Monday, 24 August 2015

Abstraction and Attention

I’m trying not to say ‘Zelda isn’t an RPG’. ‘Zelda’ and ‘RPG’ both mean too many different things to too many different people for that to be a useful statement. But I think I can say something useful about what I look for in an RPG – and particularly a JRPG – by contrasting it with what I look for and love in Zelda games. For clarity, I’m a 3D Zelda person – I’ve generally found the 2D games frustrating to play, though that may be because I’ve mainly played them on handheld and I kinda hate handheld gaming.

To start, here’s what I understand by ‘RPG’: a system of abstraction(s) that primarily serves to mediate the telling of a story. This is a pretty broad definition (the ‘primarily’ is important), but I think it’s useful because it captures the connection between pre-digital pen-and-paper RPGs and their digital analogues. The downside is that it leaves out the act of roleplaying that makes up such an important part of the pen-and-paper experience.

Anyway, what I mean by it is this. The abstractions in RPGs serve a primarily extrinsic focus[1]. Phenomena like HP and XP encode the labour and temporal cost of travel. World maps and sidequests indicate scale. The more abstract components of the game are there to set a tone and player mindset for the story developments, which are generally treated as less abstract[2].

The 3D Zelda games, though, have a different focus. For one thing, the biggest abstractions in Zelda games are the puzzles; not the player’s actions but the environments that induce them. The player’s attention is drawn more to the phenomenal/sensory qualities of their actions – the flight of the boomerang, the heft of the megaton hammer, the whoosh of flying through the air with the hookshot.

As a complement to this, Zelda games generally have less involved storylines. It’s telling that the games that do have stronger emphasis on storytelling – Majora’s Mask and especially Twilight Princess – have more in the way of player action that mediates story. Moments like the sequence where you carry the injured Midna to Zelda, or the horse-and-cart bit where you transport Ilia to Kakariko Village, are more about the urgency of the moment, the dramatic interruption to the otherwise pervasive melancholy of Twilight Princess’ Hyrule, than the phenomenal qualities of the specific actions the player takes[3].

There are exceptions on the other side of the equation as well, of course. Action RPGs and even some more recent turn-based ones do take an interest in the intrinsic qualities of their abstractions. This can take the form of Tales-style combat, levelling systems like Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid and the Lillium Orbs from Tales of Xillia, or even quicktime events, as in Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Almost every game that has a story dabbles in abstractions that favour the story; similarly, almost every game period dabbles in abstractions that feed the senses. The question is one of balance. When I go to my collection of Zelda games, it’s because I’m looking to have my attention drawn to a particular sensory/phenomenal mode of engagement. When I go looking specifically for a (J)RPG, I want to focus on the narrative and register other interactions as in service to that.

[1] I think this is true whatever RPG you play, but it’s probably less true for more modern western RPGs than JRPGs.

[2] There’s a whole complicated question of the role of abstraction in fantasy narratives – magic and magical creatures as metaphor, fantasy hierarchies as engagements with real politics and so on – but it’s too big a topic to get into here, hence the ‘generally treated as’.

[3] The cart-and-horse sequence is also a call-back to the similar escort mission in MM, an explicit link between the two games.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

After Icarus

I don’t remember how I found the Princess’ Slide secret level in Mario 64. It’s something like seventeen and a half years since I did. I don’t remember specifically my first time going down the slide, either, but only because the thousands of rides I took all blur together a bit. I can’t quite remember every twitch of the way down anymore, but I rode that slide a lot.

On Marble Blast Gold, years later, there were two levels that started you off on a steep slope, and carried on straight down. Stopping was not possible. I played those levels a lot, too. There, there was the added advantage of an odd physics simulation that meant that at high speed, if you clipped an edge you went bouncing all over the place, faster than the eye could track.

There’s something similar in some of the set pieces in the 2D Sonic games, preprepared paths that move you fast enough to leave the camera trailing behind, that let you move in a way that feels effective but still chaotic. It’s like moshing – you can’t control where you go, but you have to do something, you have to be active, to participate.

In fact, the closest experience I’ve had in real life to the experience I’m poking at here was on a dance floor, back in the days when I wasn’t so elbow-conscious. Something loud and embarrassingly teenage, probably by Linkin Park or Disturbed, came on along with the strobe and suddenly the whole dancefloor was an indistinct mess of limbs. It was too dark to tell which way was up, or where anyone was coming from. There was movement and a sense of urgency, without any room for analysis or anxiety.

I feel like that hasn’t been available so much in more recent video games. Even when games are about movement, they tend to be about movement as mastery of a space, with the penalty for bad movement being death. You see this in games like Super Meat Boy, Escape Goat 2 and even something as simple as Geometry Dash. Staying in control is essential; these games won’t do anything for you the way Sonic used to, and their tracks don’t have walls like that Mario slide.

These are games that you practice. They reward the development of a particular skill on a very even curve. They’re a manifestation of what Austin Walker called ‘the new power fantasy’, mastery not by cheat or shortcut but mastery earned as a benefit of a just world. Harsh as the games often seem, they come with an idea of fairness that’s completely at odds with reality, completely artificial.

It’s a fairness we’d like to believe in[1]. It’s also an idea that flatters our egos as players and manipulates our behaviour as consumers[2]. And I would argue that it harms us directly, as well as manipulating us and squashing our experiences. Hegemonic culture – toxic masculinity, white supremacy, gender binarism and ableism – is built centrally on an idea of mastery. It is the idea that one should be master of oneself in a particular repressive way.

I’ve written at length before on the harm this has done to me, and I’m much more a perpetrator than a victim. Hegemonic culture thrives on the idea that everything that cannot be quantified must be controlled and suppressed, which slides quickly into the totalising idea that every weakness, no matter how transient, is failure.

And those of us who enact and sustain hegemonic culture are fragile for this reason. When something challenges our conception of ourselves as masters, as paragons, we descend quickly through snappish retort and into outright violence, both in rhetoric and often physically. The mere hint of a failing is enough to crack us open and let bursts of toxicity splatter everything we touch.

None of which is new, all of which has been articulated better by cleverer people than me. But the more I think about it in the context of my relationship to video games, the more troubled I become by the latter. Games seldom tolerate failure; it is the bookend of the experience, not a phenomenon to be investigated in and of itself.

Failure is bound up with ideas of blame and responsibility. So, too, is conventional thought about moral choice – but not in video games. In games, we think of choice and action as things without responsibility, their consequences sealed away within the magic circle of the virtual. In video games, failure is about frustration and fairness, and (in at least my case) the occasional flight of a controller across a room.

There is a disconnect there. I say this not to make a moral or sociological claim about games – though I realise I’ve flirted with both. I say it to define an area of interest, to make a statement of intent. I want to make games that address responsibility, that create and explore failure without frustration, that do away with concerns of fairness altogether[3].

There’s an element of meditation in this, too, or maybe self-directed therapy. The problem with fragility is that it makes us dangerous to those who step up to shake us out of our obliviousness. We need to find ways to address our own blind spots before we can open up enough to others to be safe for them to even try to help.

Social relationships are the epitome of what cannot be mastered. You can’t, in the sense I’m talking about here, perfect your control of another human. There are no speed runs for people, no perfects, no Big Boss Ranks. Intimacy requires something that might be called cooperation, or concession, or submission – I’m not sure what the best term is, it’s something I’m very bad at.

I don’t want to blame games for that, though I think they may not have helped. I want to believe they can help, though.

I am starting with a game of falling. This is not a subtle subversion – if a quintessential moment in video games is Mario jumping over a pit, where jump and pit are precisely calibrated to match, falling down the pit is a quintessential failure.

So my game is called After Icarus:

It’s going to be another month or two before I can release (depending when I’m able to get some music recorded), but it should be ready by winter. In the meantime, please follow @everaftericarus and I’ll try to provide at least occasional updates (of course, if I fail I guess I can at least claim thematic consistency…).

[1] Please support Jackson

[2] Please support Lana Polansky

[3] Which is not to say that I want to make unfair games. ‘Fairness’ is neither a neutral nor an objective concept. The rhetoric of fairness in games often serves the most toxic elements of the community, those who demand inaccessibility and pour scorn on those denied access by it. I want to make games that no-one even tries to assess the fairness of.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Price of Time

A couple of weeks ago, I said I’d be talking about time in JRPGs, and one of the particular issues I picked up on was this: “Plot developments that are tied to player progress can seem preposterous coincidences.”

When plot events in a game are tied to triggers based on player progress, whether that’s beating a particular encounter, arriving in a particular location or just talking to the right NPC, that connection can be pretty obvious. Sometimes this is fine, but often it centres the player characters, and through them player action, at the expense of effective storytelling.

Tales of Vesperia, for all its subversion, never quite escapes this. The first half of the story is characterised by coincidences – every other town you arrive at gets attacked or otherwise disrupted within minutes of your arrival – and despite the characters joking that protagonist Yuri must be ‘cursed’, it’s impossible to miss the underlying artificiality of the plot structure. Nor does this crack in the fa├žade feel as planned, as deliberate as other things the game does; Vesperia fails to provide contrast by handling its triggers better elsewhere.

There are ways around the problem, though. Final Fantasy XII is at its strongest when confronting this head-on. It has to be, given its theme of the insignificance of the individual. It would be strange to spend most of the plot declaring Ashe inconsequential only for the grand schemers of the world to wait on her every move.

So, for the most part, FFXII does something a little different. You spend much of the game out of touch with events, travelling on foot through the wilds[1]. The plot triggers are generally associated with your arrival at the end of the journey, whether you travel to defeat or just to meet a plot-relevant NPC. When you arrive, what you feel is not that you have caused something to happen, but that you have missed something happening and must struggle to catch up.

When you return to Rabanastre after escaping prison near the start of the game, it’s the kidnapping of Penelo. When you arrive at Mt. Bur-Omisace after travelling across half the world in search of support for Ashe’s royal claim, it’s the replacing of the kindly Emperor Gramis with his merciless son that removes all hope for parlay. Later, arrivals at the Imperial capital Archades and the summit of the Pharos lighthouse are similarly recontextualised.

The exception to the pattern is after the first long journey in the game – here, you’re swooped down on by the Imperials right after subduing and recruiting the powerful spirit that guards Ashe’s inheritance. Why? Because for a brief moment, holding that inheritance, the characters are globally significant. Then the Imperials take it off you and destroy it.

This symbolic disenfranchisement of the player is very FFXII, but doing things this way doesn’t have to be so stark. The key is not that things happen without the player involved (though that helps) – it’s that things happen without a precisely-defined moment. The plot develops while you travel, however long that takes. Even if a specific timestamp were to be given for the event when you’re told about it (‘three days ago’, ‘last week’), the fact that different players will have taken different amounts of ‘real-world’ time to get from trigger to trigger establishes ambiguity.

Plot developments can only seem temporally coincidental if they can be tied to specific moments[2]. The ambiguity of the translation between play-time and narrative time can be used to break these ties and make the narrative feel much more (for want of a better word) organic.

There’s also the brute-force solution, of course: the Majora’s Mask approach. Games like MM and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII keep the clock ticking throughout. Events happen at precise moments whether you’re there or not. This is, in a sense, the most realistic way of presenting time.

But it has costs, at least if you want to tell a conventional story. Narrative triggers must be stretched, pulled out of shape, or repeated, to prevent the player missing them altogether. It’s telling that both MM and LR let you supernaturally manipulate time – without that affordance, the games would be unnavigable.

What FFXII shows is that the structure of in-game time can contribute powerfully to the meaning of the events portrayed. Temporal structures need not be neutral, invisible systems for the delivery of cutscenes; and they need not function based on an analogue of real time to do so.

[1] There’s something to be said, I realise now, about the relationship of this narrative device to the communicative intensity of the modern world. I’ve felt for a long time that this is something that fantasy narratives will struggle (or are struggling) to adapt to, and I’ll probably return to this theme later.

[2] This is actually tautologous, but I couldn’t think of a better way to put it.

Monday, 10 August 2015

When Did I Return to Nibelheim?

I’m replaying Final Fantasy VII at the moment, partly prompted by the announcement of the remake and partly to see how Tales of the Abyss relates to it[1]. I’m having a very different experience of the game than I did either of my previous forays into it. I don’t have much to say about the first of those, on the original PC version in about 2003, since I didn’t get very far before losing interest, but in light of the upcoming remake, I do want to talk about the second.

The second time I played FFVII, and the first that I completed it, I was sharing a house with a number of other gamers, all keen fans of the franchise. Foremost among them was a guy I’ll call Tom, who was one of Those FFVII Fans.

I don’t want to disparage Tom’s love of the game. It’s a great game, and unlike me he first encountered it completely fresh and had time at the right time in his life to explore it fully and have his mind repeatedly blown. But as what might be called a ludocentric gamer – whose play focussed on the mastering of systems and surpassing of challenges – he engaged with a very different FFVII to the one calling out to me.

It’s not even that Tom didn’t recognise the depth and complexity of FFVII’s story. It just wasn’t what he focussed on. When I wanted to include Aeris in my party, because I felt that that was what Cloud would do (not an opinion I hold anymore, but I did then), Tom told me off for wasting XP and equipment on her – we both knew she was going to die, but for Tom that made her useless to me in a way that I just didn’t care about that much.

I played through the whole game with Tom breathing down my neck, pushing me to play in a certain way, take a certain attitude to the in-game events. I enjoyed the game, overall, and indeed enjoyed most of my conversations and arguments with Tom about it, but I wouldn’t say it made much of an impression on me. It was a good game, but I couldn’t feel its tremendous influence.

This is not a complaint about ludocentric play. I know I’m complaining about ludocentric play, but the problem isn’t how Tom chose to engage with the game, or what it meant or was to him. My complaint is with the way he insisted the game had to be the same thing to me. (Something similar happened with a number of other games over the years we lived together – FFVII is strong enough to stand up, but some of the others are probably spoiled for me forever).

It’s only in playing the game afresh, on my own, that I’m starting to find the FFVII that matters to me, that will leave an impression on me. Now I can pause and appreciate the blocking in the cutscenes, the exquisite care of the camerawork and sound design, the surprising nuance of so much of the writing.

Why talk about this now? Well, sometime in the next couple of years, a whole lot of people are going to get the chance to come to FFVII fresh, in a game that really won’t – can’t, for better or worse – match the memories of people who played it when it was new. That disconnect could do a lot to hurt the actual experiences people have with the remake, maybe on both sides (I imagine it’s hurting some people in conversations within the dev team already).

The thing is, FFVII is actually a great game to have as a new experience. It’s a game about having an image of something – Cloud’s image of the past, his fateful return to Nibelheim – that is slowly revealed to not match reality. FFVII is a landmark of games history and culture, but the memories of those who ‘were there at the time’ are necessarily personal, even a distortion.

Like Tifa, shaking her head and murmuring worries while Cloud grandly recounts fighting alongside Sephiroth, those of us who weren’t there encounter a striking dissonance between the deeply-held beliefs of our friends and the actual experiences in front of us. Having the space to explore that dissonance has definitely enriched the game for me, but in a different context – with Tom’s memories of the game pressing in around with me – it could be stifling.

Whatever FFVII is to you, please try to be aware of the fact that that isn’t neutral; you aren’t right about it. It’s a game that can be many things to many different people. It doesn’t need justifying. It doesn’t even need justifying in its current half-updated incarnations, like the Steam version I’m currently playing, with its hi-res low-poly models and low-res un-updated backgrounds. The game is strong enough that it doesn’t need nursemaiding through encounters with new players.

I’d say also that fussing too much over spoilers is counterproductive. That’s for two reasons; firstly, that spoilers are inevitable given the prominence of the game. Secondly, what makes FFVII’s major twists interesting and powerful has very little to do with surprise. This is true for almost everything that people worry about spoiling, and surprise is rarely interesting in and of itself[2], but, as someone who knew all along that Aeris would die and that Cloud’s memories are actually Zack’s, I can promise you from personal experience that those revelations don’t lose their power to foreknowledge.

It is all well and good to love a game, particularly if that game has been important to your love of the form (and provided it doesn’t blind you to its shortcomings). But nostalgia for your own experience of a game can be a prison that keeps the game away from other players, even other players who play it for seventy hours and see every bit of content it has to offer. If you love FFVII, please be prepared to let it go, at least a little bit.

Of course, I can say all this now. You might want to save a link to this article to throw right back at me if and when Final Fantasy XII gets a HD remaster/remake, because I will be insufferable as hell during that launch week…

[1] This is a topic for another time, but Abyss has a protagonist with a whole bunch of false memories and a metaphysics based on the Kabbalah mythology from which Sephiroth’s name is drawn. I am pretty sure this isn’t a coincidence.

[2] Okay, that may be a little strong, particularly since I personally hate surprise and the unexpected in all its forms. I do, however, believe strongly that very little that can actually be ‘spoiled’ is valuable in and of itself – most plot twists are either interesting whether or not they’re surprising, or actually not interesting at all.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Elbows, or Video Dancing

My elbows stick out quite a long way. I’m six foot tall, long-bodied for my height, and long-armed even for my body. If I wave my arms in the air like I just don’t care, I’m not quite a danger to low-flying aircraft, but I am a danger to light fittings, not to mention the heads of other dancers. Basically, my persona is this guy:

No style and no grace indeed. Source
So I don’t tend to dance very much from the waist up – it’s not just that I feel like I look conspicuously ridiculous, it’s also that I have actually injured people and inflicted noticeable property damage in the past (okay, so self-consciousness is also a big part of it).

In fact, in general, I’m not terribly confident of the grace of any part of my body, except for one. I’m happy with my hands. Whether on keyboard or gamepad, or at the piano, and of course with a Guitar Hero controller, I feel much less awkward[1].

Video games, at least those controlled mainly with buttons, extend my fingers into a whole digital body, often one hard-programmed for grace. I love games about movement – (‘pure’) platformers, endless runners, driving games. I get frustrated with ‘walking simulators’ because of how little they often have to do with the actual act of walking (but on the other hand, if you made a first-person flying simulator that was just a camera with a little bit of physics behind it, I’d probably never play anything else again).

And yet I haven’t seen any critical work relating video games to dance. Plenty about the relationship between games and theatre, games and music, games and architecture, all of it important and valuable, but nothing about dance. Now, I’ve not been around that long and maybe I’ve missed it or it’s passed me by – please let me know if that’s the case – but we’re in a medium where Chris Crawford can say something like this:

“The problem with artistic expression in games is that the games are fundamentally spatial, and the means of expression available to the player are very limited.”

It’s an old clip and this next one isn’t, but the means available to these dancers don’t seem very limited in expression:

Or these:

(okay, some of that is Ginger Rogers being a fantastic actress, but also the dancing)

Or this:

Of course, because I don’t dance and I’m pretty much terrified of trying to learn where anyone might see, I’m the last person who should start writing about the link between video games and dance, but there’s got to be something we can say about this:

Or this:

Or even, perhaps too obviously, this:

I like games about movement, when I’m not obsessively focussed on games as story-delivering systems. Even there, it’s often the ability to direct my own motion through a story that most engages me, and increasingly I find the lack of the same in film and TV to be a turn-off. It’s part of why I talk so much about travel in my games writing.

When I dabble in making games, it’s usually to convey something with or through movement. When I play games to unwind, to relax, to feel good rather than Deeply Engaged, I’m almost always seeking new forms of movement. Not my movement – I feel safest and least dangerous with my scarecrow body confined to a chair – but the movement of my dancing digits.

[1] The mouse is another matter – to move a mouse you pretty much have to use your elbow, and I hate that. I feel like my mouse control is about a tenth as reliable as using the keyboard, and if a game relies on mouse control I’m much less likely to play it/stick with it for very long.