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July 05, 2009

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Clint, you imply that Achilles' death was the shot that was heard around the world. Perhaps this is the case - Western art still takes a lot of cues from the ancient tradition of authorial... authority. (Lord, these ideas are even hard to parse linguistically.) But you end on too pessimistic a point.

Just as you seem to have prematurely announced the sealed fate of the comics industry, you're worrying too much about the state of this one. Let the next Call of Duty do what it wants. After all, how bad can things be as long as we have people like Gillen, Ben and yourself around?

Heh, goes back to that point you made in the Brainy Gamer thread months ago. A ludic experience cannot be spoiled by revealing the system or game design rules, instead that's how you even get one going in the first place.

Don't you DARE go and work in Film Mr. Hocking! Me and Chris Remo won't let you. =)

You state that even a dispassionate description of events occurring in a film is more emotional than the death of a buddy, but that ignores a fundamental difference between games and films, agency. MY buddy died in MY arms because of MY actions. Regardless of whether that fate is immutable or not my actions still had consequences. Does the possibility that I can go back and change the outcome of events make it any more or less emotionally valid than the fact I am reading words on a page or processing moving images? Fiction in any format is still fiction, it is explicitly NOT real, being able to change the outcome does not make it any less NOT real.

I think a cause could be made that games have already reached the point of Saving Private Ryan, and in some ways have started to move past it. Why? Because of agency, because they allow players and insight into themselves because the consequences we witness are the direct result of our actions. Of course that’s a fine statement to make, but I can back it up with events from my own experience, events, ironically enough from my time with Far Cry 2: http://is.gd/1olcm

Playing through those moments I learn something about myself and my attitudes to women that no amount of reading about feminism has ever been able to do. Those events affected me in the way they did for manifold but rating highly among them was the fact that, immutable or not, inevitable or not, those events happened to ME. My actions caused them. Of course that capture is scripted but does that really matter? I had developed and emotional attachment to a fiction character and I reacted to her being put in danger, I have witness such situations a thousand times over and seen the many possible consequences but never before had I been the one put in that position.

Yes Nasreen Davar is an illusion, she is NOT real, she is no more real than Wade, or Private Ryan, or Frank Bilders or a million other fictional characters, but that does not for a second mean my reaction to her fate was in any way not real.

I reject the notion that what I think is emotionally compelling is better for me than what you, or some other creator, might think is emotionally compelling. I reject that notion because the single most emotionally compelling events I have ever experienced had such an impact precisely because they were NOT what I thought I would find emotionally compelling. What I think, what I know, is compelling loses its power through familiarity. I see the world through my own eyes every day, I know how I react to almost every conceivable situation I can think of. I learn about myself, I grow as an individual by experiencing events I do not know how I will react to, experiencing events through the eyes of others.

I can play with the rules of a system, explore its potential, attempt to understand its underlying logic, but I will always be doing so through my own eyes; with my own bias and prejudice.

Give me a freeform sand box to play in and I can have fun for hours, but never will I attempt anything beyond the bounds of what I think might be fun, might be compelling. I might gain hours of pleasure from such an experience, but I will never be changed by it, challenged by it, truly provoked by it because I am only ever operating without the bounds of my own imagination. I need that external hand, that other viewpoint to challenge my assumptions and cause me to move beyond actions I think I will find fun or compelling, or meaningful. I need that author to show me something I never thought about, an idea I’ve never heard before, or a way of manipulating a system I might never have found on my own.

I never thought Far Cry 2 would teach me something about my own relationship with women. I never expected it to and if I’d know it had I probably would have been remiss to play it because I thought I would not find that compelling. I was wrong. If I had trusted my own judgment regarding what I would find compelling I would have missed out on learning something about myself.

I am a different person now, because I learnt something about myself from something you created. I saw the world through the eyes of you the creator and I was changed by that experience. How dare you abdicate that power? How dare you turn that back on me and tell me what I think is more important? It’s comforting, it’s predictable, it’s entirely logical, and yet utterly utterly wrong.

Sounds to me like you might actually be describing what mr. Hocking is talking about, Justin. A line that for most people will have been a throwaway line, a minor part of the drama, if you will, had a profound effect on your experience of the game. I feel that the game is filled with little lines like these, which hint at different kinds of horrors that seem to exist out of sight. The overall effect of overhearing these lines seems to be one of building horror, of the dread of what kind of man you're actually playing (this is what I experienced, a slow sinking feeling of apprehension at what I was doing). This is just my assumption ofcourse, so I could be completely off.

I don't believe any of these lines is more important than the others (except for the propaganda The Jackal spews, although I also think his monologues are the least effective in the game). That specific line, however, resonated with you, probably moreso than with most other players. And so for you, part of the game does then actually become about what you as a person find most important, which part you find yourself focusing on.

I think the difference is it's not so much about seeing the world through the eyes of the creator, but seeing the world that has been created through your own eyes (and the interaction that follows out of that).

Thought provoking as always, Clint.

You say: "I reject the notion that what I think you will find emotionally engaging and compelling - and then build and deliver to you to consume - is innately superior to what you think is emotionally compelling."

I think this is a humble, perhaps even noble, position to take concerning an author's role. At the same time, I empathize with Justin's point about an author's ability to spark unexpected growth in their audience.

I personally view an author as trying to build and deliver an innately alternative view of what is emotionally engaging and compelling to me. The ideal experience is one that blends the author's message with my experience, rather than one that simply leaves me to wade around in my preconceived notions. I think the real trick is finding the balance between the author's message and the audience's experience that will yield a novel dialectic.

That being said, do you think that a game like Call of Duty can be salvaged with an approach similar to what Ben is doing with Far Cry 2? If we accept that the true power of games is the player's ability to bend, break, or re-shape the rules, does this not necessitate an original, defined set of authorial dictates to subvert?

The experience of only allowing yourself to die once and it is game over is interesting and reminds me of some of the stuff people used to do with the original Thief game back in the day http://www.thief-thecircle.com/guides/unusual/#AlternatePlayingStyles

I've posted about this before on my blog http://popularculturegaming.com/?p=325 and basically I'm of the opinion that the question of emotion in games is framed incorrectly. I'm of the opinion that games are already emotional. They just aren't emotional in the same way that films are. People get mad over games all the time. They also cry over them. What child hasn't cried over losing a board game? Who doesn't feel excited after beating the boss or hearing "dominating" in Unreal Tournament?

These emotions are of a different kind and caused in a very different way than in films but that doesn't make them any less real or any less valid.

I think the real tragedy that comes out of this could be the knowledge that it takes a very particular kind of player (or audience) to appreciate the level of "authorship" that you, Clint, hand over to them. Not everyone wants to engage on that level - as Marty O'Donnell told me way back in October, some people just don't tell good stories (even if they are only telling it to themselves!!).

How do you game designers accommodate everyone? Well, I don't know if you can, but do you even have to? Tons of people love the Call of Duty-alike games, but there's absolutely a core (and I tentatively suggest that it's an ever growing group as game-literacy improves) of people who are more interested in writing the text to their own story.

I'm with Scott in noting the importance of a middle-ground where we can blend the author's imaginative creation with my own perceptions and experiences. I would hate to think I was playing all by myself, involved in a dialogue with only the mechanics and my own interpretations of the game world. Rather, as I think is apparent in Justin's comment, it is even a little offensive to think my own involvement with a game's subject mater is subverted by authorial intent. Like consumers of film and literature, I am not powerless in my reading of a piece. A dialogue is taking place, as I see, with or without the author's consent, and their own control can be subverted at any time.

Which, I suppose, is exactly the point in creating a world that lends itself well to this player involvement. Hence, your own take on manipulation and meaning. Which is to say, a place for everything for the benefit of the game and narrative. The "Call of Duty"s of this world, with their non-interactive/filmic designs, are effective in their own (albeit more ubiquitous) way. While you, among others, forge an alternative path.

Isn't what he's doing really playing at the fringes of the larger game that you made? 90% of what I did in playing Far Cry 2 was navigation and tactical combat. Character encounters were few and far between for me. The core ludic elements were figuring out where I was and how I needed to get to where I wanted to go next. The payoff in this was purely sensory, the discovery of a bunch of beautiful and unexpected dopplegangers for a ramble in a real world setting. Then there was the combat.

To me, applying such a stringent consequence to death could be really interesting, but it's not well-supported by the play elements in the combat itself. If death is permanent, than the combat might be more realistic, not have enemies that can bulls eye through the bush from 100 yards away, have a better damage indicator than (Operation Flashpoint does this really well, obscuring the view when you're taking fire with dirt and debris flying around you, rather than bloodspurts which magically cease to have ever occurred 5 seconds later when you auto-heal), there is no space-based coverfire system where you can use aiming and shooting to clear space and negotiate traversal rather than just to aim and kill bad guys.

The game allows players the choice of going through it in the way Ben is, but I don't see how it changes the actual game. It might imbue a little extra emotion in those handful of narrative scenes when you reckon with the fictional consequences of your choices, but the other 90% of the game remains as it was, and if there's a way to make games more emotionally engaging, it really SHOULD begin with that 90%, no?

"there is no space-based coverfire system where you can use aiming and shooting to clear space and negotiate traversal rather than just to aim and kill bad guys."

What?

I am always ducking behind cover, whether it's a tree, wall, pile of tires, etc. It is a better, more versatile cover system than the ones used in GoW or whatever you're thinking of.

And of course it changes the game. Exactly one rule has been changed from the game everyone else plays - When you die it's over. This one modified rule drastically changes the experience of playing, which is the game. A game does not exist until it is played, just as a story does not exist until someone reads it. Maybe you need to play it for yourself but the knowledge that it all could all end with one mistake really does make the 90% different from the 90% that can be played with no fear of death.

It's the difference between playing Poker for matchsticks or for cash. The rules are unaltered but their context has been significantly changed.

I think a large part of the appeal of these playthroughs for those not participating is that those involved, Ben in particular, are presenting their experiences as a narrative.

Maybe I should have written suppressing fire. I wasn't talking about a cover mechanic but using gunfire to affect/suppress enemy movement, like in Army of Two. Or else using gunfire to draw enemy attention to a certain spot to create an opening (something that is, in my experience, really difficult to do with the game's AI). Anyway, as soon as you change the ruleset, you realize how many other systems aren't in place to support that alternate kind of play. If the penalty is that I die for good after one "life," then the enemy AI is, essentially cheating, when they immediately hone in on my position after I snipe one of their soldiers, respawn, and bullrush when fired on.

Justin, to invert your analogy, I think it would be more like having the player in a poker game playing for their own cash when everyone else at the table is using matchsticks. It definitely changes the game, and it certainly increases the frustration and makes competition more harrowing; but in a 15-20 hour game whose missions are largely repetitive, and in which the rewards for play are built around traversal and aesthetic appreciation as much as tactics and combat, how much does that imbalance really add? There's certainly room for a game that lets you die for good when your character dies (purportedly Heavy Rain), but it doesn't add much to just make this an arbitrary limiter in a game that was designed to account for it.

What is essential is that the rules are consistently applied. I'm not suggesting that playing the game in the way Ben is doesn't change the experience, but rather that it doesn't, for my tastes, do anything that enhances the experience given the rule sets already in place (respawning enemies, infinite heals, and inconsistent AI).

I'm especially interested in coming to this debate as a relative expert on permadeath - being the maintainers of a roguelikedeveloper: the genre which features this mechanic. I'm surprised therefore to see you (Clint) refer to permadeath as a manipulation of narrative contrainst when it is in fact almost entirely ludic in function. Permadeath is one of three legs of the roguelikedeveloper game design triangle - highlighted so clearly in a recent Escapist article on Spelunky. The other two legs are emergent interaction of in game elements - something that Far Cry 2 captures in it's combat - and a procedurally generated space in which to play. It is this last item that transforms the game play from a fixed author led narrative into a meta narrative about the experience of the player learning the emergent rules of the game through repeated and hopefully interesting and unique failure. As the developer of Dwarf Fortress puts it 'failing is fun' - provided you don't have to repeat the same sequence of narrative events each time you do.

Sorry for a few typos - looks like my iPhone decided to replace roguelike with roguelikedeveloper and I didn't pick this up.

That's an interesting idea, Clint. The idea of redrawing the boundaries of the magic circle is appealing and worth keeping in mind. I have to admit that my initial evaluation of the appeal in Ben's writing was the dramatic narrative where he tightens the focus, more as Justin and others have noted. But I'll watch to see if one side "wins" or if they evolve into a tasty melange.

I sometimes wonder about complaints regarding AI and accuracy of enemies, as I found the AI to be surprisingly nuanced and reactive, responding to unknown threats and jumping at noises in surprisingly realistic and intelligible ways. Is there a significant difference in how the AI reacts at different difficulty levels, or between the 360 and PC versions?

Andrew:

I agree with everything you say. When I suggest 'permanent death' is a narrative or author-centric conceit, I mean it in the highest level, most formal, most abstract way. In the modern space of 'Triple A' narrative games, it is much more obviously so (I think), but in the raw ludic contexts of a roguelike, it becomes almost pure theory.

The theory part really lies in linking narrative media to fatalism and authored existence - believing in god and destiny and the importance of the end... etc, while conversely linking ludic media to a rejection of that view of reality - we become the creators, there is no fate or destiny and 'endings' are part of a continuous process. I admit that - at the pure theory level - the argument becomes kind of masturbatory.

At the same time, though, looking at roguelikes - the above *is* true - death is part of the continuous process of play. We author our own experiences within the procedural context of the game, we collaborate with it to generate the meaning, and death is not an end, it is merely an event within a continuous system.

So going back to the original post - the adoption of 'permadeath' is NOT interesting (to me anyway) because of what it means in a narrative context. It is interesting because of what it means in a ludic context. It means Ben is observing the game a continuous system that includes death. In effect, his permadeath is NOT permadeath unless he refuses to ever play FC2 again after he dies becaus the learnings and experiences of *Ben* will remain continuous even beyind the death of Quarbani and will be part of his experience the next time he plays.

Here's an interesting aside I have been thinking about. If anyone remembers Deus Ex 2 - their 'solution' to the problem of dealing with the fact that DX1 had 3 possible endings was not to say 'we pick ending A as the launch point for the sequel', but rather to say 'all 3 endings happened'. Of course, that yields all sorts of bizarre collisions, but it does inherently reject the author-centric notion of reality in favor of a user-centric and much more playful notion of reality. It unravels the notion of death and the permanence of death and embraces the rather beautiful notion that mutually exclusive events do not need to be exclusive in games.

Clint:

In fact, permanent death is the default choice in many game genres, whether it's restarting a map in an RTS, or losing the best of three fights in a 2 or 3d fighter, or for that matter a playing chess. The sole persistence across these is player skill (reading Sirlin, there are other significant factors in tournament preparation, too many to name here, but all these amount to the ability to perform in game).

So you're almost entirely correct to point out irrevisbility and inevitability are narrative constructs which miss the point of play. But at the same time, the structure and choices of a single play through has to be significant, because otherwise why would people bother with things like speed runs? The answer, of course, is there's narrative irrevisibility and ludic irrevisibility, which begs the question if we're moving all of these terms into the ludic space, what part exactly does narrative have left to play?

In Roguelikes, there's exactly two narratives from the player's perspective: "What I've done" and "What I have to do". The first consists of after adventure reports (AARs) and day in the life ofs (DiTL), both of which seem to be increasingly useful critical tools used by the blogging space when talking about games (Someone really needs to come up with a term for the group of people who are writing critically about games on blogs). The latter consists of an almost shopping list of actions: I've got to have poison resistance by 1000' depth, basic resists by 1500' and so on. What makes this list different from a quest log is that the items are all soft constraints and control the pace and decisions of play, not hard constraints in the sense of having to go to a location and perform a set of actions. In Angband, this list is summarised ironically as:

1. Visit general store
2. Buy Lantern
3. Kill Morgoth

because of the lack of fix requirements to complete the game.

(FYI: I've tried to summarise what is special about roguelike permadeath at http://roguelikedeveloper.blogspot.com/2009/07/permadeath.html as a primer for those less familiar with the genre).

Reread what you were saying again, and realised that the existance of speed runs is exactly the point you're making...

As an aside I'll just mention that Frank Bilders was the only thing that meant a damn to me in Farcry 2's world, all the other buddies and NPC's I found to be robotic or plain unlikable, mainly due to the fucked up 'morality' many possess, especially the protagonist, whom I couldn't stand in his path to play both sides of the conflict. But Bilders, Bilders seemed foulmouthed, open and honest that he was a bit of a criminal, I respected that and his language made me chuckle a lot. Which is why a post-assasination scramble from a town left me gutted, gutted to see the only NPC I had any connection to bleeding out by the railway siding, I never saw him downed, I guess sprinting wasn't his strong point. I never even got the syrette option. I put Frank down and the game had a melancholy taint from that point forward, I resented all other NPCs for their life-filled bodies and their un-Frank-ness. The next 10 hours of gameplay were more solitary, and the finale allowed me to vent.
Yet all this, was a wonderful personal narrative, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I didn't reload when Frank died, that was a page in my book, crushing, yet as valid as the ones before and after.
Ultimately Mr.Hocking you are to be commended for your part in creating a great game, one in which these stories can be forged, and also for furthering narrative and ludic techniques in games. Please keep going!

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