The other day, I realized I was racial profiling my facebook comments. I was parsing through the faces, skipping commentary by white faces. How did I come to doing this?

My fear: Identity Politics.

More often than not, i find people described in articles via the various properties of their birth. Their skin color, their religion or their sex, their gender, or their sexuality. At least the religion aspect involves some ideology upon the person described. The problem with these descriptions is how often they’re used and how they’re used.

It follows a pattern like this, “X is Y, thus…”. This person is white male, so you know what that means. This person is transgendered, so you realize why…

Of course, X is a white male, so…

Being that Y is a Z, it’s likely that…

It seems to slip into every little bit of modern discussion. I dislike this practice. Honestly, I detest it, but I cannot escape it. I read it over and over, because I do not avoid conflicting viewpoints.

My issue may be that it’s having a negative impact upon me. If the point of identity politics is to say to people that these racisms exist then it’s worked on me in a very disturbing way. I doubt I had these racist habits before. I know I had some level of it when I was young and informed by those around me of racial ideas. However, I get past that point and judge someone on what they present to me. That is to say, I wasn’t like this last month.

People are people. I feel chilled when that individual identity is forgotten. Yet here I am, grouping people via shallow qualities and assigning them values.

I am racial profiling to decide who gets to be heard.

It’s Halloween and a family walks into the cafe with their two kids dressed as The Joker and that V for Vendetta fella. Why so serious and the face of Anonymous.

How totes apropes.

It’s Halloween and I just sat down to write this piece. I haven’t written in this blog in awhile, but the blog suddenly felt relevant again.

 

Harrassment, ethics, controversy, and twitter hashtags.

I just wanted to get those words out of the way. The people and names you may be conjuring in your head don’t really matter. The issue isn’t new and the issue will repeat itself.

Here’s the issue: Victimhood as Power versus Attacks on Sincerity.

Victimhood as Power

Nobody wants to be a victim. At least, that’s what I always thought. I am not sure I completely believe that anymore, but I do believe a few things still.

I believe anyone who has been a victim would want to erase the event that made them a victim. I believe good people still show empathy towards those that are victims. I believe we should reach out and help victims.

I also believe we should empower victims to speak up. We need safe places for them to go and speak. We need for victims to have people they can tell their story to and seek protection. We need these things so that the acts that create victims can stop.

However, there’s a huge difference between empowering victims to speak up and seeing victimhood as power. A huge, important difference. A difference of desire and purpose.

Don’t desire to be a victim. Don’t desire to connect with someone else’s tragedy. Don’t twist the purpose of empathy towards a grab of power. Do not take serious concern and manipulate it towards personal means and gain. Do not fantasize over being a victim.

And, please, do not delight and empower those that attack and create victims.

I do believe power corrupts. I believe power attracts the wrong sorts of people. This is why victimhood should never be a source of power. Victimhood cannot be celebrity. Victimhood cannot be the basis of an identity that gets you increasing media attention and platforms from which to speak. If you have something to say, then go out and earn that right to speak to more people. If you use your own cries of victimhood to gain attention and thus power, you are still being a victim. You aren’t stopping the creation of victims. You are extending your own victim status. You keep victimizing yourself.

And that’s a disturbing thought to me. A victim is a product of suffering. It should be this way though it shouldn’t ever happen.

But once victimhood is power it becomes a sort of dark, twinkling light to reach out and touch. Victimhood shouldn’t be something you identify with, because it’s a product of violence or disregard. It’s something created. It’s a status. It’s a terrible scar upon one’s life. It’s sudden injury upon your psyche and body. You don’t identify with wounds or broken noses. You get them and hope they heal, though they never may fully heal. You may be a victim of molestation, but you don’t want it to be your identity. I may have grown up sickly, but I don’t see myself as the disease that causes this.

Victimhood isn’t an identity but a status. When you begin to see victimhood as power then it becomes identity. It becomes something to reach out and connect to or proclaim kinship with, and what it’s best used for starts to move away from empathy and healing, and, instead, towards politics and the tools of strife.

For how can you keep up your victimhood if you begin to heal? How do you keep the power and presence of your victim bright and present if the attackers are apprehended, if justice is served and the wounds treated? What purpose does healing have when the healing gets in the way of one’s access to power?

If that sounds like sustained victimhood could be a difficult sort of persona to maintain, then that’s the point. It can’t be easy.

In order to maintain this victim status to ensure you carry the social power you believe it wields, you will need to do a few things.

  • You need your image as a victim to persist. You have to either maintain the act that makes you a victim or create new acts to associate victimhood with.
  • You must delay the healing. You can’t let people feel the issue has been addressed or has even begun to be addressed. Most disturbingly, you need to maintain your attacker’s agency in order to maintain your victimhood until you can find access to a new source of victimhood.
  • You have to resist any act that may alleviate the strife that triggers your victimhood. If any act may lead to healing or resolution, it must be avoided or worked against. You can’t let anyone help in a way that may actually lead to healing. All help must serve to persist the acts that create your status as a victim.
  • You must continue to link victimhood with power and prove it by wielding the power. If nobody believes it has any power then it begins to lose power. It can only persist through strong reactions to the display of victimhood.

 

And due to these things, the whole enterprise of victim as a source of power becomes detrimental to actually addressing victims and the acts that victimize them. Everything that should be done often is not done because they endanger the link to power the individual has. Even if you are not the actual victim of the act, you can still be invested in persisting the victimhood if it allows you access to victimhood as power.

A Playground for Post-Irony

A most troubling question for me is what kind of victimhood can persist without permanently damaging the person claiming it? What kind of act and victimization can be preserved without destroying those involved?

For this to occur, there must be a condition: the harmful act can’t be truly, truly harmful. In that, I mean that the victim cannot be in real danger to their livelihood. These victimizing acts cannot change one’s life just the same as a Oprah recommended book cannot change your life. That may seem an odd comparison, but let me explain.

People victimized by war, by the destruction of their homes, by their friends and family torn apart by civil war, cannot simply go back to the same life after war erupts. People who contract a major disease that debilitates them and limits their functions cannot live life as they did before, and have their options for life greatly reduced. That is life changing. That is a type of victim that cannot exist with power from the victimhood. The more the war wages on, the less you can return and the less of the world you had disappears. The worse the disease gets, the less you can do.

There is not a give and take with life changing victimhood. There is only a cruel, constant taking.

You read a book and you decide to follow some advice, and that helps you out, and you say that changed your life, but it’s nothing you couldn’t do before the book and it’s possible to return to life as you had it before. That sort of free will must exist within a persisting victimhood. You can stay or you can go.

There must be give and take in a persisting victimhood, and there must be persistence to maintain victimhood as power. To maintain the power, you have to re-invoke being a victim. If you heal, and if you survive, the power starts to leave.

We have war survivors, and we have cancer survivors, and we have rape survivors. Victimhood as power cannot allow for survivors if it seeks to maintain itself.

Then what does this contrasting type of victims do to the word victim?

Trolls Feast on Spilled Milk

I have been an internet asshole in the past. This behavior has a survival tool that best fits the idea of general apathy. It’s not apathy towards things the person has seen too much of, and so it’s not born of over-exposure to imagery, but this apathy exists to escape overexpsure to media and the discussion of it. It’s not the individual images, but the complete lack of silence one is afforded by the surrounding noise the collective media images, sounds and blather creates.

So you’re never serious, if you can at all help it. Caring is investing and then you get sucked back in. You don’t care. You attack sincerity, because it’s vital to caring. You laugh at anyone who doesn’t get what you get, that life’s a joke and treating life as not a joke is dangerous. The less things of matter can having meaning then the easier it is to maintain apathy.

And if you’re trolling via hacks or false identity, then you want attention for disrupting the media, and disrupting any hold sincerity has on people. If someone can’t figure out what’s going on or who is doing it then all the more hilarious, all the more confusing, and all the less the response has any meaning.

That’s Post-Irony.  Taking on personas or positions that previously would be seen as ironic or mocking, and then giving them complete sincerity. You’re the audience stepping onto stage with the performer mid-act, acting as though it’s nothing, and then ducking back into the crowd when they boo, just so you can boo, too. You attack merit, meaning, sincerity like scavengers upon the corpses of definitions. Either false sincerity or true, mislead sincerity. It doesn’t matter. The more it occurs, the less the elements involved have worth or meaning.

Victimhood as power is your perfect match. You don’t even need to do everything yourself. You simply incite, they claim victimhood, and you hide among other names and identities of those that actually care, and when those people look around, you hide n the shadows of apathy. You don’t care what they’re saying. You care that you can devalue it. So you poke again, and they cry victim louder, and soon they’re devaluing sincerity for you.  Attributing harm and danger where there is merely upset.

At a certain point, crying victim is crying wolf. But the wolf is not a beast. The real wolf is real victimization, and it’s a far crueler thing to make people doubt the wolf’s prey than it is for people to doubt the wolf itself.

The Sort of Strife for Play

Sometimes, I consider myself a coward. I don’t enjoy strife. Anger and aggression turn me away. I cringe at the wind slamming a door shut. There’s memories of real violence in my life. There’s memories I’ve likely lost and I’m worried about recovering them.

And then there’s arguments. I’ll have arguments. I’ll take ugly criticism. You can accuse me of enjoying that sort of strife. I’ll say that I enjoy anything I gain from it. Unchallenged views are boring, and they don’t feel good in your gut. I don’t go forth with weak views. The challenge makes my thoughts better formed.

I realize there’s not much danger in the argument. If there was, I’d be gone. When I do feel something truly ugly, I step out of the conversation.

It’s a strife of sorts, but one I can play at for the benefit it gives me.

But what is the strife of victimhood as power? Well, it’s the persisting strife. It’s an argument. It’s differences. It’s livable strife that somehow gets brought up to the status of unlivable strife.

Then you have those that feed the strife, and within it you have the post-ironic. People who have no belief behind what they say. They only know what they say will get a reaction. The hope the reaction sucks the validity out of anything involved.

And victimhood as power is retained, and as soon as it begins to fade, you find a way to ignite. The other side doesn’t truly care about the argument, but they’re so happy to prolong it. Over time, anything beneficial to be gained fades as the need to continue the strife takes over.

We’ll invert new harms with new terms and the other side will mock, and the mocking will be taken on as the real, and the real is the same as the false,  and the truth is the narrative, as the narrative is rewritten by each side, as each side takes turns being good and evil, and soon enough it’s hard to tell the dividing lines.

Those of a happening life passing by our controversies see it all like some roadside attraction. Some mundane business lot attracting the strangest crowds. These wacky-wavy inflatable tube people, gyrating and flailing about, saying nothing and doing nothing but being so loud, never stopping their tormented, crazed performance until somebody decides to stop blowing the wind up their ass.

What were we arguing? What are the sides? Sincerity is lost. The desire for strife outweighs the need for healing. Whatever was being discussed has been moved on from before we even understood it, because a new outrage has come along. It all becomes a rabbit hole so deep and twisting that it scares away people from even trying to figure it all out.

And it can’t be figured out. That would ruin the whole dynamic.

 

The New Cash Cow

Diablo 3 is one of the biggest PC game releases in some years. Being a Blizzard series and the sequel to one of the most popular PC games of all time holds a lot of weight with the consumer audience. It’s pretty much a holy holiday for PC gamers. Being that Diablo 2 is one of my favorite PC games, every word or whisper of the sequel would catch my attention, so I’m not innocent from the fanaticism myself.

Well, now the game is here, and I don’t feel like talking about playing the game would be interesting at all. Instead, what’s interesting is the disaster of a launch the game had and the continuing problems, and future issues the game presents.

The largest issue is the always online DRM that forces even single player games to be played online. To enforce this, Blizzard chose to keep much of the Diablo 3 game server side, keeping item information out of the hands of the players. The defense of this decision is based on the idea that it helps prevent hacking, duping and piracy.

Well, the whole thing has been a disaster. The crush of players to Battle.net has continually kept players out of the game, crashed the Auction House and lead to constant latency issues. Many people do play Diablo in single player mode, and many of these players are angered by the fact that they can’t play their single player game due to not being able to get past a login screen.

It’s hard to hack an offline player

Beyond this, there has been numerous reports of players getting their accounts hacked and items stolen, which makes the defense of DRM seem almost silly at this point. Furthering the issue, fan reaction has been rather vitriol towards the people who have been hacked, blaming them for the problem. A new mantra has sprung up that everyone should get an authenticator. If you get hacked and ever visited a website or reused any password ever or don’t grab an authenticator then it’s apparently all your fault. I’ll remember that the next time I buy a gun to go to the ATM. Even still, people have claimed that they’ve been hacked with an authenticator on their account. Of course, the greater issue is that if the only secure way to play a game that the company forces you to play online is to have an authenticator, then shouldn’t such a thing be included with the game?

Of course, the real reason behind the DRM is to protect RMAH transactions from being based off of faked items and also to force everyone into being a part of the Auction House system. The large ethical question here is whether greed has impacted the game’s design.

Diablo 3 works in a repetitive manner. You clear the game on normal difficulty, then proceed to Nightmare mode, then to Hell mode and finally Inferno mode. Diablo 3 itself is largely a loot based game, but Diablo 3 has emphasized this by making all difficulty in the game a gear check. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft followed this same pattern. In gear check games, all progression is linear and vertical. You have an item, then get a similar item with upgraded stats numbers which replaced the old item. The new item allows you to handle higher level content. This works until you reach a new tier of difficulty which requires the process to start all over again. In WoW, this progress was often tied to dungeon and raid tiers with select item drops on bosses and later token drops which could be handed in for gear. Diablo 3 turns this into a bit more of a lottery by making drops randomized, and then it makes the legendary drops (the really high tier items) appear at a very low rate until you hit Inferno mode. What makes the whole thing sinister is making Inferno mode a huge jump in difficulty that requires these sort of rare items to survive.

It has become clear to the userbase that its far easier to get these items through the auction house than it is through farming kills int he game. You will get drops by farming monsters, but there’s no certainty that the drop will fit your character. This in turn leads to selling the item on the Auction House and making gold to buy the items you need off the Auction House. It is unfortunate that progression has been tied to the Auction House, but it’s probably tolerable up until the point the Real Money Auction House launches. At that point, you may start finding all the items you need and all those items hackers stole appear only on the Real Money Auction House. When this happens, Inferno mode will become a Pay to Win game.

So far, the hacked account problem hasn’t been given a clear answer. Blizzard says their system hasn’t been compromised, but that sort of avoids any responsibility on their part. Even if the hackers haven’t found a way to exploit their system, creating the Real Money Auction House and forcing every player into it has created a bat signal for hackers. Blizzard isn’t so opposed to a shady enterprise being run through their game as they are opposed to not getting a cut from it. By including the Real Money Auction House into their game, they will be taking a cut on every transaction done through it. While this may cut out duplicate items and make buying items safer, it also makes less work for farmers, botters and hackers. They no longer have to run seperate websites and set up their own transaction system.

Costumers Respond?

The Korean government  has already raided the Blizzard Korean offices over consumer complaints. Are the complaints about the online DRM? Not exactly. The Korean government is responding to claims that players have asked for refunds from Blizzard due to the DRM system them keeping them from being able to play the game they played for because Blizzard’s servers can’t stay online ad that Blizzard is denying them a refund. Blizzard is hiding behind their EULA to deny consumers refunds. Yes, ye old EULA, that devil contract companies present to you after they’ve got your money. Apparently, the Korean Fair Trade Commission is looking into the EULA as being unfair to consumers. Is it unfair? Of course. Will the Korean FTC go through with this investigation? I’m not sure.

The funny thing is trying to figure out how a company that has run World of Warcraft for years was unable to handle the launch of an online game. One possible answer is that WoW exists on a different server system from Diablo 3, which is fit squarely under the larger umbrella of Battle.net. While WoW and all Blizzard games are tied into Battle.net, WoW has its own system of separate servers to split up their userbase, auction houses, mail systems and chat systems. Diablo 3 exists under the large umbrella of Battle.net, likely using a non-SQL system that may dynamically shard itself in some manner, but for which all those different databases and servers must talk to each other and depend upon each other. If one system goes down then it can cramp the other systems or keep a player out of the system. The D3 launch disaster didn’t just knock out Diablo 3 players, but locked WoW players out of their login due to WoW’s login being one of the systems tied to Battle.net. Blizzard forums and websites also went down due to the crush.

So while things are ugly now, they could get uglier.While Blizzard had beta tests for Diablo 3, they are just now running into the issue of millions of people hitting Battle.net at once. These issues will be figured out over time, and activity will slow down over time, but the Real Money Auction House lingers in the near future, presenting a brand new problem.

Recently, Arena Net has unveiled more of the upcoming MMO title Guild Wars 2 to the press in a closed beta. It is assumed that the public will have a chance to be selected for another closed beta by the end of this month. The game itself has been in development and discussion for many years, but the recent press beta resulted in the largest exposure of the game to the enthusiasts, even out-weighing the various demos covered at conventions.

Arena Net, from here on referred to as ANet for my convience, has touted their design philosophy behind Guild Wars 2 as a selling point, a promise to gamers to break away from common perceptions and expectations about MMOs. The game claims to have done away with the holy trinity of tank, healer and dps. The game’s open world content is based on interconnected Dynamic Events. There are no longer quest NPCs spotted around town with text boxes and accept/decline options. Instead, things just happen and you can participate or choose not to. The skills in the game are mostly tied to weapon choice and you learn them from using your weapon. There is no mob tagging or kill stealing as you are given credit once you participate and rewarded via how much you participate. The list of departures from standards of MMOs goes on from here.

The reason I am writing this is not to go over what Guild Wars 2 is or to list the changes in the game. There’s plenty of people filling the webspace with rundowns and information dumps. As the title suggests, this blog entry pertains to raiding and its absence from Guild Wars 2 and to what the essence of raiding really might be.

Raiding has become the stand-in for PVE endgame content not due to any victory over other options or due to any great, involving and joyful aspect naturally found within raiding, but because there simply hasn’t been much else to challenge it. In MMOs, PVE endgame content consists of a wee pinch of choice in ventures and to-dos. A max leveled character’s gameplay options include re-rolling as a new character, completionist goals of filling out achievements in the game, farming and playing the market for gold, or the monolithic world of raiding and its accompanying gear treadmill.

A lot of people have put forth their worries about investing their playtime in Guild Wars 2 if it will struggle to persist without a raiding endgame to prop itself up. The reasoning here tends to be backed by an idea that people desire raiding. I contend that nobody actually enjoys raiding, but only enjoy the special things found within raiding and have no experience accessing those fun elements without the dreary elements that raiding binds with them.

I have experience raiding in World of Warcraft. I had no desire to be a virtual millionaire, so farming and playing the market wasn’t a big draw as a time waster to me. I did not find the quests in MMOs to be special enough to be played out if I did not desire any of their rewards. I rolled new characters, but then I was just retreading the same old quests again. This left raiding as a goal for myself when I maxed out, and I continued to play the raid game from Burning Crusade through to the start of Cataclysm, but even before Wrath of the Lich King had spat out its final aria, I was getting burnt out on the whole thing.

What I realized was that there were parts of raiding that I enjoyed and that these parts were similar to things found in other video games. These were the fun elements, these were giant bosses and beautiful, interesting dungeons with an epic feel to the fights and surroundings. I enjoyed working with others and the cooperative element was sometimes able to add an even more heroic and adventurous feel to the encounters.Then there were all the things which turned raiding into work instead of play.

Raiding often involves the gear treadmill, and the encounters are based upon this ladder climb of stats. Your tier 1 content is hard if you don’t have tier 1 gear, but it becomes a yawn when you’re hitting it with a sword and staff two steps above its tier. While I enjoyed playing with others, scheduling a playtime and the required dependency on others became a problem. Sitting around for an hour or two waiting for the last important member of your raid was never and never will be fun. Making sure they have all the potions and elixirs and whatnots needed to get by was a test of patience, but also a devourer of one’s own time.

Pretty soon raiding wasn’t just taking up the time you were in a raid, but asking you to spend your free time in support of the raid. You had no choice but to farm for gold because raiding was designed as a money sink and as such became a constant hit to your virtual-wallet. You needed to farm materials or farm for money to buy the materials you needed. Then the guides came out and you were researching your weekly dungeon and boss, learning a dance pattern to play out with each step planned for you and the only human element to your playtime including the difference between your finger press and your latency, and the goofy name you had chosen for yourself. Then there’s a chart to read to determine your threat, how well you’re doing and what dance step is coming up next. My screen was flooded with menus. I was watching health bars and not the game.

Finally, there was the loot, perhaps the last fun element to a raid. You had a chance at a shiny new reward, but you better have the DKP for it. In other words, you better have shown up to work a lot and sacrificed more of your life to a routine that was becoming less and less enjoyable. And I don’t claim a subjective “fun” here but an objective “fun”, as in that we separate the concept of work from play for a reason. Some people enjoy their work if their work is something they enjoy. There was something in raiding that was fun and enjoyable, but it had been buried underneath layers of artificial difficulties and pain. I was not a masochist and I was no longer enjoying the game I was paying every month to play.

But this whole time, there were those fun elements to be had, so what I contend is that Guild Wars 2 does not need raiding. What Guild Wars 2 needs is those fun elements without the painful bonds attached. I also contend that many raiders will find the same truth I found if a game delivers on providing the feeling of epic encounters and captivating dungeons that put those elements forefront. These elements include good boss design, fantastic dungeons, epic feels, challenging gameplay and some sort of reward or sense of accomplishment. These are things players desire, but raiding has packaged these things in a box full of time sinks and annoyances. Since nothing has come along to challenge raiding, nothing has moved forward in the design and delivery of the sort of elements gamers enjoy. People have begun to think the box these good elements came in is what they wanted, and it’s created a weird masochistic gentlemen’s club of raiders. People just wanted into the club without thinking of why.

The question in the title has to do with how a story is told and how it gets done within a game, so keep it in mind as you read through. (Pretty please with fireball powerups on top.)

A videogame character rarely does much in its life without the instruction from the player to do so, and a game character doesn’t exist in pages further on past what the reader has reached, and a game character doesn’t wait at the end of a film, easily accessed by the chapter menu of your DVD player. The videogame character exists solely where the player has them in the game at that time. You could look at the code for a final encounter or a final level, but you may not find your character there. These worlds exist with the game character in mind but wait for the player to arrive rather than being written with the character already there. Experimenting with a level design editing tool reveals this difference, where the player mods or creates a level that is existing and tangible in that it is observable and repeatable (As in, you could describe your level to someone without having played it, while you would be helpless to describe Harry Potter’s school without reading the story that tells you of it.) without a character’s narrative presence. The character is anchored to the player, and in many cases, the player and character are anchored together, which makes the audience and the protagonist stuck in the present, as well as make the protagonist reliant on the player.

In story telling, the general rule of creating a character is that your main character must have a desire or goal, and beyond that this goal can be physical and obvious, as well as some sort of interior goal or alternate goal. It is this goal that drives the story and establishes the arc of a story and commonly creates the interest and draw for the reader. This idea is referred to as the narrative desire. It is this desire that moves the character along and the audience then follows the character into the shape of the story’s plot. Since the character of a game is tied to the player/audience, no amount of narrative desire can push the character along to his/her next goal or piece of plot, because the player must play them, that is the player must instruct them in some way and often guide them, and to be honest, control the character and push them towards the next destination. This means that in order or progress plot, the audience’s desire overtakes character desire in creating narrative within a game.

Here is where I would like to show how the rule systems of games comes into play in telling a game story and how they relate to a player’s desire to go through a narrative and bring the character to it’s narrative desire. A common videogame encounter is character meets obstacle, player controls character and moves them past the obstacle. In a game like Super Mario Bros, the narrative desire for the character of Mario is to rescue the princess, and the obstacle between Mario and his goal is the nemesis Bowser and his minions, as well as the environments between Mario and the castle that holds the princess. As Mario goes along, he discovers there are many false castles that hold false princesses, and that the real princess is in an ultimate final castle. Though Mario defeats his main obstacle of Bowser multiple times, the desire is not fulfilled and the story repeats itself, but not only within the game but outside of the game in the matter of a player replaying the game and going through this process over and over. The problem is that the player comes to know the false castles from the castle that will fulfill Mario’s desire, so why not ignore the false castles and go directly to the correct castle? There must be some desire for the player to go through these exercises again and push Mario through his narrative. The game also keeps the player from going to that final castle immediately through the rule of progress, that the earlier levels must be completed in order to reach the later levels. The game’s rules also provide alternative rewards to the player’s desire, that is completing a level gives points, a fireworks celebration at the end, and these points equal a score that is not for Mario or even apparent to Mario, and these fireworks I would argue are not for Mario as they serve no purpose in fulfilling the goal of rescuing the princess. The points and end-cinematic of a firework are for the player’s desire and the player’s reward. Going beyond this, the little beeps and whistles and layout of a level are not for Mario’s desire but the player’s desire to be challenged or to have fun, that is the player’s desire for a game. Mario doesn’t need music and the music in game is not actually heard by Mario, but is heard by the player instead.

What I am starting to wade into is another part of videogames that would require me digging up some books to go cite and reference via current jargon and to be honest, I don’t feel like doing that right now. I would just like to mention all those aspects of creating the game environment: the rules, the controls, the sound effects and music, and the visuals and how they are tailored to the player’s desire and not absolutely tailored by the narrator’s perspective unless you want to ascribe the role of narrator to the player and well, guess what? I do. I believe we do, the we here being the game community including the game makers. Since the character is confined to the desire of the player, the player becomes narrator to some extent.

Now let’s look at the problem I am getting at, that the character is subject to the player and the player becomes partial narrator by inhabiting the character in order to fulfill the character’s desire. So where do we draw lines and do we need to? I would say that good game narrative acknowledges this issue and allows space for it in the narrative and poor game narrative clashes with the issue and makes the issue even more apparent because of this choice. A game like Metroid Other M, a game I’ve talked about here, clashes and separates the two and it is interesting because of this, but unfortunately doesn’t go into this conflict knowingly. (I am saying Sakamoto isn’t doing this cleverly or maybe not even knowingly, but unwittingly and it detracts from narrative experience.)

That is as far as I’ll go now, and continue on later on this duality. I am running out of steam or maybe I am running out of tea, or much like the player, it has ceased being fun to me and so my poor narrative must stop, unwritten and unplayed though there is much more in my head and more to be explored, it is stuck in the present issue of my desire to write it.

Metroid: Other M

September 8, 2010

Since I had been posting about narrative in games through the example of Super Metroid, I thought this here space defined by walls of text would be the only suitable spot to place this review of the latest Metroid. I am not so sure it is a pure review, in the sense that there is a score or a scale that I put it on, but it is a thorough examination of the game.

Metroid: Other M, as its maternal wordplay implies, is a confused and conflicted game searching desperately for its mommy, but not the mommy she’s always known, but some other mother that has never existed. The title does not know quite where it wants to go, does not understand where it came from or where it has been and lacks the sort of polish and refinement a fully grown piece of gaming is. The game really needs some sort of caring, cohesive guiding hand to ladle it out of the software soup of mediocrity, but Sakamoto and Team Ninja continually get in the way of each other and their product.

Other M was touted as a few things, a return of the series to Japanese shores, a return to its 2d roots and the first game to really emphasize story in the franchise. Knowing what a bath in game studies will teach you about narrative design, the last claim already sounds suspicious, but the first two claims I had assumed would come through. I was disappointed then when I found that the simplification of controls actually made the game less simple to play and that this was not because they had not found a solution, but because Sakamoto and Team Ninja nixed the solution out of a stubborn and shallow sense of nostalgia. While including the nunchuk in the controls would have brightened up the first person segments, allowed missiles in 3rd person and allowed far more reliable aiming, the attachment piece that comes standard in every Wii console was thrown aside because they had decided to do the entire game via the Wiimote, succeed or fail.

I am not sure there is a level of critique that would rah-rah such a decision. The fan critique would be upset that a better feeling game was ousted, the designer critique would be upset that an obstacle in design was reached and then settled for, and my ludology/narratology or “ludonarrative”(as Clint Hocking terms it) critique is upset at how aware I am of the controller and the constant reminders that this is a game.

On a value judgement, the control choice leads to two major annoyances: the game always guessing what you mean to do and the sudden change in perspective moments which cause you to switch brain schemes and reorient yourself from third person observer to first person aimer. To overcome the restricted controls, the game features a sense dodge maneuver which allows Samus Aran to whip around, flip around and barrel roll away from attacks. This element of gameplay was simplified as well, and simply mashing the directional pad will often allow you to go untouched amid a bevy of blows, but sometimes it does not, depending on the mini-boss’ pattern. The game itself is full of mini-bosses which become regular creatures that act as a sort of evaluation for how powerful you are that point, which is to say, that at first encounter they feel like a mini-boss but on subsequent encounters they are just another mob that you can run past or destroy if you wish. This is an interesting change from the one and done mini-boss setup of previous games, but the extended and repetitive combat featured in these battles becomes tiring as the game progresses on. A sense dodge, charge beam blast, missile shot or finish move combo plays out the starting combat pattern of these fights and never really changes through out. A boss here or there will provide a welcome if small change, but for most of the game you are doing the same thing. This element is nothing new to Metroid, but is surprisingly shallow for an entry that wants to tout its combat focus.

What the combat also does is guess, since there is no dodge button and no direct aim, the game must always guess what you mean to do. This leads to Samus shooting into blank air with enemies buzzing above her head, dodging forward when the player only meant to turn around, or shooting an enemy behind you instead of the more fearsome one in front of you. These moments never break the game, but repeatedly annoy the player and snaps them out of the game’s world. These are the short sighted mistakes you would expect in a budget title. These moments of clear lack of refinement show a poor awareness for the situations the game design thrusts upon you. The gameplay is never broken, just constantly flawed and restrictive.

The term restrictive can account for much of the game’s design, as it seems intent on wrestling choice and control away from the player. It was suspected that the game would be more linear, but I do not think anybody would have thought that the game would continually lock you out from places you had been to before. The opening segment of the game is a large docking bay full of invisible walls. Each room normally has an entrance and exit, there is the way you came into the room and only one way out from the room. If you want to try attacking enemies solely through missiles, you will likely suffer from the lack of movement in first person, so you end up going back to the same dodge and charge patterns. Samus does not aim as much as hopes the game knows what she aims at. Then there are the lurching, slow moving segments and the universally panned Wheres Waldo segments that restrict most of what the player can do until they guess or find the random bit of pixels the game wants the player to find.

The difficulty and length of the game is minimal and most player deaths and progression pitfalls will come via the flaws of the control choice or the aforementioned Where’s Waldo segments. There are also slightly hidden events which are like Quick Time Events, yet somehow worse. They do not announce themselves like a QTE normally does, nor offer any clue or logic on what to do. You just die over and over until you figure out which button or action to enact. The story’s final boss features a solution which uses this lack of game logic as well. The entire game suffers from poor and inconsistent game logic, and the puzzles suffer poor visual logic. Even the finding of extra items, all of which amount to unused resources due to the recharge system, play like a game of needle in a haystack. This would not be so if the environments were not so visually bland. Finding the slightly darker gray morphball chute on an already dark gray wall feels disappointingly uninspired. While the 2d games normally established where a bombable wall might be via the shape of the wall and the Prime games used scanning and clever visual clues, and both of these starting discoveries often lead to new rooms or undulating tunnels, Other M seems content to have little holes in the background filled with missile tanks.

I have spent enough time on the gameplay, as people reading this blog might expect of me more commentary on the narrative. Unfortunately, Other M is such a failure at the conceptual level at story that I cannot fathom wasting much time going over it. As pointed out, the gameplay decisions constantly breaks the contract with the player, breaks immersion and even makes certain moments designed to instill fear actually humorously silly. The game fails at the first step in telling a game story, but then what story it does provide it does so in a lazy cinematic style that the rest of the industry is learning to move past. Jeremy Parish posted a non-review of the game commenting on Nintendo being fifteen years behind on story telling, and then later wisely retracted this comment. The reasoning is still flawed though, since the retractment did not acknowledge that Super Metroid was way beyond Playstation level game narrative and many current game narratives. Parish may not be into the game studies scene, but since he calls for more in-game narrative he sounds like he should be hip to it.

Yet, ignoring the misguided aim of the narrative design, the story itself would be horrible in film form or prose form. The characterization of Samus ignores the character as she has been in the past, and because of the poor character writing, the game has evoked images that feel disturbingly sexist. As many have commented, if this story had taken place at the very start of the game chronology, it would not be as offensive, but taking part near the current end of the chronology makes the entire plot inconsistent with everything the player already knows. Sakamoto completely throws out the ludonarrative of twenty-five years and disregards the dual identity of player as Samus. The dialogue itself would not get past a freshman creative writing class. The game tells you, tells you again, then repeats the info once more in case you had been deaf and blind momentarily for the past minute. The crux of the story depends on a trust relationship between Samus and a former commander named Adam. Samus as a federation soldier has hardly been a part of her character and Adam hardly a part of the series, and its presence in the game asks for much explanation. Even though Samus monologues endlessly on how she feels she must prove to Adam she can be trusted, we the player know to trust Samus. She’s conquered worlds and escaped exploding planetoids. What we do not know is why we should trust Adam and the game never shows us why we should. Instead, Adam comes off as a emotionless prick who puts Samus into greater danger for no explainable reason. Adam and Samus are a great opportunity for dramatic irony, but that is giving Sakamoto way too much credit. It is just a case of poor characterization ruining an iconic character. Instead of a mysterious bounty hunter, we have Samus the Asian stereotype, a trope of an emotionally damaged teenage girl that borders on the edge of being the hysterical woman. The morals of the story fall into typical Asian story morals of parental authority and the rebellious female learning her lesson and coming back for forgiveness. (Hell, compare Samus in Other M to the wife in the Chinese nationalistic Ip Man.)

And then, whatever mystery and plot line the game establishes through its intrusive manner, it drops them in the end for a silly twist and robs the player of a true final encounter. It is not so much that the story is bad that it ruins the rest of a game experience you might enjoy, but that the story is bad and its need to trammel the way the game is designed leads to a lessened gameplay experience.

Overall, so much of playing Metroid: Other M is playing through a game in conflict, a game compromised by choices that fail at meeting any of the original goals the designers may have had. It feels on one hand like a mediocre action title and on the other hand it feels like an insulting Metroid title. Somewhere, there must have been some hand in the creation of this series that should have come along and said “no” here and “yes” there, until something fulfilled had emerged.

I am going to put this here as a reference point to refer back to later on. The worth of this post is not in my pedigree with literature or due to any game design experience on my part. These guidelines are constructed upon the universal rules of narrative and my experience with playing videogames for twenty-five years.

To push a button is to turn a page with purpose

The interface of a game is the gateway that allows the reader control over the action of game and story. We do often call these interfaces “controllers” for a reason. We are controlling some part of what goes on in the visual/audio action.

It is important to understand this difference from turning a page in a book or sitting in a theater seat to watch a film. The writer of a novel cannot account for which page the reader is on and does not pay much attention to the act of page turning in a novel in any way other than to keep the story interesting enough to keep his reader turning the page. The film director is conscience that the viewer is likely sitting when watching his film and taking in the information passively, but I would suggest there is not much needed to account for this way of viewing the story. You understand the reader is watching, so you pay attention to what they are watching. The game designer must account for the way his reader is experiencing the story, because the reader does not just turn the page or watch the visuals but determines the nuances and paths of the story via their input.

What is the difference? Well in the act of page turning, the reader expects something to happen on the next page and though they may have an idea of what to expect, they are at some point in their mind aware they are without the ability to determine what happens. The videogame player as reader of the game does have control over what may happen next and thus assumes some natural responsibility for what happens. There is an born in guilt associated with game narrative and a built in identification with the character/avatar. While many movie heroes are made to be identifiable to an audience and many viewers place themselves in the hero’s shoes inside their head, the videogame reader is actually within the shoes and is at the same time the hero and not fully the hero. They realize they have control but are confined from total freedom by the game design and interface.

In order to maintain this identification the interface must become transparent in action, and natural enough to not remind the player of the true nature of their limits. The true nature of their limits being that this is a game. The designer wants the reader to become immersed enough so that the control and interface becomes an unconscious action. You work to make the reader forget they are stuck in a game for this allows your reader to believe the illusion you present. Once you remind them that they are confined by the limits of the game then you snap that identification factor and suck them back to the real world and out of your story. Essentially, you want to get them lost in the book, forgetting they are turning the page by pushing the buttons.

Before you can create a successful game narrative, you must accomplish this.