Sunday, July 20, 2014

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: Death to Daily Quests!

I'm writing this on the brink of a momentous occasion in my life.  No, I haven't finished Look How Big I Drew This Dog.  No, I didn't get published somewhere noteworthy, that isn't edited by a friend.  No, I'm not suddenly in the grips of a deeply significant new love that renders all the colors of my life in glorious new fidelity.  I'm arriving at a far more meaningful moment in my life, a moment that's long been coming.  I'm approaching the death of the daily quest in my life.

I was getting close to it before, when Neverwinter, my current daily quest vector and constant obstacle to productivity, let me more or less cap out my progress within its structures by gating them with prohibitively large time and social effort requirements: in order to move past a certain point in Neverwinter, gear wise, I'd now have to either join a guild, or spend hours grinding "epic heroic encounters" in the most recent expansion, neither of which are especially appealing prospects to me.  I don't play Neverwinter for the other players.  In fact, I find almost all of them entirely distasteful, when they're not acting as obstacles to me enjoying the game outright.

But then Neverwinter did something tricky.  It incentivized me leveling up a character to the maximum level again.  SWTOR did this too, did it really well, but Neverwinter was squirrely about it, making me mess around with their end-game content with not one but two characters if I wanted to get an item that, while not great, is certainly pretty good.  Since it let me engage with the part of Neverwinter I liked (moving through dungeons, fighting enemies in little actiony battles, getting loot, leveling up and assigning skill points) I was psyched.  There's a certain charm to running characters through the early-to-mid game frameworks of MMOs, wherein every encounter is scaled to make you feel like a burgeoning badass.  But then the late-game sets in, and the game spikes in challenge and time commitment.  Progress slows.  In the case of Neverwinter, the conventional progress system falls away and becomes replaced by a series of precariously nested menus, each of which contains a series of unique currencies, all of which are earned in different locations at different paces.  There's something cruel about this, about the loss of the "ding" feature, and about the way that Neverwinter, through its insidious currency system, endeavors to keep players playing their craft game to earn virtual money which is ostensibly worth real money.

But Neverwinter broke its own economy with a series of ill-conceived sales.  There's currently a week long waiting list to purchase real-world-money currency with Neverwinter-game currency, which adds another timer to an already startlingly slow paced set of late-game progress sliders.  Even as I unlock new and interesting assets, even as I race through sections of the game that once stalled me out with my new character, I find myself rolling my eyes at the tawdry daily quests that ask me to re-tread the same ground again and again for modest gains.

But here's the thing: I used to love the shit out of daily quests.  I used to call them Star Wars chores.  I'd do them with friends, quickly and easily, and then move on with my day.  I'd usually try to do them once a week, and even then, I'd make decent progress (though, it's fair to say, this followed a month of intense daily-questing to get the things I wanted out of the process).  But the Star Wars daily quests were pretty modest affairs, and their rewards were transparent.  Save up this many space-bucks over a few weeks to get this incredible implant for your Jedi Sentinel or Sith Marauder.  Save up this many Black Hole commendations over a few months and you can earn tier 2 gear without the tedium of a drop.  Pretty sweet, all things considered.

Neverwinter made the mistake of turning their daily quests into central content, blowing them up and asking players to invest large chunks of time in them.  They figured out that this formula wasn't the greatest in their most recent daily quest expansion, wherein they replaced the notion of two to three hour dungeons (the thing that Neverwinter does worst is both constructing and allowing players to form parties for these dungeons, but I digress) with a ten to fifteen minute mini-dungeon encounter, called a Skirmish.  It's actually kind of a brilliant move, but even that means that finishing up daily content is a matter of multiple hours, spread across two characters, while I try to play other games and do other things.  All I want to do is find some sweet ass swords and daggers!  What's the deal, Neverwinter?

There's an upside.  In a sense, I never got tired of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  It remains on the edge of my awareness, an object that I consider and, likewise, consider returning to.  Neverwinter has crushed my love of it with its daily quests.  Writing this, I realize I'll be back in to it to check out its upcoming expansion, and that I'll continue logging in, both to finish up weekly and daily quests and to occasionally see if the market has reached reasonable levels anew, but I know that when I finish up the bulk of these quests, it's unlikely I'll be coming back to Neverwinter any time soon.

It's not that the game hasn't been fun.  I've sunk nearly 500 hours into Neverwinter to date, an absurd amount considering I spent all of zero dollars on it.  But the late game content has occupied nearly 200 of those gameplay hours, and the bulk of that gameplay has been made up of the same several actions, repeated ad infini.  I've got a high tolerance for that, obviously, but as time ekes on and my purchases from Steam's summer sale begin to chafe within my video game crisper, I realize something: that Neverwinter sold me on a beautiful lie, that of endless progress, and that my only real option is to break free.  To shatter the chains of daily quests and say, once and for all: man, Neverwinter used to be fun, but now it feels like a third job.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: A More Generous Narrative Frame!

Recently I was at a poetry reading in New York.  It's part and parcel of being a writer.  Someone I knew from long ago was doing a thoroughly mediocre job of reading some thoroughly mediocre work, interspersing predictable poems with overlong stories about the intended meaning and origin of each poem in a fashion that was simultaneously dull and insulting to the intelligence (or just the ability to interpret art) of the audience.  Then, out of the blue, something interesting happened.  This young-ish poet read a poem from a young-er girl she babysat in the middle of her own work.  There was a flimsy premise attached to the act, something about it inspiring additional poems, but the work itself was actually quite good.  The audience, for the first time, responded to her poetry, and the poet, perhaps realizing that, or perhaps simply making a joke to make herself seem relatable, told the audience "I'm tremendously jealous of how great a poet she is."

There was a layer of irony to the comment, certainly, but also a layer of honesty.  The awkward silence had been broken by a twinge of laughter.  The momentum of the reading had shifted.

There's sometimes a sense among writers that one person's success precludes or prevents another's.  There are certainly reasons you could cite as to why jealousy is a real and valid emotion to feel as a writer.  We live in an aggressive publishing world, wherein competition for attention is more crowded and tighter than it has ever been before as the apparatus to share work becomes simultaneously broader (as digital tools rise to prominence) and narrower (as large scale publishers die a death of their own devising, their companies collapsing under their own weight as the big-box retail chains they relied on for distribution die out).  We, as writers, are also frequently encouraged to directly compete with one another, not just for publishing space, but for funding, with organizations presenting fellowships, grants, and sponsorships using the language and framework of competition to pit authors against one another.  There are a number of frameworks where competition is a very real concern, and the fear that another's success will undermine even your potential for visibility is actually quite valid.

Not that this is exclusive to writers.  Painters are a part of a considerably more high-stakes game: successful painters can make astounding sums of money incredibly quickly by catching on at the right time in the right way, and then just as quickly fade after periods of brief invisibility of occlusion.  Musicians are also looking at a dying distribution apparatus still coming to terms with a digital new world, and are, as a result, competing for fewer and fewer pieces of the proverbial pie as large scale record labels sell fewer and fewer physical albums and take larger and larger portions of digital sales.  But there's something particular about writers, about the intensity with which this jealousy seems to pervade our social and academic interactions, the construction of our art, and the way we interact with our peers, that makes for a particularly odd and toxic relationship between peers.

Competition is normal, especially between artists, but collaboration can often run alongside it.  Imitation, influence, and discourse form the basis of many artistic movements and evolutionary trends of writing that have come to shape some of the great works of literary canon.  Hell, a competition held at Lord Byron's house (which may or may not have actually happened) gave us two of the greatest works of "horror literature" in the history of the English language: Shelley's Frankenstein and Pollidori's "The Vampyre."  Art exists in a space where it is constantly adapting and imitating.  Overlapping influences are a part of what makes the finished product of creative endeavors so god damn neat.  Two writers exploring a similar concept at a similar moment, like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, can generate something remarkable (in the case I just mentioned: the generation of the genre of cyberpunk, and conceptualizations of constructs commonplace in society today, like the internet and transhumanism).  These parallel movements towards some endeavor have often lead to something far greater than the sum of its parts.  Yet I find myself departing communities, and departing an educational framework, where the idea of competing over who is producing the "best writing" has begun to overshadow the production of writing.

I've won a handful of minor awards for things I've written in the past, which is always nice, but never struck me as a big deal.  But after I won a "fiction writing" award (the right people liked one of my stories at the right moment) I noticed an odd reaction: people were upset with me.  They would ask me probing questions about my submission, fuming about it, congratulate me then stomp off to glare at me from the other side of the bar and, in some cases, cut off contact with me altogether.  Likewise, the response people had to winning minor awards sometimes skewed from appreciation towards affirmation of some notion of greatness, transforming mediocre writers who had some good fortune or received some sound encouragement into overloud pricks with a sense of entitlement.  The competition that drove us as writers, and the collaboration that accompanied it, was corrupted, turned into something that began to stymie or discourage creative work instead of inspiring it.

I do my best to eschew this in my own work, sitting down with friends, reading their writing, borrowing from it and experimenting with notions within it freely to see what's happening that I enjoy and explore those concepts in my own artistic space.  But sometimes, quite often, nearly always, it feels like I'm in the minority, like the notions of competition, from the competition to get into MFA programs to the competition for grants and funding to the competition for publication, are actually dominating the creative space I find myself circling the outskirts of.

This is where I suddenly make this about video games.

You'll rarely hear game designers talk about their work in these terms.  I wouldn't say that you'd never hear them say that, because never is a long time, and there are plenty of assholes out there, but for the most part game designers seem to enjoy riffing on one another and turning dominant paradigms of gameplay into new titles, exploring new ground together.  Trends like inclusion of free-flowing parkour-like movement, open world development and "block-core" games following the style and ethos of Minecraft, survival-horror's multiplayer resurrection; these things all occupy a space simultaneously very close to competition and collaboration, even when they involve no direct communication or contact, and it really seems, at least to an external observer, that people don't care that much about the existence of parallel conceptual engagements.

A bit of this might be attributable to the inherently cooperative framework that surrounds game development.  Developers are part of massive teams.  Collaboration is part of their blood, and the idea of ownership of a finished product is clouded, in large part, because of the raw number of hands that the product has to pass through.  A similar relationship exists in the world of film, but the emergence of directors as notional auteur figures occludes this (albeit fictively: directors exist as such only inasmuch as many of them employ the same creative collaborators in many of their films, generating the impression of a singular artistic vision where there is, in fact, only a continuity of collaboration).  Games are where it's at if you want to look at massive collaborations that involve amicably treading on one another's toes both inside the framework of a company, as people work on elements of a game together, and in the world at large, where titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield propel each other towards ever-grander game design concepts and action set-pieces as their competition for market share looks more and more like a collaborative movement to make shooters based on action films from the 1980s.

Some of it might also be attributable to the Barthean actualization that video games frame.  Roland Barthes, a French literary critic active from the late 40s to his death in 1980, kind of broke notions of artistic ownership when he popularized the idea that literary works exist in a vacuum and are, in fact, empowered and fully realized by the imposition of meaning or value upon them by a reader.  While outlandish to some, the theory really makes sense when you apply it certain forms of literature (particularly some of the more avant garde poetry out there), and its conclusion feels somewhat unavoidable when you apply Barthes' thought process to video games.  See, video games really don't exist without a player.  There's no physical object you can flip over and skip through.  In order to generate a narrative you really do have to sit down and play through the game.  This means the idea of authorial "ownership," wherein outcomes can be dictated by the author as appropriate or inappropriate (or correct or incorrect) is occluded by structures of interpretive play.  If I want to imagine Army of 2 as a steamy homoerotic international thriller, I can do so through my playthrough, occasionally pausing with my murder-partner to gaze out at lovingly rendered war-torn landscapes between gun-fights.  If I want to imagine Super Mario RPG as a game about wandering through a blasted apocalyptic hellscape in the last days of life on earth, I can do that too, by removing myself from the tiny bastions of civilization as much as possible and sticking to the dungeons, where the action is, where the people are not.  In fact, I'm sort of encouraged to engage in these kinds of behaviors when I play video games, particularly open world games that allow players to approach objectives in whatever order they choose.  The fact that this trope of reader-actualization (or maybe player-actualization) is built into games might explain why notions of ownership and jealousy don't seem to manifest themselves as frequently as notions of cooperation, inspiration, and influence.

Of course, I'm framing this discussion in a way that's meant to lionize a particular kind of thought process.  Some great work emerges from jealousy and fear.  Jealousy and fear of being ignored can propel writers and artists into new frontiers, prompting them to explore heretofore virgin territory in their quest to make something that truly stands out.  It can force us out of our comfort zone as we seek to develop and differentiate ourselves as creative types.  But when it begins to dominate our dialogues, when we begin to frame our discourses in terms, not of inspiration, but of occlusion or infuriation, we run the risk of styming our own creative moments and isolating ourselves as individual artists.  When we cut ourselves off from other writers, we run the risk of destroying our own capacity to create art.  The lesson from games here is perhaps to be less serious in all matters, and to remember that once an object has been created, it is no longer ours to claim ownership over or value within.  Games, writing, painting, film, particularly well crafted flans: all of these things are ours until we hand them over to someone else to enjoy.  At that point, all we can do is watch with trepidation as we hope our audience finds something to like in the object we've given them.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Congratulations Haitus!

I've been writing the Congratulations from the Sexy Result Future Agency! pieces for a little over five years now, and while few things about the series, from the tone to the quality, have remained consistent, one thing has: a compact has remained in place that, each day, a new piece of writing will appear on this website, that it will use the second person future tense, and that it will be titled beginning with the word "Congratulations."  Five years is a long time, and I've been able to play with the serial format and the constrictions of the form to do some things I couldn't have done any other way.  I've received some very nice comments from some very nice strangers, and some eye-rolls from friends when I'd spend nights in to catch up on writing pieces for the next week.  It's been quiet, lonely work, but I've enjoyed it.

Lately, however, its been taking more and more effort to put out daily content, even when things are slow, even when life is easy.  The effort to keep Congratulations coming has begun to dominate the time I set aside for writing.  I've begun to feel like I'm treading water, or re-treading ground that I've covered in years past.  It's kept me from working on some substantial, less digestible pieces, and it's been feeling less and less like the creative outlet I want to invest myself in.

So I'm announcing that the Sexy Results Future Agency will be going on an indefinite hiatus starting today.  I can't say I'll never want to put out another Congratulations again.  They're fun to write, and I hope they're (at least sometimes) fun to read.  There are Congratulations yet to write, an unlimited number of asinine and profound achievements that warrant celebration or warning or, occasionally, both.

But I'm not going to write them in the immediate future.  The archive will remain here, a testament to the journey that has been Sexy Results.  Super Nerd Sundays will continue to come out every Sunday.  And any news of anything "me" related will get a nod here.  I'm hoping I'll be able to share good news about a number of burgeoning creative projects with you all in the near future and, in a little bit more time, maybe some new Congratulations pieces.

Thanks to everyone who's followed the site, purposefully or accidentally, bots included.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: The Perfect Rogue Mix in Rogue Legacy!

Respawn.  Spend.  Die.  Repeat.

Rogue Legacy is downright facile on its face.  It's a basic side-scrolling Rogue-a-like with strong platforming elements.  Nothing new there.  It has a cute little tech tree that lets you select upgrades that make runs progressively easier, literalizing the "repeat until easy" element that rogues usually keep hidden from the view of players by giving you buffers against future mistakes.  Well trod territory as well.  It has quirky pixel art that makes renderings of its oft horrifying foes cute and approachable.  Downright trendy, that.  It has a set of randomized traits that sometimes make your characters do unexpected things, like fuck other characters of the same sex, or walk on the world upside-down, or imagine monsters where no monsters exist.  Cute, and well executed, but also nothing new to Rogue-a-like audiences.

I don't mean to be derisive; all of these elements are part of what makes Rogue Legacy great, but on their own they don't necessarily make for a great game.  There's something more to Rogue Legacy, something that makes it more than the sum of its parts, something that keeps me coming back.

If I had to choose one quality that makes it exceptional, one thing that sets it aside from all of the other Rogue-a-likes out there in the overcrowded market, it's the way the intense, punishing difficulty can be adjusted on a strange, sliding scale.  See, Rogue Legacy is straight up Ghosts and Goblins hard on its own.  The sliders gradually move this difficulty farther and farther away from "insane" towards manageable, making deeper and deeper incursions into its constantly reforming dungeon possible.  There are ways to tweak this difficulty in various other quasi-lateral directions as well.  Equipment can be arranged in ways that simply boosts stats, or it can be arranged in ways that nebulously increases certain statistics at the cost of others.  If you want to equip a sword that helps you earn more gold you'll have to sacrifice your ability to do damage.  If you want to increase the amount of health you get back after each kill, you'll have to reduce the maximum amount of health you can have at any given time.  A similar economy exists within the Rune system, wherein you manage objects that give you access to abilities like flight, or simple things bonus gold or lifesteal.  Some runes directly tweak the difficulty, just making the game harder or easier, though this choice still requires a choice: the choice to sacrifice the ability to one of those other interesting things I mentioned earlier.

This leads to a system of interchangeable sliders that make the game's constantly shifting difficulty even shiftier.  That means that players who feel like Rogue Legacy is too unforgiving can make it a little more forgiving, or that players who have rolled up a particularly tough character - let's say a lich with no foot pulse and obsessive compulsive disorder who can summon hordes of crows to seek out his enemies and peck them to death - they can boost the difficulty of the game to try and get a little more gold out of their playthrough.

All this is built on a system that assumes you're going to die, frequently.  It's a system that lets you tweak your frustration level so that it's just where you want it to be.  I can't think of any other Rogue-a-like that lets you mess around with difficulty and adjust your somewhat-random character's experience in a somewhat-random dungeon to such a great extent.  Of course, it does so while keeping you at arm's length, preventing you from exercising total control over your Rogue-ing experience.  You might only have access to characters with IBS, or the character who can make a little more money might have glaucoma.  This is the meat of Rogue Legacy's gameplay, and it arrives not with the easy vanguard of snickering, simpering humor, but in a fashion that adds layer upon layer to an economy of factors split into two broad categories: those you can control and those you simply have to deal with.

Some Rogue-a-likes make themselves enticing by being especially funny or tongue in cheek - Dungeons of Dredmor, most prominently.  Some Rogue-a-likes make themselves enticing by being especially accessible or fast paced - Nuclear Throne and Risk of Rain instantly come to mind.  The first person multiplayer Rogue-like has also become a genre of late, as well as a brutal Darwinian social experiment pitting brother against brother until only one man remains standing in arenas like 7 Days to Die, Rust, and Day Z.  Some Rogue-a-likes are especially interested in building narratives, some are especially forgiving.  Rogue Legacy doesn't acquit itself especially well in any of these regards.  In fact, I'm hard pressed to point out any one exceptionally executed factor in its design that I'd usually seek out in a Rogue-a-like game, and yet I remain captivated by it.

Rogue Legacy makes its way in the world by meshing old school, punishing gameplay with a difficulty curve that adjusts masterfully to its players, not a particularly auspicious quality to advertise.  There's more to it than that, which is part of what makes it so hard to nail down.  Rogue Legacy is more than the sum of its parts.  It's something ephemeral, something difficult to nail down, something elementally constructed, unforgiving and uncompromising and simultaneously accommodating.  Readily accessible and possessed of tremendous depth.  Rogue Legacy is a collection of functional, fun contradictions that align in just the right way.

It's not a perfect game, but that adds something to it.  Uncovering odd issues and mistakes can add a great deal of depth to the already slippery gameplay of a Rogue-a-like.  It keeps things unexpected, and unexpected occurrences are the meat of what makes a Rogue-a-like great.  There's no real narrative, despite the off-beat/menacing journal entries that populate its world, which would normally be a huge knock against it for me, but there's something coursing and raw about the lack of narrative, about its conscious movement towards death, the ultimate narrative interruption, that makes its experience that much more engaging.  Any more story would distract from the important bits.  More complicated gameplay would remove some of the instantaneity of the play.  Between the sliding difficulty and the overarching metagame, grounding the action in a sense of real progress while simultaneously allowing players to fail readily, the mix seems to be just right.  Rogue Legacy has managed to combine the elements of Rogue-a-likes in just the right combination so that the sweet pattern of their play is tighter than its ever been before, and I find myself coming back to it again and again.  At its core, it's so simple.

Respawn.  Spend.  Die.  Repeat.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Congratulations Singular Second Person Pronoun!

Today you are you.  You are an object, most likely, sometimes a subject, but always a noun, constantly subject to the whims of verbs, modifying nouns, and adjectival phrases.  You may exist in a state of flux, you may exist in a state of stasis.  You may be on a beach, or sitting on the porch of a house, or smoking on a fire escape, or sipping a cup of coffee, or watching TV.  You may be doing any number of things, because as a second person pronoun, you are capable of a variety of engaging and rewarding activities.

Perhaps you will write a book today using a pen that allows small amounts of ink to escape when you apply pressure to a surface and paper specially treated to better accept the stain of ink, without permitting said ink stain to fade.  Perhaps you will listen to an album printed on a laminate plastic scorched with a laser so that the light reflected by the disk when it spins just so is interpreted as sound by a machine.  Perhaps you will be caught in a time warp and left forever shifting between potential futures and impossible pasts.  Perhaps you will eat some non-dairy ice cream in a Colonial era fort.

There is no limit to the number of things you might accomplish today, and there will continue to be no limit to the number of things you might accomplish today until the day ends, at which point the number of things you might accomplish will be set.  You, infinitely mutable within the space of today, will be relegated to a relatively conservative range of potential achievements at day's end, which will remain more or less the case until the end of time, that is to say the end of your time.  On future days, as on most days, there will be little room for possible action, not because of any particularly adverse conditions, but because of a terrible, horrendous capacity for habit that most people cling to in their daily lives, a force of existential gravity which will, for today only, be tremendously reduced.

So today, we recommend that you take advantage of habit's weakened shackles and do everything you can to explore the wealth of possibilities in your life.  Take a chance.  Wear a fun hat.  Take a pottery class.  Ask someone to sleep with you who doesn't normally sleep with you.  Or do something completely different, something we haven't thought of here, something we couldn't think of here because you aren't going to do it yet, and we can only report on things you will do in the future, not all of the things you can do in the future, of which there are so many it would be literally impossible to record all of them, even if one were to try to do so for more than half a decade.

Congratulations Singular Second Person Pronoun!