Monthly Archives: June 2012

Odd Pacifism And Visceral Rewards in Iji

This is the first half of a two-part series on Daniel Remar’s Iji (2008), a game I’ve wanted to dig into for a while. I’m playing violent and pacifist runs simultaneously. I’m not all the way through yet (just hit Sector 8). I’ll aim for a broader contextualization in this  week’s post, then dig deeper next week, once I’ve (hopefully) seen everything there is to see.

Iji was released as freeware in 2008, one year after 2K Boston and Ken Levine released Bioshock. For a while, Bioshock was the conversation. Clint Hocking, who read Rapture as a manifestation of the shortcomings of Randian Objectivism, invoked the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance,” citing an inconsistency between Bioshock’s constricting overarching plot and the player’s “choice” to spurn or spare the slug-brained Little Sisters. Basically, ludonarrative dissonance is when plot says one thing, and gameplay says another. Or more specifically, when the unchangeable story says one thing, and the dynamic, player-affected narrative says another. Years later, Hocking’s phrase still creeps around the conversation, and Iji reminds me of Bioshock in a number of ways.

Let me count the ways. Bioshock and Iji both have two distinct approaches to weaponry. The first is introduced in the early game and is more traditional, in the vein of shotguns and assault rifles. The second, which consists of Bioshock‘s plasmids and Iji‘s Komato weaponry, is mystical and futuristic, informed by science fiction and genetic engineering gone wrong. Both games allow the player to be either ruthless or merciful, though in different contexts. Iji allows you to progress without killing anyone, while Bioshock dehumanizes everyone in Rapture with the exception of the Little Sisters, whom you can slay or save. In both games, some of the most interesting narrative bites are optional and peripheral. And finally, Bioshock proclaimed itself a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, while Remar cited System Shock 2 as his most important influence.

If there’s any ludonarrative dissonance in Iji, it’s in the fact that you spend much of the game improving skills that largely contribute to soaking up or dishing out damage, even as you’re given the option to completely opt out of all violence. But just like Bioshock, Iji makes violence feel good. And just like in Bioshock, the visceral reward of a shotgun’s exceptionally designed feedback mechanism often overshadows high-minded narrative arcs or  environmental portrayals of dystopian philosophies. There’s not much use in philosophizing about the reduction of perfectly capable humanoids to clumsy bits of flesh, but man, sometimes that stuff just works.

In Iji, like in Bioshock, you master the hardware of your enemies. There’s no real human weaponry. Your skill in a weapon set is labeled as either Tasen or Komato, the two offending alien races. If you take a combative approach, you’re essentially choosing which enemy to emulate (or you can choose to emulate both of them). Either way, through violence, you become the enemy. The music is absurdly effective, as it compliments the militaristic play-through with sick, driving kicks and dirty, industrial metal riffs.

There’s been some talk lately about how violence in games can feel really good, but then make you feel bad, irritable, maybe even a bit dirty, afterwards. Most reviews of Max Payne 3 are laced with this sentiment, though it’s allowed to surface in varying degrees. It’s probably at its most unabashed in Tom Bissell’s piece:

Let’s also not kid ourselves about what happens even to a sane, well-adjusted person after an entire day of watching faces get shredded by bullets. I played Max Payne 3 in two long sittings. After the end of my first sitting, which lasted around six hours, I went to a dinner party with my girlfriend. I was, she reports, “mouthy” and “agitated” during our dinner, and she wondered what had gotten into me. What had gotten into me was that I was shooting people in the face all afternoon.

Bloodlust seems to be an inherent part of the design in a game like Max Payne 3. The player is manipulated, yet complicit, in the slaughter. This is the arrangement you accept when you fire up your console. There’s something of a critical backlash going on against this particular type of engagement that probably ties into the shooter saturation that plagues the triple-A industry. Michael Abbot is somewhat optimistic about the current state of affairs, arguing that it’s “High Noon for shooters,” and the genre is on its way out of fashion. Of the smattering of E3 articles I’ve seen, the ones that aren’t justifiably condemning the event’ s pervasive misogyny are expressing a sense of exhaustion and disillusionment with the dull, desensitized state of the triple-A hemisphere.

Iji‘s not like Max Payne 3, and it’s not just because of a graphical discrepancy. Shooting is the most viscerally rewarding part of the game, but you’re allowed, even encouraged, to not shoot. The action is there, but you can sprint past it without ever pulling the trigger. And though Iji does make violence feel good, walking right past it can inexplicably feel just as good. Many games begrudgingly allow for a pacifist run, but Iji‘s architecture actually supports a peaceful play style. The sloping, angular level design alternates between straight ledges and smooth diagonals, elegant in the way it allows you to avoid combat without breaking the game. Other characters, with the exception of a few, can’t jump or hop down, so their attack is limited to the elevation on which they’re standing. This means that if you can get to a platform that’s a bit above or below your enemies, they can’t touch you.

Iji‘s pacifism is a strange beast. Neither crafty nor stealthy, it’s frantic. Curiously, the more peaceful approach makes for a faster paced experience that’s less contemplative. The plot is colored by bits of background information, revealed in text logs scattered throughout the levels. But combat isn’t courteous. It doesn’t stop and wait for you to catch up on your reading. As a pacifist, since you can’t clear a room, you’ll have to either opt out of a lot of narrative exposition or end up on the wrong end of a plasma cannon. The choice between violence and nonviolence is less tank or stealth, more platformer or shooter. The odyssey of the pacifist is a frenzied ballet of jumping, crouching and sprinting.

I’ve been nursing my violent and pacifist runs side by side, one level at a time. I’ll take in a new environment by killing everything in my path. Then, I’ll revisit, leaving all of the level’s inhabitants untouched. Switching back and forth between my two saves is sort of like watching Tony Soprano eat pizza with his kid and apologize for his anger management issues in one scene, then pump bullets into some young twenty-something in another. Playing Iji in this way creates a kind of dissonance that’s different from the one Clint Hocking talks about. My two Ijis are dichotomies that make sense to me within the context of the game’s universe, just like Tony Soprano makes sense, once you slip into his world.

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Buffalo Rat Lion

Diluvium seems to have spawned from the old schoolyard “who would win in a fight between a bear and a whale” conversation, but at some point in its 56-hour development it turned into a typing game in the guise of an RPG/strategy type thing. More importantly, it has all the benefits of visiting a zoo without any of the unpleasant smells or small children.

In the beginning, two totem-like summoners face off in a town square, resembling a black and white, Final Fantasy Tactics level. Your summoner peers at you curiously, through its portrait at the bottom of the screen. A monkey, an antelope and a lion materialize around the enemy summoner and begin a menacing staccato shuffle towards your side of the screen. In response, you type every animal you can think of into the text box next to your summoner’s portrait. The two summoners throw their animal armies at one another until the balance shifts, and a totem falls. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this game. With its blocky, stylized presentation, the combat doesn’t in any way resemble real animals fighting one another.

Part of the fun in Diluvium is in figuring out what you can get away with. The creatures stack, both visually and statistically, if you type two or three in the same entry. After this discovery, I began to frenetically test hypotheses. Can I stack a moose on top of an elephant? YES. Can I conjure a human, the most dangerous animal? YES. Can I summon a generic bird and an ostrich and a falcon simultaneously? YES. If you can think of an animal, you can probably play it (try typing “Pikachu”). If you get rejected, you probably spelled something wrong. Also, Diluvium doesn’t do bugs.

Much of the challenge is internal, almost self-inflicted. You’ve gotta think on the fly. Battles move quickly, and when one accelerates to a fever pitch, and your summoner is surrounded by cat-dogs and bear-giraffes, you might be hard pressed to conjure even the most common of creatures in your mind’s eye. One of the biggest mid-game hurdles is simply thinking of an animal that isn’t already on the screen. The game doesn’t allow two of the same animal to be onscreen at a time, but it allows separate entries for broad and specific descriptors like “bird” and “eagle.” The limited size of the text box demands the juxtaposition of short and long words, which creates satisfying, rhythmic phrases like “armadillo snake.” In this way, the player develops stylistic aspirations which compliment the practical goal of victory.

When I play Diluvium, I’m not being told a story that makes any sense. Nor am I weaving a clear, emergent narrative that I would relate to others. I’m basically just poking and prodding the game to see what it comes up with. There are win and lose conditions that control pacing and frame the mechanics, but I’m not sure they make up the crux of the experience. Victory is not anywhere near the most exhilarating part of Diluvium.

Last week, Eurogamer’s Christian Donlan wondered “at what point does a game become a toy?” in a discussion of titles like Eric Chahi’s god game, From Dust. One of the implied arguments of Donlan’s piece is that there’s a blurry line between simulations and the toys we played with as children. A win/lose condition isn’t all that relevant to experiences that inspire spontaneous, imaginative qualities. An experience like From Dust defies rigid structure, yet is simultaneously contained within a structured system of rules. On a similar note, I’m still uncertain whether dressings like hit points are an inherent necessity of a game like Diluvium, or simply a constraint that continues to be enforced by cultural expectations, as Donlan suggests.

It’s interesting that each animal has different stats, but Diluvium itself would be less interesting if you had more of an idea of what’s going on. Stats aren’t displayed, and you have no control over specific combat interactions. Much is left up to the imagination. Considering the possible strengths and weaknesses of each animal adds another layer of enjoyment, and observing those ambiguous strengths and weaknesses in action adds a kind of spectator appeal to the entire affair. The system is left to do its work, and the player is allowed to imagine and interpret.

Similarly, Diluvium would be less engaging if it asked you to choose from a list of animals. I’m generalizing here, but I prefer the system of interactive fiction that makes you type out instructions. I like telling the player character to “go north” or “pick this up” or “look at this” or “throw this at that person” because it adds another layer of interaction. Sure, it can be clumsy and disruptive when the computer doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do, but I prefer this clumsiness to the more streamlined, but less personal method of choosing from a list of options, which is an approach taken by a lot of modern IF pieces. For me, it’s the difference between multiple choice and short answer. Sure, the multiple choice quiz is easier and doesn’t take as long, but your interaction with the subject matter is less significant. That’s not to say that the other sort of interactive fiction doesn’t have value, I just think it’s good for a different kind of engagement. By allowing you to simply type out any animal you can think of and see if it works. Diluvium creates a kind of synergy.

When Tom Bissell wrote about L.A. Noire, he said (I’m paraphrasing) that it fails as a videogame, but he loves it, so maybe we’re not calling it the right thing. Now, I’m not saying Diluvium fails at anything, and it’s about as similar to L.A. Noire as a rabbit is to a rattlesnake, but what impresses and delights me about Diluvium has nothing to do with quintessential videogamey stuff like victory or failure or objectives. It taps into a different part of my brain. And I thought of Bissell’s piece from last year because, in trying to write about these things, I’m becoming increasingly unsatisfied with the connotations of the term “videogame” and my own expectations of how a videogame is supposed to engage me.

(Diluvium was made by Renaud Bédard, Aliceffekt, Henk Boom and Dom2D. I found it on Free Indie Games)

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Here’s to Verbs

Despite suffering from the Unimaginative Title Syndrome (UTS) that plagues most flash games, Psychout is pretty interesting, and it has a refreshing spirit.

As the Jonathan Blow age of the subversive platformer reluctantly draws to a close, Psychout (a savagely subversive platformer) takes a bunch of hackneyed videogame verbs and references and cleverly, unceremoniously throws them at you. The tone that emerges is downright gleeful. With its straight-jacketed protagonist, Psychout is funny, wondrous, puzzlingly fresh and pretty much completely devoid of “meaning.” And it incorporates a Pong clone.

I’ve only made one game, and it was a text-adventure type thing about working in a coffee shop and not getting tipped. Yesterday, I attempted to create my own Pong clone in Stencyl. It took me forever to even get the ball and paddles to show up on the screen, and then I had to get them to move around. God I felt stupid. The task wasn’t monumental. I wasn’t even trying to learn to code. Someone with real, practical knowledge had created a tool to make this easier for me, but it was still hard. But the resulting humility was refreshing, even exhilarating: I know nothing of games. I am a child.

And when ball and paddle finally collided for the first time, it was ecstasy. Alone in my apartment, I shouted with a stupid exuberance. I made something happen. I made something work. I felt such a significant, pure joy, it left me feeling slightly embarrassed afterwards. I tried to remember the last time a game made me feel like that. Why did I fall in love with these things? It was because of the stories, right? Yeah, because of those and that sense of losing myself in another world. But there was something else underneath: something more primal. It was the comfort of action and the satisfying immediacy of feedback. It was a verbal joy.

The princess is in another castle.

In my own efforts to squeeze every ounce of significance out of the hordes of short-form games I submit to my amateurish scrutiny, as I struggle to play even a minimal role in inching my love towards legitimacy in the eyes of Culture (and in my own eyes, admittedly), I had forgotten that joy and its source. It’s so easy to forget.

Psychout offers no grand, sweeping statements. Just tricks that you’ve seen before, remixed and rearranged: mushrooms and spikes and blocks and pipes and pong clones and a silly title, all thrown together in a stew, the poor man’s entrée. Maybe this is all the platformer has left to give us. I think I’m OK with that. Here’s to verbs.

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Satellite Sentences

In interactive fiction, are all sentences created equal?

Aaron Reed might not think so. His latest work, Almost Goodbye, procedurally generates what he calls satellite sentences, bits of prose that anchor setting and color dialogue.

When I think of that buzz phrase, procedural content generation (PCG), I think of Dwarf Fortress, in which vast geographies and histories owe their existence to the ruminations of computer algorithms, shaped by human creativity and tempered by practical know-how. It’s easy to get lost in such a world. When you build a fortress that is so unmistakably yours within a setting that is so exquisitely randomized, you participate in a conversation of mutual respect with the game author. Your voice feels just as important as that of the developer, and the performance that emerges from this controlled chaos is unexpectedly personal and relatable.

But enough about Dwarf Fortress. I think it’s safe to say that the implied goal behind PCG is replay value. It caters to the school of thought that sees pure games not as contained stories, but as infinite possibility spaces. Movies, books, songs: these are things that we take in once, then discard or re-experience later. But let us talk of the game that has infinite replayability. This is what we’ll take with us to our desert island to experience over and over again, as the chains of time rust and finally fall. Such is the Mecca of procedural content generation.

Adventure games and interactive fiction arguably owe more to traditional narrative forms than they do their more ludic predecessors. Almost Goodbye is a brief sci-fi affair that attempts to bridge the gap between the two disciplines. Our protagonist, Dr. Muriel Ross, is preparing for a one-way trip to the other side of the galaxy, and she’s got a few hours left for farewells. That’s where the “interactive” part comes in. You get to decide the order and location of her visits, and you’re thrown a handful of dialogue choices. A display to the right lists the time of day, location and some descriptors reflecting Murial’s mood: afraid, driven, sure. Your choices affect what is displayed on this side of the screen, which in turn affects the procedural content that sprinkles the permanent text: “Time passes“…..”I remember to breathe“…..”The summer afternoon seems like it could last forever.” The game gives you the option to highlight the generated content, so you can more easily discern your effect on the prose.

Reed’s hope is to encourage player agency without surrendering authorial voice. From his academic paper on the project: “I consider the minimum amount of PCG that might make a human-authored story computationally interesting but still authorially sound.”

I can see what Reed’s going for. Building a computer brain capable of generating a work of fiction comparable to The Sound and the Fury, or hell even Twilight, is most likely an impossible task. So it makes sense to keep most of the story grounded and let the computer handle small portions of text, phrases that lie on the periphery.

But just as the phrase implies, Reed’s satellite sentences feel removed from the crux of the narrative. The phrase “A pulsing pain behind my eyes” is awkwardly sandwiched between clear descriptions of the character opposite the protagonist. You get the sense that these satellites are paying attention to what’s going on, but they stick out from the permanent body of text. The resulting sensation is not one of freedom, but of interruption, as a consistent narrative voice is sacrificed for the dream of agency.

I don’t mean to sound overly dismissive of Reed’s work. Almost Goodbye is a fascinating project. If the generated voice were distinctly separated from that of the static narrator (Maybe in the form of some robot character. Other, less bad ideas are welcome in the comments), I think this problem of consistency could be overcome. In addition, I understand that this work is an experimental blueprint of sorts, and I admire its ambitions. I also like that Reed seems to understand the narrative potential of PCG. I’m not really excited by the idea that a game will rearrange itself if I play it twice. For me, the appeal of generated content doesn’t stem from a desire to play through one game repeatedly. What excites me is the potential to affect a larger narrative thread; the opportunity to collaborate with a game’s author in telling a story. That’s what replay value means to me. Procedural content generation in interactive fiction could perhaps feed this desire for collaborative authorship, but it’s got a long way to go.

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