Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Experiential Worlds

Video game worlds are, we generally think, not real. This is an opinion often used dismissively (for an example, see the attitudes of the architectural establishment reported by Claris Cyarron in this recent piece). But on closer inspection, it turns out to be quite difficult to clarify what the claim means – what is real?

You can tell I've devoted the last ten years of my life to philosophy, huh?

On the face of it, a thing is 'real' if there are facts, or true statements, about it. My desk is real, because it has a mass, a shape, an extension. It supports my computer, and sometimes my face if I doze off while working.

By contrast, Sherlock Holmes' house at 221B Baker Street is not real. No such address exists, so no claim that Conan Doyle makes about its size, architecture or decor can be true. Of course, there are some conventions about this house which we can all agree on. If I ask you 'What is Sherlock Holmes' address?', there is a correct answer: '221B Baker Street'.

And this answer is correct because it is in at least some sense true – it is an accurate report of Conan Doyle's fictive claim that Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street. So, there is a kind of truth to some statements of fiction, and thus a kind of reality to their claims.

This will convince no-one that video game worlds are real by itself, though, and nor should it. It is hardly a novel claim that I can give you a correct report of something I have read. The truth of 'Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street' is not the same kind of truth as the truth of 'My desk is six feet wide'. Or is it?

Let's look a bit closer at this second statement, or rather at the object to which it purports to refer. The desk, we know, is a composite. It is made up of atoms, which are themselves composed mostly of empty space and a few tiny subatomic particles; these particles fuzz away into inconsistent, ill-defined energy fields on even closer inspection. Where does my desk end? Look close enough and it becomes difficult to recognise the desk at all.

Other properties of the desk – its mass, its solidity – become even more ephemeral. Does this mean that we should regard the claim that my desk is six feet long, or that it is solid, as false? If so, the only true statements are presumably the scientific ones (certainly this is the way the philosophical establishment tends to think of it).

But the scientific facts, about minute particles and fields, are much less useful to us in the everyday. Yes, technically the Standard Model of quantum physics describes all possible fundamental interactions, but good luck using it to derive the GDP of Chile, or whether so-and-so fancies you, or even if your bus will show up on time. (For reference, all these calculations are impossible – the universe cannot provide sufficient computing power).

In philosophy, we identify two different classes of fact at work here; experiential facts, which concern how things appear to us, and fundamental facts, which concern how things are in themselves, independently of us.

While variations on this distinction have been a major theme in much of modern philosophy, it's probably Kant who did most with it, in distinguishing between the phenomenal (experiential) and noumenal (fundamental) worlds. His grandest claim was that the truly noumenal is unknowable – because after all, we can only know about scientific fundamenta through experiments that bring them into the experiential realm. Privileging only noumenal facts as true, or truly real, then, is self-defeating; we cannot know anything about that reality.

So we should expect to have to take experiential facts seriously – and indeed we do. Experiential facts are what we use to navigate our way to the shops; to choose what to eat; to cook without burning ourselves. Can you tell I'm hungry as I write this?

The application to video game worlds should be clear by now – they are experiential worlds, on their own terms. It is true that the second '?' block at the start of Super Mario Bros contains a mushroom. That, fundamentally, this truth is sustained by the electrical properties of a handful of tiny pieces of silicon in a cartridge is not relevant to whether you get past the first Goomba (or get mocked for failing to do so).

There is a lot more that could be said on this – my 70,000-word doctoral thesis, for example, is entirely concerned with the nature of experiential worlds and how we should understand the relationship between the world we experience and the world posited by contemporary physics. Many philosophers would prefer to throw out Kant's distinction altogether – many more would defend it (philosophers are like this about everything, by the way). But this serves as a reasonable introduction.

So next time someone tells you video game worlds 'aren't real', ask them what they mean.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Random Encounters

Spring 2008, Skies of Arcadia Legends. Discovering that when you're flying about the eponymous skies, the D-pad fixes the camera in a range of positions that must have been carefully chosen to bring out the best in the Delphinus. Seriously, it's the sexiest airship you will ever see.

Summer 2008, Final Fantasy XII. Arriving at Mt. Bur-Omisace to learn that Vayne has murdered Larsa's father and usurped the throne of Archades. Somehow the politics of the situation mean the arduous journey I've just completed is now irrelevant. I share Vaan's confusion – not so much getting sucked into the character as his mental state jumping out to run around my synapses for a moment.

Winter 2008, The Internet. Every week a new thread on The Escapist's forums complaining about 'emo protagonists', 'linear plots' or 'turn-based combat' (that last always with an exception, of course, for X-Com and no mention of Disgaea). The code by which Halo and Yahtzee fanboys scorn the JRPG.

Spring 2009, Eternal Sonata. The game's pathological fixation with absurd gamewalls peaks with a wide-open meadow where some invisible force constrains me to the middle third.

Summer 2009, Blue Dragon. I kick every rock and search every poop left behind by a defeated monster, collecting endless items I barely have any use for. Is there a comprehensive guide to this game? And if so, how small is the print on the maps?

Winter 2009, Athera. Finally catching up on Janny Wurts' Wars of Light and Shadow with the storming of volume 8's titular Stormed Fortress. The close of a tale whose arc has encompassed a life from infant to manhood and the decades of history that go along with it.

Spring 2010, Final Fantasy XIII. Splitting the cost with a similarly hard-up student friend so we can get it on release day. Spending the next three weeks arguing about whether it's any good, squeezing every drop of value we can from the wasted characters and incoherent world.

Summer 2010, Resonance of Fate. Is this a world map or a puzzle minigame? I struggle to make headway, captivated by the mechanical geography but slowed by the dreary colour scheme. I never finish the game.

Summer 2012, Extra Credits[1]. Normally brief, it takes three episodes and almost twenty minutes for the series to dismantle the genre and render verdict: JRPGs are in trouble. Failure to evolve and a slow decline in core quality mean players can now get everything the JRPG used to specialise in elsewhere, without the steep time costs and stodgy combat.

And yet.

Summer 2012, Tales of Vesperia. The climactic cutscene of act 1 is as potent as I remember from my first brush with the game. Something in how this murder is delivered makes it just that – not a righteous execution, not vengeance, not a desperate but ultimately ennobling act. Murder. The dark side of a certain ideology.

That cutscene – and a second that echoes it a few hours later into the game – floated around in my head as I was starting this blog and rounding up possible topics. Vesperia is one of my favourite games and I really wanted to dig into what made that scene so effective. So I loaded up the game for the first time in a while and started playing.

And the cutscene stands up, don't get me wrong, but I started to notice other things that were also really effective, or at least weird enough to be worth commenting on. By the time I reached the second cutscene I had other things I wanted to look at through the rest of the game. By the end of the game, I had enough questions to justify a second play, then a third.

Long story short, I've put 200 hours into the game in the last six weeks, and produced some 26,000 words of notes. Vesperia, I think, is as concerned as I am by the trend that Extra Credits episode picked up on. This idea that 'the genre has lost its way'.

Thematically, Vesperia deals with journeys and exile, hostile wilderness and troubled homecomings. Formally, it turns back on itself and its franchise, poking at the foundations of the JRPG world with a mix of wry affection and lampshades. And lampshades on lampshades.

And there's a slightly weird technological context, too. I feel like JRPGs were slow to make the jump to 7th generation hardware[2]. Blue Dragon, Eternal 'how the hell did I get made?' Sonata and even later titles like Resonance of Fate feel like a tentative toe in uncertain waters. For a brief period, the majority of new JRPG stories were appearing on a non-Japanese console, the Xbox 360. Vesperia emerged towards the end of this displacement.

What I've found myself working on, ultimately, has three dimensions; in the first place, it's a close reading of Tales of Vesperia. The game deserves it, whatever its relation to its genealogy. More broadly, I'm taking a historical look at the JRPG as a genre. For now, I've fenced that in to the window between Final Fantasy XII and XIII (Q1 2006 to Q4 2009), because Final Fantasy generally does more to shape 'public opinion' than the rest of the genre. Sandwiched between those is a reflection on the Tales franchise, because Vesperia can hardly address its genre without looking at its own peculiar subgenre.

To that end, I'm building a reading list (gaming list? Playing list?). For now, it's here on Backloggery (in my wishlist as well as my actual backlog). I'm looking for key JRPGs – especially on gen 7 home consoles[3] – that ought to feature in any critical look at the genre in that period. This is a starting point only – I'm not expecting to be able to write a thoroughgoing history from such a narrow slice, and I don't have access to every species of hardware I'd need for that either – but suggestions are most welcome.

A lot of what I've discussed here is my own impressions, and really my impressions not of the games themselves but of other people's impressions of them. For my money, the JRPG was never 'in trouble', except possibly commercially. But the idea of a genre crisis is widespread, and that bears some investigation.

[1] EC has a bit of a reputation for appropriating the work of other writers. If anyone can point me to more nuanced writing on which their JRPG episodes are based or build, I'd appreciate it – it'll save me quite a bit of work.

[2] I did a bit of a survey, and as far as I can tell there were 10 new JRPGs on gen 7 hardware between 2006 and 2009, compared to 16 on the PS2 alone.

[3] I specify home consoles partly just to narrow my focus, but also partly because I think they shape perception of the genre a bit more – they're seen as 'more important' by a certain key section of the press and player base.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

To Walk a Turning World

About a month ago, Austin C. Howe was firing some shots at Final Fantasy XII on Twitter, and I responded with this somewhat ambitious declaration:

More seriously, I do think Howe's wrong that "There's nothing to say" about FFXII. I certainly didn't find it "Boring to engage with" (as my 500+ hours in-game across multiple playthroughs will testify), nor do I personally think it has a "Bad story." It's certainly a divisive, much-maligned game, but I love it and want to offer a few thoughts in its defence.
Not helping, Vaan. (image from)
I love FFXII, first and foremost, because I love travelling through its world. As the first banner Final Fantasy title to present its entire world at a single scale[1], spaces that would previously have been very abstract are now robust, tangible and teeming with life. They're also much less, for want of a better term, cartographical – there are dramatic contours where previously there would have been only the fine lines of insubstantial cliffs.

And the game's biggest, most controversial innovations all serve to draw attention to this world. Combat no longer happens in a separate, distinct space. The gambit system has the direct consequence of minimising the role of combat altogether, reducing ordinary combat choices to a matter of how you move through the space of each zone. The random chests challenge and frustrate the idea that the goal of exploring a world is tangible or ludic reward.

FFXII is a game about travel – movement not just through space but through time as well. Where ludic elements intrude on this journey, it is to add labour and slow 'progress'. Monsters punctuate their zones, some barely dangerous enough to slow you a step, some that must be navigated carefully around (there's probably a whole essay just in the placement of the toxic marlboros and lethal elementals).

Time, and the sense of its passage, are vital to the scale of the story. FFXII's story is about being a small boat on grand, historical tides. Even your princess represents a kingdom swamped by its much larger neighbour – she is a pawn much as her domain is[2]. The story moves at the speed of monolithic empires, and if your journey was deprived of its temporal extension the game would feel fast-forwarded.

Where the plot does touch the lives of the characters, it's mostly to devalue the destination or motivation for the journey. Roughly speaking, we can identify five journeys in the narrative:

-Across the Yensan Sandsea to Raithwall's Tomb, a journey invalidated at conclusion when the Imperial Navy fly effortlessly over the same ground and capture you, in a scene that could not belabour the theme of 'you are very small and we are very big' more heavily if it tried.

-South to the sacred Mt. Bur-Omisace, where on arrival you discover that the political situation in the Empire has changed and made your trek irrelevant (bonus points here for the return to Bur-Omisace after the Stillshrine of Miriam where the Empire has been and gone in your absence, symbolically destroying the authority to which you had appealed).

-North to Archades, the Imperial Capital; here, in theory, the Empire can't trivialise your journey by effortlessly catching up because, y'know, they're already there. Instead, when you finally reach the Draklor laboratory, someone else – Reddas – is there ahead of you and already causing trouble.

-South again to Giruvegan in pursuit of Cid, who turns out not to have gone there. Giruvegan is the closest you get to a journey that is rewarded, but at best it's rewarded with a gift from the ambiguous Occuria – and the discovery that one of their number, the renegade Venat, has been supporting Vayne and Cid all along.

-Finally, the ascent of the isolated Pharos lighthouse is long enough to arguably constitute a journey in its own right, and sure enough, it gets doubly trivialised – not only is Judge Gabranth waiting at the top, but once you beat him Cid turns up out of nowhere to mess with you.

The journey, always, is what matters, what allows the world to turn; that turn serves always to extend the journey. If the ending of FFXII feels weak (and to me it felt almost irrelevant), it's because the limit of the disk means the journey can't be meaningfully extended again. The last level is short, tacked-on, isolated. It breaks away from this game's mould to fit the genre's expectations of a dramatic final confrontation.

This is a game with a profound contempt for classical notions of player engagement and reward. Its story denies the power fantasy of being the hero who shapes the world (the villains, Vayne and Cid, both use the slogan of 'the reins of history back in the hands of man'); its combat is designed to minimise any sense of environmental mastery on the player's part by detaching combat power from player input.

One of the most rewarding experiences I ever had in-game was when, needing to do some grinding to tackle some of the more daunting side-content, I decided to try walking from one end of the world to the other. It took about half an hour, I think, and I really got to feel the geographical, especially topographical, qualities of the world – down out of the Paramina Mountains, across plains and deserts that rise into the Mosphora, back down along the coast of Archadia and up again across highlands to Balfonheim.

I played it as a walking simulator, basically (maybe a hiking simulator?). And I think the game liked it.


[1] Yes, there's a case to be made for FFX, but I'd argue the ambiguous scale of the Calm Lands (as well as possibly the Thunder Plains and Bikanel Desert) counts against it.

[2] It's not my place to launch into gender critique, but I'll acknowledge there's no way the devs would have ever done that with a prince – they even kill both prince and king off at the start of the story to avoid doing so.