Category: Front Page

When it’s you

When it’s you

Professional Book Slammers

The point of interaction between created work and end user is a dynamic one. There’re a lot of reasons for making art and one of the most common is to create some kind of effect in the audience (there are exceptions but they’re not relevant here). So, this dynamic point is where someone or a group of someones’ intentions interact with another human. Dara Ó Briain has famously stated that this point of interaction is so pronounced in video games that they are the only medium to kick you out for not doing it right. A book doesn’t slam itself shut if you aren’t picking up on the themes. This is somewhat inaccurate, as the book will shut if you’re not getting it, it’s just the agent in this case is you. Videogames take what all other art does and makes it official.

In this, there is a lesson that there are rights and wrongs with art, and that sometimes the wrong party is you. Games make this clear and yet it is still such a difficult thing to get people to realize that sometimes the fault isn’t external. The blame for this process being harder than it should be lies with the types who lord their knowledge over others, or craft a thin personality from the illusory prestige that comes with swaddling oneself with socially constructed high art. But a third party making a point look bad isn’t the same thing as a point not existing. Sometimes it’s you. But to make this easier on you, the rest of this will be about how I’m the idiot.

We, Aaron and I, well, he, played Sekiro recently for some dumb YouTube channel and at the point when that video was recorded, I’d only played a little bit of the game. In this time, I had formed several thoughts about the nature of it, its pros and cons, and expressed a few of them over the course of the video. Being already aware of this as a problem already, I’d prefaced these with the disclaimer that my experience with the game was short, and my feelings did change over the course of the video (particularly in regards to the environment bounding). But by the time of this writing, I have played a lot of Sekiro and, over that time, learned just how much of the problem was mine.

It’s important to reflect on things like this because failing to runs you the risk of missing out on fun things as a consumer, saying dumb things as an internet talker, and/or not growing as a human. And god help you if you call yourself a fucking critic.

Cratin’ for Granted

Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you’d be a good teacher of it. Much like how you don’t have to actively think about walking or getting a fork into your mouth, the things we practise a lot become automatic and we lose sight of them as they become parts of larger patterns. Remaining aware of these pieces is a key skill for educators. This is why watching my lady-friend, who only ever plays games like Factorio, play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey has been a great refresher course.

There’s a point in Odyssey where your genetic VR avatar has to get a beam of light to point at something. Even if you’ve not played the game, this is probably already creating a picture in your head. Twisting and shoving a mirror about, that sort of thing. You’ve probably already solved it without even seeing it, and you’d be right. So I was concerned when my lady-friend was hopping all about the place and grumbling about how hard it was.

The kind of craftiness it would take to hide severe mental retardation from me would still require at least an average IQ, so I dismissed that as the problem. Then I sat there and watched. She jumped about, swung the camera over the obvious solution, didn’t see it, and jumped about some more. This repeated several times. Then I finally got it. The obvious “shove these things about” signals, like a bunch of rectangular and square boxes within a bounded shoving zone, were meaningless to her because she’d never seen them before. Show an illiterate tribe some words and it won’t even occur to them that they are a thing to be decoded let alone begin decoding them.

But this isn’t about her. This is about how long it took for me to figure it out.

Stand. Lion. Two Reeds. Stool. Twisted Flax. Folded Cloth.

The mistaken idea that hieroglyphs are ideograms, pictures representing ideas, is something that’s still fairly common today. It’s not an unfair thing to think, as few writing systems use characters that are so recognisable as representations of objects in the world, but they’re actually letters that represent sounds similar to modern alphabets (they can also be the things they represent as determinatives when combined with spelled words but that’s not relevant here). A researcher from the 5th century CE, Horapollo, is mostly responsible for this. He believed the writing system to be ideogrammatic and his treatise on it shaped its understanding until the Rosetta stone allowed proper translation in the early 1800s.

Prior to that, every attempt at understanding them began at an incorrect initial assumption which was only going to produce incorrect understandings.

I am very familiar with the languages videogames use to express themselves, but this does not mean I am immune to misunderstandings. Horapollo wasn’t malicious or even necessarily bad at what he was doing. He made a basically understandable mistake and that shaped his subsequent work. Illiteracy is not the only means of misreading, and this was my problem going into Sekiro. I was familiar with languages, even ones very close to the one I was currently reading, and this is typically something beneficial. Unless you’ve made an incorrect initial assumption.

Praise it.

The language of From Software games is distinct enough that, while perhaps not the originators of it, they are certainly now the most prominent speakers of it. It is something so profoundly identifiable and describable that one can almost know exactly what to expect when buying one, a fact reflected in their odd but dedicated fan base. It’s a language I love, but it was exactly that familiarity that brought me to fault in my understanding of Sekiro.

I am a Beef Unit. A cube of mass atop slow but sensible legs that can’t move out of the way of attacks but has since learned to absorb an awful lot of them. I tend toward this approach in my games as well, but this has been particularly prominent in my Dark Souls builds. I swaddle myself in thick armour, grab something large or long (the halberd was a favourite in DS1), and then wallop whatever is in front of me while showing little regard for nonsense like parrying or moving.

I beat all three of the Dark Souls series this way, without summoning, so while I’m not one of those lunatics who do a throwables only run using a disagreeable rat as a controller, I don’t consider myself bad at the series.

So in I dive to Sekiro. Like Horapollo, I am presented with things that very closely resemble things I am already familiar with, so I approach the game with tools I already have. Because Sekiro is so familiar in so many ways, I’m not actually listening to what it’s telling me, and what it is telling me is pretty bloody obvious when I went back over it.

Firstly, there’s no stamina bar. This should stand out. The absence of a whole meter should be fairly obvious, but I was still playing the game like I was a strong but otherwise out of shape goon in a metal shell. You don’t get to be too aggressive for too long when you’re gassed after 3 swings. Gabe, there is no fucking stamina bar in Sekiro. You don’t have to retreat to catch your breath, doing this just lets your enemies regain their balance, you are to press hard and parry when needed. The game is built around this aggression, you are not rewarded for the kind of fighting I’d used in Dark Souls and yet it took me ages to figure this out. By the time I did, I realised that formerly daunting bosses like Fatty Drunkospew were actually fairly simple.

Secondly, the parrying. This game doesn’t have dozens of possible forms of weapon and it doesn’t even have a shield, so the parrying is exactly one reaction point that is based around the point of impact. Couple this with the 60fps frame rate and, with a little practise, I was getting to understand the ways this, combined with the aggression, made for some excellent swordplay. One could poke and whittle an enemy’s life down but it was far more fun, though riskier, to learn parry patterns and push for the shinobi kill.

None of this was hidden behind a Byzantine series of NPC conversations. I didn’t have to look this up on a wiki. All of this was presented in plain English at the start of the game, but I was too front loaded with preconceptions to recognise it. I have seen many pictures of ducks, so when I saw another one, I failed to see any other possibility. And that is the important element here, the I. I failed to see something, the game didn’t fail to communicate it.

“I don’t know” is the first step toward wisdom

No games slam shut. You die, that’s it. The game is still there. It doesn’t uninstall itself and send your family your internet history on the way out. You just lose and don’t want to go back. Like the book, you are the agent of its ending, even if it is more explicit in telling you that you aren’t getting it. Sometimes you won’t want to go back because the game is a genuine piece of shit and there will be more of those than good games you mistakenly abandon.

But like with the hieroglyphs, this is teaching you an ultimately bad lesson. It turns you into a blind spot, the impossible option that makes every issue the fault of the art. To say every game is an unappreciated gem is obviously incorrect. To say you have never been wrong about one is as obvious. This goes for largely any work. I’ve returned to things I’d dismissed and immediately felt like an idiot for doing it. You gain nothing by defining yourself by terrible art you don’t engage in, so aggressively manning that wall will just cut you off from good things. I tend to be a little gentler in my approach today and that’s an approach I’d recommend as, after all, the problem could always be you.

By Gabriel

Content for the discontent

Content for the discontent

Alert your eyes and fire up those second-hand contraceptive sponges you call language centres because the following words are beyond your type’s usual communicative tools of wails and empty bean can throwing.

Well, it appears medical science can turn my father into a wriggling finger-pede and nourish a vast celebrity head as a pet but there are still some things beyond it. While this thankfully means we’re still in science-fiction country and haven’t yet veered into fantasy, the anti-vax of genres, it also means there are some sad things to report:

  1. There is no medical solution to that hacking mound of serpent pus, Janice.

And

  • They can’t fix Aaron’s spine.

Both of these vex me terribly. Janice’s awful lobster pupils radiate the kind of barely sapient pleading that makes you want to smash it out of its misery, and Aaron’s spine has the internal cohesion of an Eastern European state home to more than one ethnicity. I’ve tried everything, even attempting to shrink Janice down and install her as Aaron’s new vertebrae but the foul harridan’s base animal cunning was somehow triggered by the anatomically approximate spine dress I made her wear that day. Took me ages to knit, too.

I maintain Aaron should get heavily into opiates and take up jazz trombone, if you can’t beat ‘em; join ‘em, that sort of thing, but that’s also because I hold out hope he’ll shoot Janice in the face in an Oprah junk induced stupor. Ah, opiates for the middle class, brilliant idea, but I can’t listen to the sounds of them shoplifting a Wal-Mart so its trickle-down fun isn’t nearly as good as Heroin Classic.

At any rate, he’s wandering about, waiting for part of his brain to pity-fuck him some serotonin so there’s not much else going on. I could be doing things, but I won’t as that would give you an unhealthy level of expectation and you sightless cave mutants don’t even read the things I post anyway. I could probably get the Universal Translator to accurately configure my wordplay into something you’d grasp but I’d have to pay the fee for Universal Translator Pro™ for something that would wind up sounding like an anus vomiting.

But I know you dismal incels and she-incels are spoiled for choice when it comes to vaguely functional father figures to cling to like the hopeless remora you are, so I’ll throw you this thing I made and forgot about. You can print it and stick it to things, or just look at it if (when) that proves too complicated for you.

Dust is just jizz sultanas.

Gabriel.

Love in the Time of Solanum

Love in the Time of Solanum

A sandwich made with some kind of new, proprietary deli meat is always going to be seen in the shadow of the meat, with the experience of it as a whole obscured by the specific elements that compose it. ZombiU is in a similar situation, as part of the release crop of WiiU games it shoulders the burdens of being a “proof of concept” for a console with a lot to prove and standing as a game on its own. In the maelstrom of release mania, this is no small task.

Were I to draw something and hang it up with no other thought than self-expression the honesty of that act carries through. Were I to loudly proclaim that I was making art, draw something, label it “ART” then demand it be accepted as such the resulting picture, even if it were identical to the first, would be far more divisive. In this respect I think there is great value in returning to things once the hubbub has died down and ZombiU, with its unique approach to death, is worth taking a look at with post-hubbubian eyes.

Death of a player character in a game has never been an easy sell. When the structure of one’s interaction with a work is built on the idea that death is a failure, making death a part of the character’s story arc presents a number of inherent difficulties. Make it one of a number of possible endings and it will just be seen as a failure, the typical “bad ending”, meaning players will view it as a negative result of their improper play and invalidate it as an in canon element of the plot. In Resident Evil for instance, it is possible to let Jill/Chris and Rebecca get killed at various points in the game but this is not seen as the “actual” story by either players or Capcom wholly negating any emotional relevance it may have had.

The other alternative is to limit player control or remove it entirely with the endings of Red Dead Redemption and Mafia being respective examples of both. One puts you in a circumstance that it is a programmed impossibility to fight your way out of and the other is just a cutscene. The first time I encountered the former was at the end of the freeware Doom demo when you are teleported to a dark space filled with things that kill you. As a child I was certain that there was some way to avoid it and, much like the more recent generation’s attempts to revive Aeris, I pissed way too much time trying. To my young mind there simply had to be a way out because that was how games work, if you are dying you are doing something wrong and this trained mentality in gamers is what negates the programmed fail point as a viable character end. Ultimately, both are about taking control from the player and this never feels right. Like a character getting an off screen death in a viewed medium like film or TV, control removal is something that is so antithetical to gaming that it’s never really been pulled off. 

ZombiU works around this by changing a traditional aspect of gameplay/story interaction. Your in-game avatar is not the protagonist but the agency of the protagonist and dividing the vessels for player ego projection allows for an interesting and effective approach to the problem of in-game death. The story is not one of someone surviving, it is a story of someone trying to help other people survive and the result is that you are always playing as a supporting character. This is not a choice without risk, by doing this the creators relinquish a significant degree of control over the players emotional engagement with the game. After all, any circumstance where enjoyment of something is predicated on the player’s “correct” interaction with it is one where a player can have a perfectly valid negative experience. The flip-side is that when it does work it tends to be more fun than the ‘cheap pop’ of being the protagonist. Like the saga of Me, Firstarino and Supercoon.

I’m a raging egomaniac so no matter how much of my ego goes where in a division each side gets a lot. I genuinely didn’t want Firstarino (the clever name I’d given my first guy) to die because, even though it would have had negligible impact on game progress, I had projected enough to care about him. By the two hour mark, having killed and raided other player characters who’d not survived as well as myself, Firstarino and I had bonded so even though he was essentially just “a life” in a game with infinite of said, I didn’t want him to go. But go he did, in a suitably epic showdown involving a mounted gun that I stupidly didn’t reload. I lost a life, just a life and my first one at that but I felt bad about it, cursing my own stupidity and turning the game off to think about something else for a while. Upon returning I was introduced to my new life, a big, black security guard. Awesome, Supercoon.

Permit me to explain.

 The Supercoon phenomenon was something some friends and I noticed while watching loads of shitty 80’s and 90’s action films (and you’ll see it in a lot of games too). Most of them have some vast African American killbeast whose badassedness was what we could only assume was a misguided attempt at a positive portrayal. That negative/damaging stereotyping can involve superficially positive traits, “all Asians are good at math” for instance, didn’t occur to these filmmakers as they lauded a man, descended from slaves bred for physical utility, for his physical strength. This irony led us to dub the characters Supercoon, in a deliberate parody of any attempt at racial sensitivity that, due to a fairly basic misunderstanding, backfires wildly.

So in he and I stride to take on the zombie hordes with our mighty strength and righteousness honed through years of oppre—shit he’s dead already. Seriously, he lasted 20 fucking minutes and most of that was backtracking to get to where I had previously died. Now this death stung and serves as an example of what I mean about user controlled engagement. This was frustrating through nothing else than my own personal history. This character had no special background or relevance as far as the game was concerned and hadn’t done anything or been around long enough to otherwise care about. Despite this, his death had a significant effect on me. Supercoon was about to fuck shit up (in the good way), fucked shit up (the bad way) and got eaten. Later characters had similarly short lives but they didn’t matter as much because of what I had projected into the game.

Ultimately, as this is completely non-quantifiable element, it is hard to review its efficacy objectively but as it has the potential to give me such experiences I always appreciate the attempt. That and I never give anything approaching a shit when Mario falls down a hole, or I need to re-load a character after dying. By splitting the narrative and gameplay focus and by giving the ultimately meaningless agents a small degree of personality your in-game lives become more than just a number beside an “x”. This makes death relevant beyond a simple GAME OVER, while still maintaining direct player control. It’s something that I’ve not experienced (at least that I can draw to mind now) and it adds a unique element that makes it worthy of a look.

By Gabe