January Wrap-Up

Well, here we are, the last weekday in January.  At the start of this month, I wasn’t sure I’d get through it.

We’ve had a lot of local drama here, financial stuff with Tam and I, and Girl’s next-door-neighbor went off the freaking deep end.  She’s moving today, to a nicer duplex that also happens to be closer to my busstop, and still in walking distance of where I live.  This makes me happy.

Also, today, Tam and I make it through our own financial mess that had left us strapped for most of the month.   We’re not totally caught up on everything, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel well enough to know it’s not an oncoming train.  We’ve got our PAX East tickets, and that vacation is mostly planned for, and will be budgeted, etc, within a week or two.

I’ve spent some of my time this month — at least when I wasn’t furiously writing blog posts — learning Python, and working with pygame.  That’ll continue in the next month, although I may try to finish my AIF before I do that.  I have some thoughts about that, as you may have noticed.

Many years ago, I kept an online diary, I wrote about 1K words/day, usually about whatever I was doing that day, or had done. It was very personal, and maybe sometimes had some more thought to it — but not often. The writing I’ve done here in the past month has some of that personal flavor, but I feel like I’ve been able to apply it to the game thought that is largely what Cult of the Turtle has been about recently.

One nice aspect of having such an aggressive schedule is that it’s forced me to narrow my focus and accept some imperfection in what I have to say.  It makes this whole blog feel like a work in progress. I’m not writing essays, but developing ideas in a public and open way.  That may come back to bite me someday, but I’m human, and I’m still alive, so my ideas are still developing.  Just because I said something three weeks ago doesn’t mean I’ve not refined or moved on from it.  Still, it’s a good process.

Which is why, despite the original challenge now fulfilled, I’m going to continue it.  I need to work on other creative projects, particularly both games and my fiction writing, and I’m sure that’ll color what the posts here are about. Like my discussions of Amaranth, the posts here may be about my progress from a design or technical standpoint.

Certainly I’m not done with liminality or transgression, and these both inform what I want to do about games, and my goals there. I don’t know if I’ll be successful at implementing my ideas, but unless I try I won’t know.  And maybe my work will inspire others who can take it further.  As long as there’s life, there’s growth, right?

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed it — I know I’ve liked and enjoyed the feedback that I’ve gotten, and look forward to more.  That’s the primary way I’m “paid” for what I do.  So, as I go forward, I hope I’ll interest you enough to keep the feedback loop going.

Thanks to everyone for a good month in this new year, and hopes for more to come!

Transgression: Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery

There is a lot to say about sexuality in video games, from character models to treating romantic partners like vending machines.  The transgression series is primarily interested in player action though, so this post is about sexual actions the player can take.   This is a much smaller subset of actions in games, and I share with Damon Brown (author of Porn and Pong) the concern that games haven’t quite figured out a good way of representing sexual actions.

It occasionally astounds me that we have so many games where killing and murder are rampant, but in which sex and relationships are an afterthought or a non-thought.  Then I turn on the television and watch it for a while; things aren’t that different there.  I get that the “games are for kids” meme is still very strong, but I”m happy to have M-rated games.  I’m not surprised that AO-ratings are death knell just like NC-17 is for movies, and I wish it were otherwise.

This series is largely about taking societally unacceptable actions and encapsulating them in game mechanics, to allow the player to experience something liminal, something they wouldn’t do in the real world.  Most people aren’t going to break into a house and rob it, or kill legions of enemies — or even murder a few people.  In some ways, though, almost any sex (even societally acceptable forms of it) falls into a transgression if it allows the player to perform it as an action.

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Transgression: Thou Shalt Not Kill, Part 2

When I first thought about writing the transgression posts on killing, Assassin’s Creed was foremost on my mind. In the games you play as an assassin (first Altair, and later Ezio), who is discovering a plot by Templars to control humanity.  The assassins are cast as people who love peace and freedom, and use assassination as their tool to manipulate history.

As such, you as the player have a wide palette of verbs with which to both move stealthily and to kill.  Stealthy killing is rewarded in the game by virtue of avoiding “non-social” actions.  You aren’t seen, so you don’t raise an alarm.  This is similar to Thief and the games based around thievery that I wrote about yesterday, but it obviously brings things up a notch.  You aren’t just taking valuables, you’re taking lives. And often just because the person is in your way, or would hamper your larger meta-goals.  The assassins may have decent motives, but you don’t just assassinate big targets, but lowly, anonymous ones — and en masse, at that.

Interestingly, the stealthy killing option is often a backstab.  A quick walk up and a hidden knife, and the killed person slumps to the floor.  It’s the way you kill 90% of the time in Assassin’s Creed, yet almost no promotional shots show it.  The gameplay video for AC2 had some of that, but none of the stills.  In fact, the still above — a wallpaper that I assume is official (it certainly seems professional enough) is the only time you can see Altair or Ezio attacking someone from behind.  Even then, he’s not stealthy, and is facing a bigger fight with the guy on the right.

This points to me something odd.  It’s an acknowledgement by the makers of the game — or at least their marketers — that there’s something uncomfortable about what the game allows you to do.  Killing people just doing their jobs — keeping you off the roofs of Venice, as opposed to aliens or more dehumanized enemies.  There no expressed discomfort as in Uncharted 2, it’s just something Ezio does. Admittedly most of those murders are optional, but I found them necessary in order to enjoy the free movement of the parkour.

That certainly supports the control vs freedom narrative underlying Assassin’s Creed, but it’s interesting that denying someone else’s freedom (by killing them) is condoned by a freedom-loving group. And that the marketing at Ubisoft recognizes it, and downplays it in their advertising says that perhaps they too are uncomfortable with it.  Personally, I look forward to games without killing in them at all (but which still have humans in conflict in them — Tetris is not what I’m talking about here).

Still, all of this dichotomy sets the player up outside of normal society, giving him a liminal space to play in.  Given that gamers often feel like they chafe under society’s rules and judgement, and want the freedom to do as they will, we readily project ourselves onto our avatar in the Assassin’s Creed games.  We don the role of competent killer and climber, and go out to do those things.  Sure, there’s some sort of labyrinthine plot there, but that’s not the core of the game fun.  We are murderers, and we are ruthlessly efficient at it, and while there are certain high-up targets whose hands are not clean, we take out guards and mercenaries who are, for the most part, just doing their jobs.

Tomorrow we talk about some of those games, where we don’t kill anyone at all.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t forcing our will on them though.  Is it worse than killing them, though? I don’t know the answer to that, but we dicusss it tomorrow as we look at sex in games with “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”.

Transgression: Thou Shalt Not Kill, Part 1

Here’s an interesting thing about today’s commandment.  The proper translation of it is probably “You must not commit murder.”  Murder is different than killing, even if humans are your target in both places.  The current Catholic Church (according to Wikipedia) translates this commandment as one against killing, which is a broader term than murder.

The idea is that you don’t murder your enemies in battle, you kill them.  Murdering is reserved for those of your group: members of your village, tribe or country.  Killing is something you do to Others.  Killing, ultimately, is somehow more morally acceptable because it is done to things less human than you are.  Murdering is the killing of humans.  So we cast our enemies as inhuman, so we can kill them without being murderers.

The first killing that I remember in video games was Space Invaders.   There’s nothing much more Othered than aliens, especially ones bent on your destruction.  Killing became a staple of games, every shooter everywhere, was essentially about killing.  We’v fought aliens and zombies, robots and Nazis.  And in most of these games, our enemies wind up being othered in some way.

The Border House has an interesting series on how this othering becomes racism in some cases.  I think we’re so used to “if it moves, kill it” type gameplay that we can miss this sort of thing entirely.

We’ve largely become inured to killing in games, it’s what we do, right?

In fact, I’d argue that it’s so ingrained in American culture, and the culture of gaming that just having enemies to kill isn’t enough to be transgressive, no matter what our religions or beliefs might want us to believe.  The othering of our enemies is so powerful that it’s no longer transgressive.  Add that to the list of culturally acceptable enemies, and we never really step outside of our society.  It’s kind of clear why this happens: a game were you were really a murderer is going to get a media frenzy unlike anything more than sex in a game.

Even games which are edgier, like Manhunt, for instance, skirt this somewhat.  In Manhunt you have to kill, and kill dramatically or be killed.  That sets the stakes and moves it somewhat from murder to killing (as survival is one of those moral outs our society accepts.)  Even so, it certainly got the moral outrage of the Jack Thompsons of the world, and with some reason.

Even so, in my picture search, this was the most visceral image I could find, and look at our enemy.  He’s got a mask on — a skull mask.  He’s been genericized to be an unknown bully, and one who looks kind of dangerous anyway.  It’s okay to kill him, to choke him with a bat, even.  He’s just some random inhuman thing, anyway.

Manhunt, at least gets us out of society and into a liminal space.  The setting does that, certainly, being one that’s so contra-society.  It’s a visceral game, that could have been better.  Perhaps Manhunt 2 did it even more with it’s logic, but I admit I’ve not played that one. I didn’t play a lot of Manhunt, either, but enough to get the feel for the game.

Of course there are mainstream games which have cast the player in the role of an assassin with or without any good reason to be one.  Oblivion comes to mind here.  The player has to go out of their way to kill a named NPC (and then another one) to join the Dark Brotherhood.  Then the player goes on a series of missions where they are told to kill people.  There’ s no justification as to why — it’s what you do, after all.  Some of the people you kill may even be fairly nice.

Then, to drive home the point, Oblivion has you kill off your new family.  There’s no doubt in your mind that it is murder.  There was none in my mind when I killed M’raaj Dar and Antoinetta Marie, that I was killing friends and family.  And that wasn’t killing anymore, it was truly murder.  It made for one of the most evocative sequences in the game, because for once, the player was pulled fully into the world, and into a space where they were something different.  It’s unfortunate the game wasn’t able to do that more often — but I think transgression analysis can explain why it was largely unsuccessful. (And that’s the topic for a different post).

Are there games that really made you feel like a murderer? That encapsulated that feeling for you? How different is that for you than the generic killing in most games — and is that a problem, really?

Tomorrow, a bit more on killing.

Transgression: Thou Shalt Not Steal

The rain it raineth on the just
and on the unjust fella.
But chiefly on the just, because
the unjust steals the just’s umbrella.
–Lord Bowen

It was fifteen or so years ago, and my roommates, Ginger and Jason, and I were talking about role playing games.  We’d recently discussed the recent announcement that someone was making a graphical MUD based on the Ultima licesne and I confessed to never having played Ultima.  ”They’re all great,” Ginger told me. “Except for 4.  Don’t play that one.”

“Why?” I asked.  It was doubtful I’d play it. I had some Martian one that had good cache amongst my friends, and it had come with Ultima 7.

Jason laughed, and took a drag on his ever-present cigarette.  ”It’s the quest for the Avatar,” he said. “You have to be moral.”

Ginger nodded, “If you steal anything you lose.  And there’s all that stuff to pick up, everywhere. Don’t put it there if I can’t pick it up!”

‘”It’s there to make sure there’s a choice,” Jason said, contradicting her. He was her fiance so he could do that.

We were still a few years out before we had Thief to play, but were already thinking about morality in games, and about stealing.  On the one hand, we have the idea that everything in chests is there for us to take, as the player. After all, we’re the most important person (or group) in the whole world. Everything in it exists for us, so if we can take it, it is ours.  In one sense, it was always ours, as it wouldn’t have existed without us.

Some of the chests in Dragon Age: Origins still feel that way. I mean, here you are in this refugee-laden city, people don’t have what they need: food, water, money. But it’s right here, in these chests.  The ones no one opened until you got there.  The game fiction makes no sense unless you assume it’s there for you to take.  That sort of thing doesn’t really feel like stealing. I mean, it’s a chest, and your a PC, you evolved together in righteous selection.

Some games, though, exert non-player ownership over some items. Oblivion changes your cursor to red, when you hover over a chest that belongs to someone else.  You know right away when you’re stealing.  You can even see what you stole when you look at it in your inventory.  Right next to the cabbage you picked out of someone’s garden (not stolen!) is the one with the red hand on it, the one you got out of the chest in the armor store.  A regular merchant will buy one lettuce and not the other, since even they can tell a stolen lettuce from one that wasn’t. And the guards will confiscate it if they catch you.

Detailed like that it approaches silliness — and pushing anything to it’s edges can be like that.  But here we begin to see what enforces the liminal space — it’s the approbation within the game itself that defines the act as stealing.  In a lot of ways it is more fun to steal from a chest than just to loot it.  It’s more fun to wander about knowing you can get caught.  There are several ways to launder your stolen items: use them (lettuces can be used to make potions) or, sell them to a fence, and buy it back.  It’s an extra step, but if you get caught breaking the law then the items are forfeit.  The more items you have the bigger the risk.

And thus stealing implies some sort of stealth gameplay.  You need to sneak during your stealing, you need to be at risk of being caught.  Otherwise you’re just in a random dungeon picking up loot — only it’s someone’s house.  Getting caught in a game means possibly getting killed, which is why the titular character from the Thief games is such a bad fighter.  The punishment for getting caught is a harder problem of fighting a battle — one you’re probably going to lose.

The risk, of course, is good, as it sets you outside the boundaries in the game world — letting it stand in for our society.  Your character, the thief, then steps into his own circle, where he is competent and an outsider.  There are still rules which bound his existence — in Thief the harder levels of difficulty won’t allow you to kill someone, establishing Garret as a thief, and not an assassin.  And here you are, as the player, two levels in, and hugging shadow, pulled into the liminal space where you can steal with impunity, and not feel the guilt — nor do harm to your fellow man or risk jail or censure for doing so.

I think there’s an interesting question of why we would want to do that sort of thing — it’s obvious to me that many people do want it.  What need, I wonder, does it fulfill in us to steal from others, or commit the other sins I’ll be discussing this week? I feel there is an answer, even if I’m not sure of it now. Perhaps you can help me decipher it.

Please feel free to comment here on your ideas (or write your own blog posts, and link to these.)  If thievery doesn’t get to you, though, I can with near certainty promise that you’ve committed tomorrow’s sin in a game.

Transgression by Transgression

This week I’m going to delve back into my ideas around Transgression.  To recap a bit, transgression is the breaking of a boundary, usually a moral or social one.  Sins, therefor, are transgressions and we’ll be looking at some of the commandments this week.  I’m not a Christian, though I was raised as one, and well, it’s pretty ingrained in my culture.  If you’re not commenting on Plato you’re probably commenting on Christianity, so I’ll be using it a bit to frame my discussions this week.

No worries, any moralizing I may do won’t really be particularly Christian.

Transgression is important because it takes us out of society for a moment, and allows us to be outsiders.  Video games are important because they let us act, and transgress, in an environment where it has been made safe to do so.  The worst thing that will happen by our in-game transgressions is that we’ll lose our progress.

Yes, it’s possible to do things which are really wrong, or even illegal, in multi-player games, that’s not what I’m talking about here. In particular I want to talk about the ways that games are programmed to allow, or even require, transgression. Games where being bad is actually the point and purpose of the experience.  We can transgress in minor ways — there’s a DS game where you play as a bus driver. I am not one, so i’m transgressing, as it were, on my role as an internet blogger computer programmer writer person. That’s a fine definition and thought for a more rarefied discussion, so this week (and in general) I’m going to stick with more blatant and resonating transgressions.

But just as important as those blatant transgressions are, the fact that games make it safe to transgress sets us up for the duality that creates a liminal space. It is wrong to steal, but in the context of this game, it’s right to steal — it’s what I must do, to play the game.  Thus, I’m now in a new space, with new rules, breaking society’s boundary, but existing within the new boundaries of the game. It is wrong in society to steal, but wrong in my game to get caught doing it.

This week we’ll be looking at three things we’re told we’re not supposed to do, and the games that center around doing them.  Tomorrow, since we’ve mentioned already: stealing.

Echoes

I think some of it is nostalgia.  Some of it is the nature of games to build on what came before. Some of it is certainly the hit driven nature of games, that forces repetition.  Too many games I’ve been playing this year echo an older game that I find I’d rather be playing.

Dragon Age has me wanting to play Oblivion, which makes me want Morrowind.  I played Prototype, and more than anything, the moving around Manhattan made me want to play Spider-Man 2 so much, we tracked down a copy (thankfully backwardly compatible on the 360), and I played, and spending much time just web-slinging around the city.

BioShock has been doing this to me lately, although in a different way.  It feels almost tinny to me, as though it’s an echo and reflection of something and the fidelity isn’t quite right.  I’m having difficulty finding the wonderfulness that the net has assured me is there.  I was replaying it recently as I’d gotten the disk from Girl, partly because of the immanent arrival of BioShock 2, and also because the VGC played it.  I missed their playthrough (and want to hear their podcast), when I read Michael Abbot’s recent piece on the game.

I’m not good at shooters, especially on the console.  I have BioShock for the PC, my key is missing, and well, it’s designed for the 360 anyway.  I wanted to get through it, and experience this environment that is so lauded.  Perhaps my expectations are too high now, and it’s certain that my playthrough is jaded, as I know the secret of the Crying Game.

My initial impressions of BioShock? First, the plane crash, and fall to the water.  Why are there droplets of water on my screen? This was my reaction the first time I played this, close to when the game came out, and again, every time I play it.  It jars me out.

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The Fantasy of Competence

I’ve done some thinking since I wrote yesterday’s post about frustration in Dragon Age.   I think my analysis was wrong, actually.  It’s not really about play style.  I like run in and bash them on the head games, I like sneaky games. I like tactical games (and the Mage in WoW is a tactical class, for all her firepower).  It’s not even about dying repeatedly.  I had to return Demons’ Souls as it was a daily rental, but it’s in my GameFly queue.  And I never got out of the first dungeon, there.

The truth (and I think I’ve written about this before, on the long gone site) is that I like games that make me feel competent.  Player frustration is the exact opposite of this feeling for me.  I only played Demons’ Souls for a few hours, but in those same few hours with Dragon Age (which I’ve subsequently spent more time with) I was frustrated with it.  With Demons’ Souls, I felt like I learned something every time I died, or knew what my mistake was.  I was running a gauntlet, getting better at it each try.  I would succeed each time, and always knew why I failed.

While I’m talking about being competent, I’m not really talking about a power fantasy.  I don’t have to be super strong or in charge. I just want to be good at something, and have that something be what I’m doing in the game.  Mirror’s Edge was good at this, and would have been much better if it were built like a racing game instead of some absurd conspiracy plot.  Sure, you have a little tutorial at the beginning, but Faith is already competent, she doesn’t gain any abilities throughout the game, just more elaborate and difficult maze-races to work through.  I’m not becoming more powerful, but I am getting better, and I mostly feel competent while I do it.

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Playstyle Frustration

I’m having some real difficulty with Dragon Age: Origins.

I feel like I want to play it.  There’s — not peer pressure, but a sense from my peers that they liked this game.  From people with whom I’ve had detailed discussions about games we both liked.  In other words, people whose tastes I felt were very similar to mine.  These people love Dragon Age: Origins.  I’m very near the end of my patience.

One character, my Rogue ( a Human Noble), is stalled out in the first fighting area which comes immediately after her origin — in other words, the first bit of common question. I’d done that with my Human Mage, who very nearly got stalled out fighting the Ogre, in what is essentially the first area after the one my Rogue is in.  She is slightly beyond that, but not much, the experience with that fight is making me hesitant to want to continue, and now that I’m faced with too many choices, my natural hesitancy kicks in, and I rolled a new character.

I like a damage-dealing character.  The slogan for my Mage Zhenette (a standard name for my Mage characters) from WoW is “DPS is healing you don’t have to do.” Its a play style that involves doing lots of damage to enemies before they get to you, and minimizes the importance of defense. My WoW mage is a very tactical character, and the play is characterized by bursts of action and then downtime. I have a rogue on WoW,too, and she was a damage dealer, and a bit harder for me — as her damage was more over time, and required different tactical skills to accomplish, but the idea was much the same: do enough damage to avoid getting hit.

My play style in Torchlight is similar: run in clicking on things until they are dead.  I ususally remember to renew my buffs between battles, but not always — and yes, I can tell when I forget.  Just give me the biggest damage weapons and spells, and I’ll be on my way.  Armor is okay, too, but it’s secondary, or tertiary. I’ve got a pet in that game that more or less takes care of itself, although I think it ran away a couple of times. I never remember to heal it, so I learned a spell that heals us both, and that seems to work okay.  If playing Torchlight required keeping my pet buffed and healed, then I’d just quit, as I’m just not going to remember to do all that.  Make it so I have to manager it’s targets, too, and I’d probably leave.

Torchlight doesn’t have a lot more going for it than the explore/kill/loot cycle.  It’s frenetic and clicky and has a very basic, ignorable story.  Thankfully, they got the combat right, and I’m cool with it.  But I’d be pulling my hair out with DA:O’s combat if I had any to pull. (Goatee not an option, per the wives.)

Here’s the thing: both of my origin stories were awesome. I played the Mage one 1.5 times, and the Human Noble one.  I”m told these aren’t even necessarily the best origins.  I left those areas feeling like a kick-butt character, off to help kick-butt in other areas.  I knew it would be hard, but I was there to take names and chew bubblegum. My mage didn’t die in her origin, although my Rogue did once, my dog saving the day that time. {And so my Rogue, unlike myself, has a fondness for the thing.}  But I still felt like I could focus on my character and do some damage, and the stuff around me — the pet and my Mom, they did their part.

Then I’m dumped in the wilderness and it’s a different game. Alistair is the only one who isn’t constantly dying.  The Mage does slightly better than the Rogue, since she’s got a healing spell, when she has mana to cast it. My rogue has a bridge she just can’t get across.  Every time she sets foot on the far side, death is there, taking her back to the Fade.  Not fun.

Now, I’m not always upset about dying.  My WoW mage spent an inordinate amount of time either running from fights (WoW Mage Survival Tactic #1) or running back to fights.  It’s okay, I was a mage, I was going to die. Of course, Death in WoW or Torchlight is only a temporary state.  In DA:O, it’s a reload-last-save.  That fact taught me that there was a Quick Save option in Dragon Age, something I haven’t used since the last FPS I played.  There I expect some death and re-trying.  (And some is okay), so I reload and try again. I played that bridge scene 6 times Saturday night, all with the same result.

I’ve been working on it for a week.  More on this tomorrow.

Short Post Today

My Goddess Daughter evidently didn’t get the memo that the only thing she should bring home from school was refrigerator art, so all of us wound up catching the stomach flu she shared so well. (Momma always taught me to share, after all.)  The good news is that I had a day off for MLK Jr Day, the bad news is I spent it sleeping.  At least I’m not losing pay for a holiday my temp service doesn’t pay for (although my “real” employer treats it as a paid holiday).  I had hoped to do some writing today, and get some game playing in.

I did get some of the latter done, I admit, but it was pretty lightweight.  I started BioShock up in Easy mode — evidently I’ve not played BioShock under my XBOX360 profile (I played it at Girl’s house under a different profile, and I own a PC copy that I never got very far in).  I’m not feeling very invested in it — I certainly know the coming reveal already, but every time I play BioShock, it makes me miss SHODAN.

I have an embarrassment of riches here, on the PC.  I spent around $80 over Christmas on the Steam Sale, and have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 games (some of which were purchased over the past year), none of which I’ve gotten very far in.  I have several big RPGs: Fallout 3, Dragon Age:Origins, Morrowind:GOTY (my third(?) purchase of that game!), Eschalon:Book 1, Mr. Robot, Witcher:Enhanced Edition, Sacred 2, Torchlight, Hinterlands, and StarWars:KOTOR.  I also picked up a NWM2 module on someone else’s sale, I’m not even sure I can install Neverwinter Nights at this point (I have my keys, but do I remember any of the other DRMific info?).  And that, my friends, is just the list of RPG or strong RPG-elements games.  I bought the Indie pack, I’ve got some FPSs, I’ve got some RTSs, and a pleasant handful of Adventures (Loom!, the Space Quest collection!)

Now I hate it when games do that thing where they give me too many choices.  It’s one reason I only play Final Fantasy games with a guidebook in my lap. I’m given too many choices without any idea what the consequences of my choices are.  Several times in the past week, I’ve sat down at my computer looked over my list of games (over half are installed) and ponder what I’m going to play.  Then I go over to FaceBook and play TikiFarm for a few minutes, then hit Kongregate up for a Tower Defense game.  It’s just easier than deciding.

Given that the much-vaunted first quarter releases have few things I care about, I’d hoped to write some about the games from Steam, but I’m just not playing them.  It’s kind of funny, really. I have enough games to keep me busy for a year, and I can’t focus enough to play one.  I’ll admit I’m trying very hard with Dragon Age, but I’ll write a bit about that tomorrow.  It’s still instructive, though, even if things are occasionally frustrating.