The Success of Bioshock Infinite: Games aren’t Movies

Having managed to win Civ 5 with every civ available (with an assist from Spawn of Tolly 2), I went looking for a different gaming experience.  Since Spawn of Tolly 1 had suggested Bioshock Infinite, and my Google+ feed had also been positive, I jumped on Steam and started it downloading for the weekend.

I ran through the game in something like 10 hours – it might have been 12.  I really like that experience, but I’m unlikely to play it much more.  Which puts in a very different category from a game like Civ 5.  The narrative portion of the game is very important, and there are many big surprises along the way.

I’m probably going to end up spoiling the crap out of the game, so you have been warned!

Now, the thing is, I just read this interesting review of the game by Peter Bright.   He titled it “The Failure of Bioshock Infinite:  Writing games like movies”  You might guess from the title that I don’t quite agree with him.  Nevertheless, I think overall it’s a good review.

What makes this game so different from Civ 5 is the near-absence of what Raph Koster has called ludic choice  (Ok, I’m not really sure if he made the term or just brought it to my attention. But onward.)

The gameplay of BI is pretty standard FPS.   You have weapon choices, upgrades, reloads, and hunting for stuff.  You have a variety of opponents, and a variety of terrain.  You have some special powers that are granted by finding things, and upgrades that can be purchased with money that’s found.

Fights are in setpieces, which sit between more pure story bits.  One point that Bright makes is that the hatred of QuickTimeEvent (click on this flashing thingy to keep something bad from happening) is very strong in the gaming audience, and BI avoids them.  Even when the game goes into storytelling mode, and there’s only one action you can do to avance the game, the mechanic to do so is pressing the ‘F’ key, which is what you’ve been using all along to do a variety of things.  It’s the all purpose “do the obvious with this thing” key.   This turns out to be important, I think.

I have to agree that the “game” component of BI is somewhat weak.  Not that I don’t like shooting things, I think that’s pretty clearly a universal sort of thing people love.  Remember Duck Hunt (and that obnoxious dog)?  Nevertheless, this is a far, far cry from Civ 5.  The choices I make in Civ 5 affect what the outcome is, it is quite easy to point to the map at the end of the game and see the consequences of one’s decisions.  You put a city there, but not there.  You burned down this city when you conquered it, but not that one.

This is not the case with Bioshock Infinite.  There is only one outcome, and all choices boil down to one choice – keep playing or stop.  Yes, you will end up with dead bodies, but they were always going to end up dead, because you can’t progress without killing them.  The scope for choices exists, but is much more limited.  There are, for each fight, multiple tactics that can be effective.  There are multiple weapons available.  You can choose which upgrades to buy, and there are audio recordings called “voxophones” scattered about the game that you can pick up and listen to.  These explain bits of world setting and backstory.  These are second-order, because there’s a predetermined story, and all paths converge to the same endpoint.

I feel I must mention that I hate definitional squabbles and for all purposes I’m happy to accept that Bioshock Infinite is a game, a video game.  It’s quite different from Civ 5, though, and I need a way to talk about those differences, that’s all.

There is a powerful story in BI, and it’s placed in a powerful setting.  And one of the messages of that story is that some points in life seem like choices, but they don’t change anything.  In one of the final scenes, you walk along boardwalks that branch before you, seemingly infinitely.  But the branches are probably meaningless, they would lead to the same outcome.  So the medium aligns with the message, it seems.  I think this is an important point that Bright misses utterly.

But I get ahead of myself.  I was talking about pacing.

The game is a game.  It is not a movie.  It is not supposed to have movie pacing.  Bright is trying to make applesauce with oranges.  The mechanic of “press F to let the story progress” has analogs in other computer-enabled art.  For instance, if you go over to Thrillbent.com  you will see lots and lots of “comics” – serial art that tells a story – in a particular format that has the reader clicking a next button to reveal the next panel in an overlay fashion.  This is not at all like the paper comic book, or even like many of my favorite online comics (Order of the Stick, I’m looking at you.)  The theory behind this format is discussed by John Rogers here, particularly the quote “The reader controls the flow of information”.

Rogers develops this them in this piece at comicbook.com:

“The cool and tempting thing, is that ability to hold back or to make the stuff that he and Stuart [Immonen] did in the [AvX: Infinite] initiative, where you’re able to have different people changing faces on the same page and changing reactions,” Rogers said. “Once you turn the page in a physical comic, that page vomits up everything on it. Even now, I’ll be writing something and I’ll realize, ‘Nah, that’s an odd-numbers page; it’s going to be sitting right there on the opposite side. I have to change this reveal over to an even-numbered page or else it’s not a reveal.’ There are certain storytelling advantages to this experiment that we think are going to be cool and exciting.”

This thing that Bright complains about, is, in fact a story-telling advantage.  That advantage, it turns out, is critical to the emotional impact of Bioshock Infinite.

Suffice it to say that the first-person character, Booker DeWitt, is not a nice person.  We meet him at the end of a long string of unfortunate choices, and in the course of the story, we travel in time and try to undo some of those choices.  We find this difficult.  At one point Elizabeth, your plucky sidekick, and the girl you are supposed to “rescue” (This relationship gets really complicated by the end), tells us, “You’re not going to get out of this room until you do this.”  It’s something that, I think, most players will not want to do, but the choice is:  tap the F key and do it, or stop playing the game.

This is powerful.  It makes the player complicit in the action, rather than a detached spectator.  This is exactly what Marshall McLuhan talked about when he distinguished “hot” from “cold” media.  This happens many times in the game.

So that’s one answer to the question, “why isn’t this story told as a film instead of as a game?”  I think there are some other answers, too:

  • The story is complex, and very dark.  Hollywood probably would never touch it, given the amount of SFX that it would take to make it happen.  But the gaming audience is far more accepting of things like strange steampunk floating cities with temporo-spatial rifts in 1912.
  • The story is longer than the usual film 2-3 hours.  
  • Other game mechanics can be used to evoke particular feelings.  For example, your sidekick Elizabeth will find things like ammo, health kits, and salts (think of them as mana potions) during fights and toss them to you (when you press the F key).  But there’s a critical point in the game where you are separated, and you set out to find her again.  You must fight your way past some people in an environment where ammunition and salts are not really available, so the loss of Elizabeth’s help gives you a sense of loss on the level of the game mechanics, not just the story.
It’s not a film. It’s not supposed to be.  Complaining that it doesn’t have the pacing of a film misses the point.  I think Bright actually missed where the game is, because of comments like this:

When playing Infinite there’s an uneasy tension. You can either respect the pace and plotting ofBioShock Infinite‘s story, or you can set the story to one side, killing any sense of urgency but giving you the time to explore.

And this:

For example, I discovered one minor secret “backwards”; I came across a locked chest after visiting the area in which its key could be found.
The first time I went through the location with the key, things were relatively quiet and peaceful—the perfect mood for hunting for items. However, between finding the chest and backtracking to retrieve the key, I unleashed hell in the service of advancing the plot. The result was that rather than hunting for the key in a quiet lull, I was opening boxes and searching the floor in the middle of all-out warfare.
It was incongruous. This was meant to be an exciting, action-packed part of the game, with significant implications for the game universe, and I was walking around looking for a key, completely disregarding the mayhem around me. 

So the issue is that Bright was never really in character.

I have a long, long history of tabletop RPG (some might say a 3000-year history!).  One of the fundamentals of tabletop RPG is “playing in character”.  Speak in first person.  Tell the GM “I search the room” or “I shoot the sniper on the rooftop”, not “My character searches the room” or “Booker shoots the sniper on the rooftop”.   Sometimes, I have to ignore the fact that I have fabulous red hair, and be in character as someone with short, ordinary black hair.

Likewise, when you say things to the other players, you do your best to speak in the characters voice.  More importantly for our purposes here, you do your best to do things that seem consistent with what your character’s motivations are, or to find a way to solve problems in-game.

This makes all the difference, even though it doesn’t necessarily dictate any other action.  If you felt anxious about advancing the plot, then don’t drop everything to search for secrets.  Ignore them.  (This is pretty much what I did, I got stuff when I saw it or could, and mostly just kept going forward.)

But if you want to search around for stuff, then perhaps, in character, you can find a motivation for that.  Perhaps you, Booker, are really curious about what happened and you want to find as many voxophones as you can to solve the mystery.   (By the way, contrary to what Bright says, you don’t need to find all of these recordings for the plot to make any sense.  I found many, but by no means all of them.  And the plot made sense.  Well, as much as it can.)

Or perhaps you, Booker, are really worried about whether you’ll have enough resources to make it through (it quickly looks like you’ll have to battle an entire city) and so he will stop and search out other resources.   There’s nothing that says you can’t first kill the guys shooting at you and then search for more loot, after all.

Those kinds of considerations are something that I consider fun, which is perhaps an odd word for such a dark-hued game.

So I’m afraid that some of the immaturity that he complains about is not in the games, but in the gamers.  There are still choices that matter here – but they matter to your experience of the game, not so much to it’s in-game outcome.   And getting into character, identifying with Booker and his past, is what makes this game work so powerfully.

Getting the Band Back Together

Somehow, a few summers ago, we all stopped playing Everquest 2.   I stopped logging in because when I did, no one else was logged in.  I moved on to other things.  I played EVE Online for a while.  I tried out DDO.   We had some fun with that, but one of the key members of our little band, Milia Flibertigibbet, didn’t care for it.  And these days, where Milia goes (or doesn’t) Jioja goes as well (or not).

Phritz and Lobi and Karaya and yours fabulously truly made a go of it for a while, but that kind of ran out of steam as well.  I think the changes to AC and attack rating were kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.

However, Milia reported on Facebook having fun with Torchlight and suggested Diablo III or possibly Torchlight 2 (which was announced as having a multiplayer mode, even though Torchlight did not) as a game we could all get together with.

Torchlight II launched a few weeks back, and all of us jumped into it.  We’ve been having a great time with it, and it’s great to hear Milia’s voice on coms again, even if only on weekends (time zone differences are hard).  Karaya is doing crazy builds that kick complete ass (no one is surprised).  Phritz is building armies of undead that swarm our enemies, and at least get in their way, and look impressive.  I have a redheaded embermage named Toldain, (of course).  However, unlike Torchlight, there appears to be no Charm spell in the game, so that’s kind of sad.   Tolly is more along the lines of mad ranged dps and no hit points.   He also has a fluffy dog named Agnes, who throws a mean fireball.

So we had to figure out how to make internet shared instances.  At first we just made them and marked them “friends only” but that tag appears to be cosmetic.   Practically the first night we did it, someone none of us knew came into the instance, said hi, and wandered off to dungeon.  On subsequent nights, more obnoxious people came into the instance, so we started using a password.  Tagging a dungeon “friends only” appears to have no effect.  As opposed to searching for dungeons which are “friends only”, which makes it easy for us to find each other.

Soon it developed that Milia had several alts, which was expected, which were all named “Milia”, which was not.  And so the plot was hatched.  Phritz contacted us via side channels and fronted the idea that we would all level up toons named “Milia” and then all come into an instance with Milia, as a prank.   Of course, we loved the idea, and have been cooking it up for perhaps 3 weeks.

Our toons have been ready for maybe a week, and we’ve been waiting for the right opportunity – Milia is logged in and the rest of us available.  I’m sure that hurricane Sandy slowed us down, since it killed power at Karaya’s house for several days.   But this Sunday morning the stars aligned.

Karaya, Milia, and I were doing some stuff to gather the Power Source for Nantiya, if memory serves.  I joined them with Festus, my engineer.  I began to wonder if I should wake up Lobi and Phritz, but the change from Daylight Savings Time was against me.   When Lobi woke up of her own accord and wandered out to me, a quick negotiation revealed that she wasn’t quite willing to call Phritz and wake him up, neither was I.

So the dungeoning continued.  We completed the dungeon and were back at the Imperial Camp and afking and so on.  I sent a whisper to Nantiya that I was going to call Phritz, but I had no idea how we would work things.  Because, you see, it was Nantiya’s instance.

If you leave an instance of the game that you created, you may not re-enter it.  The game persists on behalf of other players that may be in it, but once they leave, it disappears.  But in order for Nantiya to log in as Milia, she would have to leave.   I called Phritz and told him, “we’re all online, I have no idea how we’re going to arrange this.”

Once we are all online, Lobi asks, “what’s the lowest level toon y’all have?”  There are replies of, “sixteen” and “twenty” and thereabouts.  For all of us, we’re speaking of our Milia.   So Lobi says she wants to play her low level toon, could we do that.  Sure, we say.  Lobi says, “Ok, I’ve started an instance, come join me.”

Phritz chirps up with, “Log on, Milia”.   Milia, after a moment, says, “Oh, you!” or something.  She is being teased about having many toons named Milia.

So we start logging in.   Milia says, on voice coms, “I see two Milias in game, does anyone else see two Milias?”   Since I’m looking at a list of four Milias currently in game, I say, “I don’t see two Milias”.

Soon we are all gathered around her in the Estherian Enclave and the game is up.  ”You’re all named Milia,” she says.  It is precious moment.

Three of us are outlanders.  My toon is a berserker.  Four of us, I think, have cats as pets.  This is because Milia’s cat is legendary for it’s desire to either disrupt Milia’s game, or play it with us of it’s own accord.  (Perhaps I should state that in the plural, since I’m pretty sure there’s been more than one cat climbing across her laptop’s keyboard as she stomps orc butt from the cozy confines of her bed.)
Our DPS is nothing short of amazing.  The game will scale the number of mobs you face for the number of characters nearby, but they do not stand up to us for any length of time.  In short order, we are ready for the boss.
This fight doesn’t go quite so well.  The Grand Regent has a ton of hit points, summons lots of friends and has a few hits that go right to the bone.  I died a few times before I remembered to run away periodically so that I can heal before diving back in.
Finally, The Grand Regent is vanquished (I will avoid gendered pronouns, it is a hideous thing from dimensions that know only insane gibberings.  I think gender is at best a meaningless concept to it.)  And we do the “run around and grab up all the loot and coin dance.”
And thus ended the saga of the Five Milias, which is sure to go down as only slightly less noteworthy than the Seven Samurai, the Forty-Seven Ronin, or the Twelve Angry Men.

Orcs LOVE Fried Goblin, Daddy

I haven’t been posting much, because I’ve been playing Skyrim so much. I’ve had epic battles with dragons. I’ve taken an arrow in the knee and remained an adventurer. I’ve wondered if “arrow in the knee” was a reference to a certain filthy German phrase, fick dich doch ins Knie. (No, I’m not going to translate it for you.) I’ve destroyed the Dark Brotherhood. I’ve joined the Imperial Legion and crushed the rebellious Stormcloaks and negotiated a truce between the Legion and the Stormcloaks so that I could save the freaking world! And all of this with but the merest toss of my fabulous red hair.

Also, I have listened to Phritz’ tales of running his young half-orc through adventures. I am personally acquainted with this particular aspiring barbarian, which makes it extra entertaining. Phritz has a long history of this, being the one to initiate my own two offspring into the mysteries of tabletop RPG.

So I am greatly amused to read ChattyDM describing how he invented an RPG to play with his 10 year old orc.

And as you [the orc -Toldain] pass below the murder holes, you hear a gargled scream of pain as a very crisp, very fried and very dead goblin falls to the floor behind you. Seems to me someone tripped on the burning oil cauldron

(Laughter) Bersork takes pieces of the fried goblin.

Ewwww, you do? Why?

Orcs LOVE fried goblins daddy!

When Nico told me this little crunchy morsel (pun intended) about Castle Death’s setting, I wanted to jot it down so I could refer to it in a later game (with or without Bersork). So I reached out, picked an index card, wrote “Truths” on it and wrote: “Fried goblins is the finest of Orcish delicacies”.

I have nothing else to add.

I take it back. There’s always something to be said. Well, in this case it’s a picture from Skyrim. It’s the College of Winterhold during a snowstorm. I fought a dragon in this spot. I was too busy not dying to take a screenshot then, though.

But it totally COULD be Castle Death!

Toldain Darkwater, Skyrim Edition

On Christmas Eve, someone on my Google+ stream mentioned that Skyrim was on sale for 33% off. (For the next 3 hours or something). I was lost at that moment.

The rest of my family had already been playing it on their gaming computers. Lobilya and Thing2 had been playing it since launch. (And swapping stories about it at shared mealtimes, too.) Thing1 spent her savings on an XBox360 and the game. Given she plays her XBox on the TV in the same room where my gaming computer is, I could hardly not stop and watch her while flying cross-country on Randolph the Reindeer in Vanguard doing the latest Unicorn Rescue.

So I was primed. It took most of the evening to download, which was fine, because Christmas Eve was otherwise taken up with presents and food and general celebration. At your left you see the PC version of Toldain Darkwater, Skyrim Edition. Unfortunately my fabulous red hair is covered by that hood. It’s cold, you see…

The game is achingly beautiful. For example, the lighting effects. That shot was taken at the top of the mountain on a cloudy, stormy day. The light is very white, and very dim. It’s different at other times and places. The walk up the 7000 steps made me very nostalgic for the backpacking trips I took as a teenager.

********

One of my favorite novels by Roger Zelazny is Roadmarks. It describes a road that is a time travel mechanism, traveling along it moves one through time and space and there are exits at many interesting places in history. Chapters are labelled either One or Two. Here’s what Roger said about it:

“I did not decide until I was well into the book that since there was really two time-situations being dealt with (on-Road and off-Road—with off-Road being anywhen in history), I needed only two chapter headings, One and Two, to let the reader know where we are. And since the Twos were non-linear, anyway, I clipped each Two chapter into a discrete packet, stacked them and then shuffled them before reinserting them between the Ones. It shouldn’t have made any difference, though I wouldn’t have had the guts to try doing that without my experience with my other experimental books and the faith it had given me in the feelings I’d developed toward narrative.”

Bethesda is no newcomer to making Fantasy RPG games, and the world of their games has been developed over several titles. Skyrim’s full name is Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim after all.

Skyrim reminds me of Roadmarks for two reasons: First, it’s full of non-linear storytelling. There is a Main Plot, much like chapters labeled One in Roadmarks. But that is such a small, small part of what makes the game interesting and engaging. It’s not so much that there are a lot of side quests to choose from as there are entire lifestyles to choose between. You can develop and express your character by joining the Empire or the Rebels (they are called Stormcloaks). You can marry someone and set up a household (or many!)[EDIT: You can have many houses, not many spouses. You only get one of the latter, but it can be of whatever gender you wish.] You can aspire to political power, stay in an ivory tower or be a hermit, it would seem. You can aspire to be a master smith or enchanter. You can try to collect all the books in the game. There’s no reward for it particularly save for the satisfaction.

The other similarity with Roadmarks? Dragons. In the case of Skyrim, lots of them. I’m hoping to write another post about the battle I had with a Dragon this morning.

But this post is about the sandboxiness of Skyrim. After the initial stuff, which is pretty linear, I went over to a den of bandits to clear it out on behalf of the Jarl of Whiterun. When I finished it, I looked up at the mountain it was on and thought, “Hey, that sort of looks like a path up that mountain, I wonder if I can go up it.” I could.

I climbed to the absolute top of that mountain. On the way up, I ran across a Vigilant of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). He invited me to visit their lodge on the other side of the mountain. When I got near the top of the mountain, there was a little shrine there, with fires burning and offerings made. I’m not sure to whom. The peak was nearby. I climbed to the top of the rocky outcrop, just because it was there. Just below the outcrop was none other than Talsgar the Wanderer, a bard who likes to get out of the inn and have adventures, dammit! He had apparently just bested two bandits. On that mountaintop.

Continuing down the other side I found a temple to Mehrunes Dagon, which was locked. And well it should be, since, as I found out later (through reading in-game books!) that Dagon was at the center of the Oblivion Crisis (Elder Scrolls IV, I think), and must needs be safely locked away. I kept walking.

I visited the lodge of the Vigilants of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). Their slogan is “May Stendarr have Mercy on you, because the Vigil will not!” Yes, they’re crazy. But they were nice enough to me.

I kept walking. I fought a few creatures and ended up on the northern coast in Dawnstar. The Jarl there was Skald the Elder, but he acts like a child, and everyone says so. When they aren’t talking about the nightmares they are having. There was a priest of Mara there, and Toldain is a follower of the Goddess of Compassion, regardless of her name, so I helped him. We set things right at the Nightcaller Temple, but he had a habit of saying, “Oh, did I forget to mention…?” In the end, the nightmares were ended.

There are so many more adventures. Those all were Two. Eventually I got back to One.

When the Nintendo64 came out, it brought 3D graphics into everyone’s living room. Miyamoto Shigeru, in making Mario64 demonstrated that 3D meant a lot more than something looking nice. That game had a lot of non-linearity in it, along with a dose of “whatever works, works.” There were known solutions, but not prescribed ones.

Skyrim adheres to this and makes it so much bigger. Combat isn’t about memorizing a sequence of button pushes to get you through a game level. But it does have a fair bit of “fast-twitch” to it, more so than DDO. It’s definitely heir to FPS games. Aiming matters, unless you aren’t an aimer but a summoner or a basher. Then it doesn’t matter. Much.

I’m nowhere near an expert on this kind of game, I’ve focused mainly on MMO’s and economic sims. But it seems that the accomplishment of Bethesda on this game can be summed up in three maxims:

1. If you can see it, you can go there.
2. When you go there, there will be something to do.
3. If you can do it, it will work.

Most of my very considerable RPG experience has been with other people. My only wish is that I could do this, or something like this, with other people.

(UPDATE: “Morrowind” corrected to “Oblivion” Crisis in reference to Mehrunes Dagon, a very Lovecraftian name, by the way).

I Didn’t Know “Intitle” Was a Word, Even Between Friends

But Words With Friends evidently thinks so, and backs up Karaya’s play of it in our current game. Since it’s 7 letters, she got the 50 point bonus. Which goes on top of the 50 point bonus she got for “deathcup”. Two bingos in one game. I’m toast.

Strangely, she isn’t beating me by as much as my first game with **Milia**. I can no longer remember the 7-letter bingos she made in that game. Apparently the memory is too painful to carry for another 3000 years of life. I believe the sum total of 7-letter plays, which empty your rack and score a 50 point bonus is: Opponents 5, Tolly 0.

Wow, I suck at this game.

P.S. While I’m thinking about it, the dictionary for this game is cracked. It allows “jetes” ??? That’s French, right? I did not think foreign words were acceptable. Oh, and “moggy”??!? What the frak?

Overheard In Tolly’s Car Coming Home From Lunch

Toldain: You know, Karaya posted on my Facebook wall today, saying “OpenTTD is so dumb. Why do I keep playing it???? Damn you, Tolly!!!” I responded. “Yes, it is dumb. And very engaging. Bwahaha!”

SpawnOfTolly2 (aka Jaliera): You would think by now that you would have learned to use your Enchanter powers only for good…

[I just discovered that you can download height maps of Europe, Africa, the UK, or the Continental US to play (build trains, and roads, and airports and stuff) on. Also a bunch of alternate AIs. Abandon all hope.]

What Has Tolly Been Up To Lately?

Posting has been sparse, but gaming hasn’t. I thought I’d give a quick once-over of the gaming I’ve been doing.

  • I’ve been playing a little City of Heroes on Mrs. Darkwater’s account. I kind of don’t want to start a paid account when they are so close to launching a FTP feature. I have made two characters. One is a ninja named Kenji, who is a 15th century Ninja brought forward in time by the Nakamura family to battle a grave threat to humanity. Natural based katana user, with the defense/speed powers, and he’s a good guy.

    The other is a mage who uses Domination powers and has fabulous red hair. Figuring out his name is an exercise left to the reader. This has been fun, since the control aspects are a kind of gameplay I like. Fighting multiple opponents this way is a lot like juggling.

  • I’ve continued to play DDO. Most recently, this Monday, Phritz, Lobilya, Karaya and I ran through Stromvaulds Mine and Stormreach Outpost. Phritz, Karaya and I did it several months ago with different characters. This run was a lot easier, even though we completely forgot how to deal with the final encounter of Stormreach Outpost. So there was a wipe thingie there, but we figured it out and rebounded victoriously. I love this sort of thing, as I’ve said before. Lobilya (aka Mrs. Darkwater) finally unlocked the Drow race on her account, and she’s now working on leveling one up. Or maybe two. Even Spawn of Tolly 2 is getting back into DDO after a long hiatus.
  • I’m finally giving Civ V a rest. I managed to win a game on Immortal difficulty and a duel map. I was the Ottomans, my opponent was Catherine. We each had our own continent. I used the Ottoman’s ability to recruit barbarian ships to build a navy that gained absolute sea mastery, and then managed to take Catherine’s capital for the win. I love Janissaries.

    I tried several times to win a game with Rameses that focused on building wonders more than killing everyone. I did not find this to be possible. I’m taking a break from this now.

  • Instead I downloaded from Steam the Sid Meier Track Pack, consisting of Railroads, Railroad Tycoon II Platinum, and RR Tycoon III. I’ve started in on Railroads and it’s a whale of a good time. I love watching the trains run all over the place. Just today I found out about a game called OpenTTD (based on Transport Tycoon Deluxe). That game looks dangerous.
  • There’s been the usual assortment of tabletop RPG. Game systems include 4e, 3.5, Pathfinder (a new purchase for us) and Hero Systems.

It’s pretty clear that it’s going to continue to be difficult for me to play much Eve Online, despite how much I like it. As an economic building/trading/selling game, it has no equal. But it requires a lot of time in predictable chunks, and my time does not seem to come in predictable chunks.

There Must be Some Taxes in There Somewhere…

K. Cox has been ruminating about death in video games. It got me thinking about Chain World, the introduction of which, by its designer Jason Rohrer, is below

Simply put, the Chain World idea is: Play a game of Minecraft (modded somehow). When you die, pass the game (on a USB stick) to someone else. Tell them nothing about what you were doing.

This idea gives death in a video game a real meaning, and creates mystery and history and anticipation. A brilliant idea.

But things took a strange turn. Or maybe it wasn’t strange, considering the topic of the game, which was to create a game about religion. The person Jason gave the game to, in the above video, decided to use the game as a charity fundraiser. There’s lots more weird tidbits, such as this: He made a video which purports to show him throwing the stick into a lava pit. Wired Magazine calls the whole mess a holy war, which I think is apt.


“This was totally not something I would have wanted to happen at all,” Rohrer says. “On the other hand, it’s interesting that [Ji] would take something that I had done and irritate me with it.” If religion is about customs and rituals, not sacred text, Ji was a gift to Chain World, enriching it beyond the means of its creator.

Art imitates life, but not in the way you think.

Mass Effect 2: When the World Doesn’t See Your Gender

Slowly catching up to the MMO world, Mass Effect 2 allows players to customize their avatar – Shepard – with a variety of looks and either gender. Here’s a YouTube video paying tribute to FemShepard:

Lesley of Twowholecakes.com writes about what it’s like to play Mass Effect 2 with an avatar that’s a lesbian woman of color.

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing. The white dude is just a jerk, but there’s often a built-in extra rage factor against the woman of color, for daring to be “uppity”, for failing to know her place. This distinction is often unconscious and unrecognized, but it’s there. In Mass Effect, no matter what my Shepard says or does, not only is the dialogue the same as it would be for the cultural “default”, but the reaction from the other non-player characters is the same. (The only exception to this is the handful of times that Lady Shepard is called a “bitch” — I suppose Dude Shepard may get called a bitch too, but I doubt it. I find it fascinating that they would record specific name-calling dialogue in this way.) Brown Lady Shepard waves her intimidation up in a dude’s face and he backs the fuck down, just like he would if she were a hyper-privileged white guy. My Lady Shepard faces no additional pressure to prove herself because of her background; if she is dismissed, it’s on the basis of her assertions, and not because she’s a queer woman of color from a poor socioeconomic background — even though that’s exactly what she is.

There’s a joy here that I find very appealing. This is the joy of liberation. I would take nothing away from this, but I have one thing to add: the “big ol’” part of “big ol’ white dude” matters.

I’m a white dude who is decidedly not “big ol’”. I still enjoy male privilege, but people feel a lot more free to let me know they don’t like what I’m doing than they would someone a foot taller than me. Of which there are quite a few in the world. I would like to, you know, feel that I exist.

Tall guys make more money and have more sex. You can manipulate how aggressive people are in the ultimatum game just by altering the size of their avatar in a virtual reality. You can put numbers on it.

Actually, it’s even more subtle. Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailensen manipulated a virtual reality so that subjects thought themselves to be taller than their counterpart, even though their counterpart in the ulitmatum game percieved them as the same height as themselves. Under these conditions, the subjectively taller person would make more agressive splits, and reject unfair splits more frequently as well – just because they perceived themselves to be taller.

Yee and Bailensen make no report on the effects that having fabulous red hair might have, however.

Biology isn’t destiny. Napoleon and Jet Li come to mind. As a martial artist, I have physically dominated men who were much larger than myself. It was in training, but still, some of these men had a serious mental block about whether I could do this, even as I was doing it. This experience is not that dissimilar to the experience of some women martial artists I know.

Anyway, I don’t play many console games these days. But I’m really getting tempted by Mass Effect 2.

Under a Grey Sky on a Grey Sea

The next hour was to be the edgiest of my life, as the Hood screamed into battle. There was little for me to do in the build-up to action, and I became a somewhat frightened observer. Dawn had been at 0200, and now I could see great patches of cloud that threatened rain, if not more snow and sleet. There was a heavy swell from the north-east, which slapped the great ship and produced a haze of water that showered over the bows on to the long forecastle and beat against the side of A and B turrets. Under a grey sky on a grey sea we charged towards an enemy who threatened the lifelines to Britain. Even a technicolor film of this morning would not have brought out a brighter hue.

Ted Briggs, Flagship Hood, The Fate of Britains Mightiest Warship

I spent most of the weekend playing Civilization V, as Elizabeth of England, King difficulty, archipelago map. Last night I completed a science victory, my first win at this difficulty. This morning, in my RSS reader, Brad DeLong posted a first-person account of the sinking of HMS Hood by the KMSS Bismark, taken from Ted Brigg’s memoir. Synchronicity abounds!

The link to DeLong has just the relevant bits. It’s long, but gripping, and fits nicely in the “I Came Here to be Podkilled” vein. The Hood was sunk on 19 May, 1941, a few days over 70 years ago.

****

I played the game with England on an archipelago map because I love ships, and want them to be relevant. A bit of strangeness happened last night. About 10 turns away from winning, Genghis Khan, whose Mongol Horde had been my friend for the entire game, realized that if he didn’t do something, I would win. So he invaded me. But the invasion went nowhere, because the Civ AI does not understand how to fight with sea power. It does a creditable job with landlocked battles, but doesn’t do so well at invasions.

One of the critical mechanics changes in Civ V from Civ IV is that all land units can embark, having sea transport built in to them, once the required tech is researched. However, unless you are Songhia (the kingdom of river pirates), any fighting vessel may eliminate an embarked land unit by simply sailing on to its square. The killer can even continue sailing, if there is movement left, but the murder counts as the unit’s attack for the turn.

For me, managing a sea invasion works in three phases.

  1. Establish control of the appropriate body of water. This means eliminating all hostile seaborne fighting units.
  2. Use bombardment to eliminate non-garrisoned land units along the coast. Take advantage of the fact that most of them can’t shoot back, especially during the early phases of the game.
  3. Only then can you bring your embarked land units into the game. Take cities by first reducing them with naval bombardment, then a single land unit can finish them off.

However, the AI will just skip step one, form a combined fleet, and sail them all over, hoping for the best. This is probably because we don’t understand how to make AI’s execute multi-stage plans very well. So I beat off Genghis, losing maybe one ship in the process. He was feeling vindictive, so he dropped a nuke on St. Petersburg (I took it from Russia, but that’s another tale). This did a lot of damage, but was irrelevant. I was just a few turns from winning, and even a complete loss of St. Pete would not have made any difference.

After beating off Genghis, I noticed Caesar had a fleet in the water heading for me. That’s the fleet in the shot above.

I’m the ships with the red icons. The white line with a red fringe is my territorial border. London is to the southwest, maybe 8-10 hexes. My last spaceship part was built on a different island directly to the west and northwest, and is in the water, on its way to London for the win.

I’ve just blown up two submarines. One was in the hex I’ve marked “SS”, while the other was in the hex that my destroyer is now occupying. Rome’s two destroyers, marked “DD”, have been hit by cruise missiles from my missile frigate which is barely visible far to the west. The rest of the Roman units (with purple icons) are embarked land units. I have a couple of battleships just offscreen to the west, as is a carrier. The submarines were very dangerous to them, one of those subs can easily one-shot a battleship. But that threat is eliminated, the Roman fleet is all going to die. They can’t run fast enough to get away, but the AI probably doesn’t even realize that it needs to. It can’t see my other units.

A funny thing happened as I took this screenshot. I guess my finger must have slipped and hit another function key because the game, at that moment, without going through any intervening menus, launched me into a different game, one that Darkwater Daughter Number One had been playing as China. I had turned to look at something on the TV and when I turned back, the beautiful slaughter-in-waiting was gone.

I was able to restore to an autosave position, but the position was one prior to the Khan’s declaration of war against me. So I replayed the defense, and this time he declined to nuke me. When Caesar, showing friendship, asked for open borders, I refused him, and his fleet never came. Really, a much more boring path, but the result was the same.