Posts in games

Media Update: Three Things I’ve Enjoyed Recently

Three Things I Have Recently Enjoyed

Audiobook: Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

Cover art for the audibook Parable of the Talents

There are a lot of things that could be said about Octavia Butler's masterful writing and the perspective she gives us on our future (present and past as well.) For this short review I'll limit my comments to the three perspectives she uses to tell her story. Olamina, the protagonist of the preceding story, The Parable of the Sower carries the primary burden of narrative, but the additional perspective provided by her brother Marcus and her daughter Asha Vere give Olamina's story a balance that provides readers with a depth of perspective that gives us new insight into how to weigh the words and deeds of our characters.

I'm leaving unsaid the heavy parallels between "Phe Pox" as characters in the novel call the apocalypse and our lived experience in the United States in the year 2020. It is very rewarding to read Butler's words, but it can also be traumatizing, so consider carefully if you are ready for fiction that is very close to our daily experience.

Overall, Butler's novel and the Earthseed religion invented for it provide me with useful tools for coping with the daily challenges I face. On Twitter and other channels, many wise people are encouraging us to listen to black women. We should, starting with those we encounter in our daily lives. Beyond that, Octavia Butler is another voice that deserves to be heard and will richly reward the listener who pays heed to her vision.

Video Game: Wasteland 3

Wasteland 3 cover art

I am still playing this game, so I can't comment about the full narrative or how things are wrapped up, but I can say that I'm very happy with the first third-to-half of the game. The narrative is an interesting mix of the kind of absurd and juvenile humor that Fallout 2 (a game inspired by the first Wasteland game) was loved for and a more mature kind of apocalypse. The way each player role-plays their characters will influence how profound or how coarse the story is, but there will be plenty of both no matter how one plays the game.

One thing that stands out to me after fifteen or so hours of play is how the game mechanics and the game's story-telling manage to stay out of each other's way. While I enjoyed playing Wasteland 2, it took me quite a long time to find my rhythm with the game mechanics and that was a barrier to me getting into the story arc. I eventually overcame it, but when I played Wasteland 3 I was immediately immersed in the unfolding story without having to stop to think about developing characters that weren't constantly dying. It may be that I learned how to play the game in Wasteland 2 and that carried over, but Wasteland 3 is very polished, smooth, pretty and pulled me right in. I'm especially impressed with the balanced rewards and consequences of actions. When this is done poorly, a role-player feels like they have a choice between playing a witless ingenue or a sociopath. The social fallout for one's choices feel appropriate and balanced to me so far. It is also very possible (so far, in my progress) to play as a relatively peaceful character. There will be some violence, but players have the option of speccing a character who can find solutions to nearly every encountered scenario without having to fight. Reader be warned, I have a track record of playing games like this with non-violent builds that make it to the final boss only to lose every fight. However, I trust that the heritage of this game requires including an option to sweet-talk one's way to a successful conclusion.

On top of the game mechanics, narrative, and balance of the game; the polish is exceptional. The soundtrack is chef-kiss-fingers perfect. The animations and visuals are stunning without being distracting and if I've encountered any bugs, they did not break immersion or interfere in either the story or the mechanics. I don't have a ton of time to play games, but a half-hour here and there with my inside-joke sharing nerds and their post-apocalyptic posse is a welcome escape from our version of The Pox.

Music: at Budokan by Cheap Trick

Album cover art for Cheap Trick's at Bukodan

While I was born in 1971, I didn't encounter a lot of '70s rock standards growing up. Someone (thank you stranger with good taste!) on Twitter brought this concert album from 1978 to my attention and I keep coming back to listen to it again. I just love it and I may not have much more articulate to say about it than: "You gotta LISTEN to this, friend!" Back in 1997 I went to a premiere of Michael Moore's film The Big One where Moore was present to give a talk before the film. Rick Nielsen made a surprise guest appearance and I think he played a song or two for us.(At least he brought his guitar with him.) Then, Rick and Moore presented Studs Terkel (another surprise guest!) with a brick from a famous autoworkers strike and just putting me in the same room as Rick Nielsen and Studs Terkel has caused me to forgive Moore of a lot of his, um, excesses. I digress. Listen to this album. It's real good.

It’s not about the book

"If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don't pretend it has anything to do with libraries" - Michael Gorman

The L.A. Times recently published a story about the future of libraries. It contained the sorts of things you would expect to find. A comment about the relevance of libraries in the age of Google? Check. Discussion about the relevance of libraries after information goes digital? Check. Michael Gorman antagonizing his fellow librarians by using his status as a former president of the American Library Association to advance a narrow and anachronistic definition of what a library is? Check. So what is new here? Is it really worth re-hashing the Blog People incident all over again? At first, I had a hard time finding the energy to care. Library bloggers at 8-Bit Library and Agnostic, Maybe offered up spirited defenses of the place of games in library collections, does more really need to be said? This is a blog, so of course something more is going to be said, whether it needs to or no.
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Enjoying games without thinking too much about them

As I've been thinking and writing about games, one of the most significant points I've stumbled upon is that having a method for analyzing aspects of games is just as important as having a method in other, more familiar, forms of analysis. I'm a fan of multiple playings of a game in order to experience the game from multiple viewpoints. Play to learn the game mechanic and narrative environment. Play to compete or win. Play to understand the teaching model or the story's structure. This approach has helped me learn from and about games.

This spring, I taught a class on research and information architecture. Teaching the same group of students twice a week for 15 weeks is very different from teaching a similar number of classroom hours distributed among different students each time. I got busy and involved in the class. I didn't have a lot of time to play games so I took a break from reflective gaming and went back to escapist gaming. I played the lasted Tomb Raider game, but didn't think about it much (other than wondering what it meant that I chose to outfit Ms. Croft in cargo-pants rather than the available short-shorts option.)

This summer, I had more time to devote to gaming so I dove into some games that I'd missed. I played Mass Effect. I played STALKER: Clear Sky. Both are excellent additions to the growing category of sandbox games. There is a wealth to explore there: questions to ask about the role of the author, user-generated narrative, player choice, linearity, the birth of a new storytelling medium, the limits of technology vs. the limits of imagination, etc.

Right now, I don't want to answer these questions. Hell, I don't even want to look at them through the lens of semi-formal analysis. I do want to enjoy them from the context of a player who enjoys a game environment that is rich in things to think about. I'm sure I'll feel the need to revisit some of these questions from the point of view of a commentator or theorist at some point in the future. For now though, I think I'll remain a player of games and be content.

I still would like to use information. games. as an outlet / bully pulpit. I just imagine that I'll be writing more about information than games. Currently I've been reading Everything is Miscellaneous, Here Comes Everybody, and The Wealth of Networks. Each of these is an attempt to make sense of our society's evolving relationship with communication and information. This is where my head is at, so I assume this is what I'll be writing about. So it may well be that the librarian part of my persona will be more prominent than the gamer part.

Or it may not. Any attempt to describe or understand our relationship with networks of information has to be able to be applied to gamers. Gamers are ahead of society as a whole when it comes to using and integrating emerging information trends. We make a good test group for theories. So I would imagine that if this new area of research pans out, I'll find a way to test it out on communities of gamers.

The Witcher: the unbearable lightness of role-playing

Continuing the conversation started by Sean Sands and his 2009 horizons broadening project, here are my thoughts on CD Projekt Red's game The Witcher. The game uses the setting and characters of Andrej Sapkowski's stories about Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter who seeks to forge a neutral path in a cruel world full of competing commitments and hard choices.

Thinking about the video games can fall into two very general categories, ludology and narratology. (Henry Jenkins explains this well, as does the Wikipedia entry on game studies.) Ludologists like to write about the game-play mechanics of a game. In general, this school can be describes by saying ludologists find the meaning of games in action, in the puzzles, in the way the game allows the player to navigate the game world. To understand a game, one must understand the rules of the game. Narratologists, on the other hand, look for meaning in the stories that games tell. They suggest that in order to understand a game, we must seek to understand the story that the game tells. This basic breakdown is useful in that it gives players a couple of lenses or contexts for reading a game, but the dichotomy starts to fall apart during more complex analysis when the two separate approaches begin to blend. The success of The Witcher lies, in large part, in how the designers make it difficult to separate the story being told and the mechanic with which the story unfolds.

Here, I should state that I really love this game. I enjoy the innovations as well as the way it uses standard approaches to building a game. The Witcher innovates by studiously avoiding cliches of good versus evil or light versus dark, but it uses standard role playing methods of dialog trees and choices that role playing gamers will be very familiar with. The central theme of The Witcher is the difficulty of making ethical choices in a world where everyone seems to be wrong. The plot and setting are drawn from Andrej Sapkowski's fantasy stories and borrow Sapkowski's dual mistrust of "the lesser evil" and unchecked idealism. In the game, as in the stories, Geralt of Rivia (The protagonist and the witcher to whom the title refers) is presented with barbed dilemmas. Choices always carry unavoidable consequences, and Geralt is in constant peril of trapping himself by committing to a path of action that carries severe unintended consequences.

The narratologist approach will see this written clearly in the characters and the dialog options. Players must choose between supporting violent freedom fighters who use attacks on civilians to pursue their political ends or supporting a fanatical religious sect that protects human civilians by fighting a xenophobic war on all non-humans. The story, setting, and characters all make clear that the player is caught up in a conflict between us and them. To make the choice more poignant, Geralt is neither human nor non-human. He is an outsider who belongs to no group. So, robbed of the traditional justifications of loyalty or "doing the right thing" theWitcher must make choices and live with the fallout. The story tries to answer the questions: how does one do good in a fallen world?

The ludologist approach will see this same situation, but from a different context. Traditionally games, especially role-playing games work by giving the players choices and then assigning rewards or points for how the player chooses. Because computer games allow players to save their progress and reload from a previous point, allowing the player to try out all possible options before selecting the one with most desirable results. This is not a freedom that human being enjoy in our daily lives. This freedom that traditional RPGs offer can be seen as similar to Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return. Milan Kundera used this idea as the center of his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Because humans don't know what the results of our actions will be, some of us feel that this makes every choice incredibly important. Other take the opposite view: because we can't be sure what "the right thing to do" is unless we have the power to play out every possible permutation of choice, life is light and without weight or significance.

The designers at CD Projekt Red grew frustrated with the way games allowed players to escape the consequence of their choices, so they designed a game-play mechanic that short-circuited the save-reload-replay exploit. Certain key choices in their game have drastic consequences that alter the story arc. However, these consequences are not revealed until hours later in the game. This makes it unwieldy in the extreme to play out all possible choices and commits the player to picking a single course of action without knowing how the choice will shape the future.

So we can see that the narrative of the game presents a world without clear and easy choices about good or evil. We also see that the game mechanic requires the player to make choices without foreknowledge of how those choices will shape the future. The story and the game rules both push the player into a world where choices matter terribly, but the outcome of these choices is unclear. This approach succeeds wonderfully in forcing the player to consider the basis for choices.

Looking at these choices using standard ethical methods, we can see that CD Projekt Red have taken away the deontologist’s approach and the teleologist’s approach. Simply put, deontology says we should respect the rules. Teleology says we should consider the consequences.In The Witcher, we don’t have a set of rules that will flawlessly guide us to the “right” answer. We also can’t see what the outcomes of our choices are, so we are left with what some call areteology, or virtue theory. Areteology tells us to "pursue excellence" or do what an excellent person would do in that situation. In this role-playing game, this approach is a master-stroke. The designers force us to decide who Geralt of Rivia (the character the player controls) is, and then to make a series of decisions based on the nature of his character. A flaw of many computer role-playing games is that the player can too easily become "uber" or all-powerful and then play g*d with the game world. In the Witcher, we are forced to play human, so to speak. The limitations of human ethics become the limitations of the game's ethics and players are immersed in a world largely of their own making.

Now, virtue ethics and The Unbearable Lightness of Being are some of my favorite things in the world, so on the one hand, it shouldn't be surprising that I loved playing The Witcher as much as I did. On the other, it may just be that I placed my own framework for thinking about ethics on top of a game that is ethically complex and rich on a level that most other games have been unable to reach. In either case, I think the game is an achievement that will stand out amongst other games as a spectacular example of the heights that the game-designers' art can reach.

Tomb Raider: Underworld and broadening gaming horizons

As I wrote about last month, I recently completed the game Tomb Raider: Underworld. I played this on a whim. I had never played a Tomb Raider game before and I was also looking for a game to play using a controller, rather than keyboard and mouse. I was really satisfied on my choice. While TR: Underworld isn't a classic or a great game, it was a very good gaming experience. Looking back, I can point to three things that the game did very well.

First, I really enjoyed the gameplay mechanic. I haven't played a lot of platformer games, the genre that the Tomb Raider games belongs to, but I found that maneuvering the acrobatic Lara Croft around the game world was a pleasant and enjoyable challenge. I also liked that violence was really pushed into the background of this game. Sure, Lara shot a large number of enemy guards, animal predators, and ghosts; but unlike an FPS or RTS game, killing enemies was not really the point. The point was solving three-dimensional puzzles using Lara's repertoire of leaps, climbs, and acrobatic talents. Successfully navigating the game's levels required a kind of spacial awareness and exploiting the environment. I'm not a terrifically skilled gamer, so I also appreciated that the difficulty level felt right. The puzzles still required me to think, but I didn't get frustrated very often.

Second, the narrative was interesting and had a strong sense of being part of a persistent story. I have played and given up on the preceding game in the Lara Croft cycle, Tomb Raider: Legend, but even though I didn't play through the entire story, I always felt like my actions were part of a rich context. The Norse, Mayan, and Hindi mythological elements added interest without overwhelming the plot arc. The game broke no new ground in interactive narrative design, but it didn't feel forced or overly contrived. While Lara's plot arc was certainly on rails, that is to say I didn't feel as though my choices effected the way the story unfolded, I was still satisfied with the way the story played its way out. It is no Bioshock or Half Life, but on the other hand, I have enjoyed TV series and movies that weren't any more innovative than Tomb Raider: Underworld.

Third, the game was visually beautiful. I'm happy that Deus Ex 3 plans on using the same engine. I don't know how it compares with leading engines such as CryEngine2 or the latest iteration of Unreal, but the 3d world was smooth and very pretty. More than that, the colors were lush and rich. After playing in the desolate wasteland of Fallout 3 and many other 3D games that are painted in palates of brown or grey, the lush tropical scenes with vibrant palm trees, orchids, and tropical birds was really immersive.

Most of the time when I'm playing games these days I'm looking for innovations in the player-training arena. I didn't see anything in this game that I felt like I could add to my teaching repertoire. The game world wasn't open, and players weren't really given a decisions to make on how to solve puzzles. Most of the time there appeared to be one right answer for each challenge and the player just had to apply the tools they were given in the proper manner. So, now that I'm done with the game, I doubt I'll be going back to it to analyze it further. It was pretty, it was fun, and it was consistent in the challenge that it offered.