlefield with the end goal of clearing the entire place out.  These cover-based games tend to favor conservative, defensive strategies over aggressive ones, and, turn almost entirely on how well you understand and utilize cover and flanking mechanics.  The end result is a number of very different games, as varied as Shadowrun Returns and X-COM, that actually feel quite similar in how they play.  A player who wants to keep their team in X-COM alive and who wants to keep their shadowrunners from biting the dust in Shadowrun will probably end up using the same tactics in each game: settle in, use overwatch, and engage enemies at maximum effective range using sympathetic cover and line of sight.

But what happens when an isometric game doesn't have an overwatch feature?  What happens when you make melee combat more rewarding, and include a number of incredibly useful units whose ability to use cover isn't just insignificant, it's nonexistent?  Shadowrun pondered these questions a bit by including physical adepts and melee-based street samurai, both character classes built to engage enemies up close and personal, but many of the mechanics that encouraged conservative play, like the overwatch mechanic, remained in place, and even the bulkiest cybered out troll could still benefit from cover.  It wasn't until I played the recent translation of Warmachine from tabletop to turn-based-strategy game that I saw a fully realized turn-based strategy that prominently featured cover without making it the single most important game aspect for the majority of characters.

To the unfamiliar, Warmachine is a miniature based tabletop game that revolves around players assembling armies and bashing them against one another.  Those armies are centered around powerful generals, who make use of massive steampunk robots, known colloquially as "warjacks" in the Warmachine universe.  Warjacks are big, require some TLC from their generals to carry out most of their coolest functions and, as I hinted at above, don't benefit from cover.  Warmachine Tactics is an attempt to bring that game to life on computers, letting audiences who don't usually buy minis, or who don't want to have to spend $200 to be able to play a game "the right way" for the first time.  By all reports, it's a pretty successful attempt to do so - it's certainly made me interested in Privateer Press' selection of games, and, while I'm not going to run out the door and buy a box of minis to play  at a local gaming store any time soon, I'm actually genuinely tempted to buy the Warmachine Tactics army and unit expansions that are being sold a la cart alongside the game.

So, if it functions as a successful board game translation, what does that say about it as an isometric tactics game?  As it turns out, quite well, though with a distinctly different feel.  As I said, it feels a lot like a middle-ground between X-COM and Shadowrun Returns, balancing Shadowrun's elaborate ruleset, rife with synergies, with the simplistic "plug and play" kind of mechanics that mark the early bars of X-COM's campaign mode.  What separates Warmachine from those titles is that nearly every unit has some sort of melee attack available to them, and it's almost always a good idea to use it.  Some units will have ranged attacks as well, which are also usually pretty straightforward.  And every unit, regardless of whether it's kitted out for melee combat or ranged combat, has at least one special ability that sets it aside from other units.  Maybe it receives extra bonuses from using cover, or the ability to volley-fire with a number of other friendly units.  Maybe it has a special attack that doesn't require line-of-sight on its target, or a sword that deals extra damage to units that have already been set on fire.  Whatever unit you're using, there's something special about it, and you'd be well-served to figure out just what that is.

That's because the complex interplay of those rules is where the meat of Warmachine Tactics lies, a quality that I understand it inherits from the tabletop game, and while players can skip up and attack anew each round with only the most basic of moves, they'll quickly run into difficulty against all but the weakest AI opponents if they do so for long.  The oddity at play for me, however, is that by making synergistic behavior the most important game mechanic, cover mechanics quickly fade in importance.  Take the humble Trencher, for instance, an infantry unit with a bayoneted rifle that receives some neat benefits from being in cover.  The Trencher can survive a lot longer in cover, but he's best used by making "collaborative ranged attacks," a fancy of way of saying "massed fire on a single target," a shared mechanic for certain similar ranged units that let you increase overall chance to hit and attack damage, effectively mitigating the "flip a coin for each attack" mechanic that often arises in many turn based strategy games.  Often you'll find yourself positioning the bulk of your Trenchers outside of cover so that they can guarantee significant damage against a heavy target, or knock out a single light target in a key position.  And once they're out of cover the reality of Warmachine Tactics sets in, and you begin to realize that the cover mechanics, so elaborately framed by the game's tooltips and interface, are actually of little use once shit starts to hit the fan.

This seems to be owed, at least in part, to a prejudice towards melee engagement over ranged engagement in the game's mechanics: Warmachine Tactics loves its melee, and big units that might only be able to make a single ranged attack in a given round can sometimes make up to 8 distinct melee attacks against as many targets as they can reach in a given round instead.  Even the aforementioned trenchers tend to be better at hitting with their individual melee attacks than their ranged attacks, and most melee attacks do more damage to boot.  This isn't true for every unit, but ranged attacks are uniformly capped by a quality called "rate of fire," which prevents a unit from making more than a certain number of ranged attacks per round.  That means that only so many bullets can fly in a given round, and that they're less likely to hit a unit, and less apt to do a lot of damage to that unit as well.  Hanging back behind cover might keep you alive, and protect you against a little damage, but acting aggressively, pushing up and overrunning a vulnerable enemy position or collapsing an imperfect formation, is far more likely to prove effective, and the rewards for eliminating threats far outweigh the rewards for insulating yourself against them.

The end result is an isometric game that, on its face, violates all the rules the genre has been built upon.  Players aren't supposed to sit back and wait.  They're never supposed to stop moving.  Constantly advancing, closing to melee range, darting about beyond it, making potshots when they're facing especially big opponents, swarming foes whenever an opportunity presents itself.  This is no isometric cover based tactics game - it's all about positioning units, and seeing how your opponent responds.  Warmachine Tactics is thoroughly rooted in its board-game heritage, demanding that players tempt their opponents into overextending, or rush into contact as quickly as possible, instead of establishing a position and working from there.

Removed from the digital frame, it wouldn't seem strange in the least, in this digital in-between space, Warmachine Tactics feels like an oddity, a game that doesn't quite fit the confines of its genre.  With its focus on up-close and personal engagements, and its awkward relationship with actions like "retreating" and "repositioning," it's less a game about drawing your foe into your defenses and then cautiously advancing, and more a game about executing brutal, seat-of-your-pants attacks and hoping for the best.  And when it works, it is truly invigorating.  Crashing an Ironclad through a clutch of Winterguard and then rushing into the breach with a crew of Stormblades to clean up feels amazing, and can turn an entire battle around in just a turn or two.  Likewise, it's utterly crushing to lose a handful of misplaced Gun Mages to a coy flanking maneuver, or to watch your Charger flail weakly at the Cryx thrall in its face, instead of pulling back and blasting away at whatever was dumb enough to step in front of its cannons.

These aren't the turns of play of a painstaking, quicksaving strategy game.  They're the fist slamming, table flipping moments at home in tabletop gameplay.  And that's the real success of Warmachine Tactics: not just translating a specific ruleset from a specific, venerated tabletop title to a digital framework, but transporting that heartbreaking, headgaming intensity that board games deliver unlike anything else to a new, virtualized space.  I don't know anything about the Warmachine tabletop game beyond what I've read.  I understand that this is a loyal re-creation of its various systems, but I have to take the dev's word for it, more or less.  But I can say, verifiably, that Warmachine makes me feel the same way I feel when I'm playing a board game.  I'm frustrated, I'm ecstatic, I'm intrigued.  I carefully position units and succeed, and I make a single haphazard move and, denied a mulligan by the merciless mechanical arbitrator safeguarding the game's rules, my entire army begins to fall apart.  I've been here before, but never in a digital space.  Gaming began on the tabletop, but tabletop adaptation has never fully simulated the tabletop experience before now.  Kudos to you, Warmachine, for breaking genres, breaking hearts, and creating new paradigms that keep me playing, even after I've finished your well-apportioned campaign.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Agency, Otherhood, and Video Games as a Maturing Medium!

Most of the social dynamics in our everyday lives are governed by a nebulous but pervasive subtextual quality: agency.  Agency is a fancy way of saying "ability to act," a neutral way of referring to an individual's capacity for self-determination in a physical, emotional, material, and intellectual sense.  Agency can exist in a literal sense, determining the limitations of a given person or group of people in the real world, or in a textual sense, wherein new hierarchies of agency are established in a work of narrative or non-narrative art.  A person with agency, textual or social, can eat whatever they like for breakfast, move to another city if they choose to do so, or travel outside of their immediate community with relative ease.  When we talk about social power, in a very general sense, we're talking about agency, and how agency is a highly relative concept, and varies dramatically depending on who you're talking to at a given moment.

When we tweed-jacket types talk about "Othering," they're talking about the social invention of division between groups of people.  "Othering" is an old holdover from our tribal social roots, a function through which we figured out a way to differentiate our immediate social connections from the rest of the world around us.  It's also the base root of most forms of intolerance: we consider a group of people as fundamentally different from us, strange in a way that influences our perception of their every aspect, often based on little or no information, or a handful of anecdotal experiences.  People in New York consider people from the Midwest to be "less than" them, because they know relatively  few people who live and work in the Midwest, and have little or no idea of what life out there is like.  People who grow up in racially or culturally homogenous communities often emerge with dramatic misconceptions of what different cultures or groups are like: if you only grow up around Amish people, everyone who isn't Amish is going to seem terrifying, and you'll think of them as fundamentally different from other Amish people.  If we aren't familiar with people, we "Other" them, and in doing so, remove a little bit of their humanity.  Sometimes, "Othering" isn't necessarily negative, but it always involves building stereotypes and generalizations: it might seem fair to say that "Mexicans are hardworking" because every person you've met from Mexico (all five of them) did their job with professionalism and aplomb, but the reality is that an entire cultural group (who themselves contain hundreds of subgroups) can't be so easily labeled or described: Mexicans are from Mexico.  To ascribe descriptors to them in general beyond that is to generate an "Othering" label, and implies the generation of various judgments, positive or negative, that remove notions of personhood from that cultural group or subgroup, and impose upon them instead a notion of "The Other" that then dictates who or what they are.

These two aspects of our daily lives, our relative social or physical agency and the manner in which we Other other people or are ourselves Othered by other people, relate to the construction of prejudice, racism and the systemic hierarchical systems that underlie these broader patterns of thought or worldview.  If a person is never Othered, or never knows the experience of being Othered, than they might not think much of making a systemic judgment about a given group of people, and then they'll have created a cultural label about that group of people.  Someone who grows up in an isolated cultural setting, where they experience a widely accepted normative cultural default, is more likely to perceive their worldview as correct without considering other possibilities, and is very likely to consider other viewpoints strange or aberrant.  For example, a person from Ireland might think of a person from Trinidad as quite strange, despite a number of shared cultural and religious values.  Ireland exists in, at least in a global context, a state of relative cultural homogeneity.  Despite rising trends of foreign investment, and a recent influx of immigrants (from Eastern Europe in particular), centuries of poverty and a consistent diasporic movement spanning the last half-millennia have made Ireland a relatively unpopular place to move to.  Someone from Trinidad, which exists as a highly multicultural framework, might be less inclined to prejudge someone from Ireland.  Trinidad, after all, is famed for changing hands frequently during the era of colonization, and while doing so it attracted a mélange of various cultures, bringing British, East Indian, West African, and Chinese people together on one tiny landmass (to name just a few). 

This isn't meant to serve as an indictment of Irish people, or a stirring declaration that "we should all learn something from Trinidadian people."  It's simply an attempt to explain, or give reason, to that most unreasonable of frameworks, the notion of how we prejudge others based on physical or cultural markers we're unaccustomed to, or unfamiliar with.  Both places have wonderful cultural heritages and histories that are worth learning about, and there are plenty of great people from both islands as well.  There are also plenty of assholes, and that's kind of the point: one's frame of reference seems to be what encourages this habit of Othering.  It has fuckall to do with any fundamental aspect of a person's humanity, and everything to do with their experiences.

It's also important to recognize that these opinions, in and of themselves, about how "Other" people act, aren't necessarily problematic.  Some of them might be offensive, or cast various groups of people in a dehumanizing light, and that's unfortunate.  No one wants to deal with that, and no one should have to deal with that on a daily basis.  But what shifts the act of Othering from one of benign inexperience to one of hostile subjugation is the agency of the Othering group relative to the group they've Othered.  Since moving to predominantly African American and West Indian areas in New York, I've had people scream "Get the fuck out of my neighborhood, white boy" at me while I'm walking to the grocery store, or scream or spit in my face while I'm on my way to get a roti.  That's annoying, but it's never been threatening to my physical well being the way that, say, one of my Bronx-native students being arrested in front of his children while asking a police officer why a restaurant was being cleared out was threatening.  My agency isn't significantly impacted by the Othering of the people who see me as fundamentally less than them: my agency allows me to escape it with relative ease.  I can keep walking down the street, or walk out of a restaurant to avoid harassment.  My student would have had to exercise a heroic amount of agency to defy the forces that have been arrayed against him.  These frameworks emerge from the same kind of Othering, but speak to how important it is to consider agency when one considers how destructive Othering frameworks can be.

When people discuss "White Privilege," there's a misapprehension that people are saying "you got something for being born pale."  That's not to say that no one is saying that: there are people who do genuinely believe that, but these people are outliers, mostly people who are engaging in a form of Othering, usually in response to a relative lack of agency.  What most people mean is quite different.  What most people mean is that if you're pale, you are, at least initially, not going to be Othered by the social authority structure we exist inside of.  Lil' Dicky's song, "White Dude," actually does a great job of satirizing the concept in one of its closing lines, wherein Dicky declares, with tongue firmly in cheek, that "I get a fair shot at the life I deserve" as a result of being born the way he was.  If you're male and pale, most people, at least in the cultural frameworks of North America, will operate on the base assumption that you're not a gibbering shitheel.  When you do get Othered, it's usually by people outside of an established framework of agency and cultural normativity, and as a result the devastating impact of Otherhood is often lost on most people who exist as a part of a normative cultural framework.  Most people don't get a gun waved in their face and then endure an hour of questioning by the police after trying to give a woman a ride home.  Most people don't get shaken down for bribes at the side of the road, or threatened with rape after blowing through a stop sign.  To people who have never been Othered, these experiences are alien.  To anyone who's ever lived as the Other, these losses of agency are all too real, and can often be life threatening.  Many high profile examples of Othering have emerged in recent months in the United States, prompting a much needed national discourse that had been delayed for decades, not because these incidents previously did not occur, but because they occurred in a space of relative invisibility, and de facto cultural acceptance.  The underlying meaning of the cry "Black Lives matter" (to which the only acceptable response is, of course, "fuck yes they do") is to say that "Other lives matter."  It doesn't matter if a person looks like you or doesn't, they're still a human being, and to dispossess them of that humanity, either through a personal interaction or the reinforcement of a institutional framework, is an act of aggression.  It needs to stop, and while I understand, however recalcitrantly, that addressing the personal layer of acceptable Othering is going to take a while, the institutional layer of acceptable Othering needs to stop yesterday.

So, why is this up here?  What the fuck does any of this have to do with video games?

Let me try to explain.

Whether or not you agree with the prevailing notion that video games represent power fantasies at their most fundamental level (I personally do not) there's no denying that a significant element of any video game is the framing of agency within the structure of the game itself.  Agency can take on a broader meaning in the medium of video games than it does in other cultural and literary contexts because it's referring not only to notions of visibility and representation, but also to a set of interactions with the systemic textual framework of the game's structures, and the freedom a player is given while navigating those structures.  We're given two layers of agency in video games:  the mechanical layer of agency, wherein players are given the capacity to determine the course of action they wish to take, and the familiar (at least in a critical context) cultural layer of agency, wherein players are given the freedom to carve out and establish their own identity within a given framework.

Many older games built themselves on universal frameworks of agency, presenting their protagonists as disembodied avatars of power who navigated spaces with absolute authority.  In early first person shooters, like Doom and Wolfenstein, you exist as a disembodied weapon (ostensibly attached to the body of a white dude, who remains conveniently off-camera) who can overcome any obstacle thrown at you.  There's never a challenge you're given in Doom that you can't overcome with the tools at hand, and, as such, you're never left feeling powerless, or overcome.  You're never forced to interact with the systems of the game via an apparatus beyond blunt force, because blunt force is always enough to overcome a given challenge: your agency in the game is absolute, and you are the ultimate source of authority, the framing device that determines who lives, and who dies (spoiler alert: it's everybody but you).  You're also given relative freedom to identify yourself however you like.  While, in Wolfenstein and Doom, there's a tiny man at the bottom of your screen, he's relatively unimportant.  Other Golden Age titles forgo any kind of framing whatsoever, and put you in, say, the cockpit of an X-Wing, without so much as a how-dee-do: you're still you, whoever you are, you just happen to be shooting down TIE fighters.

Games started playing with mechanical agency early in the PC-gaming era: Bungie's Pathways Into Darkness came out in the same year as Doom, and took a similar set of mechanics, but added a few of its own twists, like highly limited resources and challenges that couldn't be overcome with violence:  Bungie inserted enemies that couldn't be killed easily or weren't worth the bullets that they'd take to bring down, introduced opponents that required "puzzle solving" to be defeated, and even introduced a few foes that outright could not be fought, that required that players run from them in order to live.  Wasteland let players decide what their characters were named, what they were good at, and, thanks to the restrictions of early graphics engines, allowed them to largely imagine what they looked like.  But, even so, these games utilize relatively unrestricted notions of player agency: if players want to try and solve a problem in a particular way, they're given the freedom to.  While their capabilities are not absolute, they've got a large amount of freedom in determining their own course of action.

The stories and frameworks of video games often carry with them the implication of cultural normativity as implied by relative freedom of action they permit.  The presumption that gamers would primarily be members of a dominant social group has been broadly accepted for much of the history of video games, and as games began to evolve as storytelling tools they begin assigning the markers of that dominant social group to their protagonists.  As games grew into a medium capable of rendering their protagonists in a palatable, sometimes even realistic, light, they issued an avalanche of generic white dudes for "gamers" to identify with, and project authority through.  The agency implied by this cultural ubiquity gave rise to a habitual empowerment of these protagonists, and games began to get a reputation as a storytelling medium devoted to power fantasies that elevated the relative agency of an already empowered social group: while games won't necessarily gift you with special powers or material goods, they give players the freedom to achieve amazing things, empowering their them, and encouraging them to play more.

There's no single point where one could say that games stopped explicitly representing power fantasies, but the notion of game structures being about more than just realizing a power fantasy entered the mainstream at some point, and never really left.  Half-Life was certainly a significant issuance on this front, with its deliberate indictment of choice in video games, and Bioshock did some great things to disabuse players of both their avid lust for more power, and the notion that they actually controlled their own actions, but for me one of the most significant turning points in the construction of agency in video games was actually Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

In Modern Warfare there's a scene where you, the player, as a faceless soldier who has been bravely and ably fighting for most of the game, are suddenly exposed to a nuclear blast and a helicopter crash.  The rules of the game, that you'll always be able to fight your way out, that you'll always be able to win, are suspended, and you, as a player, are forced to recognize that your agency in this world is not absolute.  The characters that you inhabit can die.  What's more, they are dying, and there's nothing you can do about it, and you have to live through it with them.  This moment of self-recognition is still mounted inside of a fantasy of military-industrial empowerment, but it's still an important moment, so important that Infinity Ward has dutifully re-created it at least once in each of its following Call of Duty titles, usually to considerably diminished effect.

Perhaps it is this relationship with existent power structures that made players and critics so comfortable with this loss of agency: players who were forced to die in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare were given a taste of their own powerlessness, of what it means to be powerless, without being forced to inhabit that space of powerlessness for too long.  Even so, it seemed to give a high-sign to AAA game developers that it was acceptable to tell stories about characters who weren't supermen, characters who didn't win every fight.  This trend, if it is even a trend and not just a tide, a natural occurrence that games, as a medium, were destined to eventually engage with, has since taken root, and of late we've seen a wide variety of games where players have increasingly reduced agency and have to contend with increasingly challenging or insurmountable threats.

This has coincided with games, as a medium, becoming more friendly to women and people of color: as these previously "invisible" groups, who were really always there, became more visible in the games they played, and began to see their own struggles and lack of social determination and agency reflected in the games they played, they began to speak about games more confidently, more effectively, and to create their own games intended to express their own personal journeys, and their own lack of agency.  Each time a game asks a player to endure threats rather than overcome them, each time a game asks a player to avoid danger, to outwit and flee an opponent instead of subjugating that opponent, that game is asking a player to consider what it means to be a figure in a given setting who has serious structural impositions on their agency, on their capacity to act.  They're being asked to look at the world through the eyes of a person who can't expect to be given a fair shot, a person who, has to be stronger, smarter, or luckier than the rest of the people around them just to make it through the day.

Over the last half-decade we've encountered games about being a young woman who is powerless to change the tidal forces pulling her loved ones apart from one another, a game about being a biracial child who is forced to live through the end of the world and survive on her own after losing surrogate family after surrogate family, a game about having depression and needing to make hard choices to have more options down the line, and a game about being a blind girl.  It is perhaps unsurprising that this trend seems to make certain people uncomfortable: a medium that appeared to be about actualizing power fantasies has been transforming into a medium about experiential art, about learning what it means to inhabit other people's bodies, to relate to other people's experiences.  To people for whom these experiences remain Other, the implication can be troubling: these are situations where the relative social and physical agency that someone might be accustomed to have been removed.  These are situations where the restrictions placed on people we identify as Other are brought to the attention of a general audience, beyond the spectrum that might normally engage with them.  Efforts like this present a revolutionary framework that doesn't simply illustrate the struggle of being a particular kind of person who is, in their daily life, received as "less than" by other people: it asks those who might see that person as Other to inhabit a social space that they have, perhaps unwittingly, had a hand in creating.

The response has been heartbreaking.  Instead of taking a moment to reflect on how these new types of expression illustrate worldviews that are important to engage with, people who feel indicted or undermined by these works of art have lashed out at creators who are trying to eke out these new spaces, claiming that the work at hand either doesn't fit into the nebulous category of games (the "not a real game" camp) or that it makes them, as people, feel bad about themselves by merit of calling attention to the frameworks they benefit from.  Zoe Quinn is perhaps the best example of this: a young woman who, in attempting to make a game about the very personal subject matter of living with depression, drew the ire of an ex who felt undermined by her achievement, and used his relative ubiquity to call attention to what he saw as an injustice: a game that wasn't a game.  The actual underlying injustice, that a woman should have to prove herself in a more dramatic or demonstrative manner than a man in order to certify her artistic integrity,  that a woman cannot exist in whatever cultural space she chooses without risk of attack or reprisal, remains in the subtext of most of the dialogue (if dialogue it can be called) surrounding the bullshit that Quinn had to deal with, but even her proponents have trouble saying that the fundamental issue here is that Quinn, and people like Quinn, remain Others in the eyes of what is construed as a dominant cultural paradigm.  But here's the rub, and the really important thing to understand about games as a medium: they're not the Other at all, and they never have been.

I was flipping through a backlog of Leigh Alexander's work a while back, and found an op-ed (well, more accurately, a screed) on Gamasutra wherein she talked about the "death of the gamer label."  Her intention was obviously to incite some sort of response from a group that had internalized its own privilege, where privilege means "right to be included," but in doing so she created a cultural definition of "gamer" built on every negative, dissociative framework that anyone who's ever earned the name nerd or dork or spaz has had to navigate, a framework that the medium of games seems to be arcing towards disabusing.  It was a gesture intended to push people away, and that's a shame, because the core of what Alexander was saying was actually wholly true: that the idea of "gamer culture" is over.  But in saying so, she invented a notion of gamer culture that never existed, only passingly recognizing that her consideration of it emerges from marketing exercises and trade shows, the spaces enthusiast press inhabit that prevent them from seeing the world beyond those veils.  Because while the in-situ press might be a white boys club, and the people who have the capital and time to attend marketing events might, likewise, be part of a dominant and culturally privileged group, the people who engage with a medium are not, nor have they ever been. 

Likewise, the creators of a given medium are not the people who surround or comment on that medium: a decade and a half of life sputtering in and out of academic corridors that cycle around the creation and discussion of art have taught me that, while there will never, ever be any shortage of pale men who want to talk about original art, much of that art they are drawn to comes from people who, in generations past, would be considered Others, who are often still considered Others by the apparatus that comments upon them, but who are excised from the discussion of their own art through the very system of agency and Otherhood their art bridges the gap of.  Even as these brave men and women create and present their own vulnerabilities to the world, they're systemically isolated from these spaces or relegated to minor roles with them, even as they're celebrated by that same apparatus that oppresses them.  It's not that these people didn't exist before, or that their audience, a group of like-minded people who have experienced similar things, or people who consider the experiences of these groups to be important, indeed vital, to forming any kind of real understanding of what it means to be a person, wasn't around, or engaging with work.  It's that that audience wasn't visible, that it didn't present itself in a way that allowed for easy access.  You'd have to go looking for it, in basement parties or in chat rooms late at night.  You have to endure interminable or outright bad art before you find great work.  You have to give up some of your agency, some of your capacity for commentary, in order to have these new experiences and enable someone else's experience.

And if you've spent most of your life in a framework of relative agency, that can seem like an appalling idea.  Inhabiting a space of powerlessness in order to give someone else a chance to speak, or worse understand their perspective more fully, is scary.  It calls attention to all the ways we benefit from systems we might despise, in ways we might not recognize.  That moment of self-recognition is terrible, like when a shitty person loves a great band, but it's important to engage with, because it represents a crucial potential learning moment.  What's more, these moments represent a growing trend in video games as an art form, one arcing away from blithe issuances of empowerment and towards quiet, human stories and interactions, stories that ask us to question our privilege and our ability to act, stories that ask us to inhabit spaces of relative powerlessness, spaces of vulnerability, where we have to struggle to emerge from depression, where we have to hide from the things that threaten us, or use guile or luck to evade stronger, faster foes.  When one recognizes the harm that comes from making another person into an Other, when one recognizes the harm of prejudice, however minute, to all parties involved, there are only two ways you can go: you can rage at the voice calling you out, deny your involvement, tacit or otherwise, in a systemic problem that we've been struggling with for almost as long as we've been walking upright, or you can sacrifice a portion of your agency by refusing to sustain dominance over another person, and instead opt to let them speak, to listen to them as if they were not an Other, but part of the dominant paradigm, observing their work as if it was anyone else's, with the same relative importance and inherent merit that we associate with any genuine creative gesture.

This new medium of video games, this experiential medium still in its infancy, permits us to engage in the latter process with increased efficacy, but it's far from perfect.  This framework, this series of tubes through which you're reading this piece, permits us to see more and more people not as Others, but as members of an emerging global community, but we also all too often use it to eke out a space where we can find people who share our convention of Othering other people as the community we once saw as dominant fades around us.  I'll close by bringing up the example of New York, wherein cultural enclaves form and do their best to push "unlike" people out, through a combination of systemic and personal acts of aggression, whether it's a group of Hasidic men mugging and beating a gay black man for walking through "their" neighborhood, or a group of real estate developers aggressively attempting to push families out of a neighborhood they built into a community generations ago.  You can look around New York City and see these microcosms play out every day, and they are, for the most part, heartbreaking.  But those terrors don't devalue the beauty of people coming together and seeing one another as people.  For every act of aggression, there's a street fair with bouncy castles and booths set up to let you learn about the cultures and traditions of your neighbors .  There's the woman who recognizes you, not as the only white dude who comes to her bagel shop on the regular, but as the guy that always gets a bacon, egg, and cheese with pepperjack on an everything bagel, a considerably more meaningful marker than the color of one's skin.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: A Brief Delay!

In the rush up to the start of the semester, a number of other personal projects, and a particularly large SNS that will be arriving next week, I've realized, mere hours before my self-imposed deadline, that I won't be able to post a Super Nerd Sunday this week, at least not one that would meet my meager quality standards. As such, I offer you this, a link to a video of a pair of cats hugging.  Next week, I'll be putting up an in-depth piece that attempts to address notions of how the "gamer" identity functions, how prejudice, in a general sense, takes shape, specifically between groups that all exist outside of the conventional hierarchical structures of society, and how that relates to video games and, more specifically, the emergent backlash against critical and creative voices who have worked to expand the conversation that video games are having their players.  The piece is almost three times as long as the essays I usually post on this site, and a great deal more complex, so I'd like to spend a little bit longer working on it.  Thanks for bearing with me, dear reader, and check back next week if anything I just mentioned above sounds even mildly interesting to you!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Threat and Catharsis in Alien: Isolation!

For a horror game to work, each encounter with a threat should be credible: regardless of where you are in the course of the game, a given threat should be able to kill you, effectively resetting your progress, or inconveniencing you, or doing whatever it is that the game has determined is an appropriately devious means of making you fear its reprisals.  A "horror" game, removed from these constraints, is no longer a horror game.  Resident Evil 4 is somewhat notorious for breaking its franchise's pattern and removing players from the exigencies of horror to press them into action hero service against hordes of slobbering Spanish zombies.  It's difficult to feel threatened by enemies when you've spent hours mowing them down with relative impunity.  By the end of Resident Evil 4, I started to see those weird, unfortunate snake villagers not as a threat, but as potential income sources: each villager I killed could drop precious ammo, for killing more villagers, or money, to make it easier to kill more villagers. 

This isn't necessarily a problem: the action-horror genre has been booming since before Left4Dead made it part of our international subconscious (if you'll forgive the pun), and frankly, action-horror games can be tremendously fun, deliberately upscaling player empowerment as they mow down hordes of downright ugly enemies.  But these games often strike a note with horror game enthusiasts, because they fundamentally lack the sort of arc of empowerment that horror games present: Resident Evil 4, the archetypical game of the action-horror genre, begins with you taking on the mantle of a secret agent who, from the get go, can crush a man's skull with his boot heel.  By the end of the game, you're doing some downright insane kung-fu, leaping off walls and punching out robots, which has sort of been the Resident Evil franchise's "thing" for a generation at this point.

Horror games don't necessarily need to eschew arcs of empowerment.  In fact, character arcs, and character growth in general, are pretty necessary in any video game of sufficient length.  Without development, which usually implies some sort of empowerment (though it doesn't have to) games tend to feel flat, and players, in turn, grow disengaged with the systems propelling them through the narrative field of the game.  But they have to be careful with how character development and progression function: if characters grow too strong, the game ceases to be scary.  The tension of being stalked by hostile enemies is replaced by the rush of adrenaline as you cut down your foes.  The Tomb Raider reboot is built on this principle, orienting itself around Lara's progression from terrified waif to death-dealing action hero.  But this progression is what separates the Tomb Raider reboot from horror games: by the end of Tomb Raider, individual enemies are barely a threat, and stealth isn't even an option.  There's a mission where you rush through an exploding village with an assault rifle and attached grenade launcher, blowing up machine gun emplacements.  This is not horror game fare, and that's fine: it's tremendously fun, it's integral to the development of a character, and it's actually part of a pretty remarkable set of mechanics that orient themselves around literalizing a character's evolution.  But it's useful to consider in the context of horror games, because one of the things Tomb Raider realizes so well, specifically character progression, is something that so many horror games fail at quite miserably.

Horror games can fail at character progression in either direction.  They can make players entirely too powerful, giving them the capacity to destroy all but the toughest foes they face with relative ease, or they can keep players locked in to weakness throughout the game, never really providing them with any kind of advancement tree.  The rarest thing is the horror game that simultaneously presents its players with meaningful progression without ever losing a real sense of threat, consistently infusing gameplay with tension.  Alien: Isolation nails this balance.

Alien: Isolation is, at its core, a game about catharsis, a common theme in horror games.  Hell, Silent Hill built an entire series out of exploring catharsis.  It starts off slow, boiling atmospheric in its initial bars.  The first Alien film is quickly summarized, and we are made to understand that this will be a game, first and foremost, about a daughter looking for traces of her mother, to find some sort of closure.  Then we're cast into a world gone to hell, where nearly every single thing can and will kill you.  Alien: Isolation is more than willing to let players die, but never without giving them tools to defend themselves, or evade danger, as needed. 

Even so, players start out weak.  The sense of fear early on in the game is palpable.  Even after players arm themselves with maintenance jack and pistol, violence, while a viable option, is never an easy one: if a player behaves aggressively early on, they're liable to be shot up by the allies of whoever they just killed.  If a player opens fire with a pistol, every gun in the room will open fire in response, and if the first shot doesn't eliminate the threat entirely, it's essentially a coin-flip as to whether or not Ripley will make it out of whatever situation you've gotten her into.  Even after players move past those initial engagements, certain kinds of violence are prone to drawing unwanted attention: there's never a moment where you don't feel vulnerable to attack, from the xenomorph, or from other threats.

All of this exists within a framework of progression where players are still accumulating new toys and tricks.  Some of that progression is related to an exploratory layer that allows players to uncover narrative, the most prominent driving force in Alien: Isolation.  The mechanical layer of progression is more subtly manifested.  Players acquire tools that allow them to survive encounters that they could not have lived through previously.  The stun baton lets Ripley covertly dispatch human opponents without alerting the alien to their location, and gives her a panic button when facing down lone androids, but it's no good in a stand-up fight against people, and if you're fighting multiple androids, you're still more than a bit screwed.  You can build EMPs and flashbangs to help you out in situations where you're fighting multiple foes, but if you EMP a group of androids you'll still have to beat them into submission if you don't want to face them again, which requires some quick action and is still liable to draw attention.  If you flashbang some people, you'll either have to kill them, which, again, will draw attention, or run, which means you've still got to deal with the patrols that you're already struggling to evade.  Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs give you an advantage against the patrolling alien, giving you a chance to set up traps to make it flee, or remove it from your path for a few seconds, but persistent use of those items will draw the xenomorph's attention and force further engagements.  What's more, you can only use them three or four times before you're out of them, and they require quite a bit of prep time to be used safely.  You're better off hiding in a closet than trying to scare the alien away.  When the flamethrower comes in to play, you've finally got a tool that can be used to get you out of tight xenomorph related situations, but with limited fuel on hand there's only so much flame to be thrown, and the threat of the alien, temporarily removed by each judicious burst of fire, always returns.

When you do finally get rid of the alien, about halfway through the game, players are finally given more breathing room to play around with the toys they've spent the game acquiring; they can finally fire a gun without bringing an unstoppable death machine down on their head.  That's a real source of catharsis: tools that once had serious consequences attached to their use can now be operated with relative impunity, from improvised explosives to firearms.  But even without the threat of the xenomorph, Ripley remains frail, and use of these tools has to be governed with cunning, careful positioning, and more of the stealthiness that you'll have spent the first twelve or so hours of play acquiring.

However adept you might become at dispatching your foes, the threat they represent always remains very real.  This is what separates Alien: Isolation from other horror-stealth games with steep power curves: the tools you acquire, the tools you're eventually permitted to use, never transform you into a godlike figure.  The catharsis they offer is not one related to absolute power, but one allowing a vulnerable person to turn the tools that have been used against them back upon their enemies.  The first time I drilled a Seegson security goon with a revolver while he tried to fire on me downrange with a shotgun, I felt great, but the threat of being killed by those shotgun rounds was still real.  I still had to cower behind cover as I carefully aimed each shot.  Shorting out six androids with one EMP was, likewise, rewardingly tense: it gave me time to work over four of them with my maintenance jack, but before I had a chance to finish two of them recovered, leaving me to decide if I'd use another precious EMP, or fall back on my shotgun.

And this feeling of power is short-lived: as the joy of catharsis fades, Ripley is stripped of many of the tools she's acquired, specifically her firearms, and then forced to face androids ingeniously outfitted in rubber suits, which protect them from the effects of EMPs and stun batons, the two most effective tools for removing androids from a fight.  Pressed into a confined space, with limited resources, explosives, and incendiary devices, a new set of exigencies prompt a new struggle for survival.

That boom-bust pattern never stops.  By the time you do finally get your guns back, and the waves of rubber-suited androids become more annoyance than threat, they're quickly supplanted by about half a dozen xenomorph drones, who have inexplicably set up shop on the station.  By this point, the tools you need to navigate these threats are well established, as are the patterns for resolving them.  Instead of muttering "oh shit" while Seegson security raiders die to a xenomorph attack, Ripley grits her teeth, climbs into a vent, and doing her best to circumvent the whole struggle.  The vulnerability never leaves her, but she gets better, both at dealing with those moments and using the tools that resolve them.  Threats remain plausible: there's nothing in the game that you can "kill" that won't try to kill you back twice as hard.  You are, and forever will be, the least dangerous thing on Seegson Station, but by game's end it's less about creeping about subtly, and more about rationing flamethrower fuel so you can scare xenomorphs away enough times during your madcap final push to escape.

All of this layers over Amanda Ripley's character development, as she finally finds a sort of closure with her mother, and hardens significantly as a human being, abandoning her lofty hopes of evacuating the station in favor of fleeing it alone on what, in the end, may very well be a ghost ship.  By the end of Isolation, we have a real sense that Ripley has changed, and that while she's a highly capable character, she's also still very alone, and very vulnerable in that solitude.  That rare mix of empowerment and vulnerability is something that horror games have trouble nailing down, something that Isolation does with relative ease, not by building in newer and tougher opponents, but by giving players an ever expanding set of tools for resolving various threats without ever compromising on the severity of those threats.

That's the core of strong horror design: Alien: Isolation isn't about hunting and killing an alien.  It isn't about realizing a power fantasy.  It's about telling a story, a story that unfolds slowly, through exploration, and surviving a myriad of threats along the way.  That's the core of the horror genre: it's never about overcoming foes, about emerging "victorious" over whatever you're fighting.  It's about that most fundamental and harrowing of experiences, that most universal of human struggles: trying to stay alive in a world that seems hostile to our daily state of being.