This Is not a Video Game

It is a mile wide and an inch deep, this land of Tamriel.  There are moments when I get the impression of keen awareness of human nature, and others where quests and dialogue seem slap-dash enough that I wonder if any thought went into them at all.  But the real reason I’ve been continuing to play, led on and on past scenery porn and glitched quest triggers, is because playing it gives a sense of reward.  Because it’s “fun” and you build a character through your play style, and there’s supposed to be traces of myth and legend and… it’s fallen short.  I am playing through quests that ask me to shame women for their sexual behavior.  I am playing through quests that show men to be lecherous drunks.  I am playing through quests asking me to fight evil that is never explained.

This is not to say I am against video games.  Like books, they fueled my childhood.  But there seems to be something of a potential lost in most of the titles I come across these days.  Vast shallow pools of very pretty water.  Empty outlines of the same tales again and again.  Not just the damsel in distress, but the same war stories, the same hero-savior tales over and over.  That can’t be the only way to approach a tale you interact with.  I makes me want to sit and simply play Minecraft, and browse only through indie titles.

So today, I turned off the computer after having slayed yet another surprise dragon who swooped in during my fight with a vampire and his thralls who’d led an attack on the town.  The neat behavior/reward cycle created by games had gone all haywire.  I felt like a lump of a person.  I felt like I hadn’t deeply engaged any new ideas.  This is because I hadn’t.  I’d only been absorbing the same ideas over and over, about trite characters and my own place as the hero.  Instead of diving into tasks that society deems “useful,” I did what any self respecting lazy bum of a writer would do.  I scanned my book shelves, pulled a title I hadn’t yet read, and proceeded out to the garden to read.  After a while, that flowed naturally into gardening, trimming back stray suckers, harvesting the little red gems of my hot peppers, and repotting the seedlings an errant skunk uprooted in her nightly search for grubs.  After I traversed a couple dozen pages and got some dirt under my nails, I felt rested.  Aware.  Useful.

This contrast didn’t come just because I’d been playing video games earlier, but because the games I’d been playing offered me nothing of the richness I craved.  They offered repackaged narratives on par with Twilight.  And I find that offensive, simply because games can offer us so much more.  To see fantastic concepts, potentially rich worlds, and interesting ideas in gameplay hitched to crappy storytelling and regurgitated notions of society is a slap in the face.  Games hold the potential to be great art.  I’ve seen few that as yet live up to that challenge.

But it’s a challenge.  For me, I heard it issued years ago.  I intend to take it up.

World Building: Coloring Inside the Lines

When building a playable world, there are a number of ways its creator can go about approaching plot and explorability.  In my first world building post, I pointed out that herding players into confined locations can feel a bit contrived.  Though this may be the case, there are reasons to do it, ways to disguise it, and different types of games simply demand this kind of approach. Why?  Because it’s in this arena that believable world building and game design mix.

There are three methods of going about the development of story in narrative driven games.  First, there is a linear style, which has a set beginning, middle, and end.  It progresses clearly from narrative point A to narrative point B without any available player choices that affect the story track itself, though the intrepid world-explorer can often choose how to approach set obstacles or has the pleasure of figuring out their one correct solution.  By and large, the player is along for the narrative ride.  Next, we have a branching structure, which allows the player a few very meaningful choices in directing the outcome of the plot.  Often, these choices open up alternate endings and change player access to certain quests, side stories, and resources at later parts of the game.  Branching narratives have the potential to increase player engagement with a story by giving them a feeling of greater control and importance in the process of progressing through the narrative.  Finally, there is the open structure, in which the player is truly able to explore the world, set their own goals and motivations, and is free to ignore plot points created by the world builder, or even invent their own.

Any of these modes can be used for creating and guiding a table top RPG; video games are overwhelmingly limited to the first two.  A strong example of linear and branching plot creation in tabletop RPGs are the published game modules put out for D&D, Pathfinder, or any other game system with a large enough player base to warrant such products.  By providing scenes, monster stats, NPC descriptions, and hooks for player goals, modules allow a GM to guide a player from A to B, and can provide scripted branches for significant player choices.  On the video game side of the fence, linear plots have often dominated, especially in classic JRPGs like the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series.  Branching stories and worlds are not unheard of in the earlier days of RPGs (take Chrono Trigger), and they have become increasingly common in the genre (aspects of Skyrim, for example, or Arcanum), but one can run into false examples of this structure, where players are herded into the same outcome despite the apparently significant choices they have made.  A discussion of the false branch linear style of game with examples, counter examples, and how they impact player engagement is a topic I’d like to save for another essay.

Open structure is a bit harder to achieve.  In video games, there may be edge cases which allow for this type of design, but in general, this kind of world is only available through human interaction: the province of tabletop gaming.  But even in a well-run tabletop gaming session with an attentive GM, it’s hard to tackle this kind of approach to plot and explorability.  In an open storyline, players have a real sense of co-creation, because this is literally the case.  They are actively participating in the construction of the narrative’s arc, not just moving through a story’s predetermined channel.  Here, players’ desires and goals can be telegraphed or openly expressed, but aren’t always, which then requires of the GM a degree of improvisation and on-the-spot creativity which the other two modes either disallow (as in video games) or discourage (as in the use of modules).  Handled poorly, an open narrative’s pressures on the GM are more likely to create belief-breaking scenarios and flimsy excuses to keep players out of unanticipated situations.

As humans are storytelling animals, most players engage with narrative quite readily.  Due to the programming constraints of video games, a linear narrative is often desirable because the built-in story readily conceals the boundaries placed on exploration.  No one questions linearity in books, film, or theater.  Branching narratives have potential to create a difficulty here: the more meaningful choices given to a player, the harder it is to bring alternate possible outcomes to a satisfying conclusion within the confines of a video game’s design.  That isn’t to say it’s not possible.  The reward for successfully achieving this justifies the attempt; since the basic notion of an RPG is that of an interactive story, the more meaningful choices given to a player increase their sense of engagement and ownership in the storyline— as long as those choices don’t spread the storyline too thin.  It’s a question of investment.  Linear games, which are essentially a translation of traditional storytelling into game format, often navigate the question of investment with challenge (can any of you say that the puzzles and boss fights in the early Zelda games are easy?).  Even in a tabletop game, a well constructed linear story can hook a player better than many other tactics.  It’s when this aspect of linearity is mishandled that it becomes restrictive and shatters the believability of a world.  It’s when the GM or game designer telegraphs the unfinished bits of their world by metaphorically placing large “keep out” signs all over their map that players can become frustrated with limitations.  Challenges and learning curves are often more effective boundaries than messages to turn around, teleports back to safer realms, or a GM’s “Gee, I dunno.”

Early Dragon Slaying

Twenty years ago, I got my first Nintendo game. For my 11th birthday I had begged for and pleaded to have and longed after Dragon Warrior (I had also pleaded for a Swiss army knife). All of the boys in my fifth grade class had been playing it. Because back then, two seemed like everybody. My best friend’s older brothers were playing it. So, of course, I had to play it. It was entirely new to me. I loved fantasy. I didn’t know that it had come out in the US way back in 1989. Because three years for a child is an eternity. And from 1992, ’89 is waaaaaaaay back.

So it came as a surprise to me when I opened my birthday gift packaging and found a Nintendo cartridge labeled Dragon Warrior IV. Four. 4. There were four of them. After the vague initial disappointment of not getting exactly what I wanted (kids are brats), I settled in to play with the video game and my new pocket knife.

I did not stop playing. The first day I sat down with the game, eight hours evaporated. Or, they did for my parents. Me? I accompanied Ragnar on his quest to find the missing children of Izmut village, and learned that Princess Alena was so much more of a badass than any princess Disney ever portrayed; heaviest hitter in the game.

I learned the art of grinding. If there is anything that the Dragon Quest/Warrior franchise is good at, it’s requiring players to grind for days on end in order to survive a single boss fight. For weeks I sat with it, picking at it, amassing power in game, and learning the score by heart. It was very good music.

All that time indoors, staring at pixels on a screen and manipulating controllers with my thumbs. And where does that leave me today? There is not one hour of the time I spent playing that game which I’d like to claim back. I can say that of some films I’ve seen. I can say that of a very short list of books I’ve half-read and then discarded. But I can’t say that about Dragon Warrior. Even as an adult, I enjoy returning to these worlds, wandering through them, even if the path is linear. And I still love the music: I wake to Dragon Warrior IV’s battle theme every morning, and with each text from my love, my phone levels up.

Dragon Warrior was the first game that was really mine. As much as I loved Thexder, as deeply as I enjoyed Arkanoid and Ms. Pac Man, as dear as The Oregon Trail was, these games all belonged to my father, or were installed on a shared PC. I had to ask to play. But Dragon Warrior? Dragon Warrior was all for me. It made gaming mine. The door it opened looked out on years of green 1-up mushrooms, vast future-scapes of radscorpion-filled deserts that had me looking for new water chips, lazy afternoons leaning on the sound string quartet, attempting to disprove that my character— with her fine pistols and jaunty suede jacket— was the second coming of an elf named Nasrudin, and hours engaged in exploring a volcanic island once held entirely by nomadic dark elves. These were all adventures as fulfilling as curling up with a good book. These were tales that taught me to think about strategy, timing, and above all, inference. But most importantly, I learned about message and medium.

Because most of these later games I loved were rich stories— plots with beginning, middle, and end. The best of them had morally challenging quests and brought up difficult questions which didn’t have easy black and white answers. I learned that a tale should fit the method of telling. The epic sweep of these games made the player feel important, but these were not the only tales that could be told in this medium.

Because of that eleventh birthday gift and the hours conversing with the Zenithian Dragon, I want to see what tales I can coax from a bunch of pixels.

The Hard Sell

I hate shopping malls. I really do. Call me the anti-girl, and you’d be right. Whenever I set foot in one of these unholy places, I do what any sensible person would do: run for the cover the shop I’m there to visit.

Now, no matter where one parks, the distance between the mall entrance and one’s goal can be described as Route X. Sadly, as I was in no mood to deal with the twisting labyrinth of the shopping mall’s parking lot, with its variable speed limits, oddly placed stop signs, and the new sheriff’s department outpost, I opted to park quickly, and take my chances with a long Route X. Entering by an anchor store, my course took me past the stinking pit of the bath goods store, any number of mid-mall kiosks situated like hurdles, their attendants trying to lure me into a sale with, “hey, you look familiar!” and finally the burnt-espresso horror of our local international coffee giant waystation. All of this to get to the Game Stop, the one beacon of semi-geekdom in a vast sea of plastic popular culture.

But even that shroud of safety was to evaporate: Monday night, 10pm, was the release of the latest title in the Call of Duty line, and I, the lowly gamer grrrl, had forgotten. Silly me, first person shooters trump all other titles. And you know me, always late to the game, I was looking for the recently released Dragon Age: Origins. So last week, I tell you. The store was cramped, the little boys shoving and slavering like a pack of rowdy hyenas. I could not, for the life of me, get the attention of any of the clerks. Too busy answering questions and trying to control the crowd, each would make eye contact, start to speak to me, even, before having to deal with the next brewing crisis. I left, dejected, into the stark weird sterility of my Route X.

The kiosk-keepers were hungry that night. No shopping bag in hand, coming back the same way I had entered, they scented blood, thought easy prey. I passed by the one who had called out to me, “hey, you look familiar!” He stepped up to me, complimented my hat. Floppy leather patchwork, that hat has been my traveling companion for some years now. Disarmed, flattered, I listened.

Fool! He swept me into a conversation, asked my name, shook my hand, and… cringed. It was my nail polish, he said. Chipped black, I could see what he meant—culturally a no-no, but my tattered finger paint was intentional. An affectation, like the floppy hat, the sun dress worn with jeans, and the knee-length fitted jacket. Part of the costume. Part of the image of a gamer-grrrl you could picture at a cigar shop puffing on something hand-rolled in Ybor, sipping coffee, and talking politics. It’s all me, but it isn’t.

“May I show you something,” he said, a statement, leading me by the hand he still grasped. Out came the nail buffer. “This is no ordinary buffer,” he began to work on my thumbnail right away. “I am removing the ridges from your nail, and this part, this is the ordinary part,” he said working it back and forth expertly over my nail. “Now, this is the magic– this is silk!” He flipped the four-sided buffer, and began working that. “You have to promise me you won’t scream when you see this,” he said, with a wink.

When people say something like that to you, do you brace for the worst?

“I promise?” I ventured, leery. The buffer had begun to squeak across my thumb.

“This silk,” he said, “this silk is bringing out your natural oils. This is naturally you. People ask me why this won’t go away, like a French manicure. It is because this isn’t chemicals, this is you.”

“Won’t go away?”

“No, it won’t go away. Two weeks. The nail grows, so this lasts two weeks.”

He pulled the buffer away to reveal– my thumbnail, mirror bright. It shone like silvered glass. I am proud of myself; I did not scream. I almost took off my hat and beat him. My pretty thumbnail, upon which I had worked so hard with toothpick and cotton swab to get just the right amount of chipped distress, was there scintillating in the fluorescent mall lights like a cheap plastic consumable.

The sneers of horror, shock, and disgust warred on my face as he continued his pitch, but I wasn’t listening. Product placed in my hand, I shoved it back, “No thanks.” Route X still loomed.

“I still like your hat, I’ll buy it from you,” he offered. I pulled the crowd closed behind me like a heavy winter coat.

Dragon Age: Origins I found at a Wally-World, and though I hate its corporate corpulence, bless it, and its workers, who understood my quest, every last blessed one, all women, like me, who complained of FPSs.

Four days later, though the game is good, I’ve not stopped twitching. My thumbnail is still shiny, damn him.

The Unfortunates

Really, the only unfortunate parties here are my data. I mistreated them so. You, see, my hard drive failed. Honestly, it was to be expected. I can’t complain. It served me long and well, since 2002. A 40 gig drive, it was little and fierce, uncomplaining as it held safe all my files, photos to save games. It valiantly called forth the information to render exotic locations for me to explore, from the foyadas of Vvardenfell to the lively desolace of the Capitol Wasteland; from the bustling streets of Tarant to the red rock desert of Durotar. All of these places were just a mouse-click away, thanks to the efforts of my late little C drive, Gamgee. May he rest in peace.

Where does that leave me? With my tales and verse all backed up, I’ve lost only images, music, and my progress in pixelated universes. It’s strange how relieving that word “only” is. Game worlds can be retrod. Pictures, well, new ones can be taken. Music hurts more, but much of it can be re-ripped from my CDs kept safe and pristine. My words, though– those are priceless to me, no matter how bad, rough, or crude. Blocky text and poor grammar can be reworked, but the spark of a particular phrase, once extinguished, is gone forever. In my writing folder are the clumsy typings of a little girl, kept not as a precious memory, but as rich ugly ore from which I still draw, smelting, refining, forging something new. To know that my work, my “real” work, is safe… that gives me a little room to be flippant.

The internet, my old friend, presents a slightly different problem. Without a box from which to access it, I’m stealing net time from gracious friends. For now, I’m in limbo… little as it matters this weekend. I won’t need to be internetting from Necronomicon. You can, however, expect delighted ramblings upon my return.

Falling in Love

With Fallout 3, specifically. Having been a fan of the original Fallout, I had designed (but never implemented) a Vault 13 jumpsuit costume for the Post-Apocalyptic themed Graduation Palm Court Party some years ago. I’m kind of hardcore for someone whose computer always seemed to suffer from severe (often explosive) malfunction before she could ever complete the game.

I have to say, in the week and a half since Fallout 3’s release, I’ve been lapping it up. I had been reservedly excited about the game. I mean, I am always leery of sequels. To anything, really (yes I am dreading the Dark Crystal sequel like a pap smear). Usually, they suck. And not just a little bit— they often drag out the corpse of their beloved predecessor, defecate upon it, take a leak on it for good measure, and then coat it in gasoline, light it up, and dance drunkenly upon it. With Interplay’s closing, and Bethesda’s purchasing of the rights, I feared it would be too much like Oblivion to really be a Fallout game, especially using the same engine and utilizing a first person perspective. I mean, the isometric view presented in Fallout became for me synonymous with the RPG genre. So what’s a gal to do?

Well, I could always claim poverty, and stick my head in the sand like I did for the abomination known as D&D 4th ed. In that particular case, it was a wise decision. This time, trusting Bethesda, I stuck my pinky toe in. And now I am as addicted to the game as my character is to Jet.

A lot of the humor of the original Fallout was stripped away, and this incarnation is gritter than a butt-scoot on the beach. Dialogue and stories are the things that suck me into a game, and even if the gameplay is difficult, so long as there are enough delicious twists, I’m a happy gamer. Needless to say, I was surprised and delighted by the use of profanity in the game– I side firmly with the late George Carlin on this one. Just enough to seem realistic. Just enough for it to feel “right.” The dialogue glows, though, and not from mutational dose radiation exposure. With a number of quests and characters, it adjusts in minor ways. Harden Simms speaks differently of his dad if his father dies (he fell off the walkway and splatted in my game), and Three Dog’s quest reward and dialogue adjusts if you find yourself a step ahead of his information. I also think I’m in love with Moira.

Because I’m a little bespectacled academic at heart, I do have concerns and reservations about the songs selected for GNR. “Butcher Pete” is entertaining in the context of the game, but what is being sung about is specifically the murder and mutilation of women. It feels really wrong blowing off a female raider’s arm by hitting her frag grenade with that playing in the background and knowing that there are in fact people out there who actually hold women in such low regard. It literally and viscerally reminds of a coffee shop owner I had known who murdered his wife before killing himself. It was chilling to walk by the closed storefront of the shop after that had happened, and with that in mind, combining the contexts of the song independently, the song within the game, and then the game independent of the song, add up to some grim food for thought. On the other hand, it has to be one of the catchiest recordings in the game. On the upside, the inclusion of Billie Holiday’s recording of “Crazy, He Calls Me” sent me squealing through the house delightedly crowing, “Come listen to what they included! Come listen!” grabbing boyfriend and roommate by the arm much to their mystification.

On the down side, you can’t name your saves. There is nothing more annoying to the person who must compulsively create a million characters than the inability to title a save WITH THE CHARACTER’S NAME. Hells, Bethesda, fix that already, please? It was a pain in Oblivion, it’s a pain here. The usual map holes and occasional crashes seem to be the biggest inhibitors to my enjoyment of the game right now, which doesn’t amount to much. Overall, this game is solid, and with the ability to go good or evil and the myriad dialogue options, I think after this go around, I’m going to have to create a truly evil snake of a character.

With that, I think I should be off to go raid the RobCo factory. Fucking robots. This quest is going to be like extracting a blood-hemorrhaging tooth through the back of the skull. My skull. Because robots don’t have skulls. But the fact that I still want to do this, that’s the mark of a truly excellent game.

A quick update: it seems I was mistaken about the nature to my RobCo visit. It was far less painful than originally anticipated… and mole rats go splook so satisfyingly!