On Doom Eternal

Doom Eternal is really good. You should play it you like shooters.

It’s not without its flaws though. They tried to alter the main gameplay loop in this one. In Doom 2016 players, myself included, often stuck to the same gun (usually the super shotgun) and in Eternal they clearly want you to switch weapons more often. There’s 2 ways they do this. First is that enemies have weaknesses, e.g the Cacodemon staggers instantly if you shoot a grenade from the shotgun into its mouth. This is great. It incentivizes changing weapons and rewards you for doing so.

The second is that your max ammo is pitifully low, and so are the ammo pickups in the world. Your chainsaw, which rewards ammo when used to kill an enemy, has now 1 rechargeable fuel charge, so you’re supposed to use it more often as part of your strategies, as opposed to 2016 where its more of an ’emergency’ weapon.

This is not so great. 1 fuel charge can only kill the smallest of enemies, so when you run out of ammo you’re often scrambling around the level looking for an appropriate enemy to chainsaw. This doesn’t feel great cos’ its a disincentive. It feels like the game has an arbitrary ammo restriction, and you’re being unfairly punished for not learning to deal with it.

IF you switch weapons more often though, you won’t have to chainsaw as often, which alleviates it somewhat. The earlier you figure this out, the faster the game gets back to being fun. It does take a bit of getting used to, but once you do, the familiar flow that 2016 had returns.
There are other minor flaws here and there, but this is the main one that annoyed me. Again, it’s just a matter of getting used to it. Still a good game though.

Secret Hitler

Secret Hitler is a hidden role multiplayer card/board game which attempts to simulate the complex political dynamics that can facilitate the rise of fascism. Players are randomly and secretly assigned one of three roles: a liberal, a fascist or Hitler. Only one player is Hitler for each game. The fascist’s aim is to either enact a certain number of fascist laws, or to elect Hitler to power. Liberals must either enact a certain number of liberal laws, or to successfully execute Hitler. Liberals do not know who the other liberals are. Fascists know who the other Fascists are and know who Hitler is. Depending on the number of players, Hitler may also know who the fascists are.

Each round an election occurs where one player runs for president with another player chosen as chancellor. If successfully elected, laws are enacted through decisions made by the president and chancellor. If six liberal laws are enacted, the liberals win. If six fascist laws are enacted, the fascists win. If Hitler is executed through a presidential power, the liberals win. If Hitler is elected after three fascist laws are enacted, the fascists win.

Secret Hitler, like most games, is composed of a variety of rules and systems. However, the rules and systems of Secret Hitler introduce only a limited number of constraints. Its defining feature is information asymmetry. Who has what information is decided by the assigned roles, but how information is communicated and transmitted between players is not limited or constrained by the rules. Players are free to speak truthfully, to lie, or to say nothing at all. The win and lose states act as incentives that guide their play but do not impose any strategy or play style.

Consequently, Secret Hitler is a highly emergent game. The events that occur in the game and the progress made towards specific goals are highly contingent on the actions of players. Informal alliances and rivalries can occur spontaneously. This balance, between the guiding hand of the game’s rules and the dynamic emergent phenomena, makes Secret Hitler particularly effective at exploring how the systems of democracy can be vulnerable to subversion by fascists. Democratic systems of governance ostensibly consist of a framework of rules that are designed to be anti-fragile and self-preserving, but they are systems that humans work with, and humans are capable of a great deal of unpredictability. The unpredictability encoded in Secret Hitler’s rules are minimal. The unpredictability comes from human beings. So too does the chaos that can emerge in politics.

In 1972, German writer Heinrich Böll coined the term ‘crypto-fascism’. A crypto-fascist is an individual who supports fascism, but does so secretly, often because overt support of it is an easy way to attract unwanted scrutiny. This principle remains relevant today. In Contrapoints’ video essay, ‘Decrypting the Alt-Right’*, she outlined four strategies contemporary extremists use to conceal the extent of their right-wing leanings. One such strategy used is the use of euphemism. For instance, contemporary white supremacists like Richard Spencer often use terms like ‘ethno-nationalist’ or ‘identitarian’ to avoid ‘dirty’ terms like ‘fascist’ or ‘Nazi’.

This necessity for secrecy and concealment of identity is embedded in Secret Hitler’s rules. The roles assigned to players are left unknown. Only fascists know who other fascists are. In contemporary reality, this secret revealing of fascist identity comes in the form of oblique references to Pepe the Frog or the ‘Okay’ hand gesture**. The oblique gesture du jour changes frequently, ensuring that liberals, like the liberals in Secret Hitler, are not privy to the true identities of fascists. The paranoia endemic to the rise of fascism is mirrored in the game. You cannot be certain of who is a fascist, in both the game and reality.

Secret Hitler explores the dynamics of how fascism rises, but it can be argued that the game does not extend into condemning fascism. Players are assigned the roles of fascists or Hitler and are incentivized to win. The game makes no quantifiable or qualitative difference between liberals winning and fascists winning. The game simply ends with victory for either faction.

In contrast, consider Brenda Romero’s board game Train. In Train, players work together to populate a train with as many people as possible. Little context is given during play. At the end of the game, it is revealed that the train they were filling with people stops at Auschwitz. Players are made complicit in the Holocaust. A win state is subverted and becomes a lose state.

However, the emergent nature of Secret Hitler makes it difficult for the game to condemn fascism with win/lose states alone. Consider a hypothetical addition to the game: should the fascists win, a card is flipped that reveals that their victory leads to the events of World War II, resulting in the defeat of Germany, the deaths of millions, and the suicide of Hitler. Would this subvert the win state? I would argue that it would fail to do that. Due to the emergent nature of Secret Hitler, the victory earned by players feels like a consequence of the play styles and creative stratagems used by them. Gameplay in Train is fairly constrained with little room for improvisation or creativity. ‘Victory’ in Train thus feels like a result of close interaction with the rules of the game. On the other hand, victory in Secret Hitler feels causally related to a player’s creativity and decision making. Victory feels earned. Attempts to subvert it feel arbitrary and unconnected with the playing of the game. The fascists will be happy that they won, no matter what.

If thematic messaging in a game results from the interactions between player and system, then the thematic messaging in emergent games are fundamentally more unpredictable or uncontrollable. Care should be taken as a designer, lest the game says something that might be unwanted or problematic.

*: Decrypting the Alt-Right – Contrapoints

**: Pepe the Frog and the Okay hand gesture – Anti-Defamation League

https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/pepe-the-frog

https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/okay-hand-gesture

Techniques of Thought: Cognition, Identity and Ideology in Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium begins in blackness. Words fade in against the emptiness. It is your ‘Ancient Reptilian Brain’ speaking to you. Soon enough your ‘Limbic System’ pipes up. They inform you “there is nothing” (ZA/UM, 2019). As your character (who we later learn is called Harry) awakens from his drunken stupor, we come to realize that this blackness is a representation of the unconscious state he was in. Because of his heavy drinking, he has lost all memory of who he was, down to his name and his job.

The first text we ever see in Disco Elysium.

Beyond being a memorable way of beginning a game, the blackness frames our perception of the game and our character in it. We enter this game not as an already established character, but as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. Harry awakens from nothing and remembers nothing. As the dialogue with Harry’s own brain progresses, we are given choices as to how to respond to them. These dialogue choices become the means by which Harry, the character, is defined. The game’s dialogue system is its keystone. All other systems revolve around it. In this essay I intend to explore how Disco Elysium’s systems, with the dialogue system at its core, provide players the opportunity to create an intricately detailed character with a rich identity encompassing personal history, personality and political ideology.

Disco Elysium is a roleplaying game set in the city of Revachol, years after a failed communist revolution led to its current state of neoliberal capitalism and soaring inequality. We play 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 exploration of politics and its intricate skill system and how said system tied into the game’s dialogue and character development.

To understand Disco Elysium and its subsequent success we must first understand its systems. As a game inspired by traditional tabletop roleplaying games, Disco Elysium ‘begins’ even before it begins. Traditional tabletop roleplaying games require that players create the character they will play in the game. Disco Elysium is no different. In Disco Elysium, players must allocate skill points to various skills, which come to define their character and his areas of competency. There are four main skills, but these branch out into an overwhelming list of 24 sub-skills.

The skill system in Disco Elysium. Refer to here for the full list of skills.

It is important to note that unlike other role-playing videogames, Disco Elysium does not have any other mechanically heavy systems like combat, stealth or crafting. In Disco Elysium, Harry’s interactions with the world are almost entirely played through the dialogue system. This fundamentally means that all 24 skills available in the skill system primarily relate to and interact with the dialogue system, which suggests a textual richness and complexity in the dialogue system unmatched by other games.

One of the more interesting forms this inter-system interaction takes is the internal stream of consciousness monologues that occur in response to things said by other characters. In this context, each skill functions as a ‘voice’ in this internal monologue. Should Harry’s point allocation for a certain skill exceed certain invisible thresholds, that voice will contribute to the dialogue, adding in their own response to the topic of discussion.

In this snippet the Inland Empire skill allows Harry to ‘converse’ with a corpse while the Reaction Speed skill provides additional insight into the corpse’s response.

The above screenshot provides one example of this stream of consciousness. In this scene, Harry and his partner Kim Kitsuragi are inspecting the corpse of the murder victim, left to hang from a tree. After removing the body from the tree, Harry is faced with the victim’s visage. How he responds depends on the skill point allocation of your character. In this example, Harry has high points in Inland Empire and Reaction Speed1. Faced with the corpse, Harry asks who killed him and it responds, ‘communism’. Reaction Speed then causes him to have an instinctual response to this answer – a sense that the answer speaks to a buried truth. A different skill point allocation would have led to a different conversation. For instance, this imaginary conversation would not have taken place without enough points invested into Inland Empire.

This stream of consciousness means that skill allocations – choices that are made by the player throughout the game – have concrete and continuous impact on dialogue and how dialogue is framed. Information is introduced or concealed depending on the player character’s skill point allocation. Through this, the player character’s (and by extension the player’s) perspective of the world and of the unfolding plot is shaped by how the player built their character.

Stephen Trinh compares this stream of consciousness to the Kuleshov Effect in film, explaining that “the interjections act as the context shot, so that the dialogue choices [chosen by the player] can be the to-be-interpreted shot” (Trinh, 2020). This allows dialogue choices that more meaningfully and accurately reflect the chosen personality and identity of the player character. The subtext is no longer defined solely by the player’s perceptions, but the character’s perceptions as well. Furthermore, some dialogue choices are locked away if their character does not meet a specific skill threshold, thus players are guided into roleplaying their character more ‘truthfully’, choosing dialogue options that respond to Harry’s internal thoughts, further enriching and developing his identity.

Brent Ellision categorized conversation into two models: Branching and Hub and Spoke (Ellision, 2008), where branching conversations can expand but do not loop back, while hub and spoke conversations have central hubs where conversations loop back to2. Disco Elysium features both models of conversation but builds on top of these models. Each interjection from an internal voice functions like an invisible detour. At points in the conversation, detours are taken depending on the character’s skills, without direct control from the player. Players are not informed of possible detours if their skill points do not meet the threshold. Consequently, the structure of conversations becomes significantly more sophisticated. However, as detours always return to the main path, conversations continue to have well-defined scopes without branching out of control.

A diagram depicting the structure of the conversation from the previous screenshot. Dotted lines indicate invisible detours.

These invisible detours were developed with intention. In an interview with GameSpot, lead writer Robert Kurvitz explained that the mechanics of the dialogue system was inspired by Twitter (Kurvitz, 2020). On Twitter, a user can elaborate on a tweet by making a reply tweet, which is displayed just below the original tweet. Other users can also reply to the original tweet, elaborating on the point made or suggesting tangents, thus creating an increasingly elaborate cultural ‘hive mind’. In Disco Elysium, each interjection from a voice functions like a reply tweet. The voices create a tangled web of tangents, elaborations and contradictions – a ‘hive mind’ within a mind – allowing the game to reveal the richness of the player character’s internal state of mind.

As we have seen, past skills can affect current conversations, but Disco Elysium goes further than this. Current conversations can affect the future as well. Should Harry’s conversational responses consistently reflect a specific viewpoint, his Ancient Reptillian Brain speaks to him. For instance, should Harry constantly speak in defense of the working class, your brain might ask if you wish to be a communist. Answering yes unlocks a thought in Harry’s Thought Cabinet.

The Thought Cabinet is a feature unique to Disco Elysium. The cabinet consists of various unlockable slots and a catalog of thoughts. These thoughts could be ideologies like communism, information like the location of Harry’s home, or personality ‘styles’ like ‘boring cop’. Thoughts can be assigned to a slot. Once assigned, the thought is contemplated on by Harry. After some time has passed, the thought is complete, and additional information is revealed along with possible gameplay bonuses or penalties to Harry, which range from modifiers to his skills or new conversational options.

The Thought Cabinet in Disco Elysium

In many roleplaying games, the player character is placed in a position of power, and their choices have profound consequences for the entire world. Cass Marshall explains that this can frequently pose a problem. The character is defined largely by their actions rather than their internal perspectives (Marshall, 2019). They become heroic characters without any internal identity or personality. In Disco Elysium, Harry is powerless to change the world. The player’s actions are thus not directed to the external world, but to the internal. Your choices as a player are not about affecting the world but responding to it. In the example mentioned above, responding to economic injustice with sympathy for the working class provides the opportunity to identify as a communist.

The Thought Cabinet allows Harry to be defined by his internal identity, be it ideology or personality or memories. Traditional skill systems define characters by their competencies or lack thereof, and thus do not allow the creation of vivid characters with rich identities and histories. Some role-playing games, e.g. Wasteland 2, provide a blank text field where players are invited to write a backstory, but this backstory is merely ‘flavour text’ and ignored by the game and its systems. Disco Elysium avoids this trap. The Thought Cabinet systemizes personality, memories and ideology. Your character in Disco Elysium can thus have a richly defined identity, which is acknowledged by the game and which has consequences for Harry’s journey through the world.

These two systems, the Thought Cabinet and the stream of consciousness, form a cognitive loop within Disco Elysium. As Harry encounters situations in the world, his stream of consciousness responds. This response shapes the player’s perspective of the world, and they make dialogue choices based on their perspective. Based on these dialogue choices, thoughts are formed and added to the Thought Cabinet. Contemplating on these thoughts forms Harry’s identity, which then again shapes his perspective of the world, and his stream of consciousness by extension. Through this loop, Harry becomes more well-defined as a character over time.

However, it is important to note that this cognitive loop does not exist independently of the player’s interactions. Disco Elysium gives us ‘subjective access’ to Harry by revealing his ‘internal states’ (Smith, 2010) but like many other narrative works, players are expected to make moral judgements of the world and its characters – a process referred to as ‘allegiance’ (Smith, 2010). Disco Elysium does not force Harry to adopt any beliefs or identities that the player does not want him to. Thoughts are never automatically formed from the stream of consciousness. Explicit player choice is required. Even when a thought is formed, the player has a choice to reject the thought. In Disco Elysium, you are not defined entirely by your past actions. You always have a choice. Even if the state of the world and your own instincts tempts you towards certain viewpoints, there is always the ability to choose to believe differently. We see the ideas and perspectives through Harry’s internal mind, but we as players, with our own identities, form our allegiances to specific perspectives. We are then given the freedom to realign Harry to reflect our allegiances – to reflect us.

In conclusion, Disco Elysium systemizes thinking, whether it is conscious cognition or instincts and intuition. This systemizing, embodied by the stream of consciousness and the Thought Cabinet, allow our player character Harry to be defined in a concrete manner. He has a history, an ideology and a personality, all of which have meaningful systemic and narrative consequences throughout the game. But Disco Elysium is a roleplaying game. We inhabit the role of Harry. Through play we engage in a dialogue with his mind and decide who Harry is and who he becomes based on our own perspectives and ideology. Thus, Disco Elysium is not just about understanding Harry. It is about understanding ourselves.

Footnotes

1 – Inland Empire indicates an aptitude for imagining the personality of inanimate objects like corpses, allowing Harry to have imaginary conversations with said objects

2 – The corpse investigation is an example of hub and spoke conversations. The player is presented with different parts of the corpse to inspect, with each part acting as a spoke. Attempting to detach the corpse from the tree is itself a spoke within the conversation.

Bibliography

ZA/UM (2019). Disco Elysium [Computer video game]. Estonia: ZA/UM.

Ellison, Brent. “Defining Dialogue Systems” Gamasutra, 2008

Marshall, Cass. “You can’t change the world in Disco Elysium – and that’s why it’s great”. Polygon. 2019

Trinh, Stephen. “Why I Love: The Interjections [Disco Elysium]” Gamasutra, 2020

Smith, G. (2010). What media classes really want to discuss: a student guide. Routledge.

 [GameSpot]. (2020, Jan 12). The Feature That Almost Sank Disco Elysium | Audio Logs [Video File].

              Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X0-W5erEXw

Disco Elysium Wiki. (2019, November 16). Skills.

Retrieved from https://discoelysium.gamepedia.com/Skills

Stadia

https://www.businessinsider.sg/why-are-so-few-games-on-google-stadia-2020-2

“This concern — that Google might just give up on Stadia at some point and kill the service… was repeatedly brought up, unprompted, by every person we spoke with for this piece.”

Notably the only real media distribution platform Google has successfully sustained is YouTube, which A) wasn’t started by Google and B) was initially sustained by amateur videos before being monopolized by professional content creators.

A is something they cant change and B is something you cant really recreate with videogames, unless they literally cloned itch.io which they won’t because 1) itch.io already exists and 2) they’re so chronically shortsighted they’ll shut it down anyway when it doesn’t make money within 2 seconds.

Google, in its behemoth state, seems to have lost any understanding of how to build network effects (if they had any understanding to begin with) and thinks they can just buy a userbase with their huge wallet.

The mourning in Night in the Woods and Kentucky Route Zero

[minor spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero and Night in the Woods]

https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/rqr3BeHP9LvE5YZ_axTy9GOnIFM=/0x0:1440x900/1520x1013/filters:focal(605x335:835x565):format(webp)/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_image/image/66174307/Screen_Shot_2020_01_27_at_8.40.00_AM.0.png

Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ) and Night in the Woods (NITW) are games about decay. They’re both focused on small town America, and the slow death of rural communities as a consequence of corporate consolidation and changing times. There’s a clear pattern in indie games here. This isn’t unique to American games. Disco Elysium, from Estonian developers, too is about the slow death of societies.

In NITW, Mae returns home from college to find the town she grew up in and loved altered irrevocably. The local mines have shuttered, and most of the younger populace have moved to cities for opportunities elsewhere. The town residents are aging. Small businesses are closing. Infrastructure is breaking down.

Similarly, the town at the edge of the Zero in KRZ is dying. Jobs disappeared as businesses closed or were absorbed by the Consolidated Power Co. People have left, and those that haven’t are deep in debt, slowly dying or already dead. The Power Co. pulled out of the town when it stopped making business sense. The infrastructure they were supposed to build left incomplete. As a consequence, torrential storms have flooded it, destroying many of the houses – a final death blow to the already precarious town.

For Mae, the decay is unfamiliar. She is in the prime of her youth, privileged enough to attend college, with the freedom to move beyond the town into the cities where opportunities still exist. The decay is a shock to the system – A reminder that the childhood she knew was long gone, far in the past. for the people in the Zero, the decay is all too familiar, a constant throughout their lives, a state of the world they had to live through.

Despite their similarities, NITW and KRZ are remarkably different in tone. NITW is steeped in child-like nostalgia – a longing for the world of the past. During her time at home, she relives childhood memories with the few friends who have remained. In KRZ, the nostalgia has faded. We are left with a mourning and a silent bitter anger at the powers-that-be. The residents of the Zero live in a liminal state. The world has not ended, but it looks like it might soon. Days are dedicated to mourning the past, not reliving it.

NITW’s reflects a very young perspective. The decay started before we were ever around. It lurked in the background, ignored by our youthful naivety. KRZ has an aged perspective. They have seen the tides change. They have been drowning in them. KRZ mourns the world that was. NITW mourns the world that could have been.

Crunch and Consumers

The announcement of Cyberpunk 2077’s delay came together with a barely-tacit admission that the developers would be crunching to meet this already-delayed release date.

It should, I think, be an uncontroversial statement to say that crunch is bad. It’s psychologically draining, demotivating and simply leads to bad quality work from people. For the individual, it’s also completely unsustainable.

For the corporation though, you can pretty much go on crunch mode forever if you are able to replenish your workforce as they slowly get fired or quit from depression and disillusionment. This is very much happening. Blizzard did this when they laid off over 800 people before relisting their job positions with either lower pay or more responsibilities or both.

Hiring and firing is a hassle, of course, but the crunch, ah yes the crunch makes it worth it. Crunch make thing go fast. When thing go fast, you make more thing. When you make more thing you make more money.

But hey, games are made for us consumers right? What if we, through sheer force of miraculous will, collectively decided we didn’t like our favourite game devs crunching? What is that sacred power we have under Capitalism? It’s like democracy but the rich have more power. Oh right! It’s called voting with your wallet. So let’s say we did just that. How does the company respond? Maybe, if you’re lucky, they stop crunching. Maybe, instead, they do something else to cope with lost revenue. They fire people. They add micro-transactions. They make smaller games. There’s a whole host of ways a company can cope with lost revenue. If your company culture involves crunch, it can feel like it’s impossible to separate your company from that culture. That certainly seems to be CD Projekt Red’s attitude. You can give them a reason to change. You can’t direct *how* they change.

The awkward truth here is that the idea of ‘voting with your wallet’, the power to shift markets and corporations through market incentives, is severely limited in a variety of ways. After all, you’re controlling a company’s bottom line, which is really just a single number. Maybe the power to stop crunch has to come from somewhere else. Maybe it has to come from within.



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.

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.