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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

These are just some questions and thoughts I’ve had rattling around in my head since my Sell By, Use By, Bye Bye article, spurred by Syp’s No Game Lives Forever… not all questions are dichotomous, and “right” answers are personal.  I’m just in a musing mood lately.

“Needing is one thing, getting’s another”

Do we play something because we want to play it, or because we want to have played it?

Do we explore to see new sights or to take screenshots of them?

What do you do when the world changes beneath you, or when you change… or both?

Why do we want stuff that we can’t take with us, whether it’s “real life” stuff we can’t take with us when we die, or stuff in games that we can’t keep when the games die?

Why do we value “virtual goods”?  (I really want a grey dragon familiar, for example… but its utility and permanence is very narrow and potentially fleeting.)

Is that stuff important for the connected memories, or for future bragging rights?

Why do we care about what other people say, and why they say it?

Why do we help others?

Why do we play?

I recently sold a handful of my SNES, GBA and DS games to finance the repair of my computer, the purchase of Guild Wars 2 and some Christmas gifts for my children.  Once upon a time, I had hoped to share those games with my kids, since they are classics, but they were less than impressed.  Instead, I’ve sold those games and their ability to make more memories for tools for my children to make their own memories, somewhat cheered by the idea that those games will hopefully entertain someone else who valued their potential to do so enough to buy them.

Life goes on, and sometimes memories are all we get to keep.

In the end, that might be all we get to keep.

…and I’m OK with that.

…today

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Syp, the fellow who runs Bio Break and who spearheaded this whole Newbie Blogger Initiative, has a great summary post of the proceedings thisaway:

NBI: Month Wrapup

There are a lot of new blogs and plenty of advice floating around thanks to this bit of blogging fertilization.  I’ll probably make a post sometime in the next few weeks about some of my new favorites.  Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and participating.

If I might offer one final bit of pithy advice, it would be this:

Do good.

Not “do well”, since it’s not about your quality of writing.  Do good.

It’s not enough just to follow Wheaton’s Rule and “don’t be a dick“, though that’s a good start.  Make your contribution to the world something that will make it (and you) better.

As a corollary, when the temptation to rant or indulge in flame wars with trolls inevitably rears its head, resist.  That doesn’t mean you let them win.  Your blog is your corner of the internet where you’re a near-sovereign and you can delete comments from people who don’t understand common courtesy.  But even if you run a Wild West saloon of a place, where anything and everything goes, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of fighting.  You can’t cure stupid, you can’t fix jerks, you can’t correct the internet.

Save your righteous crusader energy for something you can actually fix and do good with.  This blogging thing isn’t worth the stress of dealing with idiots.  Spend your most precious time with your family and friends.  (Remembering that you can make friends online, certainly.)

Fair winds, all!

Oh, and some music for the road, courtesy of the Bastion folk.

Set Sail, Come Home

Edited to add:  Bastion is part of the newest Humble Bundlecomplete with soundtrack!  Seriously, that’s a sweet deal, and you get some other good games along with it like LIMBO and Psychonauts.  I cannot recommend Bastion enough, for both the game and the music.

Ooh, a nice live performance of a pair of the songs… very cool.  I’m a fan of acoustic performances.  That’s where you really see how much talent (or not) the artists have.

 

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Exigo Ergo Sum

I finish, therefore I am

My tale has come to an end, my story has been committed to some sort of record.  I lived, I existed, I fought the good fight, I made a mark on the fabric of the universe, if ever so small.  It is finished, the end, game over.

And it is good.

…no, I’m not quitting the blog (though I’ve certainly been too busy to write my usual walls of text), I’m just musing.  I’m in that sort of mood again, where I contemplate narrative, endings, entropy and death.  Not because I’m depressed, no, but because I think endings are important to life, and crucial for stories that make life interesting.

It seems to me that there are two major schools of thought regarding story endings… for lack of a professional taxonomy, I’ll call them the Concretists and the Abstractists.  They seem to roughly track with “Western vs. Eastern” or “Blue Collar vs. White Collar” or even “Nerdy vs. Artsy Fartsy”.  All highly technical terms, by the way.  There’s even a little of the Myers-Briggs flavor to some of the debate, along the Thinking-Feeling axis.  (This overlaps a little with the Introvert/Extrovert axis, but it’s more about thought process, not social function.)

Concretists want the story to make sense and come to a logical conclusion.  Even if the logic is strained, if it’s consistent with the world as presented, the whole experience is enhanced.  This is perhaps embodied best in the morality tale mentality that runs deep in classical European fairy tales, or even Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth theory that underlies so many fictional yarns.

Abstractists are more interested in the emotional investment and the potential to interpret a fuzzy ending.  Craving involvement with the story, an Abstractist loves a “neverending story” because it can fulfill that desire to indulge in immersion and endlessly ponder the deeper meanings of a fantasy life.  Interpretation and pontification are almost more important than the original story.

I’m pretty sure that these are not fully isolated mindsets in general, but when it comes to ending a story, they run in clear contrast to each other.  I find myself strongly in the Concretist camp, though as an author and artist, I certainly see the appeal of Abstractist thought.  To my mind, endings are important because we can then move on.  We can take what we learned and apply it in new ways out here in the Real World “monkeyspace” instead of dumping our hopes and ambitions into fruitless, unresolvable fiction.  Abstract endings don’t end so much as just… stop.  There’s a difference.

This isn’t to say that I always need or want happy endings.  This is not a dream for rainbows and unicorn droppings in every facet of life.  We do learn to understand life better when we experience the bitter and the sweet.  Discerning between the two is an important psychological building block, and a crucial part of learning good judgment is learning how to anticipate the two and make choices to mold the future.

I’m simply noting that resolution is an important part of education.  Understanding the process in something like Investigations Math or the “New Math” of decades back can be valuable, but without a destination in mind, complete with clear goals and consequences, we’re really not going to make much cognitive progress.  We’ll just be feeling our way through unstable fields, building a cocoon of contentment with our own perception rather than building comprehension of the truths of the world around us.  (To be sure, there’s a tangent to run about anthropic principles, quantum questions, religion and science, but I’ll just note that I believe that actual absolute truths exist, whether or not we understand them… and that the best of science and faith are interested in understanding those truths.)

When it comes to storytelling, if we are ever searching for resolution, but always held from it by teasing muses, sure, we might maintain interest for a bit longer than we would with a real ending, but we’ll wind up lacking perspective as the shifting story blows us about with every wind of authorial whimsy.  Authors can get lost and wind up in a terrible cycle of retcons or rewrites, changing characters or events willy nilly or even on the fly.  (There’s probably room in there to complain about scorched earth storytelling and Serenity, but I’m still too annoyed about that movie to put together anything cohesive, and well, it really was a resolution, just one I didn’t like.  Stupid Whedon.)

So yes, as good as Inception was, the ending seemed like a bit of a copout to me.  Leaving Dom’s fate to the viewer is perhaps a sly allusion to the themes of the movie, so it’s a successful gambit that works for the story being told, but the nonresolution seems a bit too, well, abstract to me.  That said, it could also work to illustrate my point if we take Dom’s view.  One of the theories about the show suggests that Dom makes a choice at the end to simply accept whatever “ending” he presently found himself in when he had his children back.  He ended his own quest, and whether or not it was “real” doesn’t matter.  He stopped looking, he chose an ending and moved on.

Chuck had a similar sort of “it’s up to the viewer” ending, though it was less about the nature of reality and more about the key relationship that drove the angst and triumph in the show’s narrative arcs.  This seems to me to be an even bigger copout than the Inception ending, but it has certainly driven interest in the show past its finale, with talk of a comic or movie to continue the adventure.  At the same time, it also bears resemblance to the silly “will they or won’t they” romantic tension between Chuck and Sarah that wound up being overplayed in early seasons.  Stringing along viewers only plays well for a little while, then it just gets old as the authors find ever-more-implausible reasons to keep the characters spinning their wheels in emotional ruts.

Then there’s the current bugaboo in the gaming world, Mass Effect 3 and its ending(s).  Shamus has a good pair of articles up on it, and this is another good breakdown.  Spoilers ahoy, of course.  In short, the ending wasn’t exactly loved by all (that link is a great article that manages to bring in The Lord of the Rings… if you read one of these links, make it that one), and the fuss was sufficient that BioWare is addressing it with some DLC to try to make things more understandable.  This, naturally, has raised questions about who owns the narrative thread in an interactive story.

I suspect the metagame concerns about how game design is supposed to function and how the game market works is far more important than the actual Mass Effect story itself.  It’s nice to see the nature of narrative bandied about; I think it’s important to designers to understand how narrative works and its interaction with… interactivity, and how those facets affect their game design.  Storytelling is still important, even though we have a slightly different medium in games.

In the end, I think we’ll never really be able to make the Concretists and the Abstractists agree.  That’s OK, though, since we do tend to need a bit of both (abstract thought tends to be the spark that fuels a lot of “what if” experimentation, which can be just as crucial as observation when it comes to learning about the world around us).  Still, I think that real endings with resolution are the lion’s share of a healthy fiction diet, if for no other reason than they allow us to move on to the next story rather than be emotionally stuck in a mire of questions.  Keep moving forward, keep learning.  Experiment and ask those important “what if” questions, but realize that they have answers, and it’s important to move on to the next questions, building on what is known to reach into the unknown.

The end of one story often leads to the beginning of a new one, with a wiser audience in tow.  That, to me, is a big part of why I think stories are important.  They can teach us in ways that nonfiction cannot, including giving us tools to move on and make our real lives better in ways that we might not have otherwise imagined or experienced.  That’s one of the strengths of the written word in the first place; to learn from others what we may never have the chance to learn on our own.

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So, Whitney Houston died.  It was all the rage in the news for a while.  Something about drugs, I think.  I kinda sorta, well… don’t care.  Not that I have any particular antipathy towards the lady, mind you, it’s just that I only have so many bits of attention and care to give, and that’s below my threshold.

Just... not... working

Of course, the news is no stranger to this sort of thing.  It’s a big part of why I find very little of interest in the mainstream “news” media.  The old “if it bleeds it leads” mentality is tired and stupid.  I’m almost, but not quite to the point where I don’t even feel the moral outrage or pity or sympathy I’m supposed to.  Maybe there’s a promised land on the other side of wallowing in the mire of depression and outrage the media would have me march into (the better to distract you, says the Big Bad Wolf), but for now, it’s all just… static.

Still, this whole Josh Powell saga that the local news is all whipped up about broke through the static a bit to cause me to ponder psychology and vicarious emotion.  The guy wasn’t the best sort of person.  There are some bits of depravity in the case that the media loves to hint at (ax murderer! of kids!), and the high probability that he killed his wife (but we just don’t know! drama mystery! apocryphal intonation that we’ll probably never know!) that make his case, well… a media circus.  Yes, the guy was pretty screwed up.  He caused a lot of damage.  And yet… it seems to me that there are more important things to spend time talking about.

I know, I know, I’m wasting time on it here, but there’s a point to be made.

We, as gamers, have our own topics of sometimes inconsequential incoherent interest.  A WoW talent system revamp (again!) is Big News.  Eeeevil shark-jumping Kung Fu Pandas!  SWTOR and homosexuality is Important Stuff.  Plate mail bikinis are evil, unless they are employed as tools of irony or self-expression… or something.

Gotta say…

Still not working

Y’see, it’s not like those things aren’t important to someone.  They are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s just… I have other things to think about, and my priorities, frame of reference and even moral framework are different.  (Though I’m sure that someone thinks I’m Wrong, and need correcting.)

And yet, the media would insist otherwise.  I have to wonder, what is it about our inherent voyeuristic tendencies that makes these things so juicy for reporters?  Certainly there’s a bit of the old “but it’s for the childreeeeeen” in there, and selling moral outrage at a distance is old hat.  It’s curious, that in all of the above instances of Much Ado About… Something… there’s a bit of vicarious emoting going on.

We can blather about Houston’s “untimely” death, her descent into drug-addled dysfunction, or her less-than-storybook marriage.  Sometimes it elicits sympathy or commiseration from those who understand, sometimes it’s empathy from those who might think “there but for the grace of God, go I“, sometimes it’s schadenfreude from the little bit of meanness that we all seem to have at times and those who embrace it.

In the Powell case, there’s a bit of the vigilante spirit in the stirring, where Powell is the villain of his little morality play, and we of the dedicated moral audience get to pillory him and thereby indulge in self-assurance that we’re not as bad as he was.  It’s almost as if we can suppose that his bit of vice has been excised from the human race, so we’re all better off.  The Collective has purged some of its imperfection. I don’t buy that line of reasoning, but I wonder if that’s what we’re being sold, even if it’s subconsciously.

…so what of games?

Even without ol’ Jack Thompson being a sanctimonious moron, games have their share of detractors who would suggest that those of us who like games are really just Powells in the making.  And on the other hand, there’s the “Killing Monsters” school of thought that suggests that fantasy violence and vicarious vice of all sorts is cathartic and even preventative of such actions in the real world.

It strikes me that perhaps we’re looking at a similar impulse under the hood.  Houston had some drug issues.  Powell did some pretty nasty stuff, but so do game avatars.  If we’re not actually part of the drama, though, it’s all just so much storytelling.  Sure, at some level we understand that drugs really wreck lives, and that Powell did real things, and that games aren’t real, but we’re pretty good at rationalizing things away if we’re not actively part of them.  Things that don’t intrude on our immediate reality aren’t exactly… real.

It’s almost certain that terrible, evil things are most likely happening somewhere.  Powell isn’t representative of white suburbia (or what we think white suburbia is), but he might fit nicely into some thuggish regime out in Africa somewhere.  (Or is that inner city Metropolis/Gotham/GenericBigUSACity?)  If we can sequester him away in a “not my reality” or “not in my back yard” mental nook, we can ignore him as well as we ignore avatar actions.  (We do this all the time, politically, socially, whatever.)

Except… we’re learning at some level.  We’re still cognizant of the difference between reality and fiction.  We may choose to overlook some things, embracing the comfort that comes with ignorance, but it really is hard to unsee or unlearn things.  That said, hearing about Powell every ten minutes on the radio doesn’t make us homicidal, but it gives us an outlet for our hate and moralizing so that we don’t have to analyze our own behavior.  It’s always easier to pick apart someone else and find flaws, or find things to be offended about, than it is to do a bit of honest self-evaluation in comparison to the ideals we pay lip service to.

With games, we can indulge in vices that we’d never have the gall or depravity to embrace in real life, and then go on our merry way secure in knowing that we’d never really do that sort of thing.

…I’m actually more of a “Killing Monsters” kind of guy in that I think this is a survival tactic.  Nongamers whine and fuss about those eeeevil people doing eeeevil things to convince themselves that they would never do that, and gamers get their darker impulses out by slaughtering digital baddies.  I’m not really sure that either is all that healthy in excess when the priority probably ought to be making one’s self a better person, but I think that both serve as an outlet so that we don’t wind up indulging in nastiness for real.

At some level, I think we need to get past looking for assurances that we’re not bad and actively seek to be good, but the media circus and the game industry offer introductory catharsis in the meantime.  That’s probably a useful function, though it’s not really a destination.  News needs to move on, and so do we.  We can only live vicarious lives for so long, whether it’s an imagined “not that guy” or “that one guy“.

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Ostensibly, the much-ballyhooed “SOPA” means “Stop Online Piracy Act”, but I prefer to think of it as “Sack Our Pathological Administrators”.  Not that such will happen, mind you, but one can dream.

As near as I can tell, SOPA is a thinly veiled statist control grab, all in the name of stopping piracy.  Guess what, guys?  Piracy can’t be stopped.  And no, the varied and vehement denizens of the internet don’t trust you with power.  To echo a famous pithy quip:

“Orwell’s 1984 was a warning, not an instruction manual”

It does strike me as odd, though, these “going dark” protests.  The problem is that the U.S. government weasels want to control the internet, possibly censoring it, and the answer is to… take your ball and go home?  Effectively self-censor?  It seems like a weird message to send, but with big ol’ sites like Google and Wikipedia in on the action, at least it’s calling attention to the stupid potential policy.  (Though curiously making it a little harder to research said policy.  Again… odd.)  I do like XKCD’s take on it, found at this convenient link.  Sam and Fuzzy’s author comments briefly on it as well thisaway.  Shamus of Twenty Sided has a good article up on it, too, and I like the Rampant Coyote’s take.

As for me, well, I’m going to go work on Zomblobs!, which will be released as a Free to Play tabletop tactical wargame.  The ruleset will be free in PDF form, but you can buy nice printouts.  The PDFs will come with units, maps and tokens you can cut out and play with, or you can go buy models from my Shapeways store or maps from The Game Crafter.  Play a fully functional if vaguely unaesthetic version for free with a little elbow grease, or upgrade a bit to a nicer version for a little cash.  Seems simple to me.

It’s evidence of my mindset; create something that’s fun to play and offers great value, create a relationship of trust and goodwill, and hope that some kind souls are willing to chip in a few bucks for the experience.  I won’t be able to make a living off of the scope of what I’ll be offering (though Three Rings does with their games, notably Puzzle Pirates, and they have a similar philosophy), but I’ll still be offering something I consider to be valuable.  Giving, not controlling, sharing, not stealing.  …and perhaps sneakily, monetizing actual, tangible stuff rather than the digital parts of the game.  Sure, my work is copyrighted, but again, pirates can’t be stopped.  I prefer the carrot approach rather than trying to find a bigger stick.

Seems to be a better way for me to conduct my business.  I’m the sole proprietor of this site, Alpha Hex and Zomblobs!, so I’m going to do what I want with them, and that’s try to get as many people playing and having fun with them as I can.  I think I’ve made some fun games, and while I’m no Raph Koster, Klaus Teuber or Wil Wright, I’m just confident enough in these games to want to put my work out there for consumption and feedback.

Rally ho!

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In my more meditative moods, I find myself inexorably drawn to photographs of entropy, and vistas that clearly show the ravages of time.

Perhaps it started when I was very young, and one of the most interesting road trips my family took was one to an old abandoned town.  I don’t remember much of it, just that I found it endlessly fascinating to explore and look around at the old “ghost” buildings.  Old windows, thicker at the bottom than at the top, showed the age and resilience of hand-crafted homes, ignored by looters.  The relics of a forgotten people and a forgotten age resonated with me, by all accounts an extraordinarily somber and introspective child.

Some people find these things depressing.  Some of the photos from this fascinating photo diary of a decaying Detroit can certainly be on the more gloomy side, if one is inclined to think along those lines.  This collection of photographs from a local ghost town (Eureka, UT) might be empty at first glance, but then, there are stories to be told there.  These artifacts of a not-so-long-ago culture aren’t just spawned ex nihilo, they are evidence that people lived, loved and dreamed.  I find that curiously uplifting and hopeful, not depressing.  People did the best with what they had and then moved on.  Time isn’t an enemy, it’s just part of life.

Perhaps that’s the key for me.  I don’t imagine the pain and the loss involved in the inevitable mortality of man and the works of man’s hands, I consider the good times.  I look at the things that get left behind and wonder why they weren’t taken along.  I wonder why that building was built, and why the road bends over there.  It’s an occasion to exercise my imagination and whimsy, taking a mental journey to those days when a home was new and a family moved in in excitement, or a theater proudly enticed the town to a evening of entertainment.  I imagine the music that once echoed in a dance hall, or the smells that filled a diner.  I listen for the whispers of ghosts, telling stories of their glory days and remembering their loved ones, happy with how they lived, not mourning that they are no longer doing so.

Mortality for me is a curious blend of living in the moment, wistfully remembering and honoring the past, and wishfully thinking ahead.  I believe that we need to understand as much of the full spectrum of time as possible, that the past has a great deal to teach the present, and that looking ahead means little without understanding where we’ve been and where we are.

There’s also a curious fascination I have with just how time and nature ravage the things we so often erect in hubris, monuments to our own ego.  It’s almost like, as a species, we spit in the face of reality and try to bend nature to our whim, but no matter how much we believe we are masters of all we survey, we always lose in the long run.  Nature operates on a geological time scale, and we’re just a blip in the calendar.  It breaks us and grinds us down in very interesting ways, but somehow, we fight the good fight anyway.

Disasters are also fascinating.  From the very-close-to-home, very real loss of a cherished historical building like the Provo Tabernacle to the vast fictional spread of dystopic storytelling in various media, I am deeply interested in how time and entropy leave their mark.  Sometimes we bring destruction on ourselves, sometimes it just happens, sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s slow, but in the end, everything falls apart.

I find it fascinating to see how other people lived and what they prioritized.  There are usually lessons to be learned.

This is why I love looking through photographs of ancient Greece or the not-quite-so-ancient Scotland.  It’s why I love taking photographs of old things and even just nature and how it falls apart.  A newly built city, all shining glass and metal, bling and bluster, neon and noise… it’s just not very interesting.  It’s complex and intricate, yes, but it’s… sterile.  It’s not “lived in” or loved, it’s just a facade.  (In a nutshell, the Millennium Falcon is far more interesting than Queen Amidala’s mirror ship.)  It can even be creepy, as Mirror’s Edge (and plenty of other fiction) tries to illustrate.  Clean just doesn’t stay clean on a large scale without some extraordinary statist efforts.  This also echoes the Uncanny Valley effect; real people have many, many small flaws that fabricated people just don’t have, from quirks of movement to freckles, wrinkles and asymmetry.  Our faces show the effects of time in quirky ways, and it’s fiendishly hard to fake that.

This is also very fertile ground for storytelling and even game narrative.  There’s a huge amount of story that can be hinted at by crafting worlds that look lived in rather than pristine.  After all, here in the Real World, we don’t live in a world that started with our birth, we’re just one player on an aged stage that existed long before us and will go on long after we’re gone.  There’s a strong sense of place and presence to be found in sifting through the evidences of the past.

Especially if they are falling apart.

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My daughter loves movies.  I’m still hoping I can parlay that interest into teaching her about animation and how to create it, since Couch Potato still isn’t a real career, unemployment reform attempts notwithstanding.  Still, she loves animated movies, as most children are wont to do.  My own childhood fascination with animation turned me early to the part of art and creativity, and despite my lifelong fascination and competence with math and the sciences, I simply find it more personally satisfying to do something artistic with my time.

I’ve had more than one occasion to wonder about the nature of work and welfare, and to wonder just what it is that I should be doing with my peculiar and particular talents.  As I watched a bit of Disney’s Beauty and Beast with my little ones, I found my love for books framed in a new light.

As the Beast and Belle build their friendship/romance, Beast shows Belle to the castle library and tells her reverently that it’s now all hers.  There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of books there.  It’s a great scene, as Belle adores books, and Beast clearly wants to do something nice for her.  Beast is starting to understand the joy of giving, even as Belle takes in the sights.

I had to wonder… what if I had a library like that?  What if I were a monarch, with a castle full of retainers, trained to cater to my every whim?  What if I had no real purpose in life but to consume and be coddled?  Would I spend all my time in that library?  I think I would spend a lot of my time there, though I’d want a nice science lab next door and perhaps an orrery and observatory in the highest level of the library, maybe a foundry for some nice steampunk experimentation a little ways off, next to the wood shop.

I love books.  I devour data, and am almost always reading a few books at a time.  I love learning and thinking, finding new interconnections between bits of data.

And yet… I don’t think I’d be content with a life of pure consumption.  At some point, the itch to create would grow unbearable, and I’d have to go paint, draw, build, sculpt or write.  I just can’t life a life only comprised of taking, I have to give; I am driven to create, to contribute, to turn my energies to constructive ends.

Like Gordon’s “word monkeys”, the thoughts and ideas that are prompted by the education represented by consuming those books just have to go somewhere other than the recesses of my grey matter.  This is why I blather at length about game design (and other tish tosh) rather than just letting myself get sucked into WoW or the latest Civilization game.  Sure, I like consuming well-crafted pieces of gaming almost as much as I love reading… but I have a deeper itch to give, rather than take.

And sometimes, I have to wonder if perhaps games, of all forms of entertainment, might not be the best suited to scratch both itches at the same time.  Ours is an interactive medium, after all, and we really can let the player do extraordinary things in fantastic settings that just couldn’t happen elsewhere.  To me, that’s the strength of games; the ability to facilitate exploratory and investigative thought in situations that might not otherwise be available.  Perhaps we might not harness gamer impulses to cure cancer or Save the Universe… but I do think it is very possible to let games foster creativity and constructive impulses rather than be mere passive entertainment.

This is why I write here on the blog, it’s why I pontificate about making new games and explore new ramifications for fictional constructs like magic, it’s why I’m not working on movies like I was trained to.  I see something here in the medium of games… and I want to explore that potential.  I want to contribute something positive to the world and my posterity, even though I’m a mere artist with delusions of adequacy.

Time will tell if I manage to do so, but in the meantime, please forgive my protracted blathering here and there; I’m muddling my way through like any good muggle with only a foggy view of the more expansive reality around me.  Here’s hoping I can poke through to the light here and there, and show others some of the sights.

In the meantime, thank you for all of your comments and conversation.  As much fun as it is sending these blog posts out into the digital ocean in little WordPress bottles, it’s gratifying and humbling to see when someone lobs a message back, and all of us learn a little more.

Best wishes for Thanksgiving, if you celebrate it!  If you don’t, well, here’s hoping you have a good weekend anyway!

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…have good reason to outweigh the needs of the many, Spock’s heroic sacrifice notwithstanding.

Y’see, as Uhura rightly points out in Of Gods and Men, the balance between the needs of the many and the needs of the few and how it guides choices hinges on who makes the choices.  It’s the difference between communism and community, between fascism and freedom.

When the individual chooses to sacrifice for the many, it’s noble and heroic.  When the group sacrifices for an individual, it’s heartwarming and constructive.

When the group tells the individual to sacrifice for the sake of the collective, it’s a short hop to Big Brother Statism and all of its ills.  When the individual demands the group sacrifice for them, special interests can control society over the voice of a silent majority.

…and yes, I just used Star Trek and a fan film as a springboard to obliquely refer to a game company’s statist behavior and warn against fascism clothed in feel-good stated intentions.  Yes, I think that Blizzard using RealID as some sort of “the community needs to be a better place” excuse, while stripping away the defenses of people who would rather be anonymous for non-trolling reasons is firmly on the wrong side of the balance of this “needs” philosophy.  I won’t bother with political applications of this principle at the moment, but they exist.

While I’m at it, here’s an interesting take on how the Federation might just be a giant, scary cultish mess (the second video, unfortunately it’s a bit mouthy, but he makes some solid points).

Too much geek for one day?

Did I need to throw a KHAAAAAAN! in there?  I mean, really, fiction and games can’t possibly have anything useful to say about real life, can they?

Oh, and this sort of kerfluffle is precisely why many “pundits” such as myself write so much about the business of games in addition to the games themselves.  They inevitably affect each other, no matter how much we want to mentally isolate the game world from the real world.

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It’s understandable that this lovely little flower would serve as inspiration for a folk song in Austria.

The trouble is… the song is completely Mr. Hammerstein’s invention.

I only recently learned this, so please forgive me if you knew all of this back when The Sound of Music first played or on your first experience with the show.  Y’see, “Edelweiss” rings true as a song that could be a national Austrian song… albeit in English.  According to the DVD extras, it even fooled Ronald Reagan, who played it for the Austrian president when he came to the White House.  (Insert politically charged sniping at Reagan, if you’re so inclined.  I’m not.  Whatever you think of the man, that song likely had to get through a few levels of approval, and nobody caught it.)

The song has some traits that can easily suggest authenticity.  First is the eponymous flower, a protected flower in Austria.  The song is a waltz, also easily associated with Austria.  The language is slightly archaic and formal, suggesting either age and/or careful deliberation that tends to come with government-related songs.  There is a clear invocation for the flower to “bless my homeland forever”, a bit of nationalistic wistfulness.  Less subtly, the audience in the show at the climax of the film also knows the song, and sings along with Captain Von Trapp in a defiant nationalist streak even as Hitler’s Third Reich has recently moved into power.

Of course, we are still talking about a musical.  Maria sings about her childhood as the good Captain tries to kiss her, and the children she cares for go from musical noobs to singing troupe in an afternoon.  The titular “Sound of Music” is pretty clearly a narrative song that also introduces Maria, but the Captain also knows it and joins his children in singing it as he has his conversion moment.  The nuns sing.  About Maria.  Clearly, music is one of the ways the story is told, and it’s not practical to suppose that all of the pieces of music in the show exist outside of the internal needs of a musical.

And yet, “Edelweiss” has a ring of potential authenticity.  It’s not impossible for a musical to use “real” music as a way of instilling a bit of truth or history, to invoke reality as a way to give the presentation a bit more emotional heft or literal relevance.  In some ways, it’s the theme song of the show, title track notwithstanding, largely because of its assumed authenticity.

So what of games, another entertainment venue?  I’ve argued before that creating plausibility and trying to distill authenticity in the lore, presentation and worldbuilding is a lofty but valuable goal.  This, of course, assumes that you value believability as a component of immersion.  It need not always be, as immersion has many faces, but if you’re angling to make an interesting, believable and entertaining world, it pays off to pay attention to precisely this sort of detail.

You see it in other places, too.  Tolkien invented languages, lineages and entire historical epochs for his incredible Lord of the Rings.  We may never actually know everything he had rattling around in his head regarding Middle Earth, but his efforts to make his imagination real doubtless had an effect on the books we do have.  The infrastructure he built his story on extended beyond the pieces we read about, giving stability and history to the world.  Sometimes, history is a key component of telling a story.

We even see a bit of it in the movies at times, say, with the extended version’s Eowyn funeral song or the deep history that brings the Army of the Dead to Aragorn’s side.  These are parts of the world that exist outside of the direct scope of the narrative at hand, but still affect it.  That sense of a greater world lends emotional heft to a story, and even help suggest that what parts we do witness are also parts of a greater whole, and may yet in turn also become crucial history.

Sometimes it is those small hints that do more to ground a story and suggest the implications of the Hero’s Journey than any grand revelatory exposition from the Jedi Mentor ever could.  It could be argued that subtleties aren’t always appreciated in the moment, but I’d note that subtleties are often a hallmark of enduring works.  Layers upon layers of understanding are often built on finding interconnections between details, whether those are noted at the time or upon rereading.  It’s one of the reasons why rereading scripture often brings new understanding; we (hopefully) learn more in the meantime, and start to see better glimpses of the big picture.  That allows us to place information in context, and, as in so many things, context is king.

Mr. Hammerstein put his heart into “Edelweiss”, one of the last songs he would write in this life.  It is a slightly melancholic and wistful song, perfectly suited for the emotions the story is meant to invoke.  It even carries undertones of farewell, fitting for a family who leaves their motherland under some duress and with a mournful heart.

Music matters.  Details matter.  We could do worse as we craft our own brand of entertainment than to look to the example of Mr. Hammerstein.  We have our own messages and our own tools, but in the end, if we want to craft meaningful compelling experiences, we should understand why these examples endure and why they have the effects they do.

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So you want permadeath in your game, hm?  OK, try this one on for size:

The Graveyard

Not only is the Granny’s death permanent, but it’s so hardcore that you have to buy the game to get the ability for her to die.  The demo just lets her linger on, alive as can be.

Or, you could always play Passage, another game where the hero will die, and his wife will die before him.

Or, if your tastes run to the Goth “life is terrible, kill me now” end of the spectrum, you could always try this little beastie that’s been making the rounds:

The Path

That one is disturbing, actually.  Your goal is to kill your characters.  In fact, if you do what you’re told and just go to Granny’s house, you are told in no unclear terms that you failed.  I guess it’s better than slitting your own wrists, but it’s certainly a new spin on the whole “The Evil We Pretend To Do” article.  It’s also interesting to me that game mechanics (“you failed!” and putting almost all of the dev work into the disobedient paths) can be used to make people try to kill these characters in rather horrible ways.  It is designed to make the player do very bad things, and to mess with your head.  (If this is what it is to be a Goth, I’ll pass, thanks.)

Call it a funhouse mirror or a “look into the Abyss” moment (which can have value, but only as warnings to illustrate what not to do), but this is exactly the sort of game that gives the industry a bad reputation.  (And movies that do the same thing, and books and so on; it’s not just games.)

Perhaps The Path is a deconstruction of the notion that games always let gamers be the hero, perhaps it’s a study on motivations, perhaps it’s a reminder that fairy tales in their original form were far from family friendly, I don’t know.  I do give it one thing, though:  The Path makes death more than just “killing monsters”, more than just a reason to restart at a checkpoint.  It does something to those who play it, by design.  Death matters, in all of its terrible implications and unfortunate connotations.  Making players be the instrument of that death (and events preceding it) illustrates the power of games as a medium.

I do think that power is abused in The Path.  Thankfully, Passage invites a more nuanced, less bleak set of musing on death.  I suspect that The Graveyard is similarly low-key.

Still, when MMO devs or “armchair designers” talk about using permadeath to make their world more interesting, or making players “respect the world”… I suspect that the nuances of death that this trio of games dig into are somewhat removed from what is being proposed.  While I have no use for The Path and the treatment of death in Passage (and maybe The Graveyard) is far too subtle for use in a sledgehammer MMO world (at least as a major mechanic), I think that far too often, the implications of “permadeath” in design lean too strongly in the direction of mechanics and trying to punish the player (to make victory sweeter or maybe just make people play more) rather than really trying to understand death itself.

I’ll turn it around, then.  Game designers, respect death more than you do, even those of you who call for permadeath in your games.  It’s not merely a punishment mechanic, it’s not something to toy with in an attempt to appear “dark and romantic”, it’s not Ozzy Osbourne killing chickens and rocking out with the Undead.  Caricaturing death does have value on occasion, but if games are to be more than vapid consumer fluff, a nuanced understanding of the implications of death will be part of it, and that will go far beyond the “wicked cool” heavy metal and demonic iconography, far beyond pithy murder and genocide simulators.

Side note:  This was written not only because of my allergic reaction to the very idea of The Path, but because some friends and family have lost loved ones lately.  Death matters.  Satirizing it and trivializing it can be a coping mechanism, but I do think that the sensitivity lost to gaming (what with all of the virtual bloodletting and dark themes glorifying negativity) is something precious that we give up too lightly.  Life isn’t all rainbows and marshmallow-pooping unicorns, but neither is it a bleak emoGoth BioShocked Fallout-radiated wasteland.  You don’t need to lose a foot in a bear trap to be grateful for being able to walk, and you don’t need to induge in a stream of darkness to appreciate the light.  Put a bit religiously, you don’t have to be the Prodigal Son to turn your eye to the good things in life.  Maybe I think too much about this sort of thing, but in an industry of vapid counterculture deconstructionist thought, it’s hard for me not to take a stand against what I consider to be troubling, and deleterious to the medium.

Oh, and get off my porch.

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