New Guest Post on Alpha-Build: Endsong.



Just thought you should know that there's a new post by me up on the Wowhead blog, about public gaming and how games improve real life skill sets.

It can be found here.


Guest Post of mine up on Alpha-Build: The Benefit of the Doubt. So why don't you mosey on over there and check it out.


Victory Conditions

So I've been replaying Final Fantasy 6 recently, and I'll spare you the “OMG I FORGOT HOW GOOD THIS GAME IS” talk, but something occurred to me.

For those of you that don't know (and even those of you that do), there is a moment, after what is more or less the apocalypse, where you wake up in control of single character, only to discover that you and your adoptive grandfather have been stuck on an island for over a year since the catastrophe, and Celes (your character) has only just now woken up. There used to be a few other people on the island, but they've since died of either disease or sheer ennui. As far as you know at this point, Celes and Cid are the only human beings left alive at this point, and Cid has taken deathly ill.

You're presented with a minigame, in which Celes catches fish to feed to Cid, in order to nurse him back to health. Fast fish add to his gauge, slow fish subtract, and it slowly drains over time. If it gets up to 10, he recovers, and if it gets down to 0, he dies.

The weird thing is, you can't lose the game at this point. Ultimately, it makes no substantial difference if he lives or dies. Either way, a short series of events transpires that end up with you on a raft, trying to make for the mainland, in order to discover if there's anyone else out there.

Whenever I played this game as a kid, I would always save Cid, since I wanted to beat every possible challenge set before me, and it really wasn't that difficult. I had never even seen what happens when you let him die.

That is, until this most recent time. When you come in to feed Cid, and you've let him die, Celes checks on him, discovers that he's dead, and runs from the room in tears (accompanied by her theme from the opera earlier). She walks to the northernmost point of the island, and throws herself off the cliffs, figuring that with everyone else gone, she has nothing left. She nevertheless survives the fall, only to find the raft that Cid was secretly working on before he took ill. Why he didn't mention it before escapes me, but there you have it.

From the connection you have to the music, to the little save point-ish sparkles they use for her tears as she falls, it's easily one of the most emotionally powerful moments to ever come out of a Super Nintendo (perhaps only second to Lucca telling Robo at the end of Chrono Trigger: “Don't pretend you don't care when you're really sad”).

The scene if you save Cid, however, is kind of an anti-climax. He... feels better then tells you about the raft. He stays on the island, and you can visit him any time you like after you get an airship. Kind of... well, boring.

And yet, because I was presented with success/failure conditions and the task was easy enough, I never saw this different, decidedly superior path for the story to take. This has gotten me thinking: when the most dramatically interesting path for a story to take involves a character failing at the task set before him/her for no reason other than their own personal failings, what's a game designer to do?

I realize this is a bit of a soapbox issue for me: If I refuse to take control away from the player at any point, how can I craft any kind of emotionally engaging situation that requires the player's character to act in some way?

Malgayne, as I was talking with him about it, really hit the nail on the head, I think. If I think of myself as being Celes, then clearly I have to do everything within my power to save Cid, but if I think of myself as a 3rd party, guiding the story, then it frees me up have something happen because I want to see how it would play out.

In a game like Mass Effect or Fallout, there could never be a moment in which the villain gets away because your character falters at the crucial moment, and lacks the resolve to pull the trigger. Or, more appropriately, if this ever happens, it must either happen in a cutscene, during which you have no control, or events must occur that make your hesitation functionally irrelevant. If it significantly changed the course of the game from every point forward, the workload would be, at this point, prohibitively high. I would like to think this will not always be the case, but that's where we are right now.

And even if you were given the choice to have your character hesitate, and not shoot the villain at the crucal moment, all Keyzer Soze style, how many of you would honestly take that chance? The “Game Over” screen has conditioned gamers everywhere that failure to accomplish your originally intended goal means that you stop playing the game. JRPGs and that whole genre has, by this point, devolved into a story (occasionally a very engaging one) that you must pass a series of largely unrelated challenges to experience. If you fail a challenge, you don't learn any more of the story until you beat said challenge, so the impulse is always to try as hard as possible to beat every fight put in front of you. If I was legitimately afraid that I would go game over, I would have my character kill the villain right then and there, out of fear I would have to replay some part of the game because I failed the challenge.

But it's not as simple as “well, give players the option to make their characters fail on purpose without ending the game”. Take the example of feeding Cid the fish: I didn't want to save Cid because I cared about his character that much, or because I really identified with Celes and her struggle to find an anchor in the cruel new world she had found herself in. I wanted to save Cid because the game had given me a challenge, and dammit, I'm going to win, even if it involves nothing other than walking up to the shoreline and mashing the A button to pick up fish. Frankly, if a game tasks me with something, I want to be able to succeed at it, but I have a lot of difficulty imagining how you could design a challenge for which the success condition involves your character throwing herself off a cliff in despair.

I think the real problem here is that when I say “game”, people think “success/failure conditions”. It seems like the industry would benefit from moving more in the direction of something like Daniel Benmergui (his website can be foundhere), who has always been fairly clear that in most of his games, while there may be some conditions that can be described as more positive for the characters involved, there's rarely one set of circumstances characterized as a goal for the player (other than perhaps experiencing all possible permutations of events).

But most of these projects are small in scope, and deal with the player's control over a small number of variables. I would say “I hope that this take on games evolves into something with the relative size and scope of something like Mass Effect of Final Fantasy 6”, but we all know it will eventually. It only took 24 years for Mario to make it up to the first Mario Galaxy, so let's check back around 2030, right?



Is there such a thing as a blogger retweet? It's not quite cross posting, and it's not quite plugging something.

Anyway, all ya'all should go over to Concepts by Thomas van der Heiden, and check out his newest set of illustrations. They're character sketches for a pitch he and I worked on in the past. Good stuff.


Acting Without Acting

Though I haven't touched on it much recently in my writings, (aside from a few scattered comments about Super Street Fighter 4 on H. T. Parnell's) I've been thinking a lot more about some of the old discussions I've had about gender roles in games. The conclusion we seemed to come to, amid much discussion, is that there are two separate problems at play here:

First, the overall dearth of female characters in games, particularly ones that are portrayed as capable of engaging in the same activities as men with the same level of skill.

This strikes me as a larger umbrella issue that contains the issue of patriarchy that was brought up re: Super Street Fighter 4. Women are less common (in games) than men, because men are seen as the norm, so that the variation of including a female character is something that must be both explained and reigned in, as to not be too unusual. Addressing the overall problem may not address some of the co-morbid issues, but it's certainly a place to start.

Second, the overall dearth of emotional qualities that have historically been considered “female”.

This is particularly sticky, however, because by describing these as qualities as “female”, I am implying that they should be embodied, mostly, by female characters. Doing so would be the fastest way to solve the actual physical gender imbalance without actually helping the problem in any way. Not unlike trying to push for civil rights by giving a lot of work to Stepin Fetchit, and even then it'd probably be worse, cause there's something to be said for being the first African American actor to ever be given a screen credit.

Even discussing this issue is a little troublesome, though, because it's so easy to accidentally jump horses mid discussion, and to start discussing the specifics of people, as opposed to looking at platonic forms of female and male. That is, if you think that such platonic forms exist/are meaningful concepts. I tend to think they're helpful for discussions of narrative, but trying to prove that they are is clearly beyond the scope of this particular discussion. Suffice it to say that I believe that they are. Perhaps I'll diatribe about why at some point.

This issue is also difficult, because it's more insidious and subtle than the problem of “Over 80% of game characters are male”. This problem (as is the case with all problems of equality, if you get down to it) starts in the culture. America, and to some degree Western Europe (though less so) has always greatly valued physical prowess, self-determination, and the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps no matter what, even so much as to be to the detriment of qualities like endurance, intuition, and being conciliatory.

The real heart of this second problem is that games buy into a mentality in which a "male" way of acting is considered positive, and a "female" way of acting is considered negative or irrelevant. This is partially because of overarching cultural factors, and partially because games in particular have always been based almost exclusively on these traditionally "male" activities. So, before we get too deep into this, what the hell am I talking about?

In the Jungian sense (as well as the ancient Chinese philosophy sense), activity is considered to be an essential male characteristic, while passivity is considered to be an essential female characteristic. There's a valid epistemological question as the core of this, to ask whether “not doing something” can be a valid descriptor, but suffice it to say that Taoism, for one, sidesteps this issue entirely.

Taoism, which focuses heavily on the interplay of gender as amorphous characteristics, largely detached from any instantiation, believes that the essential female characteristic is “wei wu wei”, or “action without action”. The comparison is made to water, which, while soft and yielding, is capable of overcoming virtually any obstacle, and shaping things otherwise thought unassailable, like earth and stone. Taoism submits that the universe has a natural order, and that by acting in step with (and being lead by) the natural order, not only does one achieve more satisfaction, but one is also more effective at accomplishing their goals. (As a purely academic concern, it also proposes that this is the ideal way for everyone to act, but still identifies it as inherently female)

I'm not here to speculate about the truth of this theology, other than to say that I believe there is some non-zero amount of validity to this way of acting: action based on sensitivity to surroundings, and non-attachment to the results of said actions.

Whether or not these qualities represent something inherently “female” is an epistemological gender studies question that I have no interest in tackling. I am much more interested in the relative lack of these qualities, and others like them in games. For lack of a better term, and wanting to avoid overstepping the purview of this article, I shall refer to these qualities as “wei wu wei”.

A previous essay I wrote posited that most main characters of video games are extensions of the typical male action hero. Gears of War, Devil May Cry, Borderlands, Left 4 Dead. Even Gordon Freeman, while more nuanced, is basically that archetype. While trying to gender these characteristics is probably a mistake, we can all agree that the laundry list looks something like this:

Physical Prowess
Willingness to use physical force in order to accomplish one's goals (usually noble)
Courage and adherence to goals in the face of overwhelming odds

Plus many others, I'm sure. Don't get me wrong; these are all awesome characteristics. I really kind of enjoyed that Marcus Fenix and his squad getting swallowed by a worm the size of rhode island occasioned no more pause from him than “Well, then we gotta cut our way out!”

But characteristics like intuition, social graces outside of the context of manipulation, sensitivity to surroundings, nurturing, and willingness to stay in step with the natural order (or even fighting for the natural order) are all characteristics that are all markedly different than, or, in some instantiations, even directly opposed to, the list above.

The problem, as has been elucidated before, is that it's pretty easy to make a game about “you did this awful thing to me, so I'm gonna beat up you and all your cronies”. Making a game about building relationships, synthesizing disparate pieces of information, or achieving success by gaining immunity to the throes of gain and loss of daily life are all... a little less unclear. I think a game could be made out of these principles, but no one can submit that it would be less challenging to create than a beat'em up.

Now, if we're discussing real life, obviously a mix of all of these qualities are necessary to be a functional human being, but this is not so in games. The world of Gears of War is constructed so that Marcus Fenix needs to embody all of the action hero characteristics to succeed. The problem is partially the characters, where no one is creating characters that embody these wei wu wei characteristics, but it's also that before the characters even are introduced, the game mechanics and the story frame success and failure in terms of your ability to succeed at those very particular kinds of action hero tasks. When you get swallowed by a giant worm, it's undeniable that the appropriate response is to try and get out. To do anything else would mean failure of the challenge set before you.

And that's just the point: games are almost universally about events to which the only appropriate response is to be an action hero. Just putting in characters that embody this kind of wei wu wei thinking wouldn't do anything, because they would be monumentally ineffective, unless a conscious effort was expended to make it not so. This isn't because the action hero is the baseline, and variance must be accounted for, but just because that kind of mentality is so ingrained into the game industry.

This is to say nothing of the difference between valuing wei wu wei in story vs. valuing it in gameplay. JRPGs have done a decent (or at least the best available) job of emphasizing the value of wei wu wei in story, but at the end of the day, 70% or more of your interaction with the game consists of you fighting people for the purpose of ending their life or preserving your own. So you're left with a poor choice at the end: do I have a final confrontation that doesn't reinforce the message (the value of wei wu wei), or do I have a final confrontation that the player cannot meaningfully participate in? Obviously, the stakes of the fight are greater than just preserving your own life, but if the final victory is still won by the action of killing the bad guy...

Final Fantasy 6 errs on the side of the former: While you are fighting for the preservation of life, and the ultimate validity of human existence, Kefka can't be brought into the fold of Terra's quasi-Gaia worldview, and so needs to be fought and killed for the safety of the planet and its population.

Xenogears errs on the side of latter: While you fight and beat the boss, the planet is still more or less screwed until Elly steps in, who manages to save the day, ultimately by forgiving the villain, and making him understand the value of her worldview.

So... how can the action of “making someone understand the value of your worldview” be made into an engaging game mechanic?


Just a heads up...

For those of you southpaws out there, I just recently wrote a review for the Razer DeathAdder: Left Hand Edition for the Wowhead blog.

It can be found here.