Seeing the Bones in Speedruns

During Tomatoangus’ (aka Tomatoanus) speedrun of the Fallout anthology at the recently concluded Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ) 2020, he whips out a hastily constructed sculpture made of plastic cups and cardboard, igniting a wave of laughter from the audience present in the conference hall.

(His entire run is worth watching and he’s a great explainer and narrator as well)

You see, he’s about to execute a trick that will allow him to teleport to a trigger volume in Fallout 4. This trigger volume will allow him to load the next scene and skip about 40 seconds worth of gameplay. In order to do so, he needs to go out of bounds of the level to get access to an invisible flat plane in the world way below the level boundaries. This plane is a way for the game to detect if the player has managed to glitch his way out the level and when triggered will teleport the player upwards back into the playable boundaries.

However, it’s not so simple. Between this bottom plane and the playable boundaries is ANOTHER plane with the exact same properties: when triggered it will teleport the player upwards. However he doesn’t need to just go upwards, he needs to end up in a small specific area up above, and these planes only teleport you vertically upwards, so he needs to be in the right horizontal position in order for the teleport to lead him to the right place. It’s impossible to navigate yourself to be in the right spot to be teleported correctly using the plane in between, so that plane just becomes a source of complication.

Thankfully, that plane ends beyond a certain point, so what he needs to do is:

1. Navigate out of bounds
2. Move until he goes beyond the extents of the in-between plane
3. Fall downwards past this plane
4. Move backwards so his horizontal position lines up with the load trigger 5. Hit the bottom-most plane so it teleports him upwards into the load trigger, all to save 40 seconds.

As you can see, the sculpture was probably quite handy in explaining this trick.

There’s something quite beautiful with speedrunning. Consider this trick. Consider the effort needed to discover this trick. Consider the amount of understanding and knowledge of the technical workings of the game and its engine needed to even come to discover this trick.

Videogames are complicated beasts. They are technically sophisticated pieces of software that demand everything of the platform it runs on. Consequently, people who play games often fail to understand their technical underpinnings and the process of making them, certainly not to the extent that they understand how films and music work. The production processes for films or music are part of the popular consciousness, used as marketing even.

In his review of Fallout 76, popular YouTuber Joseph Anderson criticized a bug in Fallout 76, and wondered why it wasn’t fixed yet as in his estimate, it would take at most a few hours to fix in a patch. Anderson’s reviews are otherwise nuanced, fair and very well done, but this comment of his is emblematic of the problems arising from ignorance of the game development process. Suffice to say, fixing even the simplest bug in a large-scale AAA game, especially one with a multiplayer component like Fallout 76, is not trivial. The time needed for building patches for multiple platforms, internal QA, QA by platform holders, distribution in multiple regions on multiple platforms, etc. is not considered by Anderson.

In individuals far less mature than Anderson, this ignorance frequently devolves into toxicity and entitlement.

Great speedruns let us see behind the curtain. We see the bones of the games we play. We come to understand how they work a little bit better. In the nascent years of speedrunning, this understanding was coupled with the aforementioned toxicity, leading to beliefs in the ‘laziness’ of game developers for even allowing the existence of the bugs that allow speedrunners to do what they do best, despite how esoteric and rare they are. However, with events like AGDQ, speedrunning has evolved and matured, and these glimpses of the spines of games has led to an appreciation for them and the technical wizardry and effort needed for them to exist. We see the bones, and we love them.

Shooting the Baby

So there was a new Call of Duty game. I hope that was not a surprise. They crank them out like Funko Pops, and when you crank something out like Funko Pops, you probably need some means of making your latest Funko Pop stand out from all the other Funko Pops, otherwise it’ll just blend into the walls of other Funko Pops perched precariously on top of each other at your local comic store. One way of doing this is to make your Funko Pop really really controversial. You know, for the clickbait headlines. Maybe your Funko Pop is Hitler, or it has its dangly bits dangling out or something.

Anyway, the latest Call of Duty game has a bit in there in which you can shoot a baby.

Oh boy.

(Or girl. It could be either.)

So here’s the scene. You’re making your way through a suburban house in the dead of night, silently clearing room after room of bad dudes. In one room there is a woman. She goes to grab her baby, to comfort them. You can, if you so choose, aim at the baby and shoot them.

You might say, well this is fine. It’s a shooting game. Obviously, you would be able to aim your penis firearm and shoot it.

Well yeah, except Call of Duty isn’t just a shooting game. It’s also a rollercoaster. Its twists and turns are fixed and you’re just here for the ride. So, for instance, you can’t shoot your friends. You can aim at them, but the game will not let you fire. No matter how hard you click your mouse button, your character will not pull the trigger. After all, who would want to kill our good boi Captain Price?

All of which is to say, we could call the baby our friend and we would not be able to shoot it, right?

Well, no, because this game wants to *say things*, so the developers expended extra effort to let you kill the baby so they could say a thing. If you kill the baby, you are given a game over. Bad player. Baby-killing bad.

But Call of Duty KNOWS you. You’re playing a Call of Duty game. You are a GamerBro™. You’re going to shoot the baby. You’re going to do it repeatedly. So, if you do exactly that, the game gives you a *different* Game Over. The screen asks you, ‘are you serious?’, and boots you to the main menu.

Ostensibly, this is a way for the game to say, you’re not just a bad boy, you’re a very very bad boy. It’s an extra special punishment for an extra special level of malice.

But, of course, that’s not how you see it though. You’ve seen the news articles on it. You went ahead and decided to shoot the baby repeatedly because you *wanted* the special game over, because the developers made a mistake. A punishment is only a punishment if the player chooses to see it that way. If they don’t, then your special punishment becomes a special reward, because it’s *different*. If it’s not a punishment, then a thing that is different by default becomes a reward. Human beings like seeing new things, and if the new thing does not hurt us (or if we choose to not let it hurt us), then the new thing is a good thing.

In Call of Duty, shooting the baby becomes a good thing.

Jojo Rabbit’s Cardinal Sin (and why it’s a good thing)

[Spoilers for Jojo Rabbit]

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit does the one thing you shouldn’t do when depicting Nazis: make them sympathetic. On the surface this might seem like a deplorable artistic choice – the idea that a Nazi, the universal villain, is somehow worthy of understanding and sympathy. What Jojo Rabbit does though, is the precarious balancing act of delineating between the ideology and the individual.

In Jojo Rabbit, as in real life, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Nazi ideology is heinous and morally grotesque. This statement alone is uncontroversial, but Jojo Rabbit shows us this by perceiving this ideology through the eyes of a child. The figurative vilification and demonization of Jews is taken at face value by our protagonist Jojo, and he believes Jews to be literal monsters. Like the antisemitism of the Nazis, Jojo’s perception of Jews is both absurd and self-contradictory. Similarly, like the actual Hitler, Jojo’s Hitler is a farcical daddy figure for a fragile consciousness.

Yet Jojo, like many of the characters in the film, is not undeserving of sympathy and understanding despite their identification with and adherence to the Nazi regime. Jojo is a child – his naivety is a given and to be excused. His mother is a lone individual – her means of rebellion have to be personal and private. Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf is a disgraced soldier, longing for the glory of battle. He is unconcerned with the underlying ideology of the Nazis, evidenced by his small acts of disobedience helping Jojo evade arrest and capture. For him, the Nazis are a means to glory. This does not reduce his culpability for the crimes of the regime (he is implied to be shot as the allies roll into town), but this understanding of his underlying motivations is paramount to our understanding of the allure of fascism.

The tragedy in Jojo Rabbit is not just the death of Jojo’s mother, but the implied death of Captain Klenzendorf. Given the circumstances, there is no denying he deserves some form of justice, but the film asks: sure, his actions embody evil, but did his heart? Were he born American, would he not have joined the army, seeking to liberate Germany, and thus be branded a hero and given the glory he so desired? Under the Nazis, he became both victim and victimizer. His sin was not malice. His sin was a lack of courage, a failure to rebel.

Jojo Rabbit assumes the evil of fascism to be self-evident. Instead, it wishes to consciously interrogate it and how people can be swept up by it, whether in Klenzendorf’s desire for glory or Jojo’s desire for a father figure. It follows in the tradition of Mel Brooks’ films and cleverly avoids the mistake of making its satire serious, which frequently results in the satire being taken at face value by the targets of satire. In Jojo Rabbit, humour reveals tragedy, it reveals truth.

The Real Monster in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki

[Spoilers for Junji Ito’s Uzumaki]

Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, on first encounter, seems like a body horror manga. It tells the story of a town seemingly cursed by the geometric form of a spiral. Inhabitants become obsessed with the shape to the point of insanity. As chapter unfolds after chapter, they find their bodies twisted and distorted into horrifying spiral shapes or spiral-derived forms. Uzumaki bewitches you. Your desire, or lack thereof, to flip the page is entirely in Ito’s control. On one hand, you are transfixed. What the fuck is going on!? What curse has befouled this town and its denizens? But on the other hand, your crawling skin says stop, you cannot bear to see the horrifying misfortunes wrought upon the characters. You are pulled between twin instincts.  Pulled until your form is twisted. Pulled until you are elongated. Pulled into a spiral.

Unlike other works of body horror, this bodily dysmorphia is not utilized to express the alienness of organic forms. Its obsession is with a shape, and what the shape can mean. It is at one level psychological. The shape itself focuses. It twists and turns into a point of focus, at once terminating at its center but continuing infinitely inwards. Its shape is itself mesmerizing.

As Uzumaki draws to its conclusion, we learn that this cursed town is built on top of a subterranean city, built of ancient spiral structures. Spirals into spirals into spirals. A dizzying infinite fractal that refuses to allow the viewer a sense of balance and control.

This geometric form has existed before you. It has existed as long as the universe. It exists because the universe does – a consequence of the rules of the cosmos. It twists you, distorts you, stretches you, not out of malice. It simply does not care for you. It mesmerizes you because you were built to be mesmerized by it. You are beholden to it.

Uzumaki isn’t really a body horror. Body horror is the symptom. Its disease is something deeper. Its roots extend deep down below. Uzumaki is a cosmic horror. The obsession with and mesmerism of mathematical forms are inevitable to being alive in this universe. To be human is to wonder about the universe, no matter how deep the terror goes. In Uzumaki, as in this universe, you are not free.

Press G to Wipe Mask

There is a bandwidth asymmetry inherent to videogames. Millions of bytes of image data are streamed to our retinas every one sixtieth of a second and in return, our input devices send back, at best, several kilobytes of user input.

This asymmetry often leads to laughable juxtapositions.

Press X to Jason.

Press F to Pay Respects.

Or in the Metro series, you press G to Wipe Mask.

There is a moment early in Metro: Last Light, where Artyom, our protagonist, emerges from the dark abyss of the Metro into the light of post-nuclear Moscow. Rife with urban decay as muddy soil overtakes solid concrete, portions of the ground more closely resemble marshlands than Moscow streets.

Trudging into the mud elicits a bubbly splash. The effects span beyond just sound and particle effects though. The mud and grime fly through the air from Artyom’s footsteps, some of it landing straight onto his gas mask. Streaks of brown and green goop cover the player’s screen, like an old photo frame with mould growing on it.

Then the prompt appears. Press G to Wipe Mask, so you press G.

Artyom extends his gloved hand to his mask and quickly wipes it from right to left, cleaning away the grime. The dirt does not simply fade away or vanish immediately. You see it streak away, trails of stained water left behind, shrinking into minuscule droplets from the capillary effect.

You press G again. Artyom wipes his mask again. The remnants streak again and form back into water droplets again. His hand isn’t exactly dry. Your gas mask is not going to be squeaky clean for a while.

You are here. In this wasteland. You can see it stretch beyond. You can feel the dampness on your hand from wiping your mask. You can see the specks of dirt, the cracks in your mask, the moisture from your laboured breathing. You are here. This is no videogame.

First Person Shooters have tried various ways to make you feel like more than a floating camera. Sometimes you’re a full-bodied avatar, complete with head bob. Sometimes the HUD is diegetic, information displayed in the world or on your weapons.

The Metro series does all that and goes one further: it makes you feel dirty.

Mr Robot: The Machine that Whiterose built

Mr Robot’s episodes are peppered with Chekov’s guns. An insert shot of a Signal message. A spoken line cut off mid-word. You can practically hear the metaphorical rounds loaded into the metaphorical rifle. It means something right? It has to. Sam Esmail is no J.J. Abrams right? The secret box isn’t empty.

And the guns do fire. One by one. All is explained. Phase 2. Bang. Lucky Irish Bastard. Bang. The Other One. Bang.

Except for Whiterose’s machine. It is turned on but never allowed to boot. We all want to know: does it fucking work!?

But Mr Robot doesn’t tell. The credits roll as if to say, who gives a shit?

Indeed, who gives a shit? The machine is a symbol. An idea. It says to us, reality doesn’t matter if you can manifest a better one. Does it matter if an entire town is wiped out by radioactive fallout? Does it matter that the salves working in the coltan mines in the Congo now slave under the thumb of Whiterose? Does any of it matter if you can reshape reality as you see fit?

It doesn’t matter that only Whiterose decides what perfect. You have no vote, you have no voice. This oligarch will decide for humanity what’s best because she knows better of course, and she will get what she wants even if a few bullets need to be united with some heads.

Do you get it? Whiterose is Elon Musk. The machine is his ambition.

He will bust your unions, overwork you to your bones, destroy your reputation, all to get what he wants. He’s trying to save humanity, don’t you see? Sure, his method of saving humanity involves hurting actual human beings but you know, something about cracking eggs and omelettes. And in his Mars colony, who decides what’s perfect? Spoiler alert it ain’t you.

Billionaires will not save us. They will save themselves. Who gives a shit if Whiterose’s machine works? The machine is evil. It is rotten to the core. It is too big to NOT fail.

Disco Elysium

“There is a specter haunting Europe: the specter of communism.”

Disco Elysium embodies these words, but probably for the opposite reasons Marx and Engels wrote them. They ushered in the rise of communism with these words, but Disco Elysium speaks of its fall.

In Revachol, communism is a *thing* that happened, but in the fog of the past. History does not happen in Disco Elysium. History *has* happened, and we are left with its footprints. Ideas like capitalism, communism, nationalism, they rise and fall like tides, and our protagonist, much like any other individual, is powerless to change it. We are left to live in its aftermaths and its precariousness, with nought but uncertainty in the future.

Events of a distant past leaving us ashes in the present with little vision of the future? Disco Elysium is basically about being a millennial.

Though we are left with but a powerlessness, Disco Elysium wishes to remind us: fuck, being alive is great isn’t it? The bullet pockmarks left by firing squads, the accented voice echoing from the rafters. It sends shivers down the spine does it not? We’re standing in the desiccated whale bones of history and good god does it fucking stink but that’s how you know it’s REAL, all of it! Better to be the one studying the corpse than to be the corpse.

So breathe in that stale Martinaise air. Live in that moment, whether you’re interrogating a white supremacist or kicking a mail box or punching a smug child, live it.

We’re alive goddamnit! That counts for something.

Sayonara Wild Hearts

Rhythm games can broadly be broken into two camps. There is the Guitar Heroes and DDRs, which are very much about rhythm and anticipation of beats. Then there is the Rezs’ and Audiosurfs, which are more about manifesting flow and a zen-like state.

Sayonara Wild Hearts is both. It phases between Audiosurf-like ‘driving’ sections and hit-the-button-on-the-beat QTEs, but it phases between them sensibly. The game understands musical structure and composition. The drop in a dubstep track rarely manifests a flow-like state. Instead its rhythm is front and center. Sayonara Wild Hearts’ duality of systems reflects this understanding.

But Sayonara Wild Hearts does not stop at just theory. There’s a story. Our protagonist traverses these wondrous worlds, implied to be of her own imagining, fighting off fantastical antagonists, because music is rarely experienced as just an intellectual pursuit.

Music manifests emotions, and our brain wants to understand the emotions, wants to understand us. Thus, it manifests a narrative in our minds, putting pictures to melody, conjuring worlds and characters like our unnamed protagonist does. If a song makes us feel like we can conquer the world, then in our mind’s eye we are doing just that.

Sometimes Sayonara Wild Hearts wants you to feel that kick drum. Sometimes it wants you to feel that chord, but really, it wants you to look in between. That liminal interval, between kick drum and snare, when the synth chord rises through the sidechain compression, you’ll find YOU.