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Category: Video Games

Alignments and Absolutes

If you’re into Dungeons and Dragons and are a general pop culture geek (at least in Anglo-America) then you’ve probably had the conversation where you take various characters from your favourite movies and TV shows and try to classify them according to the nine character alignments. While it may not be a true infinite game, debating which character is which alignment can certainly fill an infinite amount of time. It can, however, be fun when taken in reasonable doses. Naming a character’s alignment helps us establish some common ground when imagining how the character would react if put into a new/different situation. It’s not just a matter of whether you are looking at a “good guy” or a “bad guy” but also of how the character is good or evil and why they make the choices they make.

If you read this blog or see me in person on a regular basis then you’ve probably heard me talk about Undertale a lot. This week I had these two conversations converge on each other: my partner asked me where I would place the characters in Undertale on the D&D alignment scale. This was actually quite difficult, since Undertale’s morality just doesn’t work like that. It employs an absolute morality in contrast to the relative morality described by the nine alignments. In plain language: D&D doesn’t care what you do, it cares why you do it. In Undertale your intentions are completely irrelevant. It does not matter why you killed a monster, it only matters that you killed a monster.

Advice from sans
The advice you get from Sans if you grind for EXP

So, why does this distinction matter so much to the discussion of alignment? Because although moral absolutism is rarely practical advice for our own lives, it is still very useful in making a point. In Undertale’s case, it was a point about violence in roleplaying games. In explaining to my partner how Undertale morality is different, I gave her an example of a D&D scenario that is for “good guys” and conforms to the relative morality of the nine alignments but is actually terrible. Think of an old school dungeon crawl where your lawful good paladins and clerics are delving into some old ruins to liberate the long-abandoned temple from the orc henchmen who are their to guard it for the big bad guy. The orcs can speak “common” (read: English), but why would you want to speak to orcs? They are inherently evil and that means they will incessantly come back to kill you and ruin your quest unless you righteously smite them. Of course, if your rogue has motivations related more to treasure than to righteous smiting, she may be of a different alignment but share the same goal of killing the orcs. Your paladin, though, remains lawful good if it is legal to slaughter orcs and he is doing it for the benefit of his people and his faith rather than his own selfish interests.

Going in and killing every last sentient being in your way, in real life we call that genocide. In Undertale it’s called a genocide run or the genocide route. In other roleplaying games, it’s called grinding. Your choice to kill every monster (and the DM’s choice for them to be willing to fight to the death) can be good relative to the morals established in that game world while being uninspired at best to our critical eyes. If your DM is awesome there will be other ways to solve problems in addition to hacking monsters to death, but it is still presumed that combat is still on the table as a valid option. In Undertale’s absolute morality it doesn’t matter how necessary you feel it is to kill in self-defence. You kill, you’re bad, end of debate. It works to make the point that the way we approach role-playing games is often pretty messed up, but no matter how much I adore what Toby Fox created I have to admit that it’s very heavy-handed. Perhaps it needed to be in order to be what it is, but that doesn’t mean it will always work. In particular, I think an open-ended tabletop game would suffer greatly if as the DM I was so hard on players for fighting. I find that tabletop RPG players typically don’t want a simulation (sorry, your paladin has trench foot from too many nights camping in cool damp dungeons) but want enough verisimilitude to make the fantastical story seem sufficiently believable.

Thinking further about how to rate the alignments of Undertale characters, I have come up with four absolute morality alignments that can be used in a comparable way to D&D alignments. These are named mostly according to the options for the protagonist’s choices, but I have inferred from dialogue which monsters are actually trying to kill you and which ones merely block progress of the story unless you can win the fight (either by fighting or by figuring out how else to win). Of course this all revolves around violence because unlike in other games where morality and choices matter, there are no opportunities to lie, cheat, or steal. The protagonist always follows the rules, even if it involves following the rules for killing everything in the world. The absolute moral alignments are as follows:

  1. True Pacifist: will not kill anything. Killing is wrong. It doesn’t matter why you did it, the fact you did it means you are a bad person.
  2. Neutral Pacifist: avoids killing at almost all cost, but has a breaking point after which they feel it finally becomes necessary to kill in order to stop an atrocity in progress.
  3. Neutral Killer: still heavily frowns upon killing, but is absolutely willing to do so if they feel it is necessary. May have killed between one and six times before the game started.
  4. Genocider: in this world, it’s kill or be killed. In order for mercy to be successful on genociders you must somehow break their will. You can’t just refuse to fight them.

So, for what it’s worth, this is what I came up with for Undertale characters and their alignments, relative and abslolute:

Character D&D Alignment (relative) Undertale Alignment (absolute)
sans Neutral Good Neutral Pacifist
PAPYRUS Chaotic Neutral True Pacifist
Napstablook Lawful Good True Pacifist
Undyne Lawful Neutral Neutral Killer (I think any normal person on their first time through
Mettaton Lawful Evil Genocider (at least in his initial form, perhaps I might consider Mettaton EX to be more neutral)
Alphys True Neutral (this was the hardest because she is kind of all over the place, but in the end does strike a balance of all things) Neutral Pacifist
Muffet Lawful Evil Neutral Killer (leans towards Genocider, but will admonish you for killing spiders)
Toriel Lawful Good True Pacifist
Asgore Lawful Neutral Neutral Killer
Flowey Chaotic Evil Genocider
Chara Neutral Evil Genocider
Frisk/protagonist Lawful anything (good/neutral/evil based on the route chosen) Player's choice
Temmie Temful Neutral True Temmie

As I reflect on my own alignment I contemplate the balancing act of law vs. rebellion and of benevolence vs. self-interest, and it fills me with determination.

 

TO THE DEATH!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem with killing creatures in tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t think the problem is the violence itself. We play these sorts of games to escape into a different world and engage in heroic conquest in ways that we couldn’t (and/or wouldn’t want to) do in real life. As much as I loved Undertale, I’m not wishing that every roleplaying game was committed to making the case for pacifism. But I am thinking that those of us who run tabletop roleplaying games as the GM/DM/storyteller/etc. really need to rethink the way we set our players up for combat. I think this could apply to video games too, but the consumer is less often also involved in designing scenarios.

I have a confession to make: I ran two major campaigns in 4e D&D, and in each of them I railroaded the party into fighting a lot of things. The worst part is that I lead them into evil, “the termination of infinite play in unheard silence” (p. 32, Finite and Infinite Games). Evil, not just in the pitched battles with the “boss” creatures, but in the process of killing enemy mooks for experience to gain the levels they need to go toe-to-toe with higher-level enemies. Too many monsters or generic cultists were willing to fight to the death without having any purpose in the story except to be designated targets. If there is one thing I regret in my “A Trip to Castle Stirling” campaign, it was not setting a breaking point for all of the enemies (with appropriate punishments for good-aligned clerics and paladins who go for the kill after a surrender).

If I kill this, I will gain XP, which will make me better at killing other things, which may be guarding magical treasures I can use to kill progressively stronger things. I am living the murderhobo dream.
If I kill this, I will gain XP, which will make me better at killing other things, which may be guarding magical treasures I can use to kill progressively stronger things. I am living the murderhobo dream.

It makes sense, though. Take a look at your published modules for your favourite sword-and-sorcery tabletop game. See how they provide a wealth of statistics involving hit points, armour, movement, damage, attacks, etc. What don’t you see as often? How to defeat rather than fight monsters to the death. Will lizard people respond well to bribery? Dryads to flattery? Are demons actually quite cowardly? A skilled and determined DM would be able to improvise something, but the default course of action is to fight the minotaur until its HP reaches zero, it is dead, and the players gain XP and treasure. I did a little bit of experimenting with NPC-surrender with named NPCs and one group of snake-people in my last 4e campaign, but in retrospect it is kind of terrible that this was a variation rather than what usually happens. I can do better. We can do better.

I just finished playing in a tabletop campaign run under the Risus system. It’s better suited for short one-session games, but my regular tabletop group has found out that it is possible to keep it running as long as any D&D campaign. One of the most interesting ideas I came across in this system is that there is no such thing as HP. You run on cliché dice, and once you have been brought down to zero, you are out. Defeated. Not dead, unless it is explicitly a fight to the death, and the winner chooses the consequence to be death rather than some kind of last-minute mercy).

I ran a one-night Risus game a little while back, where the premise was that there is an annual scavenger hunt at a fictional university which everyone becomes irrationally obsessed with. Except one year when a mad scientist type became so obsessed with winning a broken version of the contest he ended up holing up in the abandoned areas of the basement and playing out a Phantom of the Opera sort of trope. The game ended when the party of player characters was able to outmatch him at his game. In the end, they defeated him more decisively than they could have if they killed him and made him the tragic protagonist of his own story. They responded to his outrageous villainy by handing him the old trophy and declaring him the winner of the impossible contest. He was left speechless, dumbfounded, and completely lost. The sense of pure and unadulterated defeat was palpable. It was wonderful, possibly one of the finest moments I have ever had as a GM. I want to do more of this, and less guiding players into the kill-XP-level-kill cycle. My future campaigns will have a Mercy button.

So, I propose that for the purposes of determining defeat conditions the DM/GM/storyteller/etc. should consider enemies in combat encounters as being part of one of three groups based on function:

  1. Robots: things that are designed or built with the specific function to fight and kill the players, includes not just mechanical robots but also reanimated skeletons, raised zombies, etc. They may be able to speak and understand language, but for them it is more like how computers understand input.
  2. Animals: creatures which are alive, likely sentient, but not capable of higher reasoning. This would include traditional animals, fantasy beasts, as well as anything else that runs primarily on instinct. Creatures such as zombies could also be this if they are created by a natural phenomenon rather than a person. They can communicate emotions but not ideas.
  3. People: sentient, intelligent beings capable of abstract thinking. These are not necessarily organic, bipedal, and humanoid. These are characters with agency, judgement, feelings, beliefs, values, and motives of their own. Sometimes we want to populate our fictional towns with people but end up putting a lot of human robots in there instead of human people. Where possible, people should be made to function as people.
Sans the skeleton and Flowey the flower are not people in form, but are people in function.
Sans the skeleton and Flowey the flower are not people in form, but are people in function.

For this purpose, the finer points of what constitutes the difference between an animal and a person at an ethical level are up to your group to decide. By all means, consider a cat to be a person, a cultist to be a robot, or a feral clockwork automaton to be an animal. I am not suggesting that this classification be used to determine whether or not it is ethical to hurt/kill/destroy the creature if it is attempting to coerce the players in some way. That is up to the players to decide. I am only drawing this distinction for the purpose of suggesting how each should be defeated other than a fight to the death:

  1. Robots should be able to be defeated by circumventing their programming or mechanics. Robots, if sufficiently provoked, will attempt to fight the player to the death unless specifically prevented from doing so. Of the three, it should be easier to justify destroying these than either of the other two types of creatures. By all means, smite the necromancer’s summoned undead without a second thought.
  2. Animals, when provoked, will try to fight to the death unless they become scared. Fight or flight. To provide a solution to avoid a fight to the death, the DM should back up one step and make the encounter with an animal not lead to a fight unless specific conditions are met. Additionally, the conditions under which the animal will submit or run away out of fear should be spelled out in your notes. The players should not be too harshly punished for killing the owlbear if they really felt like they had to.
  3. People should rarely try to fight to the death if given the chance to be spared, unless they are true believers in a cause. These are the hardest creatures to plan for, but that is what makes the tabletop game such a great medium. You can improvise a little at the table. People should always have a breaking point. Perhaps it is fear and self-preservation, perhaps it is greed, or perhaps it is an appeal to their conscience. Players may choose to execute defeated enemies who are people, but that should lead to more consequences than an experience point reward. Killing people should always require justification. Defeating them should be more satisfying than killing them.

Simply by considering what the function of the enemy is can help determine how we let players go about defeating them without a battle to the death. You can only go on so many super-hammy rants of to-the-death defiance as a DM before it starts losing its impact. By the time you hear it from the main villain of the campaign, it starts to sound the same as when the hobgoblin deckhand swore to end you at any cost because you wrecked his ship. If the hobgoblin is functioning as a person, let the players convince him to give up piracy instead. And don’t just bring him back to assist in the battle when you later fight the pirate lord to make it harder than if you had simply executed him earlier, either. That reduced him to a talking robot. The players should also have the option to stab him in the back on his way out of a holding cell. I am not calling for DMs to enforce morality, but rather to provide for the existence of a reasonably tenable morality that players can play with and around.

So, when you are designing encounters in a tabletop roleplaying game rather than a combat simulation game, consider making combat and death a part of the game but make it the means to an end rather than the goal itself. I think it makes the game more interesting whether the players have the choice of finding a non-violent solution, fighting only to submission, or choosing to go all the way. Giving players the choice of how to solve problems allows for a wider range of play and that fills me with determination.

First Impressions in Game Worlds

“A finite game takes place in a world… A world provides an absolute reference without which the time, place, and participants make no sense.” – James Carse, pp. 89-90, Finite and Infinite Games

There is a lot that can be said about the importance of the world in a game. Today I will be talking about the importance of visual elements in making first impressions, and one of the first games where the world itself made a big impression on me, Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle.

First, let me be clear about what I mean by “world.” This word is often used as a synonym for the planet Earth, but that’s not helpful for looking at the worlds that games take place in. The world, to any given group of humans, is how we collectively make sense of what we see around us. This is how you can have a “world economy” or a “world war” or a “western world” that do not encompass the entire planet Earth. Some of those come very close, while some exclude most of the planet. The point is, the world is everything a game’s audience could possibly interact with in the context of playing that game. In Pong, the world is comprised by two paddles, a ball, a centre line, a scoreboard, and the boundaries of the screen. It is not a terribly compelling world, but it does not detract from the game because it’s a simple amusement; people don’t play Pong to escape into another world. If a game is designed to be large and meaningful in some way, the world needs to be many times more complex and engaging than that.

It’s not just a matter of appealing graphics, nor the absence of apparent boundaries that make a world seem interesting right from the get-go. Visual elements (such as screen graphics, printed cards, boards, tokens, etc.) are usually the first thing that introduce a player to a world. That’s why they’re not just there for the wow factor or to make marketing easier, though they do help with those things too. The look of a game is the first tool the audience gets for making sense of the game’s world.

That brings me to one of the first video games I ever played a lot of, the Commander Keen series. For those of you who haven’t reached age level 30 by now, this was an episodic series of games for the PC in the early 1990s, a time when PC gaming was a niche interest compared to the popular consoles like the SNES and Sega Genesis. I, however, was not among the kids my age who had those consoles in their homes. We had no consoles newer than the Intellivision until I was in grade seven and the age of the Nintendo 64 had arrived. I did not grow up playing Sonic, Super Mario Brothers, or Metroid. My PC gaming nostalgia is brought to you today by the letters D, O, and S. Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Ultima Underworld — these are the games I remember from the 1990s. I played plenty of demos and shareware, but Keen was to me what Link or Mario was to most gamers close to my age. And it was playing Commander Keen that gave me the first experience of truly appreciating the world in a video game based on the visual elements of the levels.

Mars, as presented in episode one of the Vorticons trilogy. Landscape features also include climbing barrels and molded plastic walls in other colours such as lime green.
Mars, as presented in “Marooned on Mars,” episode one of the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. Most of the game looks a lot like this. Landscape features also include climbing barrels and molded plastic walls in other colours such as teal and lime green. This blog does not receive any advertising revenue from multinational beverage corporations.

Before the age of DLC, there was a way that game developers could release part of a game and then charge for the rest. It was called shareware. The additional content, whether branded as sequels or additional episodes, were not truly distinct games. You copied a game for free, then you (were expected to) pay for the remainder of the content beyond what the developer deemed to be enough of a teaser. Commander Keen is ostensibly a series of six episodes, but it’s really two games: the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy and the Goodbye Galaxy trilogy. For the sake of simplicity, I am counting Aliens Ate My Babysitter in the second trilogy because it plays the same as episodes 4 and 5 even though there were differences in story arc and license/distribution that set it apart from episodes four and five. Six episodes, two distinct games. At one point I had both of the shareware episodes: “Marooned on Mars” (#1) and “Secret of the Oracle” (#4). I was offered a choice: my parents would pay to complete one trilogy and not the other. I had to choose between sticking to the chronological order and continuing Invasion of the Vorticons, or getting the rest of the newer games. I chose the latter. If you asked me at the time, I would have told you it was for aesthetic reasons. I wouldn’t have used those words, but that’s what I would have meant when I said “better graphics.” It’s actually quite remarkable how far things advanced between December 1990 and December 1991. But the appeal is not just in the fact that the Mars presented in “Marooned on Mars”looks kind of like a maze made of molded plastic, while the Shadowlands of “Secret of the Oracle” contain diverse biomes rendered in stunning 256-colour VGA graphics.

It’s apparent when you walk around the first few levels in Secret of the Oracle. The backgrounds imply a bigger world than the maze you are currently navigating. You can go in and out of doors. And most strikingly, there is a new feature: you can look up, look down, and see that are other areas in the level where life goes on without you needing to be there, right in the middle of the screen. The difference a year makes is not just in aesthetics, but also in the little mechanics that help me believe the world exists outside of the boundaries of my screen.

The rich visual splendour of 256-colour VGA graphics make a good impression. The picture shows the same stretch of path looking up and looking down.
This game was released one year after the game pictured above. Shown here is same stretch of path with Commander Keen looking up and looking down.

The visual elements of a game’s world doesn’t have to involve sprawling, highly detailed landscapes in order to make a good impression. The blocky worlds of Minecraft and Terraria do just fine without realism. If the game world gives me the tools I need to feel like my place in it is meaningful and relevant, then it becomes something I can get invested in. Sometimes that can involve beautifully rendered landscapes with the appearance of horizons. Sometimes that can involve something as simple as being able to look up and look down. And so, to conclude, I leave you with the recreation of the Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket I built in a Terraria world I named Gnosticus IV. The concept of a world in that game is really neat, but will have to wait for a future post.

The skull statue is placed to mark the world spawn point. I may not be an accomplished Terraria artist, but this is a few steps beyond the first noob hut I ever built.
The skull statue is placed to mark the world spawn point. I may not be an accomplished Terraria artist, but this is a few steps beyond the first noob hut I ever built.

 

Diversions and Doorkeys

I don’t know what I would say about Undertale if I was a video game reviewer. I have mixed feelings about the procedure of playing the game, as many of the puzzles aren’t very interesting and there are an awful lot of long walks with nothing happening through faux-retro 8-bit scenery. As a fun little diversion, the crunch of this game served its purpose but wasn’t any more exciting than Hook. I picked up that game for what I expect is the same reason most of its users did: I was browsing the free section of Steam, not finding anything interesting, then decided to see if there was anything they had that was available for almost free. It is a lovely minimalist puzzle game that took me about three hours from start to finish (including breaks). It’s a fun diversion, but makes no pretence about having a plot or making any commentary. If you’re into puzzle games and low prices, Hook may be a good buy for you. If you act within the next two days (until July 4, 2016), it is 10% off on Steam. That will save you the princely sum of $0.11 CAD. Get to it before that hot deal is gone!

Press the buttons (black circles) to retract the pins (thick lines), but do it in the right order so that you don't snag any parts.
Hook: press the buttons (black circles) to retract the pins (thick lines), but do it in the right order so that you don’t snag any parts. 

Back to Undertale: after starting the game with a bizarre interaction with a flower who turns out to be a supreme asshole, I was introduced to Toriel. She is the NPC who goes out of her way to tell the protagonist to not to go on an adventure instead of delivering the standard but thou must speech. It was at this early stage that I could see for myself that Undertale wasn’t going to be a standard dungeon crawl. Whatever was to come in terms of combat encounters and puzzle games to reward me with the key to the next room, I knew that Undertale was created for reasons other than passing the time with challenges and rewards. It’s not just a matter of overcoming the enemies, solving the puzzle, advancing the plot, and winning a title (with or without a “score” number) at the end.

The value of the education the player receives from Toriel isn't obvious at first, but it reveals a lot about what Undertale is all about.
The value of the education the player receives from Toriel isn’t obvious at first, but it reveals what Undertale is really all about.

Undertale is, in addition to being a game, social commentary about gaming and that’s why I find it interesting and worthwhile. Undertale’s visual style reminds us of the games of the 80’s and 90’s that usually railroaded the player into combat. For example, Konami’s 1991 arcade brawler The Simpsons puts the player into a setting that does not lend itself to wanton violence and then steers the player into fighting a mass mob of goons as an archetypal suburban American family from a TV sitcom. This might have made more sense if it was a Treehouse of Horror game, but the Springfield that most people know outside of the Halloween episodes is a generally peaceful place. Why fight there? Because The Simpsons was a massively popular TV series, video games were an emerging market, and so it made sense to make a Simpsons video game. And in 1991, making a video game meant either making a sports game or making a fighting game. A game set in Springfield where nobody had to be beaten in a contest or in a fight would have been inconceivable at the time, but turning The Simpsons into a fighting game was par for the course.

So, in Undertale we are quickly introduced to an 8-bit underground dungeon full of monsters. Anyone who has played a video game that looks like this is going to be expecting some hack and slash if nothing else. When faced with an enemy the character is presented the expected options of attacking with a weapon, using items, and trying to run away. This is very normal for a game about escaping from the spooky underground ruins. But Undertale also offers the player the act and mercy buttons. The one action almost always available during a fight is check, which hopefully reveals something about which of the other actions might have a desirable effect. The other actions are entirely context-dependent based on the target. For example, Froggit is the only enemy that can be complimented or threatened.

Thankfully, checking Froggit gives you a useful hint about how to proceed without killing it or running away from it.
Thankfully, checking Froggit gives you a useful hint about how to proceed without killing it or running away from it. “Check” isn’t always this helpful.

There is usually some kind of hint that can be gleaned from checking an enemy as to which actions will affect it the most. Many enemies can be rendered uninterested in continuing the fight, which opens up an option when you hit the mercy button. There are only two things available in Mercy: flee, and spare. The latter usually only works after sufficiently pacifying the enemy through some combination of low hit points (from attacking it) or lack of willingness to fight (choosing the right type of action). You can try it at any time, but that may just earn your enemy a free attack. Even if you are determined not to hurt anything, you can’t get through the game by doing nothing but fleeing. Unlike games where dialogue and non-combat actions are secondary to the play of the game itself, Undertale puts them front and centre.

Games can be used for social good and to understand ourselves. Not all games are very good at that, whether they are a peaceful and serene recreational experience (Hook) or a logic-defying rampage (The Simpsons). Undertale is amazing at this because both violence and pacifism are available options, and the choices the player makes are important. By the end of the game, the player is explicitly asked to evaluate their own choices they made with respect to violence. In general, we are socialized to reject violence and murder as methods of solving problems and getting our way except where all other options have been exhausted and it becomes a matter of preserving life. We expect armies and police forces to make room for diplomacy or talk down a gunman if they can, and social unrest ensues if there is even the perception that they didn’t do enough to prevent violence. In games, especially dungeon crawling video games where you encounter monsters, the expectation is to kill things and be rewarded for that killing with experience points and in-game goods and/or money. There is a dissonance there, and Undertale boldly shoves it right into the player’s face. It proves that games can be made to challenge us to see gaming in a different way, and to examine how that affects our lives. That’s what I hope to be able to do in any game-related creative pursuits I engage in. Playing through Undertale for the first time did involve some tedious puzzles and corny dialogue, but it also made me think and filled me with determination.

Potentials and Pitfalls

Of all the kinds of games I am aware of, there is one type that stands way out front in terms of potential to be used for social good and to understand ourselves. That is the dice-based tabletop RPG. Or, for those who aren’t already well-versed in the lingo, Dungeons and Dragons should ring a bell. I am talking about that, as well as the widely varied alternatives that are directly or indirectly derived from D&D. As recently illustrated by Josh Kramer in the Washington Post, it is now firmly established as a bona fide cultural phenomenon. I don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining this to you, as David M. Ewalt does this quite well in his book Of Dice and Men (I would recommend it especially if you are one of those people who only subscribe to one or two geek fandoms and find yourself curious but unfamiliar with this thing your other friends are raving about).

Instead, I’m going to tell you the story of how I got into it and why I think it has such great potential and also why I think it could also be monumentally disappointing. My first experience with D&D didn’t involve a basement room full of teenage boys with dice and character sheets. Although my social circle certainly qualified as “nerd” or “geek” or whatever label you might apply to a boy in grade 7 who skips school not during classes but during the school dance to go play Starcraft, nobody I knew owned a rulebook or had the idea to put something together. And then in 1998, my parents bought me a game called Baldur’s Gate. Never before did I get to play a game with such an intricate character options. It was loosely based on the third edition of D&D (with a few elements of 3.5 folded into the sequels and expansions), but Baldur’s Gate wasn’t quite the same as D&D. It was good, but then Baldur’s Gate 2 was amazing. It was largely more of the same in terms of game mechanics, but the quality of the writing, the visuals, the dialog, everything was given a huge upgrade. I had sunk 200+ hours into that game by the end of high school. Yet for all of its splendor, it was very limited: there were several distinct plot branches, but there were only so many areas to explore and specific conditions for winning or losing. After playing through every possible path, I briefly visited the modding community. I downloaded and played through a few, and enjoyed them, and toyed with the modding tools in the hope I could create my own adventure. I lacked the skills and commitment at the time that would have been required to create something that works, but it was certain that I wanted more. I wanted to be able to keep going to other places and seek other stories limited only by the imagination of creators (myself or otherwise). I had boundaries, and wished for horizons. During the time I spent on the modding forums, the regulars spoke of “PnP” (pen and paper) as an ideal rather than an alternative. I learned on an intellectual level why a lot of people found the video games to be neat but no substitute for the real thing. Almost two decades after Baldur’s Gate, I eventually came to understand this concept for myself.

Most tales of adventure from the D&D table hinge on the effects of throwing chaos orbs at a flat surface.
Most tales of adventure from the D&D table hinge on the effects of throwing chaos orbs at a flat surface.

By the time I finally got to play true D&D, I had completed an academic degree and wasn’t living with my parents anymore. 4th edition had just come out, so that is what our DM (dungeon master, person who organizes and runs the game) wanted to run. Arguing about editions is a very strange blood sport that only makes sense to a few particular subsets of D&D enthusiasts, so I am not taking a position here. The only reason why I mention it is because I don’t come at this from the perspective of someone who has been playing since the 1980’s or 1990’s. I’m not part of the newest cohort, but I’m newer to it than people might assume. It wasn’t until the late 2000’s that I had, in a game, played a character who could try and break, jump over, or seduce anything that wasn’t intended originally to be interacted with in such a way. No door was sealed shut, no waist-high bush could contain me. I don’t love BG2 any less, but getting to play in a potentially infinite fictional universe was freedom rather than a newer, nicer, bigger cage.

And I loved it. I got to try different things, and run a few campaigns. Games started and ended based entirely on the group’s desire to play, not on any externally defined plots and stages of gameplay. We could go anywhere the DM was able to come up with a narrative space for. Characters had objectives and end goals, but the only thing that ever ended a campaign was a satisfying end to a story arc combined with the desire of the players to do something else with their time or move on to the next campaign. And move on we did, despite several comings and goings, the core group is into its ninth campaign (of which I have been involved in seven). We also played games in World of Darkness and other rule sets geared more towards modern and horror settings rather than swords and sorcery. The appeal of the game wasn’t just in one setting or iteration of the rules, it was in the fact that the game could go anywhere we wanted it to go.

So, when does D&D become a terrible disappointment? Aside from malicious dungeon mastering, it also becomes rather anemic when people try to win the game. There are many ways this can occur, but the thing they all have in common is that they limit the game right down to one individual’s desire to be seen as a winner. Whether it is a DM forcing characters through a story without giving them any agency, a rules lawyer determined to mathematically prove how much better his character is than anyone else’s, or a player character seeking adoration by proxy of a character, everything that imports unnecessary limitations takes away from what makes the tabletop RPG special.

That's not how it works. That's not how any of this works.
That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.

That’s simply not how D&D became the phenomenon it is today. It is because it has more characteristics of a game than sitting around a campfire taking turns doing collaborative storytelling, but is so much more than finite dice games. It is a dice game, but one that runs on its own time and establishes its own boundaries during play. It can, at the discretion of the participants, keep on being played with the rules changing in order to allow the continuation of play. Every boundary is mutable (according to rule zero of every tabletop RPG). That’s why I characterize it as almost infinite. It isn’t quite, but the tabletop RPG is much closer than anything else I know, and that’s why I continue to play and continue to dream up the next campaign.

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.

One More Turn

Fourty-thousand nine hundred and twenty minutes, that’s how you measure my life playing Civ.

Although I have been able to stay off many of the hard drugs in the world of video games (WoW, Everquest, LoL, EVE), one game I have invested a ludicrous number of hours into is Civilization. The sixth instalment in the series was announced three days ago, so I will take a few moments to explain why this is significant to me. I don’t have a tally for Civilization 2, 3, or 4, but I currently have 682 hours and counting in Civ 5 (that is since October 2012). There is a reason for this, and it’s not just too much time on my hands. It’s because the game does such a wonderful job of keeping its boundaries just out of sight while providing new experience each time.

The core rules never change: there are movement rules for each unit, building costs, cultural and economic points to collect, victory conditions, a defined beginning and end to the game, all those characteristics of finite games I talked about last week. Unlike many games, Civ 5 allows a great deal of customization during game setup to tweak those rules, while others are fixed unless you are playing an explicitly modified game (for which there are many, many, options too). There is nothing infinite about it, as the number of permutations and combinations is vast but limited. Throw in a randomly generated world map, and the possibilities seem endless (even though they’re not). There are just too many possibilities for a human to be able to “solve” the game.

That is what distinguishes Civilization from the games where I can clearly see the boundaries. Another game I picked up recently is called Antenna. I was casually browsing Steam’s free-to-play section for something that isn’t a pay-to-win online multiplayer grindfest. Antenna was really good. I have 41 minutes logged in that game, and that is all I will ever have. Even that is a little bit longer than it needed to be, since I had to quit and restart the game in the middle due to a technical glitch (the sound cut out, and if you go play this game, you will find that is a fatal error). I had to start out from the beginning. But hey, I’m not going to complain about a single hiccup when the game was made available to me for the same price as a typical Canadian is willing to pay to watch HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Antenna has very clear boundaries, and one way to win. Each puzzle is solved by matching sounds and pressing the right buttons at the right time. You solve the puzzles, you win the game. I had a fair amount of fun playing it, and loved the feel of the atmosphere, but I won’t be playing it again because there is nothing more I can get from it. It’s perhaps a better example of a finite game than a game like Skyrim, which is every bit as limited, but is big enough that it’s harder to see from inside the game. Civ, on the other hand, always offers a new possibility: even with the same game settings and intended strategy, what kind of world am I going to explore? Am I on a huge continent or an island? Will my neighbors be Mahatma Ghandi and Haile Selassie, or will they be Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun? Will I be able to finish my world wonder before some undiscovered nation on the opposite side of the world builds it first, causing my fine workers to bust the whole thing up for scrap? (No hint of familiar frustration in my voice on that last point.)

+2 faith, +5 gold, +25% gold from city connections... Machu Picchu is a pretty good deal if you have a city close enough to a mountain.
+2 faith, +5 gold, +25% gold from city connections… Machu Picchu is a pretty good deal in Civ 5 if you have a city close enough to a mountain; especially if you’ve got Gustave Eiffel on standby to rush it.

So it’s that measured uncertainty that keeps the game fresh and replayable. The rules are limited, but with so many possible ways to play and win the game, the boundaries seem obscured by the same fog that covers unexplored tiles. That is what keeps me coming back to Civ 5 over newer games. As big as Skyrim is, I find it really easy to fall back into doing the same things in the same places on each playthrough, and it starts to feel the same. That just isn’t the case with Civilization, where the game is always just a little bit different. Beyond Earth, the “in space!” offshoot of the franchise missed the mark because despite the beautiful terrain and similar mechanics, it just did not have the same feel. Each game I played seemed to become routine more quickly (explore, run from aliens, develop tech, build improvements, choose affinity, kill aliens, never worry about other players), so I lost interest in it and went back to Civ 5. I just can’t seem to leave that game alone.

While I was writing this post, I had a friend ask me if I wanted to play a multiplayer game. Given that it is often hard to find people to commit to getting very far in a game of Civ 5, I accepted. We started a game. And then it was 4:00 AM. It was then I was reminded that across all of its iterations, Civilization is still the game built to stand the test of time.