When a game is also a game engine

So Warcraft III Reforged just released, and Blizzards fans are kinda angry. Partly because the visual improvements aren’t as great as they were hyped up to be, but more interestingly, the remaster’s licensing agreement indicates that all custom user-created maps become the intellectual property of Blizzard.

This policy was in all likelihood inspired by the surprising success of DOTA, which started off as a custom map in the original Warcraft III. By implementing such a policy, Blizzard guarantees that should any cool ideas come out of the game’s community, they would be only ones with the ability to fully commercial exploit said idea.

When is a game not just a game? When is a game also a game engine? Mods have always occupied a strange grey area in terms of copyrights and IP ownership, yet it can be argued that this ambiguity is what allows interesting mods like DOTA or Counter-Strike to percolate to the top and emerge as full games in their own right. Blizzard’s policy draws a line in the sand, giving legal clarity where there once was not, but at the same time the legal territory they have drawn for themselves extends far and wide.

A simple compromise would be similar to what Valve allows for Source Engine games. Allow distribution of mods non-commercially, but require a licensing agreement for commercial distribution. In such a scenario, ownership of mods remain with the creator, and they have the ability to choose the best way forward for their project. Under Blizzard’s policy, your cool custom map can be yanked away from you without your consent.

How many map creators would see this policy and hesitate? How many cool map ideas would never be made? The original Warcraft III was an amazing bastion for this sort of thing. Warcraft III custom maps ran the gamut from party games to multiplayer RPGs to tower defense games to game adaptations of films to third person shooters. The remaster will have none of this.

Work and the Zero

[Some spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero]

Through an unfortunate series of events, Kentucky Route Zero’s Conway finds himself in debt to a mysterious distillery in the Zero, staffed entirely by strange glowing skeletons. With no way to pay, the distillery hounds him into working for them.

His traveling partner Shannon Marquez suggests that he could always just run from them. Run, far away from the curious spatial anomalies of the Zero, but Conway doesn’t want to. When they are granted the opportunity to rest and relax at the Rum Colony, a beach-side bar in the Zero with a literally infinite menu of Rum cocktails, Conway explains his reasoning.

He is getting old. His body is starting to fail. His boss, Lysette, may be going senile and is shutting down her shop. Small businesses throughout the Zero are slowly closing or being subsumed by the shadowy Consolidated Power Co.

He’s watching the decay of the world, and he, like everyone else, is powerless to stop it. How do you live in a world dying around you? How do you soldier on? How do you motivate yourself to keep living, to not want to drown yourself in rum cocktails? For Conway, the debt with the distillery is a blessing in disguise. If he just held a job, if he just worked, greased the cogs of the machine, then all will be well. Whether the world decays or lives, he could live with himself, that he did something dignified with his time.

Embedded in Conway’s story, in the nether shadows of the Zero, is this message: there is a hidden irony in late-stage capitalism. It swallows the world, and rots it from the inside, then offers us the appearance of an antidote, a salve for our anger and nihilism: work.

The Smallness of Florence

One of the texts for our interactive storytelling class is this, an interactive music video for Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman. As the music plays, a series of comic book style panels scroll past the screen. You are invited to click the panels, causing them to alternate between alternative narratives, where the two characters are either alone, happily together, or together but resentful. Later in the video, you are also given the ability to choose between additional layers of instrumentation that add to Buckley’s singing and strumming.

For a variety of reasons, this work reminded me a great deal of Mountains’ Florence. Like the music video, Florence focuses on a relationship and its ups and downs. Like the music video, the user/player is invited to interact, and explore how the tiny things in relationships can mean so much more.

Florence, like the music video, does not ask much of the user. While Florence is more game-like than the music video, with more defined rules underlying the interactions between game and player, the rules are still simple and easily comprehended. The simple gameplay requires little to no skill and only a mild level of mental engagement from the player.

It’s the perfect sort of game to play on your phone, so it makes sense that Android and iOS are the platforms it was released on. In an abstract sense, Florence is an ‘idle’ game. It’s the perfect thing to play on your commute or when waiting for a friend, when the time you have to play is short or uncertain and the changing environments around you preclude the sort of intense mental engagement more ‘hardcore’ games require.

Yet unlike a lot of the games that are usually referred to as idle games, Florence does not exist to waste your time or compel you to spend money with micro-transactions. Florence fills its moments with an emotional and thematic richness those sort of games frequently lack, and it does so without requiring the same level of player concentration and effort that all-encompassing experiences like Dear Esther or What Remains of Edith Finch do.

It’s tempting to think that to make a game that is emotional resonant or thematically rich or artful in some way you must make a game that is bold and enthralling and attention-grabbing, but Florence and the interactive music video show us another possibility: you can make a thing that is small and humble, and asks only for a small sliver of time and focus from the audience, and still deliver something beautiful. Games like Florence, small but resonant, are uncommon. I can’t think of many others like it. Gorogoa, Device 6, Donut County, to name a few. More of this sort of thing would be cool.

Contagion and Information

David Fincher has always been known as a director who is interested in *information*. Panic Room’s introductory one take shot, where the camera flies through the house so your awareness of the space, and how elements in the space relate to each other is a classical example of this. Another director who shares this fascination with information is Steven Soderbergh, though he’s less known for this. Ocean 8 and its sequels constantly hint at their inevitable twists, ever so slyly suggesting the possibility of being able to predict the twist, but of course you can’t. 

Contagion, on the other hand, hides nothing. Released in 2011, Contagion depicts the outbreak of a global epidemic and the breakdown of social order as panic, fear and death set in. The film, stylistically, feels almost minimalist. All information known to its characters is known to you, and the information is presented concretely without embellishment. It’s incredible how documentary-like the entire film is. Nothing about the film feels excessively embellished or unrealistic. Soderbergh has complete faith that you will find its subject matter, a global epidemic and the resulting social decay, inherently interesting. 

And it is. This is not a character drama, per se. There are characters and they are vividly portrayed with their own fears and anxieties, but there is no real protagonist and the film frequently shows them to us with a detached eye. The central focus is not the characters. They are, like the symptoms of a disease, indicators of the failing organs of societal infrastructure. The characters, and their manifold positions throughout the world and society, allows us a comprehensive systemic understanding of how the epidemic erodes order. 

That’s what makes Contagion incredibly fascinating. It’s a film that’s not about individuals or personal narratives. It’s a film about systems. It’s a film about infrastructures. It’s a linear medium depicting non-linear dynamics and mechanisms. 

(Wait that’s supposed to be what videogames are good at!)

Essay Proposal: Disco Elysium

Here’s my proposal for my research essay for my interactive storytelling class, on Disco Elysium:

Research Question:

Disco Elysium is a roleplaying game about an alcoholic amnesiac detective who’s tasked with solving a grisly murder amidst an ongoing labour dispute at the local docks, all while trying to recover his forgotten identity (or construct a new one). Upon release, the game was immediately lauded for its nuanced deep-dive into politics and its intricate skill system and how said system tied into the game’s dialogue and character development.

For the essay, I am interested in analyzing the game’s character creation, skill and dialogue systems in order to understand how they allow the player to create a rich and intricate player character with a comprehensive character identity that encompasses personal history, personality and political ideology.

Discussion of Primary Source:

The primary text will be the videogame Disco Elysium, released in 2019 by Estonian studio ZA/UM. The game was met with critical acclaim upon release and was placed on many ‘Best Games of the Decade’ lists by critics. Disco Elysium’s character system is mechanically defined by three main systems: the skill system, dialogue system and the thought cabinet. The skill system directly affects the dialogue system, allowing for incredibly dynamic conversations. The thought cabinet allows for character identity to be defined along defined lines like ‘communist’ or ‘nationalist’ or ‘homosexual’, allowing for richer player characters as well as exploring the tension between player freedom and moral perspectives on certain ideologies.

Expected Findings and Contributions

In Disco Elysium, conversations are not just the words that are spoken between interlocutors. Conversations are constructed out of social rules, and the ability to break or bend them provides a means by which character identity is revealed. Furthermore, every conversation in Disco Elysium is rich with internal commentary provided by the player character’s mind. The internal commentary provides rich and varied interpretations of conversations that reveal the player character’s opinions and perspectives on the world around him.

Disco Elysium’s thought cabinet does not exist in a vacuum. It’s deeply linked to the conversation system. The thoughts that can occur to the player character are spawned and prompted by conversations. If the thought cabinet is a codification of the character’s identity, then the conversations are expressions of that, and it is through consistent expression of perspectives or ideas that prompt these thoughts that come to form identity.

Through player-driven conversations and cognition, Disco Elysium shows us expression forms identity.

A Worm Through the Mind

“You are a worm through time. The thunder song distort you. Happiness comes. White pearls, but yellow and red in the eye…”

As the hiss burrow through and infect the very walls of the Federal Bureau of Control in the videogame Control, they chant a very curious incantation. The words go on and on, seemingly never ending. It’s decidedly unsettling. Between the brutalist walls and the floating corpses, the one voice alive is unhuman.

One of the outstanding features of weird fiction, is that it is often insufficient for a world to be just weird, it too must feel weird. Jeff VanderMeer, foremost practitioner of this subgenre, added a similar incantation to his novel Annihilation. As our protagonist descends the claustrophobic tower buried deep in the ground, words formed of leaves and vines emerge from the walls.

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came forth from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness….”

The words run on. A single sentence with no end. Like the incantation in Control, it unsettles. It hypnotizes. They have their own particular rhythms – a vertigo-inducing continuity in Annihilation’s, a stop-and-start chant in Control’s.

They have their own symbols, both with a multitude that disorients and confuses. To the writer, they likely have some significant meaning, but to the reader/player it becomes a whole – a gestalt that conveys a singular feeling. You are hypnotized into a trance, so that this feeling can burrow into you, so that you will never feel comfortable in the skin of this world.

This can be only achieved with a masterful control of prose, both as it is read and as it is spoken (and heard). It is not only an understanding of structure, of the length of sentences and the arrangement of noun, verb, and adjective. It requires an understanding of particular symbols, not in isolation, but in relation and in juxtaposition and the moods and images they evoke.

It requires an understanding of the nature of the medium itself. Control and Annihilation understand that a particular artistic medium is not merely a means of delivery. The medium is perception. The medium is mood. The medium is the delivery vehicle, but the vehicle can be oh so beautiful.

The City in The City and The City

There’s something Borges-esque about China Mieville’s The City and They City. It’s a book about cities, but a dreamlike visage of them. The titular cities are Beszel and Ul Qoma, but they are not cities as we know them. What defines a city? What delineates it from the rest of civilisation? What defines its culture and spirit? Through Beszel and Ul Qoma, these questions are interrogated.

In Mieville’s world, these cities occupy the same geographical spaces, but as jurisdictions, as cultures, as societies, they are cleaved in two. Some spaces belong entirely to Ul Qoma, some entirely to Beszel, but some spaces are shared, and citizens and visitors alike are duty-bound to only acknowledge the presence of people and buildings in the city they are in. Those that belong to the other city are to be *unseen*. They can be perceived by the eye the way you can perceive these words, but in the mind they must be forgotten, erased, unacknowledged and ignored. Failure to do so is a ‘Breach’, an offense punishable by a shadowy organization, also called Breach. An offender is plucked from their existence and vanished.

As Beszel detective Tyador Borlu investigates a grisly murder, he begins to see how tenuous the separation of the two cities are. The differences in culture, class, fashion, history – these separations are constructs of the mind. They are edifices we put up so that we can be certain – of ourselves, our nationhood, our culture. We unsee those whose clothes are different, whose architecture is different, whose walking gait is different. They are not us.

Through The City and The City, we understand that the city as a whole *does not exist*. A city is but a smorgasbord of societal segments all blended together, yet separated. All cities are multiple cities, divided into our factions and communities despite one another, against one another. Ul Qomans unsee Beszel the way the rich unsee the homeless along the street. Beszelians unsee Ul Qoma the way the Chinese unsee the Indians. We are all guilty of unseeing, of fitting the city to an ideal we want it to be, rather than what it is.

Sex Education

The Netflix show Sex Education is actually a great source of sex education.

Who knew?

Seriously though, some of its scene and plot beats seem almost purposefully constructed for the sole purpose of delivering useful and affirming information about sex, romance and intimacy. One character learns about pansexuality and reads a dictionary definition of it from her phone. Another learns about asexuality from a therapist. In one scene a group of young women share with each other their prior experiences of having been sexually harassed or assaulted.

If poorly executed, as it does in many actual sex education programs and materials, this sort of information delivery may come off forced, arbitrary and incredibly cringe-worthy, but Sex Education absolutely sells it. These moment of exposition are delivered with sincerity and subtlety, but it is not just the masterful control of tone and pacing that sells these moments, but the contextualization of this information within the stories of characters we follow throughout the series. They feel vivid and honest. Happiness is not earned without adversity. Mistakes are made and consequences felt.

Sex Education understands that sexuality and romance do not exist in a bubble. They are lived and experienced as part of our struggles with society and the dynamics of relationships with others, and the show shows this. In the sexual assault subplot, where a stranger masturbates onto Aimee Gibbs’ jeans, we aren’t simply shown the proper means of reporting to the police, but we are shown the full spectrum of experiences Aimee experiences, from the initial feelings of denial to the pervasive post-assault trauma to the relationship difficulties.

Sex Education does not patronize or condescend. It talks about sex and romance sincerely and honestly. It refuses to treat teenagers as stupid, but as rich lived individuals in their own right. It educates them through empathizing with them.

Subjectivity and The Garden of Forking Paths

[Spoilers for The Garden of Forking Paths]

Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths ends in a tragedy. The death of Stephen Albert seems at once fated, yet coincidental. His death was due to an unfortunate coincidence in names, yet it seemed that fate brought the killer to him. Our protagonist Yu Tsun’s arrival was expected and anticipated. The garden they spoke of was a creation of his ancestor. These are not the hallmarks of coincidence.

A surface reading might suggest that this is an arbitrary framing device for the real subject of interest: the concepts underlying the Garden of Forking Paths. The story, however, is constructed with purpose. It traces lines through the philosophies of fate and luck, through the history of wars and cities, through the lives and deaths of figures real and imagined, interpreting them through the lens of the titular garden. If our universe is the garden, then fate and luck are but illusions – interpretations of the consequences of the forks in the path that we have witnessed. Albert had to die. Albert did not have to die. War was avoidable. War was unavoidable. There is no contradiction. There are many paths, but we can bear witness only to one.

For Ts’ui Pen, the garden is non-Newtonian. It rejects determinism and the ever-fixed causality of the Principia Mathematica. It embodies and foreshadows the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that would be conceived years after Borges’ authoring of this story.

Despite the implications of the garden, Borges’ story remains a singular narrative. This may seem to be a constraint of its medium, but it is really a constraint of human consciousness. We are not capable of simultaneity or omniscience. This remains true even for interactive narratives. The interaction merely implies choice. It does not mean all narratives are simultaneously canonical to the reader or simultaneously experienced by the reader. In a moment of meditativeness, Yu Tsun almost feels the presence of the ‘multiverse’, the many forms of himself and Albert in conversations veering off in different directions. However, he is pulled back into his own world by the shadow of Captain Madden. Our own identities, fears and motivations, veil us from the many forks in the garden.

Miegakure is the Japanese garden design philosophy where no single location reveals the entire garden. The Garden of Forking Paths is non-Newtonian, but it is also Miegakure.

This is the inherent contradiction of interactive narratives. They set out to construct multiple trajectories of a fictional future, each trajectory revealing new truths and ideas, but we are frequently only capable of witnessing one path through the narrative. Are multiple ‘play-throughs’ a requisite for an interactive narrative to have a truly complete dialogue with the audience? Will all play-throughs be read as equally valid?

In late 2019, I finished the last episode in the episodic narrative adventure game Life Is Strange 2. The game features multiple endings dependent on choices you make throughout the game’s episodes. Upon concluding my play-through, I quickly went onto YouTube to search for videos depicting the other endings that I did not get.

While watching these endings do help somewhat in fleshing out the game’s themes and ideas, they do not have the same emotional impact on me. I am watching these endings play out in isolation. I did not make the choices that led to them. I did not experience the journeys of these parallel worlds. Even if I played the game again, the subsequent play-through would not have the same importance and subjective canonicity as my first play-through.  I experienced one journey that I can call my own. There are others like it, but this one is mine.

Does this not hinder the ability of the interactive narrative to fully deliver its themes and messages? Is the expectation of multiple play-throughs or continued engagement with the text perhaps unreasonable in an age of over-saturation in media? How can the branches in the narrative be given appropriate weight and importance if readers will all form their own subjective canon? These are pertinent questions, and the answers not simple or obvious.

The Magic Trick in Deus Ex

I’ve been obsessively watching old clips of the TV talent show Penn and Teller’s Fool Us recently. The show’s premise is this: magicians come onto the show and perform a routine in front of Penn and Teller along with a live audience. At the end of their routine, Penn and Teller discuss amongst themselves and then provide feedback on the magician’s routine as well as their guess as to how the trick in their routine worked. If their answer is wrong, then the magician has successfully fooled Penn and Teller, and they win a trophy along with an opportunity to perform as Penn and Teller’s opening act at their Las Vegas show.

Magic routines are already interesting. There is a veneer of a dialogue between the magician and the audience, but often that veneer is arbitrary and superficially constructed because fundamentally, the routine is a power dynamic. The audience approaches the routine either with open-mindedness or skepticism, and either way the magician attempts to fool them, to create the appearance of being mentally ‘ahead’ of the audience. Penn and Teller’s Fool Us formalizes this dynamic, and turns it into a game. There is an explicit winner and loser.

Penn and Teller, however, frequently do not wish to win. There have been many magicians whose routines have been thoroughly impressive but have been unable to fool the duo. Upon the revelation that yes, Penn and Teller’s guess as to the mechanisms of the trick are spot on, the duo’s response is of disappointment, not at the magician, but at themselves and the rules of the game. They want to be fooled. They want to be the ‘dumb’ one.

Anyway there’s a scene early in Deus Ex.

The player character, J.C. Denton has successfully apprehended Juan Lebedev, the leader of the NSF, a radical terrorist group. His partner on this mission, Agent Navarre issues Denton, and the player, an order: kill Lebedev.

Denton hesitates. This goes against the basic principle of justice and the primary objective of the mission. Lebedev has been arrested and is fully willing to come in peacefully. Agent Navarre insists: kill Lebedev, or she will do it herself.

On the surface, the situation seems simple enough. This is a Hobson’s choice. Lebedev is not leaving the location alive. But Deus Ex is not like any other game. Deus Ex is an Immersive Sim.

There is another thing you can do here. It is not telegraphed or communicated in anyway. Nothing in the game so far has even vaguely suggested that this is a possibility, but you could do it, if you chose to. If you decided to just play around and test the game and its limit. You can try this: take out your gun, aim it, and kill Agent Navarre.

Discovering this possibility blew my mind. There are choices, perfectly valid ones recognized by the developers, that are not indicated to you. You think you know the game, you think you know its tricks, but the game is smarter than that. Playing Deus Ex was like a dialogue with its designers, and they were ahead of me. Like Penn and Teller, I was fooled.

There are certain narratives about what games are and what they allow the player to experience. They are power fantasies, fostering a sense of empowerment. They are role playing experiences, allowing players to live alternative lives. They are puzzle boxes, waiting to be understood.

Deus Ex is a magic trick. It fools you. If we think of our games as magic tricks, what games could we make? How can we surprise the player? How can we fool them?