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Category: Fiction

Worth Debating

You know the guy. He quotes Voltaire and insists that anything and everything is up for debate in a truly free society. He loves posting in comment sections and social media and insists that it’s debate time, any time, or else you’ve conceded that he’s right. He’s the guy that Dr. Nerdlove is talking about in this Twitter thread. What that guy is really doing, though, is trying to lure you into a game not worth playing. One where gish galloping is not only a valid tactic, but almost essential to winning. Most of the time I see it as a game better not played than won, but sometimes I will engage if I am feeling up to it (which is not required at all times) and if I am it’s usually aimed at the silent reader rather than trying to convince the self-righteous logic-warrior that he’s wrong. He’s the kind of guy who will claim that white supremacy can be defeated by calmly and rationally outlining the logical reasons why it’s wrong. It never ends that way, ever.

If we are to support the sort of society that values human life of all types we must stop consenting to this game and his rules. I refuse to debate those who would engage in apologetics for the torch-wielding mobs on their own terms. But as someone who could be described as a “debate geek” how can I say this? Well, there are some things worth debating and there are some things that must not ever be in order to maintain a society where liberty even has a chance to flourish. That white supremacy must be rejected is, as far as I am concerned, not up for debate. How best to respond to the troubling fact that they feel it’s no longer necessary to remain in the closet is up for debate, as are the landmarks on our cultural landscape that inform what kind of people we are. That’s why I go on about video games, tabletop, and fiction on this blog in the way I do: it all adds up to what kind of society we live in.

That’s why today I am going to ask if Ready Player One a good book and a film to look forward to? That’s up for debate, too, and I don’t think it’s purely trivial. There is a conversation to be had about a book that’s getting an adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg which is, essentially, white guy nostalgia. Not that it isn’t important to put out the big fires, but understanding the cultural landscape we inhabit will help us see fire hazards.

If you search the internet for reactions to Ready Player One you will find mostly positive coverage, some effusive praise that I think reaches a fair bit too far (the trailer calls it a “holy grail of pop culture”), and a small section of people who think it’s cool to cast me as one of those torch-wielding white supremacists if I am looking forward to the film in any way. And I am, a little bit. I have previously described the book as a cool idea wrapped in a plot that’s a satisfactory vehicle but not especially inspiring or original. It’s not high on my priority list, but there is a good chance that I will give the movie a watch. Alex Nichols offers a more nuanced critique that I agree with on many points, except that I don’t think that stroking white nerd nostalgia is what makes it bad. What in my mind separates the book as it is from a great book is that it does its thing so uncritically. If you have read the book, you eventually come to see that Halliday’s was a deeply troubled mind and that for all of its technical and artistic brilliance, OASIS is a deeply problematic system. I don’t think that the narrative would suddenly disintegrate if the over-narrative was less self-indulgent than the game inside. Some parts of Ready Player One are indeed the purplest fan service that has received attention outside fan fiction sites, but a lot of it read better to me because I’m the direct target audience. But it did leave me wanting in terms of looking at how the entire premise of the egg hunt was in fact a big red flag pointing to some very ugly things about the OASIS. When I mentioned to my wife that I was going to mention the book in today’s post she recommended that I look up the Thug Notes review. I thought, oh good, here’s a guy who us going to take this book to task for its biases. But he doesn’t, except in a single comment about the conspicuous lack of Run DMC. I don’t think that the narrative would have been better with meticulously researched examples of stuff that was popular outside of white suburban nerd-dom stuffed into OASIS, but it would have been better if the characters in the overworld could see how narrow and self-indulgent a lot of what’s inside is, even as they obtain an education that they could not otherwise get in the dystopian “real world.” I reject outright any implication that it’s the Turner Diaries but with video game references, but I must also be very critical of the fact that highly concentrated white guy nostalgia is being cast as the holy grail. I think because of the attention that’s building, it’s worth debating.

So yeah, think that I ought to have sympathy for the Nazi march? Go away. Think that Ready Player One is either unironically good or the actual worst thing in the world? Debate me.

Gone Home

“Take recommendations from the comments section” isn’t generally good advice, but when you know it’s a good friend of yours commenting on something you wrote then seems like less of a bad idea. Today I will follow through on that recommendation, and play Gone Home. What I already knew about it before playing is that it is a “story exploration game” like Dear Esther, so it was going to be a “walk through the plot deal” rather than a “defeat the adversaries/environment” thing more typical of adventure games. So, I fired it up with the intention of seeing whether or not I fundamentally disagreed with the premise of the button on the start-up screen: “new game.” Will I be able to consider this thing a game?

Ransack the entire house searching for clues in each object, while listening to Sam’s audio diary: that’s the closest thing to gameplay you will experience in Gone Home.

Is it a game? Yeah, sort of, in the sense that old school point-and-click room escape rooms are games. There are details to notice and codes to find in order to move forward. Trying to walk through without interacting with any objects won’t get the player through the story. Like I do in those escape the room games, I spent a lot of time ransacking the place and clicking on everything to ensure I don’t miss that one little clue upon which the entire rest of the game hinges. I am rewarded for this behaviour on two occasions, one of which was necessary to advance the main plot, and the other part of revealing an optional side plot. Towards the end I found that I had missed one other optional clue and had to get on the Google to find out where to pick up that one scrap of paper I didn’t even notice on my own (which lead to the clues that I would not have completely understood without this spoilerific guidance). Most of the things I can pick up and examine are completely inconsequential, while others seem interesting but fixed in place. This is the sort of thing I find tedious and would have turned me off playing this game if it didn’t come highly recommended.

The centre of this board is what I feel like most point-and-click adventures are telling me as a player when I miss that one clue.

Sifting through some of the internet commentary on this I noticed that the sort of people who hate Feminist Frequency also hate this game. But they haven’t made any videos or blog posts talking about how this game is overflowing with awesome. Aside from this Tumblr post and a short blurb on the video games section of their recommended media page it doesn’t seem to get very many mentions. In the Tumblr post they call Gone Home “genuinely moving, meaningful and emotional” which I can completely agree with because it doesn’t say anything about excellent gameplay, or pushing any boundaries other than through the content of the narrative. I agree that it is moving, meaningful, and emotional; but it carries that experience forward with the gameplay as an afterthought. It’s not a great game, but it is an efficient narrative: I feel like I know the characters and the plot even though I am only given small snippets and expected to put the plot together myself. It works better than getting all the details laid out right before my eyes. I don’t care deeply about the characters, but cared enough to be interested in the whole family right up to the end. This is good fiction. It’s not good gameplay; if I was looking to play a game rather than experience a story I should look elsewhere.

I enjoyed Gone Home as a narrative experience. I really enjoyed discovering the characters and the twists and turns of the plot revealed through my own assumptions and expectations as much as through text and audio log. In some ways it is a well-written love letter to the riot grrl subculture of the 90’s that I was 5-10 years too young to interact with at a meaningful level. It makes sense to me as an homage to something that I couldn’t quite grasp at the time despite the fact it was happening during my lifetime. Perhaps a spiritual successor writing about the struggles of teenagers in the War on Terror era complete with a soundtrack featuring the Dixie Chicks and buckets of references to American Idiot and pre-TEA party, pre-Trump red state/blue state cultural anxiety could speak to me more directly than this or another version set in a 2010’s era of teenage Snapchat and Twitter (rather than my teenage MSN Messenger and Myspace). I am glad that Gone Home and interactive stories like it exist and that the themes presented in these narratives are pushing their way into the mainstream. I am starting to come to the opinion that narrative experiences on computers and consoles ought to be regarded as a distinct types of software rather than video games of a certain type, just as video games are not simply “software applications” indistinct from desktop publishing software. Perhaps that would mitigate the risk of something like Gone Home being misrepresented as a “fake game” because a bunch of gamerbros who volunteer to be “explorers” just aren’t the right audience for interactive novels about other people and other life experiences.

So, to circle back to my original question: no, it’s not a game. It’s a work of fiction. It’s a narrative experience that I think is well worth the time and money. Your mileage may vary.

Not A Game

Dear Esther; this is not a game. Spoilers ahoy! On the recent occasion of celebrating the anniversary of my birth, my wonderful fiancée bought me a gift. She is not a video gamer, but set up a Steam account so that she could conveniently browse my wishlist as well as those of our friends. Yuletide gift shopping can be rather simple and convenient for people who like PC games. However, the item on my list she picked is something that people struggle to define. Is Dear Esther a game? Interactive fiction? A walking simulator? What is it? The best short answer I can come up with is “it is hauntingly beautiful.” It is a psychologically dense fictional story. But it’s not a game.

If the words “graphic novel” didn’t already refer to a specific kind of printed book, I might have considered using those words. It is not a finite game because there are no objectives to be met, titles to be won; with its boundaries it is finite but the essence of the game is missing. It is therefore as far from an infinite game as I can imagine, being decisively neither of those things. It is not interactive fiction, because although the viewer/listener controls the pace and direction of the camera, there is almost nothing to interact with. It’s not a simulator because it didn’t try to replicate a real world process or operation. It’s not a book or a movie. It comes in the form of a video game, but does not function as a video game. It’s just… a story. One I can more easily recommend than describe.

Night time on the abandoned Hebridean island where the story takes place. I loved the aesthetic throughout the experience.

When I said “almost” nothing to interact with, I was referring to one critical moment in my experience where I actually felt like I made a choice that affected how my experience was to play out. Ian Danskin, in his video Story Beats: Dear Esther, identifies the scene at the bottom of the pool as the critical part of the story where the viewer/listener experiences doubt over what is real and what is not. I don’t disagree with this, though I don’t think I found it as jarring as he did. In assuming the persona of the narrator, I immediately worried about my sanity and ability to perceive reality in about the first minute of play. It was when I saw the structural formula for ethanol scrawled in luminescent paint on the inside of a ruined shed. That’s just not normal. The picture above? That’s mostly normal for an abandoned island, save for the seemingly eternal candles that I certainly didn’t light. I was wondering what was real and what was not right from the start.

The scene at the bottom of the pool was, for me, the critical point because that is where I made the choice that mattered. Throughout the rest of the story I could choose which way to walk and what to look at, and indeed I ended up doing some unnecessary and unintentional backtracking when I missed where the path ahead is. I could loiter as long as I liked, but there was only one path for me to go forward on. Except at the bottom of the pool. I didn’t linger at the bottom, even for a minute. In-character as the narrator, I was still trying to piece together my own story. Yes, there was a lot of doubt over my grasp on reality, but even in the craziest parts I still felt somehow tethered to reality as I understood it. Finding the accident scene at the bottom of a pool in a cave was just too much for me. Too unreal. As soon as I saw what it was, my in-character reaction was along these lines. The first thing I did when I saw the scene of a street was swim right back up to the surface, which dropped me back into the relative reality of the island. I didn’t even bother to look at the car or anything else at the bottom of that pool. That is when Dear Esther felt most interactive, if not a game. This is where I wondered what this kind of storytelling medium could accomplish with something more interactive.

In the end, I enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to anyone who likes thick psychological literature as well as people who are interested in storytelling itself. It is far from necessary to be a gamer to enjoy Dear Esther because it is not a game by any definition that I work with. As a lover of fiction, this is exactly the kind of thing I enjoy. I think my fiancée made a pretty good call on this one.

Remember, Remember

I typically don’t see a film more than once during its time in the theatres. It has to be exceptional for me to go a second time before it’s available on home media. Going a third time is almost unheard of. There is only one film that I saw on the big screen three times. That film is V for Vendetta. With November 5 falling on a Saturday this year, I figured it would be a wasted opportunity to forgo talking about Guy Fawkes, V, and the meme that mask has come to represent.

Guy Fawkes was a terrorist before “terrorism” was a thing. It certainly wasn’t a good time to be a Roman Catholic in England in 1605. Now, 411 years later, we still have trouble figuring out which forms of resistance are acceptable and which forms are cures worse than the disease. The fact that Fawkes, Catesby, et. al. wanted to murder lots of people to facilitate the rise to power of their monarch of choice is conveniently ignored in V for Vendetta, especially in the film. That parliament is conveniently free from honourable members from such-and-such county, lords of wherever, and all the various staff and servants makes blowing it up less terrorist-y so that we can still identify with V. He is the liberal freedom fighter who kills a handful of neo-fascist collaborators with surgical precision. We can get on board with that, right? Just kill the ones who surely deserve it, with zero collateral damage. Doesn’t that make it easier to wear the mask of the man who would have committed an atrocity?

Sure, it makes it a better popcorn flick to be able to adopt Prothero’s slogan good guys win, bad guys lose, England prevails with a 180-degree turn to cast V as the good guy, the neo-fascists as the bad guys, and the secretly anti-Norsefire everyman as the true Englishman. But the anarchist V from the graphic novel has far fewer scruples than our 2006 superhero, and the real Guy Fawkes even fewer. The V of Moore’s graphic novels is more ambiguous, certainly doing more killing and destroying, but is acting in perfect accordance with his convictions whether we agree with them or not. The gunpowder plot conspirators cannot even claim that level of ideological purity, as we know that they would personally benefit from having a Catholic on the throne. So no matter how much I might deplore intrafaith persecution and violence, it is quite clear that I cannot even sympathize with Guy Fawkes (while still being glad the treason and plot failed.)  Nor can I endorse the unfettered anarchism of the graphic novel V any more than I can look back on la Terrueur and think of it as a great time for freedom. The mask which represents Guy Fawkes represents something far more troubling than the thought of an explosion destroying the British parliament. It represents rebellion unconstrained by the rules we have become very fond of in liberal democratic countries.

Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, and ideas are bulletproof. But resilient as they are, not all ideas are good ideas.

By the time we get to the film, V for Vendetta is thoroughly whitewashed and ready for North American liberal consumption. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, when the movie industry acquires the rights to Alan Moore’s graphic novels they invariably create something that makes him angrily scrub his name from the project. He doesn’t seem to like it when other people make the story palatable to western liberals who like ideas and a little bit of a gray scale when it comes to morality in fiction, but who also aren’t allergic to fun and being entertained. That’s not a criticism coming from me. I like what has been built to appeal to my tastes, and so in the case of both V for Vendetta and Watchmen I enjoyed the movies more than the graphic novels.

I remember how the film inspired me. I also remember the outrageous amount of money I paid to have one of those masks shipped to my house in time for the following Halloween, way before they became ubiquitous. I still have it somewhere. I wore it for a few subsequent Halloween seasons, but then I stopped feeling like it was a good symbol for me. At first it was an article of fandom costume, but then it became the face of Anonymous, which is something I’ve always had a lot of mixed feelings about. Before becoming the face of internet libertarianism, Anonymous emerged from 4chan as a malevolent force, engaging in the sort of mob harassment that we would expect from the alt-right movement today. For the same reasons I am wary of identifying too closely with Moore’s V, I am hesitant to wear the mask that represents something ambiguous at its best. A game cannot be played when the players do not consent to the rules, and the game where political power is based on mob harassment, explosions, and death is not one I am willing to play. I appreciate the art of both the film and the graphic novel, I might wear the mask again as a costume, but the mask is not an icon that can represent who I am.


This month I am participating in Mapvember 2016. Each day of this month I will be posting some old maps from campaigns I have run in the past as well as some originals. If you love grid maps as much as I do then you should be liking my Facebook page or following me on Twitter if you don’t already.

Also, it’s Extra Life day today (November 5, 2016). If you have not already done so, please consider supporting the effort to do something good through gaming.

 

Token Caricatures and Character Tokens

Six days ago, I was discussing representation in various media, including games, with an ad-hoc panel of friends and new people I just met at the local comic con because we just weren’t ready to let the conversation end when the scheduled panel discussion was over. During one of these discussions I stumbled upon a turn of phrase that I think is pretty clever: there is no such thing as a token character. Today I will explore that and contrast it with the character token, a practical craft for the tabletop roleplaying game such as D&D.

Tokenism certainly exists, I won’t deny that. But if a depiction of a person is a two-dimensional inauthentic caricature of a gender, a culture, or a sexuality then one can hardly call it a full-fledged character. Likewise, a well-rounded character with their own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams, fears, and role in the narrative does not become a token simply by existing while being something other than the “default” straight white cis-man. Our ad-hoc panel was unanimous in declaring our frustration with increased representation being tagged as tokenism. When you look at an all-white all-male starship crew that is supposed to draw from the whole Earth and perhaps beyond, you aren’t engaging in tokenism when you take a character and make them something else. You’re just looking critically at what the “default” is and deciding to more accurately reflect the human race as a whole.

And so, when it comes to the cast of characters in tabletop RPGs that I run, I encourage crossplay around genders, colours, and cultures. Stepping out of your usual demographic is part of the cool thing about playing customized characters: you can be something else without making a token character. That brings me to the character token. In my post where I proclaim my love for the grid map, the photo I use also shows what I consider to be an essential accessory for the grid map: the character token. When I run a D&D game I like to make one of these for each player as a way to complement the map visually, for the practical purpose of tracking each character’s position on the map, and because it is a tangible representation of the character. “Pen and paper” tabletop RPG in the age of the video game may be about eschewing the finest graphics in favour of the theatre of the mind, but the tangibles are nice and if your character isn’t “default” then it only makes sense to have a token reflecting that rather than just settling for the white-skinned archer you found in your dad’s collection of AD&D miniatures. Because playing 4th Edition D&D was the first time I got to sit down with a group to play a real tabletop RPG, the tokens became even more practical than the miniatures because of the highly tactical nature of combat encounters and the rules that allowed player characters to share a space. Tokens stack much more neatly than miniatures.

Well, Ser Donathon doesn’t ride a horse, or wield a sword, but sure I can use this mini for my knight.

Before the first session of a campaign, I ask the players for character names, backstories, and general concept. I don’t get into character sheets and numbers until the first session, which is often more character creation night than it is the start of the plot. But I also ask for a picture. As someone with almost no talent in sketching I’ve never felt comfortable with the demand that I draw my own character. So I don’t ask that. I ask for a picture whether it is a scan of original artwork, copyrighted material we don’t own the rights to that the player found on Google Images, or just a detailed description that I can use to come up with something. In today’s example I will only be using copyright-free images and original work that I created or commissioned, but you can see from “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Grid Map” that some of the tokens in my collection are obviously taken from other sources for private use.

So how would I go about making some character tokens for the players? Suppose I ask for pictures, and from one player I receive a link to an image of an elf from Pixabay (a wonderful site offering copyright-free images where almost all the stock photos and illustrations used on this blog come from) and a description from another player: “She is a humanoid, with a head like a cat, and an eerie green glow.” The submitted image is easy to handle. Open up the good old word processor and insert the image on the page. I don’t need software that is any good for page layouts, just something to ensure that the scale is close enough to what I need. Most word processors can handle the task of drawing simple shapes at specified dimensions, so for use with a 0.5″ grid map I can draw a circle or square at that size on top of my image to make sure the scale is correct.

Caption
I will want to scale the image down a little bit more if I am making a token for a 0.5″ grid

For the second one, I will take a picture from my own media library of a suitable cat and fire up a good image editor. In case you haven’t noticed by now, I am a big fan of cheap or free stuff whenever it is made available morally and legally above board. One of the reasons for this that the 90/10 rule of program optimization also applies to usage cases: it is likely that 90% of Photoshop users will use 10% of the available features. I know I am firmly in the 10%. I don’t do advanced image editing; I just need something that isn’t as appallingly featureless as MS Paint. Sensible methods for cropping, basic colour adjustment, and the ability to do some simple masking is all I need. Paying for the latest version of professional-grade software seems pretty steep when all I want to do is take my picture of a cat, crop it, then mess around with the hue and saturation a little bit. For my purposes I find that paint.net is fantastic because it does all of this and it’s a free download. So I open a photo of a cat, crop it, then adjust the hue to emphasize green and crank up the saturation. A cat with an eerie green glow.

I will lay out as many images as I need to make the tokens, then print the page. I find my consumer-grade colour laser printer produces a high enough quality of image for this purpose, but I could take it over to a local shop if I had no printer at home or a truly awful inkjet. Then I apply two-sided tape to the back of the page well beyond the edges where I will carefully cut them out. This, for anyone not familiar with design terms, is called using a bleed. It means that your image is printed first, then cut down to size allowing the image to go right to the edge. I will affix the image to a small piece of cardboard taken from my household recycling bin. The finished token will look something like this.

Ca[tion
Preparing the printed image for cutting. Tape works much, much better than craft glue. I learned my lesson when producing this beauty of a dungeon tile. Nothing, neither weights nor a steam iron, has ever been able to fix that piece of work.
So, if your fictional character is as simple and flat as the character token I would use to represent them on a grid map, perhaps it is worth reconsidering how you portray the character in general. But there is indeed more to your elf than being slim, glamourous, and skilled with the longbow then I think its worth celebrating the character with a unique visual element even if you yourself lack the skills of an artist. Like the grid map or the graphics that give you an impression of the world, so too can your tokens represent the diverse array of characters in your game. I hope today’s foray into practical tablecraft had provided a little bit of inspiration even if it’s not something that you’re going to do for your group and your game.

The Artist is Present

I am about to ask you to do something I have to admit I didn’t do as much of during my academic career as I should have: do the reading before getting to class. Or in this case, I want you to watch a video on YouTube. Which is something I did more of during my academic career than I should have. Anyway, I need you to take about half an hour and go watch Ian Danskin’s excellent video The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide to understand where I’m going in today’s post. I want to put forward an argument that there are some games where the author is present.

I think the absence of the author is partially true of tabletop roleplaying games in some important ways. It is most certainly true of the rule books, supplements, and literary fiction that uses the same setting as the game that your GM/DM/storyteller wants to run. It is not true of the story the players are at the table to play through, though, because the DM acts as an author-figure during the play of the game. They can adjust the narrative in real time to make things clearer to the players, answer questions at the table, and confer in between sessions. The difference between this and the campfire storyteller is that the players are active participants in the procedure of creating the narrative rather than an audience that is expected to sit and listen quietly. This is what makes the tabletop RPG special. I did not say unique because I recently heard of a collaborative storytelling game called Storium which eschews solving problems with polyhedral chunks of plastic and other elements of what we normally consider games and really zooms in on the process of creating a narrative. I haven’t played this yet, but am very interested in doing so.

“The introduction of so powerful an agent as polyhedral dice to a collaborative narrative with players will make a great change in the situation of storytelling.” – Thomas Jefferson in Made-up Quotes Falsely Attributed To Founding Fathers, p. 133 

If, in the person of the DM, the artist is present, what does that change? Well, it ends the debate over authorial intent. Danskin argues that interpretation trumps intent when the author cannot be present. When creating a work, the author must think in advance about how the work will be interpreted. For example, if Beginner’s Guide included a sequence where the player was beset by enemies who look like they came straight out of a minstrel show, it most likely would not matter to us what Narrator Davey says or even what Davey Prime says about how the work is supposed to be a critical commentary on racism. If the game has us saying out loud and/or in our heads “holy shit, this game is super-racist and that’s awful” then at best the author had great intentions but failed as an artist if it really is that hard to see through to his critique. That’s the main beef I have with Bayonetta: it’s not that I can’t understand the argument that it’s not objectifying women, but it comes off that way so much that it’s not possible for me to come away without feeling that it does even if that wasn’t the original intention. Likewise, I wouldn’t blame people around my game table if I submitted official character portraits that depicted characters (particularly female ones) in a way that needlessly sexualizes them.

Caption
Why won’t anyone believe me when I say that I intended my druid to be a strong female character?

This is where the tabletop RPG is different from other kinds of games: if I have a femme fatale NPC that I hear from my players sounds more like creepy fan service than legitimate character, I have some options that I would not as a published author. If the character is straight out of a published module, then maybe that author ought to rethink the portrayal of women, but I as the DM can take the basics and rework them as I see fit. Or I can choose a different module, or homebrew something less offensive. Or, I can run with the character and do a session on peeling back the layers to show that she’s actually a person underneath the mask if that’s something that would interest the players. Or, I can just have her exit stage right and never appear again. There will be many options available to me, which will render the question of intent moot: if I proceed to play out something the players don’t like, and the players know it, then I alone am responsible for it and can’t hide behind some other author’s intent.

So, what does that mean for aspiring authors and dungeon masters alike? Be aware of your presence or lack thereof. In partially or non-interactive media (from video games to paperback novels) remember that authors are responsible for making sure the content they put out there can be interpreted in mostly reasonable ways by the target audience. There will always be people who insist on being exceptionally unreasonable, but the people who are never happy with anything are few though loud. In general, reasonable people will make reasonable interpretations but should not be expected to perform impressive feats of mental gymnastics to discover the artist’s cryptic intent. We create things to be interpreted by audiences and there is nothing we can do if they just don’t get it except create something else that does a better job of expressing our original intent. In fully interactive media where the author is present, remember that you are responsible for the content you use to shape the world. In the wrong hands, tabletop games can be used to create some pretty horrific situations for the people trying to play. Done the right way, the rules and the narrative can change during the course of play to facilitate additional play. That is why I find the tabletop RPG to be interesting enough to play, run, and write about. It’s the only kind of game I know where the author is present.

Going on the Depression Quest

Interactive fiction strikes me as a combination of the internet and the choose-your-own-adventure novels that many people my age borrowed from their elementary school libraries. They aren’t games in a pure sense, but share some characteristics with games. That brings me to one work in particular from 2014 called Depression Quest. In case you aren’t already painfully aware, this is the game around which the shitstorm known as Gamergate originally formed. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the game, if we can call it that. Interactive fiction is somewhere in between the linear story and the plot-heavy game. And this interactive fiction game might just hit you very close to home.

I have to admit, for being as interested as I am in the possibility of games being used for social good (or social evil), I have remained shamefully ignorant about Depression Quest. I knew the gist of it, and followed the Gamergate fallout in the news, but I didn’t play Depression Quest until a few days ago. The game is fairly simple: a grainy polaroid sits at the top of the screen, a closeup of some object relevant to the current scene which is described by the text below. Sometimes the only option is to click “next” to continue, while other choices are presented at some points. Right away, you notice that the best choices are dangled in front of you but are then crossed out in red, like this:

depressionquest1

It’s, well, depressing if you pardon my word choice. I kept trying to choose the best of the blue choices, but found myself wandering into progressively more dreary situations. It quickly becomes apparent from the changes in the status fields, the top one in particular, that reaching out to people and asking for help is the way to go. If there is one thing that Depression Quest is not, it’s being subtle in making its point.

I made many of the "right" choices, and it tells me I am doing better, though I clearly have not won the game yet.
I made many of the “right” choices, and it tells me I am doing better, though I am clearly not out of the woods yet.

And then, suddenly, it was over – as much as Depression Quest can be be over. It leaves the reader/player with a message thanking them for playing and reminding them that life is just about moving forward and provides helpful links to mental health resources. Neat. Now, being a person who likes games, I would be remiss not to try at least one other path if I know there is more than one ending. I went back to the beginning and started a new run where instead of choosing things I either know are the right thing to do or are the thing I would do/have done in the given situation, to go ahead and choose the ultimate path of self-destruction.

depressionquest3
The increasing/decreasing static is a neat visual effect.

Yikes. I made some bad choices, refused to open up, and more and more of the choices I made last time came up crossed out. As I keep going down this path, several times I am given only the “bad” option and other times what looked like it might be a path back up to the light but sometimes it’s already too late to change some future events. Keeping on the dark path leads to a bleaker conclusion, though no more decisive than what seemed like the “good” ending.

Have I missed the point of the game? Perhaps the author wanted the audience to focus on relating to the emotional content more than trying to achieve objectives with their actions. While I can’t deny that this game is disturbingly relatable, at times seeming like it was spying on my own life, I can’t just look at it as a piece of literature I can relate to. If my actions didn’t matter then I would not feel like I needed to be offered the choices in the first place. But the player’s choices in Depression Quest do matter within the context of the game: it’s not just your well-being at stake. Your parents, your brother, and your girlfriend are all affected by your actions. If you choose wisely, they become happier people. If you choose poorly, they suffer. The difference between those two outcomes is up to you. If that’s not making a point about our real life choices about how we deal with depression, I don’t know what is.

Where does this fit into the big picture? Games, or game-like interactive stories, can illustrate important messages in different ways than linear stories or personal interactions. That is not always necessary, but sometimes it can be helpful. That’s why I think we, people who love games, have a responsibility to push back against the misconception that games are for simple amusement and wasting time. We also have to stand up to the toxic elements of gaming culture who want to reduce gaming to finite contests that exist only to stroke their egos. I don’t  always hate power fantasies that give the player the ability to shoot things, blow things up, or wage wars from above. I couldn’t play Civilization if I didn’t enjoy a good power fantasy. Rather, I hate the idea that games, video games in particular, are thought to be limited to that sort of thing when games like Depression Quest also exist to make people think.

So, if playing this game can teach us anything, it’s that sometimes you have to reach out and call for help. If you need it, go to therapy. If you need them, take your meds. And, unless you’re allergic, don’t say no to a kitten. I’m glad I didn’t.

OASIS

There are at least two things that you could have learned from my last two posts: I spend way too much time playing Civilization, and I like cheap/free stuff. The latter of which brings me to my next post, about another book that I didn’t pay for. If you identify as a geek who likes geek stuff, there is a reasonably good chance you have a copy of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline somewhere in your home even if you have never even opened it. This is because you might have subscribed to, or like me received a Loot Crate subscription as a gift, and there was a copy of that book included back in February 2015. The cover raves that it’s a “new Harry Potter” and “revolutionary.” Well, it’s not. At least not in my opinion. I read it as a standard hero’s journey of teenage male wish fulfilment. The writing itself is executed competently, but the writing itself didn’t have any special powers for grabbing my attention. There was no point to be made or lesson to be learned in the plot. So why, then, did I enjoy the book and find it interesting enough to write about? Because I loved OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). In the book it is the vast MMO game that seems to comprise all of video gaming and the internet in general in the novel’s dystopian near-future. It is both a game-within-the-game and a setting for much of the story. It’s a cool idea. It’s not a new or unique idea, but I think OASIS is an interesting iteration because:

  1. Culturally, it seems to flow from what we have now. The Matrix, or Star Trek’s holodecks/holosuites are virtual reality environments in science fiction, but introduce a few elements of science fantasy. A lot of the pop culture Ready Player One based on is dated, but there is a good in-universe explanation. The creator of OASIS grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and was pathologically obsessed with the pop culture of that time, not as much that of the new millennium. So despite being a near-future setting, there are more references to D&D and Rush than there are to Reddit memes or Harry Potter or anything else more solidly embraced by millennial than by GenX. It works because the reason for this is explained, and the characters are aware of how dated the pop culture references are. Still, it pushed a lot of the right buttons to entertain me as an older millennial and felt more genuine than the other fictional VR environments I mentioned.
  2. Despite having a beginning as a system, each player logging in for the first time enters a game already in progress. For most young people in the novel, OASIS didn’t really have a beginning for them.
  3. The big bad evil empire corporation pushes the boundaries of the players consenting to play, because the other players never consented to a game involving real-world violence and harassment, but it mostly holds true. Not everyone has to be an egg hunter (participate in the contest that is the centre of the whole plot), not everyone has to play OASIS (which is perhaps reasonable if one is rich enough that the real world isn’t a complete nightmare all the time). As far as most players were concerned, OASIS was not played to reach an end; the end of making money was to be able to stay in OASIS longer or with better in-game advantages.
  4. It is implied that unlike the video game worlds we know where extreme slopes, waist-high bushes, or invisible barriers all provide a limit to the space, there are actually no boundaries in OASIS, as even specific locations can have hundreds of cloned copies.
  5. With the possible exception of the egg hunters, nobody else seems to be playing the game with a particular win condition in mind. Some people do it for work, some for escape from the awful corporate dystopia outside, but very few to “win” because for most people there is no specific victory condition.
  6. There is no end. The game-within-the-game, finding the easter egg and winning the prize, provides an end to the novel, but not to the game-within-the-book of OASIS. All of the surviving main characters still have OASIS accounts at the end of the book.
  7. The rules of the game can be changed within the game to ensure that play continues. This is where huge games like EVE are still finite in many ways. While space may be vast, somewhere outside of the game itself, there is a CCP employee working on new content at a computer. Even The Matrix appeared to require externally defined boundaries as long as you’re not Jesus The One. OASIS appears to be programmable from within OASIS.

Points 2-7 on my list all make OASIS look more like an infinite game than a finite game. And, while Carse (the philosopher who defined the terms I am using) asserts that only real life can be an infinite game, I am not sure something as robust and believable as OASIS would have crossed his mind back in 1987 when Tron defined what most people thought of when imagining a virtual world inside a computer.

As much as my praise for the novel overall is equivocal, I have to admit that it was entertaining and has been well received. I was at a book store on Sunday and saw that it was still a “staff pick” which tells me that there are a significant amount of fans if it gets pride of place and a sticker instead of being buried in the discount bin. Although it’s hardly a life-changing experience, I enjoyed the book and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as long as the expectations are correctly set. It was yet another stroke of the ego for the stereotypical gamer and didn’t push our social boundaries in ways that were not entirely predictable, though OASIS pushed those boundaries within the society of the setting. The book was also good entertainment and explained a neat idea without being boring. So when I think of my decision to keep reading this book through to the end I won’t look back in anger, at least not today.